By Janelle Combelic
I left Plum Village in August 1990 after three weeks at my first summer retreat, not knowing that it would take me fourteen years to get back. But those three weeks changed my life.
I had started meditating on my own a couple of years before in Phoenix, Arizona. Every day before going to work as a technical writer I would sit for forty-five minutes. In 1989 I attended my first Vipassana retreat, a six-day silent retreat at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico. The teacher was Jack Kornfield. Just about the only thing I remember was his admonition not to take ourselves too seriously. In fact, he mentioned a wonderful Vietnamese monk who told people to smile while they meditated!
A Rustic Peace
Some months later I saw an ad in a Buddhist magazine for Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastery. When I read that Plum Village was in France, where I had grown up, I knew I had to go. And so in July 1990 I found myself sitting in the sunshine outside the train station in Ste. Foy la Grande, waiting with a few strangers. And waiting. Someone ﬁnally came to pick us up and drove us to Lower Hamlet.
Conditions on the old farm were very rustic. I stayed in a primitive room in one of the old farm buildings with a few other women. Halfway through my stay I moved into a tent out in an overgrown ﬁeld (where the new toilet block is now). Dharma Nectar Meditation Hall was new and bright and huge; every morning we gathered around the monks and nuns who sat around a central altar, chanting in Vietnamese. The Buddha garden beyond the windows radiated peace and beauty.
Every week we had a ceremony, as if Thay were squeezing a whole year of Vietnamese culture into a month. The Full Moon Festival in the meadow below Upper Hamlet was spectacular, with the moon rising behind the church of Puyguilhem on its hill across the valley. Most moving was the ceremony for Hiroshima Day when we processed to the pond in the oak wood at Lower Hamlet and launched little paper boats carrying candles with our prayers for peace.
At Upper Hamlet, we crowded into the Transformation Hall to listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. I loved its old white stones and small windows, the intimacy of this ancient barn converted into a Buddhist temple. One day we had a tea ceremony there with Thay. A lively and contentious discussion ensued, where some of the parents staying at Upper Hamlet complained about the lack of a children’s program. I noticed that the Vietnamese children staying at Lower Hamlet with their families, enjoying a welcome immersion in their native culture, behaved calmly and respectfully. The Western children staying at Upper Hamlet were far more boisterous, and their parents wanted more support to enjoy the retreat. I admired Thay’s honesty and openness, his willingness to listen but also his ﬁrm commitment to the practice.
Things were not nearly as organized then as they are now. There were no “families,” no work groups. Being new to the practice myself, I tried to get involved with different activities and found myself overcommitted in no time. I also re-created the isolation and loneliness of my life at home. I didn’t make friends and don’t remember learning about Sangha.
At that time the Plum Village culture seemed rather male-dominated. The monks walked in front of the nuns during pro-cessions, just as in Vietnam. The nuns included Sister Annabel, abbess of Lower Hamlet; Sister Phuong, as Sister Chan Khong was then known; and Sister Jina, newly arrived and still wearing the formal gray robes of a Japanese monastic. I asked a senior laywoman, Joan Halifax, to lead a women’s discussion group. We were astonished when the circle ﬁlled the whole Transformation Hall! We had to schedule a second meeting so that everyone could get a chance to share.
Healing My Life
I’m not sure what speciﬁcally changed me at that retreat— perhaps one of Thay’s Dharma talks. That summer I was in my mid-thirties, suffering from chronic pain and loneliness. After one last failed relationship I had given up on men entirely to focus on healing my life. So when Thay invited us to write him questions I jumped at the chance. I thought my problems had to do with my father, and to give Thay some background I wrote page after page detailing my history. A few days later, I was astonished to hear Thay telling my story! However, he told it with profound sadness—describing this American woman who got involved with older men, who lost one baby and aborted another, whose younger brother had died of cancer, who didn’t get along with her family. For the ﬁrst time I saw my own pain with real compassion. No wonder I felt sad all the time!
When I got home I made some decisions to change my life. I consulted a medical doctor and a homeopath and started getting the help I needed. Mysteriously, my healing took me far away from Plum Village and from meditation. For ten years I led an “ordinary” life, letting the world be my teacher.
By the time Thay came to Boulder in 2002 I had started meditating again and in 2003 I went on his retreat in Estes Park. That’s where I discovered Sangha. I started attending Peaceful Hearts Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, and my life has never been the same.
It has been a long and uneven road, but more and more each day I touch the wonders of life. Who knew a person could be this happy!
Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, co-founded Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado. In 2010 she moved to Scotland, where she lives in a cottage with her English husband and their Irish setter Seamus. She practices with Northern Lights Sangha at Findhorn.