Getting to Plum Village was not easy. I had a strong desire to go, but the prospect of leaving my many activities created doubts that I would actually be able to make the trip. Yet the anticipation of being with the greater Sangha and deepening my practice helped me to say yes.
My flight arrived late at Charles de Gaulle Airport and was followed by a crazy bus ride into Paris. I frantically tried to ﬁnd the right railway station for the TGV and then transfer to a smaller train that took me to Ste Foy. Finally, I remembered Thay’s words to the exhausted and impatient traveler: “Continue to breathe and smile.”
At Ste Foy, I was greeted by a very kind monk who understood how tired I was. Our trip to Upper Hamlet was quiet and reﬂective. As we approached Plum Village on a narrow tree-lined road, I saw the sign in Thay’s calligraphy: You have arrived, you are home. The words were very comforting after my long trip. I took my ﬁrst real breath in quite a while.
Throughout the Summer Opening, I deeply enjoyed the delight and laughter of children playing, held in safety by the community. I loved sharing meals outside. The chiming clocks, announcing breathing opportunities every ﬁfteen minutes, became my bells of mindfulness. Practice ﬂowed with fun and ease. At the end of each day, I would lie down in my tent feeling totally content and ready for sleep. I wondered: Could this be the Summer Camp of the Pure Land?
Retreatants came to Plum Village for a minimum of one week. Many came for the full four-week period of the Summer Opening. It was extraordinary how quickly we all became a Sangha family. People left Plum Village on Saturday and it was always a very emotional time. Much of the Sangha would come to say goodbye. We practiced hugging meditation and shed a few tears as friends boarded the bus. People waved out of the windows until the bus was out of view. Shortly after they left, new people arrived and the process of deep connection started over again.
Almost every day, I saw a man who I knew was a kindred spirit. Whenever I saw him, we both stopped and looked at each other in a profound way without any self-consciousness. I never actually met him in the “normal” way. There was no need to know anything about this person, where he came from, or who he was, and no need to connect in any other way. In the act of bowing deeply, there was self-recognition and deep knowing.
Among the many connections I made, two special people stand out; they helped me see more clearly during my stay in Plum Village. Thay Giac Thanh was a senior monk in charge of practice in the Upper Hamlet. He had a large smile that lit up his whole face. I was privileged to be invited to his hut for tea and have wonderful playful conversations. He was soft and joyful and also could be like a tiger. His combination of sweetness and strength was extraordinary. I will always be grateful for his friendship. Thay Doji, a French Zen monk who had practiced in Japan for many years, helped me in my times of doubt. He was solid as a mountain. I bow to his willingness to share his experiences and insights in a deep way.
A Space of Freedom
Once each week, we had a lazy day. It was a day to do anything we liked. We could sleep all day, meditate, go for a walk, or be with friends. There was no schedule. Some of the Sangha would gather under the large linden tree in the Upper Hamlet, enjoying the sunshine, gentle breezes, tea, silence, or quiet conversation.
Thay said in a Dharma talk that the lazy day was the most difﬁcult day of the week for Westerners. How often do we allow ourselves to truly be lazy, without any agenda? It was a real practice for me to let go of thinking about doing something better and anticipating what was next. Yet it was so simple and pleasurable to just sit and let the moments pass, one after another. This feeling of being content, just being and breathing, was new. A smile came from a deeper part of myself.
Plum Village had a strong current of insight generated by mindfulness and it was always available if I turned to it. What magic it was to see things from a space of freedom and not of fear. Sometimes I would go and look over the hillside at the sunﬂower ﬁelds. I would close my eyes and then open them after some moments, and I understood that the inside was the same as the outside. The concept of interbeing became an experience.
David Lawrence, True Land of Harmony, lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife Marianne Benforado, Awakened Lamp of the Heart. Chuli, their sweet doggie companion, gives them daily Dharma lessons in living joyfully. The Heart Sangha of Santa Cruz is their practice community.