Walnuts of Mindfulness

Three-year retreat, year one, month 12

Our mindfulness of impermanence at Nigu Ling is heightened at this time of year by two venerable black walnut trees overlooking our tiny fenced yard. From midsummer through early fall, there is a continual rain of walnuts onto the gravel walking path that encircles the house. Each walnut, fully encased, is about the size, weight and color of a tennis ball but without the bounce, and they pick up quite a bit of speed in their plunge from the tiptop branches of these lofty trees.

When I am circumambulating the house and shrine room in my rare free time, and I hear the loud thud of a walnut right behind me, I am always thankful to have another day to live and practice. To my knowledge, in 26 years and six full cycles of three-year retreat, no retreatant has yet been taken out by a falling walnut. But…there could always be a first time.

Once when Lama Norlha Rinpoche was teaching from his seat in the main shrine room on a hot summer day, someone asked him how to keep impermanence in mind without getting depressed about it. Glancing up at the ceiling, he replied, “Well, I try to remember that my life could end at any moment—but I’m not sitting here worrying that the fan will fall on my head.”

In retreat, if we hope to accomplish the goals of this carefully designed, time-tested, sequential path, we need to stay focused. There’s no time for extracurricular reading, in fact hardly any time for reading at all; so the small library I brought with me consists almost entirely of commentaries on the practices, along with a few biographies of realized masters who traveled and taught this path: Kagyu Lineage founders Marpa, Milarepa, and Gampopa; and the founder of KTC Monastery, Kalu Rinpoche.

However, I did bring one book by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, a collection of short “mindfulness verses for daily living,” which I pick up now and then for inspiration. One of the things he talks about in this book and elsewhere is the mindfulness bell. At his centers, they have actual bells, but he has suggested that we can designate any recurrent sound in our environment as a mindfulness bell: the ring of a phone, the call of a bird, the honk of a car horn, etc. The sound becomes a device, whenever we hear it, to bring us back to where we are, a signal to pause and pay attention to the present moment. He explains, “The bell of mindfulness is the voice of the Buddha calling us back to ourselves.”

In retreat, we have many literal bells of mindfulness. The main one is the gong that signals the beginning and end of each meditation session. There are also the bell and ting shak (tiny hand cymbals) we use in chanting sessions and in some of our personal practices, and even the lunch bell, though that is more of a signal to dash downstairs so we won’t be late for the lunch prayers. (We try to dash mindfully.)

While I am walking on the gravel path around the retreat house, under the walnut trees, I try to remember to meditate, especially during this period when silent meditation is the main practice we do in our rooms all day. But it’s easy to get distracted, so I recently started looking around for a mindfulness bell. What sound is both frequent and intermittent enough to serve the purpose? The only one I could come up with was: THUD! The walnuts provide visual cues, as well; the path is strewn with them, in various states of disrepair and decomposition thanks to our resident gray squirrels and the ravages of time.

Now, in addition to impermanence, the walnuts are also reminders to disengage from my distracting thoughts and go back to the present moment. As soon as I forget, I am likely to hear or encounter another walnut.

Fortunately, our teachers assure us that if we make an effort to bring ourselves back to the present moment, repeatedly, as many times as necessary, without ever giving up, our superfluous thoughts will gradually become less compelling, and we will eventually replace our habit of distraction with a habit of mindfulness. And then: walnut pie!

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