By Sister Annabel (Sister True Virtue)
From a talk given in the New Hamlet, Plum Village.
Dear Mahasangha, good afternoon. Today is the 9th of December in the year 2001. It seems that the object of mind and the subject are not separate. I could think that I am the subject and Plum Village is the object of my mind. But the way I talk about Plum Village and the way I see Plum Village is not really separate from my mind. It is not separate from the collective mind, the mind of others, either. Plum Village is a collective creation.
"Oh, What it is to be happy"
I have always liked to sing. When I arrived in India in 1979 to practice with some Tibetan nuns I immediately found that I was able to sing in a way that I hadn't been able to sing before. Whenever I had an emotion I would sing about it. The Tibetan nuns liked singing very much. Whenever we had a chance to be a little bit lazy and walk in the forest, which wasn't very often, they would always sing. And they would ask me to sing for them in English. I wasn't quite sure what to sing that would be in harmony with the Dharma. So I had to make up my songs as I went along. Whenever I had even a tiny realization in the practice I would make up a song about it. One song was called, "Oh, what it is to be happy." At that time I didn't know what it was like to feel really happy inside.
One day I was coming back to the monastery carrying some wooden planks on my shoulder because we were building the monastery in the forest. I saw one of the monks sitting on the side of the mountain. The monks live on one side of the river and the nuns live on the other side. We were up in the mountain and down below us in the valley were rice fields. The rice fields looked very beautiful divided by dikes. In the distance there were more mountains with clouds. You could hear the children laughing in the valley and you could smell the scent of pine trees. You could hear the boy who looks after the cows playing his flute. Everything was perfect, a Pure Land. But somehow in my heart I was not happy. When I saw the monk sitting there, he looked as if he were completely free, completely happy. Although I didn't know in myself what happiness was, I thought I could experience it through him. So I wrote that song, "Oh, what it is to be happy." I stayed in India for eighteen months. During that time I appreciated so much the beauty of the place where I was staying. But I never felt as in really got a hold of a practice that would help me to transform.
I wanted very much to be a nun. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a Catholic nun. When I was twenty-one I asked an abbot of a monastery in Normandy if I could be accepted as a Benedictine nun. He said no. When I went to India to be with the Tibetan nuns I still had the dream to become a nun. They also said no. Because I couldn't become a nun I thought I might not be in the right place, the place where I could really devote myself to the practice and really transform myself. I felt I had so much to transform to really be able to feel the happiness that I witnessed in the monk sitting on the hillside. One day I was feeling very lonely. There had been a drought so I hadn't had a bath for three months. That sounds like a long time. My skin was very black with dirt and I knew that I didn't smell very nice and I felt very hungry because we never had enough to eat. In the morning we had a little bit of tea if we were lucky and if we were luckier we had a little bit of barley flour to put in the tea, but not always. At lunch we had one or two chapattis, a kind of Indian bread. And in the evening we had a little bit of rice soup. As we became poorer and poorer the rice soup became more and more watery. When I would wake up in the morning my stomach was always grumbling. It was also cold because we were quite high up in the mountains. I was shivering and hungry. But because of the beauty of the place and because deep down I wanted to practice so much, I stayed for a year and a half.
One day a monk came along from the main monastery and he had a radio. In the place where we lived we didn't have any electricity or running water. I don't know how he managed to have a radio but he did and he could pick up the BBC world news. He understood English, which was very rare. He said to me, "You know in England now there are thousands of women who are sitting around the missile bases to stop atomic weapons from being transported out." There were many American missile bases at that time in England. He said, "This is a wonderful thing to do." When I heard that I thought maybe that is what I would do.
Finding My True Teacher
So I left India and I went back to England and joined the women. They would sit there day and night to block missiles from leaving the base. We would put ourselves in front of the gate so that the missiles couldn't come out. This is also part of my deep aspiration: I want there to be peace in the world. I don't want there to be any war. So I thought this was a way to express my deep aspiration for peace. But in fact it is not enough to sit at the gate of a missile base. You need to sit at the gate of your own mind in order to be able to be aware of mental formations in your own mind and to transform them. That is a very important part of peace work. Some people were not peaceful in themselves. I asked everyone at the missile bases, "Does anyone know about Buddhist practice, does anyone do meditation? Do you know anybody who is in the peace movement and also is a Buddhist?" Everyone said, no, they didn't know anyone. Then one day someone said, "Oh yes, I know someone. He is a Buddhist teacher from Vietnam," and they said Thay's name. Then I remembered that when I was in India, when I was so sure that I wanted to be a nun in the Tibetan tradition, one of the Tibetan teachers said to me, "No, your teacher will come from the far East, not from Tibet." Other nuns said to me, "You have to meet your real teacher in the country of your birth."
I heard about Thay and I wanted to find out more about him. I wanted to read what he had written and I wanted to be with people who knew him. I did my best to find a community. There was a Buddhist Peace Fellowship community in Kent so I joined them. We used to produce the Buddhist Peace Fellowship magazine. We would go on peace demonstrations and join discussions on peace. Whenever we went on demonstrations for peace we always tried to practice walking meditation because we were in touch with Thay through his writings. But it was not enough to be in touch with Thay through his writings. I wanted to be in touch with Thay's person also. One day one member in the community in Kent asked, "Why don 't we invite Thay to come to England and give some teaching?" So l met Thay in England and Thay comes from the Far East. I had all the right conditions to meet my true teacher.
When I first saw Sister True Emptiness in the airport I felt that she belonged to my blood family. I don't know why but that is how I felt. When they had to go home on the last day I was a little bit sad because I didn't know when I would see Thay and Sister True Emptiness again. I was in the car with Thay and I had to get out of the car to go home and Thay was being driven on to somewhere else. As I stepped out of the car, Thay also stepped out and asked if I would like to come to Plum Village for the summer opening that year. When I heard that, all my sadness went away. That summer, in 1986, I went to Plum Village.
Another Pure Land
It was very hot that summer. The first thing Thay said to me was, "Here is India, India is here." That made me immediately feel at home because the first time I had experienced the Pure Land was in India . Here was another Pure Land for me to experience. The Upper Hamlet was so simple and so beautiful. The Transformation Hall was not yet there. The Still Water Hall wasn't there. Everyone was busy preparing for the summer opening. I immediately felt the atmosphere of complete relaxation. I immediately felt that I was at home. Later on that day someone took me down to the Lower Hamlet. I felt even more at home. It is very strange, from the time that I left the place where I was born I had never felt at home like that. When I looked at the stones the buildings were made of and when I looked out over the hills, I felt like that. Actually I was still a very unhappy person, but I was very happy to find my home, my Pure Land. Thay says you don't need to have transformed all of your afflictions to dwell in the Pure Land. I don't know what good fortune I had to be able to be there.
We enjoyed the summer opening. I spent two weeks in the Upper Hamlet with Thay and two weeks in the Lower Hamlet with Sister True Emptiness. In those days, Sister True Emptiness was the practice leader in the Lower Hamlet and Thay looked after the Upper Hamlet. We weren't very well organized. We did everything at the last minute. Sister True Emptiness would have an idea to do something and five minutes later we would do it. It was nothing like the summer opening now. The summer opening was very beautiful because it was a kind of haven for Vietnamese refugees. When they arrived in Europe from the refugee camps, many Vietnamese people found themselves in a situation completely unlike what they had known in Vietnam. They found themselves living in a place where they could not speak their own language, eating strange food , probably doing menial work whereas they may have had a high degree of education in Vietnam, and so on. Plum Village is a place where there is Vietnamese language, Vietnamese food and other Vietnamese people.
Sister True Emptiness said it is very important to speak Vietnamese. The refugees have to speak a language that isn't their own all day long and they really need to reconnect with their roots. That is one of the reasons I really wanted to speak Vietnamese. I was lucky because everybody spoke Vietnamese so it wasn't difficult to learn. In those days the summer opening was quite Vietnamese. Now it is a bit more European and North American.
My real Vietnamese teacher was Sister Chan Vi . She was ordained at the same time that Sister True Emptiness and I were ordained in India. She came to Plum Village from the Philippines' refugee camp. In the winter of I 986, Thay and Sister True Emptiness had gone to visit the different refugee camps and share the practice. They had met Sister Chan Vi at that time and asked her to come to Plum Village. When she arrived she felt it was strange to be in a foreign country and especially to stay with someone who was English and only spoke a few words of Vietnamese. At first it was a little bit difficult.
Sister Chan Vi was the first member of my Sangha that I lived with twenty-four hours a day. When I lived in India I had learned about living with people of a different culture. I knew that there were things that might seem quite natural to me that for someone from another culture might seem offensive. When we live with people from other cultures we need to practice mindfulness and be aware of our actions of body and speech because we can easily offend someone without meaning to.
I remember in India we lived in a little hut. I was a lay person at the time. The hut was on stilts and under the hut they kept the rice and other things. From time to time a nun would have to go under the hut to bring something out. When I was sitting in the hut it was my duty to leave the hut and stand outside for the nun to be able to go underneath because it would be disrespectful to sit on top of the nun going under the hut. That is not something I learned in England. At first r was very offended if in the pouring rain, in the middle of the monsoon I was told I had to leave the hut so they could go underneath and fetch something. But I learnt that this is part of politeness, a way of not offending people and keeping people happy, so after awhile I managed to do it without feeling any resistance in my heart. With Sister Chan Vi I also tried my best to learn about what is considered correct in the Vietnamese culture.
We both liked gardening. When Sister Chan Vi had been in Vietnam she had spent time in a temple on the mountain and she had looked after the garden there. In our little garden we grew quite a few Vietnamese vegetables. Actually our garden was under plastic because they wouldn't have grown outside. Whenever you went into that garden you could smell the fragrant herbs, just like if you go into the greenhouse here, today.
Every morning we would rise early and go straight out into the garden because there were many slugs and they would eat everything up if you were not careful. We would pick up the slugs and take them out into the forest. We pulled up any weeds. After we had looked after the garden a little bit we would go to the mediation hall and practice sitting meditation together. If it was summer time we would go into the Red Candle Hall. In the winter it was too cold, we didn't have any heat, so we would go to the little room next to the Red Candle Hall. When it rained, the rain would come in because the roof tiles were loose; they weren't attached to each other with cement or anything else. When a supersonic plane went overhead and broke the sound barrier, all the tiles would move. When the tiles moved, they left a gap. So whenever it rained, we had to put out all the buckets to catch the rain coming in. In the winter it used to snow more than it does now. The snow would blow in through the tiles. One time we went up into the attic and there was snow quite high, maybe ten centimeters or so. We had to shovel all the snow in the attic, put it into buckets and carry it down. Fortunately someone very kind saw that we wanted to practice and offered to give a donation to fix the roof so that snow and rain wouldn't come in anymore. That was the first time we had a big donation. Before that we were really quite poor.
In the winter we heated the rooms with some wood stoves. But in order to have the wood we had to go out and saw it in the morning. We had a saw with handles on two ends. Sister Chan Vi held one end and I held the other and together we sawed the wood. She said that she used to do the same in Vietnam. She used to go into the forest, saw the wood and sell it to help support her family.
I was very happy when Sister Chan Vi came. To be able to live together with just one other person in the Sangha twenty-four hours a day is already wonderful. When you have a sister who also wants to practice with you, you receive a lot of energy in the practice. The energy to practice was not doubled, but it increased ten or a hundred times. She supported me very much. She had often wanted to be a nun when she was in Vietnam, and she really liked the practice. She wanted to practice sitting meditation, reciting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and chanting the sutras, and she chanted very well. She taught me how to chant the sutras. Sister Chan Vi was also a very good cook and she showed me how to cook Vietnamese food.
Sister True Emptiness also supported me and Thay was always patient. I don't think I was an easy younger sister to have. I think I have transformed quite a bit since then, but I haven't transformed everything since you can still see some of the weaknesses I had then. Sister True Emptiness was very patient with me and very open. She never showed any kind of discrimination at all. No one in the Sangha seemed to have any kind of strong racial discrimination, but sometimes we find it a bit easier to be with people of our own culture. But Sister True Emptiness is just as easy with people of different cultures as she is with people of her own culture.
Thay very kindly allowed me to organize more retreats in England to which Thay agreed to come and teach. The Sangha in England began to grow. I used to meet people whom I had known before I had come to Plum Village and they would say, "Two years ago, you were so arrogant and now you have changed a lot." That I have been able to transform gives me and others so much confidence in Thay's way of practice.
Ordination in India
As well as going to England, Thay said that we would go to India. When Thay says we will l do something, we always do it. In the world often when people say something, they might never do it. Thay had been thinking about going to India for a while and it was arranged and we were able to go. I was very happy because India had always been my spiritual home and I couldn't think of anything better than to go there with Thay. I didn't know that Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chan Vi had asked to be ordained as nuns in India. When I found out I thought, 'Why can't I become a nun, too?' I had already tried twice. And in fact I had even asked Thay one time if I could become a nun when I first came to Plum Village and Thay said, "No, you have to do like Sister True Emptiness and become a lay member of the Order of Interbeing." I was very sad when I thought that maybe I couldn't become a nun with Sister True Emptiness and Sister Chan Vi. I thought, my goodness if we come back to Plum Village and they are both nuns and I am not, I don't know if I could bear it. But Thay said that is not a good reason for becoming a nun. I think the main reason Thay agreed to my becoming a nun was my bodhicitta. I think it was there somehow. Maybe an additional cause was Sister Chan Khong who intervened on my behalf.
We went to India. We went to Bodhgaya. We went to Uruvela and we had tea mediation and tangerines with all the children in Uruvela, the village where the Buddha had gone after enlightenment. We waded across the Neranjera river. What I remember the most was the beauty of doing walking meditation in the places where the Buddha had walked.
One day early in the morning before it was light, we rose and went to the Vulture Peak. The police went with us because there are bandits there. It was the middle of November so it was not too hot and not too cold. We spent the whole day there. Out of great compassion, Thay ordained us as nuns, especially out of great compassion for me who popped in at the last moment. Sister Chan Khong gave me one ao trang (robe) of hers. When I was ordained I was very happy because I felt very light. I thought that I had cut off everything that had bound me, the past and all the fetters, and they were all gone. The next morning when I woke up and put my hand on my shaved head I felt very light and very happy. One morning I woke up, put my hand on my head and then I saw a mother rat with six baby rats run past the foot of my bed. They all had their tails in their mouths. In those times we stayed in very simple accommodations. When I lived in India before, the rats would come at night and eat my hair but now they didn't have any hair to eat.
When I came back to Plum Village I realized that I hadn't cut off all my afflictions and fetters at all. I still got angry, I still got sad, I still had a tremendous amount to transform . But I don't think I can ever be shaken in my aspiration, in my determination to realize as fully as I can in this lifetime my own transformation and helping others to transform. I was thirty-eight, nearly thirty-nine when I ordained. It was a little bit late. I already had built up many worldly habit energies. Maybe my transformation is not as fast as other people's. It is slow, but it is there. When I received the Dharma lamp from Thay in 1990, Thay gave me a gatha which said, "The work of transformation is what reveals the sign of truth." I think this means that all my life I have to keep transforming and I have to keep transforming and I have to keep transforming and clearly.
Every summer opening people come and I am always there. The first summer opening missed was my thirteenth summer when I went to Vermont and didn't come back that year. Apart from that summer, I have been to fifteen summer openings. In many summer openings someone comes up to me and says, "You are much better than last year."
Green Mountain Dharma Center, Vermont
In 1997 I went to Vermont. Vermont is extremely beautiful. The snow and the mountains in the winter, the gold and red of the autumn trees, the tremendous shock of green in spring - a very deep, bright green which comes after four or five months of white - the mists of the summer and the clouds in the mountains. The place we live is very beautiful with lakes and a teahouse built in a Japanese style. It was quite different than when I came to Plum Village.
When I went to the United States, everything was already very comfortable. We didn't have any work to do. In Plum Village to renovate the buildings, we had to lift out the cow manure from the barns in order to transform them into living quarters. It made very good compost for the garden. But in Vermont everything was ready to live in. We had a beautiful house with carpet and hot running water and everything was in place. We were seven sisters and two brothers at the beginning. We lived in a little house and the two brothers lived in another little house. Because they were so few they used to come and join us every day for sitting and chanting. When I arrived, everything was covered in snow. It was so silent. You don't even hear the birds because it is too cold for the birds to come out. Every morning the sun rises over the snow and it turns pin k and there is a pink glow about everything. It is extremely beautiful.
I began to know the North American people. We think because we know the same language, we have everything in common and we understand each other immediately. But in fact there is quite a difference between the North American people and the European people. It took me about three years to feel at home in North America. Before that, I expected North American people to be like Europeans and they aren't. The suffering in North America is tremendous. Although materially we have far more than we need, the psychological suffering is huge. I think this was one of the difficult things for me to accept when I was first there. For instance, sometimes we would hear news that the son of someone close to the Sangha had committed suicide or someone else had killed his mother, terrible stories like that, especially among the young people. There were many people we had to comfort because of tragedies in their families that arose from psychological suffering. In some ways I think that psychological suffering is worse than material suffering. But luckily the Dharma doors that Thay has taught can bring relief. It is my deepest aspiration to go back to the United States to understand better the situation there and to devote my life to helping in any way I can.
Often in the United States the newspapers contact us. We are also asked to give talks on international affairs. I have been asked to give talks on the situation in the Middle East. I have been asked to a write an article on Afghanistan and things like that. So part of being in a practice center in North America is that you really have to be in touch with what is going on.
In Vermont, usually once a week we have visits from school children. Religion is not officially taught in the schools, but many schools have teachers who are interested in Buddhism. They organize courses on Buddhism and the students do a field trip to the Green Mountain Dharma Center to learn how a Buddhist community lives . When the children come we don't teach them theory. We do our best to have them share about their difficulties. Fortunately we've had some young monks and nuns whom the young people from high schools and universities can easily feel close to. The young monks and nuns understand their situation because many of them have been brought up in the United States. Green Mountain Dharma Center is not very big. It may never flourish like Plum Village does. It may always be a little off-shoot of Plum Village. Plum Village is the root, the place for us to come back to, to be strengthened by our spiritual roots so we can go off again to Green Mountain Dharma Center and offer something better. But we need to have that off-shoot out there because it is like an antenna that is in touch with what is happening and the antenna can let Plum Village know what the needs are over there.
Plum Village in the Future
If I think about Plum Village in the future, I see many western monks and nuns. I know that the practice has to be developed. A tree always has to grow otherwise it is not a tree anymore. In the future there will be many new Dharma doors, new mindfulness practices, adapted to Europe and the United States where arts and music will be integrated into the practice.
Thank you very much.