Harvest Is the Way

Plum Village’s Happy Farm

By Stuart Watson

mb63-Harvest1

In November of 2012, two lay friends joined me in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village, to begin a yearlong stay and to work on the Happy Farm project. Keith Smith, a disarmingly friendly mathematician from Glasgow, was looking for a change in direction that had meditation and ecology at its core. Daniel Dermitzel, an organic farmer and educator from Kansas City, had seen the challenges associated with making a living as a small farmer. The Happy Farm project was an invitation for all of us to integrate mindfulness practice with farming.

mb63-Harvest2

Keith, Daniel, and I are becoming known as the three musketeers. This term was coined during the recent Tet (Chinese New Year) celebrations by a monk called Phap Lieu. I’m not yet sure what similarities Phap Lieu sees between us and the three musketeers (possibly only the number of us), but I must admit that I like the comparison.

What Am I Harvesting?

Phap Lieu was the host for an oracle reading one morning during the Tet celebrations. In Plum Village, the tradition of oracle reading makes use of a very rich Vietnamese poem, “The Tale of Kieu” by Nguyen Du, which is written onto cards in couplets. The brothers and sisters have also written lines from Victor Hugo for French speakers and lines from Shakespeare for English speakers. These cards are placed in their respective bells, one for the Vietnamese text, one for Victor Hugo, and one for Shakespeare.

mb63-Harvest3

At the oracle reading, the Sangha gathers in the hall, and Thay or a senior monastic invites someone to come forward and ask the oracle a question. That person proceeds to the front of the hall and touches the Earth. Then the person chooses one of the three bells, kneels in front of it, places a hand on the bell, takes three breaths, and allows the question to arise. The person selects one card from the bell to present to Thay. Thay reads what is written on the card before offering an answer to the question, inspired largely by the lines from the card.

Brother Phap Lieu had previously told the three of us that we would be invited to come up to ask a question. My response was to shuffle around nervously and to look about the hall. I spotted Daniel and couldn’t help smiling to see that he had responded in the same fashion. Our indecision culminated in some encouragement from the monastic brothers to proceed to the front of the hall. One by one, we stood up, joined our palms, and made our way to the front. We touched the Earth and presented ourselves before the Sangha. Then Daniel found himself kneeling in front of Thay, microphone in hand, preparing to ask a question.

From the silence of the hall the question arose: “As farmers, how can we remain in the present moment, when farming is all about a harvest in the future?” Warm laughter arose from the Sangha, and Thay, too, seemed enthused by the question. He proceeded to give a wonderful response.

Thay shared that we are planting seeds every moment in the ground of our mind. He encouraged us to live in such a way that we plant positive seeds in our minds throughout each day. Practicing like this, he assured, would lead to a wonderful internal blossoming of peace and happiness. “There is no way to harvest, harvest is the way,” Thay shared, a line that touched us all deeply.

Since the oracle reading, I have been practicing with these words. What am I harvesting right now? What is available to me in this moment that can nourish and fulfill me? The fresh air I breathe, the warmth of the sun, the presence of my friends, and the love growing in my heart are all fruits of the present. I don’t need to wait to find fulfillment. There is so much to harvest in every moment, if I can just recognise it.

Cultivating Happiness

I have lived in Plum Village for the past five years. I’ve been involved in many roles here—I was shopper for Upper Hamlet for two years, I’m often involved in cooking (I worked as a chef before coming here), and I’ve been gardening for the past three years. While working on the small organic garden, I started dis- cussing with the monastics the possibility of increasing its scale. The brothers had been thinking of this for a while, so we started to sow seeds for this to become a reality. Two years ago I went on a permaculture course in the UK, and from that experience emerged the design for our garden. We named it the Happy Farm project to capture the essence and aspiration of the work we are doing, which is to cultivate happiness.

There are several ways in which we nurture happiness here. For me, a central part of cultivating happiness is to be present for my suffering. To work on the Happy Farm does not mean I have to be happy all the time. It means to practice cultivating happiness inside by honouring the function and value of suffering. Prior to coming here, I suffered from anxiety and depression, so a lot of my energy has been directed towards calming my mind, nourishing myself, recognising mental formations, and exposing my suffering to the healing light of mindfulness. Living in a community is a great cure for social anxiety; it is not possible to isolate myself as I have in the past. I am going through a process of learning how to be with people, how to develop my social skills, and how to take care of the painful energies that arise in me when I am around others.

mb63-Harvest4

I am learning that happiness is composed of suffering that has been well taken care of. By recognising and embracing the suffering in myself, I experience transformation. When I practice in this way, the pain I experience soon transforms, leaving me feeling humble, warm, and looking through softer, more compassionate eyes. I can once again see how beautiful the surroundings are and how lucky I am to work with such inspiring people. It feels nice to be me again!

So, living in Upper Hamlet and being part of this project is very good for my growth, transformation, and development as a caring human being. A community offers so much fun, friendship, music, play, learning, time to spend in nature, spirituality, support, service, etc., that my mind continually receives deep nourishment, and time spent here is rewarding and enjoyable. I feel fortunate to be living and working within a practice centre that supports my aspiration to live a simple, healthy, meaningful life.

Food, Beauty, and Meaning

As well as the inner process of cultivating the mind, we aim to cultivate happiness by growing organic food for the Upper Hamlet and Son Ha* communities. I read that one of the most effective ways to care for Mother Earth is to grow your own food. I have much worry and concern about the damage that conventional farming and food transportation cause the environment. Recently I heard that food is flown, shipped, or trucked an average of 1500 miles before it reaches our plate. The prospect of producing healthy, organic food less than one mile from the bowls of the appreciative monks and lay friends, who will enjoy this healthy food in mindfulness, brings joy. I’m so happy to be involved in a project that will produce food in a way that embodies the qualities of care, love, and reverence for the Earth.

Plum Village has had an organic garden for many years, but this is the first project large enough to be called a farm: six acres. In the first year we’ll use around half an acre for intensive organic vegetable production. It will be made up of thirty-six raised beds, each 115 feet long and four feet wide. We do hope to expand, in time, with a view to increasing the annual vegetable area, adding sections for soft fruit, fruit and nut tree orchards, and possibly forest gardens. In the first year, though, there is so much to do to establish the farm, and so many unknowns, that we decided to start small and allow it to grow slowly. We will try to grow almost every vegetable that is suitable for this climate: peppers, eggplant, zucchini, okra, potatoes, garlic, onions, spinach, carrots, beans, peas, pumpkins, tomatillos, salad mix, cabbage, turnips, beets, and more.

While we hope to grow a lot of food, we wish also to create a farm which, through its beauty, attracts many visitors. The area where we live and work is so beautiful. Every morning I step out of my room and see the sun bathing the gentle undulation of the Dordogne countryside in light. Every evening I see the sun setting beside a distant chateau. In spring and summer, Upper Hamlet is host to many beautiful butterflies. We hope the Happy Farm’s herbs and flowers establish a haven for all sorts of wildlife, creating an environment that is friendly to bees and other beneficial insects, as well as the butterflies. Our aspiration is that many people will come to the farm to spend time and to be nourished by the beauty of the surrounds and the work being done. It is very healing to be in nature and to see organic vegetables growing. The healing and happiness of those who visit and work on the farm is important. It is a yield, an invaluable harvest.

Nourished by the presence of bees, butterflies, and people, the Happy Farm project aims to be educational in nature, as well. We want to offer young men the chance to come to Plum Village to practice and work on the project for one year. (Because the Happy Farm project is in Upper Hamlet, which is where monks and laymen stay, we regret that we are not able to invite women to join the project at the moment. Our hope is that this will be a pilot project which the sisters’ hamlet will soon emulate.) During this time they will have the opportunity to participate in community life and deepen their meditation practice with the support of the monks, nuns, and laypeople of Plum Village.They also will have the chance to experience a full growing season in the wonderful surroundings of Upper Hamlet. Many young people around the world are struggling to find meaning in their lives right now. The Happy Farm will offer young people the chance to find meaning through community, organic growing, and spirituality.

Finally, we hope that visitors to our community will learn enough to feel inspired to grow some of their own food at home.

mb63-Harvest5

We will do our best to share our knowledge with those who visit, and to support the growth of organic home gardening. Addition- ally, we want to learn from those who come here with knowledge and skills in organic farming. In fact, this project would not be happening if it were not for the offerings of many visiting lay friends who have worked and shared their knowledge. Thank you to all who have contributed so far.It is the end of February as I write this. Despite it being very cold, the first seedlings of the season have sprouted, thanks to the aid of our heated germination chamber and greenhouse. A glimpse of the first fragile plants creates joy and a sense of wonder; come July, these tiny, two-leaved plants (assuming all goes well!) will be producing handfuls of large, red tomatoes.

But, as Thay shared, there is no need to wait until July to enjoy a harvest. May I recognise and enjoy the rich harvest available in every moment.

If you are interested in working on the Happy Farm or supporting the project financially, please contact the author via the “Plum Village Happy Farm” Facebook page.

* Son Ha is a small monastery about ten minutes’ walk from Upper Hamlet, where twenty monks live and practice. It is self-contained in that the residents have their meals and daily schedule there, but it is part of the Upper Hamlet community.

mb63-Harvest6Stuart Watson, True Path of Loving Kindness, comes from Edinburgh, Scotland, and has lived in Upper Hamlet for the past five years as a lay resident. He ordained into the Order of Interbeing in 2009. His aspiration is to stay in Plum Village for the next few years, to be as present for life as he can be, and to establish the Happy Farm. He is pictured below (far left) with Keith Smith and Daniel Dermitzel.

PDF of this article

Mindfulness Garden

By Candace Henshaw-Osias

mb63-Mindfulness1

As a child, I was known as the “Barefoot Contessa.” You could always find me outside in the grass, climbing a tree or playing hopscotch, but always barefoot. I hated shoes! I loved the feel of the cool, wet grass, the warm cement, the Earth below my feet. The Earth and I shared a connection that persists even today.

mb63-Mindfulness2

One of my fondest memories of childhood was working side by side with my father in the family garden: planting, weeding, and harvesting the vegetables. My most important job was “bug detective”—hunting down the green cutworms that could devour a large portion of a tomato plant overnight.

A Sangha Garden 

For many years, I lived without a garden. My property is mostly shade and not conducive to growing vegetables. So you can imagine my delight when the last remaining farm in my county was bought by the county government as protected space and given to Cornell Cooperative Extension as a demonstration and community garden. I immediately put in an application and was awarded a 5’ x 20’ plot for organic gardening.

I announced to my Sangha during Dharma sharing that I planned to start a garden and asked if anyone would like to join me in this venture. Two of my Sangha sisters eagerly became co-gardeners with me in our Sangha garden.

We planted the garden, looked at our work, and smiled—knowing soon we would have beautiful organic homegrown produce, planted with mindfulness and love. We placed a laminated sign at the front of the garden, sharing that this was a mindfulness garden and offering an explanation of mindfulness, including one of Thay’s calligraphies: “I am in love with Mother Earth.” We also stapled gathas about gardening to the wood edgings around the exterior of the garden.

Calamity hit when both of my Sangha sisters were struck with serious illnesses and could not work in the garden. The task of maintaining the garden was left to me. At the same time, I became unemployed and was devastated.

For almost the entire month of July, I became a hermit, rarely leaving the confines of my home. I meditated and did chores but hardly left my property except to run needed errands and tend the garden. Every morning I left the house with two old spackle pails, one filled with the necessary tools and supplies and the other empty. I walked to the garden in meditation.

As I worked in the garden, I repeated the gathas and breathed in mindfulness. My hands worked the soil, trimmed the plants, tied up drooping limbs to support the heavy fruit, and watered the garden. I took off my shoes to walk in the dirt and grass, which made me smile and remember my childhood. I had become that “Barefoot Contessa” again and I was happy.

The garden flourished under my caring hands and produced an abundance of beautiful vegetables that I shared with my friends, who were too ill to work there. I visited them and shared stories about the garden and the vegetables that were starting to come into season. When the garden started to produce more vegetables than we could eat, I canned tomatoes, made pickles, froze pesto, and shared them with others.

Through the community garden, I also made new friends. We shared ideas on how to control pests and cure plant diseases. We showed our gardens to one another and celebrated the food we had grown. Curious about the sayings posted around my garden, the other gardeners asked questions and I shared my practice and explained how my gardening in itself was a practice in mindfulness. This was something they all related to, and they realized how working in their gardens was a form of meditation.

mb63-Mindfulness3

I began to understand that, as I cared for the “Sangha Garden,” I was healing myself and my friends. I had planted seeds within me, and now, new fruit had begun to sprout. I realized that while I was in the garden, I was truly happy—happier that I had been that entire year. I was no longer a hermit; the garden I was tending had also tended to me. I was healed.

I give thanks to Mother Earth and dedicate this story to her.

mb63-Mindfulness4Wife, mother, and grandmother,  Candace Henshaw-Osias, Awareness Path of the Heart, is an educator involved in the mindfulness in education movement. She is a member of the Green Island Sangha in Mahasset, New York, and a pre-aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She wrote this story during an arts retreat at Blue Cliff  Monastery.

PDF of this article

Story of a Little Limace

By Sister Trang Mai Thon

mb63-Story1

I would like to share my story with you. But first, perhaps I should tell you a little bit about myself. How should I start? I can talk about things like who I am. Actually I am you. I am that big-mouth frog; I am that dead leaf, wet and nearly rotten. I am also that big, fragrant, and beautiful rose. So I am basically everything.

Now I have to come back and call myself by my true name. Well, many people know me as a slug, a baby one. I live on the poplar plantation, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, France. There, they call me a limace. I was born just this spring, and today is the first time I have come out to enjoy the wet ground, still covered by dead leaves from last autumn. The soft rain this morning brings about very pleasant conditions, lots of food for me to enjoy. And just like any other healthy baby, I have a good appetite.

While I am enjoying myself, especially the food, together with so many others of my kind in different sizes and of various generations, I hear stumbling noises approaching me. Then thousands, no, maybe hundreds (I haven’t learned to count yet) of giant sticks are stomping the ground. I have to shrink myself to the smallest size possible and try my best to stay safe. Ah, it’s walking meditation. I don’t know who these people are, and they don’t know me, either. But as their teacher says, we all inter-are. So I suppose I do know them, and vice versa, to a certain extent.

There’s one thing I do know: some of those people are really scared of me, or at least one person is. Her name is Sister So-and-So. I know that for a fact because a couple of days ago, I overheard her telling another sister that anything crawling is her worst fear. Just to name a few examples: caterpillars, slugs, and worms. So, she’s scared of me. And yet she doesn’t even know who I am, how I was born, what I eat, my life span, or my habitat, let alone my favorite color. She only knows my kind: limace. And yet she’s already worried about me.

I’ll tell you this, and it’s confidential, okay? She said to another sister that she is scared of me to the point that if anyone were to hold me up to her and ask, “Did you, Sister So-and-So, commit an act of killing last night?” she would say, “Yes,” even though it would violate the first precept about not killing.

Today she is one of the walking people, treading the ground where I am. So what do you reckon? Who should be scared of whom? Let’s imagine that a couple hundred slugs—all my family members, my relatives, my friends, and my whole neighborhood— had gone for walking meditation over where Sister So-and-So practices her deep relaxation. It would be a shock for anyone to hear the number of crimes to which Sister So-and-So would have admitted.

After I wrote you this story, somehow Sister So-and-So became aware of it, and she sent me the following message:

Dear Little Limace,

I am so sorry to have had such a discriminating mind against you. I have done a little bit of contemplation on it. So, today I would like to make a formal Beginning Anew with you.

Since I read your story, I have been more mindful of my steps when I walk or stand. I am aware that we share the same planet, Mother Earth. We are actually in the same family. I can’t say that I am ready to pick you up with my bare hands, put you on my palm, and take you around with me for a walk. However, I am aware that you have your own beauties—for example, your ou standing orange color, your extreme flexibility, and your mindful moving when you slide from here to there. At least I feel peaceful compassion towards you. I look forward to more meaningful conversations with you.

Your sister,

So-and-So

My dear friend, I don’t respond to Sister So-and-So. It’s not necessary. Anyway, when the heart is connected, we don’t really need to say much. You know it and I know it. That’s quite enough. Wouldn’t you agree with me?

Limace is the French word for “slug.” 

mb63-Story2Sister So-and-So is Sister Trang Mai Thon, of Vietnamese origin. Before becoming a novice nun in 2011, she lived in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, and practiced with the Brisbane Mindfulness Practicing Group (English-speaking) and the Solidity and Freedom Sangha (Vietnamese-speaking). She currently lives and practices with the Plum Village Sangha in the New Hamlet.

PDF of this article

Give the Priceless Gift this Season: A Holiday Letter From Br. Pháp Dung

Dear Beloved Thầy,
Dear Sanghas throughout the World,
Dear Dharma Brothers and Sisters,

Our loving Mother Earth is still there for us, right beneath our two feet. She is a miracle, a jewel in the cosmos, refreshing and healing. She has shown unlimited patience throughout human history and an uncanny ability to transform just about anything with equanimity and acceptance. She is now calling us for help. She is suffering from our human activities based on our craving, discrimination, fear, and despair.

The Gift of Practice – This holiday season, we have a chance to express our love and care for Mother Earth by the way we care for our self, our family and our environment. We can practice mindfulness to care for our inner environment, our feelings and our emotions so that we do not lose our self in worries about the future or regrets about the past, or lose our self with our feelings and thinking in the present moment. We practice in such a way that we are peaceful, free and happy right in the here and now. We can practice to be more relaxed in our body and mind as we drive our car to work, or cook for our family, or play with our friends, or even rest when we return home. We can look deeply into our relationships with our loved ones, with our environment, our neighborhood, and our workplace and find skillful ways to care, to renew and to improve them. Care is a priceless gift.

You have enough

Having Enough – Concretely this Holiday Season, we invite you to make an effort to find ways that you can give a gift that does not require you to spend a lot of money or even any at all. The greatest gift is, of course, our practice, our true presence, our understanding and love. The giving of this gift will require more effort, more creativity, and deeper looking into your beloved. You can make something. You can surprise him or her with a message that has been waiting for so long. “Dear Father, I know you are there and I am happy.” “My son, I am here for you completely.” “My dear, I am sorry; let us begin a new chapter.” “Dear Mother Earth, I take refuge in you and bow down deeply.” A reminder, a memory, a simple attention with skillfulness in expression can touch and transform. Understanding and compassion cannot be bought.

This is an invitation to all practitioners throughout the world to join us this Season for a silent resistance – to the mass pressure to consume, to the forces that cause us to run away from our self in forgetfulness. Let us change the way we spend our Holiday Season this winter. Let us show our care for the planet in concrete ways. Let us say to Mother Earth that She can have trust in us. And please share this with the larger community by writing about your priceless gift: your gift of practice; your gift of transformation.

Please post your insights below.

With trust and confidence in your own practice,

Brother Pháp Dung for the Plum Village Community