Advent: Preserving a Beautiful Tradition

Sister Bồ Đề describes how she discovered the tradition of Advent at Plum Village, France.

Discovering Christmas

When I was little, at Christmas time all the streets in my hometown were strewn with twinkling lights and Christmas trees–plastic, but beautiful. The quiet church near my home came alive with joy. Even though I didn’t know about Christmas, I was still very happy because I could wander the streets at night, looking at this and that. I never had the courage to step foot in a church, except for one time when curiosity got the better of me, and the only reason was: I am a Buddhist. There seemed to be a line dividing church and temple. My parents and grandparents all agreed that a Buddhist should not go to a church. It would be an act of impiety. So that idea was firmly planted in the heads of all the children in my family.

Monastic Christmas choir, 2020

When I came to Dieu Tram nunnery, I had more chances to enjoy the Christmas spirit. From decorating the meditation hall, practising performances, preparing “Secret Santa” gifts … to the moment when all my roommates gathered to unwrap gifts: it was so joyful, lively, and warm. I did wonder why we celebrated Christmas in the temple. The idea sown in me as a child was still there and as far as I knew, we were the only temple that celebrated Christmas. I asked an older sister about it. She replied that it was a way of integrating cultures.

Christmas in the West is as significant as the Lunar New Year in the East. It is an occasion for families to gather and offer mutual words of appreciation, as well as send their peaceful prayers to the world. “Later when you go to Plum Village, France, or other centres in the West, you will see the Christmas spirit more clearly.” “The Christmas spirit?” I was a little confused. But my heart was already full of joy because I received many gifts, so I did not ask any more.

My impression of Christmas at that time was only of joy and liveliness. It wasn’t until I came to Plum Village, France, saw the lighting of candles during formal lunch and listened to the Christmas carols that I came in touch with another aspect of the Christmas spirit, one that is tranquil and peaceful. I also learned a new term: Advent, something completely foreign to me because it had never been organised in Dieu Tram.

A cozy Advent

I did not attend Advent in my first two years as I felt it was not suited to me. This year, I gave myself an opportunity to experience it directly. One big motivation for me was that the event was held at Toad Skin Hut (in Son Ha Temple), a place I rarely have a chance to visit. I do not know why but in my heart there is a strange love for this place. Just thinking about going there already made me happy. As I sat in the hut, feeling the warmth from the fireplace and listening to the conversations and laughter of brothers and sisters around me, I came back to myself.

Coming back to myself, the sound of chatter around me became pleasant. Sometimes absolute silence does not come from sitting meditation. Even amidst hustle and bustle, when we know how to come back to ourselves, it is the place where we can be in touch with our true self. Darkness had started to roam. Looking out, I could see nothing but windblown raindrops against the window. Night had descended. Night is where the darkest evil can arise, but also where the most sacred and pure are born. Night can be a vehicle to bring people straight to hell, or give wings for prayers to reach the stars. At that moment, everyone sang and lit the second candle of Advent.

Sr. Trang Dieu Vien (left), Sr. Trang Bo De

Prayers for the world

The Christmas carols became more solemn in the silence of the night, opening the way for all to return to the deepest beauty of the soul. Closing my eyes, I relaxed to let the refreshing music sink forever into my heart. Amidst that peace, it was as if every unwholesome thought had to dissolve. People’s hearts became as clear as the morning dew, as holy as the baby Jesus. The candlelight flickered and danced, carrying afar the prayers of the brothers and sisters.

“I pray for peace for all the victims of Covid in Vietnam and around the world.”

“I wish safety for the Afghanistan refugees that are suffering due to war.”

Following suit, I joined my palms, introduced my name and spoke out the wish in my heart:

“I wish for those who are displaced to be able to return home and enjoy moments of happiness just like our’s now.”

After some moments of silence, the brothers and sisters began to recount joyful memories of Christmas. Almost everyone had more or less memories related to a character called “Father Christmas.” Listening is a chance for me to see more clearly the face of my siblings and to know a little more about those I rarely speak with. Living in a large sangha, connection is often no more than stopping to join palms in greeting, smile, and then pass by. Most opportunities for communication and interactions are through a bridge called work. Even with the elder and younger sisters I am living with, sometimes I am surprised to realize that I have never really looked carefully at them or been truly present for them. I am merely recognizing and distinguishing my sisters by their names.

After living for a while in the monastery, I also started to love the tranquil and peaceful life. That tranquility helps me see my mind more clearly and nourishes my inner peace. But when I start to form the thought, I like the quiet, noise is too tiring, a wall goes up between the world and myself, limiting the precious opportunities to be with my brothers and sisters. At those times when I find myself “too lazy to play,” I often think of our elder–Brother Minh Hy.

Brother Minh Hy is very playful. He is always present with an open and friendly heart. That evening when he arrived in the rain, I couldn’t contain my surprise, “Brother, you also come to Advent?” “Sure!” he replied, as naturally as the hungry eat and the thirsty drink. The image that lingers in my mind is of Br. Minh Hy holding a songbook; his mouth uttering the melody and lyrics while his eyes struggled to open to stay awake. “Brother, are you sleepy?” Catching my cheeky smile, rather than answering, he pretended to open his eyes even wider. At that moment, I understood: To play without needing to play is truly to play.

My first impression of Advent was so beautiful that when a sister asked me, “How was your first Advent?” without hesitation I replied, “Fun and nourishing!” “Will you go again?” “Yes, for sure,” I nodded firmly.

Beginner’s mind, free mind

This first experience helped me to unravel my preconceptions about the event, and taught me a lesson about being cautious with my perceptions. If I do not know something, I should not rush to judge it, but give myself time to experience it, to discover the reality. An event itself is indeterminate. It is those who attend and organize the event that give it its colours. Advent is beautiful because of its spiritual elements. We brothers and sisters must preserve those elements if we wish to preserve the beauty and soul of Advent in Plum Village. But what are those spiritual elements, and how do we preserve them?

The cloud in the tea I drank this morning reminds me that the most accurate answer does not come from the intellect, or from the outside; it comes from the heart of everyone.

While listening quietly to the Bible reading that evening, images of Jesus as a baby or bearing the cross, which I had seen since childhood floated to my mind’s surface. Every image was beautiful. The lines on his face were as gentle as the lines sculptors often use to express the Buddha’s boundless love. Buddha is beautiful and Jesus is beautiful. You are both udumbara flowers that bloomed in the darkness of humanity. In that moment, I felt I had finally broken free from a narrow cage that has held so many generations captive. I am freeing my grandparents and parents from the idea of being a “Buddhist.” I am stretching my wings to soar higher and farther in the vast sky of the mind.

A Buddhist Christmas

Thinking of Thay, my heart warms. Thay opened the door for Buddhism’s essence to enter the West and at the same time, allowed Buddhists to discover the beauty of spiritual traditions in the West. Thanks to Thay, our generation is receiving a rich heritage of various spiritual flows–each beautiful, each worthy of respect.

It was almost nine o’clock. “Dear sister, it’s time to go home,” I whispered to my elder sister. “Umm, we will go after this song.” A funny thought popped up in my mind: Why are we like Cinderellas? The New Hamlet always leaves a little earlier than the other hamlets because we live a little further. If one sister stands up, all of us gather our things, say goodbye in unison and head out for the van as if it would turn into a pumpkin if we do not return in time. Gradually I have also adapted to this rhythm and am trained in those agile movements. It’s quite fun being Cinderella. Knowing that I do not have much time, I cherish every moment and am wholeheartedly present. So when “it’s time to go” was said, I stood up and stepped out calmly. For me, what is important is not how long we are present, but how we are present.

The van quickly rolled home. I secretly hoped that next year more Cinderellas from New Hamlet would attend Advent. Together, let us preserve this beautiful tradition for future generations of sisters and brothers.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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