By Dorothée Palayan
Happy Farms in Plum Village are an experiment in organic farming, community living, and mindfulness in action. There are three Happy Farms in Plum Village: one in Upper Hamlet, one in Lower Hamlet, and one in New Hamlet. The lay practitioners who volunteer for one year to work on a Happy Farm are called “Happy Farmers.”
On Friday, September 20, 2019, five Happy Farmers and the sisters of Lower Hamlet Plum Village were cleaning and preparing the hamlet to welcome twenty-five new friends from all over the world. They came inspired by the opportunity to learn about Buddhist teachings as well as organic farming. The daily schedule for the week was made for these elements to come together. This was the third time Lower Hamlet hosted a Happy Farm Experience week.
Our friends arrived throughout the day. For many, this was their first time visiting Plum Village and learning about the mindfulness practice. The evening they arrived, they experienced a guided deep relaxation meditation with the sweet voice of Sister Chanh Niem. This helped them truly arrive and feel at home. The following day, after an orientation on the basic Plum Village practices, presented by our abbess Sister Hoi Nghiem, we all gathered at the Happy Farm for the first session of mindful farming.
To begin, Katrien led us in games to build personal connections with each other whilst playing. During our service meditation, Ayla, the bell master, invited the bell from time to time to allow everyone to stop and come back to themselves. At the sound of the bell, we put down our tools, stopped what we were doing, and took a few conscious breaths, enjoying the scenery. The Happy Farms are what we call “protected working environments” where we practice and take care of ourselves and each other, which is as important as the food produced. We grow vegetables for the community. At the same time, we grow our relationships in the community, our connection to the earth, our joy, happiness, and healing.
We divided into five teams, each guided by one Happy Farmer. Dorothée’s team was happy to sow the first spinach of the season. One by one, with mindfulness and concentration, we put seeds into the earth. We know they will transform in a few weeks into delicious leaves, but at the Happy Farm, we try to let go of our expectations.
Sunday was the traditional Day of Mindfulness. It was also the second Dharma talk of the Rains Retreat. Sister Chan Duc (Sister Annabel) gave a deep and inspiring teaching, emphasising our relationship with Mother Earth. Outside it was raining, and we could feel autumn arriving. She started her talk by singing a beautiful song:
The rain is falling, oh so softly, washing every leaf of every tree …
She reminded us that we and Mother Earth are not separate. What happens to Earth happens to us, and each time we take care of ourselves, we also take care of the earth.
During the afternoon Dharma sharing, we shared our first impressions of working on the farm. In English or French, facilitated by Happy Farmers and supported by monks and nuns, everyone could express how they felt, their joys or fears, their happiness or sorrows.
While listening, we connected to the worries many share about climate change and environmental destruction. We also witnessed a deep desire to take action to protect Mother Earth.
After a much appreciated lazy day, we were back on the farm. It had been raining all morning, and the rain stopped just in time for the beginning of the session. Usually we like to start by singing a few songs. Heike taught us the song “Gonna Let Life Move Me.” Some of us enjoyed harvesting the fruits of the season: pumpkins, bell peppers, courgettes, and chilis.
We tried to work in silence in order to maintain mindfulness, doing and enjoying one thing at a time more easily and keeping this spirit alive in all of us. Working in silence also allowed us to connect deeply with the earth and even have a conversation with her.
At the end of the session, we came together to share our experiences. Amy, a friend from Taiwan, told us she was amazed by the size and the bright colour of the pumpkin she had just picked.
During the week, the Happy Farm retreatants also watched a movie about the Happy Farm, enjoyed a question-and-answer session with the farmers, and learned more about Plum Village mindfulness practices, such as the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Beginning Anew, and Touching the Earth.
Then came the last evening before our friends went back home, spreading out in the ten directions. We were very happy and excited to organise a huge bonfire at the Happy Farm in Upper Hamlet for them. We discovered that our friends were not only good farmers but also excellent musicians and singers!
We sang wholeheartedly together, led joyfully by Simone, who knows all the best Plum Village tunes. Then it was time to go back to Lower Hamlet, under the stars, with our hearts full of gratitude.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM PLUMVILLAGE.ORG.
Dorothée Palayan, Healing Path of the Heart, lives in France. She discovered Plum Village in 2013 and was fortunate to live in Lower Hamlet for two years in 2018 and 2019.