To make a sugarplum, you must first plant a seed – a seed born from a long lineage of strong and fruitful trees that contains within it all the good karma of its ancestry. It is tiny, at first. You’ll wonder how something so precious and private could ever become anything like the towering trunk with glowing, sumptuous fruit dangling from its expansive branches you see so clearly in your mind. You’ll barely be able to contain yourself. Moment after moment, you’ll find yourself confronting the urge to run and embrace its sturdy bark and lay at its roots, basking in the shade of your achievement. But there will be nowhere to run. It is, after all, still only a seed.
Slowly, the weight of the task will wrap you up like a straitjacket. The gap between your vision and reality will be vast and unbridgeable. You won’t know where to begin. Don’t get ahead of yourself; this is where you begin. Just take that seed that you have been holding so tenderly for all these years, and give it to the earth. Plant it in rich and fertile soil that has been nourished by so many living and dying things for millennia. And smile. You’ve done your task. It is now time to let nature do its work.
Don’t forget you are a part of nature too. The little sapling will need your love along with the warmth of the sun, the moisture of the air, and nutrients of the ground. Water it when it is thirsty. Cover it when it is cold. Shade it when it is hot. Care for yourself. This little tree cannot provide for you yet. There are parts of your soul you need to feed. Find ways to laugh. Exercise. Spend some time doing nothing. Take up pottery. If you’re not growing alongside the tree, what is the point?
You may think it’ll be forever before your tree bears fruit, but forever comes sooner than you think. This is where you really need friends. There will simply be too many plump persimmons burdening the branches of the tree to harvest by yourself. Call your friends who have been planting seeds and tending saplings of their own. Tell them to bring ladders and boxes.
And tell them to bring vegetable peelers and string because now the real work begins. To make a sugarplum you must pick an unripe persimmon from a tree that has been patiently cultivated for many years, peel the skin off it, and hang it in the warm, open air. This sour, skinless fruit must be massaged frequently. There are no short cuts. It is a commitment to do the work of bringing your hands into contact with the fruits’ exposed essence, turning acid into sugar and firmness into softness. You’ll be amazed at how the fruit transforms. Orange morphs into swirling purple hues. The smooth curvature wrinkles into cracks and crevices. If you wait long enough, a fluffy layer of white sugar will form like snow dusting a pine cone. Slice it. Inspect its layers of color. Squish it between your fingers. Roll it around over your tongue. Savor its tender texture. Delight in its sweetness.
On New Year’s Eve of 2016 a sangha of young mindfulness practitioners gathered at The Mariposa Institute for their first of what would become a monthly retreat. On that auspicious evening, we enjoyed a tea ceremony to celebrate our togetherness and welcome the new year with aspiration and intention. Among the delicious snacks and beverages were sugarplums. That is how we got our name, The Sugarplum Sangha. The Mariposa Institute in Ukiah, CA is our home away from home. Once a month, we come together as a sangha to practice sitting, walking, eating, working, playing, and deep listening and loving speech. In between retreats, practitioners and spiritual explorers are welcome to join the Sangha in residence for their daily practice and for fun activities like experiencing the beautiful Mendocino coast, mushroom foraging, gardening and contra dancing. We are also prone to spontaneous singalongs! There are currently four Sugarplummers living at Mariposa from part to full time, and we are eager to grow our numbers.
For anyone who has experienced the fruits of the Buddha’s path as taught by Thay, it is a dream come true. I am not aware of when the inception of this dream first came to me, but I can remember walking by churches, schools, and old houses while still in college and visualizing a mindfulness community in each of them. It was my deepest volition to live the Plum Village teachings as truly and authentically as I could. For me, and for many others I am happy to discover, that meant living in community – in sangha. I carried this seed with me for many years everywhere I went until conditions were fertile to plant it in the earth.
I met Dharmacharya, Jo-ann Rosen on a mindfulness retreat at Westwind on the coast of Oregon. I was coordinating the children’s program, and Jo-ann was attending with her grandchild. I don’t remember if we really connected, but it must have prepared the ground for our next meeting two years later at the same retreat. You never know how karma will ripen. I was living at Deer Park Monastery, and the monastics who were traveling to Westwind to teach were kind enough to let me accompany them so that I could staff the children’s program again. Jo-ann was there with her grandchild again, and this time she had heard that my partner, My, and I were interested in living in a community that practiced Thay’s way.
Jo-ann lives up the hill from Mariposa in a homestead she built back when she was a teacher there. Mariposa use to be a school, and since then it has been host to the Community of Mindful Living’s (a network of Bay Area Sanghas) annual retreat. She invited My and I for a visit and soon we were discussing how to invite others to get involved and start building our community from the ground up. We finally settled on what would prove to be a radical experiment: host a weekend retreat every month for a year, then see what happens.
This journey of cultivating the Sugarplum Sangha has been much like making an actual Sugarplum. We’ve held our seeds with tenderness, trusted them to the earth, peeled our skin off, and brought out each other’s sweetness. We’ve seen fruit fall from the branches before it was ripe – friends have come and gone. We’ve taken refuge in our roots during drought and flood. You never know how karma will ripen. Whether or not our community flourishes at Mariposa into the future, we’ve tasted the dharma of walking a path together and offering our mindful steps as an example of an awakened society.