Having just returned from a monastic retreat in Plum Village over Christmas and New Year with my wife Georgina I have since felt the need to write up my notes.
Plum village is a monastery situated in South West of France. The community is run by Vietnamese monks (brothers) and nuns (sisters) and was initially founded by the Zen Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 1982.
The Community run annual meditation retreats for up to 700 people from all over the world.
5:15 am – Wake Up, get dressed
6:00 am – meditation (45 minutes) + readings and recitations from the Plum Village texts (mainly containing Buddhist Suttras, discourses and allegorical insights)
7:00 am – breakfast (in noble silence)
9:00 am – working meditation (1 hour)
11:30 am – walking meditation (30 minutes)
12:30 pm – lunch (in noble silence)
2:00 pm – (optional Dharma sharing)
3:00 pm – Dharma talk by one of the sisters
6:00 pm – Supper (in noble silence)
7:45 pm – meditation – with readings from the Plum Village daily chanting book
9:00 pm – Rest (noble silence until 9:00 am the next morning)
Christmas and New Year celebrations
We enjoyed Christmas and New Year with around 700 people – including Buddhist monks, nuns and lay people.
I felt so energised by the quality of the food. The vegetables (broccoli, beetroot, carrots) were especially well cooked, vibrant in colour and texture and there were masses of tofu/bean curd, spring rolls and sticky rice or noodles in keeping with Vietnamese cuisine.
We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in Noble Silence – including until the washing up had been done – allowing us to truly appreciate the eating experience. I always enjoyed sitting close to some of the monastic sisters during breakfast – just observing the care which they applied to every. single. mouthful. I feel so much love and gratitude to the sisters and especially the cooking staff. Plum Village is extremely well run and there are lots going on behind the scenes.
Breakfast would offer a choice of oat or rice based porridge, brown bread, sliced baguettes with an array of toppings and adornments; from pumpkin seeds and crunchy almonds to dates, kiwi fruit, sliced apple, banana, lashings of tahini dressing (pureed sesame seed paste) and powdered nutritional yeast.
Lunch would typically be tofu, vegetables and salad leaves. Supper was often soup or broth with leftovers from lunchtime.
It seems strange, however, that I’ve returned from France without having had any wine or cheese (Plum Village being a stritly vegan and non-alcoholic retreat community)
Dharma Talks and discourses
For me, the Dharma talks (or Buddhist sermons, if you will) were one of the highlights of the retreat. I found the messages to be very subtle but extremely profound. The talks were attended by people from different nationalities and were held in either French or English (and translated accordingly).
It was brilliantly organised and the translations were seamless.
I do not profess to know a lot about Buddhist texts and am not officially a Buddhist, but I felt a deep resonance and meaning from every talk, reading and recitation. From the Buddha’s perspective the 3 things that matter most in life are:
“How well did you love?
“How deeply (into life) did you go?
“How fully did you Let Go?
Surely this is a guide to living for anyone; no matter their background, race or religion. The Dharma Talks at were given by the monks and nuns themselves and ranged in theme:
- Understanding the nature of craving, impermanence and desire;
- How to cultivate gratitude, patience, equanimity, compassion, imagination and awareness;
- Being mindful and fully aware by living in the present moment as fully as possible;
- Being open, taking a walk every day, remembering to breath;
- Appreciating other people (the ‘otherness’ of the other) by seeing them exactly for who they are and not who we want them to be.
The images below, “Discourse on Love”, were taken from one of the textbooks of discourses.
The atmosphere of the community was very amiable and the French countryside got more picturesque as the days went by. I think the influence of the environment and the relaxed vibe of Plum Village allowed me to absorb the messages from the teachings
31st December 2015 (New Year’s eve)
The talk was offered by brother monastic Thầy Pháp Đăng who opened with the message,
“This is the time to be with loved ones and to calm our minds and our hearts”
The main theme of the Dharma talk was, “Why is there often so much Darkness in life? And how do we awaken from this darkness?”
We were given the following five steps towards cultivating an enlightened mind:
1) Beginner’s mindset – cultivate a mind that is open, fresh, curious and therefore can creatively adapt to circumstances;
2) Mind of gratitude – cultivate praise for our parents, farmers, society, our food, our teachers, friends and other loved ones.
3) Lucid mind / Clear mind – appreciation for things, “as they are and not as we would like them to be; no controlling or aversion (“I hate the rain”); dropping all previous knowledge (“emptying ourselves so that we may begin anew)
4) Mind of Love – I was asking myself, what is Love? For me, love is many, many things. It is: the capacity to bring joy, happiness and peace to yourself and others; to extend ourselves towards the needs of another; to accept another person without projection, expectation or control; and to accept that to love is an intention, an action and a choice.
5) Mind of Silence – cultivating a mindset free from fear; not resorting to ‘false refuges’ when we are fearful, angry, upset or lonely (TV, mindless internet browsing and the fridge).
Dharma sharing and Q/A session
The dharma sharing allows us to come together and share whatever is in our heart at that time and to ask questions of the monastics on a range of themes.
An example of one of the questions from our group was:
Q. How do we come to know our purpose in life and find meaning – whilst living in a conditioned environment?
I thought the sisters responded very effectively to this question. They encouraged us to reflect, examine past actions and look for patterns in our behaviour.
The advice ranged from the profound to the more generic –
· Discern the “right effort” in all things and do not allow yourself to be governed by fear.
· Acknowledge your own personal authority / ability to choose
· Focus on something that truly matters
· Do not wait for permission to act.
I often think about living in our heavily conditioned environment and am reminded by C.G. Jung’s proverb that, “we walk in shoes too small for us…”
This is stating that most of the time we adapt to the voices around us, the demands of our environment, rather than being guided by an instinctual and driven internal nature which wishes embodiment through us and into the world.
For me, we need to make choices every single day. Many of which are complex – meaning that we need to exercise discernment, humility and discipline. I think it’s important not to look for perfectionism in all things, something I struggle with daily, to know that options do exist in life and that we have the freedom to choose – instead of being led by the flock of opinions around us.
Back into the ‘real world’
Before leaving Plum Village – back to the real world (or the ‘Default World’ as Georgina artfully put it) – we were given the opportunity to share a reading or to sing a song as part of our contribution to the community. Georgina and I chose to read “Tripping over Joy” from Hafiz’ book of poetry, I Heard God Laughing, which seemed the most appropriate in terms of theme. It goes like this:
“What is the difference
between your experience of existence
and that of a saint?
The saint knows
that the spiritual path
is a sublime chess game with God
and that the Beloved
has just made such a fantastic move
that the saint is now continually
tripping over joy
and bursting out in laughter
and saying, “I surrender!”
Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think
you have a thousand serious moves.”
Whatever that may be I’ll leave you with the following wise words and wish everyone a Happy New Year.
“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering: it will be happier” – Alfred Lord Tennyson