Plum Village Winter Inner Garden

Son Ha Inner Garden
Originally uploaded by d nelson
I’m grateful to have had time to live with the international sangha for a couple of months during the winter retreat in Plum Village. Thich Nhat Hanh’s talks were informative, inspiring and at times academic, with an overall theme of moving toward a global ethic. In groups, after the talks we discussed and drafted new versions of the five mindfulness trainings, which will be finalized during the June retreat, and then offered to the world as a standard of moral and ethical behavior in our time. The wording will be simple, accessible for all humanity, free of religious dogma, supporting the mind of love in all.

Pictures from the retreat are posted at and a moving presentation by Sr. Chan Khong is posted at

It was sweet to visit with old friends from retreats and pilgrimages and make new friends. Sr. Chan Khong and the other monastics practiced well, yet I also sensed some stress of being stretched out in the past couple of years with new practice centers in Vietnam, Paris, Germany and New York. The monastic and lay friends offered endless opportunities to practice deep listening, loving speech, letting go (then letting go some more) and looking deeply while we lived and worked together during the cold French winter. Mostly I experienced my retreat happily, but there were often clouds that I would have to embrace and let pass by. Living with a community with the habit energies and languages from many countries is both wonderful and challenging. I came prepared to collect some images to make a revision to last year’s video on engaged practice, “True Love in Action”, and ended up with an additional project, to make a production of the basic orientation, or Plum Village Practice of mindful living. So, much gratitude to the monastic and lay friends who helped with the script, acting, music, translation and narration, especially Phap Linh and Sister True Dedication. When finished the narrated piece should have language tracks in English, French, Vietnamese, Spanish, Italian, German and Dutch. (Thay with Venerable from VN visiting during the ordinations)

Taking refuge in the sangha is like being a tree with many roots, suggests Thay. I like this image as I grew up in a broken family, cut off from my extended family and ancestors and longed for more of a family presence, more roots. From listening deeply to others during dharma discussion groups, I’m aware that many friends in the practice have had similar childhood experiences. Living with the sangha offers interactions with many new friends, relatives, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters. Some of these new relatives are stable and demonstrate an example of being a person living with joy, ease and fearlessness. I endeavor to live in such a way and learn what I can from them. Others have physical and emotional difficulties that trigger feelings of fear, sadness, anger and aversion in me. I’m glad that most of the time these negative feelings in me are transformed quickly into understanding and compassion for their situation, and also for my own misperception and judging. Everyone offers something positive and negative, including their own ideas on how to practice. Most of the time it was wonderful to have many others to listen to and share with, both the positive and negative perceptions of life. Daily interactions with friends helped me learn more about my self. It was refreshing to occasionally find private time for reading and yoga. My roommates from Vietnam, U.S., France, Thailand, Sweden, Norway, England and Germany were funny, considerate and did not snore much. I’m happy that a couple of them became monastic aspirants. On retreat the international sangha is lovingly connected through the translators. After being on retreat I enjoy staying connected to the sangha’s actions through the web. Some friends remain generous with their efforts to keep communication open through listserves and on-line disscussion group. Teachers reminding me that I’m not practicing alone. At its best the sangha is, to me, like a rich, healthy forest.

I believe Thay envisions the sangha as a body made of many diverse cells. That is how I have experienced the sangha over the past ten years. There’s the sangha in me, accepting that I am not a separate self, but rather made up entirely of non-me parts. Local sanghas in the U.S. and Holland of which I have participated in have been my foundation of practicing and living the ways of awareness. Together we practiced communication skills to heal and bring about positive change within and without. For many years, on one weekend a month I would drive a couple of hours from where I lived on the Hopi Indian Reservation to Flagstaff to be with my human sangha friends. We enjoyed being with each other as we sat, walked, talked and ate together. On other weekends I would drive many hours through the desert to Deer Park and enjoy the insightful practice of monastics and lay friends there. A consultation with Giac Thanh in 2001 offered me the insight of viewing nature as my sangha, which really enabled me to practice beneficially for the years I lived in remote desert locations. With nature as sangha, support can be any form, empty and signless. On retreat I have develped skills to create and nourish sangha. (New monastic dharma teachers)

I have heard Thay lecture monastics audiences that they must not be attached to worldly love or be distracted from their practice. So I have the deepest respect for their high aspiration and commitment to helping themselves and others. At times I have felt some difficulties if I perceived myself ignored or let down by monastics, especially those I have known for some time. But I realize that they practice to support each other and to protect themselves from the desires and energies of so many needy international people, including me. I have wondered if it would be helpful for lay friends to post in writing what is an appropriate way to speak to and interact with monastics. My perception is that in the monastery, the monastics continue the practice, keeping it vital and fresh. Out in the world the lay sangha endeavors to offer the fruits of practice in all settings, whether they are beautiful or horrible. Thay reminded those who stay in Plum Village for a long time that some friends have traveled far and given up their valuable time and money to spend a week or two on retreat. We may see that some are transformed in their short stay and so we should not wait for months or years to benefit from our practice. With a fresh view I see that monastics and lay play complementary roles in the sangha, two arms supporting the body without discrimination or complex of each other. Our sangha is supporting awareness in the collective consciousness of humanity, so that a future is possible. When the fourfold sangha sits, walks, eats and plays mindfully, it brings me a lot of joy and comfort. (Thay and sangha burning their new years aspirations)

Next I’ll share from my notes after talks and discussions. We share a practice that is with us all the time. So it’s a practice of non-practice. Reflecting on, “have I lived 2008 well?” Which concrete principals will help me do better in 2009? Do I have enough peace for the one who takes refuge in me? First, I must take refuge in myself, the Buddha’s last teaching. The in-breath is part of my self, my body. With a good practice there is no observer; I become the breath. In the past the extended family lived together, offering support and many roots. Our practice should be to rebuild the family. There is not enough stability available in a small, nuclear family. Monastic community offers an example for the world of living harmoniously in community. We can be solid like that tree in PV. The tree that did not blow over in the wind. By being present, I am someone others can count on. Then we can teach others to do the same, building sangha. We need each other, and the world needs us to demonstrate living with mindfulness and awareness.

We celebrate new years, but do we celebrate each fresh, new day? Every morning we are a new person, a fresh baby. We never get old. This practice is to recognize how wonderful we are. The miracle of being here with awareness. Like a new baby, enjoy each step like it’s the first step. Let go of the idea that I suffered in the past, which is why I suffer now, and why I will suffer in the future. Realize that I will suffer less if I practice being aware of what is going on inside. Stop running from the past or into the future. If everyday we recognize our happy feeling, we don’t have to be or stay depressed. We don’t have to run away from our pain. Be a mother taking care of her child. We need so much love. Often we think we can make it without being nurtured, but that’s not true, we need care. Our pain is trying to teach us about love. Our perceptions are true. I don’t need a perception about my perception. Rather, I take good care of it by not judging or fighting it. By judging it we lose the chance to truly recognize and transform it. Ultimately, the mental formation is both right and wrong. Go back to my roots, and touch them. At that level everything is possible. Come back to the body using the breath, steps, eating, total relaxation…Do I have a practice? What exactly is my practice? Write it down!

With Interbeing it’s easier to recognize that our body is a gift, from our parents and ancestors. The giver is in the gift. Emptiness of giving; giver, gift and receiver are all one. There is no separate self. The left and right give birth to each other. Imagine them embracing each other, no separation. Producing a beautiful thought has it’s continuation as compassion, liberation and joy. We can see the world we are, that we come from this world and we will go back to it. To treat our mother with love, our mother earth, our ancestors. Writing our aspirations for the new year and offering each piece of paper to the collective bon fire.

Vietnamese expression, “the leaves always return to their roots.” Giving life to the tree and birth to new leaves. It is so wonderful that we can be aware, to be here for all that is around us without being lost in worry and regret. This moment, “This is it.” Even if our physical, mental, social or economic health is not so good, still there are so many other refreshing elements within and around to nourish us. It only takes a moment to remember, to breathe.
(Thay’s bedroom in Son Ha Toadskin Hut)

Morality takes some reasoning on what is the right thing to do and not to do. Perhaps our ethical criterion should include, “to move towards more joy and less pain and suffering.” Does our action bring clarity or confusion, benefit or detriment, openness or closeness, truth or lies, is it relative or absolute, discriminatory or inclusive? These issues depend on our mind; they are relative and mature with deep looking. With insight we see that suffering helps us know the depths of our happiness. By knowing hunger we can better appreciate delicious food, and the fact that we have food when so many others do not. Each of us has the capability of awakening or committing terrible acts.

Tell truth in a loving, protective way; to help others move in a beautiful way; skillfully; humbly; without exaggeration; without watering seeds of fear, humiliation and anger. Listening with understanding to develop compassion. Hearing the vibrations and seeing the body language. There is a value to use the principal of metta ethics in order to recognize the true meaning of words across languages and cultures. Understanding can help us transcend conventional designation of words and arrive at their true nature of emptiness. In Zen we endeavor to not be caught by the word. The finger pointing is not the moon. Traditionally in the east earth and sky are the mother of all, while in the west God is viewed as the father of all. With understanding, there is room for all legends. By transcending conventional words and notions we benefit from learning from our direct experience. The wisdom of non-discrimination, Earth, sky and us manifesting together as one; inter-being. (Toadskin Hut, Thay’s guest residence)

The lamp is the symbol of wisdom. For our children we only want to transmit the best from our way of life, wisdom, compassion and happiness. By recognizing the happiness in each moment of the day, life is worth living. I can have gratitude for my parents, friends and teachers. Insight is possible to bring about forgiveness to transform anger and sadness thus supporting an experience of happiness in this life.
Obama represents hope to rebuild America, hope that the world can be a better place. His inauguration speech was like a dharma talk suggesting that we must look at the root of our difficulties to bring clarity. We have to practice like a family. Listen like an individual, but practice together. Going like a river and not like a single drop of water. Breathing like a piece of music where all the instruments are harmoniously playing together. Generating the collective energy of success. Unified while walking, working in the kitchen, in harmony together with mindfulness and concentration. Following our breathing we acknowledge our body and recognize the presence of friends, in this present moment.

The oracle reading is a kind of shining light practice, compassionate guidance from a poet, master to a student. If we play music with joy, appreciation and happiness, then others will experience it that way, also. The same is true with our mindfulness practice. The actual condition for happiness is the mind. Is it clear or are there ideas we have constructed which obscure the vast sky? Our conditional love may be the obstacle preventing happiness from manifesting. The sangha helps us realize what we already have, the golden bell of mindfulness. We can smile even though it is freezing and there is no heat or electricity. We know that the technicians are working hard for our benefit out in difficult weather. It is important to have some candles, firewood in reserve. Also important to have some sunshine, happiness, mindfulness and concentration in reserve for when the next storm comes. When we are fresh and stable we can be a source of joy for the other person. The teachings on love is a deep practice. To have friendship, joy, compassion and equanimity for ourselves and others brings us freedom. (French friends offer a song during Upper Hamlet lunch)

We should help young people develop a compassionate morality. Ethical conduct in the direction of more happiness and less suffering, more peace and less violence. Rules should be relative, open, but approximate to the golden rule to do unto others as they would like to be done to. To teach benevolence, respect for self and others, truthfulness, diligence, insight and generosity. To take advantage of new tools such as the internet, recognizing that they have the power for good (instant communication and access for all to timely information) and evil (blocking communication, violence, hate, exploitation, pornography). We can help create a beautiful continuation for our children and ourselves.


4 thoughts on “Plum Village Winter Inner Garden

  1. Anonymous

    Dear David,Thank you for sharing your wonderful insights and teachings from “Plum Village Winter Inner Garden”. Your words are like a beacon, a light illuminating the path of mindfulness. Thank you and blessings for peace and goodness always, Sandra Lee, Compassionate Gift of the Heart

  2. Anonymous

    If I met someone on my path, walking in the opposite direction, I should not worry about how to greet him, or her, how to be nice to him or her, because I know that the best thing the best thing I can offer the person who is walking in my direction, is to walk beautifully, touching the earth deeply, relaxing, smiling. And the sight of my walking, and breathing, and smiling, is the best thing I can offer to that brother, or that sister who is coming to my direction.

  3. Shaista

    What a wonderful inclusive commentary on life at Plum Village! Thankyou so much for sharing so many thoughts and experiences with us. My health is slowly improving so perhaps this will be the year I walk on the same earth as so many mindful practitioners.If not, then I can continue practising knowing it is a shared experience, a shared earth, even from afar. And yes, I agree with the writer above, the best thing to offer the monastics, is our smile 🙂


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