Flipping through Allure magazine, I came across an article interviewing Blake Lively. The article was talking about how the actress decided to go to Southern France for a few weeks, taking a French language immersion course. I looked around my dentist‘s waiting room with a sigh, which was drowned out by the drone of a drill being driven into somebody’s tooth on the other side of the wall. Going to the South of France, that sounded amazing.
And since I try to balance out the superficial fluff of a fashion magazine with something more substantial, later that day as my mouth started to un-numb itself from the novocaine, I read True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, by the well known Vietnamese monk and Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh. At the end of the book, a page mentioned his meditation retreat at a monastery called Plum Village, located near the Bordeaux region of France. What were the chances, I mused. Maybe it was a sign, from the Buddhists and from Blake Lively. Maybe I should go to France.
The next day, visions of sun dappled southern France still dancing in my head to the rhythm of my throbbing tooth, I looked up the Plum Village website.
Under the web site’s tab of Visiting Us I read:
You are warmly invited to visit Plum Village and practice with our growing international community of practice and to enjoy the wonderful energy of mindfulness. Our practice at Plum Village helps us weave mindfulness into all of our daily activities. In this way we can practice meditation throughout the day, while eating, walking, working mindfully, sitting in meditation, or enjoying a cup of tea together.
Plum Village observes a monastic way of life year round; we ask our guests to observe our way of mindful and ethical living as expressed in the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the foundation of the Plum Village community, bringing happiness and meaning to all that we do. Specific practices for Plum Village include, refraining from sexual activity, not smoking and not using alcohol or intoxicants. In addition to the five trainings, we are also practicing a vegan diet. Please do not bring non-vegan foods, alcohol, or other intoxicants to our practice center.
In order to deepen your practice and make mindful living a vital part of your daily life, we request you stay for a minimum of one week.
The cost to stay at Plum Village for a week was very reasonable. I had just gotten engaged, so I figured this was a perfect time to step out of my normal life, and reflect on where I had been and where I hoped to go. Plus it was in Southern France, so really, there was no further debate.
A few months later I found myself on a high speed train from Paris, heading towards the south of France. I only speak the smallest amount of French, but it was enough to purchase 8 baguettes and dozens of macaroons the two days I was in Paris while I wandered the streets. One afternoon I stopped to lean against the wall of a building and eat my third baguette of the day, when I heard beautiful music swell on the other side. Looking in a window, I saw a symphony rehearsing for their performance later that week. I ate the baguette, wondering why bread was so much better in France and enjoyed the private concert.
After a three hour train ride I got off the train at the tiny station near Plum Village. I immediately noticed women in long brown robes, shaved heads and big smiles waiting by a van. I realized that a few of the people on the train with me were also going to Plum Village- a mother, daughter and grandmother from Hong Kong, a German guy who looked about college age carrying a ukulele, and a beautiful girl with long dark hair and bright green sneakers. The girl started talking to me in rapid fire French and I had to apologize that I couldn’t understand. She seamlessly switched to flawless English.
“Oh, I am so sorry, I thought you were French. I am Lucie!”
The men from the train went off to a different hamlet with the Buddhist monks, while the women followed the Buddhist nuns into the van. Two of the nuns were Vietnamese, and the driver looked European, with a stern expression and half moon glasses. The ride took us through vineyards and charming little villages with stone houses that looked more like movie sets than actual towns.
Lucie and I were staying in the same building, a two story stone structure with a beamed roof. On the first floor were four bunk beds and two twin beds. We were in the accommodation with the most beds (meaning: cheapest), but there were also smaller rooms and private rooms. It was dinner time, and all meals at Plum Village are eaten in Noble Silence. It was strange to be eating in a silent room, but there was none of that awkward introductory period. The food was totally delicious and without talking, I really tasted each mouthful. I noticed one of the Buddhists nuns next to me eating one grain of rice at a time and immediately halved my pace. Glancing around the dining hall I spotted a picture of Jesus and Buddha, their arms around each other smiling. I liked the idea that Jesus and Buddha hung out, maybe ate lunch together (obviously something vegan), talking shop. My second grade catechism teacher, who had kicked me out of class after I asked if Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, would probably have not have been pleased with the Jesus and Buddha as buddies picture.
Even though we were supposed to be sitting in Noble Silence, being mindful of each bite, my mind started to chatter away. I looked at the Buddhist nuns, eating at the tables with the visitors, us “Lay people.” Some of them looked super young, and I had overheard one of the nuns in the van on the way from the train station tell the girl from Hong Kong that she was fifteen. I marveled at making that profound and lifelong of a commitment at such a young age. At fifteen, I could barely commit to just one outfit a day.
My mind then wandered on over to the idea of spirituality, of the wide range that word encompassed. I’ve heard countless times, “I’m not a religious person, I don’t follow some church like a mindless sheep, I don’t belong to a religion, per se. But I am a very spiritual person,” as demonstrated by the Buddha statue kept in the corner of the TV room. I figured there was a balance, though, and maybe too little spirituality meant rushing, not being mindful of your life, not taking it all in, and then feeling empty inside. But then, on the other end of the spirituality spectrum were the Spiritual Competitors, trying to out-spiritual each other. My roommate from graduate school came to mind. She became very serious about studying and practicing tai chi, getting pretty self-important about it, working it in to every conversation, and one night I heard her screech at her boyfriend, “YOU AREN”T SPIRITUAL ENOUGH!”
But as the days passed at Plum Village, there was only gentleness between the nuns, and there was never any feeling of forcefulness to adhere to a schedule. If you didn’t want to go to the 5 am meditation, there wasn’t a nun prodding you with a flashlight to get out of bed. The only bout of Spiritual Competition I witnessed was when our hamlet, which housed families, women and children, went to the men’s hamlet for a talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh and I overheard two American guys comparing the longest they had meditated in one sitting. One guy out-meditated the other by 55 minutes.
The days at Plum Village were arranged in a loose kind of schedule. There was the 5 am meditation, and every morning the big bell in the middle of the hamlet rang, gently waking everyone up. I had thought getting up at 5 am to walk through the pitch black to meditate would be brutal, but what a way to wake up. Because we were in wine country, there wasn’t any light pollution and the stars in the sky shone like spotlights, illuminating the path to the meditation hall. We would meditate for about 45 minutes and then relax, maybe lay down for a bit or do some stretching, before breakfast at 7:30. It was cold in the mornings, and most days stayed cool but sunny. The cold snap was a thing of good fortune, because it had killed the bugs that the previous week had bitten everyone’s skin to shreds. At breakfast, we were assigned working meditations- working in the garden, cleaning the grain storage area. I was assigned to “Clear the Lotus Leaves” which sounded beautiful and Tennyson-like, but as our group assembled, the rain started to fall and we suited up in rubber fisherman overalls. A diminutive nun handed me and an Italian girl machetes, and gave the others wheel barrels. Then we headed into the Lotus Pond, which because it was autumn, had stopped blooming and was starting to wither and die. The Italian girl and I were to chop off the Lotus stems as close to the root as possible, which meant plunging the machete into the muddy pond water and blindly cutting the stem. Then we waded through the water to deliver the cut Lotus flowers to the wheel barrel brigade, where they would wheel them over to the compost heap about 400 yards from the pond. In between hacks, I tried to meditate as I worked, considering the dying Lotus flowers, the impermanence of life, of beauty. I thought of the Lotus flowers and their mythology as the flowers of forgetting, of letting go. The Italian girl was much more adept with the machete than me, but once in a while we would have to help each other get unstuck when the mud sucked us down.
In the afternoon, one of the nuns gave a dharma talk about the theories and practices of Buddhism. We were in France, but there were only three French people in the hamlet—Lucie, and two older French women. The talks were given in English, and ironically the French women needed Lucie, who spoke seven languages fluently, to translate for them.
We fell into a gentle routine, so loose and low key it could hardly be constituted as one, and after three days, there was a “Lazy Day.”
“Let’s go into town!” That was Helen, talking to her friend Louisa and I. Helen and Louisa were two fantastic English women who were staying in the same room as me. Louisa lived about three hours from Plum Village in Southern France with her French husband, and Helen used to be her neighbor, before she got relocated back to London. She didn’t mention it, but Louisa told me Helen had an extremely stressful, high powered job and was exhausted. Helen and Louisa had a friend staying in the men’s hamlet and we walked through the sun dappled vineyards, the grapes bursting on the vine, to meet up with him. As we walked, Helen and Louisa kept up a steady stream of jokes and hilarious conversation.
Helen and Louisa’s friend, Henry, an English man in his 50’s, looked and acted like Austin Powers’ more mischievous older brother. Immediately upon seeing us, he launched into a bitter but comical monologue about the filthy state of the men’s hamlet, the hygiene of the guys staying there, and the disgusting food, consisting primarily of plain noodles and rice. Apparently the Buddhist monks, unlike the nuns, did not bother with the fresh herbs we enjoyed, or the just picked vegetables still warm from the sun. Henry, Louisa and Helen told me they had all been to Plum Village a few times before, with Henry visiting more than 20 times. Maybe it was just their self-depreciating British wit, but they joked about how they were getting a bit disenchanting with the whole experience. Henry attributed his misery this time to the fact that he was staying in a tent. “Bloody miserable, it is! I ended up sleeping in my car last night.” We piled into Henry’s car/bedroom and headed back over to our hamlet, where we planned on taking Louisa’s car into town. As we drove down the dirt road, we saw a guy meditating. Henry stuck his head out of the window and whooped, startling him out of his practice. “Escaping with girls!” he exclaimed, giving the horn an emphatic honk. I looked back out the rear window and saw the guy, frozen in place, staring with shock down the road at our retreating car.
“I feel like a naughty schoolgirl, skipping out!” Louisa exclaimed as we got into her car. Henry made a naughty joke in reply and off we went. On the way to the town, we stopped by an ancient stone church. “Look at this,” Henry grinned as we walked into the church, rushing past the wooden pews to stand in the middle of the stone altar. “I’ll give you five minutes to find it!” he said, his eyes dancing with instigation.
Within seconds, Helen found the giant penis carved into the stone. “Helen, you saucy girl!” Henry was delighted, and then pointed out all the other penises, attached to human figures and animals, engaged in different kinds of sexual acts. “It used to be a pagan temple, and then the church was built around it!”
Henry decided he’d like to sit on one of the wooden benches in the church and meditate for a bit, so Helen, Louisa and I left him to it, and while they chatted on the stone wall that surrounded the small cemetery, I wandered around to look at the graves and at grounds around the church. We then made our way to the town, passing more ancient churches, with a frequency one would pass a Dunkin Donuts or nail salon while driving though Rhode Island.
The meal was excellent, and I ate delectable lemon roasted chicken, while Henry and Helen split a bottle of wine. We felt a bit guilty breaking the vegan tenets of Plum Village, but tried to make ourselves feel better. “Well, it’s not like we made a vow, like the nuns,” Helen reasoned, pouring herself and Henry more wine. “We’re not bringing the alcohol or meat into Plum Village,” Louisa added, taking a bite of her chorizo pizza.
After dinners at Plum Village, most of us would gather around the picnic tables outside on the patio overlooking the rows of plum trees in the field below. We’d drink tea, talking about every day things as well as more esoteric topics. The group was comprised of people from all over the world- Columbia, Germany, Australia, Holland, Hong Kong. The conversation took place in English, although most of the other people could speak at least three other languages, unlike me who despite having taken four years of high school Spanish and getting all A’s, could barely string a sentence together. With such a diverse and intelligent group, it was the kind of interesting, thought provoking conversation I’d hope to have while attending Liberal Arts college, but everyone there instead seemed preoccupied with playing video games or finding good hiding places for their drugs.
No one spoke over each other or argued. Everyone patiently and closely listened to each other. One of the Germans, Madeline, was sixteen years old and visiting Plum Village with her father. We had been talking about war, and she said, in her soft, sweet voice, “I think it was Oscar Wilde who said a thing is not necessarily true because a man dies for it.”
I was blown away. Madeline, a teenager, had just quoted Oscar Wilde, in a language that was not her native one, and in a way that enhanced the discussion. Sometimes when people quote a famous person, it comes across as affected, but there was nothing contrived about Madeline. I tried to picture an American high school student quoting Oscar Wilde in his non-native language and couldn’t quite manage it.
The last day at Plum Village I walked through the paths beyond the buildings. Trees, which had been planted in perfect diagonal rows, towered overhead. Sunlight shone through the leaves that hadn’t yet fallen to the ground. The week at Plum Village had been beyond expectations - the meditations, especially the ones at 5 am, during the darkest part of the night before the dawn; the working meditation in the mud with the Lotuses; the delicious food which was made even more so by the care with which it was grown and prepared; the deep and respectful silence within which it was eaten. And getting to seeing Thich Nhat Hanh give his talk, you could feel his positive energy as one of the most respected Zen masters in the world today, as a poet, and a peace and human rights activist, dedicating his life to the work of inner transformation for the benefit of individuals and society. You only had read any one of his dozens of books or even just to see him in person to understand that he was a master of Zen. At more than 80 years old, he stood before the crowd in his brown monk’s robes, his eyes twinkling, when Henry turned to me and whispered, “Doesn’t he look like Yoda, but I don’t mean that disrespectful way?”
The same three nuns that had picked the group of us up at the train station drove us back there on our last day. We were all headed in different directions, and after our goodbyes, I stood alone on a train platform. Suddenly, I realized I couldn’t find my ticket. There were no refunds, and it cost about $150. I felt like a real dummy as I tried to give the confirmation code to the ticket agent in horrific French and she was not about to lower herself to speak English to me. I stood on the platform and tried to explain my dilemma to the train conductor, but he didn’t speak English, and obviously he could not let me on without a ticket. The next train wasn’t for another five hours, and I berated myself for my carelessness. I tried the breathing meditation, and I don’t know why, I must have looked pitiful, because the French conductor, by the grace of unbelievable kindness, let me on the train, with no ticket, into first class no less. Right after I got off the train in Paris, the city so loud I felt like I had been in a sensory deprivation tank, I found the missing ticket in my passport.
In my hotel room that night, I looked at the city of Paris outside my window, the Eiffel Tower lit up against the black sky. Beyond all of the magnificence of Plum Village, it was the people that I met—Lucie climbing a fig tree and giving me a handful of perfectly ripe figs, Madeline, Helen and Louisa, Henry, the French train conductor. When I practice the breathing meditation, I think of them, of how infinite the world is, of much the abundance there is. Breathing In, I Feel Calm. Breathing Out, My Heart Smiles.