She tells me her name is Sister D. She is tall, with a beautiful wide smile and eyes of utmost intelligence. She’s dressed in monastic brown robes and headscarf, but her presence is regal. When I watch her walk I understand the description of walking meditation as “walking like a tiger.” Her steps have the stately, unruffled grace of a big cat’s. To be in mindfulness is to be master of the kingdom of oneself. Her walk shows her mastery. She places her feet with grounded, calm presence.
Her full name is Sister Dang Nghiem. She was trained as a medical doctor. She gave up her profession to become a nun, because she wanted not just to treat people but to be a healer. Healing, in this tradition, means transforming suffering at its root.
I’m intimidated by her at first. If we were in school she’d be the beautiful smart girl everyone envies. But she’s disarmingly kind. After dinner one evening she says to me, “My dear, would you be so kind as to take out the trash?” I’ve never been asked so nicely. And so it’s never been such a pleasure to take out the trash.
One day on our way to “working meditation,” I’m walking with Sister D and another visitor. We pass a little pomegranate tree. “Look! They’re like lanterns,” the sister says, pointing at the red fruit. My fellow visitor replies, “They will be delicious.” Sister D smiles as she says, “They are delicious right now.”
For working meditation we clean the solar panels (Deer Park gets 100% of its energy from the sun). I’m mopping the blue-purple panels and holding a ladder for Sister D as she sprays the massive structure with a hose. We talk about more efficient ways to clean the panels – power washer? squeegees? – and she starts singing, “All we need is rain!” to the tune of the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. In the midst of strenuous work under hot sun, she stays light-hearted, remarking over and over what a wonderful job we are doing.
Later, Sister D and a visitor dismantle a wooden fence around a large gas tank that needs to be moved. After my working meditation in the garden, I help them carry the last of the boards to the dumpster, just in time for the garbage truck to arrive. I worry that the garbage man will miss the wood pile behind the dumpster, and assume Sister D will direct him as she stands near the truck. But instead of directing him, she waves and yells to the garbage man: “Thank you, brother!” She then watches, enthralled, as the truck’s arms pick up the dumpster and turn it over, dropping the trash with deafening noise. “WOW! Incredible!” Sister D yells. I keep having to remind myself that she’s an MD.
Sister D takes time to talk with me. She tells me about her undergraduate studies (psychology, creative writing and pre-med) and the intensity of medical school. She shares that her partner died the day before her birthday. She says she has healed from this. I don’t want to pry, but I wonder if the loss spurred her toward becoming a nun.
I love being at Deer Park. I love walking to the meditation hall before dawn, under the stars, as the great bell fills the valley with waves of sound. I love the way everyone stops and follows their breathing when the phone rings. I love that when I offer to help in the kitchen, Sister Bamboo bows deeply to me, thanks me, and says, “The environment here is so peaceful in the evening. Please go for a walk and absorb the peace of the mountains.” I love the silence, slowness, simplicity. And I love the nuns, who are gentle, completely nonaggressive, silly, devout, hardworking, loving human beings.
On my last day at Deer Park, the sisters ask me to talk about my time there. I thank them for the practice, their presence, all the gifts I’ve received here. I say I’ll take them with me. Sister Bach Nghiem responds, “Please take us with you, be like our hand extended.” I am so sad to leave. I manage not to cry while packing my suitcase and rolling it to my car. Driving out, I see Sister D walking up the road. She calls my name, comes over to the car and reaches through the open window to give me a long hug. Tears come as I drive down the road, back to Escondido, back to the world where everybody wants to feel like I feel here – totally loved.