This was my last week not only in Thailand but also in my entire one year journey in Nepal, India, Thailand and Cambodia. I was so glad to be able to complete this episode of my travels here in Plum Village in a pure Buddhist land. Plum Village is reachable by a 4 hour drive from Bangkok in northeast direction. The last one hour of the journey proceeds along lush green countryside with forests, farm lands, then you reach to this heavenly beautiful center.
As I was coming here I didn’t know that this week was quite a special one that will host celebrations and ceremonies for the birthday of Thich Nhat Hanh. They call it the continuation day. This coincidence was nothing but a great synchronicity, a gift of life as many other examples that unfolded during my journey.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese monk, a global spiritual leader, poet and peace activist highly respected around the world for his pioneering teachings on mindfulness, kindness, compassion, peace and interbeing. He made his name doing human rights and reconciliation work during the Vietnam War. He offered modern translations of key Buddhist texts which enabled millions of people around the globe to realize the wisdom that this tradition offers. He has written more than 100 books and he can be taken in Buddhist tradition as the second only to Dalai Lama in fame and influence.
Plum Village is where he has realised his dream of building a Beloved Community: creating a healthy, nourishing environment where people can learn the art of living in harmony with one another and with the Earth. Now there are nine practice centers and monasteries (in Thailand, New York, California, Mississippi, Germany, France, Australia and Hong Kong) that all practice in the Plum Village tradition and under the direct guidance of Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.
Every year these centers welcome thousands of meditation practitioners from all around the world. They are open throughout the year, for short or long stays, to learn and experience the art of mindful living.
The ceremony for the 92nd continuation day of Thich Nhat Hanh was highly emotional. The ceremony took place in front of his residence by the forest. Everywhere was decorated beautifully with flowers. We were a big group of almost 500 people. His friends and students were there as well as many people that came from Vietnam especially for this special week. Then he came to the ceremony area with the wheelchairs. All of us saluted him with great respect. He looked at us with a soft brilliant smile on his face. His students performed dances and singing. One of his students gave a speech on behalf of the whole community. It touched my heart when he said; “All my desired vanish near you my dear teacher.” This was voicing how a teacher could be so powerful on one’s path.
Following a major stroke in November 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh has been on a long journey of recovery. Unfortunately he is still unable to speak and has some paralysis on the right side of his body. Nevertheless he radiates a powerful presence of peace around him. This peace was so pure that put all of us into tears with deep love and respect. With no words but just with his nurturing energy he was encouraging us to enjoy life, grow and serve.
This is a powerful teaching that he shared with his students before he got sick:
“Please do not build a stupa for me. Please do not put my ashes in a vase, lock me inside and limit who I am. I know this will be difficult for some of you. If you must build a stupa though, please make sure that you put a sign on it that says, ‘I am not in here.’ In addition, you can also put another sign that says, ‘I am not out there either,’ and a third sign that says, ‘If I am anywhere, it is in your mindful breathing and in your peaceful steps.’”
The days were starting at 4.30 with meditation at the main hall. Then during the sunrise it was followed by a walking meditation with the participation of the whole sangha. Sangha is an important term in Buddhist tradition that also has a great significance in Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings. He describes sangha as a beloved community and he emphasizes the contribution of every individual to the community and of the community to the greater world. So sangha is the community of people living and functioning together, engaging in serving and bringing joy to one another and inspiring each other to contribute. In most of the spiritual traditions it refers as the group of people devoted to the spiritual search for peace and enlightenment.
What an amazing experience it was to walk gradually with the accompany of almost 400 people. And to breath, to be aware of my breath, to be aware of this magnificent life when the mother nature was waking up by the first rays of the sun.
“We have to walk in a way that we only print peace and serenity on the Earth. Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” Thich Nhat Hanh
Above is the main hall where we were meeting for meditation, deep relaxation, chantings, sutra readings or dharma talks and teachings. For the honour of this special week there were also some additional meetings organized and offered by almost 200 monastics that were the permenant residents here. Each time the ceremony or the ritual was starting with a silent prostration or worshipping first to Sangha then to Buddha. Here worship means to remember. It always touches my heart deeply to see people’s devotion to their spiritual path and their teacher.
Meals were eaten collectively in silence to support the experience of mindful eating. And also there is always a period of noble silence from the last evening activity until after breakfast the next day.
With all the trees, flowers and vegetable gardens the landscape of the whole land was purely beautiful.
Up until now all the Buddhist grounds I’ve visited so far were the monasteries of Mahayana or Terravada traditions. This was my first time at a Zen Buddhist center. I could feel the difference that was unique for this tradition. Outstanding quality was the simplicity.
The primary emphasis was on mindfulness, breath and the moment. Great teaching of compassion was highlighted here as well as in any other Buddhist place. What a soft embrace it was, supporting me into the silence within.
Life around us and mother nature was greatly respected here as the phenomenas that show us the meaning of interbeing. Interbeing is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh in order to describe our deep interconnection with everything else. He thought the verb ‘to be’ can be misleading because we cannot be by ourselves alone. ‘To be’ is always to ‘inter-be.’
Interbeing is in fact the Buddha’s principle of Dependent Origination, but this new way of describing this old teaching made it easier for most of the people to be understood. Very basically, this principle teaches us that no phenomenon has independent existence. Whatever is, comes into existence because of factors and conditions created by other phenomena. When factors and conditions no longer support that existence, then that thing ceases to exist. The point is that all of existence is a vast network of causes and conditions, constantly changing and everything is interconnected to everything else. All phenomena inter-exist.
By this perspective; we come to know that the whole planet is one giant, living, breathing cell, with all its working parts linked in symbiosis. Everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest; whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me. We cannot separate ourselves from the environment. The environment is in us and we are part of the environment. We need to re-establish true communication, a true communion with ourselves, with the Earth and with one another. We can experience profound connection and free ourselves from the idea that we are a separate self through the conscious recognition of interbeing.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s one of the pioneer teachings is mindfulness. To enhance this practice, there was a very beneficial ritual in Plum Village. Occasionally in every one or two hours the big bell was ringing, bringing its soothing sound and vibration to each and every part of the land. So when you hear the bell, you stop whatever you do at that moment. Let’s say you are working in the garden or cooking in the kitchen or talking to your friend or walking to somewhere to meet a need, you just stop and listen deeply to the sound of the bell. And you breath and remember;
“I’m breathing. I’m alive. This is a miracle. This is a happy moment. My true home is here and now.”
Breathing in and out three times is enough to release the tension in the body, relax and smile, then continue your work. In mindfulness we dwell in the present moment. Our mind becomes free and we enjoy every moment.
Mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. It is the continuous practice of touching life deeply in every moment. To be mindful is to be truly alive, present and at one with those around you and with what you are doing. With the energy of mindfulness, any action in our daily life—including walking, eating, brushing our teeth or doing the dishes—can become joyful, relaxed and meaningful. By this way we bring our body and mind into harmony. Whatever we are doing, the energy of mindfulness enables us to do it as ‘us’ through interbeing, not as ‘me.’ There is no separate self doing it. It’s a revolutionary approach that brings peace, clarity and insight.
Here I met many beautiful people from all over the world, mostly Vietnamese since there were many visitors from Vietnam this week. The naiveness, humbleness and kindness of the people impressed me greatly. Our communications went deeper during the times we were spending in the common areas or gardens and at the dharma sharing meetings in the late afternoon.
One day a week at Plum Village is Lazy Day with no scheduled activities. Lazy Day is a deep practice. It is an opportunity to let the day unfold in a natural way while still maintaining mindfulness. It is a day to practice being rather than doing. At the lazy day we formed a small group and went for an expedition to Khao Yai National Park that is couple of hours drive from Plum Village. Here is the 3rd largest national park in the country.
We did a hike into the park along the river. The huge area consists of evergreen rain forests. The waterfalls were breathtaking. The national park is home to many species of animals like elephant, crocodile, macaque, barking deer, asian black bear, otter, jackal, snakes like pyton and king cobra and almost 450 species of birds.
During the walk I remembered one of the talks of dear teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. It was on ‘true love’. His words were with me in each step;
“If the love is a real love then it brings happiness to all. But if it is not true love then it will make you suffer and make the others suffer as well. According to Buddha true love needs 4 elements:
1- Loving kindness; that is the capacity to offer happiness.
2- Compassion; that is the kind of energy that can help to remove and transform the suffering in you and in the other person.
3- Joy; remember if you make the other person cry all the time that is not true love.
4- Inclusiveness; this is the element of non discrimination which means that you do not exclude. His/her suffering is your suffering. His/her happiness is your happiness. There is no individual happiness or suffering any more. There is no seperation, no frontier between you and the other. In this spirit you can not say that is your problem. Your problem is my problem. My suffering is your suffering.
After all these cultivations very soon your love will be all embracing. The other person is no longer the only object of your love. Your love will continue to grow and embrace all of us.”
Please give some time and let these simple but powerful words sink in your understanding. Take an honest look at yourself. How do you live love in both ways? When you are offering and when you are receiving. This is a profoundly important and precious contemplation.
The first one year of my journeys in Nepal, India, Thailand and Cambodia had the route shown above. It was the first episode of my travels and it would be coming to an end in couple of days. It was quite strange to go back to familiar grounds after this solo journey in the unknown for one year. At the beginning all I felt was that it would be a deep spiritual journey. And it was indeed. But I didn’t imagine how broad range of profound experiences it would bring into my life.
With this rememberance in my heart, I was surrounded by the sense of wonder and gratitude. But there was also a touch of a melancholy there. The heavenly peaceful atmosphere here, soft loving kindness in the attitudes of people, unconditional supportive energy, the profound light and peace that all my guides and teachers awake in me, all blended in such a way that arised sentimental emotions inside.
Then I was going back to my breath and letting go. . .
Letting go is one of the highest practices. This can move us towards equanimity, a state of freedom, a form of peace. It goes along with recognizing the impermanent nature of things, of the world, and of our loved ones.
All my experiences in the last one year crossed my mind one by one. I’ve proceeded at the body of the earth, in the path of love, day and night, from one place to another, seeking the reality. Every step took me closer to my root, to my real being. I’m cherishing in each and every experience I had. I’m embracing them all.
“Every experience no matter how bad it seems, holds within a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” – Buddha
On the last morning I sat for meditation near the Buddha. Breathing in, breathing out, I was immersed into the love and blessings I received from many beings in my journey. I remembered the inner gate that opened in front of Shiva temple in Bhaktapur Nepal, I remembered the pure embrace of Himalayas at 4200m, the healing power of Ganges in Rishikesh, the transformative insights near the river in Hampi.
I remembered how the compassionate light of Buddha embraced me, how his profound teachings supported me in my darkest moments. I remembered the graceful presence of Dalai Lama in Bodghaya and Dharamshala and my teachers Lama Yeshe, Venerable Namgyel, Cesar Teruel and Thich Nhat Hanh. I remembered the transformative fire of Shiva and Arunachala and my blissful encounter with my Guru Ramana Maharshi and his revolutionary teachings.
I clearly know my spirit is under the protection of all these blessings. They are with me, they are not apart from me, now and always. I am full with gratitude to every being for helping me to develop my ability to recognize the happiness and suffering of all beings. I feel gratitude to them for guiding me in expanding my heart and realizing who I really am.
I bow to this path, with the highest form of love and respect.