Out of the mud the lotus blooms
“Hurry UP!” my friend Anna cried in Catalan, as I answered the door carrying a bag of recycling in one hand and my rucksack in the other. “We’re going to be late and you’ll miss your train!” Anna had kindly offered to drive me to Cerbère train station over the border in France, where I would catch an early morning train to Narbonne and from there to Ste Foy La Grande in the Dordogne. We walked towards her car but I stopped at the recycling bins and calmly proceeded to separate the rubbish into different bins piece by piece. Anna laughed and asked me if I really needed to go on a mindfulness retreat when I was already pretty zen about recycling the rubbish. We left Girona and sped along the main road to France. We turned right at Figueres to reach the coast road. Anna gripped the wheel, a determined look on her face as she drove at high speed along the straight and deserted road. “Oh look how beautiful everything is”, I cried, as the early morning light shone on the surrounding landscape. “I don’t have time to look at anything now!” she replied through clenched teeth. “I’ll look at it on the way back, when I have time.”
In July 2007 I made the wise decision to spend a week on a Zen Buddhist retreat with the monks and nuns of Plum Village, founded in 1982 by the Vietnamese Zen Master and Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong, a Buddhist nun. I say ‘wise’ because it was a life-changing week in so many ways. Inspired by friends in Girona who had been before, I had read some of Thay‘s* works and wanted to experience his dharma talks first hand. But the retreat was much more than a series of dharma talks. It was a week of intense personal therapy accompanied by community life, much love and many laughs.
Plum Village, or Le Village des Pruniers, as it is called, is situated in the south west corner of France, near Sainte Foy La Grande in the Dordogne. The community, or sangha of monks and nuns is divided into three “hamlets” or small settlements, which are up to 18 kilometres apart. The 65 monks, led by Thich Nhat Hanh, live and work in Upper Hamlet. 40 nuns, under the guidance of Sister Chan Khong, are based in New Hamlet, and 40 more sisters can be found in Lower Hamlet. The vast majority of the sangha is Vietnamese and there is a predominance of women. I was placed in New Hamlet, along with other single women, some couples and families. All single men are housed in Upper Hamlet and families can be found in any of the hamlets. Children are welcome on the summer retreat and the first hour of the daily dharma talk is addressed to them. Then they can leave and play while the adults sit for a further hour of more challenging Buddhist teachings.
On arrival at New Hamlet, we were divided into families. My group of about 15 women and one man (part of a couple) were French, American, Canadian, Dutch and British. We were housed in a dormitory building about 500m down the road from the hamlet. It was a lovely old rustic house set in a beautiful, large garden and had stunning views over the fields of poppies and sunflowers. Our dormitory was basic but clean and we shared two bathrooms. The American couple had their own double room. As the group was French and English speaking, I was nominated the group interpreter, a job I thoroughly enjoyed.
Our family was chosen to peel, chop and prepare all the vegetables required for the meals. This was our working meditation and every family was given a daily task. Other families had to clean toilets, wash pots, or prepare the meditation hall etc. The family was more than just working meditation, however. We had daily meetings and discussions, led by a sister, during which we could ask questions, share problems or doubts. Our family soon became incredibly close. I can’t say it was a serious family! We were constantly joking and roaring with laughter. Some of the day was to be spent in silence and we were often very frustrated back in the dormitory when silence was required after 10pm. None of us went to bed that early and it was a difficult task. That silence had to reign until the following day after breakfast.
Here is a typical day in Plum Village:
- 5:00am: Rise (in silence)
- 6:00am: Sitting and Walking meditation (in silence)
- 7:30am: Breakfast (in silence)
- 9:00am: Dharma Talk / Class / Presentation / Mindful work period
- 11:30am: Walking meditation
- 12:30pm: Lunch
- 1:30pm: Rest
- 3:00pm: Working meditation
- 5:30pm: Sitting meditation
- 6:30pm: Optional dinner
- 8:00pm: Personal study, Happiness Meeting, Beginning Anew
- 10:00pm: Noble silence begins
- 10:30pm: Lights out
On my first morning at breakfast, I was sat across the table from a woman I hadn’t seen for about 12 years and with whom I had lost all contact. Winship is an American dancer, who had lived with her French girlfriend in Reims, the capital of Champagne, in north eastern France. Her girlfriend and mine were teacher training together there, after passing the CAPES, the open competition exam that allows you to enter the French Education system. We often spent time together and after my relationship ended, I corresponded with them for a while and then we drifted apart. Winship and I saw each other over the breakfast table and the look of shocked and excited recognition we shared was unforgettable! However we couldn’t speak as breakfast was taking place in silence! It was a meal of smiles, hand gestures and looks of disbelief. After breakfast, when we could at last embrace and scream hysterically, Winship took me to her tent and showed me her two sleeping daughters! She was now married to a African Muslim man! How lives can change! While she got her girls, aged 7 and 18 months, dressed and fed, I tried to take in all her news. She had eventually left Reims and her girlfriend and over the years had travelled extensively, then had lived and worked in Africa. She was now running a dance company in Lyon, France, where African dance and culture was at the base of her art.
So now I had a second family and carried the little one in my arms into the coach, which was to take us to our first dharma talk by Thay in Upper Hamlet. My other family were open-mouthed. “Where on earth did you find her?” they all asked as I grabbed a seat with Winship and her older daughter. The little one was sick on the coach and a lot of cleaning up was required but we eventually got to the meditation hall and sat by the podium, much to the envy of my other family, who were all near the back. Suddenly acquiring two children had its advantages as all children and their carers were asked to sit right at the front for the dharma talks. For the rest of the week I practically sat at Thay’s feet and it felt like I was in the front row of a Rolling Stones concert; a very privileged place to be!
On our only free afternoon, Winship and I caught up with our news and I was able to tell her some more about my break-up. This in itself was therapeutic. I had not thought about it for a long time but I saw that some pain was still there and needed to be dealt with. Thanks to Sister Chang Kong’s therapy sessions of touching the earth, I was also able to do some work on my maternal great grandfather who had been so brutal to his wife and children and whom my grandmother, mother and I had always hated. I eventually accepted him as part of me and understood the joy of walking with all my ancestors. Walking meditation was a special delight when Thay took the lead. Hundreds of us, old and young, followed him through the grounds to the lotus pond, where we sat in meditation. There he seemed to look deeply and compassionately at each and every one of us several times. This was a very special moment for all of us.
The soul received its nourishment but the body was not forgotten! Every evening a sister led a session of bamboo stick meditation and we bent and stretched our bodies around our sticks and felt supple and pain-free. The food at Plum Village was worthy of a Michelin star! Totally vegetarian but not vegan, we were regaled with a wonderful fusion of French and Vietnamese food, with a plethora French of cheeses! I have heard that Plum Village is now strictly vegan but I am sure that even, sans fromage, the food is delicious. Organic produce was grown by the sangha in the hamlets’ vegetable gardens and their own hens laid the eggs we ate. Every ingredient was fresh and tasty and it was a joy to offer gratitude to the animal, farmer, cook, sunlight and rain that had produced this food for us. It was not a prayer to a god and nothing like saying “grace”. It was “just” mindful chewing and swallowing in the present moment and an appreciation of the source of the food.
“A very important exercise is to eat in silence and calmness, even if only for a few minutes. It keeps us away from distractions that get in the way of having real contact with our food” Thich Nhat Hanh
Plum Village encourages a state of mindfulness throughout the retreat. It does this by sounding gongs and bells at random times of the day. Whatever you are doing at that moment, whether walking, talking, eating etc, you should stop in your tracks and take three mindful breaths, bringing you back to the present moment. During a meal the clock would sometimes strike and this was another opportunity to stop and breathe. Before the dharma talk, Thay would sound the gong three times to bring us into the here and now so we could focus on his words.
All these years later, several aspects of the week stand out in my mind. First was the presence of Sister Chan Khong herself. Her official story is told below but the daily contact with this wonderful Sister was an absolute pleasure. She would lead the evening’s meditation and relaxation sessions and tell us hilarious stories that had us laughing out loud. She told us anecdotes of her young womanhood in Vietnam; how, at 16, she wanted to look like Audrey Hepburn and hated her nose. She wanted the boys to notice her but felt unattractive. Then she started to collect rice from rich people and distribute it to the poor, thus attracting the attention of all the boys around her. Her loveliness had come from helping others and forgetting about herself.
Sister Chan Khong had the most mischievous of personalities. Apparently when translating for Thay, she would add an anecdote or two and sometimes, make fun of him, to the hilarity of all concerned. She was like a Buddhist stand-up comic, although one that sat down to tell her stories and jokes. Then she would burst into song. Her songs were phenomenal. They would be in Vietnamese, French or English and would be about the small, simple things in life that make us happy. “When I go to the toilet, I am happy”, she would croon, in the three languages. Some women would be snoring at this point, in full relaxation mode!
As well as Total Relaxation, Sister Chan Khong was behind the Touching the Earth ceremonies and Beginning Anew group sessions. This is her dharma in action. One thing she organised in New Hamlet was an Honour Your Parents ceremony. On this day we were handed small paper roses to pin onto our clothes. The rose was red if your parent was alive and white if they were dead. They asked a 10-year-old boy to give out the roses. One of his roses was white as he had just lost his father and he and his mum had come on the retreat to mourn. They often cried and held each other. This 10-year-old child who already had a white rose and the vast number of young sisters from Vietnam who wore two white roses was a real awakening for me, aged 50 and with two red roses. The Honour Your Parents ceremony involved touching the earth and was very moving. There were speeches, music, poetry and sketches about parents. Some were very sad and people expressed the pain and abuse that their parents had inflicted on them. Not all of it was happy and celebratory. But the touching the earth ceremony allows you to let go of your suffering as well as acknowledge the love and care your parents have given to you and how dear and precious they are. After the ceremony I kept those two red roses pinned to the inside of my rucksack and travelled all over the world with my parents! Now one of those roses would be white and I treasure the red rose my mum represents. I know that eventually all of us are left with white roses. However those roses are none the uglier for being white. They remind us that we will always have our loved ones around us as long as we are alive because they are in our hearts and minds and our very DNA.
On the penultimate day, we took our meal and tea with Thay and the sangha. After this we were invited to a question and answer session with Thay in Upper Hamlet. Many people had written their questions on a piece of paper and then the questions were chosen at random. Amanda, a British woman in my family, was one of them. A beautiful soul from Oxford who worked with refugees and asylum seekers, she asked Thay what could be done to stop people being so negative towards refugees and immigrants and how the press could be a force to bring that change about. She said that the British press was currently encouraging people to turn against refugees and asylum seekers. Thay said that the only way to open people’s hearts to the suffering of others is to present their stories one by one. He said that if the press took responsibility for their actions, they would also film a Palestinian Muslim and an Israeli Jew laughing, smiling and talking at the market as well as people firing shots and throwing stones. If they also showed the good things happening in the world we would have less fear and more love.
Since the war in Syria and the mass immigration into Europe a few years ago, I have been even more aware of the truth of Thay‘s words. If a film or article focuses on one victim or family group from the conflict, I have been better able to sympathise and empathise. A million immigrants entering Germany in a short space of time can arouse some people’s compassion (witness the Germans who stood and applauded as the refugees poured into their country) but a great many were terrified and had the impression they were being overrun. British politicians and journalists used divisive words like UK prime minister David Cameron, who referred to migrants as “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy.” Right-wing media followed suit; the columnist Katie Hopkins, for example, referred to migrants as “cockroaches”. This paved the way for a right wing backlash, which ultimately led the the Brexit vote in 2016.
When we were on the tiny Greek island of Meis in 2015, Mum and I saw a mass of Syrian refugees wandering up and down the harbour area, dressed in dark clothes and contrasting shockingly with the brightly dressed, coffee drinking tourists lounging on the terraces of cafes and restaurants. But it wasn’t until I had returned from a walk and met up with Mum that my compassion kicked in. Mum had been sitting on a bench when a family of Syrians walked past. The father stopped and touched his heart and said, “Syria”. My mum smiled at them all warmly and said, “good luck” and they hurried on. There was a world of communication in that short exchange. Mum couldn’t tell me the story without tears and I have never been able to retell it without my voice cracking with emotion. I know that, had we been able, Mum and I would have taken that family into our home that very day. This was Thay‘s answer in action.
Thay suffered a brain haemorrhage in November 2014 and was flown to Bordeaux University Hospital for months of stroke rehabilitation. In 2015, he flew to San Francisco for more rehabilitation and returned to Plum Village in 2016. In 2018, he communicated to his senior disciples by hand gestures, nodding and shaking his head that he wished to return to Vietnam. At the age of 92, he is living his remaining days in Tu Hieu Temple, in Hue, central Vietnam, the temple he entered as a 16-year-old novice in 1942. He has finally returned to his roots after a lifetime of activism, fighting for peace and change. In his beloved temple, he continues to live among and walk with his sangha.
When he first returned to Vietnam in 2005, after four decades of exile, Thich Nhat Hanh said:
“There is no religion, no doctrine higher than brotherhood and sisterhood.”
Outside the temple we too must nurture our brother and sisterhoods, our sanghas, because, without them, we are exiles, not only from our own countries but from our own hearts, minds and bodies.
“Breathing in, I know I am breathing in,
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out”
*”Thay” is the name given to Thich Nhat Hanh by his friends and followers. It means ‘master’ or ‘teacher’
Thich Nhat Hanh’s biography
Sister Chan Khong’s biography