Some of the greatest experiences of this trip have been the unplanned, the ones that snuck up on us and spontaneously presented themselves, as if fated. That’s how we wound up living for a week at Plum Village, the monastery founded by Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in southern France.
Fifteen years ago, at the end of an incredible month-long stint in Turkey, Emily and I resolved that when we had kids of our own, when they got old enough, we’d explore the world with them. The first thing we did in starting to plan this trip was carve out four weeks together in Turkey. But over the past months, due to increasing conflict in the region, we’ve had to let go of that part of the vision, and we’ve done so with leaden hearts.
Suddenly, though, we found ourselves with an extra four weeks to explore the world. We extended our time in Israel, added Barcelona, Paris, and an old friend’s empty, 15th-century castle in the southern French countryside. But there was one remaining week still unscheduled. And it was out of nowhere that the thought of Plum Village occurred to me. I remembered only that the monastery was in France, founded decades ago after Thich Nhat Hanh, a vocal peace activist against the Vietnam war, was banned from returning to his country.
Last year, encouraged by one of his teachers, Jonah had gotten into Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings—he’d sometimes come home from school and tell me about Plum Village and about Thich Nhat Hanh, affectionately called “Thay” (“Teacher”) by his followers. We’d talked about the place, assuming that we’d never see it ourselves. But here we were with time to kill in France. And as it turned out, Le Village des Pruniers holds a retreat for families every summer. And as it turned out, a weeklong session would be starting the day we were scheduled to leave Paris. And as it turned out, there were exactly four spaces left.
Thay is now eighty-nine years old and the author of more than 100 books. In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr., who’d come to strongly oppose the war in Vietnam as a result of Thay’s influence, openly nominated the Vietnamese monk to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The fact that King had revealed his nomination and made such a vocal request, however, ran counter to the Nobel committee’s protocols—they chose not to make any award that year.
Nearly two years ago, Thay suffered a near-fatal stroke that left him unable to speak and completely paralyzed on one side. During the worst of it, he was treated at Bordeaux University Hospital, then at U.C. San Francisco for intensive rehabilitation. His primary doctor in France had told Thay’s attendants that he wouldn’t survive and cautioned them not to raise the hopes of his followers. As the story goes, though, Thay’s attendants were intent on keeping his followers apprised of his health—they posted regular updates on the Plum Village Facebook page (I followed these myself at the time), asking only that people around the world pray for Thay. Earlier this year, after nearly twelve months of hospitalization, Thay returned to Plum Village. They say that the collective world prayers were what saved his life.
Le Village des Pruniers is, in fact, a complex of four distinct monastic campuses in rural Dordogne with a combined population during the summer of over a thousand monks, nuns, and lay retreatants. The four “hamlets” are miles apart, separated by endless rolling fields of cultivated sunflowers—billions of orange-petaled heads peek out as you walk or drive along the silent country roads. We stayed in New Hamlet, the least developed of the four. All families at New Hamlet camp there, but as our stay had been entirely unplanned, we had no camping equipment with us. “Don’t worry,” the nuns had told me when I called before our arrival. “We have whatever you need.” That meant blankets, and pillows, and sleeping pads, and even a big old family tent that was already set up for us when we rolled in after the seven-hour drive from Paris.
There are sixty-five nuns in residence at New Hamlet, most from Vietnam and China, but also from Thailand, Japan and Indonesia, the States, Australia, the UK, and Latin America. Lay retreatants come from at least thirty countries. All dharma talks get translated simultaneously to eight languages. There’s virtually no traditional sitting meditation during the week. If you’ve done vipassana retreats, there is also a shocking absence of silence at Plum Village, apart from breakfast, the first twenty minutes of dinner, and late evenings/early mornings. Instead, the focus is on cultivating mindfulness in daily life, regular life—eating, walking, talking, breathing.
When we first arrived, it felt a bit as if we’d landed at some kind of strange outdoor festival – campers and tents all around the grounds, laundry fluttering on lines, a few hundred people from around the world chatting excitedly, kids of all ages meandering about, playing basketball, or jumping on a trampoline, brown-robed nuns gently directing it all. There was frequent singing of childlike songs about nature, complete with accompanying hand gestures. Was this really a meditation retreat?
Despite the oddities, the place grew on us. The nuns were playful, always smiling, and ridiculously patient, and they led a great children’s program, the young, tireless, Sister Lin Dzi at the helm. Most days we hardly saw our boys: their new posse of a couple dozen kids from all over the world soon became family, strangely adept at self-governance. Somehow they always found their way to the scheduled activities with the nuns, things like “Pebble Meditation” and “Eating Mindfully.” In between, they’d play in the fields, which exploded with wildflowers, and joke and snack and talk. They were grateful for the space, and so were we. We always knew that they weren’t far away. We knew that they were safe.
One night, they held a full-moon festival at Upper Hamlet in the grove of 16 Buddhas—the life-sized statues sat, quiet and human-like among the humans who gathered on the hill. The day before, one of the nuns—the tiny, Vietnamese Sister Moon who helped run the children’s program—had found me apparently at random. She’d wanted to know if I happened to play guitar. When I admitted that I did, she grinned with delight and asked me to help take her “song”— which turned out to be a meterless, opaque sort of poem with largely nonsensical lyrics—and convert it into something that the kids could sing at the festival. Somewhat bewildered, I agreed, then roped Miles and Jonah in for the gig as well. We had a few rehearsals with Sister Moon, Sister Lin Dzi, the children’s program staff, and the kids themselves, and honed the poem into something resembling a catchy, kitschy folk-rock song, which we were to perform in front of all one thousand guests.
The festival itself had a strangely Bacchanalian feel, the hillside strung with handmade paper lanterns, monks and nuns dressed up in surreal costumes performing in odd-ball plays that they’d written.
Just before our slot, Sister Moon announced to us that she was planning to rap in the middle of the song. “Oh no!” we blurted. “Um, we haven’t rehearsed anything like that,” Sister Lin Dzi said cautiously. Sister Moon frowned, apparently resigning herself to playing this one straight. And so we began.
Everything was going well, as well as could be expected performing a strange little song that we’d just written and barely practiced, and whose words no one seemed to understand. But halfway through the song, Sister Moon grabbed the mic, ran to the front of the group, and began rapping. She rapped her heart out, dancing away under the moon:
It’s the rain of mommy. It’s the rain of daddy. The rain of grandma. The rain of grandpa. It’s the rain of teacher And the earth and the sky. Oh, it’s your rain. It’s my rain.
It didn’t matter that we couldn’t quite comprehend the lyrics. The crowd was up on their feet, howling for Sister Moon, the diminutive rapping nun, who was so pleased with the reception that she decided to do it all again. And again.
Our second day at Plum Village was apparently the first time the entire summer that Thay felt well enough to join the retreatants. His attendants pushed his wheelchair slowly along the walking paths that wound through the forest, shading him with a couple of umbrellas, stopping whenever he asked. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t quite smile, but he tilted his head and turned to watch each person he passed and wave an arm or give a thumbs up. Often, he took the hand of the closest child, and together—with wheelchair and small legs—they’d process, a thousand monks, nuns, and laypeople shuffling mindfully behind them. There was something poignant in these moments—the Zen master who’d spent so many decades teaching his followers to listen in the stillness could now be with them only in stillness. There was no talking anymore. There was only the silence.
Once when we stopped, Thay raised his hand and pointed with a great sense of urgency at a tree. Then he pointed at another, then at a rock, a flower, a cloud. It took a while to understand what he was doing. He wanted to make sure that we all saw these things, really saw the world, right in the moment. Even now he was still teaching, only wordlessly.
Whenever we lost our boys in one of the larger hamlets, we always seemed to find them next to Thay, wherever he was. It was uncanny. Something about Thay makes him a child-magnet. Miles and Jonah liked to get as close to him as they could.
On our last visit to Upper Hamlet, Jonah spotted us and came running up with the news. “Thay walked! I saw him. They stopped his wheelchair and helped him up, and he just…walked.” He’d move his left leg and his attendants would help move his right leg for him, and slowly he progressed like this through the thicket of tall poplars. It was physical therapy. It was walking meditation. It was, perhaps, miraculous.
I spent a good deal of time during the week sitting by the bank of the New Hamlet lotus pond—each of the hamlets has its own—transfixed by its startling pink and orange flowers. They were the most stunning flowers I’d ever seen, rising up, impossibly, from the swampy water. At times, I’d get stuck in my own thoughts. I’d find myself wondering about the future of Plum Village. What would happen when Thay was finally gone? I’d find myself amazed at my kids—how they were happier, more settled than I’d seen them in a very long time. And they hadn’t touched a screen in a week. How would we continue what we’d started cultivating here? Then I’d become present again, clearer, sometimes for just a moment, sometimes for longer. Lotus. Water. Sitting. Breath. “No beauty without mud,” Thay wrote. “Breathe, my dear,” Thay wrote. “Breathe!”