Monday, April 27, 2015


Plum Village is a Buddhist meditation community in the Dordogne, an hour's train ride and then a short drive east of Bordeaux. It was founded thirty years ago by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen monk, teacher, poet, and peace activist who led the Buddhist delegation during the Paris Peace Talks during what Americans, when they don't just try to forget about it, call the Viet Nam War, and the Vietnamese call the American War. (As far as I can see, it's the Vietnamese who have the right to name it: it was their country, after all, that the United States wantonly ravaged and then left unreconstructed, as though we bear no ongoing responsibility for the enduring damage we did to bodies, minds, souls, and communities.) The Americans, the North Vietnamese delegation, and the Viet Cong all held him in suspicion. He was a close friend of Thomas Merton and of Daniel Berrigan.
The monks and nuns live in a cluster of discrete hamlets mostly within easy walking distance of one another, along roads that thread between rolling hills and vinyards. They welcome the steady stream of guests who come on retreat, mostly for a week or two, occasionally for longer. Thay ("Teacher") lives in a hermitage, cared for by rotating teams of monks as he recovers from a stroke last November. His spirit is everywhere in the community, with its gentle, open approach to Buddhist practice and meditation reinterpreted for the modern world, for the West, and for dialogue with other faith traditions. One of Thay's most beautiful books is Living Buddha, Living Christ, a collection of dharma talks he gave during the Christmas season--a major annual celebration at Plum Village.
I was fortunate and blessed to spend  last week there. Early this last Friday afternoon, seven of us stepped off a local train into the bustle of the Bordeaux train station , then crossed the square to a cafe where another contingent of our new Dharma friends had already found a table for lunch. We all smiled like idiots at total strangers--which in my limited experience is even further outside the norm in France than in New York. Our newly acquired habit of bowing to each other with palms pressed together put us right off the chart.
There's good money on many of us never seeing each other again. That doesn't stop me already fantasizing about a visit to London or Dublin, Paris or Amsterdam to see one or several of the people I fell so completely in love with over seven days of sitting together in the meditation hall before dawn, getting to know each other on walks together, in sharing circles, or chatting during periods of the day when, truth to tell, we should have been more conscientiously practicing Noble Silence. The longing to hold onto the connections is maybe itself a slippage from the equanimity that meditation practice is supposed to instill--the Right Thinking that knows everything is impermanent, nothing lasts forever--and that we are all part of one another now, even if we don't meet again.
We were all already in the heady first stage of reentry--the hours and days when we find ourselves back in a world where you don't get constant encouragement to breathe and smile, to walk slowly, to eat silently; where instead you decide what you want for dinner and go after it, rather than accepting whatever you find in front of you--providing most of the food isn't already gone when you get to the head of the line; where a glass of wine, a cup of coffee, or meat on your pizza is again thinkable--each in flagrant violation of the Five Mindfulness Trainings; where you look at your watch and hustle to get to the market for tonight's fish before it shuts down. Walking home along busy Friday night streets in Aix en Provence at the end of my long train trip back across France, I could have been strolling through The Matrix. Today I feel a slight undertow of anxiety that the joy I experienced so much of last week may slip away and leave me wondering, "What was that?
Part of that anxiety involves my own ambivalence. On the one hand, I remember the joy of waking up to the flavor of every noodle in my half-full bowl , after I got to the front of the lunch line to find the serving dishes all but cleaned out.  I remember the bliss of being greeted by a cat on a path early in the morning, and deciding the most important thing in the world was to sit down on the spot and invite her to settle into my lap for a nap: it was the cat who calmed my Monkey Mind enough that I could simply sit, as she was sitting. Not least, I remember  the deep, unproblematic affection I shared with the straight men with whom I developed friendships.
But on the other, I'm aware of my resistance. The bustle of busy streets  Friday night felt like a beautiful expression of human energy to be treasured, not like a departure from the path. I've come to accept over the years that my tendency to flow from one object of attention to another isn't necessarily something for me to constrain; sometimes it's a way of embracing the freedom to play and recreate in the presence of the Sacred, an impulse close to my core nature, not a departure from my true self. (Hence my experience that having a cat in my lap for fifteen minutes is more likely to lead me toward Beginner's Mind than simply sitting facing the wall. I remain a devotee of Distraction by Shiny Objects Meditation.)
And then there's sex. In the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmitted at Plum Village, and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings that are a more advanced expansion of the precepts, I find it striking that the Training titled "True Love" expresses a deep suspicion of  erotic engagement, a sense that sex is a mostly negative force that drives us farther from enlightenment. The best that can be said about it is that in a committed long-term relationship between laypersons, it's allowed, but hardly a source of positive value or spiritual growth. Rather, its destructive potential is simply mitigated when it's kept carefully channelled. I find it especially striking that the last of the Fourteen Trainings devotes so much space to sex, carefully and extensively hedging around its pitfalls. I'm reminded of Christian approaches that so often begin with a canard about sexuality as sacred gift, and then move straight into reshearsals of ethical danger.
(I'm reminded by contrast of Mark Epstein's wonderful book Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught, where Epstein thoughfully and accessibly explores what Buddhism has called "the left-handed path" of erotic engagement as an awareness practice, a means of learning to immerse oneself fully in life without clinging.)
Then again: maybe my misgivings are themselves the product of Too Much Thinking, as I imagine Thay would be quick to say. The Dharma isn't a doctrine, it's a practice. After a week of sitting to face the wall every morning before dawn; of eating mindfully, focusing on the food, on all that went into its production, and on the companions at my side; of walking slowly and feeling the earth come up to support my next footstep, I've changed, just a little. My partner Jonathan and I yesterday morning had the best sex we've had in months: playful, uncomplicated, passionate, immersed in the moment, unhindered by fantasies of What I'd Really Like to Do.
Yesterday afternoon, we walked to the top of Mt Ste-Victoire, outside of Aix. I'm irrationally fearful of heights. The peripheral awareness of space dropping away around me freaks me right out, even when the path is wide enough that I could fall flat without going over the edge. As we got to the last stage and the switchbacks began, my anxiety rose.
And then I started talking to Monkey Mind, addressing him as an old friend, telling him to stop jumping around and settle down for a little while. I thought, maybe I can be the Buddha just for a minute or so. And something clicked.  I began simply to breathe, and smile, and put one foot in front of the other, and the last five minutes of the trek to the top opened out into pleasure and adventure.
At the top of the mountain, there's a little priory built in the seventeenth century for a handful of monks, now used both as a pilgrimage chapel and a cultural center. The courtyard was full of people. A hiking club started singing together after their lunch. Somebody had hauled a viola da gamba up the mountain and gave a short recital in the chapel. A group of Japanese tourists posed for pictures with an 84-year-old woman in traditional Proven├žal dress and hiking boots. They were all having the time of their lives. A lovely woman in her sixties started chatting with me, with exquisite patience for my terrible French. From the parapet, I could look down about a thousand feet toward the massif to which we'd walked the week before from the other side of the mountain. It felt like the whole world was singing Vivaldi's Gloria.
On the way back down, my old friend anxiety sat quietly while I breathed into my next footstep and said to myself, as the monks encouraged us to do all last week, "I've arrived. I'm home. In the Here and Now."

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