Twenty-two Years of Plum Village

By Paul Tingen  

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My first visit to Plum Village, twenty-two years ago, is still as vividly engrained in my memory as if it happened last week, probably because it was packed with surprises, ranging from the eyebrow-raising to the jaw-dropping. I arrived in Lower Hamlet on a warm evening in July 1990 during the Summer Opening. The first person I encountered was Shantum Seth, who looked rather splendid in his Indian outfit and who seemed to be the only one who had an overview of what was happening. As I put my ruck- sack down, I asked him where I could sleep, and he replied, “You can put your tent anywhere, or sleep in a room.” I looked around for where I could pitch up my tent, but Shantum’s next question stopped me in my tracks. “You want to join the evening meditation? It starts in half an hour.”

I’d just hitchhiked from London and was tired, but I was also eager for my first experience of what Plum Village was about, so I said yes. Half an hour later I sat in the Red Candle Hall, puzzled by the fact that we were facing the wall and not one another, and impressed by the sound of the big bell. The session turned out to be a guided meditation on death, with phrases like: “Breathing out, I see my dead body festering.” The whole meditation was a visualisation of the process of one’s own corpse decaying until it turned to dust. I was shocked. Some part of me guessed that this was about training our minds to get used to the idea of physical death and to chip off bits of the big rock of our fear of death, but at the same time, as a horror show of images paraded through my mind, I thought, “Are these people morbid or something? Have I ended up in the clutches of some crazy religious sect?”

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears2Fateful Decision 

The fact was, at that point I knew nothing about the practice. The reason I was in Plum Village was that a few months earlier, in April, I had attended a talk by Thay in London. At that time a series of mostly New Age talks was held every Monday night in St. James’ Church, near Piccadilly Circus. I was on a spiritual search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and I also had a lot of suffering that I didn’t know how to transform, so I went every Monday night, looking for answers. I had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong were. After everyone had taken their seats, Sister Chan Khong sang to us and explained the practice of the bell, and there was a lot of stopping, going slowly, and breathing. I recall thinking, a bit impatiently, “This is going to be a long evening.” I looked at the exit and considered going to a local café to have some cake and coffee and coming back later to meet some friends. Then Thay came forward, and from halfway down the church he looked like he was thirty-five years old. Add his gap-toothed smile, soft voice, and extremely simple language, and I remember thinking, “Who is this young upstart and what does he know?” My decision to delay my exit for coffee and cake for a few more minutes turned out to be one of the most fateful of my life.

Ten minutes later I was hooked. Not long afterwards, I started to cry. I cried for the rest of Thay’s talk. When I occasionally looked around me, I saw that at least half the people in the audience were actively weeping. Thay’s talk was extraordinary, and as he kept talking, I realised that there was a wealth of experience, wisdom, depth, and insight behind his very simple words. The main thing I recall is that I was deeply touched by his attitude toward suffering. He acknowledged suffering with compassion and without judgment. It was okay to suffer. Thay showed a way that accepted and embraced suffering with tenderness, but he also offered a way out of suffering that was light, simple, and delicious. As he talked I kept being stunned at how much of what he said was common sense. I recognised everything he said as obvious life truths, yet I’d never heard anyone formulate them before. At that point I had an inkling that I’d found my teacher, and to this day my life is separated into the time before and the time after that April evening.

Naturally, when I found out that Thay had a centre in the south of France, one of my favourite areas in the world, I decided to go. And so a few months later I found myself sitting in the Lower Hamlet Red Candle Hall with horror movie images running through my head. I didn’t immediately plan my exit, but I did go to sleep with mixed feelings. The next morning we all went to Upper Hamlet for Thay’s Dharma talk, which was in the Transformation Hall. The Summer Retreat was attended by perhaps two hundred people, and while most fit in the hall, a couple of dozen listened under the linden tree. Thay was only five minutes into his talk when I experienced the same feelings I had had in London a few months earlier. I was deeply touched, and the doubts that had arisen the evening before fell away. He was indeed my teacher. I had arrived.

A New Direction

Life in Plum Village in 1990 was very different than it is now—for starters, the schedule. I remember that we got up at approximately 6:30 a.m. and began practice at 7:00 a.m. Morning practice consisted of the round of sitting-walking-sitting meditation, followed by sutra reading with sometimes a bit of chanting. Breakfast started at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. Thay’s Dharma talk was planned for 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., but because he took so long to casually stroll towards the hall, while chatting with people on the way, he often didn’t start until later. Thay’s Dharma talks often were long, so lunch tended to be at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., after which there was rest time. Walking meditation was usually at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., and after dinner there was another sitting-walking-sitting meditation session beginning at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. (I invite those with better memories than mine to correct these times if I haven’t got them quite right.)

In addition to Thay, there were only three other monastics living at Plum Village: Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina (who was still walking around in very striking black and white Japanese robes). Thay and Sister Chan Khong were very available and approachable. Thay would chat with loads of people, particularly before his Dharma talks. Very early on during my stay, he heard me playing my acoustic guitar under the linden tree, and he approached me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar in the meditation hall before the Dharma talk, to calm people down and keep chatting to a minimum while they waited for him. I was very happy to oblige, and it was the beginning of a whole new musical direction for me. When he arrived thirty to forty-five minutes later, he’d sit next to me, listening and waiting for me to finish my piece, after which we bowed to each other and I left the stage.

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It was fairly easily organized in those days to have tea with Thay, and during this occasion I remember being struck by seeing Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving among the five books on his bookshelf. Sister Chan Khong was also very approachable, and I regularly sat next to her in an old Peugeot 505, mostly driving between Upper and Lower Hamlet. I have no idea why we went up and down so often, but it gave me a chance to talk about what was bothering me. She was always very present, and many of her pearls of wisdom are still with me today. I was practicing in an esoteric Christian tradition at the time, and in response to my feeling uneasy about the Buddhist aspects of Plum Village she replied, “You don’t need to feel this is your home; just relax and regard it as a hospital for you to heal.” To my question about how to stay mindful when playing rock and roll on my electric guitar, she advised, “Just breathe before you play, and breathe again after you play.” Simple, and no judgment. She also told me, “Don’t think about what’s bothering you all the time. Breathe and focus on other things, and then, when you’re no longer thinking about it, a solution will suddenly pop into your head.”

It was also Sister Chan Khong who at one point tapped me on the shoulder and gently asked, “Why don’t you join the walking meditation?” As a left-leaning young man who had been strongly influenced by the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, I had a strong habit energy of rebellion and non-conformism, and didn’t immediately join in with all the practices. The immense tolerance in Plum Village was therefore a godsend for me. For example, for more than a year I refused to bow. Once someone gently asked me why and then appeared to happily accept my answer. There was no pressure to do anything or be anything other than myself. This gave me the space to discover for myself what bowing is about, and when I realised that honouring the Buddha in the other person is a very beautiful practice, I could bow from a place of total authenticity. To this day, bowing is an important practice for me that feels completely comfortable and genuine.

I felt that Thay and Sister Chan Khong personally took me under their wing and opened doors for my Plum Village experience—Sister Chan Khong with her compassionate listening and wisdom, and Thay in encouraging me to follow the new musical direction I had taken. Until my first visit to Plum Village, I was involved in making rock music, but it never felt quite right. With Thay’s encouragement, more and more acoustic guitar pieces came rolling out of me, and I eventually realised that this was my true musical voice. I recorded parts of my first CD in Plum Village in 1993, something that Thay personally made possible, saying that he wanted the community to be able to support artists.

Presence of Compassion 

Until I (temporarily) moved to the U.S. in 1999, I travelled several times a year from England to Plum Village, and every time I arrived I noticed changes that were not to my liking. For example, the wake-up time became earlier and earlier; there were more people, more buildings, and stricter practice; men and women were separated between the hamlets; and gradually Sister Chan Khong and particularly Thay became less available to laypeople. Every time I initially thought, “Oh, no!” And yet, every time, this reaction dropped away within hours as I noticed that the energy of the practice and the presence of compassion and understanding were the same as the last time I visited.

However, as the morning wake-up time became earlier and earlier, I did become a morning meditation truant, eventually abandoning that practice altogether. I could barely function for the rest of the day when I did attend. And after my first child was born in 2002, and sleepless nights became the norm, I learned to grab every second of sleep that I could.

And then, one summer morning in Upper Hamlet a few years ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the big meditation hall, arriving fifteen minutes early for the morning meditation. A few people were already there, and I sat down far away from them, in a quiet corner where I expected to have a lot of space to myself. I had just settled in my meditation when I heard someone enter the hall, move slowly in my direction, and sit down right beside me. I wondered who would choose, out of all the free places in the hall, the seat immediately to my left. I glanced sideways. It was Thay.

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears4Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of a book about the electric music of Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

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More Joy and Less Suffering

An Interview with Chau Yoder 

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ChauYoder, Tam Luu Ly / Chan Tham Tue, was born in Hanoi, Vietnam and lives in Walnut Creek, California with her husband Jim, to whom she has been married since 1971. They have two adult daughters, Ann and Lynn. Chau earned her Bachelor of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering (B.S.E.E.E.) from California State University at Fresno and worked for twenty-five years at Chevron Corporation—as a manager in Chevron Information Technology, then Manager of Network Operations, and later as a consultant in Applied Behavioral Science.

Chau has a deep aspiration to share specific and important methods and techniques for enhancing mindful living, all emphasizing self-awareness of body and mind. She studied with Master Ce Hang Truong to become a trainer in Integral Tai Chi and learned MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) from Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. She is currently an active Dharma Teacher, ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2003. Since 1989, she has offered workshops and classes on mindful leadership, mindful living, and qigong to promote healthy and happy living. She has presented her programs in youth, corporate, and retreat environments.

ChauYoder was interviewed by Natascha Bruckner on July 17, 2012, for this special anniversary issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Mindfulness Bell: The autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of Plum Village. When did you first go to Plum Village? Would you share a meaningful experience from your time there?

Chau Yoder: In 1997 I went to Plum Village for the first time, and in Thay’s first Dharma talk, he encouraged everybody to be in extended silence. I spent about ten days in silence except during Dharma discussions. I discovered the power of silence. Once during the week, a young nun misunderstood my actions and she scolded me, but I hadn’t done what she was accusing me of. I caught myself ready to respond and heard my inner voice: “Oh! I’m in silence.” So I just stayed quiet. I was so free. I felt so good. That’s why now I talk about the power of silence.

MB: Did you notice a deeper silence internally because of the external silence?

CY: I recognize that I catch my own thinking more. I am able to sort it out, able to understand myself better. I call it peeling the onion. I recognize my bad seeds and my good seeds.

mb61-MoreJoy3MB: When and how did you first meet Thay? As a young practitioner, did you have interactions with Thay that were particularly influential or transformative?

CY: In 1987 I read Thay’s books, Peace Is Every Step and Being Peace. His writing is so clear. Thay’s Dharma body exhibits a peace and calmness that I really like. I observed his mindful walk—he was so there in the moment. I felt like when I found Thay’s teaching I returned to my roots, both with blood and spiritual ancestors.

In 1991, I had a pivotal moment during a five-day retreat at Kim Son Monastery in Watsonville, California. I was sitting with my mom next to me when Thay Phap Dang chanted a sutra. Suddenly, tears poured down my face and I couldn’t stop crying through the lunch that followed. I couldn’t eat.  After lunch, I wrote a letter to Thay and put it in the bell.

When you ask Thay a question, he’ll often answer it in public somewhere, and you feel like, “Oh, he’s talking to me.” That afternoon Thay said in his talk, “Watch out for your desire. Don’t think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.” I felt like he was talking to me. I had signed my name to the letter, so the abbot of Kim Son, Thay Tinh Tu, came out and touched my head and talked to me, trying to console me. That was a pivotal moment. That’s when I recognized that the seeds in me of wanting to be a nun were so strong.

Years later, Thay talked to me when I was at his hut in Plum Village with a few others. Thay was talking about people like me, who are married. He turned to me and said, “If your will is strong, then you can do it. Right, Chau?” I knew he was right. I knew that my will was not strong enough to become a nun. More and more, people keep encouraging me to nurture the seeds inside of me to be a monastic and maybe one of these days, one of these years, at least next lifetime, I can be. And that’s my vow. Next lifetime, I want to be a little boy novice. [Smiles.]

mb61-MoreJoy4My parents didn’t want me to be a monastic, so I studied hard to get a scholarship and came from Vietnam to the U.S. The first day I arrived at California State University, Fresno (which was about two weeks after I arrived in the U.S.), I saw my husband, Jim, and fell in love and that was it!

MB: You’ve devoted your life to the practice as a layperson. How have you manifested a devout daily practice?

CY: I believe that practicing with Thay Tu Luc, the abbot of the Compassion Meditation Center in Hayward, California, is one of my key activities that help me to be on the path of mindfulness. I am lucky to have this condition in my life, so I don’t have to go to Deer Park Monastery or wait until Thay Nhat Hanh comes. Thay Tu Luc represents Thay Nhat Hanh’s teaching here for me.

When I went to the retreat with Thay at Kim Son Monastery in 1989, the abbot, Thay Tinh Tu, taught us the sixteen health stick exercises, the ones that Plum Village does now. Every morning, I went and practiced with him at 5:30, before Thay’s events. One morning, he handed the stick to me and said, “Take this home and practice.” So I took it home, practiced, and eventually taught it along with meditation to my work colleagues at Chevron. It really helped them with their stress. That started my teaching career.

Then Jim and I went to the retreat for business people at Plum Village in 1999. There, Sister Chan Khong asked me to lead La Boi Publishing [publishers of Thay’s books in Vietnamese]. The more I got to edit Thay’s books, the deeper I got into his teaching. I really treasure that.

MB: Can you tell me a little bit more about La Boi Publishing?

CY: At the beginning, I headed a team of volunteers. Every year for a while, we published two or three books of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was really active. But in 2005, when Thay started to go to Vietnam, more books were printed in Vietnam. They’re much cheaper to publish there. Eventually we lost our free storage space for La Boi, so it became more practical to print all the books in Vietnam.

Thay also encouraged us to share the Dharma and to practice together. In 1999, we created a monthly meditation group called La Boi Sangha. At first it was purely Vietnamese, and then a few English-speaking people joined us. We became bilingual. But now we’ve returned to only Vietnamese. I feel like I’m a bridge between Vietnamese and English, so I encourage people to do both.

MB: I am curious about your work with bridging between the Vietnamese and Western cultures. How are you a bridge, and how does that feel for you?

CY: It’s just natural, I think, because I’m married to Jim and because I came here when I went to school in 1967. My English speaking and understanding is pretty good, so I can connect with English-speaking people and I still have the roots of Vietnamese, especially after I started to edit and publish Thay’s books in Vietnamese. Also conditions have been right, because in 1999 I started to be more involved with the English-speaking Community of Mindful Living in Northern California and with Parallax Press.

MB: Did you find that your practice changed after you received the Lamp Transmission?

CY: Not really. Like I mentioned, I have been teaching since 1989. After the Lamp Transmission, maybe people notice you more. Thay said that we are all Dharma teachers already, and we just have to share what we learn. The key thing is that we have to stay fresh and joyful and we have to watch out for becoming cocky. Of course, I’m very honored. The lamp is in the front of my house, so I’m reminded and thankful for Thay and the community to keep the trust in me, to give me that opportunity.

MB: What activities are you involved in that bring the Dharma to life for you?

CY: For sixteen years I have been teaching mindful leadership to 147 senior high school students and twenty adults at an annual Rotary Leadership camp. Since 2007, about once a year I travel with my husband to a foreign country to deliver several hundred prosthetic hands and train people who have lost their hands.

MB: Your email address includes the phrase “high spirits.” In my perception, you’re a person of very high spirits and joy. How do you keep your joy alive every day?

CY: Every day I lie down and appreciate the Buddhas in the ten thousand directions who help me and the people around me to see and follow the path. Namo Amitabha, Namo  Avalokiteshvara. I also write in a little notebook all the affirmations for my five organs, for my mind and body, to stay centered and happy. Every morning before I get up, I recite in Vietnamese the waking-up gatha that Thay wrote. I pray that beings around me help themselves and protect themselves, and if I accidentally harm any beings, then please help them to go to nirvana. That’s my normal routine. Then I get up, and I sit and meditate and pray and chant and invite the bell. I walk here and there mindfully every day. For exercise I do tai chi, qigong, and yoga.

I remember Thay said it is important to be fresh as flowers. Take care of yourself so you can take care of others. Morning and night, I focus on my joyful and beneficial daily spirit with a beginner’s mind vow and appreciation. Since 1989, I’ve been teaching at a weekly cancer support group. I also teach at a Jewish old folks’ home, and I still teach at Chevron once a month. I’ve pretty much surrounded myself with these things. I’m just so thankful, sitting here, looking out the window, thankful for this little awesome place we have to remind me of nature and practice.

Since I began to practice with Thay, I’ve learned to enjoy nature so much more. I used to be a city girl. And I used to be very scared of death—of my family’s death, of my own death. I had a one-year-old brother who died when I was only five; I cried and cried. When I studied with Thay and understood better about no coming, no going, that helped me so much. I no longer feel fear of death or worry about my loved ones. I learned from Thay and other teachers that we are nothing but energy. That helped me survive raising my two daughters. Now they are thirty-seven and thirty-three. Otherwise I would just worry about them so much. When I learned these things, I would pray to Avalokiteshvara, send Avalokiteshvara energy through me, in me, and then I’d give them loving energy and prayer energy. So I feel much more at peace. All of these practices help me to be in the moment.

Since I began to study with Thay and the community, I understand my body reactions much faster. I used to have pain from worry, from anxiety. I used to be a super Type A person. I know some of that energy is still in me, but I’m a calmer Type A! [Laughter.]

Before I studied with Thay, I learned from another practice how to transform my migraine headaches into nothing. No more migraine headaches! If I don’t do the mindful practices, both physical and mental, I can see the impact on my body.

MB: It sounds like you’ve had some deep transformations thanks to the practice.

CY: Yes, definitely. Someone who worked for me told me, “I used to be very scared of you.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, we used to call you dragon lady! We were so scared of you.” If they didn’t perform, I would nail them, I guess. But then he said, “But now you’re very nice. You’re the best manager. We love you now.” So I learned to listen to people better, and understand them better, and empathize better. I know that when I first studied these things, I was so critical of myself. I was a perfectionist, and very critical of myself and of others. So I just created suffering for myself and others.

I have to agree; I have transformed a lot. My life is much more peaceful and joyful. I still yell back at Jim sometimes, but I know how to apologize and I stop myself much faster. I rarely have the blow-ups that I used to have frequently! I still have fear, anger, and anxiety when dealing with the difficulties of life; however, I feel that they are much less than before. I have to constantly work on being mindful and peeling my onion to transform my bad habit energy.

I am so thankful to the practice for my transformation. This is the momentum that helps me help others. I have found this path helps me have more joy and less suffering. That’s my vow, now—to help others and equally, myself, to have more joy and less suffering in life.

MB: What guidance would you like to share with young practitioners?

CY: PBS (Pause, Breathe, and Smile). Practice mindful breathing even just ten minutes a day to be a balanced, ethical, and compassionate leader—a leader of yourself. Treasure your greatness. Appreciate your youth and live mindfully in the moment. Practice when you are young; then you will have a much fuller life and balance in all areas of your life. You will definitely be happier. Practice a new routine for twenty-eight days straight to change your habits.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Jim Yoder

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My Beloved Teacher

By Chan Luong

My teacher was a famous writer in Vietnam. The Buddhist and non-Buddhist young people of my generation knew Thay by his renowned book, A Dialogue with Young Adult.* Over fifty years ago, he called for reform in Buddhist practice in Vietnam and focused on the essence of the teachings rather than the manifold forms. I see him as a revolutionist monk.

Thich Nhat Hanh Many people talk about the enlightened beings of our century. My comment is the common Vietnamese saying: A teacher like Thay appears only once every few hundred years. Like other great beings, Thay has embodied compassionate living throughout his life. Since the day he founded the School of Youth for Social Service in 1964, Thay and Sister Chan Khong have ceaselessly reached out to people who suffered during and after wartime. Many of us already know about Thay’s books, his teachings, and his influence on numerous lives. I would like to share with you some of my fondest memories of Thay.

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 The Mindful Way

One time, during a retreat in the early days of Plum Village, some of us young people spent an afternoon with Thay, collating pages of a book for binding and publishing. After he had explained how to carry out the task, we all followed Thay around a large table, picking up pages and putting them together to complete the book. Thay walked slowly and mindfully with great ease. At the end, we realized the number of books each of us had collated was less than Thay’s. With surprise and wonder, we asked Thay how that could be. Thay gently smiled to us and said it was simply because he had more experience than we did. I thought how sweet he was! However, this experience helped me to understand that with practice, one can be mindful and productive at the same time.

During the time when I was fortunate enough to be Thay’s assistant in the Lower Hamlet, I saw how Thay spoke, taught, and played with young people. They were happy and delighted, and they adored Thay. There was never a wall between this most venerable monk and the youngsters. I felt the communication between them was deep, and Thay could easily transmit his teachings directly to them. They were called “mini OI members.” I have worked with teenagers for over twenty years as a clinician. If I have been able to help them make changes in their lives, I attribute it to the loving, compassionate, and mindful way that Thay has taught me. I know that I need to keep the light of mindfulness and compassion shining and learn ways to take care when the light dims.

One year when we celebrated Christmas at Plum Village, the monastics and laypeople spent hours creating the festive occasion. Tables were beautifully decorated with leaves and dried flowers. Food was abundant. Thay mindfully walked to the table to invite the bell marking the beginning of dinner. Then we suddenly noticed him calmly holding a big spoon to invite the bell, as the inviter was not available. There were no reprimands, no interruptions of the celebration.

I thought Thay felt that his lay students may be a little shy about their compassionate actions in life. One day, in a question and answer session, Thay responded to the big question, “What is compassion?” He simply said: “Compassion is like when you are inside your home, warm and comfortable with a cup of hot tea in your hand. It is cold and dark outside. You hear a calling, put the cup of tea down, and walk out in that cold, dark, and windy place to help.” Thay’s words have profoundly affected my ordinary and humble life as an OI member.

Those of us who live “down under,” far from France, often receive a special treat before our departure from Plum Village: having tea or walking with Thay. Moments of sitting or walking meditation with Thay remain fresh and vivid in my memory. When we walk beside him, we feel his presence; his energy of mindfulness is so powerful that peace emerges in us.

Life-Changing Pilgrimage 

In 1988 I went to India with Thay and a delegation of just over thirty people. We arrived at the Lumbini Motel in a remote village after a long and dusty trip. The showers didn’t have hot water. I managed to get some help from motel staff and carried a bucket of hot water to the shower room. When I accidentally crossed paths with Thay, he gently asked me where I had found the hot water. I offered to fetch some for him. But he quietly said, “Thay already had a shower with cold water.” We had all forgotten to look after our teacher, but still he had kind words for us.

While in India, we pilgrims followed Thay to Vulture Peak. Every day we walked up the mountain, listened to Thay’s Dharma talks, and watched the sunset together in silence. Gazing into the distance with my mindful breath, I felt the beauty of the sunset flow through me, and I didn’t need it to last forever. We also felt the presence of the Buddha on Vulture Peak through Thay’s words. Since that day, when I encounter difficulties in life, I silently say, “Namo Shakyamunaye Buddhaya” to get in touch with the Buddha in myself.

One day, others were busy at the Indian market or resting, and I sat with my teacher on the rocks. We enjoyed the silence together. Unexpectedly, Thay said, “Just breathe, dear.” Thay’s gentle words left a deep imprint in my mind. Years later, I read the book Breath By Breath. The author, Larry Rosenberg, commented that Thich Nhat Hanh said, “I have watched my breath [for] over fifty years [and it has]…only grown in interest.”

That pilgrimage to India with Thay changed my life forever. While traveling on a full moon day, we stopped so that Thay could recite the precepts. There were no candles, no table. Thay gathered some Bodhi leaves and rocks to make an altar under the tree. With some simple incense, he conducted the most beautiful ceremony I ever attended. That experience taught me that we could create something beautiful with our mindful energy, and that without mindfulness, ceremonies could become empty rituals.

A Rare Combination

Our teacher is a rare combination of a great poet and a venerable monk. Therefore his teachings are profound, yet gentle, loving, and compassionate. His teachings and ways of organising have never been doctrinaire. Many of us feel like we have come home when we hear him talk.

Thay is a kind teacher, and he sees that the teachings of impermanence and non-self are not easy for many of us to practice. His insight about the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence is incredible. Thay says that without impermanence, a young plant cannot grow into a tree, a child cannot grow to be an adult. Personally, I had never heard anyone talk about impermanence in that way before. His Dharma talks about non-self are very clear. He helps us see the ultimate dimension of life through the historical dimension, leading to the ending of our suffering.

Thay can be fierce in his teaching. He has told us many times that he doesn’t like us to be like parrots that repeat words they do not understand or like empty husks of grain that practice outer forms and have no substance inside. He’s also a sweet and loving teacher who wants to know whether each Plum Village hamlet has enough firewood and food for winter days.

Thay sees interbeing in all things. He often tells us that each of us is a flower in the garden of mankind; each kind of flower has its own beauty. If you are a chrysanthemum, a daffodil, an orchid, or a rose, be a beautiful chrysanthemum, daffodil, orchid, or rose; do not strive to be a different kind of flower, making yourself unhappy. He also says a garden is beautiful because it has different kinds of flowers.

Many practitioners may still seek the bliss of entering Jhana, detached moments from the world. But I love my teacher’s incredible “stillness in action,” a testament to his solidity and deep peace. Larry Rosenberg writes, “Thich Nhat Hanh’s lineage draws on both Theravada and Mahayana teaching. He more than anyone else demonstrates the importance of bringing breath awareness into daily life, of staying awake in the midst of all our activities. He is unrelenting in his teaching, and it took such a strong message to get through to me.” Such a message is as vital to us, Thay’s students, as it is to Larry.

Lightness Fills My Path

Plum Village has grown so rapidly; nowadays, even when you stay on a retreat, you only get a glimpse of Thay. As he is approaching his senior years, everyone contributes to protect and preserve Thay’s energy for the Dharma. The new generation of practitioners may not have as much teaching of mindfulness directly from Thay as in the early days.

We know that Thay is growing in years, and we know deeply the universal law of impermanence. I remember that one year, at the end of a June retreat for OI members in Plum Village, Thay conducted a simple closing ceremony. Afterwards, we all stood up and offered a lotus flower with our joined palms as our way of saying goodbye to Thay. While Thay slowly walked out of the hall, suddenly, in that solemn silence, a voice arose: “We love you, Thay.” I thought that loving voice spoke for all of us that day.

* Noi Voi Tuoi Hai Muoi

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Mai Than-Trong, Chan Luong, became an OI member in 1988 and ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. She was one of the founders of the Lotus Bud Sangha based in Sydney, Australia. Mai is currently a semi-retired senior psychologist in Sydney.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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Healthy and Free

By Jerome Freedman, Ph.D.

On Superbowl Sunday in 1997, I was admitted to the hospital with what turned out to be bladder cancer. On the day of the vernal equinox, I felt a remarkable healing take place during a session of guided imagery. Every year, the equinox reminds me of the famous Zenrin:

Sitting quietly, doing nothing
Spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself.  

During the guided imagery session, I had a tremendous insight, which allowed me to transform this Zenrin to reflect my situation:

Lying still, breathing in, breathing out,
Healthy cells grow all by themselves, and I am free of cancer.

This insight was followed by a practice that I still maintain today. Every time I place my left foot—at least, when I am mindful—I think: Healthy. Whenever I place my right foot, I think: Free. I also use these words to trigger mindfulness when doing meditation. These mindfulness practices were naturally a result of my understanding and love of Thay and his simple method of teaching the Dharma.

Seven months later, I was able to attend one of Thay’s retreats at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I walked on the beach with Thay, practicing “healthy/free” while holding his hand. I feel that his willingness to allow this to happen was inspirational in my recovery. In addition, I had a conversation with Sister Chan Khong about cancer and my use of mindfulness in dealing with the pain and suffering I was experiencing. Her compassion, attentiveness, and loving kindness helped me cope with the rough road ahead of me.

In February 2000, I visited Plum Village for a few days. During the period after my visit to Plum Village in 2000 until my visit in 2006, I was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha in Marin County, California and participated in Lyn Fine’s aspirant group. I also had no recurrence of cancer and wanted to teach a class on mindfulness in healing as part of my aspiration to be ordained in the Order of Interbeing.

When the possibility of visiting Plum Village came up in March 2006, I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could participate in the Spring Retreat. It took several phone calls and an email to Sister Chan Khong to get the answer I was hoping for. She responded, in part: “Please come, I guarantee that you can see me, but for Thay it depends on his health.”

Thursday, March 23 was a day of mindfulness with Thay. His talk was in Vietnamese, with Sister Chan Khong translating into English. After the Dharma talk, I approached Sister Chan Khong and reminded her who I was. She asked me to get my shoes and follow her to get my breakfast. Then she took me to Thay’s room! She told me not to eat until Thay came down for breakfast. I was literally beside myself, so I merely drank my cup of tea until he came down. Sister Chan Khong asked me how I would work with someone who had metastatic cancer, and as I fumbled with my answer, Thay came down the stairs.

I jumped up to hug him and sat down when he did. His first words were for me to share his sticky buns with him and the two attendant nuns by my side. I told Thay that I thought the Dharma was in good hands with the likes of Brothers Phap Dung and Phap An teaching as well as they did. He said to me, “I think you are doing very well yourself!” A little while later, I reviewed my practices with Thay and began to answer Sister Chan Khong’s question about cancer, starting with the famous Zenrin mentioned above.

Most of the time, I noticed Thay sitting quite calmly in a posture of complete equanimity. He was really enjoying his break- fast. At other times, other subjects were discussed, but when Thay finished his breakfast, he needed to rest before walking meditation. I left feeling the joy of being with such remarkable beings. Thay is a man of peace and he inspires me every day. His loving kind- ness, compassion, sympathetic joy, equanimity, and generosity have penetrated my being.

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Jerome Freedman, True Precious Light, has been a student of Thay’s since 1985 and was ordained as an OI member in 2008. He was a founding member of the Mountain Sangha (www.mountainsangha.org). For more information about his illness and recovery, visit www.yellowstream.org.

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The Spirit of Non-Self

Living in Sangha Paradise 

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

A mist thickly covers the forests and mountains of Deer Park Monastery. The entire practice center is embraced by an atmosphere of stillness. The activity bell wakes all from slumber at exactly 5:00 a.m., followed by reverberating sounds of the Great Temple Bell in front of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. The powerful sounds of the bell, harmonizing with the light and flowing voice of a sister chanting, enhance the peacefulness of a new day.

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Today is the fourth day of a five-day retreat, “Opening the Door of Your Heart,” for people who speak Vietnamese. In the tranquil atmosphere of the morning, the Sangha queues up to get a packed breakfast in preparation for hiking up the misty mountain and enjoying their first meal of the day.  About 500 monastic and lay friends practice walking meditation along the winding path. When the Sangha reaches Elephant Peak, some people are, perhaps, surprised to see Thay already seated in meditation with    his attendants. Standing here, one faces an ocean of clouds that covers an area of the city of Escondido. It feels as if one is hovering among the clouds of a faraway land of enchantment. It is truly a Zen experience to be in the spaciousness of earth and grand open sky. Everyone finds a comfortable place to sit among the huge flat rock formations that have been here for hundreds of years.

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After practicing sitting meditation for half an hour, I slowly open my eyes to see that the sun has risen and made the sea of clouds appear even clearer. The Sangha begins eating breakfast in silence. After some time, Thay shows me a cluster of tiny ants carrying crumbs dropped from our rice cakes. They carry their food in just one direction. Some ants move rice cake crumbs or potato skins many times larger than themselves. Sometimes two or three ants clutch one piece together. Thay compassionately gives them some more food that they can bring back to their nest for the colony to enjoy.

Thay tells me to take a photo of these ants. I do so and feel curious about where they are taking these provisions and how big their colony is. I follow their trail and feel pity to see how small they are, because they have to carry food so much larger than their bodies. Their paths wind up and down the rock surface. Some lose their balance and topple over due to their heavy load. I just let them be and don’t interfere, as if I were not there. My observation takes me to the entrance of their nest, a crack in the rock with a lot of sand surrounding it. I feel despondent that I can’t continue farther while they unaffectedly carry on their task. A sense of curiosity continues in my store consciousness for the next few days.

Like A Colony of Ants

Recently, I saw a short documentary film called “Animal Planet,” which examined the life and activities of a colony of ants. Thousands of them followed each other in a meadow of tall green grass that resembled the young plants in a rice paddy. Many climbed grass stems and bit off young shoots, while those on the ground carried the shoots back to the nest. Each had its own particular task to do, be it to bite off the shoots, transport provisions, or remain inside to build the underground nest from the grass that had been carried back. They seemed to work like an ensemble without a leader or discrimination. None of them seemed to complain about each other. The way they lived reminded me of our Sangha.

As brothers and sisters in the Dharma, we work together like ants in a colony, or like cells in a body. In a body, there is no single cell that is considered the leader of all other cells. A retreatant once asked one of our sisters who plays the violin, “Why does Thay travel with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour?” She replied, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra.” The conductor would not attract an audience by himself; yet if there were no conductor, the quality of music produced by the orchestra would not be very high. Thay has never wanted to control us. He only seeks to open doors and clear obstacles for us. Thay just allows things to unfold naturally and tries to find the best way to help all of us develop our various talents. We inter-depend on one another; we inter-are with each other. When our individual skills are combined, they no longer belong to any particular person, but become the effectiveness of the whole Sangha.

Whether we are at our monastery or on the road, and especially during the recent retreats in North America, our brothers and sisters live and work together like a colony of ants; we flow as a river. Our 2011 U.S. Tour, which spanned three months, included five public talks, eight Days of Mindfulness (DOM), an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, seven retreats in as many states, a half DOM with the Google staff at their headquarters in California, and a talk for congressmen and women in Washington, D.C. Each retreat had from eight hundred to one thousand participants, the DOMs had from one thousand to sixteen hundred people, and the public talks attracted approximately twenty five hundred attendees. The majority of activities were organized by monastic brothers and sisters. The tour took the organizing team two years to plan.

We work together as an ensemble, and each person is allocated a task: some oversee logistics, others take care of registration, and others welcome and orient retreatants. Some brothers and sisters do the grocery shopping while others cook. Some manage the accommodations and others are in charge of hygiene. We have a transportation coordinator and children’s program supervisors. A team films the Dharma talks, a team produces the DVDs, and a team sells Thay’s calligraphies and books. All these tasks are tightly coordinated, and they all relate to each other.

When we’re on big teaching tours and retreats, the brothers and sisters do much work, but there are rarely complaints or criticism. Glitches are opportunities for us to learn new things and better understand each other. One brother is the treasurer, and he is on a cooking team, the CD producing team, and the organizing team. He has such a lot of work to do, but he is always fresh, smiling, and full of energy! One time when I saw that he had a great deal of bookkeeping work to do, I said to him, “Dear brother, you have so much work to do. May I give you a hand?” He looked at me kindly and replied, “The paperwork is a bit complicated. It’s okay, I’ll do it.” I continued, “But please take care of your health.” He smiled and said in his humorous way, “There’s no need to live a long life. Forty years is enough!” Matching his wit, I replied, “Thay has said that whoever goes before he does is not showing enough filial piety! The Buddha and Thay have entrusted their mission to us, so we can’t go so early!” We both laughed.

Recognizing Paradise

During our retreats there is much joy, and peals of laughter can be heard everywhere, especially in the kitchen. Each kitchen team has only five or six people, but they cook for over a thousand retreatants. They do so with happiness cultivated from the love of brotherhood and sisterhood. One day I went into the kitchen and saw a sister at the stove frying tofu. I was surprised at how tall she was that day, and then I realized that she was standing on a step in order to comfortably reach the stove top. I saw the large tray of delicious fried tofu pieces, and thought it must have taken her quite some time to fry all of that tofu in the midday heat, yet her face was still fresh. I said to her, “Sister, you are so good!”

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An elder brother had been assigned to that same cooking team. He was cooking a huge pot of curry and using a large wooden ladle to stir. The curry was appealing, but the most amusing sight was that the pot was as tall as his ribs! This pot surely would need to be carried by three or four people. I had a funny thought: Cooking like this, one does not need to go to the gym and lift weights! I felt very happy because I knew for sure that the food cooked by the brothers and sisters had a lot of love in it, and that the retreatants would be able to taste and enjoy it.

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When I have a bit of spare time during a tour, I like to watch children play together; I think they look like innocent angels. I particularly relish hearing their spontaneous laughter echoing in the summer air. At least a few dozen children come with their parents to each retreat. Brothers and sisters take care of the children’s program very skillfully; they are mostly “baby monks” or “baby nuns” who have grown up in the monastery. They wholeheartedly guide, play with, and offer their presence to the children. That’s why the children who attend Plum Village retreats are so happy. When I look into the bright eyes of these children, I know that we are sowing good seeds in them—seeds of peace, happiness, and liberation.

I also like to drop by the bookshop to see Thay’s new calligraphy, which helps remind people to practice mindfulness at home. The calligraphies may say, for example, “Breathe, my dear,” or “Peace is every step,” or “Happiness begins with your lovely smile.” The calligraphy stand is always full of people. An elder sister is happily helping her younger sisters distribute the calligraphies, even though she has many other things to do. Promoting calligraphy involves more than just selling individual sheets; there are also elements of practice and play. People often have many questions about the meaning of Thay’s calligraphies; therefore the stand is like a Dharma hall. This is an opportunity for elder sisters to pass on their experience to younger ones, while also working to serve and liberate all beings. The elder sisters explain the calligraphies in a dynamic way, while the younger sisters’ fresh faces and witty comments attract visitors, as well.

Despite the crowds, the atmosphere at retreats is serene and peaceful. One practitioner commented, “Even though there are about a thousand retreatants here, it doesn’t feel like it. The atmosphere here is totally different from outside.” There are not only those who are experienced in the practices of Plum Village, but also many newcomers. The long-time practitioners are a much-needed foundation and source of support for newer practitioners. During one walking meditation session full of people, one retreatant exclaimed, “This is a miracle! We are walking in paradise!” Thanks to the mindful presence and collective energy of the Sangha, we can recognize this paradise.

Our Source of Energy

mb61-Spirit5During a Dharma sharing session at Estes Park, Colorado, one retreatant commented, “In this retreat there are up to eight hundred people and everything is done by the brothers and sisters. I’m truly surprised to see that you do all of these things so wholeheartedly. I’m curious to know how you all have so much energy.” I looked at her and simply replied, “Your tears and smiles are our source of energy.” It is true that there are tears from pain and suffering, but there are also tears born of happiness. And smiles are signs of joy, peace, happiness, and transformation. Both tears and smiles are a source of inspiration that nourishes our mind of love. That is why we have so much energy to continue what we are doing. I feel so nourished and happy as a monastic because my brothers and sisters and I have come across a way of practice that is relevant to us. We are able to continue the Buddha’s task of liberating beings in the way that Thay has transmitted to us.

Personally, I think we monastics benefit the most from these retreats. When we conduct such retreats, we have the opportunity to come in contact with the suffering of people from many sectors of society. As monastics, there are places that we cannot go; there are things that only laypeople can do. However, through our interactions with lay friends, and listening to their life experiences and suffering, we are able to see different aspects of life more clearly. Sometimes, just by listening, we alleviate much of their pain and suffering. When I’m able to sit and listen to people’s deepest pain and hidden difficulties, then naturally the energy of compassion arises within me. This kind of energy makes me so happy whenever I’m able to generate it.

I think it’s truly wonderful to be a monastic, especially when I have the chance to help others. In my opinion, “miraculous” things don’t need to be lofty; it is what I can do every day that counts. To be able to help others benefit from their practice, to bring about healing, transformation, happiness, peace, and joy in others is already a miracle. My life is so fulfilling and happy. What else is there to search for?

The Spirit of Sangha

We monastics spend much time learning, practicing, and conducting retreats. Another art needs to be nourished every day, as well: the art of developing brotherhood and sisterhood. This is the foundation of happiness in our daily practice. Everything we do holds the purpose of building brotherhood and sisterhood, and drinking tea together is one of our favourite methods for doing so. Drinking tea is a meditation practice. Each pot of tea contains so many joyful stories that we share with each other, especially after a session of sitting meditation and chanting. And nothing beats hiking up a mountain and drinking tea together there. Our daily activities have all the elements of mindfulness practice, play, work, and learning. It is only when we live and work in this spirit of inclusiveness and inter-relatedness that large-scale teaching tours can be successful and beneficial for practitioners.

Living and practicing in the Sangha, as well as going on teaching tours with Thay, have given me a precious lesson—anything can be accomplished when we have ideals, aspirations, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Further, when we are able to let go of our individualism, then we can easily flow with togetherness. That is the spirit of living in the Sangha, the spirit of non-self. That is the love of brotherhood and sisterhood.

There is a popular proverb in Vietnamese: “One stick cannot make a mountain, but three sticks together create a solid peak.” It is a sensible proverb that everyone likes and appreciates. Before I was ordained, it did not hold much meaning for me. It was merely a nice idea. But after becoming a monk, having lived and practiced with the Sangha, I realize its depth and truth. I appreciate this proverb, thanks to the miraculous power of the Sangha and the wonders of a lifestyle of non-self. This lifestyle is truly a Sangha paradise.

mb61-Spirit6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

 

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