Pilgrimage to Plum Village

By Anne Cushman Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh's meditation community in the south of France is an abode of harmony, peace, and ethnic diversity.

As I drive through the vineyards, chateaux, and sunflower fields of southwestern France, en route to Plum Village, I find myself briefly wondering why I'm going there for my vacation. Wouldn't I really rather be exploring the nearby medieval town of St. Emilion, famous for its macaroons? Or sampling Bordeaux wines? Or slathering Camembert onto French bread while lounging topless on some beach? But after five minutes in Plum Village, all doubts vanish. This is clearly not a monastery - children race about laughing and calling to each other in Vietnamese, French, and English; grey-haired women chatter in Vietnamese as they prepare rice and vegetables in the communal kitchcn; a group of teenagers sit under a tree playing sitars. But permeating all this activity is a sense of peace and simplicity that I find deeply refreshing after a week of frenzied tourism.

My introduction to the spirit of this unique practice center comes as I'm signing in. When the office telephone rings, no one jumps to answer it.  Instead, everyone within earshot - children, monks, nuns, visitors from around  the world - stop moving, stop talking, smile, and take three deep, slow breaths. Only then does the office manager pick up the receiver. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, founder of Plum Village, permitted the installation of a telephone only on the condition that it be treated this way - as one of the many "mindfulness bells" that ring throughout the day to remind practitioners to return their joyful attention to the present moment. During silent meals, a small bell invites mindfulness every few mouthfuls; in daily Dharma talks, a large bowl-shaped bell periodically reminds teacher and students to stop talking and breath; gongs ring out over the plum orchards to call practitioners to meditation, tea ceremonies, and festivals. After several days of pausing for these bells, even digital watch alarms and distant car horns start to seem part of their chorus.

This interweaving of practice and daily living is the essence of Plum Village, founded in the early 1980s to fulfill Nhat Hanh's decades-old dream of a community where people involved in the work of social transformation could come for rest and spiritual nourishment. Known to his students as Thay (a Vietnamese title pronounced "tie"), Nhat Hanh is the author of numerous books on Buddhist practice, including the popular Being Peace and The Miracle of Mindfulness. Exiled from his native Vietnam because of his antiwar activities, he finally established his spiritual oasis on 75 acres of land in the wine country east of Bordeaux. In exchange for a home, Vietnamese refugees helped to clean and renovate the beautiful, rustic, 18th century stone farm buildings and to construct additional cinderblock structures. Currently, only a handful of residents stay year-round, studying Buddhism, working to help Vietnamese refugees and political prisoners, and tending the 1,250 plum trees (whose crop, they hope, will earn money to send medicine to Vietnam). But for one month each summer, the community is open to the public, and nearly 800 visitors (about half Vietnamese and half Westerners) come to practice. This month is by no means a grueling meditation retreat. (Nhat Hanh likes to use the word "treat," rather than "retreat," to describe a gathering of Buddhist practitioners.) Instead, the emphasis is on learning skills for bringing mindfulness into everyday life. Family practice is central, and children are wholeheartedly encouraged to participate in all activities, including meditation, tea ceremonies, and Dharma talks. (Typically, the first ten minutes of every talk is directed to the children, who then play outside for the rest of the talk.)

This emphasis on family practice creates a unique atmosphere at Plum Village - a curious fusion of monastery and summer camp. One evening, for example, we are guided through a version of the classic Buddhist meditation on impermanence and death. While we sit in half lotus and visualize our loved ones' bodies turning purple, rolling, and disintegrating, we can hear the happy shrieks of children playing volleyball outside the meditation hall. The daily schedule at Plum Village begins and ends with seated meditation. Daily Dharma talks by Nhat Hanh alternate among English, French and Vietnamese and are simultaneously translated through headphones into the other two languages. Each day Nhat Hanh also leads walking meditation, a slow silent excursion through the orchards, fields, and woods, past magnificent vistas of rolling hills and golden acres of sunflowers. During my visit, we often pause in a clearing during walking meditation to sing songs (in French, English, and Vietnamese) about how wonderful it is to breath, smile, and walk.

One of the missions of Plum Village is to help exiled Vietnamese families keep their cultural legacy alive as well as share it with Westerners.  Frequent performances, festivals, and ceremonies celebrate the Vietnamese heritage. One day, the children make star-shaped lanterns out of bamboo and brightly colored tissue paper to celebrate the Full Moon Festival. Another evening, teenagers perform traditional Vietnamese music and dance. Accommodations are spartan - shared dormitory rooms with bare walls and narrow cots - and many visitors choose instead to pitch their own tents on the property. Practitioners are asked to participate in daily chores, including cleaning, gardening, and helping to prepare the communal vegetarian meals. However, ample time is allotted for relaxation, making friends, quiet contemplation - and even an occasional outing to a nearby lake.

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No matter what the activity, visitors are gently reminded to perform it with joy and awareness. For me, the spirit of Plum Village is epitomized by the carved wooden sign beside the walking mediation path: "The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, a gentle wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms."

Anne Cushman is assistant editor of Yoga Journal. Reprinted with permission from Yoga Journal, 2054 University Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94704. ©1991 Yoga Journal.

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