Dear Plum Village Siblings,
Upper Hamlet enters the summer season with the trees and plants fully clothed in green and the graceful pathways surrounding the Thénac (Thệ Nhật Sơn) plateau are shaded once again. A few tents have already sprung up to be shelter for the early arrivals. Lay volunteers are slowly trickling in before the opening so as to settle ahead of the regular retreatants. We have only just returned from our month’s stay at the EIAB for about two weeks, yet the Hamlet seems so tidy and ready. Last Friday, Upper Hamlet hosted our annual Open House and Saturday, the New and Lower Hamlet followed suite to serve and be with our Dordognian neighbors.
The Upper Hamlet Bhikkhu Council met this morning to finalize our summer schedule. It was a short and harmonious meeting. The Brotherhood could be felt concretely – alive and healthy. I sat, at moments, with eyes closed, just to enjoy this palpable energy.
This Spring has seen many new spiritual leaves sprout, a sign that our community is growing. At present, there are about twenty young men practicing as long term-ers. We have five young ones aspiring for monastic life – from Thailand, America, Poland, England, and Spain. In the last two years that I have been in PV, I have seen more and more this shift in the last three or four novice ordinations; that is, non-Asians, Caucasians, Europeans are aspiring more with an occasional Asian; at least this is so here in Plum Village.
All around the hamlet, many Brothers have noticeably stepped up their practice, in terms of walking without talking, gently and happily; and the evenings are quietly noble, enough so as not to be too stifling, even on the lazy nights. In the spirit of service, Brother Pháp Tại replaced Pháp Áo as work coordinator this season – a delight for everyone to see him about the hamlet delegating work with the best of his English. Brother Pháp Đan renovated the Bamboo Hall for use as the temple office for monastics. This project has brought smiles to the Brothers because we can already see that it will be a joy to work in this space – being together, spacious and with a low tea table for breaks and even a beautiful sink to wash our cups! The Children’s Program Team composed of Brother Pháp Lưu, Pháp Tài and Pháp Lý, brought home a 9 meter yurt that will be used as meditation room for the children. The owner/saler, in fact, with two others, is installing it at this moment. It’s the second yurt to be raised in our Plum Village centers after Deer Park’s.
Upon our return from Germany, we have been enjoying the fresh organic vegetables from the Happy Farm, from the hearts and hands of Br. Stuart, Br. Daniel, Br. Keith and many others. Our meals have been vibrant with mixed salad, baby yellow squash, kale, zucchini, bokchoi, broccoli, cauliflower, and many other vegetables. I think this is the first time our community has successful grown such full cauliflowers. The rows of potatoes are still ripening, with more sun and heat, their dark green leaves hold a promise for us this summer. I have noticed that when the Brothers know that the vegetables have been grown organically by our community, they prepare them more carefully and simply so as to retain its flavor.
So much more joyous progress to report around the hamlets, but I will move to sharing about our experience in Germany, where we hosted two six-day retreats and a day of mindfulness. The bell tower has finally been raised and the garden surrounding it brings new light and energy to the grounds. Here’s one to phong-thủy (fengshui) Thầy Pháp Ấn! The two retreats, a Dutch and a German speaking, once again was transformational and rewarding. It is hard to believe that the EIAB was just established about five years ago. The Vietnamese Brothers and Sisters have mostly passed all their exams with just one last group to be tested this Fall. It was inspirational to see a lot of our Brothers and Sisters speak so fluently during the arrival day and throughout the retreat. Sister Bói Nghiêm and Thúc Nghiêm shared beautifully in our dharma discussion group, expressing completely their thoughts and viewpoints. I was impressed with Sister Bói’s sharing because two years ago, I had a chance to attend a few classes with her and others, and I remember her German then was quite diffident. I joked with them that in ten or twenty years, when we can organize a reunion with their other Bat Nha siblings, it will interesting to discover how much they have transformed and adapted to their differing environments – some having grown in America, some, in Thailand, in Hong Kong, and even in Australia now; truly, they are transplants from the Bat Nha nursery (Vườn Ươm).
This time around at the EIAB, there seemed to be less talk about the money, the fund raising, the ‘having to get the whole building fixed soon’ sharings and the stress that goes along with it. The Sangha seemed more settled and at ease. Undoubtedly, the experiences, gathered from the last five years have brought fruits, helping the retreat flow more smoothly. I took care of the Dutch and German staff, who complimented the way the retreat unfolded.
Something hit me this time in Germany. I realized that our community will never become perfect and will never come to a place or time where or when we can sit back and say, “well, it’s all done now” or “now that’s done, we can relax and practice”. I am aware of the amount of investment that this institute might require as we grow, but it is here now and the retreats are blooming, the courses are sprouting, and the Brothers and Sisters are growing. “Happy enough” should be a mantra or “Good enough for Now”. This time around, I was more aware of the transformation that was taking place and what this institute’s role in contributing to this. Its history, its domineering presence, its stoical loom has a challenge for us and for all those who come.
I heard a woman from Hungary share on the very first dinner gathering on arrival day that she was upset that no one told her about the history of this place. She felt it was our responsibility to inform our guests of such matter of importance. It was clear from her face that she was suffering terribly. Her sharing hinted a lot of family suffering involved with the German war, a past that her family has adamantly avoided mentioning with each other. She even thought about leaving the retreat. But then she stayed. She smiled. She cried. She left feeling positive and gave everyone a hug in our family for being there for her. Karma is alive.
We are in the right place and at the right time. It’s not about the building, or about the money, or even about how well the retreats are run and how many we should have and so on. This woman found something. Not gold. Not diamonds. How much does it cost to invest in her transformation? Is it worth it, our tiring efforts? I think of Thầy and Sư Cô Chân Không (Sr. Ture Emptiness) and their efforts in Việt Năm and beyond. I am sure they were tired. I am speaking now to the lazy one in myself, the one that retreats and tries to find comfort and avoid challenges and difficulties.
I had stayed in Deer Park for 10 years and now in Plum Village for 2 years now. Who could have imagined what could have happened in these 10 years – our US Centers, Bat Nha, Hong Kong, Thailand, the EIAB, our diverse community, Wake-Up and …? I practice to use my 10-Year Eyes that show me that I know nothing as to what is to come. It reminds me to remain open to the infinite possibility, at least to the next 10 years. Not knowing helps me enjoy the present situation as it is. Thầy has recently written a book by his own hand if you haven’t already heard through the grape vine. I happened on a copy and it moved me to tears. I know it will soon be in all our hands. Its title is “Now I See” – a meditation on time based on the poetic lines from Kiều and inspired by Dogen’s Being Time. I share this because it indirectly inspired me to write this letter; and I will end here, to say thank you my dear Siblings for being on the path. I will stay now, thus I will stay for the next Ten Years. See you along the path.
And lastly, outside my window, my young brothers are shooting hoops. You can’t think of the past or the future while playing basketball. To really play, you have to just play. Maybe, we can ask Thầy to add playfulness as an added mental formation. All children can touch this. Adults forget, but can still remember. With a little help. ;-)
See you on the Court,
Brother Pháp Dung (Read: Fap Yoong)