Heart Sutra

Here Is the Pure Land. The Pure Land Is Here.

By  Sister Annabel One day,  Queen Vaidehi asked the Buddha , "Is the place with no suffering very far away?" The Buddha replied, "No, it is not far away." And then the Buddha taught the queen how to touch the land of Great Happiness in her own heart and in her own mind.

We talk about "the Pure Land." In Sanskrit, the word is "Sukhavati. " Sukha means happiness; vati means having: "The Place Which Has Happiness." In the Chinese tradition, it is translated as the Pure Land, perhaps because of the nature of the writings about that place. These writings put us in touch with things we call pure. The Prajnaparamita writings were probably composed round about the same time as the Pure Land writing, and they say "No defiled, no immaculate." And yet we talk about the Pure Land in Buddhism.

In the Pure Land, there are many kinds of wonderful birds. Let us think about a bird. The bird's song sounds very pure, very beautiful. But we know the bird has to eat, and the food that the bird eats has waste matter, which we would consider impure. The sutra doesn't tell us whether birds in the Pure Land eat or not. But if they do, there must be bird droppings in the Pure Land, which means that the Pure Land wouldn't be quite so pure. Perhaps that is why the people who composed the Heart of the Prajnaparamita say, "No defiled" and "No immaculate." We know that if there isn't defiled, there can't be immaculate.

To understand the teachings of the Pure Land, we need to understand about Buddhist psychology. We need to understand that the store consciousness contains all the seeds-seeds of purity and impurity, seeds of happiness and suffering. We need to learn skillful ways of touching the seeds of happiness and purity in us, particularly when we feel overwhelmed by impurity and suffering. The Buddha and other spiritual ancestral teachers have helped us find ways to touch the seeds of purity.

The Buddha gave teachings about places where there was a lot of happiness. He sometimes pointed to a city like Kushinagara, the city where the Buddha later passed away, and said that in former times, this place was a place of great happiness. He would describe how the people lived there in a lot of happiness. Probably some ancestral teacher put together the Sukhavati Sutras based on some of the things the Buddha had said about lands of great happiness.

The Sukhavati Sutras and the Avatamsaka Sutra may seem very strange when we read for the first time. We read descriptions of trees that have jewels for their leaves, flowers, and fruit, and descriptions of water with eight virtuous qualities- clarity, sweetness, purity, coolness, limpidity, etc. These descriptions are not for us to consider intellectually. We do not read the Pure Land Sutras or the Avatamsaka Sutra with an intellectual mind. But when we read them, the descriptions touch the seeds of purity in us. For instance, we do not see leaves of jewels on the  trees here. In autumn, the leaves here fall to the earth, decompose, and become one with the Earth again, whereas, a jewel doesn't decompose. But actually, if we look deeply into it, a jewel comes from decomposed material, because the mineral realms are also made up of the plant realms. When we walk among the trees in the autumn on this planet Earth, we see the beautiful red and yellow colors like jewels shining in the sunlight. But sometimes, we don't bring our mind to the presence of the trees, because we are lost in our worries or regrets. When we have been reading the Pure Land Sutras on a regular basis, then something in the depth of our consciousness knows that a tree is very precious, as precious as the most precious jewels. So whenever we meet a tree in mindfulness, we remember that it is precious, and we can be there with it in the present moment. And when we are really there in the present moment, we are already in the Pure Land.

There are different levels of belief in the Pure Land, and the highest level of Pure Land teaching is that your mind is the Pure Land, the Pure Land is available in your mind. The ancestral teachers put  together the Pure Land Sutras with a kind of wisdom that helps us be in touch, and helps us to have the deep aspiration to be in a Pure Land and also, to help to build a Pure Land.

In Plum Village, we often have to write assignments for Thay. One year, Thay gave us the assignment to write about the Pure Land that we wanted to be part of. He told us to give a very clear description. What kind of trees would be there? What kind of activities would there be? Everybody wrote about a slightly different Pure Land, so we know that there are hundreds of thousands of Pure Lands. In each of our minds, there is the Pure Land, and we can go about establishing the Pure Land. You may like to write about this also. It's a very enjoyable assignment.

When we think about our own Pure Land, we have to come back to Queen Vaidehi's question. "Lord Buddha, is there a place where there is no suffering?" Out of compassion, the Buddha said,  "Yes, there is." Queen Vaidehi's heartfelt aspiration to be in that place of no suffering came about because she  had suffered so much. If she hadn't suffered, the idea of a place where  there is no suffering would never have occurred to her. So suffering and no-suffering go together, in the same way defiled and immaculate go together. They are not absolute realities; they are only relative realities. And sometimes the Buddha has to teach the relative truth in order to be compassionate, to help, and to encourage. And that is why the Buddha said there is a place where there is no suffering.

But we know that Queen Vaidehi would also want to help those who are suffering. In the Pure Land, we have many bodhisattvas. The great joy of being in the Pure Land is that we are near many bodhisattvas. And if a bodhisattva wants to help those who are suffering, there must be people who are suffering. Therefore, in the Pure Land, there are people who are suffering for us to help. When we wrote about our Pure Land in Plum Village, many of us wrote about how the bodhisattvas helped others. One person even had a hospital in the Pure Land.

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When you come to a Dharma talk, you feel very happy. Maybe you feel you are most happy when you are sitting and listening to the Dharma, because the Dharma is deep and lovely. It is beautiful in the beginning, it is beautiful in the middle, and beautiful at the end. In the Sukhavati Sutra, they say that in the Pure Land, you are always hearing teaching of the Dharma. But you don't just hear the Buddha Amitabha- the Buddha Of Limitless Light, the Buddha who founded the Pure Land. You don't just hear him giving teachings. You hear the birds giving teachings, you hear the trees giving teachings. Every time the wind rustles in the trees, that is a teaching of the Dharma; and every time the birds sing, that is a teaching of the Dharma. And when the people hear the wind rustling in the tree, they stop and remember the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, the Seven Factors of Awakening, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the other teachings of the Buddha.

There is a song written by Thay in Vietnamese, and then translated into English and put to music: "Here Is the Pure Land." I practice this song when I do jogging meditation. If I sing it in Vietnamese, then every syllable is one footstep. And I can also sing it in English and jog at the same time. It's very wonderful to be jogging in the Pure Land.

The first words of the song are "Here is the Pure Land." And the second sentence is "The Pure Land is here." This is in the  tradition of the ancestral teachers. "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form." We say things twice like that because our  consciousness receives the first word of a sentence as the most important word. So if we just said, "Form is emptiness," our mind concentrates more on the word "form" than it does on "emptiness." So we then say "Emptiness is form," so our mind is equally concentrated on form and emptiness. In the same way, if we say "Here is the Pure Land," our mind is more concentrated on the word "here." And if we say "The Pure Land is here," our mind is more concentrated on "the Pure Land." So the words of the song allow us to be concentrated on both.

Watering the seeds of purity in our store consciousness helps establish a good balance between purity and impurity. We have the tendency sometimes to look on everything as being impure and we need to put the balance right. We practice watering the seeds of happiness for the same reason. We have the tendency to look on the planet Earth as a place of suffering, and we need to put the balance right by seeing the happiness also.

When the Buddha taught Queen Vaidehi, she asked him "If the Pure Land is not very far away, if it's right here, how do I practice to be there?" The Buddha gave her a guided meditation in which she could touch the Pure Land. It's a little bit like the guided meditation "Breathing in, I am a flower; Breathing out, I feel fresh." He taught her to be in touch with the lotus flower in her own consciousness, the lotus flower blooming. He taught her to be in touch with the lake of the most clear, sweet water in her consciousness. In that way, she could begin by touching the seeds of happiness in her own consciousness. Then, when she was outside, walking in nature, she would also touch that world and feel happy.

Each of us has the capacity to build Pure Land a little bit in their own home, or by building a practice center, or by joining a practice center, or in their local Sangha. The local Sangha where we only meet each other once a week, or perhaps a bit more, is also a place where we can build Pure Land together. We can decide what kind of environment we can make. How can we arrange the sitting meditation hall in order to water the seeds of Right Attention in everyone who comes into the meditation hall?

The idea of attention in Buddhist psychology is quite important. It's called manaskara in Sanskrit, and is one of the 51 mental formations. It's one of the  first five mental formations, which we call "the universal mental formations." Universal means that they are always occurring, they're always there. We are always giving our attention to something. We know that we can give our attention in an appropriate way, or we can give our attention to what is inappropriate. So we have Appropriate Attention and Inappropriate Attention.

When we go into the town or turn on the television, we need to be very careful what we give our attention to. You may see newspapers with words and images on them, and even though you don't stop to read them, if you give your attention to them, they can sometimes water the seeds in your consciousness that are not altogether wholesome. All kinds of information can flow into our consciousness through our eyes and our ears. We don't have to intentionally  receive that information; it may still flow in. This is the meaning of universal mental formation (sarvatiaga); it is happening all the time.

So, we should make our environment a place where everything surrounding us helps nurture the best, the most refreshing things in us, things that can make us and other people happy. We can all do a little bit of this work-in our garden, in our home, in our school, in the place where we work. This is part of making a Pure Land.

Sister Annabel Laity is the Abbess of Maple Forest Monastery and Green Mountain Dharma Center in Hartland-Four Corners, Vermont. This article is excerpted from a Dharma talk she gave in San DiegoCalifornia in September 2000.

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Inhaling the Dust, Yearning for Light

Being with suffering in New York City after September 11th By Larry Ward

I had an opportunity to go to New York to be with Thich Nhat Hanh and some of the monks and nuns to conduct a service at Riverside Church on September 25. My flight to New York was the first time I had been on an airplane since September 11. When the tragedy of the World Trade towers occurred, I was in the air on a flight to Denver, which of course was re-routed. It has been part of my spiritual practice for over thirty years to be aware that every flight I take could be my last. So that part of it was not a big deal for me, but I was interested to see what I noticed. The first things I noticed on September 24 were visual and physical: all the security at the Santa Barbara airport and how far away I had to park. More importantly, I started to noice fear and anxiety in people at a higher level than normal, and I started to notice gallows humor. I noticed that going through security, I had to give up my fingernail clippers. And then I noticed that there were only ten of us on the airplane. We flew to Denver and I changed planes there, connecting to a flight to La Guardia, in New York. That plane seated 250 people and there were thirty-two of us on that flight. One of the people on that flight appeared to be Arabic and his seat was next to me. I noticed how nervous and afraid he was, and how difficult it was for him to make eye contact with anyone including myself.

When our pilot announced our approach to La Guardia, I looked out the window and I was suddenly disoriented because the World Trade buildings were no longer there as a reference point. As we descended down through thick white clouds, I realized that I didn't have any idea what was happening next with this airplane. We could have been flying into another skyscraper for all I knew. I was deeply aware of how much trust I had put in the hands of so many unknown people for so many years. We landed without difficulty and passengers applauded. Upon exiting the plane as I walked out the door I could see from the gate all the way to the outside of the airport because it was almost empty except for security, and a few vendors who didn't have any customers.

I hailed a taxi to my friends' house on West 22nd Street. We had dinner that evening and talked about their experience of what happened. They shared with me feelings of shock, sadness and sorrow. They expressed a sense of newfound vulnerability and anxiety present in the lives of individuals, families and institutions located on Manhattan Island. I invited them to join me at Riverside Church the next evening to be with Thay and the community to practice making peace with our anger together.

Before I left Santa Barbara I had told some Sangha members that I planned to do walking meditation at Ground Zero, making at least 5,000 steps, one for each of the missing people. The next morning I got up early and went to Canal Street, which is as far south as you can get in a vehicle in Manhattan. I then began my mindful walk the other twelve blocks down and then six blocks across to Ground Zero. Breathing with each step and seeing deep heartbreak in the faces I passed, I practiced looking into each face as if it were one of the missing ones. As I got closer to Ground Zero the pungent smell of rubber burning filled my nostrils and a smoke-filled haze irritated my eyes. I continued to breathe, with every step for a lost one.

I proceeded to do walking meditation for four and a half hours. I walked from every possible angle. After forty-five minutes I stood with my first glimpse of Ground Zero. It took me into deep, deep silence. My mind could not take in what I was witnessing. The site was overflowing with people, some just standing and crying, others taking pictures or walking by in disbelief. The police and military were busy keeping order but even they were filled with an eerie silence. The grief at Ground Zero was so thick with substance it had erected its own monument to the tragedy. My mind could not take in what I was witnessing within and around me. I walked to view the site from yet another angle and then another. About two hours into this humbling process I began to notice the dust and ash. All the buildings within six or seven blocks of the site were covered with dusty ash and as I looked down I saw that I too had become covered. I then realized that I had been breathing that dusty ash, and then I realized that it was the dust of a policeman, it was the dust of a fireman, it was the dust of a stockbroker, a janitor, a secretary, a maid, a delivery person who just showed up on his bicycle to deliver a package like he did every other day when he went to work.

The dust of the September 11th World Trade tragedy was in me now as I was in it, in every cell of my body, in every mindful step, every fiber of my heart and the mystery of my every breath.

I am so grateful to our dear teacher who with his whole heart  has transmitted to us Buddha feet, Buddha eyes and the instruments of the Doors of Liberation. The Doors of Signlessness, Aimlessness and Emptiness, are so important to practice with. I know the World Trade buildings looked really solid and strong and tall. They were never eternally solid; they were empty of any permanence. All dharmas, all phenomena are marked with emptiness and signlessness. They have no enduring separate self and are always in disguise. Every building, every political regime, every civilization, every tree, every bush, every Larry, every policeman, every fireman, all are marked. Our ability to experience Buddha feet, Buddha eyes and insight into the Doors of Liberation are rooted in our capacity to experience aimlessness, which begins with our mindfulness practice of stopping and looking deeply.

I went to Riverside Church at 3:30 pm to help with preparations. When I arrived, there were already 100 people lined up and the program did not start until 7 p.m. Part of my helping out was to keep checking outside. The next time I went outside there were 400 people lined up twice around the block, and about fifteen minutes later there were 2,000. About a hal f an hour later there were over 3,000 people. The church only seats 2,500; we had standing room only, fitting in about 3,000 people, and the re were still many people standing outside Riverside. Participants in the evening were so grateful for the presence of our Fourfold Sangha. We chanted the Heart Sutra and Thay gave a Dharma talk on practicing with anger. Sister Chan Khong told the story of her hometown in Vietnam that was destroyed during the Vietnamese-American war and she talked about how she practiced with that.

It was so profound to see the fruit of the practice. Those of us who were there, Thay Nhat Hanh and the monastic community, Order members, and local Sanghas were able to hold the grief of 3,000 plus people without getting caught by it. We practice for ourselves, yes, to develop our own solidity, our calmness, our own insight. But we practice in that way so that we can offer it to other people when they need it.

Quite a few people asked me one question: "Where are you from?" I said, "I'm from California." Their second question was, "Did you come here just for this?" And I said, "Yes." And many started weeping. I felt grateful to have enough calmness, enough solidity and stillness to be there. I felt that the whole Sangha had enough of the paramita of inclusivity, of forbearance to be present there. The paramita of inclusiveness is not just the capacity to hold suffering, it's also about the capacity to practice in such a way, to live in such a way that we can transform the world's suffering into light. We develop and nurture this capacity when we practice Noble Silence, when we practice conscious breathing and sitting mindfully together, when we practice mindful walking and the mindfulness trainings together.I came back from New York clearer than ever before. One, this is the time for Maitreya Buddha. This is the exact moment for, as Thay Nhat Hanh would say, "Mr. Love and Ms. Love." Actually if you look closely and you look deeply at what has happened and what is happening, you can see him and you can see her already here. Now is the time to deepen our practice. It was clear to me in New York that I could have stayed there and expanded local Sanghas and initiated residential practice communities, because people were so clear what doesn't matter and what does matter. Two, this is a time of transformation and healing. I know from my own study of hi story that whenever there is war, hidden underneath the sorrow and the confusion and the chaos that war creates is a profound spiritual opportunity. I don 't intend to miss it. So I'm in the process of rearranging my life, so that I can spend more time practicing mindful living, mindful breathing, mindful walking and mindful Sangha building. I want to be fully present for the Dharma and the work it inspires in our world of suffering and confusion.

The world is experiencing a deep yearning; it is yearning for the light of its true home in the midst of this darkness. We are yearning for the light of the Buddha which is present in each of us; the light of the Dharma which is present in reality itself; and the light of the Sangha, our capacity to live in harmony and awareness.

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Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives at the Clear View Practice Center in Santa Barbara, California and is a cofounder of the Stillwater Sangha there.

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On the Way Home

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue In response to a request from her teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Annabel is writing about her life. Thay suggested that her story be serialized in the Mindfulness Bell and then put together in a book. In this first installment, when the story begins she is in her early thirties.

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In 1984 I was in Cheshire, England, working in an organic garden. In the winter it was sometimes very cold. As the wet English snow fell and the bitter easterly wind blew, we picked spinach. What can be more painful than the blood trying to make its way through frozen fingertips? In the greenhouse the broccoli and Chinese cabbage flourished even in winter and if the mice did not come in and eat the seedlings, lettuce would grow too. It was wonderful how fine the vegetables looked without herbicides and artificial nitrates. I was happy to learn that cultivating organically is possible and I felt the vegetables were happy too.

The garden, however, did not completely fulfill me. Somewhere something very important was missing. I had not found my sangha. Because of this, Buddha and dharma or the spiritual life were lacking. I had not arrived, I was not at home. Still I was able to dream and one night I had a dream to show me there was a way ahead. In the dream I was walking up a green hill and I came to the top of the hill. There was a wall or fence along the top of the hill, stopping me from going down the other side. I walked up and down the fence, searching for a way to climb over. With difficulty, I did climb over. There was a farmer on the other side; it may have been my father. He showed me a gate in the fence and asked me why I had not used it. It would have been so much easier. These years of wandering without arriving had been like struggling over a fence and only now had I seen the gate. The gate had always been there, only I was not aware, I had not seen it. It

is not necessary to struggle, but because we cannot see, because we are ignorant, we struggle.

Now that I have arrived, is that not the happiest thing? “I have arrived” does not necessarily mean that I have realized the path. It just means that I know I am on the path and I do not need to be anywhere else.

The dream was a presage because the next day I received the newsletter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship U.K. and in the newsletter was the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names” with a photograph of the Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay was smiling and holding a teapot. Photographs of Thay were rare at that time and this teapot photograph appeared in many places. It was perhaps the only one available. I already had an idea of what Buddhist monks looked like because I had spent time in India, but Thay did not conform to that idea. Intellectually I did not understand the poem but the images were music to my soul: the caterpillar—whoever would look so deeply at caterpillars? Whoever would have the time to look deeply at caterpillars?

Finding Safe Anchorage

In that poem and that photograph I was beginning to arrive. I did not have the fruit of arrival but the fruit of going in the direction of arrival. There was a safe anchorage for my boat that had been sailing for so many years without a port of call. In 1980, I had gone to India to practice Buddhism with Tibetan nuns. Before that I had lived in a community along with practitioners of different faiths. I had even camped out around Greenham Common in order to resist any attempt to move nuclear missiles from that base. But in my heart I was not at home and I had not found the path I most wanted to tread.

As I became more involved with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I learned about the Vietnamese refugees detained in refugee camps in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a British protectorate at that time. So I met people who had been in those camps and I heard their stories. I learned that there was a place called Plum Village that opened its doors to guest practitioners for one month every year from July 15th until August 15th. A friend and I thought of going in the summer of 1985, but when I wrote I received a reply from Sister True Emptiness (Sister Chan Khong) saying all places were taken. It was not yet time for me to go.

I was still not sure if Plum Village was my true spiritual home. Indeed when I first read part of The Miracle of Mindfulness, I was not sure if it was for me. After the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism, its complex rituals, its teachings couched in descriptions of strange and distant scenes, something so homely and simple was a shock that was difficult to accept. When I could fully accept Plum Village teachings, Plum Village would accept me. To do that I had to meet Thay and Sister True Emptiness.

Fortunately Thay agreed to come to England in March 1986. It was still bitterly cold and I organized a retreat in Cumbria in a drafty old castle that some Tibetan monks had acquired and rented out for others to have their retreats. This castle had huge rooms that could never be heated. The fireplaces gave out heat to a space only one meter in front of them. One day it snowed and one day it was fine enough for us to walk to the sea. Thay did not complain. He ate the English food that the retreatants ate. He attended all activities on the schedule and led them all as well as giving the dharma talk. Gently he encouraged me to practice by saying “and you do not need to hurry, just take one step at a time,” because I wanted to run everywhere, doing everything. Before the retreat began, Thay invited me into his room to ask me what I thought of the daily schedule he proposed for the retreat. I was moved: why would Thay ask me? After all I was a complete beginner, I knew nothing. Still, I said the proposed schedule was very good.

Thay had someone bring a cloud bell from Plum Village to use to announce activities and summon us to mindfulness. A cloud bell is a flat piece of bronze molded in the shape of a cloud. It has a sharper sound than the round bowl-shaped bell. It was invited in the draughty corridor on the ground floor of that castle twenty years ago. Thay must have felt cold. When I looked at Thay’s bed it looked as if it had never been slept in. I imagined Thay sat in meditation all night long. Sister True Emptiness asked me to try to find an electric heater for Thay’s room. I do not remember that we paid Thay or Sister True Emptiness any honorarium.

The Door Opens

When we went to London Thay gave a talk in Friend House on Euston Road, the main center for Quakers in the United Kingdom. Again I was moved when Thay asked me to tell the audience about

the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as if I had something worth saying. Thay treated others with that kind of respect. Everyone had something to offer and Thay gave them a chance to offer it.

How lucky I felt as I went to sleep! How lucky to have met Thay, although I was on my own again. I joined a Tibetan Sangha in London for a time and I was happy that having practiced with Thay I now knew how to prostrate. Before I met Thay I did not like to prostrate. It was just an outer form. Thay taught me the content of prostration—surrendering all idea of a separate self and touching the quality of great understanding, great action, and great compassion—not as mine and also not apart from me; real but neither inside or outside. My practice in that Tibetan-based Sangha was successful because of what I had learned in the fiveday retreat from Thay.

Before, Thay’s teachings had seemed too simple for me; now they were miraculously simple, real, and concrete. During that retreat I wore brown clothes, not intentionally; it was just that the warm clothes I had with me were brown. And sitting in front of Thay, who was wearing a brown robe, I felt we were one. The simple act of holding up a sheet of paper, as Thay did in the dharma talk on the last day of the retreat, touched me deeply. The talk was on the Heart Sutra. That sutra had been a closed door for me; the commentaries I had seen and heard on it had been complex and difficult to understand. Now it sufficed to look at a piece of paper and see the cloud floating in it. The piece of paper was truly empty of a separate self—that, the intellect could understand—but Thay transmitted something else. Thay’s own emptiness and my emptiness were in it.

How lucky to meet my enlightened teacher in my own country! The Tibetans had told me that that was where I would meet my teacher and he would not be Tibetan, but from Far East Asia. The prophecy came true. Prophecy comes not just from the mind of the one who prophesies but from the mind of the one who is prophesied to.

“Here Is India”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sister Annabel Laity, Chan Duc, True Virtue, was born in England, and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, became a Dharma Teacher in 1990, and was Director of Practice at Plum Village for many years. Since 1997, she has been director of the Maple Forest Monastery, Vermont, and was installed as abbess at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in 1998. In 2000, she was the first Western nun to teach the Dharma in China.

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