By Fred Allendorf I spent two weeks at Plum Village during this year's Winter Retreat. My first days in Plum Village were difficult in ways I had not anticipated. Twenty-nine years ago I went to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old soldier. I spent most of my time at the southern tip of Cam Ranh Peninsula in the Army company responsible for constructing port facilities in central South Vietnam. Living in a community consisting of approximately half Vietnamese men and women in Plum Village and looking at the smiling faces around me brought many suppressed "mental formations" to my consciousness. American soldiers in Vietnam were taught, and quickly learned, to be suspicious of all Vietnamese people.
I had no knowledge of Buddhism while I was in Vietnam. However, I remember going to the PX at the Cam Ranh Air Force Base many times and resisting the strong urge to buy a large jade Buddha. There was something about it that attracted me and held my fascination. I also have a clear memory of looking up at the large white Buddha statue above the city of Nha Trang. My wife and I now have a picture of that Buddha hanging on our bedroom wall.
I was in Vietnam for only one year and it was a long time ago. But certain experiences trigger old memories that are as fresh as yesterday. The sound of a helicopter inevitably yanks me back to 1967. Many smells have a similar effect. The sight of Plum Village residents walking around during the rain in their traditional Vietnamese round pyramidal hats turned the French countryside into rice in my mind's eye.
Thay and Sister Chan Khong led the Plum Village Sangha to the Pyrenees Mountains during my visit. The Vietnamese monks and nuns had a joyful time throwing snowballs and sledding in the mountains. Thay Nghuen, Head of Practice in the Upper Hamlet, sat next to me on our four hour bus trip to the Pyrenees. I learned that he is a monk visiting Plum Village for two years. His home monastery is in Ninh Hoa, just across the bay from where I had lived in Vietnam. He was just four years old while I was in Vietnam; I imagined him as one of the many small children I saw in Vietnam.
The mental knots that had held me captive for 29 years began to melt during my conversations with Thay Nghuen and the other Vietnamese residents of Plum Village. Their smiling faces quickly brought much joy, rather than caution, to my heart. I especially came to love and enjoy being with the monks I worked with on the working meditation crew to help construct the Lotus Pond in the Lower Hamlet.
My last breakfast in Plum Village was deeply emotional. I held back tears as I looked around at my new brothers. It is traditional for people who are leaving the Upper Hamlet during the winter retreat to do hugging meditation with one person after saying goodbye to the Sangha. I had requested that Thay Nghuen join me in hugging meditation. I felt the fear and caution that I had carried with me for almost 30 years melt away as we breathed together three times.
Order member Fred Allendorf is a biologist and an active member of the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana.