Written by Carolyn
Realised human beings are hard to come by, but I think I met one the other day. Phap Yong is a Vietnamese Californian Zen Buddhist monk. He is handsome, humble and humorous. One can get an inkling of his level of cultivation in much the same way as one instinctually senses the depth of a deep pool. There is nothing in his manner which projects authority; it simply radiates from him in a benevolent force-field. I found it hard to judge his age but I’d guess he’s in his late 30’s. He appears to be the one whom the great Thich Nhat Hahn has chosen as his successor. Phap Yong was a beacon of light and during my week long Zen Buddhist retreat at the Plum Village Community in Bordeaux, and I had the privilege of spending many hours in his company.
I’m not a Buddhist and this was my first retreat. I knew little about Thich Nhat Hahn and almost nothing about Plum Village. My preference is to allow situations to unfold organically; I enjoy the spontaneity of surprise, and the retreat gave me a full measure.
The whole set up turned out to be much bigger than I’d imagined—I’d thought there might be around 20 of us on the retreat but we were 150 in Upper Hamlet alone, with another 100 lodged between two other hamlets, plus 300 resident monks and nuns. We retreatants came from all over the world; in my 8 person female dormitory we were British, Japanese, Singaporean, Mexican, French, Dutch, Italian and German. We were very polite to each other but spoke barely a word because we’d been requested to keep noble silence when we retired and when we rose. Initially I resented this guideline, particularly as the Mexican lady was clearly a lot of fun. But I discovered one can still make friends even when you don’t talk. We kept a lot of silence in the daytime too; during sitting meditation, eating meditation, working meditation, walking meditation and the deep relaxation meditation after lunch when many people fell sound asleep and snored their heads off. What a lot of meditation we did but, oddly enough, one never felt bored. On the contrary, day by day we grew progressively happier and more alive. There was no internet and without being asked we all turned our phones off. Time slowed down so much that on Monday I thought it was Sunday and felt like an amnesiac, astounded and confused when I discovered I’d lost a day.
My ‘family group’ was given the lavatory cleaning for our working meditation. Initially I felt rather put out by this but consoled myself that, as somebody had to do it, why shouldn’t it be me? However, I did lead a rebellion against our particular noble silence because, as I explained to Phap Yong, when you’re doing a job like this it helps to sing, singing gives you courage and when you find courage you find happiness. I took real pride in my lavatories and on my day off I unscrewed one door that didn’t fit properly, sawed an inch off the bottom, fixed it back on its hinges and glowed when it swung freely. I’ve been an oil painting restorer all my life but enjoyed my cleaning job so much I wonder if I’ve missed my vocation!
Now forgive the juxtaposition, but as the mindful notice in the Plum Village lavatories states:
Defiled or immaculate,
Increasing or decreasing,
These concepts exist only in our mind
The reality of inter being is unsurpassed
I was particularly taken with the final line.
Anyway, allow me to turn straight from this topic to the topic of the collective eating meditation, which took place one lunchtime. The community serves vegan food, which was not only delicious and sat comfortably in the stomach, but appeared regularly three times a day and all I had to do to get it was queue in noble silence. On the day of the special eating meditation I found myself so hungry I felt unwilling to comply with the unique request to stand and watch the monks and nuns collect their food rather than all queuing at the same time. Instead, I returned to my dormitory and lay down for 20 minutes before reappearing and collecting my food. The usual form at lunchtime was to find a quiet spot to sit alone or in company and eat in mindful silence. But, on this day, everyone was heading for the great meditation hall. So, with my full bowl and chopsticks in hand, I followed the winding line into the hall. Once inside I discovered the monks and nuns seated on meditation mats on one side of the room facing retreatants on the other with a ten foot gap between the two. Having lain down for so long, I found myself among the final 30 or so people to enter the hall. No one had begun eating; all were waiting until all were present. This meditation hall is an elegant, cedar-panelled warehouse of a room lined with windows that overlook woods and ponds. Glazed entrance doors frame one end of the hall while, at the other, a huge arched window looks towards a white marble Buddah seated at the foot of a spreading Linden tree. It’s a beautifully designed space, intimate and serene.
When the very last of us had sheepishly entered we were close to 600 all seated on our meditation mats. We held our bowls and paid attention to our breath filling and emptying as we’d been taught to do during our family group silent evening meals. Three times the great brass chime was sounded. We followed its sonorous peal and, when the third chime faded, the monks and nuns began to eat, mindfully. After they began, we began. When one eats with due appreciation of where and how the food has been grown, contemplating those who prepared it, the utensils that hold it, the teeth that chew it, the tongue that helps them, the throat that swallows and so on and so on, you really begin to eat. Indeed, you start to experience the act of consumption in a very new way. And if you sit in silence among 300 partial strangers opposite 300 or so shaven-headed, robed monks and nuns, lunch becomes a sacred ceremony.
When everyone had finished we rose and left the hall, washed our bowls and drifted into the gardens for solitary walks. I went to sit beside the lotus pond and wrote a haiku:
Beside a pond after rain,
Looking at water droplets on lotus leaves.
A dragonfly drinks.
A carp shakes its tail and droplets leap into the pond.
It was a week I’ll never forget. I never did get around to contemplating my ongoing problem with time; I was too busily absorbed with the sensation of being both intensely alive and extremely relaxed. What more could one want?