An Explosion of Grace

The First Retreat for Young People at Plum Village By Susan Rooke

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Thay has often spoken of the tragic situation in France, where thirty-three young people commit suicide every day. He has asked us, “What are we doing today for those who are going to kill themselves tomorrow or the day after?”

A year ago, Anne-Marie Ascencio, a French member of the Order of Interbeing, shared with Sister Chan Khong her dream of initiating a retreat for young people run by the fourfold Sangha at Plum Village. Her idea was received with enthusiasm, so a small group of young monastics and members of the French OI organized, over the Internet, the first young persons’ retreat in Plum Village. It was held during the last week of June 2005 at the Middle Hamlet and thirty-two young people came, ages thirteen to twenty-six. Of the twenty staff members, there were five monks, three lay Plum Village residents and seven members of the French OI. A group of young nuns and aspirants visited and offered daily support.

We divided into three families, one of which was English-speaking. We had planned to include only French speakers to avoid translation problems, but retreatants took turns translating for friends, and the international flavor was a bonus.

This was a typical day: 6:00  Wake up; exercise with bamboo poles, or yoga 7:30  Sitting meditation 8:00  Breakfast; working meditation; questions & answers with monks and nuns 11:00 Free time 12:00 Lunch 14:30 Sharing in families 16:30 Creative workshops (drawing, painting, writing, calligraphy, collage, dance, music...) 18:00 Dinner 20:00 Deep relaxation; evening activity 22:00 Noble silence 23:00 Lights out

The creative workshops were new for Plum Village. A nun gave a dance workshop under the trees, the music offered spontaneously by two young people. An array of paints, brushes, pencils, and paper was provided in the painting area, along with piles of old magazines for collages. On the dining veranda a large white wall displayed the creative works as they were made; before long the veranda was decorated with paintings, poems, and calligraphy. Retreatants were encouraged to create spontaneously, in a relaxed, non-academic way, working on pieces alone or in groups.

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One evening we participated in a percussion workshop, creating rhythms on drums, saucepans, wash bowls, bells, wooden spoons, and blocks of wood. Another evening, around a bonfire we enjoyed pancakes cooked by a group of young retreatants as a gift to the community.

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The practice was offered in formal and informal ways. Youngsters were taught sitting and walking meditation, stopping and listening to the bell, and eating in silence. The informal teaching was also important: a long conversation with a monk over a cup of hot chocolate; visiting together around a group painting; talking and really listening to each other. This atmosphere of freedom and peace was created with a minimum of structure so the young people had a safe space to talk, be creative, make music, or just be together.

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During the week, Thay gave two teachings that were attended by the Plum Village community and a question and answer session for the young people. Appreciative of this special opportunity, the young people asked good questions about violence, anger, and monastic life. Thay finished the session asking the young people to continue the spirit of the retreat by forming a “committee of the heart.” This new committee will operate over the Internet. For information about future retreats, keep an eye on the Plum Village Web site.

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The ultimate expression of gratitude for this wonderful retreat came on the last evening, when fifty of us practiced Beginning Anew. Seated under the oak trees, with the evening light fading, we shared the transformations of the past six days. A younger and elder brother reconciled with deep, loving words and a hug. Many shared long-hidden, hurt feelings, brought into this compassionate space to be held gently, listened to, and respected. Finding understanding, forgiveness, and healing. Heard over and over: “This has been the best week of my life.”

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On the first day, the young people arrived anxious, fearful, and stressed from school exams and the pace of city life. They were noisy and talked a lot. It was a joy to watch their faces transform; to see their shy smiles and hear their laughter; to enjoy the noble silence becoming more silent; to hear their language become more gentle. For the sake of the young people, and for our sake, I hope others will organize young persons’ retreats all over the world.

Susan Rooke, True Joyful Stream, lives in the foothills of the French Alps.

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