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On the Way Home

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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“Here Is India”

In Plum Village Thay sat on a hammock in a gray robe. He was preparing the Upper Hamlet for the summer opening. Thay’s first words to me were “Here is India, India is here.” I thought Thay meant it was very hot, as hot as in India. It was deeper than that. To me India was home, at least my spiritual home. I believed spiritual home could not be found anywhere else. I missed India with a kind of longing. “Here is India” meant you have arrived, you are home. My conscious mind did not realize it, but deep down, the seed was sown. One month later, in the Lower Hamlet, I realized I was home. It was a feeling of being at home that I had not felt since I was a child. Looking up at the hills of the Dordogne to the north of the Lower Hamlet, I was home. Contemplating the white knobbed stones that made the walls of the Red Candle Meditation Hall, I was home. These things had always been part of me and I had always been part of them.

At first Thay allowed me to dream of my Indian home, perhaps it was part of Thay’s dream too. Thay said: “Although you cannot be in India you can dream of being there. For instance there is the little hut you make of bamboo with its banana leaf roof and there is the little garden you plant with mustard greens. So simple is the ideal life.” Then later Thay would ask: “Have you ever felt that India is in London?” To which I answered a definite “No.” Somehow I know that India is not a place on the map. India is a place in my mind.

The Upper Hamlet has its own enlightened ambience. This ambience comes from the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The ambience tells you that you are walking on holy ground. The old stone house had its musty odor as you came in on the ground floor. It had been built to be cool in the heat of the summer sun and not lose too much heat in the winter cold, so the stone walls were thick and the windows few and small. The half-cylindrical tiles of the roof were not cemented into place but cupped into each other so that they could slip and leave gaps that allowed the rain in. The people of the neighborhood climbed onto their roofs at least once a year and replaced the tiles that had slipped out of place. In the past not many tiles needed to be replaced but since the invention of the supersonic airplane this has changed. The airplane breaks the sound barrier just over Plum Village and the resulting boom shifts the tiles. Nowadays people prefer to cement their tiles into place.

When I first arrived in Plum Village that airplane had recently been invented. None of us knew about repairing roofs and we were subjected to numerous leaks. The attics were full of buckets and tubs to collect rain before it penetrated beneath, but we never covered all the leaks and if the rain was heavy enough it was sure to come into your bedroom. One night I moved my bed to the other side of the room but the leak followed me. Not only rain came in but snow too. In the first two years I was in Plum Village it snowed significantly and the snow stayed for many days. There was enough room between the tiles for powdery snow to blow into the attic. This could reach six inches and it was important to clear it because the weight could break the ceiling. Clearing snow in the attic was very cold work. We filled rubbish bins with snow and they were very heavy to move. There was no heat up there and the bitter wind blew in through the tiles. Soon my hands and feet were frozen stiff.

Each bedroom had a small ceramic and iron wood stove. We would buy these second-hand from local people who wanted to get rid of them. There was a hole in the wall for an aluminum pipe to take the smoke outside. The stove did not hold much wood so after an hour or so if you did not replenish it, it would go out. We found the wood on the Plum Village land. Lower Hamlet consisted of twenty-one hectares. I helped the four young Vietnamese refugees who lived in Plum Village at that time by splitting logs and sawing branches to put in the stoves. These young men went out and cut down trees for us. Our neighbor, M. Mounet Père, was a bodhisattva. One day he came into the kitchen and said that in France you cannot cut down trees on other people’s property. It seems that our young Vietnamese refugees did not know where our property ended. To put right this ignorance he took us to the Mairie (city hall) and showed us the plan of the different parcels of land that had been purchased for the Lower Hamlet. He then took us on a tour of the boundaries, showing us exactly where Lower Hamlet territory began and ended. M. Mounet Père was a good man. He promised Thay he would not go hunting when the annual summer retreat was held in Plum Village. He taught us many things about gardening and cultivation of the land. He baked tartes aux pommes (apple pies) and sold them and when his oven—which he had made himself—was hot he allowed us to bake our bread in it.

M. Mounet would visit us almost every day to find out how we were doing and to offer us any advice or help we might need. I was truly grateful for his presence in those early days. His home is now a part of Lower Hamlet. He died unexpectedly and we sent spiritual energy for him. Sister True Emptiness went to his house to send energy over the body. She had not witnessed undertakers working with a corpse before, since in Vietnam it is always the family that washes and clothes the body of a loved one. She was shocked by what she saw as a heartless way of treating the body. We went to the burial in the local cemetery where every year on All Souls’ Day we place flowers on his grave. Sister True Emptiness has always encouraged her younger monastic sisters to perform a ceremony of sending energy on that day to those who have passed away in the neighborhood and we do this in Vermont also. I was always moved when I saw how Thay and Sister True Emptiness included whoever they met, whether Buddhist or not, within the embrace of their spiritual concern.

Sister Annabel Laity, Chan Duc, True Virtue, was born in England, and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, became a Dharma teacher in 1990, and was Director of Practice at Plum Village for many years. Since 1997, she has been director of the Maple Forest Monastery, Vermont, and was installed as abbess at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in 1998. As a much-loved senior Dharma teacher of the Order of Interbeing, she travels widely, leading meditation retreats and giving talks throughout the world. In 2000, she was the first Western nun to teach the Dharma in China.

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