Plum Village retreat

Jewish Holidays

By Anne Rogal Winiker Because the Jewish year is based upon an ancient lunar calendar, Jewish holidays are never on the same date from one year to the next. Thus, my nonrefundable plane tickets were already purchased when I realized that our most sacred holidays overlapped the time period of "The Heart of the Buddha," the September retreat in Plum Village. I felt conflicted, but stuck to my decision to spend Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur far from home. My rationale that "spiritual work is spiritual work" did not appease my family. As I departed, my younger brother hugged me and hissed into my ear, "Have a safe trip, happy holidays, and don't ever do this again!"

The day after my arrival at Plum Village was also three days before the first of these holy celebrations. There was a group of Jewish retreatants, and written recognition from Thay about the importance of this time "for our Jewish brothers and sisters." But how would we celebrate without rabbi, services, or synagogue? The Jewish group numbered about 40, and most of us were now sitting in a big circle by the linden tree, trying to figure out how to create our own ceremonies.

"I feel like crying," one woman said. "I can't believe nothing has been organized."

"I'd like to develop something accentuating Buddhist themes."

"We have twenty-one days of Buddhist themes. I want a Jewish service."

"We need a bell. Someone please ring a bell."

"Maybe we should just go find a synagogue in Bordeaux."

"Can we talk about process before content?"

"My name is Shalom," said Shalom. She extended her hands, and one by one we connected our circle, closing our eyes, breathing, and finding ourselves united, after all.

The days passed, and a small group worked to .combine strongly-held philosophies and opinions, ceremonial objects and writings, and favorite songs and traditions. My sense of mission expanded abruptly when Ruby, a non-Jew, insisted that the celebrations should be offered to everyone at the retreat. "What a wonderful opportunity to experience our true interbeing," she said. Startled, I realized the image I held of our Jewish group celebrating unobtrusively in some quiet corner. To share the significance of this time with non-Jews was unprecedented in my life.

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As the holidays approached, we prepared our texts so that an "outsider" would be able to understand them. We made announcements and public invitations. When we gathered by the bamboo grove to rehearse our music, we. were joined by new people, strangers to us and to the Jewish traditions. A large circle of singers formed, standing and swaying as our ancestors have done in worship through the ages. The newcomers approached the unfamiliar Hebrew words and haunting melodies with incredible zeal. Emanuele, a non-Jewish friend from Italy, said, "I feel as if I have always known this music."

The 60-strong German Sangha loomed large for me. They circled us, clearly wanting to participate. Eulysia, gentle and self-effacing, had joined our first planning group. "I'm not a Jew, I don ' t know if it's all right for me to be here, may I help with something?" I felt the sincerity of her intention, and a pain behind it. Why did I also feel a sense of annoyance, as if I wondered, "What could you do anyway?" The next day two handsome, blond men approached us, politely offering, " May we share with you?" in German accents. As they sat down, I felt an intangible sense of threat, and could not get the phrase "perfect Aryan specimens" out of my mind. Several of my new Jewish friends were children of concentration camp survivors. I wondered if the religious services could somehow serve as a vehicle for German-Jewish reconciliation. But I didn't know how to reconcile these visceral feelings that came from a time before many of us were even born.

Friday evening arrived, bringing the Sabbath and Erev Rosh Hashanah, the eve of the New Year. To my amazement, perhaps 200 people gathered in the large meditation hall of the Upper Hamlet. Thay was there. The room glowed with warm candlelight, illuminating the flowers, fruit offerings, and rose-colored Buddha statue. Together, we sang the beautiful melodies. People's arms extended around their neighbors. Together, we rose to call out the Shema, the "watchword of the Jewish faith," affirming the Oneness of God. Stretching our arms to the sky, we affirmed the oneness of us all. We blessed bread and fed pieces to each other, saying, "May you never be hungry." And we recited the Shehechianu, a prayer for blessing anything new. We were blessing not only the New Year, but also this new Sangha of Jews and non-Jews celebrating at a Buddhist retreat. As the service ended, Nel , a friend from Holland, rushed up to me. "I want to convert!" she exclaimed.

"Tashlich" is the New Year's Day ceremony symbolizing throwing away one's sins. Thay led the Sangha on a mindful walk to the little pond in the Lower Hamlet. We had been instructed to gather small sticks along the way. At the water's edge we stood silently for a few moments, then threw the twigs into the water and called out aspects of ourselves we'd like to cast away for the new year. Soft voices filled the air: "My greed, my impatience, my lack of involvement, my anger. .. " We were told to imagine these attributes transformed into our aspirations for the coming year. Suddenly, miraculously, the sticks sprouted wings! Brown dragonflies arose from the pond and took flight.

As we turned to go back, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Andreas, one of the "Aryan duo." In that profound moment I felt a warm recognition. We bowed, smiled, and embraced in a meditation hug. Then with silent accord we took each other by the hand and began to walk. I became terribly self-conscious: "I don't know this man. German. Jew. It's hot. Why is he walking so slowly? My shoulders feel so tense." Eventually, mind and body relaxed, hands remaining gently linked. We were going slower and slower. Each pace took me deeper into my mind. I saw myself led on a death march into a concentration camp. But here was a German friend, and he was coming with me. I was an African child, leading a blind grandfather on the long walk from the river to our hut. I was the first of a long line of Jews, and he of Germans, with our ancestors and the generations to come stretched out behind, walking, walking. I was myself, and a student of mindfulness, taking one slow step after another, no attainment, no path, no destination. Thay's gatha from walking meditation the previous day returned to me. I practiced it, linking silent words to my breathing and my footsteps: "Andreas, Andreas, I am here; Anne, Anne, I am here," bringing myself with him into the present moment even as, absurdly, a loud megaphone from some nearby auto racetrack blasted noisy commentary across the fields. Present moment, wonderful moment.

Trust blossomed, and friendship without discrimination was born. The stereotyped German and Jewish concepts fell from me as gently as the sticks had fallen into the pond. Later after we had talked, we brought the idea of a German-Jewish dialogue back to our friends. This idea bore fruit. On two separate evenings, about 35 people from both groups met to share their historical wounds, fears, shame, guilt, and mistrust. Gentle mediation by the visiting Japanese Zen Roshi and the respectful setting of shared mindfulness brought healing for many.

After the ten "Days of A we" separating the two holidays had passed, we gathered again to celebrate the eve of the solemn Day of Atonement. The service opened with a poignant and powerful song, Kol Nidre. This ancient prayer absolves us of vows that could not be kept from the previous year, and symbolizes cleansing and purifying our failures. Jacqueline, a violinist whose Jewish parents raised her as a non-Jew, said that she had "lived, eaten, and breathed" the Kol Nidre music for two weeks at her tent site. Now she played it for the ceremony, and her violin cried and soared. We could feel the pain and joy of her Jewish spirit, finding its voice after a very long sleep.

On Yom Kippur, Jews and non-Jews gathered in the Transformation Hall throughout the entire day, fasting, praying, singing, breathing, and sharing together. The ceremonies were profound: meditations on forgiveness; recollecting our dead; casting rose petals into bowls of water as we shared our memories, traditional Hebrew prayers and song; a writing exercise, beginning with the words, "I remember" ; a symbolic purification ritual, washing of the hands; the prayer for healing, preceded by calling aloud the names of our loved ones who were ill. Then it was sundown, and we heard the thrilling, ancient sound of the shofar, the ram's horn. "May you have a good year!" We all embraced, went through the food lines together, and broke our fast in hungry and eager mindfulness. Over and over the words kept turning in my mind: "We are the heart of the Buddha."

Anne Rogal Winiker is a wife, mother, musician, and physician living in Boston, Massachusetts. She practices with the Community of Interbeing.

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A Frolic Down the Path of the Buddha

By Janelle Combelic mb52-AFrolic1

A Buddhist retreat at Plum Village is unlike any other Buddhist retreat (as far as I know). There’s relatively little sitting meditation, which surprises and disappoints some folks. But there are lots of other forms of meditation — in fact the practice of mindfulness means meditating twenty-four hours a day, no matter what we are doing. The point, of course, is to teach us how to do this in daily life, out in the “real” world.

There are two particularly ingenious methods that Plum Village has devised for teaching the practice of mindfulness. The first is working meditation. At the Path of the Buddha retreat, I was in the francophone family with my friend Pascale and my mentor, Sister Dao Nghiem. Our job for the three-week retreat was to clean the bathrooms in Lower Hamlet. Hence our name: Delicate Fragrance.

Working with people every day, you get to know who likes to scrub every corner and who would rather pick flowers for the sinks. Who has a bad back but doesn’t want to complain. Who stops to chat (and chat and chat), who’s cheerful no matter what, who’s grumpy. Who wants to tell people exactly how to do everything (me) and who on the second day realizes that grown women know how to clean bathrooms and can decide among themselves who’s going to do what (me again).

You learn a lot about other people, but mainly you learn about yourself, in the context of community and activity. Being as how most of us live and work with others, these lessons come in very handy once we return home.

On the Road to Plum Village

The other ingenious device to teach mindfulness on retreat is the skit. Most Vietnamese people love to play; and since their culture was only recently infected with modern technology, they still enjoy old-fashioned homegrown entertainment. So at the end of every retreat there’s a grand performance. Fortunately, we’re doing the performances within each hamlet rather than all 600 of us together. After living together for three weeks, Lower Hamlet feels like one big family.

Which is a good thing, because there’s nothing that brings up people’s neuroses like the idea of performing in public.

Unlike most families, we started working on our skit the very first week. Serge, the one man among twenty-three women (our hamlet hosts women and a few couples), proposed a lovely old French folk song that someone had rewritten into a Plum Village song, “On the Road to Plum Village.” We decided to rewrite the song again with a story about us: arriving at Plum Village all tired and stressed out, then cleaning toilets and showers together, finally finding freedom and happiness.

Working on the song that first week was a blast. A few people did the writing, then Beatrice, a delightful and energetic Swiss woman who could not for the life of her hold a tune, emerged as the director. We formed two choirs who sang back and forth to each other. Sur la route des Pruniers...

At the end of the second week it all turned sour. We’d been rehearsing every day, and had the music down pretty well but were getting tired of it. Hélène, who happens to be a fabulous singer, arrived at the retreat two weeks late. That evening she sat down with the only two people who still wanted to rehearse and she taught them a slightly different version of the tune. And the three of them came up with a new way of performing it.

The next evening after dinner we started to rehearse, and all hell broke loose. Ah non non non! On recommence pas à zéro! No, we’re not starting over, someone huffed and stomped off. Others shook their heads in disgust and did not return from cleaning their dishes. The rest of us regrouped, decided to put the song mostly back the way we had it, and had a great time singing our hearts out and laughing.

The next day we started adding the skit. It had been my bright idea to have actors pantomime what the words were saying. (No one in our audience was going to understand our song, because it was in French! The other 140 retreatants at Lower Hamlet were British, Dutch, German, American, with a few Italians.) From the supply closet by the kitchen, I had collected all kinds of props — new brushes, sponges, mops, spray bottles — all stashed in a suitcase for the first part of the skit.

Retreat Rockettes

Don’t you just wish that after all these years of listening to Dharma talks, meditating, paying therapists, going on retreat — don’t you wish you could stay enlightened for more than thirty seconds at a time? When it came time to create the little skit, just three minutes of pantomime, my ego came out to play. Big time.

Because I had some really good ideas! Brilliant ideas! Every morning and every evening in meditation, in the deep stillness of the meditation hall, it was the first thing that sprang into my mind: Sur la route des Pruniers... I saw our three nuns doing this, and our lay friends doing that in the next verse, and a stupendous finale with everybody dancing... as stunning as the Rockettes of Radio City Music Hall.

Enough already! Quiet.

When it came time to rehearse with our family, my overbearing enthusiasm was not well received. Beatrice was a little miffed that I had wrenched all the fun stuff away from her. And the actors never managed to come together at the same time: Andréa got sick, Géraldine had to make an emergency trip to care for a friend, Josslyn had somewhere else to be after Dharma discussion. But the obvious reason that it didn’t come together is that it was supposed to be a collaboration. Silly me.

Day after day, I dealt with my feelings and frustrations — looking deeply in meditation, stepping back when rehearsals weren’t going well, letting go, letting go.

Thank goodness the performance was pushed back to Thursday. On Tuesday Sister Dao Nghiem, who had left us to our own devices, initiated a rehearsal. The two groups sullenly stood facing each other in a semicircle and half-heartedly sang: Sur la route des Pruniers... The nuns walked through the center as we had scripted. The actors feebly acted out our part. With only a little squabbling in the middle, we limped to the finale.

Sister Dao Nghiem calmly admonished us to relax a little bit and have fun. Then she redesigned the ending, adding some peaceful walking in pairs rather than our manic scurrying and jumping. We performed it a few more times but our hearts weren’t in it.

I Have an Idea!

The big day came. We rehearsed before dinner, but it wasn’t going very well. I was disgusted with myself for getting so hung up on the whole thing, for not being able to communicate my ideas effectively, and especially because my magnificent finale had been scrapped.

Finally I decided to just throw myself into it. What did I have to lose? I banished my ego once and for all and joined in the fun. We were nervous, we were excited, we were enjoying ourselves again.

Then Hélène said, “Attendez, j’ai une idée! Wait, I have an idea!” We all screamed. She was joking of course. Béatrice suggested next time we do a skit we should call it “I have an idea!” We all laughed; we knew exactly what she meant.

That night in the meditation hall we were one of the last acts to perform. There were five or six before us, all funnier and more inspired than the last. The pot-washing family pounded tubs and pans for an energetic percussion piece, accompanied by nuns and laywomen waving big pot lids in a traditional Vietnamese hat dance. The vegetable-chopping family did a skit about having to work in silence (Delicate Fragrance conveniently forgot about the practice of silent working meditation).

When it came our turn, yes, you guessed it — we pulled it off! Our fellow retreatants laughed and clapped along to our silly song. We exited the stage area breathless, joyful, eminently pleased with ourselves.

Someone from another family later remarked on how much harmony there was in our family. We laughed our heads off when we heard that.

But there was harmony. A far deeper harmony than when we started. During the worst of it, when some people disappeared from the family for a day or two and our dinners together were glum, Sister Dao Nghiem told us that harmony does not mean the absence of conflict. You can have differences — in a community there will always be differences — but still you have harmony because you care about one another. You want it to work, so you do whatever it takes.

In fact, I believe those very difficulties are what knit the community into a harmonious whole. How else would we get to know one another deeply, to know ourselves?

That’s why Thay says he wouldn’t want to go to a heaven where there’s no suffering. It’s in those cracks that healing occurs. It’s when our heart breaks that we learn how to love.

That’s the whole point of the skit — aside from motivating us to relax and play, us Westerners who can take the whole thing so seriously. It’s fi to feel peaceful and loving when you’re sitting on a cushion or walking in the woods or eating with friends in silence. But try to do something together and that’s where the real practice begins.

Those are the lessons that I’ve taken home with me, and put to use in my daily life -- humility, joy, Sur la route des Pruniers...

mb52-AFrolic2Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, practices with Lotus Blossom Sangha in Longmont, Colorado.

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