By Peggy Rowe Ward
“Bring a sleeping bag,” announces a sign on the Zendo. “Hmmm,” I wonder. I stick my head into the room and am greeted by a cool blast of air. Ah, the power is out. I turn around and walk briskly back to my dorm room in Lower Hamlet and return to the Zendo with more layers of clothing and my sleeping bag. I cannot recognize anyone in the hall this morning. I sit.
It’s January and the poplar trees stretch their bare arms into a grey sky. It is Sunday, the day that we open the monastery doors for a public Day of Mindfulness. Not that many folks join us these days. It’s the early 1990s, and the French have yet to discover that there is a Zen master tucked away in the rolling green countryside of southern France.
Thay will offer the Dharma talk in the Lower Hamlet dining room, as there is a wood stove in this space. My roommates and I strategize on how to prepare for the talk. From experience, we know that one side of the room will be very hot and the other side will be very cold. We calculate a perfect time to arrive and sit right in the middle, and then we prepare to dress for this event. We take out all of our clothes and help each other layer up. Each of us looks like a strange cross between a bag woman and a gypsy as we are covered with shawls, blankets, coats, and hats. We laughingly lumber out of our room and link arms as we make our way to the dining room.
The dining room is jammed with benches and chairs. Pierre sits by the stove, feeding the ﬁre. Pierre lives a few vineyards away from Lower Hamlet. He is one of a handful of friends that appears every Sunday looking wildly French. He sports a black beret, dark wool Melton coat, and thick knit sweater. He has a large nose that ﬁts perfectly with his kind face. He has a habit of resting both of his strong weather-etched hands on the top of his wooden walking stick. He is a regular presence at Plum Village and we are comfortable with his watchful gaze.
There is no aisle, so we bump-bump-bump our way through the room. The padding has tripled our girth. We crawl on top of the chairs toward the middle of the room. We sit and spill over our white plastic chairs. We are almost wedged together with softness. I look to my left and recognize the eyes of my friend. We smile softly and look around the room. The windows are covered with steam so we cannot see out. Everyone who enters is wearing a similar disguise.
The bell is invited and Thay enters the room, followed by his attendant. Pierre moves away from the stove so that Thay can sit close by the heat. Thay settles in. He is offered a cup of tea, which he holds in his brown-mittened hands. The pine logs simmer and crack. Thay begins his talk and we cannot hear a word.
I have a moment of upset. I look around and quickly discover that none of us can hear. The ﬁre is speaking loudly; there is the drip-drip-drip of moisture off the windows, the rustle of bodies, and no microphone. Breathing in, I breathe into that small upset, take her by the hand and put her on my soft lap. Breathing out, I smile. I sigh and settle into this day. What could be more lovely than this? Magically, I feel my neighbors doing the same. I notice several heads starting to bob and I can feel mine bobbing, too.
A small frisson moves my heart. I recognize that we are in the presence of Maitreya Buddha, that we are Maitreya Buddha. We relax together and breathe as one padded body. Thay is close by. We are warm. We are safe. We are together. Today the Buddha of loving community has manifested herself as woolen-wrapped students of the Buddha silently seated in a dining room, taking refuge in the warmth, in the teachings, and in each other.
Peggy Rowe Ward, True Original Vow, lives and practices in Claremont, California with her husband Larry Ward and dog Charlie, as well as the Baby Step Sangha.