organic farming

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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On the Way Home (part 2)

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue mb43-OnTheWay1

Sister Annabel was one of Thây’s first students in the West. At Thây’s request, she is writing a memoir of her practice life; this is the second installment.

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Thây and Sister True Emptiness [Sister Chan Khong] were so kind to me in my first years at Plum Village. They treated me like their own family, their niece, their child. Can I ever repay them their kindness? Though they already had many things to take care of, they also took care of me. They understood, for example, that I liked to eat Western food, and they also introduced me to Vietnamese food.

Sister True Emptiness, out of great kindness, offered me many opportunities to eat Western food when I fi came to Plum Village. Now it was some St. Paulin cheese, now a packet of muesli. We discovered a supplier of organic wheat flour some 70 kilometers from Plum Village, where we bought flour to make bread in our neighbor’s oven. Sister True Emptiness told me where I could buy milk from a neighboring farmer and taught me how to make yogurt.

From an early age we accustom ourselves to a certain kind of food. Not only our body but also our mind grows used to that food. Our parents and grandparents teach us to cook the food that they have learned to cook. If you come from Vietnam you like the taste of rice and the vegetables that grow in East Asia. If you come from France you are accustomed to bread at every meal. Thây often tells us that when the master Hsiuen Tsang traveled to India to bring the Buddhist scriptures to China he could no longer expect to eat the Chinese dumpling and had to be content with curry and rice. In a multicultural community we have the right to cook and eat the food of our motherland, when it is available, but we also need to be open to new dishes and even be willing to try new ways of cooking from time to time.

A Bridge in a Divisive World

Sister True Emptiness is truly a person of two cultures. You feel that she is as at home in the French culture as she is in the Vietnamese. Thây also is as gracious in other cultural settings as he is in his own. A true practitioner of mindfulness is an ambassador for the spiritual path in any cultural setting. Thây encouraged me to practice being at home in the culture of the country of my birth and also in the Vietnamese culture. Thây never encourages anyone to abandon their own spiritual or cultural roots but rather to be in touch with these roots in mindfulness. Cultures can complement each other and a true person of two cultures can be a bridge in a divisive world.

Sometimes Thây would offer me tea made with milk and sugar. Occasionally he would also make himself a cup of this British tea but at other times he would drink the Chinese tea to which he had always been accustomed, as I sipped the British kind. When Thây introduced me to Chinese tea, he taught me to fill the glass two-thirds full and when the glass was emptied, to inhale the fragrance that remained in the glass from the tea. That fragrance is the fragrance of the tea flower.

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From Community to Sangha

At the end of 1986 Thây and Sister True Emptiness were away in Australia and the refugee camps of Hong Kong and the Philippines. That winter it snowed heavily and since in that part of France there is no equipment to clear the roads we were not able to leave the Lower Hamlet. The wild animals were very hungry and boar came nearby looking for food. We had collected just enough wood in the months before to keep ourselves warm but the pipes froze and we collected snow to melt and use for water. When we practice to follow our breathing in the present moment as our lives are going well, we have something to rely on in the winter of our lives when conditions are not what we should wish for. Life has its wonderful message of impermanence that encourages us to practice and helps us be grateful for everything that is available for us in the present moment.

We were a community of twelve living in the Lower Hamlet—myself, four young men newly arrived from the refugee camps, and in the Persimmon Building, a family from the refugee camp: father, mother, four children, and their uncle. The eldest was twelve and the youngest less than two. They made a living by growing Asian vegetables and selling them in Bordeaux. The father was an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing. At that time we could not yet call ourselves a sangha because we did not share the spiritual path as does a sangha. Thây and Sister True Emptiness loved us all and held us in their embrace of care and affection. They wanted us to practice every day as part of our ordinary daily living but somehow we were not there yet. Thây was very patient with us. Sister True Emptiness had instructed me to be as an elder sister to the four young men. I was to make sure that they studied French and recited the mindfulness trainings every week. This was not too easy for one of the young men who was not confident in his ability to learn French and enjoyed above all playing volleyball just at the time when the French class was happening.

When Thây came back from the tour of Southeast Asia and Australasia, he shared with me that Plum Village would become a practice center and the people who lived there would be united by their practice. I was very happy and reassured when I heard this and wondered how it would happen. When they were not traveling to teach the Dharma, or during the one-month summer opening for families, Thây and Sister True Emptiness lived in the hermitage. They would visit us from time to time. Sometimes the visit was unexpected and sometimes Sister True Emptiness would call us in advance to say that Thây would come and give a teaching. Everyone knew that Thây did not want us to drink wine or eat meat but there was no regulation. When they knew that Thây was coming all traces of wine and meat were hidden away. I never drank alcohol or ate meat myself but I did not need to tell tales to Thây; he seemed to know what was happening whether we told him or not.

Thây and Sister True Emptiness guided our practice; apart from Thây we were all lay practitioners. Thây asked me to think about a constitution for Plum Village to help Plum Village become a practice center. In the Fragrant Palm Leaves community in the south-central highlands of Vietnam, the practitioners under Thây’s guidance had not needed this kind of regulation because they all had a firm basis in the practice of Buddhism. Thây, like the Buddha, was not in a hurry to make regulations, but there came a point when, for the sake of the practice, it was necessary to do so. Basically our constitution held that those who lived in Plum Village followed the schedule of practice and studies, recited the mindfulness trainings, and abstained from meat, alcohol, and cigarettes. The final item of the constitution was that those who did not want to live in accord with the mindfulness trainings would be asked to leave; Plum Village would give them assistance to find a place to live and a way of earning a livelihood.

There were no hard feelings on the part of the four young men who left at this time. They felt that it was the right time to go and they were ready to take the next step in their life in France.

The Deep Practice of Organic Gardening

Under Thây’s guidance, I began to learn the practice of living in harmony. Unlike other members of my community, I had experience in organic gardening. To me it seemed the only sane way to produce vegetables and fruits. To the others it seemed a crazy idea. I was sure that Thây would support this idea but he was firm that there should be a consensus in the community. Only in retrospect do I see the wisdom of this. We all know how much Thây cares about the environment. Long before coming to Plum Village Thây had organized the Dai Dong conference in Sweden one year as an alternative to a governmental conference on the environment organized in South Africa. Many delegates to that official conference had a vested interest in not protecting the environment and that is why Thây and his friends saw the need for an alternative. So it was difficult for me to understand why he did not speak out in support of organic cultivation in Plum Village.

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Thây said that all of us must sit together, discuss, and agree on how we were going to cultivate the land. During this discussion I was a minority of one. Thây suggested that I take a small plot of land and cultivate it organically. Others would see the results and then we could increase the size of the organic garden. This is entirely in the spirit of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings—we do not force others to accept our views, even though those views are Buddhist ones, and we allow people to decide; but we use compassionate dialogue to help people make the decision that is most beneficial to the community.

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By this time I had been joined by another sister whose name was Thanh Minh. She was a refugee whom Sister True Emptiness had met on the tour of the Southeast Asian refugee camps and sponsored to come to France. Thanh Minh had spent time with a teacher in a temple in Vietnam so she knew about the temple way of life. Her arrival in Plum Village was a very happy moment for me. Together we could live and practice and work in mindfulness. And together we worked in the garden.

The plum trees planted in the Lower Hamlet had been donated by lay practitioners, many of them children. They knew that when the plums were harvested the proceeds from selling them would be sent to Vietnam to support the poorest families. We all felt responsible to our donors and wanted to produce the crop they expected of us. So we began slowly but surely. In the early morning we would examine the seedlings for slugs and gently put them in a tin and transport them to a meadow or the forest. We had plenty of uncultivated land around us where they could survive.

As soon as it was light Thanh Minh and I would go outside to do our slug meditation and weed the different vegetable plots. In a practice center one has time for this kind of activity and it becomes a meditation in itself. The garden is a wonderful place to practice. The greenhouse is like a meditation hall. The aroma of incense is the aroma of coriander leaves and mint and celery. The mind is the greenness of the plants and the discrimination of what is weed and what is vegetable; somehow the mind needs to discriminate between what is a positive and what is a negative thought. When Thây had first asked me if I wanted to stay on in Plum Village, I had asked him what I should do. Thây had said: “Be yourself and, if you like, plant a little mustard green to eat in the winter.”

Our next step in making an organic garden was to find out about organic fertilizers. The sales representative told us about bone meal and dried blood. We asked him where he acquired such materials. He said that the local abattoir [slaughterhouse] sold it to him. We did not feel we could participate in supporting the slaughter of animals. So we relied on planting nitrogen-fixing plants between the rows of plum trees, compost, and cow dung. Plum Village has cultivated organically for many years now.

Tofu as Teacher

One of the young men in the community had made and sold tofu and bean sprouts in the Hong Kong refugee camp and he taught me how to do this. The bean sprouts we made in a large old wine barrel—that region is part of the Bordeaux wine-producing land—nearly full of sawdust. The tofu we made by soaking the beans overnight, then they were ground in an electric grinder. We put the ground beans in a muslin sack and pressed them with water so that we had the milk. The first milk that we pressed out by kneading the sack was thick and creamy. Then we added more water and the milk was less creamy. The first milk was made into tofu and the second when cooked was kept for soy milk. When the creamy milk comes to the boil you add a tablespoon of calcium carbonate and miraculously the liquid gels. Then you press it into shape in a mold for several hours. The lid is held down by heavy stones. It was not always successful. Sometimes the gelling does not happen and there is little you can do with the resulting liquid. I never knew exactly why it was not successful but there must have been causes and conditions.

Mustard greens grew well in Plum Village. If you dropped seeds on uncultivated land they would germinate. If the plants were left to go to flower they would seed themselves. With so much mustard green we could make a pickle. Pickles also need to have the right conditions in order to be successful. Thây taught me how

to make mustard green pickle in the hermitage. To make pickles all you need is mustard green leaves, salt, and water. First you sterilize the ceramic or glass pots you will use to make the pickle in, because the presence of the wrong kind of bacteria will stop the proper pickling process and lead to a bad-smelling, mold-covered result. You do not need to cook the mustard greens, you just pour boiling water over them, having put a tablespoon of salt in the pot first. You press the mixture down with a heavy lid and leave it for three or more days, depending on how cold the weather is. You should not look at the pickle too early, because opening the lid can also cause foreign bacteria to come in.

The first time I made mustard green pickle, it did not work. I was disappointed just as when tofu failed. Somehow I learned from my mistakes. At first I think, “what a waste of material resources and time!” Then I look back and discover at what stage the process could have gone wrong. I compare myself or my actions of body, speech, and mind to the making of tofu or pickle. You could say that a disciple of the Awakened Ones is in the making.

There are actions of body, speech and mind that are not successful. They are not edible for others and they do not nourish myself. Thanks to the practice of recollection, when I think back on that action I feel an unpleasant feeling. That unpleasant feeling gives rise to mental attention. The mental attention, if it is appropriate, will give rise to the two beneficial mental formations of hri (humility) and apatrapya (shame). I feel ashamed because I know I have hurt someone by my words, deeds, or thinking. In humility I come to the other and apologize. That is how I learn and the next time the pickle will be more edible. I do not allow the bacteria of guilt to come into the ceramic pot because that bacteria will never allow the proper souring process to take place. Shame is not guilt. Shame means “I know I have made a mistake. I am sorry. I make the deep aspiration not to do or say it again.” Guilt is a regret that takes away my energy. It is the idea that I cannot stand up after I have fallen and the fault I have committed will always follow me without my being able to do anything about it.

Maybe I do or say it again. Then I know my aspiration was not followed up by enough mindfulness and concentration. So the old habit energies, like old bacteria sticking to the sides of the unsterilized pot, spoiled the pickle again. Again I express my regret and this time it is successful; a new habit energy has formed in the depths of consciousness.

Finally the pickle is pickled, the soy cream gels into delicious tofu.

mb43-OnTheWay6Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center, a four-fold sangha in Vermont.

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