The Plum Village Sangha in India

Autumn 2008 By Sister Chan Khong

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The Plum Village delegation arrived in New Delhi on 24 September 2008, and the next day the delegation met with some Indian journalists. The Ahimsa Trust, organizers of Thay’s tour of India, had arranged for the press conference at the French Embassy. During this meeting the French ambassador, Jerome Bonnafont, launched the release of two new books by the publishing house Full Circle: The Sun My Heart, and Under the Banyan Tree, a book transcribed from teachings given by Thay at the Krishnamurti headquarters in Chennai during Thay’s India trip in 1997.

After the press conference, the big newspapers of New Delhi publicized the teaching tour of Zen Master Nhat Hanh. For many days the television channel NDTV announced the tour schedule; text scrolling across the bottom of the screen indicated details of where Thay would be teaching or doing walking meditation in New Delhi. Thanks to such publicity the people of India knew all about the teaching tour offered by the Plum Village delegation.

A Retreat for Educators

On September 26, the first retreat of the tour began at Doon School, the most famous secondary school in India. Located in the highlands of northern India, the Doon School is one of the wonders of the Uttarakhand state capital city Dehradun, with its rich past and beautiful architecture. Many famous political leaders of India spent their youth at this school, before going abroad to study either in England or the United States.

Five hundred eighty-five educators, among them many headmasters or directors of well-known elementary or secondary schools, came from all over India, some traveling for two days by plane. The state governor came to the opening of the four-day retreat, titled “Towards a Compassionate and Healthy Society.” The Plum Village monks and nuns had the opportunity to participate in activities and sports with Doon students. The educators learned and practiced wholeheartedly, attended all the activities such as sitting meditation, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, total relaxation, Touchings of the Earth, and eating in mindfulness. On the third day ninety people received the Three Refuges and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

The retreat was very nourishing and brought transformation and joy for everyone who attended, among them the headmaster of Doon School. At the beginning, although he had helped tour organizer Shantum Seth send out invitations to other educational institutions, he admitted he did not have much faith in the effect of the retreat, but by the end he was transformed.

The next day the delegation visited the new Mindfulness in Education Centre, at the foot of the Himalayas not far from the city of Dehradun. Thay did the ceremony for Protecting the Land and planted a bodhi tree, two banyan trees, and several other kinds of trees on the site.

During the rest of the tour, thirty young Plum Village Dharma teachers visited to share the joy of mindfulness practice at a dozen elite schools. The monks included Brothers Phap Dung, Phap Hai, Phap Thanh, and Phap Luu from Deer Park Monastery, as well as Phap Trach, Phap Don, and Phap Chieu. The nuns included Sisters Anh Nghiem, Kinh Nghiem, Luong Nghiem, Chau Nghiem, Tung Nghiem, Dinh Nghiem, and others. The monks and nuns also shared the practice in an educational center with programs for poor children and street children. These children also attended the children’s program in a five-day retreat in Delhi.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Newspaper Editor

October 2 was the International Day of Non-Violence, commemorating the 139th year of the birth of Gandhi. The Times of India, the largest national daily newspaper, invited Thay to be the guest editor for a special Peace edition. Thay went to work with the editorial team, presenting several themes for the journalists to investigate and research:

  1. Who are the Buddhists in India?
  2. Would it be possible to organize a national No-Car Day in India to bring awareness to and educate the people on the problem of global warming?
  3. Are families in India able to sit down to eat together at least for one meal together each day?
  4. Would it be possible for teachers in all the educational institutions in India to have opportunities to train the students how to transform the emotions of anger, violence, and despair?
  5. Has anyone written love letters to a bombing terrorist to help them let go of their wrong perceptions and vengeance in their hearts?

In six hours the journalists had written a multitude of articles. On the front page of the October 2 edition appeared the lead article, “Quest for Peace in Troubled Times.” This article was printed next to the most shocking news of the day: A bomb had exploded in Agartala, killing four persons.

In a related article on the newspaper’s website, “Terrorists are victims who create more victims,” the editorial team reported:

Midway through the news meeting on Wednesday, the grim news came in: Agartala had been rocked by serial blasts. All eyes immediately turned to Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, the Guest Editor for our special Peace Edition. As journalists, what should we do on a day like this?

The Zen master, who has rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centres, resettled homeless families and for a lifetime advocated tirelessly the principles of non-violence and compassionate action, pondered for a while.

When he spoke, it was with great clarity, “Report in a way that invites readers to take a look at why such things continue to happen and that they have their roots in anger, fear, hate and wrong perceptions. Prevent anger from becoming a collective energy. The only antidote for anger and violence is compassion. Terrorists are also victims, who create other victims of misunderstanding.’’

This, remember, is the monk — now 82 years old — credited with a big role in turning American public opinion against the war in Vietnam — for which Martin Luther King, Jr. had nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. And so, his words are not to be dismissed lightly.

“Every reader has seeds of fear, anger, violence and despair, and also seeds of hope, compassion, love and forgiveness,’’ said Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called Thay.

“As journalists, you must not water the wrong seeds. The stories should touch the seeds of hope. As journalists, you have the job of selectively watering the right seeds. You must attempt to tell the truth and yet not water the seeds of hate. It’s not what’s in the story, but how you tell it that’s important.’’

Several other articles appeared in the Times that day and on the website, written by the journalists and the monks and nuns who assisted Thay [and also one reprinted from the Mindfulness Bell].

The Sankassa Story

Legend has it that the 14th of October was the day when the Buddha returned to Earth after a time visiting his mother, Queen Mahamaya, who was in the thirty-third Heaven. When he was back on Earth he took his first steps in the land of Sankassa, where many of his disciples were waiting to greet him.

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Several thousand people of the Shakya lineage came to attend the retreat led by Brothers Phap Son and Phap Do and Sisters Chan Khong Nghiem and Chan Luong Nghiem. The people had been informed that on the morning of 14 October, the third day of the retreat, Master Nhat Hanh would arrive to offer a ceremony of transmission of the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings. And Master Nhat Hanh, too, would be arriving from the sky — in a helicopter.

At Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, the morning fog was thick, and it wasn’t until 10:30 a.m. that permission to fly was given. In the helicopter with Thay were three lay Dharma teachers: Shantum Seth, Ann Johnston, and Pritam Singh, along with educator Irpinder Bhatia and Simran, daughter of Pritam. Shantum, the main organizer of Thay’s tour, was holding a professional camera with which his younger sister had asked him to record the event at Sankassa. Shantum’s sister Aradna was making a documentary film of the whole tour.

The young people of the Shakya clan were sitting and practicing together with the brothers and sisters in the meditation hall. When they heard the helicopter they could not contain themselves; everybody stood up and ran out of the meditation hall to look up. They had been waiting for the helicopter since 9:30 and now at noon the sun was directly overhead. In this remote part of the country the people live in huts made from earth, without electricity, without pumped water; their way of life is still very primitive, perhaps not unlike the way of life in India over 2500 years ago. They had never seen a helicopter up close.

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The youth stood in line to welcome Thay. After cutting a ribbon to inaugurate a Shakyamuni Buddha statue for the practice centre, Thay went straight into the meditation hall, where there were about 200 monks wearing the robes of the Theravadan tradition. Thay taught the Three Refuges and Five Mindfulness Trainings and how to apply them in daily life. Thay began as follows: “Queen Maya was still in good health. She was very happy and proud to have a son, Siddhartha, who had attained enlightenment and was able to liberate countless beings. She sends her love to all the people of the Shakya clan. I am also a member of the Shakya clan. I have come to transmit to you the teachings taught by the Buddha Gautama.”

After the transmission ceremony in the afternoon, Thay reminded them to regularly come together to recite, study, and discuss the Trainings. Thay promised that if they practiced diligently there would be a day when we would meet again. Everybody expressed their happiness by applauding enthusiastically.

Time arrived for the helicopter to take wing. Thousands of the Shakyan people came to bid Thay farewell, including many children. Thay wished that some of them could come to Plum Village to learn and practice so that one day they could return to be of service to the Sanghas from their clan. Many people cried, their eyes red.

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From the report by Irpinder Bhatia [see below], we know that hundreds of thousands of the Shakyan people have abandoned their tradition and completely forgotten that within their lineage was someone named Gautama Siddhartha, who had become one of the greatest spiritual masters of the world. Buddhism was suppressed in India starting in the eleventh century, when Buddhist monks and nuns had to flee and find refuge in other countries further north. Some people returned to the Hindu tradition, some converted to Islam; from their rich heritage they retained only their name Shakya. It was less than twenty years ago that they were reminded by the Dalit Buddhists of their Buddhist heritage.

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Today the number of Buddhists in India has risen to about 10 million. However, the teachings that they were given were often about how to fight injustice and the discriminating caste system. Even though they have returned to their Buddhist roots, they have not truly tasted the fruits of the Buddhadharma.

Hopefully the Plum Village Sangha will be able to help train a number of young people from the Shakya lineage to become Dharma teachers so that they may return to their people the spiritual tradition that they lost over a thousand years ago.

For more information about the India tour, go to www.ahimsatrust.org and select “Thich Nhat Hanh.”

Sister Chan Khong, True Emptiness, has been working side by side with Thay to fight injustice and teach mindfulness since the 1960s. She is a tireless champion for the poor in Vietnam, especially children.

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