Plum Village is a great Buddhist center in southern France (one hour drive from Bordeaux). It is a lovely place steeped in the quiet nature of Southern France that allows for relaxation, recreation, and Buddhist practice. The place was founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, and poet who is 87 years old, but is still young in spirit, present in the village and overseeing many of the activities there. Thich Nhat Hanh inspires many thousands and perhaps millions of people all over the world with his gentle and accessible teachings.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about 100 books in English about Buddhist philosophy, its implementation in everyday life as well as Buddhism’s attitude to death. After reading some of his books and listening to some of his online conversations, I decided that as long as he lives, it would be incredible for me to travel to France to learn from and be in the presence of a person who literally realized the Buddhist path.
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A Leitmotif Thich Nhat Hanh uses often in his writings and lectures is the word mindfulness – attentive awareness and presence in the present time. Unlike Vipassana meditation workshops in which practitioners meditate for many hours, the daily schedule in Plum Village is quite spacious and not completely silent. There are many types of practices: formal sitting meditation, walking meditation, eating meditation, work meditation, listening to live or recorded conversations as well as group sessions. There is an atmosphere that supports mindfulness or presence in every moment and every action you take: chewing food, washing dishes, preparing a cup of tea, listening to a Dharma conversation (a conversation about the principles of Buddhism), and so on. Parts of the day are silent, including meals in which you eat vegan food slowly and pay attention to every chew. Every fifteen minutes a special tune is played which signals participants to stop and return to the present time. When the music sounds, everyone stops in mid activity (even if you are walking, working, chewing, speaking, etc) and takes a few deep breaths to return the sense of awareness of the body to here and now. Over time, it becomes a habit to stop once in a while and realize that there are a body and a breath.
Finding joy in the present moment is a principle in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching that is highlighted in Plum Village. Finding joy in what we have here and now: the beauty of nature, fresh and crisp air, birds chirping, being in a supportive community, and more. One of his mantras is: “This is a happy moment” – just stop every now and then and remember that we have plenty to be happy about in the present moment; there is no need to wait for something to happen (or not happen) in the future. Thich Nhat Hanh says that each of us has more than enough conditions to be happy here and now. The problem is that we take what we have for granted and learn to appreciate things only when they are lost to us – then it’s too late. Why not love what we have now? Often in a relationship with another person, we learn to appreciate what we had only when we lose it. Rather, let us learn to appreciate it now and say to our partner (this is also the second goal of his five mantras for a happy relationship:) “I know you are here for me and I am happy “.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches how breath can be an anchor of Mindfulness – in every moment in your daily routine you can remember to return to a sense of breathing. This sense which is ever-present (if we listen to it) can connect us instantly to the present moment. He wrote several mantras that can accompany the sense of breathing and help us concentrate on breathing.
Thich Nhat Hanh formulated Buddhist ethics with a modern flair. He calls them the “Five awareness training” (Five Mindfulness Trainings). These practices represent the Buddhist vision of spirituality and ethics worldwide. They show the way to true understanding and true love; a path that leads to cure, peace of mind within ourselves and in the world. Memorization and application of these five practices lead to a deeper understanding of being that will put an end to discrimination, intolerance, fear, anger, and despair.
Consider first awareness practice:
“Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I vow to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, not to let others kill, and not to condone any act of killing in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life”.
I recommended reading the text of the five awareness sessions with annotations by Thich Nhat Hanh.
In summary, my week in Plum Village was enriching and filled with learning. I encourage all of you to take an occasional break, stop, breathe and look..
(You can see more photos I took on the retreat here)