Plum Village: Touching the Earth as the Dharma Rain Falls

One day the Buddha gave Rahula, a young novice, a Dharma talk about the earth’s capacity to receive, embrace, and transform all kinds of elements. There are four great elements: earth, water, fire, and air (mahabhuta). The four great elements all have the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. “Rahula,” the Buddha said, “learn to be like the earth. Whether people pour milk or fragrant liquids, deposit flowers or jewels, or pour urine, excrement, and mucus on the earth, the earth receives them without discrimination.” Why? Because the earth has the capacity to receive, embrace and transform. The earth can receive excrement and urine because it is immense. It transforms them into flowers, grass, and trees. If you cultivate your heart so that it is open, you can become immense like the earth and can embrace anyone or anything without suffering. (p. 190, The Path of Emancipation, Thich Nhat Hanh)

I first came across the above story last January when I was stuck on a train for 36 hours while coming back from Bodh Gaya. If it wasn’t for the immense train delay I wouldn’t have finished reading the 600 paged, “Old Path White Clouds” which is Vietnamese Zen Buddhist Monk, poet and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh’s, retelling of the life story of the Buddha.  For me, the train delay was entirely worth it because when I came across this dialogue between the Buddha and Rahula it summarized what my beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, has given me—the aspiration to always have an open heart and embrace whatever comes my way like the earth. During the past two weeks I was able to deepen my practice and partake in his loving, gentle and inspiring teachings at the annual Summer Retreat in Plum Village, the Buddhist Practice Center he founded along with his colleague, Sister Chan Khong, in Southern France.

One of the West’s most popular Buddhist teachers, his teachings on mindfulness have transformed the lives of so many individuals and communities from a variety of spiritual, religious and political backgrounds. He manages to combine the beauty of Mahayana Buddhism with the core teachings of the sutras about mindfulness breathing and the four establishments of mindfulness and make it relevant and accessible to us in our daily lives.  While he is often cited as being the founder of the “Engaged Buddhist” movement (which is often described as Buddhists who seek to connect insights from their dharma practice to social, political, environmental causes etc.) when asked about what “Engaged Buddhism” means to him by one of my friends at a Dharma teaching last Sunday he said that “Engaged Buddhism” can also be seen as applied Buddhism, it has to do with your daily life, like brushing you teeth (He often jokes about when he brushes his teeth he is so happy because at the age of 83 he still has teeth!), doing your dishes and interacting with your friends. The kind of Buddhism people often think of as engaged is socially engaged but you know anything you do correctly will profit society, if you have peace and happiness it will affect the world in a positive way.  Thay often says that he is a Buddhist free from Buddhism!

Last September, when I first came into his presence, I literally felt as if I was hit by a tsunami of love and I knew my life had changed forever. I am so grateful to him and his teachings on the “Art of Mindful Living” because they have given me true freedom, deep peace and so much joy—his words and loving nature have opened my heart in ways no other teacher has. During his time in India I was fortunate enough to attend two retreats (one just for educators on promoting mindfulness in the classroom) and every speaking engagement of his in Delhi along with an unforgettable peace walk on Gandhi’s Birthday. His essential teaching is to live deeply each moment of your life. To do this you must practice mindful breathing and bring your mind back to your body. The Buddha said it is possible to live happily now—Happiness is possible in the present moment and the practice consists of completely placing ourselves in the present moment to look deeply, when we do this we will always see that there are conditions of happiness already—true happiness comes from inside, from within. We spend so much time in forgetfulness, never really living, planning (a few weeks ago I read a great book that addresses our tendency to obsessively plan the future and how this can be ineffective written by Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert, “Stumbling on Happiness”) or worrying about the future, replaying the past. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have goals, plan for the future or learn from our past but we must distinguish between productive thinking and unproductive thinking and train ourselves to think in a positive way. Through cultivating the energy of mindfulness we are able to befriend our anger and alleviate the pain and suffering of ourselves and of others. In Dehradun, I was able to ask him what faith is and he told me, “It is believing in ourselves and in the seeds of compassion, forgiveness and joy which our ancestors transmitted to us. If we believe and water these seeds we can overcome anything.” So in a way, faith is complete trust in one’s Buddha nature, in ones capacity to awaken and transform any situation.

Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh’s students refer to him as Thay which means teacher in Vietnamese) founded the Unified Buddhist Church in 1969 in France during the Vietnam War. He became a novice monk at the age of 16 and in the early 1960s he founded a grassroots relief organization in Saigon to assist those who were left homeless during the Vietnam War. While in Plum Village I read Sister Chan Khong’s autobiography, “Learning True Love: Practicing Buddhism in a Time of War,” which gave a detailed account of their remarkable lives including their exile from and eventual return to Vietnam, the contributions of this grassroots organization, “School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS),” and their tireless efforts to promote peace throughout the world. One of the reasons why Thay is so special to me is that he is this remarkable blend of scholar and master practitioner. After founding SYSS he then studied comparative religion at Princeton University and lectured at Columbia University but his main focus was urging the US to withdraw from Vietnam. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. In 1966 he established Tiep Hien, the Order of Interbeing. Interbeing is a word Thich Nhat Hanh created to refer to the core Buddhist Teaching of dependent origination—that nothing exists independently, everything exists because of other things. Thay’s poem, “Call Me By My True Names” is a great illustration of this: http://www.quietspaces.com/poemHanh.html. The Order of Interbeing is a community of monastics and lay people who have committed to living their lives in accord with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings which to me are a dynamic interpretation of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path—the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. The trainings emphasize non-attachment from views, direct experimentation on the nature of interdependent origination through meditation, and skilful means. I’ve been studying the trainings for the past year and they’ve really changed my life especially the training on non-attachment from view: “Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow minded and bound to present views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.”  For me, the trainings have given me an ethical guide to skillfully navigate myself in the world so I never feel lost or have confusion about anything. But mindfulness isn’t about right or wrong, it is about looking deeply and generating concentration so you can have insight and cultivate your inner wisdom.

While I was in Plum Village the nuns asked me to share my experience of practicing the Mindfulness Trainings with those attending the retreat. Initially, you can receive Five Trainings, they are a modern, beautiful interpretation on the Buddha’s original Five Precepts—don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t commit adultery, don’t drink—and then those that wish to become a part of the core community must take up the study and practice of the 14 trainings, I’ve placed both on my blog in case you are curious along with my notes from Thay’s teachings. I don’t see the trainings as a black and white interpretation of right and wrong, rather they are a way to open my heart and try to live more compassionately—at least this is how I view them. During the past 8 months Thich Nhat Hanh and his students have revised the Five Trainings extensively so that they are more relevant in our day and age and reflect a Buddhist vision for a global spiritual ethic. I renewed my commitment to practicing the new version of the trainings when I was in Plum Village. Still it is important to understand that you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice the trainings. When I was in India I met a Christian Minister who is a student of Thay’s. In fact, the first of the 14 trainings stresses the importance of not being bound to any doctrine, theory or ideology, even Buddhist ones—the teachings should only be seen as a guide to develop our understanding and compassion. While I was in Plum Village I befriended a lovely yoga teacher from Brussels. It was so wonderful to connect with her about Yogic Philosophy and discuss Advaita Vedanta as well because these traditions inform my practice in numerous ways as do a variety of other spiritual traditions as well.

Plum Village (www.plumvillage.org) itself is breathtakingly beautiful and radiates with peaceful energy. Located in the French countryside, in the summer time the region is filled with fields of sunflowers! The monastic’s and lay practitioners that live there are so warm and friendly and I made many new, special friends from all over the world! If I had to choose one word to describe the weeks I spent there it would be “nourishing” and I would be happy to chat to those of you that are interested in spending time there. Unlike other retreats I’ve been to the schedule in Plum Village is much more open and relaxed. During the retreat your rise at 5:30am, sitting meditation from 6-6:30, followed by breakfast and then a teaching (usually with Thay) at one of the Hamlets (Plum Village consists of 3 Hamlets, Lower Hamlet house nuns and Upper Hamlet houses monks and they are relatively close to each other but New Hamlet which is where I stayed houses nuns and it is considerably farther away from Lower and Upper Hamlet.).  The teaching is then followed by walking meditation and after that you eat lunch. Everyone is assigned tasks to contribute to the community—I was responsible for taking out the trash and washing pots during the retreat. After you finish you work you have free time until dinner and after dinner there is usually a teaching or discussion in your “Dharma family.” Your Dharma family is led by a monastic and made up of a group of people that you share work tasks and conversation with. Being the youngest non-monastic in my Dharma family I found our discussions so valuable and learned a great deal from the wisdom and life experiences of my Dharma brothers and sisters. During my time in Plum Village we also had a beautiful festival to honor our Ancestors and a festival to honor our Parents. One a week we practice a “no car day” and all of the food is organic and vegan to help reverse global warming. We also have one day a week called “Lazy Day” which is where we have no plans or obligations and your only job is to be lazy—this practice reminded me of Abraham Heschel’s thoughts on the Sabbath (great summary found at: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Judaism/2000/08/A-Palace-In-Time.aspx).

A dharma friend of mine with an experience from a tradition that stresses sitting meditation for hours a day did jokingly say to me once, “Oh yeah, in Plum Village you just sit for half an hour and write a poem about it!” I did feel that it was important for me to do sitting meditation for more than 30 minutes even though the idea is that you are meditating, fully present and practicing mindful breathing during everything you do. Each Hamlet has a beautiful temple and a meditation hall where you can practice sitting more—pictures up on facebook! I really enjoyed the flexible schedule, it emphasized Thay’s whole, “Happiness is here and now, nowhere to go, nothing to do I’m not in a hurry. Happiness is here and now, somewhere to go, something to do but I don’t need to hurry.” Thay himself walks slowly and mindfully at all times and you know he has mastered the art of living each moment deeply. One afternoon I decided to do walking meditation all the way into a nearby town a few miles away. I was walking joyfully through the fields of sunflowers, with each step nourishing my soul and I was going so slowly that a lovely French man in a tractor stopped and asked me what was wrong and if I was injured because I was walking so slow and offered to drive me to town!

Thay has numerous practices to help us live mindfully and if I shared even some of them this e-mail would be 1000 pages! He has published hundreds of books, has written the most beautiful poetry and I have read several of his books and poems. I’ve found his teachings on death and the practice of “Touching the Earth” the most liberating though.  The practice of “Touching the Earth” can help us touch our true nature of no birth and no death. If the ultimate fear is death then understanding (not just intellectually) that you never are really born and you never really die can be the most liberating experience in the world. For me, “Touching the Earth” is a way to really look deeply at our own nature as a product of dependent origination and our existence in this remarkable web of life. It consists of deeply touching in this moment the presence of our parents, ancestors (blood, spiritual, and land and when we touch the earth we release any negative habit energy we have received from our ancestors and give it to the earth to transform), children (if we have them—I usually visualize my students), the lives of those we’ve touched, and all of the animals, plants and minerals that exist in us and we exist in. When looking at life in this way, that we have no separate self, that we are interconnected with everything makes living so much richer.  Feeling this interconnection then we realize that how we live our life affects everything and the suffering of living beings is our own suffering—the commitment of a Bodhisattva is the relieve this suffering. The practice itself is very, very rich and you can find it in many of Thay’s books (I highly recommend, “No Death, No Fear”). I also would be happy to elaborate more about it in person or on the phone though I’m still very much a beginner—to strengthen my practice I’ve actually made a CD guiding myself through the various touchings of the earth that I would be happy to share. It is important to not practice in form though—what’s the point then? I call this empty practice and if I’m not mindful this is what I end up doing.  Thay stresses that to really practice we must use our intelligence and our skills to make nourishment and transformation possible—we practice to awaken ourselves and to awaken others. 

I’ve been blessed to have a solid, loving sangha in New Delhi made up mostly of my colleagues at the American Embassy School—our Tuesday evenings together have been a refuge for me. Almost all of us attended the retreats with Thay when he was in India (we wrote about our experience during one of his retreats and this “Mindfulness Report” can be found at: www.aessangha.com) and his teachings have transformed all of our lives and many of us have tried to bring mindfulness practices into the classroom. I tried to practice mindful eating with my students. During the orange meditation one of my ninth graders, Yeon Ju wrote: “At first I wasn’t exactly sure why Ms. S wanted us to put so much thought into just an orange. Plainly there were the orange pickers, the sellers, and the market owners in line of the process of selling the oranges. However, when reminded of the poem that we read in class about how in order for this paper to have been made, a rainfall would have had to happen for the tree to grow and etc. I was then able to concentrate on the deeper meaning of the activity which was to get out of the trance of thinking that the orange is a simple matter, and should have been in my hands without the efforts and the natural process of a thousand events. Before the orange pickers, or even the farmers who planted the orange tree, the Earth had to exist. It may sound like an exaggeration to think about the pre-historic times just for an orange to have happened. But like all humans, and the current existence of you, me, and us, an orange took just as much amount of process. In conclusion, I learned that we shouldn’t take everything for granted but actually think about how it came to be and how much effort or time was put into just one simple existence and be thankful, thoughtful, and simply more aware of my surroundings.” I hope to do more practices with my students this year and am trying to write an article for “The Mindfulness Bell” publication about this.

I’ve also been blessed with a loving family and their solidity and stability has given me the ability to attempt to live life deeply and while I have a long way to go it feels so refreshing to have found a path and a true teacher. My parents will be attending Thich Nhat Hanh’s Day of Mindfulness in New York City this October and if any of you are in the US and have the time I definitely recommend checking out his tour schedule (www.tnhtour.org), he also has two monasteries in the US—one in San Diego and one in New York and there are hundreds of interfaith communities of mindfulness all over the world! A few days ago my father celebrated his birthday. When I was at the Root Institute in Bodh Gaya last January I came across Thay’s book, “No Death, No Fear” in their library and the first page I opened to had the following passage which I included in the card to my father: “One day as I woke up I remembered the words of a folk song, ‘My father and mother have given me so much merit.’ Their merit is my generosity, love, forgiveness and capacity to offer joy and happiness to others. They have given me this precious inheritance. Our children are our continuation. We are our children and our children are us. If you have one or more children you have already been reborn in them. You can see you continuation body in your son or your daughter, but you have many more continuation bodies as well. They are in everyone you have touched. And you cannot know how many people your words, actions and thoughts have touched.”

I am so grateful to the brothers and sisters of Plum Village, to my ancestors, to all living beings and of course to all of you—we all continue in each other. Thank you for touching my life. During the first Dharma teaching Thay gave he said, “Who is the Buddha?  It’s you when you are full of love, understanding and peace. Sometimes you are the Buddha sometimes you are a part time Buddha. Whether you choose to be a full time or part time Buddha the choice is yours.” It’s really up to us, we choose. I’ve attached a beautiful song entitled “No Wait” sung by some of the nuns to this e-mail. When I first heard the song it brought tears of joy to my eyes, it felt as if the Buddha was speaking. I love the lyrics but my favorite lines are: “You are the farmer. You are your field. Tend to your land. And grow your freedom.”

I will be back in India next week and in the mean time I’m sending you all warm wishes from France! Now I’m off to stroll the streets of Bordeaux and mindfully eat French pastries, savoring each bite while looking deeply at the many miracles that have come together to make the delicious treats exist.

With Love from Bordeaux,

Meena

Pure Confidence of the Heart (My Dharma Name)

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