Meditation hall built into the hillside provides natural protection

Meditation hall built into the hillside provides natural protection.
Photo by Dale Dicks

Among the Firs at Mountain Lamp

Mountain Lamp retreat center is continuing to evolve, 15 years after the first people attempted retreats here in rain-dripped tents.

Created by teachers Eileen Kiera and Jack Duffy, the 100-acre center is located in a small valley tucked between fir-covered hills in northwest Washington, about 15 miles east of Bellingham. With the skill of these teachers and the nourishment of the land, Mountain Lamp is offering a deep kind of healing and awakening in ourselves and in the world.

The way that Mountain Lamp is being constructed upholds respect for the natural world and artfully integrates nature into the design.

This summer solar panels were installed on the barn to provide power for the entire complex. This spring we will continue landscaping outside the teachers’ house by using ferns from the forest.

In the fall of 2010 the old guest manager cottage was gutted and doubled in size to become the new house for the teachers. This has allowed the main building to become the home for the temple keeper (myself), and the place where guest students can stay and practice.

Teacher Duffy says, “The sun is always shining at Mountain Lamp,” but it doesn’t always appear that way when we look out our dripping windows or step into the damp moss. However, after living at Mountain Lamp for a while, I have begun to understand he is right.

The horses are happy to share their barn with the newly installed solar panels

The horses are happy to share their barn with the newly installed solar panels.
Photo by Eileen Kiera

The vital energy of the place is its two very special dharma teachers: Eileen Kiera (dharma teacher in Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage), and Jack Duffy (roshi in the Diamond Sangha tradition). Their presence and practice offer a unique opportunity for students to experience deep transformation.

I first came to Mountain Lamp after meeting Eileen at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, Calif., where people practice in the mindfulness tradition of Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. Eileen was giving a dharma talk to the community of monastics and lay friends, speaking about her practice, and about the owls that “Hoo,” in the trees at Mountain Lamp.

I was impressed by what she said about practice and what she said about owls. I walked up to her after the dharma talk to find out more.

I came to understand that she was a dharma teacher who in 1990 was given transmission to teach in her tradition. She was developing a practice center in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. And she invited me to experience it myself.

I found out about the rain and the sunshine of Mountain Lamp when I arrived for a week-long retreat in the summer of 2008. I set up my tent in a field as the rain gently fell. A fellow retreatant helped me add a tarp to keep me dry.

The property is freely occupied by the birds, the trees and the creatures of the forest. While living here and on retreat I have joyfully experienced the lives of coyotes, deer, rabbits, tree frogs, small nighthawks, eagles, herons, snakes and all the beautiful friends who crawl in the soil. Just a small section of the land is dedicated to human life and to human meditation practice.

When I first arrived workers were just finishing building the meditation hall. The bright wood floors, the subtle lighting and the Japanese rain chains, allowed a quiet mind to arise.

I was surprised to find out that the hall was remodeled from a two-car garage built into the hillside. Rocks were carefully arranged outside the hall to form a layered passageway. Since that time moss has grown to fill in the cracks between the rocks. It appears as if the rocks are breathing the moist air.

The Mountain Lamp grounds have that quiet spacious feel that practice centers accumulate from hours of sitting meditation and from gentle, reflective attention. This has been the vision from the beginning and is now bearing fruit.

Eileen Kiera holds eggs from the resident chickens

Eileen Kiera holds eggs from the resident chickens.
Photo by Janice Walker

Although I didn’t realize it when I first met Eileen, I had stumbled upon an amazing opportunity for practice.

Eileen’s tradition offers daily practice in mindful living. She was able to learn and study with Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) when he had only a handful of students. She also trained under Robert Aitken Roshi in Hawaii, and has extensive knowledge of the Diamond Sangha tradition.

With this combination of practice Eileen offers retreats that open hearts and minds. The week-long retreats are filled with deep silence and still sitting meditation. Days include walking gently along the dirt paths to the lake side, or into the heavy greenery of a thick forest. There is always opportunity to work in the garden of flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Retreats often focus on one of the traditional sutras or teachings of the Buddha. Eileen also offers individual consultations on student practice. The presence of the experienced practitioners and the harmony of the sangha creates a strong environment in which to heal hearts and look deeply.

After studying with Eileen for a few years I enjoyed Mountain Lamp but had never done a retreat with her partner, Jack Duffy.

I was lucky to be able to experience a sesshin (seven day Zen retreat) one September, and realized what I had been missing. Jack was given full dharma transmission from his teacher Robert Aitken. He is one of only five of Aitken Roshi’s dharma heirs in North America.

Jack offers more traditional Zen retreats with numerous sitting periods. The poetry of his dharma talks and their quiet insight seem the embodiment of the land. Students from all over the Pacific Northwest come in the summer to study and practice with him at Mountain Lamp.

Now that I have been here a while breathing the moist air, I feel the land slowly seeping its way in. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of practicing in a rural landscape. Being in contact with the living earth can really shift the way we experience this life.

In addition to welcoming evening grosbeaks and the red-winged black birds, I also have the joy of welcoming human guests to visit and practice with us more and more, as the sangha offers increasing opportunities for visitors to practice with us.

With the skill of these teachers and the nourishment of the land, Mountain Lamp is offering a deep kind of healing and awakening in ourselves and in the world. In this way the sun always shines at Mountain Lamp.


About the author:
Tracey Pickup is the temple keeper at Mountain Lamp community. She is a member of the Order of Interbeing in the Plum Village tradition. Her dharma name is True Fragrant Field.