Autumn retreat in Plum Village

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October 21st 2012
Published: October 21st 2012
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To Plum Village and back

I flew from Hamburg via Amsterdam to Bordeaux, then caught a train to Ste Foy la Grande, where I was picked up by the nuns and taken to Lower Hamlet. On my way back, I flew through Paris.

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The bell tower.
I just returned from a one week retreat in Plum Village near Bordeaux in France. I flew into Bordeaux (where I had some time for sightseeing, but that’s another story, I will write more on that soon) and caught a train from there to Ste Foy la Grande, about an hour from Bordeaux, where I was welcomed by two nuns.

Plum Village was founded in 1992 by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, called “Thay” by his students. It consists of four major hamlets: In Upper Hamlet, there are approximately 65 monks and laymen. Thay lives here. In Lower Hamlet, there are over 40 nuns and laywomen. Son Ha Temple houses approximately 20 monks, and the New Hamlet, 20 minutes away by car, houses approximately 40 nuns and laywomen.

Thay is active in many fields, amongst them promoting peace in the world. His teachings focus on mindfulness, a state which he considers crucial for being at peace with oneself and the world and for achieving happiness. You can be mindful not only during meditation, but during whatever you do, be it walking from one place to another, working, eating, talking to others, in short: One can be mindful during any single activity. What I like
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The main building with the office, dining hall, and one small meditation room.
about him is that he points out many ways of integrating mindfulness into our everyday lives for people like you and me, so people that live in the “normal” world, that have jobs, a family and friends. Thus, he has a very “worldly” approach to practice. With his peaceful, quiet and happy demeanour, he gives me the feeling that he really practices what he preaches, and I consider him a wonderful teacher.

I stayed in Lower Hamlet, together with 31 women from ages 15 to 65 from various European countries, but also from the US, Singapore, Hong Kong, Colombia and Australia. Most of us were women as men usually go to Upper Hamlet. There were only two men, one of them being the father of the 15 years old girl that was there for the retreat, the other being the father’s friend. Our educational backgrounds were different, and most of us had already explored other religions or Buddhist movements. The thing that united us was our respect and compassion for others and our will to somehow improve this world. Usually I don’t like being with women only because they tend to be iffy and overly emotional. But my experience
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The lotus pond with the bell tower in the background.
here was absolutely different. All of us listened to the others, showed compassion, helped wherever possible, and accepted the others the way they were. This felt like true sisterhood. My roommate was Melissa from Seattle who had been travelling around England and France for a few weeks before going to Plum Village and who was going to continue her travelling for a few more weeks after the retreat. We had a great time together, talked about many, many things and could not believe it when we found out that our birthdays were on the same day!

Our days started at five in the morning with the wakeup bell. At 5:30, we met in the meditation hall for the morning meditation and chanting. Especially during the first days, this meditation was quite challenging because I was still tired and had to struggle not to fall asleep. The darkness outside did not help… From 6:30 to 7:30 a.m., we could exercise if we wanted to. Some of the others did yoga or went for walks. I usually preferred to take my time for a nice hot shower and some fresh air afterwards. At 7:30 a.m., we had breakfast together from a
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... located on a hill above the monastery.
buffet. In the dining hall, each table was big enough for six people. After taking what we wanted to eat from the buffet, we sat down at one table and waited until there were six people at it before starting to eat. Before taking the food from the buffet and also before starting to eat, all of us took a moment to thank all living beings involved in its production for the food.

At 8:45 a.m., there was a gathering in which we did some singing, then there were 2.5 hours of working meditation. Lower Hamlet has a big orchard and garden, so we helped cut and move branches of the trees, cut and remove the lotus leaves from the pond, pick weeds from the vegetable garden and around the buildings, and so on. It was nice being outside in the fresh air, walking, seeing the progress of the work, chatting to the others every now and then and simply being in the moment. At 11:30 a.m., there was walking meditation (outside in good weather), followed by lunch at 12:30. After lunch, we had free time until 3 p.m. We could simply talk to the others, go for a
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On our way from Lower Hamlet to the village of Loubès-Bernac.
walk, take a nap – in any case, take things slowly.

In the afternoon, we had different things happening. One time, we watched a talk by Thay on DVD, on two other days, we did dharma sharing, meaning that we shared our experiences with Buddhist teachings (there were various topics). At 5 p.m., there was one more sitting meditation, followed by dinner at 6 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., there was a final item on the programme, for example a total relaxation session one evening. From 9 p.m. onwards, there was noble silence, meaning that we were not supposed to talk any more. Most of us went to bed shortly after nine anyway because of the early morning. Melissa and I also did, but often talked when we were already in bed. This felt almost like when I was a little girl and was allowed to spend the night at one of my girlfriends’ places. There we were, lying in bed, and my friend’s mom had told us that we had to sleep now, but my friend and I kept talking secretly. Funny.

Sunday and Thursday were special days, called Mindfulness Days. These are days on which there are

... the village not far from Lower Hamlet.
talks by Thay in one of the hamlets, and all four hamlets meet in this one hamlet to listen to him, to meditate together and to share their experiences. On these days, there was morning meditation at 5:30, but we had breakfast at 6:30 already so that we could head off to one of the other hamlets. On Sunday, we were taken to New Hamlet by van (because New Hamlet is a 20 minutes drive from Upper and Lower Hamlet). On Thursday, we walked to Upper Hamlet (which took us about 45 minutes). At 9 a.m., all attendants (nuns, monks and laypeople) meditated together, then the monks and nuns chanted. After that, Thay did some breathing exercises with us, then he gave a teaching. On Sunday, he talked about compassionate listening and how it is important to understand ourselves in order to understand others, and how this compassionate listening can be a powerful way of resolving conflicts. On Thursday, he talked about the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

I was very impressed. First, Thay is 86 years old, but still he manages to stand on one foot and bow his knees
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Buddhas looking down into the valley.
during the breathing exercises, and it looks as if this was so easy for him. Second, he talks for 90 minutes without even appearing to become exhausted by it. He has a way of explaining things in a simple way and uses many pictures and examples so that I always walked out and had the feeling that I remembered quite a bit of what he had talked about. I am far from uncritically accepting everything he says, but most of his ideas make a lot of sense to me. The dharma talk was followed by about an hour of walking meditation.

After the walking meditation, all of us had lunch together. This meant that we got our food from the buffet, then returned to the meditation hall and ate there all together, including Thay. On Sunday, we had a formal lunch, which meant that men sat on the one side of the hall, women on the other. Monks and nuns sat in the order of their ordination, those highest in the hierarchy closest to Thay. We waited until everyone had sat down in the hall, then there was some chanting and prayer (which is of course not a true
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The big meditation hall, nicely situated in a park.
prayer, we are in a Buddhist setting, but rather some affirmations), and then we all started eating together (in silence, of course). On Thursday, the dinner was informal, meaning that we could sit where we wanted and start eating anytime.

After lunch, there was dharma sharing on the topics Thay had talked about. The interesting thing about dharma sharing is that it is really conceptualised as an exchange of personal experiences with certain aspects of the Buddhist teachings and that it focuses on the feelings these experiences generate. The aim is to finally reveal the hidden patterns and concepts that underlie our daily behaviours. This reminds me pretty much of what psychotherapist C. G. Jung taught: Humans form certain so-called complexes throughout their lives which act as focal lenses through which they see everything that happens around them. This view is distorted, and the aim of his therapy is thus to find and resolve these complexes.

The dharma sharing was somehow surprising to me. I did not feel inclined to share deep thoughts and difficult experiences with people I hardly knew. I did not see in what way it would help me or them. I have friends I can share my problems with, and talking about them once more just would not make sense to me because I have already talked about them. So I do not see a benefit for myself in it, nor do I see a benefit for the others because if I told them my problems and how I deal with them, what would they have learned? Well, maybe I will still have to learn more about this method in order to really appreciate it. On the other hand, I was shocked to learn how common alcoholism and abuse are and how many people apparently did not receive the love and care from their parents they would actually have deserved when they were kids. And I was shocked how stories of abuse and alcoholism (or substance abuse in general) seem to be passed on from generation to generation until finally someone breaks this vicious cycle. Maybe for many people this dharma sharing thing is indeed a good one because they might not be as blessed as I am with loving family members and friends that I can talk about everything in my life. Anyway. After the dharma sharing, we went back to Lower Hamlet, had dinner together and passed a lazy evening.

Another exceptional day was Monday, the Lazy Day. There was no particular programme on this day. The wakeup bell rang at 8 a.m., and we went straight to breakfast. The only “events” that were scheduled on that day were, apart from breakfast, lunch and dinner. So we could do whatever we wanted. We talked a lot, and as it was a beautiful day, Melissa and I took a really slow walk to the village that is closest to Plum Village, Loubès-Bernac. We took a lot of time to explore the village and had a wonderful “real” coffee (in Lower Hamlet, there was only instant coffee). It was indeed a nice and lazy day. The day ended with the “Beginning Anew” ceremony. To begin anew is to look deeply and honestly at ourselves, our past actions, speech and thoughts and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others.

Altogether, it was a wonderful and inspiring week. It did not matter that much that the accommodation was rather basic, that it definitely needed refurbishment and that it was quite cold in most of the buildings. This made me appreciate my little home even more. But apart from that, it was wonderful to see Thay speak and to see what he has created. Plum Village is so peaceful, the people who live there (nuns and monks as well as laypersons) are so full of respect, kindness and compassion. They are so willing to share their wisdom, but without imposing themselves on anyone. The week in Plum Village was a true enrichment for me. I would like to thank all the kind sisters in Lower Hamlet as well as all my “retreat-sisters and retreat-brothers”. A lotus for you, a Buddha to be.


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