The tradition of an annual 90-day retreat dates back to the Buddha’s time. Then, monks and nuns spent most of the year traveling from village to village to teach the Dharma. During the rainy season, travelling was difficult, and they would assemble as a community to study and practice the Dharma, under the Buddha’s guidance. Today, Plum Village monastics continue this tradition.
This “Rains Retreat” is a traditional monastic practice. Our dear teacher, Thay, has opened the doors to make it available to lay people who would like to join. Discover how the experience was for Aurélien (from France), Rasmus (from Denmark), Charlène (from France) – all staying in Upper Hamlet – and Kitty (from the UK) who was staying in New Hamlet.
How did you learn about Plum Village and Thich Nhat Hanh? And why did you decide to come to the Rains Retreat?
Aurélien: Someone in the sangha in Toulon, where I live, told me about Plum Village. Then, about one year ago, I read “Silence” by Thich Nhat Hanh, without knowing who Thich Nhat Hanh was. This book was like a sign showing me that I had a connection with Plum Village.
I took part in my first retreat in April this year for one week. In September I came back to participate in the Rains Retreat, after I heard it’s an essential step for those who wish to become aspirants. It is a really unusual, unique experience. To be honest, I had already made up my mind to apply as an aspirant a long time before, however I didn’t know where the idea came from. At first, living in a community didn’t appeal to me, but while living in Plum Village I came to deeply understand the importance of living in a Sangha, and the true meaning of the word.
Charlène: For me it was a similar, one of my friends came to Plum Village often and he told me a lot about it, then another friend, and so on… After that I read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, I realised the connection and told myself I had to go there. I first attended the Spring Retreat in 2018 in Lower Hamlet, for one week. It was a revelation. At that time I went mainly for myself. In June of the same year, I came back a second time for the Business Retreat. This time my wish was different, I wanted to be with the Sangha, to be less self-centered and to explore the collective energy of awakening that is very present in Plum Village. It was very powerful. During that retreat, I met many entrepreneurs, like myself, who also realised the importance of being able to stop. In the past, I could have been stressed even about the idea of stopping. But on the retreat, I realised I could now allow myself to stop. In the end, my body said stop for me: I got injured. That was when I decided to join the Rains Retreat. I came here with my companion and once here, we decided to stay for a whole year. Before leaving, we wanted to sub-let our flat for 3 months and we only found one person who was interested, but they wanted to rent the flat permanently. It seems that nothing happens by chance…
Kitty: My mother purchased a house near Plum Village about 30 years ago, not knowing that there was a Buddhist monastery nearby. In 1995, she learned about Plum Village, visited, and then introduced me to Plum Village and Thich Nhat Hanh. She asked me to come to a 21-day retreat in 1996. Although I was pregnant at the time, I came anyway, and slept through many of the sessions. But I was awake enough to be deeply moved by Thay’s talk on the Heart Sutra and learned to follow my breath.
I drifted away from my spiritual path in subsequent years, but my later work in dance therapy and shiatsu massage incorporated mindfulness and helped me return to Buddhist practice.
I came to this Rains Retreats after attending the Neuroscience Retreat in Plum Village earlier this year and then volunteering during the Summer Retreat at New Hamlet. My principal reason for coming to Plum Village was and is to learn to live with others. I want to develop my ability to live and practice in a community. Beyond that, I simply love the deep immersion in the Dharma provided by the Rains Retreat.
While at New Hamlet I am looking deeply to determine my path.
Rasmus: I had practiced meditation for several years when, about three years ago, a good friend told me that Plum Village was the best place to learn and practice mindfulness. I read some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books, and two and a half years ago came to Plum Village for a week. I returned the following winter for a three-week retreat. Once I found Plum Village, I knew it was where I wanted to be. However, this Rains Retreat is the first time I have been to Plum Village since that Winter Retreat in 2017-2018. In May of this year I quit my job, and on the 2nd of June, I started walking from Copenhagen to Plum Village. I walked slowly, mindfully, and I had no smartphone or any other internet connection. After three months I arrived here.
What do you hope to find during this retreat?
Charlène: First, I wanted to find stability; continuity in the practice. I’m more comfortable with impermanence and unpredictability than with daily routine. So I wanted to learn to appreciate repetitiveness. It’s an ideal place for that here. I also wanted to look at better ways to live with myself, my partner, and with the community. I try to be less reactive when I feel hurt, for example; at least not to react straight away. I have to work on it.
I’d like to rebuild the bridge between my spirituality and my everyday life. I’m actually very spiritual and yet I can have my head in the clouds and not be very present with my daily routines. I’d like to learn to bring spirituality into my everyday actions. I want to learn to breathe better. I breathe badly! Three months seems long enough to learn everything anew; even after a month, change has already begun!
Rasmus: My aspiration is to obtain a clearer view of what true love is. When I was here once before, I heard Brother Phap Thien say that when you have practised long enough, you will know who to fall in love with. I believe I have found that person, and I am here to improve my ability to develop a healthy, enduring relationship. As for hopes, I have none. I’ll just see what happens, concentrate on my meditation and mindful living.
Aurélien: Personally, my aspiration in coming here was to explore, to discover with an open mind, monastic life, other people, the link between. As well as suffering…
Kitty: Peace… In particular, I hope to find peace in order to take it back into the world.My aspiration for this retreat is to learn to accept and endure fear and to find out whether I want to become a monastic.
What are the best and the worst parts of your day ?
Kitty: The best part of my day is my mindful service. I work on the recycling program at New Hamlet, among other things, and I have found great joy in working with the Sangha.My least favourite part is sitting through up to an hour of chanting in Vietnamese after morning meditation.
Aurélien: I have ups and downs. I feel more sensitive. I go from feeling serene to feeling angry, but calmly. Yes, I’m discovering myself to be more sensitive and more attentive to others too. I feel happy being here. Every day is sown with superb moments (Sunrise on the lotus ponds and the walking meditations for example). Every day I have dozens of good moments to savour. My worst moment, I’d say is the cold shower in the morning (laughs)!
Charlène: I really like the work periods…service meditation and all the little things we do to help out. I like working but in our everyday working life, we’re stressed out. There’s performance stress. Here, we work gently, with a focus on wellbeing. That allows us to be effective and present at the same time. I like walking meditations too. I appreciate them more and more; they have a relaxing effect on me. Whereas my worst moments? I haven’t had any yet!
Rasmus: The best part is sitting meditation. The worst was once all the singing, but I’m beginning to like that more and more. So I would say that my biggest problem now is the ventilation in my dormitory. The living conditions aren’t great, which is why the Brothers need our help to upgrade the facilities in Upper Hamlet (for more info, click here).
What would you say to someone who is thinking about coming to the Rains Retreat?
Rasmus: If you are thinking about it, do it! If you have the feeling that it might be the right thing for you, it probably is. If you are feeling happy and healthy, Plum Village is the place for you. If you are not, Plum Village is definitely the place for you.
Charlène: I agree with Rasmus, go for it. If you’re afraid of the living conditions, I can assure you, it’s fine, you’ll adapt. The only question to ask yourself is, “Do I want to go?” not “What is stopping me?” Don’t hesitate! Compared to a week long retreat, the connections we make with the monks and nuns, and with the other retreatants are stronger. The feeling of belonging to the community is stronger and simpler because we’ve had time to adapt and settle in. It requires less effort.
Aurélien: If they ask the question, that’s a good sign, they’ll come! I’d say to them, just let go of thoughts such as: Shall I go/ Shall I not go?, What should I do?, What am I waiting for?
Kitty: My initial response would be “Yes! Go for it!” But I also recognize, of course, that my recommendation would depend on the individual. I think there should almost be a ‘health warning’ for the Rains Retreat because of the intensity of the work and practice. And yet, the retreat can instill deep satisfaction, and I would recommend it to anyone interested and prepared for the deep commitment involved.
To know more about the Rains Retreat : https://plumvillage.org/retreats/info/rains-retreat-2019/