In Which I Actually Write About Plum Village

Resonance is a driving concept in my life.

I believe that, when we’ve finally figured out why we’ve been put on this earth, resonance is the byproduct. The pursuit thereof is what brought me to blogging. It’s the whole “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive” thing. The inverse is Thoreau’s “The mass of men lead lives of silent desperation.” I refuse to lead a life of silent desperation. I refuse to lead a life of vocal desperation. My decision to go to West Point as a 16-year-old boy was one that resonated within me at the time. The subsequent disillusionment, well, I believe that’s called becoming an adult. And as a mentor tells me every time I pick up the poem that serves as my north star, the most important of all virtues is the courage to stay true to one’s childhood dreams – to stay open to the wonders of life. I believe that’s called becoming a man. The poem is in French, but that’s the gist of (the end of) it. In that spirit,, I’ve been fighting within the confines of my chosen societal prison to stay true to my deepest yearnings. Thank you, West Point French class.

Isabelle’s description of Plum Village in that Anglican church led to a resonating ‘yes’ in my soul. Yes, yes, yes. This is what I want. This is what I need, here and now. This is what I have been looking for. So I did some preliminary research, which is to say, I found dates that nested with my block leave period, and a week later, I submitted my request to stay a week in July. Planning too much spoils the joy of discovery; as such, I don’t often bother. A place to stay and a way to get there are about all I need. I think that, after I leave the Army, I might scrap even those. As Hellen Keller said, life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing. I like that. Anyway, I then started discussing my plan to my coworkers, all of whom thought I was nuts. Guilty as charged – I see no merit in being strictly rational – but what I do with my personal time is my own business, thank you very much. This has been a slow lesson in coming for my boss, who has had to bend his expectations vis-a-vis the Army and me. To his credit, he’s gotten there.

I didn’t read any of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 100+ publications before I showed up at Plum Village, nor did I watch any of his Dharma talks or interviews (click this one) on YouTube. This made me a minority of one among my peers, who were largely veterans of Plum Village or at least engaged in Sanghas in their home communities (more on that later). I was also the only infantry officer seeking refuge in a Buddhist monastery, so whatever. My first night there, I befriended two 30-year veterans of the Liberian Army. And we Americans think we have it tough. I won’t argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan haven’t left a trail of broken bodies and souls in their wake, but the atrocities there and the atrocities in Liberia are of an entirely different caliber. Let’s just say that, historically, Liberia is not the most peaceful place on the planet. These guys, seeking for relief from the PTSD they suffered for the things they’d seen and done, had come to Buddhism to be healed. They had also sworn the remainder of their lives to rebuilding a community ravaged by a generation of war. Swords to plowshares – such a powerfully poignant image in my mind. Those poppies up there are not incidental.

What I did do, was read all of the coordinating instructions and follow the packing list to a T. Ask me if I do that for the Army. The answer is no, because packing lists are produced as an afterthought by tired NCOs who largely never actually go to the field. I don’t know why I bothered following a monastic packing list. In real terms, it meant that I had four pairs of shoes and enough clothes to necessitate rolling luggage, a personal symbol of shame. I could wax poetic on this subject. I’ll sum it up in one word: cobblestones. Note also, when my grandfather died last fall and I flew to America for a 10 day stay and his funeral, I rolled up my suit and stuffed it in a backpack. And America doesn’t have cobblestones.

I soon learned that, of all those four pairs of shoes on the packing list, I needed but one, and they didn’t have laces. I didn’t need all of those clothing items that extended beyond my elbows and knees, as that rule didn’t seem to be terribly significant. In fact, none of the rules save ‘respect the sound of the bell’ carried much weight. Buddhists are not like soldiers (and thank God for that). I spent my week in my Arc’teryx parachute pants (super lightweight, and no worries about sunburn!), my Merrill slip-on shoes (I never intended to own these, but The Clymb sent them to me in Afghanistan in lieu of a pair of running shoes I had ordered – and I love them), and whatever shirt fit my fancy. Simplicity. That’s another Buddhist precept. The monks own three brown robes, a bowl, and a set of chopsticks. That’s about it. And a hygiene kit. Gotta brush them teeth – and shave. In this way, they are like soldiers. Except a lot more benevolent. I had 12 days of facial hair by day 5 of my stay there, and nobody said a word for or against.

Anyway, the daily ritual worked loosely as follows:

0515: Wake up
0600: Guided meditation
0630: Mindful exercise (bamboo stick exercises)
0700: Breakfast
0900: Dharma talk, generally a lecture or panel
1100: Walking meditation
1200: Lunch
1500: Total relaxation
1600: Working meditation
1800: Dinner
2000: Dharma sharing
2200: Noble silence

On the evening of my arrival, I rode from the train station at Saint Foy Le Grand to Plum Village in an 8 passenger van with a French family and two American guys my age. This proved consequential because when registering for a group, I chose to be with my new friend Shivam. I didn’t know his name or much about him at that point, but we had ridden in together, and I knew that I wanted to be with somebody I (kind of) knew. So, I fell in line behind him at the registration hall and, when confronted with a choice of groups to join, I chose the one that he had signed up for for no other reason than he had signed up for it and I (kind of) knew him. And thus, I found myself a part of a profoundly interesting assortment of young men and women.

An aside to introduce the bell. Resonance is a central tenet of Buddhism too. The bell, accordingly, is a very potent symbol. Imprinted on one face of the great bell of Plum Village is this inscription, the wish of Thich Nhat Hanh: “Body and spirit in perfect harmony, I send you my heart with the sound of this bell. May all who hear me leave their worry and transcend all anxiety and pain. I hear, I hear. This marvelous sound brings me to my true home.”  Bells are treated with great respect. A bell is not simply struck; it’s first invited, then sounded. The rod used to generate the sound is thus called an inviter. An invitation is a half tone; the inviter touches the rim of the bell, but does not leave to allow for resonance. It is believed that the quality of the invitation affects the quality of the full sound. Following the invitation, the bell is brought to resonance. Reception of this resonance depends on how open an individual is to its sound. At a minimum, it is a call to peace, a signal to turn inward and focus on one’s breathing, thus returning to the here and now – therein lies happiness. This process is used to open and close all scheduled events, and is used periodically throughout the day. It is a wonderful reminder to dwell in the present. This concludes the aforementioned aside, now back to the program.

I wake up at 0515 on a normal Army day, so waking up at a monastery that early was no problem, save that I was living with 7 other men of varying ages, and the old men tended to beat me to the bathroom we all shared (They also snored and used blinding iPhone lights to probe the darkness – these both gave me ample opportunity to practice the tenet of non-judgment. Said Shakespeare, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. Reflect on that one). I did some morning calisthenics while I waited my turn – at least until we’d worked out a rhythm that was agreeable to the lot of us. Read: my two competitors very mindfully took two distinct courses of actions. One dropped out of the competition in favor of a late morning, and the other woke at 0500 to shower.

I generally made it to the meditation hall by 0545, walking mindfully (read: slowly) the whole way. I have always enjoyed the morning most, and it was a pleasure to see the sun rise each day. I’d sit on a cushion amid a coterie of other early morning risers and meditate in silence for 15 minutes until one of the monks began the guided meditation with the ritual of the bell. I loved those sessions – they are a great way to start the day, and taking that time to focus on your breathing rather than your smart phone is a great way to bring priorities into focus. There are different levels of meditation – 16, according to what I was taught, but four basic meditations. The first is to simply be aware of your breathing and observe your thoughts. The second is to focus strictly on your breathing, following your in breath and out breath through to completion. The third is to be cognizant of the body as you breathe. The fourth is to really listen to the body as you breathe. I got a lot out of practicing the first and second meditations during this time block. Total relaxation was the time to focus on the third and fourth.

Bamboo stick exercises followed the completion of morning meditation. We’d all file out of the hall, don our shoes, grab a bamboo rod, and walk over to a field to begin the sixteen (eight and eight) bamboo stick exercises. These are a collection of exercises aimed at harmonizing one’s breath with one’s body, and improving flexibility – a little bit like yoga. My favorite exercise from a comic’s standpoint is the one in which you hold the bamboo rod at one end and extend your arm straight out (it’s called the Magic Sword!). From this position, you are to rotate your wrist such that the bamboo rod passes over your head (you lean back as it approaches), then back to the starting position. The first 180 degrees are your in-breath; the second are your out-breath. I quickly learned that this is not as simple as I had assumed – the variety of sincerely wrong moves I observed made for a good chuckle. Faces in exertion are wonderfully expressive.

Breakfast followed at 0700. We’d all queue up in six lines and do our best to maintain noble silence (no talking!) through to the end of the meal. In extremis, monks would use the bell to bring us in line. Breakfast was comprised of oatmeal, nuts, raisins, seeds, fruits, soy milk, bread, rice cakes, and various spreads. It was conducted in silence, the idea being to eat mindfully, appreciating every bite. The dietary regimen at Plum Village is entirely vegan, by the way. As an active athlete with a ravenous metabolism, I took the opportunity to observe how my body adapted to both eating vegan (I was open but skeptic) and only eating three times a day (fortunately, I had stores of bread sticks and Nutella from my Normandy trip). My two concerns were pure caloric intake, and protein. Lots of flax seed powder, lots of sunflower seeds, no dairy. I do not understand why dairy is verboten at the monastery. I imagine it has something to do with the elimination of suffering, as is the primary goal of all things Buddhist, but the lack thereof at the monastery is a major reason I will never be a monk. Brie! Camembert! Roquefort! Comte! Parmesan! Pecorino! Manchebo! Mozzarella!  Man, I love cheese.

Following breakfast, we’d all do dishes – a process reminiscent of my Boy Scout days of yore. Wash, rinse, rinse, rinse, put in the racks for sanitization! Once past this hurdle, noble silence was officially lifted until after the last official function of the day, dharma sharing. The space between breakfast and the dharma talk at 0900 was one in which to greet friends, share tea with one another, prepare a picnic lunch, and tend to whatever personal affairs needed tending. This was always a diverse hour and a half for me. When I wasn’t engaged in a conversation of my own, I quite enjoyed observing others greet one another, or listening to one prodigy or another on the piano. The musical talent scattered around that camp was astounding.

Dharma talks began at 0900. These usually began with the monks and nuns of the three hamlets chanting a Buddhist chant. These usually lasted about 15 minutes, and many found them quite profound. I was personally much more blown away by a resident named Nigel who just so happened to have spent six years studying violin in a conservatory and gave up the performance life to intern at a monastery and grace people with his humble virtuosity at lunchtime. Bach, man. He’s just in my blood. Anyway, these dharma talks ranged in theme from an introduction of the camp and its principles, to an introduction of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, to a panel discussion thereof, to question and answer sessions. They were generally very informative, and totally unpretentious. I value that last bit a great deal. I don’t know if mentorship is a widespread phenomenon in society writ large. For one such as me in the ranks, it is decidedly not. Accordingly, the humble diffusion of knowledge gained through experience and introspection to an audience strikes me deeply.

Following the daily dharma talk, we’d again break until walking meditation. As the dharma talks generally ran for about two hours, this interval was not long. All would gather together to walk in a (mostly) silent procession through the woods, treading softly so as to bless the earth with each step. Many removed their shoes and walked barefoot on the good earth. I found myself drawn to the practice, and did so at times myself. It is a liberating thing, to walk barefoot through nature. I also find this practice of being mindful of my steps and their relation to the earth to be both visceral and deeply symbolic. Accordingly, I now choose footwear that allows me to really feel my connection with the earth – no more clunky hard soles that deny me that sensation. These walks generally ended in a beautiful wooded area where we would take our lunch in silence, or while being serenaded by a four-piece chamber orchestra in nature. Let me tell you, that’s a way cool experience. Bach’s Air on the G String. In a geometrically planted birch forest, the wind  blowing gently overhead. I swear, there is nothing like an audience caught up in the enjoyment of something beautiful. Music has such transcendent power.

Following lunch, we would walk back from our picnic spot for a bit of down time before the 1500 activity. Total relaxation meditation is just that. It’s pretty cool. A whole sea of people lay down on mats in the meditation hall and focus on their breathing. That simple act is likewise profound to me, coming from a culture which never surrenders its guard. At the appointed hour, a monk or nun would invite the bell (one does not ring a bell in Buddhism; one invites it to sound) and begin the meditation session. This involved a guided meditation focusing on one’s body, a series of positive affirmations, and quite often, a nap. A wonderful nap, I might add – I always awoke refreshed. Such wonderful people, those Buddhist monks and nuns. They always woke us up so gently, and always closed the session with two bows of recognition. In the first, we would would face each other, using the center line of the hall as the line of demarcation, and bow gently to acknowledge another’s soul. We were always encouraged to identify somebody we had not yet met for this exercise – an act reminiscent of the peace greeting of the Anglican Church.  At the next sound of the bell, we would turn towards the altar, and bow to the Buddha and our ancestors. To be is to inter-be, and our ancestors never really leave us. I am he and you are he and you are me and we are all together… the Beatles definitely studied some Buddhism.

The period between 1600-1800 was reserved for working meditation. Somehow, this fell off of the monastic to-do list later in the week, but when I did do it the first few days, my friend Shivam and I would walk down to the Happy Farm, an organic farm providing nearly all of the produce to Plum Village, and weed the lettuce patch. Grasses. It was a beastly task, but rewarding all the same. We were sworn to mindful silence here too, and this time spent working the earth was wonderful for contemplation and a sense of accomplishment. Periodically, one of the residents would sound the bell, at which we knew to stop activity and return our focus to our breathing. Breathing in, present moment. Breathing out, wonderful moment. Breathing in, I know that I am here and now. Breathing out, a smile spreads across my face. It’s a beautiful world.

The sun tested the mettle of my sunscreen, and not wanting to risk crisping, we would call retreat and return to camp around 1730. On the way out, I’d wash my hands and do a few sets of pull-ups on the opportunely placed pull-up bar. In doing so, I learned that my vegan diet had no adverse effects on my strength, at least in the short term. As is the nature of manhood, I also goaded a few guys into a bit of exercise themselves. A rising tide lifts all boats! Returning to the main camp, I would often find my friend Marc, an older French man, leading a musical group in song. I generally jumped in. Basses are always in short supply. More about Marc and his group later too. Some of my most wonderful moments happened amidst this crowd.

Dinner was eaten as a family in mindful silence. It would always begin after everybody had served up their meals from the dining hall and gathered in the circle of lawn chairs designated for my family of 18-36 year olds. We’d sit in silence with our food until all had gathered, after which the ritual of the bell would invite the day’s announcements to be given. Grace followed, in a variety of traditions – the only requirement to call oneself a Buddhist is to be alive, and the practices of other faiths are celebrated – then we would eat, mindfully. The celebration of global cultures at Plum Village was a reminder of our bonds of fraternity, rooted in our mutual humanity. Chewing every bite deliberately and feeling the texture of our food is a form of meditation too, and we learned about this at dinner, then practiced it at every meal. Taking time to enjoy every last bite is a powerful lesson in mindfulness. I highly recommend it.

Dharma sharing was undoubtedly my favorite organized event. This is the practice of sharing what’s on one’s mind with his spiritual family. It’s a lesson in vulnerability, love, and acceptance. It’s a reflection on the teachings of the day. It’s an invitation to share one’s personal inspirations, doubts, issues, and insecurities. Poems, prayers, and songs flowed hesitantly at first, then freely as we became comfortable with one another. Sometimes, people would speak of personal quandaries, only to find the answer to their question in the process. Sometimes, people would speak of ongoing struggles and ask for the experience of others. As one immersed in the stoic tradition of the Western man, it was amazing to me to speak openly with other men about their issues with their families. It was amazing to learn of the challenges that each of my brothers and sisters was facing, and witness their grace in their struggle. In dharma sharing, I found the yearning for a better world and the support structure to bring it into being that I believe should be a hallmark of every congregation. In dharma sharing, I found noble souls laid bare. In dharma sharing, I found gentle growth. In dharma sharing, I found family.

In dharma sharing, my mind often drifted to a stanza of the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, first introduced to me the year the towers fell:

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born into eternal life.

Call me cheesy – I don’t care; St Francis is my home boy, and he encapsulated a beautiful ideal.

We would end the formalities of the day with the ritual of the bell, and an invitation to practice noble silence until after breakfast the following morning. Many would walk to witness the sun set from a particularly scenic hilltop.  Some would stay longer, watching the rise of the firmament and the gradual population of the night sky (Sky map is a way cool app!). I took part in each of these evenings of simple appreciation, relishing the childlike sense of wonder. (Google Vocal Point, get on Amazon, pull up the album Lead Thou Me On, listen to their 30 second free sample of All Creatures of our God and King, fall in love, then buy the song. Or just click here to skip straight to the good stuff. There is no good free recording on the Inter webs – I scoured for near an hour!)

Stop.

Breathe. Breathe deep.

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart.

Breathing out, I smile to my heart.

Dwelling in the present moment,

I know that it is a wonderful moment.

And when the morning light came streaming in, we’d get up and do it again, amen.

Here’s to savoring the present moment –

James

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3 thoughts on “In Which I Actually Write About Plum Village

  1. Its just cruel to write such interesting things with no way to discuss with you. About a dozen times I thought of something I wanted to say to you… How lovely though James, sounds like a wonderful experience!

    Like

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