My four day stay at the Plumvillage Retreat Centre of the famous and most revered Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hahn, started with lunch (a la Peter Mayler's famous book "A Year in Provence"!). I was lucky enough to catch the early train out of Lourdes, happy to escape the crowds of Catholic worshippers chanting their familiar creeds. I felt boxed in by so many people and their religious fervour disturbed me (their rituals represented, for me, a confining dogma, in which I could not feel the freedom of the eagle, which is my personal benchmark for joyous living). I changed trains at Bordeaux's station, St Jean, and headed for St Foy la Grande, an hour hence.
On Fridays, for only 5 Euros, the Retreat Centre provides a courier service to Plumvillage from the station of St Foy la Grande (about 21 km) but I had not arranged for a pick up so needed to get there under my own steam. As I climbed off the train, I was still talking to a half-shaven Frenchman who was also disembarking. When he heard that I was bound for Plumvillage, he offered me a lift in his wife's car - she came to pick him up at the station. Plumvillage is only 5 km from their own home. So I was delivered at the front of the dining hall complex tres rapide et sans problem at 5 minutes to 12. A Dutch 'retreatee' at this Lower Hamlet, where only nuns and female visitors reside, came to my rescue as I aimlessly ambled around, showed me where to put my backpack and invited me to come and have lunch with the sangha (community) there. The spread on offer was a pleasant surprise - I had joked with my French friend, Martine, that I would probably only eat rice for the four days of the retreat. During the opening ceremony to the meal, which included listening to the pure sound of a large Tibetan bowl being hit by the sister on duty, I noticed the writing on the wall: "The bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos". As lunch is eaten in silence the only sound was of teeth chewing the food and in the air was an awareness spirit. I ate bamboo-vegetable soup with seaweed, two kinds of rice, delicious salted black olives, fresh vegetables, corn bread, salad and banana bread. This I chewed slowly in reverence of the silence but also with a slight feeling of trepidation that I might be the first to finish. The nuns (the majority of them are Vietnamese), clad in dark brown robes and with shaved hair, each had a generous helping of the food offered in front of them and were silently chewing mindfully.
The Lower Hamlet consisted of various old farm buildings built with huge white stones and after lunch I was shown to my room, which I was to share with four other female visitors. At 3 pm I joined the garden team in the bright sunshine for Working Meditation and without delay took on the job of pushing the wheelbarrow to and from the compost heap next to the vegetable garden. The surroundings were green and fragrant. Supper, again eaten in silence, was served at the early hour of 5.30 pm. I noticed that I have devoured fifteen more black salty olives, counting the pips on my plate. This abundant consumption of the black olive fruit, a delicacy of the south of France, must have been the reason for my thirst that first evening. (The Romans brought the olive tree to France, when Julius Caesar first stepped into the land of the Gauls in the first century BC. Caesar called this area in the South of France and next to Italy, Provincia, hence its name today, Provence.)
I was very happy to discover that Thich Nhat Hahn would be visiting the Lower Hamlet that Sunday, a time when all three Hamlets (the monks at the Upper Hamlet and the families at the New Hamlet) come together to listen to his teachings, followed by a sangha lunch and then a dharma discussion.
For six months I had trained very hard to be fit enough to be selected for the South African Triathlon team for the World Triathlon Championships in Madeira on 8 May 2004. This would give me the opportunity to get leave from my teaching job and would open the door for me to be able to visit Lourdes and Plumvillage after the Championships. For a long time I had admired Thich Nhat Hahn's writing and his direct and simple way of teaching. Finally I would be able to sit at the feet of this remarkable 78 year old Buddhist monk and absorb his wisdom first hand. Thich Nhat Hahn was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967 by Dr Martin Luther King for his efforts to stop the war in Vietnam. When he was exiled from his own country, he went directly to America (the country of the enemy) and did voluntary work amongst American war soldiers who were war victims in Vietnam!
I had a terrible week in Madeira. When I arrived in Lisbon en route, my bicycle did not show up. This is enough to send any competitive athlete into stress mode. I went to 'Lost and Found', only to hear of several other athletes whose bicycles had not arrived either out of London, Heathrow. My bike finally arrived at midnight that same evening and was delivered on the doorstep at my hotel in Funchal, the capital of Madeira - 7 hours of fretting and worry came to a welcome end. On the second day on the island, while making salad for lunch, I cut off the tip of my left hand fourth finger; the tips of our fingers are heavily veined so it bled copiously. I am not very good with blood so I had to lie down on the bed to avoid fainting! That evening I took off the plaster to check the finger, the wound started to bleed again and I had to lie down on the bed again! I was forced to go to the clinic the next day (goodbye to my leisurely day taking a trip round the island). A small Portuguese nurse, Marisa, tended to my impaired finger. I shrieked with pain as she disinfected, bandaged and made the finger waterproofed, the last to enable me to do the 1500m swim part of the World Triathlon Championships. And last but not least, as I was confirming the flights that I would take to France after the race (which involved 2000 athletes from 54 different countries), I was told that the hold of my aeroplane from Lisbon to Nice on Air Portuglia was too small for my bicycle's box. I could get to France but not my bicycle! Great stress! Six hundred Rands worth of international calls later I had organised for a courier service to deliver my precious bicycle in Nice, but only two days after I got there, and all of this was going to set me back the grand sum of R2100! Needless to say, I had little chance to focus on the race. In contrast with all these calamities in Madeira, my advance and stay at Plumvillage was totally blessed. I saw this as a sure sign that I needed to relinquish my competitive triathlon career and invest more in the growth of my spiritual path. Fortunately, during our South African team dinner after the race, the husband of one of my team mates, offered to take my bicycle back to South Africa with the rest of the team. This kind gesture saved me a lot of trouble and money.
A typical day at Plumvillage started at 5am, with Sitting Meditation at 5.30am in the Meditation Hall followed by some chanting. Breakfast was at 7.30, lectures followed, Lunch was at 12.30, Working Meditation from 3 pm (the second afternoon I was put on kitchen duty and I had to peel over 250 carrots and asparagus' - with the preparation of the asparagus I first had to learn what to throw away and what to keep - in preparation for the big Sunday sangha lunch) and supper was at 5.30 pm. The evening saw a group walking meditation, outside in nature, at 8pm followed by a sitting meditation for an hour from 9 pm. Then it was "noble silence" until after breakfast the next morning. This silence was very difficult for me - no talking at all with your roommates!
The highlight of my stay was the two lectures given by Thich Nhat Hahn (affectionately known as Thay) on the Sunday. His first dharma talk was the conclusion of the Teachings of Buddhist Patriarch Lin Chi, which were written in the 9th century. Thay spoke in Vietnamese; so all the foreigners had earphones plugged into either the English or the French translation box. Lin Chi used the term "busyness-less person" when referring to a bodhisattva (person committed to their spiritual path). This term referred to a state of being where one must be without plans looking into the future, being totally focused on the present moment. In addition the busynessless person is never a victim, he/she takes control of each situation by not reacting but by considering how he/she can make the situation better. Thay teaches that 80% of psychological illnesses are caused by the mindset of believing that you are a victim but that with a determined mind, one can take control and heal one's illness. He stresses the importance of giving a dharma talk to relieve the suffering of the audience. The teacher should not want to exhibit their own knowledge or to become famous or to do the talk to become more appreciated. The teacher should read the audience and simply teach to reduce suffering. Thay teaches that running after power, money, sex or fame takes one out of the present moment, that one must stop seeking and find the Buddha, the true person in oneself Then one's suffering will cease. One does not have to run after anything: a bed, a robe and food will be enough to make one happy!
The second dharma talk by Thay was even more powerful; delivered in French, it was about the nature of real love. He believes that real love generates happiness in both oneself and the other person. This love has four components - the four immeasurable minds. The first one is LOVING KINDNESS. Not only must one have the willingness to make the other person happy, one must also have the capacity to make the other person happy. This is only possible when one loves oneself. Thay teaches that love is a process; that it grows with the practice of deep and compassionate listening. He stresses that we must have the time to listen, in order to understand, as understanding is the foundation of love. If there is no real understanding, there is no real love. We need to actively ask the other person to help us to understand them better, to know their deepest aspirations, their difficulties, their sufferings. Thay uses the word karuna instead of compassion. KARUNA is the willingness to reduce the suffering of the beloved. This is the second immeasurable component. The third immeasurable element of love is JOY. If love pulls you into suffering; it is not real love - it is passion and desire, it is full of attachment. We can recognise true love by its gift of joy - real love brings joy. The fourth component is EQUANIMITY - the lack of judgement, of discrimination. Thay urged us to water the seeds of these four immeasurable minds as the practice of true love, deep listening and deep understanding is the foundation of all peace.
There was calligraphy on the wall of the big Meditation Hall where 180 people were listening intently to this great teacher. I looked at it: "Peace in oneself, peace in the world". After listening to this exceptional talk, all 180 of us marched slowly and mindfully amongst the plum trees down into the green fields by the pond, in a Peace Walk, a walk inspired by a remarkable man, a man who by his example makes the hope of world peace a possibility.
From the noble silence and peaceful surroundings of Plumvillage; I plunged straight into the hype and buzz of the 57th Film Festival in Cannes. As my friend Martine was working at the Festival, I was able to obtain a ticket for one of the screenings. At the Festival, photographs of famous stars, who were honouring Cannes with their presence this year, were on exhibition and could be bought for 15 Euros (about R120). I saw photographs of Catherine Deneuve, Julie Andrews, Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt amongst the many. What kind of society have we become where a honourable and great man like Thich Nhat Hahn is hardly heard of but every one knows Brad Pitt? The extent of the lack of love, as so beautifully taught by Thay, was sadly obvious in the majority of the twenty selected movies and even the official programme, which makes fascinating reading, is a comment on our current world society. Michael Moore's political movie Fahrenheit 9/11, which once again exposed the ignorance of the American public and threw even more suspicion and distrust on the current Bush Administration, was the eventual winner of the sought after Palme D'Or (Golden Palm) - this is only the second time in the Festival's history that a documentary won the competition. The first ever documentary to win was The Silent World (produced by Jacques Cousteau - one of my personal heroes) in 1956.
On the aeroplane back to my beloved South Africa, I knew I carried the seeds of the great words I had been privileged to hear and I felt positive and hopeful. Current available research on quantum physics shows that:
- Our intentions can influence the zero -point field and can change outcomes.
- It is of no consequence on which deity or power a healer calls to. With statistical significance, it has been proved that twenty Aids patients each prayed for by a "different" healer, had improved health (see 'The Field' by Lynne McTaggart).
These research results are a sure sign that God is available. We enter the Kingdom of God when we are in the present moment (it is significant that in the language of the Australian Aborigines, there is no word for tomorrow or yesterday!) and when we are at peace with ourselves. We therefore also have the capacity to become powerful beings who, by intent, can change the future of our planet. The onus is on each one of us, on each individual, to find that peace in themselves and to practice to love deeply. We need to love in the way set out so beautifully by Thich Nhat Hahn. Then we will inherit the freedom of the eagle, we will rise above trivial day-to-day struggles and soar into the high mountains close to heaven.
Photo 1: Preparing for the Peace Walk.
Photo 2: His venerable Zen Master Thich Nhat Hahn explaining the benefits of walking meditation before the Peace Walk.
Photo 3: A peaceful rest in the beauty of the Plumvillage environment in the middle of the Peace Walk.
Photo 4: Thay leads the procession back to the dining hall holding hands with two young boys of an attending family.
This article has been published by, Die Burger, on Saturday 28th of August, p 4 -5.