‘You have enough.’ This postcard on my fridge reminds me every day of my trip to Plum Village monastery and mindfulness centre in the Dordogne, France. With food in my belly, clothes on my back and a roof over my head I have abundance.
I’m left literally with the clothes on my back when my luggage is lost at Bordeaux airport, on the way to Plum Village. Lesson one: trust my instincts. Initially bereft, I surrender to the serendipity of being unburdened of my possessions. What could I possibly need apart from a change of clothes and toothbrush?
I miss the last train from St Jean station and endure a two-hour taxi ride with a grumpy, chain-smoking French driver. He throws the car recklessly round sharp bends, whilst chatting on his phone, gesticulating how ‘magnifique’ this slice of God’s cake is. And it unquestionably is, if only he would slow down so I could take in the ancient chateaus, farmhouses, patchwork of fields, abound with grape vines in manicured rows that whizz by in a green blur. Handing over 180 Euros when we arrive at Plum Village, I should be the grumpy one.
Upon arrival at Plum Village at 9.30 pm I receive a frosty welcome from a sister, reluctant to let me in because I’m late. Exhausted from the journey and close to tears, I don’t relish sleeping outside, the grass is dewy and there’s a chill to the midsummer country air. Eventually another sister appears and gives me food, clothes, a toothbrush and towel, after I explain about the lost luggage.
Not a wink of sleep. There’s a snorer in my dorm. I vow to find earplugs and to never share a room again. I am so absorbed in my anger I forget the faithful saying that ‘this too shall pass.’
The next morning in the hall, covered in delicate wisteria, looking onto the plum trees, we meditate on – guess what? Anger. How appropriate. Incidentally, the grumpy sister apologises to me, saying she is sick. No excuse, I think, rather ungraciously, learning my second lesson: spiritual leaders are just like the rest of us. Human.
As I stroll through the gardens, to my amusement a group of young monks are playing ping-pong. They do other things than sit and meditate and be serious? Another reminder – don’t judge and don’t put people on pedestals, they fall off.
I float around, forgetting I’m dressed in a sister’s robes, and am perplexed when people bow and say ‘hello sister.’ I realise, however, from the faux pas I make with protocols they’re probably humouring me! Take the phone incident. Curled up, reading my book—this place is a labyrinth of nooks and crannies for peace seekers—I listen to the rain drumming and watch it drench the flowers. The phone rings. ‘Shall I answer it?’ I shout to sister several times, unable to work out if her gesticulations mean yes or no, or something else. The something else, it turns out, is the ‘rule’ to pause and take three breaths when a phone or bell rings, before answering.
As the day rolls on I retreat to the meditation room, aptly named Cloud; a converted barn with red roses rambling up sandstone walls. Oak cathedral beams soar and hold medieval candle fixtures, like crowns. I stretch out like a cat, bathed in stripes of afternoon sun, like yellow glory. Sinking into plush purple cushions, comforted by the smell of wood and flowers and burning incense, I sleep soundly.Who says Buddhism is all work and frugality?
Food To Make Your Heart Sing
Each day Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist master, holds a talk at one of the hamlets. At eighty-six, he looks fragile and tiny yet exudes self-containment, happiness and peace.
To my surprise the first talk and lesson is about nutrition. He gives us a bottle of sesame oil and tells us to gargle a spoonful for thirty minutes per day. Thay, as his friends call him, says all disease starts in the mouth, therefore it can also be expelled through the mouth.
As my insides sing with each delicious meal, I realise how appropriate nutrition is as a topic. The retreat teaches us to be mindful in everything we do, say, think and eat. Food served is vegan with Vietnamese influence—Thay and most of the monks and sisters are Vietnamese—combined with hearty fresh produce from the surrounding farms, it’s a delectable feast.
Despite the decadence and abundance of the food, eating meat and drinking alcohol is strictly forbidden and, to Thay, ‘like eating a child’s flesh.’ A great believer in moderation, I find this a little extreme, as I’m sure Nigella would agree. However, Thay tells us, it is scientifically proven if the west reduce eating meat and drinking alcohol by fifty percent it would be enough to feed the world. I love his phrase: ‘May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet and reverse the process of global warming.’ But…I would still relish a glass of the local Bordeaux wine with dinner, whose grapes I see growing on vines in rows, like braids, ripening in the summer sun and pure air.
At dinner we sit around the mulberry trees, as if in the garden of Eden, plucking the plump sweet fruit and licking the blue-black juice that stains our fingers and drips down our arms. Paradise. I love how the French wish each other ‘buon appetite’ before a meal. There is no English equivalent. It reminds me of my uncle; a French teacher, who always says this. Plum Village has its own beautiful Buddhist version of grace:
‘We accept this food with gratitude to beings of the sky and earth who helped to produce it. We eat with gratitude for sharing this nourishing meal with our loved ones.’
The following morning at 6.30 am we practice meditation. Revived after a sound night’s sleep and from the bliss of silence between dinner and breakfast, my mind is still. I relish the Qi Gong that follows; stretches to stimulate Chinese pressure points and kidney meridians, whilst my bare feet sink into the lush wet grass. Afterwards, I sit by the lotus pond, invigorated yet deeply relaxed, counting the flowers; a symbol of impermanence.
‘The whole cosmos is in the lotus flower: mud, cloud, sun, flower, you. Everything inter-be’s with everything else so don’t discriminate between the mud and the lotus; accept both. The lotus is impermanent, if you don’t preserve the lotus it turns to mud.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
At the largest hamlet, where around 500 people gather, Thay leads us on a walking meditation. Silently, the long procession traverse the gentle hills, with each breath in we place the left foot down, each breathe out the right foot. Simple. Beautiful. It’s amazing how loud silence is; the birds sing, the tall grass swishes, the earth crunches beneath my feet. The wild mushrooms are early to sprout this year, I notice. Back to the meditation. Left foot down inhale. Right foot down exhale. Wild lavender and daisies sway in the breeze. Left foot inhale. Right foot exhale. Cypress trees cluster, like broccoli florets, in shades of green, yellow and brown. The very last in the procession, I continue at my own pace; the rest must be quick breathers.
Pursuit of Happiness
Thay says ‘meditation is looking deeply at something and finding the roots.’ How empowering we have all the answers within to resolve our problems and make ourselves happy. How? Happiness is a training, by which we teach ourselves to come home to the present moment; noticing the ringing phone, the barking dog and the traffic lights.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice is ‘don’t look for happiness, you are happiness. Don’t look for the Buddha, you are the Buddha. Fulfillment is only possible when you stop trying. You contain the whole cosmos. Look into your body and you’ll understand the whole cosmos if you understand yourself.’
‘Mindfulness is the light that guides us. Desire to live simply, to be compassionate and healthy. Look deeply within to discover if your desires are healthy. Select your environment carefully, choose where you feel safe, be near positive people, and not assaulted by consumption.’ Thich Nhat Hanh
My final lesson: the arrival of my lost backpack. So at peace with being possessionless, I greet it with indifference. Do I pass? I think so. The retreat teaches me to weave mindfulness into every day life. I try to observe my actions, speech and thoughts. I watch and feed the positive seeds; of joy, confidence, generosity and love. Not the negative seeds; of anxiety, jealousy, depression and anger.
Wise Teachers In The Midst
I recommend Plum Village for its peaceful, enriching experience but there are plenty of wise souls around us. Seek them out. I find one such teacher in my veterinary surgeon. Worried why my puppy is so small and under-developed, he responds: ‘He is exactly as he is meant to be.’ How very Zen. I try to apply this lesson in acceptance and gratitude every day. As my stepfather wisely says, ‘if you can’t do anything about it, just accept it.’
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