Returning home from school one afternoon I informed my mother that I was, from that moment on, going to be Jewish. Careful thought was given to choosing a menorah and plans to start learning Hebrew; I was eleven. My mother identified with my longing for spiritual community and decided to take the journey with me. Shortly after my declaration she brought home a large hardcover book. Reading “An Encyclopedia of World Faiths” became a nightly ritual – discussing and examining each tradition. It was not until we reached the pages detailing Buddhist ideology that we set the book aside to look for experiential research.
Conveniently, Boulder Colorado has a very strong Buddhist community with an incredibly active lecture circuit, university and prominent meditation hall. After several years of study, discussion and practice we joined the local Shambhala training; a weekend-long meditation course. Shortly after we came across the teachings of a Vietnamese monk and both resonated deeply with the simplicity of his messages of peace. Exiled from Vietnam as a result of his attempts to bring resolution between the French and Vietnamese during the war, he established several spiritual retreat centers in both France and the United States.
I pressed the enter key on a grimy keyboard in an Internet café in Barcelona and sent a message to Plum Village requesting to visit with them in France. The monastery was located outside of Bordeaux and I was not at all certain that it was possible to arrange a stay of any length on such short notice, but I was chasing my own serenity and boarding the train that afternoon I was determined not to let it slip from my grip. Once I was reasonably settled in the cheap French hotel near a park I went looking for somewhere to check my email and then somewhere to spend the rest of the afternoon after discovering an empty inbox.
It turns out that Bordeaux has a fascinating natural history museum, eerie, desolate and somewhat forgotten – the museum was in fact as much a relic as were it’s poorly finished taxidermy specimens. Towards the back of the museum was a room with a warning hand painted in French on a wooden sign nailed to the wall above the doorway. My curiosity piqued I entered to discover dozens of glass jars of varying sizes and contents – all displaying the most bizarre of scientific anomalies. For the rest of the day I sat in the park on a bench watching the clouds pass and the light fade thinking about genetics.
The next morning I received a reply from the monastery about my request for a visit. They requested that I meet their van at a station about an hour from where I was staying. Not wanting to be intrusive, I had only asked to visit for the day and because of this I left all of my belongings in the hotel as I planned to return that evening. The countryside was quaint and the train enveloped me in a classic European charm so complete that it was hard to imagine I was headed for a Vietnamese Buddhist monastery.
The short drive led us through sloping, curving, sun drenched roads twisting through vineyards in full mid-summer regalia. We arrived at a very humble gate and a young French woman welcomed me, the soft pink skin of her scalp glowing and freshly shaven. She led me into the dining hall and we sat at one of the long bench style tables. Just as we sat down a bell chimed from the clock mounted on the wall. My new companion stopped moving, closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. Then she opened her eyes again and explained that every 15 minutes the bell sounds and it is a chance for everyone to stop whatever they are doing and reconnect with what they are experiencing in that moment. To stop thinking, talking, acting and start being again. After a short talk about this and other practices taking place at Plum Village, walked slowly around the property admiring the lotus pond and the beautiful meditation halls.
Lunch was served in a buffet style with everyone helping themselves to the simple, yet delicious vegetarian cuisine; silently. No one spoke while they ate, they just ate and enjoyed the flavors and textures that had been prepared for them by their comrades, all of whom were women as the genders were separated between two distinct properties. As I ate I noticed a piece of yellowed paper that was tacked up above the window. It read:
I see in this food before me the presence of the entire
Universe – here to support my existence.
It was a profound reminder; each ingredient was cared for in some way by the sun and the soil, the rain and the atmosphere, then protected and harvested and transported by many human hands all in order to reach this tiny kitchen and then to be prepared for us by the efforts of the community now sitting around us sharing the benefits of it’s nutritious value. The though caused my eyes to soften and my senses to come alive to the full experience and appreciation of my meal.
After lunch I spent some time walking around the pond and contemplating in one of the hammocks set up on the grounds. When I asked about returning to the hotel that evening, one of the older nuns was instant that I stay with them overnight. Overhearing our conversation several of the other nuns joined in explaining that “Thay” or Thich Nhat Hanh would be returning to the monastery in a couple of days and that I should stay with them until then. A few minutes of quick logistics planning and it was settled. I would return to the hotel the next evening on the shuttle and check out of my hotel in order to return to Plum Village to live – for the next 10 days – at the monastery.