This past Memorial Day weekend, I took my two sons, ages 11 and 16, to Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY, to celebrate Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. On the drive up, my kids complained, bickered, and whined. We are not Buddhist, but I wanted them to see first-hand that their mom is not the only person in the world who chooses to live without video games, iPhones and bacon.
We arrived just in time for silent dinner, which, surprisingly, went off without a hitch. Nobody had a hysterical laughing fit and fell out of his chair. We were given a room to share and my kids exchanged insults for 30 minutes before the younger one gave up and fell asleep.
While I was unable to get them out of bed for the 5:45am meditation, they were on board for the morning’s dharma talk. My 11-year-old impressed me by sitting attentively for the duration of the 90-minute recorded talk by Thich Nhat Hanh about the four noble truths. They quickly befriended the monks, nuns, and others at the monastery.
The scheduled activities at Blue Cliff include dharma sharing, walking meditation, and deep relaxation. Nothing was mandatory, but my kids chose to participate in every activity offered.
The environment of Blue Cliff is one of serenity and simplicity. It brings out the best in people. Everyone we met was open and friendly. Signs remind one to close doors quietly. Every fifteen minutes a bell rings, and everyone pauses, brings awareness to the breath, and touches the present moment. A huge banner in the center of the great meditation hall reads, “This is it”. This embodies the simple yet radical philosophy taught here: this very moment is all we ever have. We can choose to be at war with reality, or accept it.
During free time, the younger one enjoyed running on the grass and playing on the swing set, while my teen, whose behavior towards me ranges from disdain to outright hostility, willingly accompanied me on a hike through the wooded grounds. Together we marveled at the colorful fish in the pond, something we haven’t done since he was a toddler.
As the weekend passed, the culture of the monastery exerted a powerful effect on our family dynamic. When we turned out the lights on Saturday night, there was silence. Have I mentioned that this has never, EVER happened on a family vacation?
By the time Sunday morning rolled around, I wondered if the monks had secretly replaced my children with their doppelgangers. The 16-year-old offered to wash my breakfast plate. The 11-year-old begged for us to stay longer and informed me of his plans to become a monk. Were these the same kids who, if left to their own devices, stare slack-jawed at a computer screen until the wee hours of the morning?
The car ride home was undoubtedly the most peaceful one of our family history. Nobody kicked my seat, nobody cursed. Not once did I have to pull the car over to the side of the road and scream ,“I SWEAR TO GOD I WILL MAKE YOU WALK HOME!” We didn’t even notice that the radio was off until we were a few miles from home.
I don’t know how long it will be until the magic of Blue Cliff wears off. I am sure we will still have our skirmishes about grades, curfews, and messy rooms. But even if we do go back to our old, unskillful ways, my kids now know what it is like to live mindfully. Perhaps even more importantly, my faith in their inherent goodness, which I’ll admit, has wavered at times, has been renewed. The seeds have been planted, and with a little water and sunshine, they may just grow into beautiful flowers.