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Touching the Ancestral Stream: Human and More Than Human

Thầy’s radical teaching on connecting with our blood, spiritual, and land ancestors opened up a deep awareness in Mick McEvoy: his ancestors are not just human, but animal, plant, and mineral.

A deep awareness of my nonhuman and human ancestors came to my mind as I contemplated Thầy officially becoming an ancestral teacher of Từ Hiếu Temple. Thầy is quoted as saying, “The ancestors have already prepared everything.” This insight gives me a great sense of relief, belonging, and certainty as I pivot daily in many different directions. The depth in the teachings of continuation and interbeing is so vast, yet so comforting. The image of “touching the ancestral stream” is rooted in the natural world. I imagine placing my hand in the cool waters of a clear stream as it flows by, and I feel held in the reality of connection to this infinite flow of life and nourishment.

Happy Farm photos courtesy of ConsciousFilmCo.

The meaningful human relationships I experience in Plum Village are a huge part of my well-being. But when I reflect on feeling connected with our deep, rich Plum Village lineage, immediately the lands of Plum Village, France, come to my mind. I feel a deep, soulful connection to the natural world in Plum Village, especially in Upper Hamlet. These lands and all who dwell on them are also my spiritual family. I do my best to speak out for and to honour these lands and the integral role they play in the healing of all the humans who have crossed our threshold over the forty-one years of Plum Village’s history. This land and the beings who dwell here, nonhuman and human, are part of my ancestral stream. They are a continuation of beloved Thầy and the wealth of the Plum Village lineage.

I love how Thầy encouraged contemplating our spiritual ancestors, our blood ancestors, and our land ancestors. I am as deeply connected to my animal, plant, and mineral ancestors as my human ancestors. In Plum Village I am in touch with the ancient oak forests with which we are blessed. I am in touch with the numerous past generations of squirrels and jays who buried more oak acorns than they could eat and, in so doing, helped cultivate the next generation of oak trees. I am in touch with the rich limestone soils that have evolved over aeons and now support these oak forests and our Plum Village farms and gardens.

I have supported the Happy Farm project’s rooting into the soil of Plum Village for nearly a decade now. When I introduce the farm project, I often invoke our Happy Farm ancestors. Thầy was our original Happy Farm ancestor. Often Thầy is introduced as a “Zen master, poet, peace activist, and gardener.” I love this. Anyone familiar with Thầy’s teachings has noticed the countless farming and gardening metaphors he skilfully deploys to help us understand. He tells us, for example, that a gardener can transform the rubbish we accumulate in life into beautiful compost that can nourish the soil of our inner and outer gardens. Two other early Happy Farm ancestors in Upper Hamlet are Stuart and Daniel, long-term lay friends who began the project in 2013. Without them, Happy Farm would not exist. Every human being who has stepped onto our farms and gardened with us is also a farm ancestor. Thousands of human Happy Farm ancestors have shaped our lands and contributed their energy. Their contribution and practice has made the farm what it is today. 

Thầy’s teaching on deep ecology and his early environmental activism touched me deeply. Contemplating Thầy’s continuation, I see clearly that he has created a global community of future ancestors who will continue his teachings and that of the Buddha. There is a new generation of activists who, after experiencing these teachings, are cultivating a deep spiritual realm in their own lives to support their work and activism—this in the midst of our polycrisis of climate, ecology, pollution, racial justice, and social justice. What is radical and revolutionary is that many of these people are not just falling back on spirituality to support their work, but, like me, are consciously ceasing to separate their spiritual lives from the rest of their lives. We are integrating our spiritual practice into every aspect of our life. No more binary between activism and  spirituality—our activist work is our spiritual life. Our spiritual life is our activism. This is the continuation of Thầy.

Often when we practise with our spiritual ancestors in our tradition the term patriarch is invoked. I have so much respect for the many amazing men who lived beautifully simple, yet deep, lives of practice and carried the teachings and traditions forward for all of us. But, understandably, the term patriarch also awakens resistance. Often I take time to invoke the numerable matriarchs in our spiritual, blood, and land ancestry. We don’t have to look far to appreciate living bodhisattvas: Sister Chân Không, Sister Chân Đức, and so many other elder monastic sisters and siblings.

Another matriarch I invoke regularly is the linden tree in Upper Hamlet. The majestic linden tree has been deeply rooted in the soils of Upper Hamlet since before Plum Village existed. This matriarch offers so much. For humans, she offers oxygen, shade, and nectar-filled flowers for tea. Her mature branches hold two swings that have entertained and comforted countless children and adults, monastic and lay. She has served as the arrival and departure point for countless people at the beginning and end of retreats. She holds whole families of humans in her shade and embrace as they practise Dharma sharing week after week. Not to mention that she also offers home and sustenance to countless more-than-human beings. This linden tree is the matriarch of Upper Hamlet.

As a farmer, an ecologist, an educator, and a practitioner, I feel so deeply grateful to have Thầy as an ancestral teacher. From Thầy I have inherited so much. I do my best to transmit the deep practice of what it is to be a gardener, what it is to cultivate our inner and outer gardens toward collective healing, transformation, and awakening.

I recognise that the conditions that enable me to live, practice, study, and serve in Plum Village are a direct result of the good will of my ancestors. I am connected to their good will, which enables me to continue to create opportunities for practice and healing in Plum Village, France by organising and facilitating retreats and our residential Happy Farm programme. I am in touch with the goodwill and benevolence of all my nonhuman ancestors: animals, plants, and minerals. The plants and animals on these lands nourish me, and the nutrient- and mineral-rich soils support the cultivation of organic, seasonal food that helps fill the alms bowls of our community.

In gratitude to Thầy and the ancestors who have already prepared everything. In gratitude to be part of Thầy’s continuation and this constantly flowing ancestral stream. In gratitude to be part of this deep and rich Plum Village lineage.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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