NO MUD, NO LOTUS FLOWER. My reflection during Covid. Years ago, I attended a retreat to participate in a week long seminar at the Plum Village Monastery, based on the teachings of Vietnamese philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh. A recognized peace activist from the 1960s for his anti-war efforts, and for delivering the teachings of Engaged Buddhism to the west, Thich Nhat Hanh (also known as Thay,) simplified Buddhist philosophy focusing on mindfulness, deep listening and compassion and has changed the hearts and minds of thousands over the years. Teachings that the world could benefit from today, I am sure.
Portrait of Thich Nhat Hanh
I arrived with no expectations, in a flirty short skirt, jean jacket, hoop earrings, cowboy boots, and funky jewellery, smiling and happy, only to be met with a sombre, no nonsense “sister” who was one of 60 some Vietnamese sisters running the Village, and who was signing us “in". Thinking back, I sometimes have to smile because she probably pegged me for a runner, and she was right!
Cell phones, and watches were packed away as they would only pull you from being in the “present.” We were assigned to our lodgings, to which I said, “ugh!” Above grade compared to the others, we had a private room, in a private house with other bedrooms and located just 100 meters from the main “complex” where we took our courses, shared in group, ate our 3 meals, and had prayer.
To my standards, it was dirty. Signs graced the communal kitchen warning that the mice would eat any food left out, and bugs, centipedes and spiders, clinging in their webs were aplenty in the bedroom, undisturbed for who knows how long by the Buddhist practitioners, and general peace seekers who came and went. The indoor/outdoor rugs were worn thin, and due to the poor quality and porous fibres, trapped hairs, and other particles, that even a vacuum couldn't suck up. The furniture was white plastic; outdoor chairs bleached by years of sun, and bunk beds, both of which served as the only clothes hangers. Unknown stains covered the unpainted sheetrock and the bathroom was far from en-suite, if you catch my drift. Some stayed in the main area, where rooms were shared by strangers, and those more hearty and economic, slept outside in tents, and used the outdoor public bathrooms to wash up and shower. My comfort level, or lack thereof, was on questionable overload. I took a deep breath and prayed I wouldn’t be a runner.
The first morning, and every morning that week, was the 100 meter walk up the road into Plum village, always at 5,30 AM, with October’s misty rain, and speeding country road traffic. The road was dark. We used flashlights so the traffic, albeit occasional, could see us. Once inside, we went to the chapel where we had prayer. Half asleep, a lot of kneeling and standing took place. Bones creaking, knees popping, up and down, up and down we went. For many of us in our 40’s - 60’s, the sound of our joints creaking was almost amusing. The tent dwellers arrived bundled up, stocking caps pulled on, red noses, and lots of snorting and sniffling from being in the cold all night.
Among the group, were many professionals, doctors, psychiatrists, lawyers and teachers all looking for tools to pass on in their practices or to use themselves in normal daily living. Most of us 40 participants, a small end of season group who attended, knew exactly what they were signing up for. Even the tent dwellers, many of whom had been before, and were able to transport themselves to a place with no luxury, and not only willing, but wanting to do it.
After the chant in the chapel, we went to our large eating room off of the kitchen, where all of the sisters, from 3 regions of Vietnam, made the buffet of homemade food, laid out in cafeteria style. Delicious vegan/vegetarian food, with homemade soy every morning lain out without lavish details Coffee was taboo. By noon, my head was splitting open, and it was hard to focus on anything. By the next day, I found the dried “Chicory” on the buffet table and started to consume it like an anti-venom that would save my life while coming off of my caffeine addiction. With head throbbing, I suffered through group sharing, exhaustion from the 5 AM wake up calls, and bathroom dread. I was freaking out! By day 3, slowly getting better, I adjusted to what was really happening…tools for a way to live that seems lost of late to most of the world, mindfulness and compassion, and how to embrace it.
We were assigned 3 work tasks during the week. Every evening we gathered before returning to our bunks, to see what was written on the board titled "TODAY’S REVEAL”, with a list of timed appointments for the next day. From the Chant at 5,30 AM to the dinner and all activities in between. Included were the work assignments that were given to each person 3 times during the week. I was assigned the breakfast dishwasher, the nutcracker, cracking 1,000’s of walnuts in the hot afternoon sun that were scattered over a large tarp, and on my last day, the toilet cleaner, for the sisters’ johns. A task that can adjust your ego at lightning speed.
Plum Village has three “hamlets” or residences – one for the monks and lay men, and two for the nuns and lay women. Single men are requested to register in one hamlet, and single women at one of the other hamlets. Couples and families are welcome to register in any hamlet.
One single family that registered for the week, was a lone mother with 3 children. Ages were approximately 12, 9 and 4. The exercises which could be considered stringent by most, especially for small kids, has an incredibly calming and thoughtful effect. I think about it often, and wish this training was mandatory in classrooms around the world. Whispering is the only type of voice allowed and its calming effect can centre hyperactive or anxious children.
While eating, , we closed our eyes, and macerated our food for 30 chews before taking another forkful. If you spoke over a whisper, the sisters would come with their finger over their lips shushing you immediately. Being silent all day gives you a lot of time with your own thoughts, so it is hard to hide from yourself.
Group walks in the plum orchards were done daily, and breathing and counting between steps brought you back to your centre and reflection. Group sharing brought tears in safe zones, and Buddhist teachings were reiterated throughout. As kids, we are taught many of these lessons, but through the years, the ability to walk-the-walk, gets buried somewhere in the walk itself as we go through life.
One day, while in the upper Village, all of the brothers dressed in gorgeous matching purple and yellow robes, cross legged in perfect alignment, 3 high, sang with their instruments lulling us into meditation: When they chant, they chant from the heart. Not “performing,” either for a deity or for anyone else, just carrying out a ritual, mouths going through the motions while your minds are elsewhere. It was a sensory experience I'll never forget.
I did make it to the end of the week, and I did try to conjure an escape early on. I wondered why I was such a baby, that I couldn’t leave my comfort zone for 7 days. But I made it, and I would go back again in a heartbeat. I became more focused, more mindful and more peaceful, and more aware of my own bad habits. It is where you discover you will strengthen things in your life or leave them behind, because you no doubt grow and change at these retreats.
Relationships are hard and loneliness is hard, so choose your hard. Being obese is hard and being fit is hard, so choose your hard. Marriage is hard and divorce is hard so choose your hard. Being in debt is hard, and being responsible is hard, so choose your hard.
We are all little Buddhas who must try to understand that the path is love and look at all beings with compassion. Look for the silver-lining, even when things are difficult. When our fast paces come to a stop, focus on the gratitudes. Walk, breathe, look at nature. When the money slows, try to be thankful for what you still have, like your mind, your legs, your people, your health. Conform and adjust to situations, and practice peace and compassion for your fellow man all the while being mindful. We are all on this planet together, and even though it’s difficult, and the world has slowed with Covid, silence can be golden.
Doumina Basil-Whyman, until recently a property owner in Cortona, is the founder of the Enthusiastic Traveler; she organises group tours in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Southern France.