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    A Visit to Thich Nhat Hanh

    The beloved Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist lived what he preached.

    By Chris Zimmerman

    January 22, 2022
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    • Jack Soldano

      Chris and to all, thank you for reposting this article. So insightful. So caring. What joy you shared.

    • Jara

      Thank you for this article. I lived in Plum Village and in the Intersein Zentrum of Karl and Helga in Germany several years. I am deeply touched that your community had that strong connections to the buddhist way of live which I experienced as very similar to the deep meaning of Jesus teachings. I am sad about Thays death but also touched by his legacy. He was such a gentle man. Soft and clear. An apostel of nonviolence and peace as Martin Luther King said. I want to quote one of his poems in honour to his life: "This body is not me. I am not limited by this body. I am life without boundaries. I have never been born, and I shall never die. Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars, manifestations from my wondrous true mind. Since before time, I have been free. Birth and death are only doors through which we pass, sacred thresholds on our journey. Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek. So laugh with me, hold my hand, let us say good-bye, say good-bye, to meet again soon. We meet today. We will meet again tomorrow. We will meet at the source every moment. We meet each other in all forms of life." I hope we will not stop to invest in the Dialog between Religions. That will bring a compassionate heart and an open mind...

    Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master who died on January 22, 2022 at age ninety-five, achieved fame for his books and activism promoting reconciliation. But fundamentally, he was a man of community, committed to living out what he called “engaged Buddhism” in the shared life of Plum Village Monastery in France. In February 1998, a group of Bruderhof members including then-elder Johann Christoph Arnold visited him there. As Chris Zimmerman, one of the group, reported in Plough’s summer 1998 issue:

    To drive down from Bordeaux to Loubes-Bernac is the perfect way to prepare for a weekend at Plum Village. Leaving the airport, the budget hotels, and the ugly commercial strips, the freeway speeds south into the rolling hills of Gironde and soon enters a landscape that seems trapped in another time. Orchards and vine-yards stretch as far as the eye can see, and in the slanting afternoon light, cedars appear like black sentinels near the ancient cemeteries they guard. Here and there a red-roofed chateau rises from a wooded hilltop, its unshuttered windows peering like eyes.

    By the time you come onto the gravel track to the community’s “Lower Hamlet,” you have drunk enough silence and beauty to be able to appreciate the childlike wooden signs at the entrance: “Welcome to Village des Pruniers” and “You have arrived. Breathe deeply. Smile.”

    We traveled to Plum Village primarily to meet its founder, Thich Nhat Hanh. A Zen master whose tireless anti-war efforts twenty-five years ago first brought him to public attention, Thay, as he is known, soon joined forces with Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr., and Daniel Berrigan in becoming one of the era’s most consistent and effective voices for peace. Since then Thay has become a household name, turning out one best-selling book after another, leading retreats, and inspiring hundreds of thousands of people to take up the cause of nonviolence by practicing it in their personal lives.

    Thich Nhat Hanh

    Thich Nhat Hanh Photograph by Duc Truong (public domain)

    What we experienced at Plum Village went far beyond an appointment with its leader, however. It was a meeting of hearts with brothers and sisters whose commitment to each other and to a life of Franciscan simplicity and peace challenged and stirred us and gave us much to reflect on.

    Organizationally, Plum Village is divided into three separate hamlets (the first founded in 1982): one for monks, one for nuns, and one for married couples and families. Two additional mini-hamlets open seasonally to host the thousand-plus guests who visit each year, most of them coming for Thay’s annual summer retreat.

    Meetings and meals (wholesome vegetarian fare eaten at long wooden tables) are communal events, as are work projects and meditations. Housing consists of spartan semi-private bedrooms in remodeled stone farmhouses and cattle sheds, some of them dating from the sixteenth century. The general absence of modern conveniences (appliances, radios, and TV sets, etc.) and other household amenities is apparent on all sides. Helga, a German member, told us why: “So many people spend their lives running after things, and after achievements. But in the end most find themselves empty-handed. People want a big house, a new car, a beautiful girl, a university degree … and when they get these they are still not happy. Here we want to relax and really live. Why do we need to be something, somebody. Why not just be?

    Life in the Sangha (community) is not highly structured, though it revolves around a central tenet of engaged Buddhism: the practice of mindfulness, which residents explained to us by way of the “Five wonderful Precepts,” a document that bears a striking similarity to the Sermon on the Mount. Mornings begin before sunrise – at 5:30 – with a silent “sitting meditation” in the Zendo (a large, simple room with floor mats and cushions arranged to face a simple altar holding Buddhist and Christian icons, and decorated with flowering branches, fruit, candles, and incense.) Evenings end with the same. In between, the schedule varies from day to day and season to season, with alternating periods for group activity and time for personal quiet, mealtimes and meetings, chores, recreation, and “total relaxation” (sleep).

    Here peace, harmony, and community are not just words but living realities.

    There is always plenty to do, what with new buildings going up in all three hamlets and several large plum orchards to maintain. (Proceeds from sales of the fresh fruit and from jams, purees, and prunes are sent to refugee aid organizations in Vietnam.) Yet work for its own sake is frowned on. Rather than accepting the usual western emphasis on what must be (or has been) accomplished during the course of the day, Plum Village residents cultivate the Buddhist ideal of living in the present. They seek to see each situation, each action, each encounter with another human being as an opportunity, a chance to become “more fully alive.”

    As Karl, Helga’s husband, explained, “The art of working in mindfulness helps us to reconsider the whole idea of being effective. It helps us question our obsession with goals and our idea that everything must be done ‘just so’. … It makes us look in a new light at the images we have of ourselves as ‘good’ or ‘not good’ at certain tasks, and helps uncover and recover the joy that should inspire everything we do – whether working in the greenhouse, chopping wood, cleaning toilets, writing, or hanging out the wash. All too often we do not work mindfully, and we let our busyness shatter our harmony and happiness.”

    A verse from the Plum Village chanting book sheds further light on this attitude and reveals the community’s real priorities:

    I vow to offer joy to one person in the morning,
    And to relieve the grief of one person in the afternoon.
    I vow to live simply and sanely,
    Content with few possessions,
    And I vow to keep my body healthy.
    I vow to let go of all worries and anxieties
    In order to be light and free.

    At regular intervals throughout the day, members and guests are reminded of this higher purpose for living together by the sound of a gong, at which everyone drops whatever he or she is doing and pauses in “mindful” silence. And whereas the hurried visitor might perceive the practice as an unnatural interruption (we never quite got used to it), residents welcome it as a regular chance to refocus their awareness on the “present moment” – a treasure that flees second by second and never returns.

    As for the people we met during our short stay, it is hard to imagine a more colorful group. There were Germans, Italians, Californians, and New Zealanders; Vietnamese, Canadians, and Japanese; monks and nuns, students and teachers, priests and housewives, atheists, and mystics. Yet in spite of the diversity, the common search that brings people to Plum Village binds them together as closely as any family. Here, in stark contrast to the soulless places from which so many of them have fled, peace, harmony, and community are not just words but living realities.

    Speaking of words, there is precious little chatter at the community. From early morning until after lunch each day, “noble silence” is observed, and in addition to this prohibition on unnecessary talking, superficial conversation is discouraged for the rest of the day too. As for gossip or speculation about another member or guest, these are regarded as unthinkable disturbances.

    Thich Nhat Hanh walking with Johann Christoph Arnold

    Thich Nhat Hanh walking with Bruderhof members, February 1998 Image courtesy of the author

    Nor is much value placed on codified “beliefs” – on creeds, dogmas, or other religious preoccupations – unless they are accompanied by action. The burning question is always, “How can I practice the truths I have come to recognize in life?” or, “How can I translate my understanding of compassion or brotherhood, mutual service or peace, into practical deeds?”

    Above all, residents seek to concentrate their energies so that they may be used for the common good, and show in this attitude their appreciation for a life shared with brothers and sisters. As their Guidelines for Mindful Living puts it, “Each member bears responsibility for contributing to the peace and happiness of the Sangha, and if he does not have this within him, he must ask the others for help. Be aware that it is a great privilege to be part of the Sangha.”

    It is with this reverence that the residents of Plum Village go about their daily tasks, seeking (as Thin Thuy, a Vietnamese member, told me) to “create a new society where everyone may truly live in peace, because they are at peace with themselves.”

    … Evening is falling again at the Lower Hamlet, and as color drains from the sky, stars come out. In the bamboo thicket, sparrows are chirping, and a cat stalks gingerly toward them over the cobblestones. Candles flicker in the Zendo, and through the latticed windowpanes, shadows move as clogs are removed and the cast-iron stove is stoked with wood. It is time for meditation. A gong sounds, three times, its throbs reverberating, then melting away. The quiet seems empty, the darkness a void. But in my mind, as the last echoes die, words fill the silence: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Be still. Be.

    Contributed By ChrisZimmerman Chris Zimmerman

    Chris Zimmerman is a member of the Bruderhof and teaches at the Mount Academy in Esopus, New York.

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