Plum Village

Excerpts from True Virtue: The Journey of an English Buddhist Nun

By Sister Annabel Laity

Sister True Virtue at the Climate March in Bordeaux, September 2019; photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

At that time, we could not yet call ourselves a Sangha in the strict sense because we did not all share the same spiritual discipline as does a Sangha. Thay and Sister Chan Khong loved us all and held us in their embrace of care and affection.

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Excerpts from True Virtue: The Journey of an English Buddhist Nun

By Sister Annabel Laity

Sister True Virtue at the Climate March in Bordeaux, September 2019; photo courtesy of monastic Sangha

At that time, we could not yet call ourselves a Sangha in the strict sense because we did not all share the same spiritual discipline as does a Sangha. Thay and Sister Chan Khong loved us all and held us in their embrace of care and affection. They wanted us to practise mindfulness every day as part of our ordinary daily living, but somehow we were not there yet. 

Thay was very patient with us. Sister Chan Khong had instructed me to teach French to four young men. This was not too easy, for one of the young men who was not confident in his ability to learn French enjoyed above all playing volleyball just at the time when the French class was happening. Thay had asked the young men to, in his absence, prepare a meditation hall for the winter in what is now the registration office in the Lower Hamlet, because the Red Candle Hall was too big to heat for our small community. Just before Thay and Sister Chan Khong returned, the young men suddenly had to start working in order to complete the task, which they had until then ignored. 

When Thay came back from his Southeast Asia and Australasia tour, he shared with me that Plum Village would become a practice centre and the people who lived there would be united by their practice. I was very happy and reassured when I heard this and wondered how it would happen. When they were not traveling to teach the Dharma, or during the one-month Summer Opening for families, Thay and Sister Chan Khong lived in a small building not far away that we called a hermitage. They would visit us from time to time. 

Sometimes the visit was unexpected and sometimes Sister Chan Khong would call us in advance to say that Thay would come and give a teaching. Everyone knew that Thay did not want us to drink wine or eat meat, but there was no formal regulation against it. When they knew that Thay was coming, the Lower Hamlet residents would hurriedly hide away all traces of wine and meat. I never drank alcohol or ate meat myself but I did not need to tell tales to Thay; he seemed to know what was happening whether we told him or not. 

Growing vegetables and other crops such as soya beans, oats, and rapeseed was a way of making a living for our small community. The local farmers were very supportive and lent us their machinery to cultivate the land. They also transmitted to us their way of farming, which was not organic. Unlike other members of my community, I had experience in organic gardening. To me it seemed the only sane way to produce vegetables and fruits. To the others it seemed a crazy idea. 

I had been sure that Thay would support this idea, but he was firm that there should be a consensus in the community. We all know how much Thay cares about the environment. Long before coming to Plum Village, Thay had organized the Dai Dong conference in Sweden one year as an alternative to a governmental conference on the environment organized in South Africa. Many delegates to that official conference had a vested interest in not protecting the environment, and that is why Thay and his friends saw the need for an alternative. 

Under Thay’s guidance, I began to learn the practice of living in harmony in a community. Thay said that all of us must sit together, discuss, and agree on how we were going to cultivate the land. During this discussion I was a minority of one. Thay suggested that I take a small plot of land and cultivate it organically. Others would see the results and then we could increase the size of the organic garden. This is entirely in the spirit of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings—we do not force others to accept our views by any means, including authority. Since Plum Village has become a practice centre, Thay has always encouraged the monks, nuns, and lay friends who live in Plum Village to grow their own vegetables so that we can eat organically at little expense. Plum Village now has three very large vegetable gardens called “Happy Farms” in the Lower, Upper and New Hamlets. Working in the garden is a way to practise mindfulness in the open air. 

One of the young men in the community had made and sold tofu and bean sprouts in the refugee camp where he had been in Hong Kong, and he taught me how to do this. We grew the bean sprouts in a large old wine barrel—our region is part of the Bordeaux wine-producing land—nearly full of sawdust. We made tofu by soaking the beans overnight, then pulverizing them in an electric grinder; we put the ground beans in a muslin sack and pressed them. The first milk, which we pressed out by kneading the sack, was thick and creamy. 

Then we added more water and the milk was less creamy. The first milk was made into tofu and the second, when cooked, was kept for soymilk. When the creamy milk for tofu came to the boil, we added a tablespoon of calcium carbonate or salt or lemon juice, and miraculously the liquid gelled. Then we pressed it into shape in a mold for several hours under a lid held down by heavy stones. It was not always successful. Sometimes the gelling didn’t happen, and there was little we could do with the resulting liquid. I never knew exactly why it was not successful, but there must have been causes and conditions. 

In May 1987, I was joined by another sister whose name was Thanh Minh. She was a former refugee whom Thay and Sister Chan Khong had met on their tour of the Southeast Asian refugee camps and sponsored to come to France. Sister Chan Vi was the first member of my Sangha that I lived with twenty-four hours a day. Sister True Emptiness was also one of the first members of my Sangha, but she didn’t live with me twenty-four hours a day. 

When we live with people from other cultures, we need to practise mindfulness and be aware of our actions of body and speech, because we can easily offend someone without meaning to. I remember when I lived in India, I learned that things that might seem quite natural to me might be offensive to someone from another culture. We lived in a little hut on stilts, and underneath was 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 her when she was under the hut. 

That is not something I learned in England. At first, I was very offended if, in the pouring rain, in the middle of the monsoon, I was told I had to leave the hut so the nuns could go underneath and fetch something. But I learned that this is part of politeness, a way of not offending people and keeping people happy, so after a while 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. 

One thing we shared in common was that we both liked gardening. She loved being in the garden. When she was in Vietnam, she had spent time in a temple in the mountains, 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. 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 in a bucket. We pulled up any weeds. Once we had looked after the garden a little, we would go to the meditation hall and practise sitting meditation together. 

It was very different from the organic farm in Cheshire where I had worked four years earlier. In a practice centre one has time for this kind of activity, and it becomes a meditation in itself. The garden is a wonderful place to practise. The greenhouse is like a meditation hall. The aroma of incense is the aroma of coriander leaves and mint and celery. The mind is the greenness of the plants and the discrimination of what is weed and what is vegetable; somehow the mind needs to discriminate between what is a positive and what is a negative thought. 

If it was summertime, 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 into the little room next to the Red Candle Hall. Fortunately, someone very kind saw that we wanted to practise 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 we sawed the wood together. She said that in Vietnam she used to do the same. She would 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 even just one other person in a Sangha twenty-four hours a day is already wonderful. When you have a sister who also wants to practise with you, you receive a lot of energy in the practice. The energy to practise 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 practise sitting meditation, reciting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and chanting the sutras. 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 had any kind of strong racial discrimination, though 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. She used to ask, “Oh, would you like to eat some muesli? Would you like to eat some brown bread?” and things like that. 

A few months after Thanh Minh’s arrival, Thay began to develop his idea of having Plum Village as a residential mindfulness practice centre. He asked me to draw up a “Constitution” for Plum Village, which would lay down the way ahead for practice. Residents of Plum Village would no longer be allowed to eat meat, drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes. Those who felt they did not want to stay under those conditions could leave and Plum Village would help them find work and a place to live elsewhere. Without bearing any grudge, the four young men agreed to leave. 

After that, we began to take steps in making the plum orchard organic. We tried to find out about organic fertilizers. The sales representative told us about bone meal and dried blood. We asked him where he acquired such materials. He said that the local abattoir sold it to him. We did not feel we could participate in supporting the slaughter of animals, so we relied on planting nitrogen-fixing plants between the rows of plum trees and using compost and cow dung. Plum Village has now been cultivating the trees organically for many years. 

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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