by Pierre Marchand
I met Sister Chan Khong one evening in Paris, in September 1972, at a meeting of a nonviolent activist’s group led by Cesar Chavez. She came to hare her commitment to reduce the suffering in Vietnam. It was a time of war. She was a laywomen, and it was so easy for me to see that she was moved by love. This love touched me deeply, and has completely changed my life. At the end of the meeting, I was so eager to support her that I asked her if it was possible to meet her again. She agreed and I was so happy because my wish was not, in fact, to meet her again. It was to meet her again and again! And I have had the chance to do it.
The next day I went to Sceaux in the south of Paris where she was working with the official Delegation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam. She was teaching me as we sat on the floor, when someone came into the room with such silence that I barely noticed him. He sat down and smiled at me. Sister Chan Khong introduced me and said his name was Thich Nhat Hanh. I have never forgotten that moment. It was like a light that changes all that we see by its bright appearance. Nothing was the same by his simple presence. But I am still ashamed. I took out a cigarette and started to smoke while Thay was speaking to us! I was seventeen, young and foolish. Thay didn’t embarrass me or ask me to stop. Hejust accepted me the way I was. This was a very, very special experience that still nurtures me. I have forgotten his words, but not the effect of his presence and his behavior. Slowly, I became aware that I was in front of a holy human being, a real spiritual master.
Sister Chan Khong had given me some material to read. In it there were some private letters. In the evening I started to read them. Then I fell into tears. The whole night I spent reading those letters and crying. The author of the letters was Nhat Chi Mai. They were the letters she left just before her immolation. Through the media I had heard about the people who immolated themselves in Vietnam, but I was unable to understand it as anything other than than suicide out of desperation. Reading Chi Mai, I realized fully her sincere wish to become a light to help all of us to see what was real. She became the light she had wished to be. Mai has became my beloved light since that night, and she is still here for us in Plum Village, even if we do not notice her. This was how Plum Village was bom in my heart. A gift from sisters and brothers living in heaven and hell at the same time, but firmly refusing to leave hell with so many people still in it. They were trying to bring everyone to heaven, while living so simply with a spiritual practice given thousands of years ago. They have broken my heart by their way of life, and this is how Plum Village started to grow deeply in me. The Tiep Hien Order (the Order of lnterbeing) has nurtured the seed planted this night, day by day.
At this time, there was no such place called “Plum Village.” The name was yet to
come, but the heart of “Plum Village,” the Tiep Hien Community, had already been established by Thay in Vietnam. Nhat Chi Mai and Sister Chan Khong were among the
first laypersons of this community established by Thay. Each member was sustained by the commitment and the practice of the others. Thay was the example for each of us to
follow as our guide, our spiritual father. His teaching wasn’t only his writing, but his own practice in each moment. A kind of polar star for people lost in the ocean like me. He was showing us the way then, as he is today. Aware ofthe need of a retreat center to feed
our happiness and deepen our practice, Thay first started a little retreat center in Fontvannes not far from Paris. It was very helpful all of us. But, at this time at this place, the “all” was only five to ten persons!
The end ofthe “official war” came in Vietnam. A few months later, the flow of refugees on the dangerous sea started. “Plum Village” became a ship on the ocean to rescue them, with Thay and Sister Chan Khong aboard. The refugees reached Europe. The government and people were giving relief and help, but there was such pain in each heart. How to bring peace to those broken hearts? How to offer a spirihlal support to each one, especially
the children? I remember the feelings of Thay and Sister Chan Khong for all the children. To me, it is the suffering of those children who were the real founders of the Plum Village from which so many human beings are benefiting today. It was so difficult to be a refugee after such a hard life in Vietnam. I think that only Thay heard the call for a “refuge” – a real spiritual refuge, a community of practice. From this need, the name “Plum Village” was being born. A real refuge for the Tiep Hien Order to welcome those who suffer. “Plum Village” has never been a concept – just an appropriate answer to real need, and it came
from the love and the open hearts of Thay and Sister Chan Khong.
Thirty Years Later
Recently I visited Plum Village. I was so moved by the stones that are still the same. Their transformation is slow. I bowed to them as I know how slow I am in my own transformation. I was moved also by the trees. I remember them as being so small. I spent time looking at each of them, one by one. Each one reminds me of the wisdom of Thay. He loves children so much and his love is so creative. He had the idea to offer a small tree to each Vietnamese child refugee and invited each one to care and nurture the tree, and then to offer the fruits of the tree to a child in Vietnam. Each tree in Plum Village has helped two children. One was a refugee and one was in Vietnam. The plums were fruits to nurture the spirituality of each child by sharing the process. The wisdom and creative love of Thay seems to have no limit. Many people have come and gone, but the trees remain.
Plum Village is one of the homes of the Tiep Hien Order, The Order of lnterbeing. It is not always easy to interbe mindfully, but those who came there were not looking for an easy way. Just committed to try, again and again, to follow the way of mindfulness. The first people to live in the hamlets were from Vietnam and refugees from various places. Plum Village was born from them and for them. Later the Americans came, but very few French. Then, step by step, people from allover the world visited, most recently from China. Then the French at last! Each person brings her own culture, and Plum Village seems to be ab le to welcome and integrate her without any discrimination. Plum Village is alive. It is never the same but always surprisingly new at each moment, as a love story with no end – a story of inclusiveness.
One day some years ago, I saw a monk working our mother Earth. 1 thought it was Thich Nhat Hanh, as I have seen him doing this many times. So happy to see him, I called out “Thay.” When the monk turned his face to me and smiled, I reali zed he was not Thich Nhat Hanh. At the same moment I concluded that he was Thich Nhat Hanh, too. I became suddenly delighted. Thich Nhat Hanh, my father, was here in so many bodies!
When I sat with Thay and Sister Chan Khong before leaving Plum Village recently, I deeply realized that I was in front of my father and my mother. I enjoyed their presence so much, just like the first time I saw them. We were together again, the three of us in a small simple room. I realized that we have never been separate since the first time we met thirty years ago. This time he was dangling quietly in a hammock and the quality of the light shining from him was still the same. At the end, I told Thay that I was so happy to have such a father. He smiled at me so gently, like the sweetest kiss. Plum Village is also so many smiles and kisses from so many eyes!
Plum Village is a gift from the children of Vietnam to all the children of the world. May we bless them by our practice. Thirty years ago, Plum Village was only two loving faces, Thay and Sister Chan Khong. I am so thankful that they have given me many sisters and brothers. I feel that Plum Village was born from love, and to celebrate and practice love.