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Katharine Cook on Plum Village

Katharine Cook

Mindfulness Bell - 07.12.12

My Love letter to Plum Village:  Thay Nhat Hanh and the Brocade Fan

Letting the Earth Tell me Who I am

     As I sit writing in this public library, I note an article by Thich Nhat Hanh in the July issue of Shambala Sun, wherein he describes the earth as a beautiful bodhisattva, a true great bodhisattva, embodying many  virtues, from whom love is born.

       I began to find this out when I moved to my current location, to cultivate a narrow strip alongside the asphalt driveway, where some earth was available.  I had no plan, but followed my intuition about what to plant, selecting native perennial grasses and wildflowers.   On my balcony, I planted lemons, figs, a rose, a tomato, and sugar snap peas in large pots.  As the garden evolved, I began to see in its image, an earth-being arrive.  This identity is not derived from our economy based on the production of goods and services, but emerges from the earth in this very place.  On my balcony, watching peapods, tomatoes, figs and lemons manifest from flowers seemed a true miracle, beyond human comprehension.   Each time I enjoy this beauty, it nurtures me with love and a sense of true belonging, and yet its meaning is not exhausted.  This is the beautiful bodhisattva of the earth telling me who I am right here in this location, feeding me with miracles.

Love Letter to Plum Village --  Thay Nhat Hanh and the Brocade Fan

            The Ven.  Thich Nhat Hanh first appeared at San Francisco Zen Center in 1983, just  as our community was entering crisis.  Thay has said  that when there is betrayal of trust in the Sangha, it could  take three generations to heal.  That healing is occurring.

          1983 was also the year I turned 46, the anniversary of my father’s suicide at his age 46.   The abbot, the one who had supported my presence at Green Gulch, was leaving, accused of sexual, financial and power abuse.  Simultaneously I was re-experiencing the anniversary of my birth father’s sexual abuse of me, and his consequent suicide. With Green Gulch in chaos, I asked my daughter’s father to bring her to his home, and with her safely residing there, returned to Green Gulch Farm  to live alone, write poetry and attempt to work through my own healing crisis.

        Thay returned to Green Gulch in 1985, to present a lecture in the dharma hall, a tea meditation and read from Please Call me by my True Names.   I was quite deeply  moved by both his presence, and his practices.  But when he stood up to read from Please Call me by my True Names, and came to the part about  sea pirates raping a 12 year old girl, it unleashed a torrent of tears in me.  Iit was the first time in my 46 years I heard someone address sexual abuse in a way that expressed true understanding of the nature and gravity of that trauma, and path to healing of such an event. What a relief!  That this celibate monk understood what had happened to me better than any therapist was a miracle.  The path to true healing  began with those tears.  Following his reading, I got in my car and drove and drove, crying and crying and . . . crying all the way to Tam Valley. .   And  knew I must go to Plum Village.

Love Letter to Plum Village:  Thay Nhat Hanh and the Brocade Fan.

       Attending the summer opening in 1987, I experienced  true happiness,  understanding and connection with the earth, and with others, for the first time in my adult life.   The form I choose here to express the many aspects of that gift is that of an ornamental fan.   Thay speaks and dresses very simply, and yet the gifts he offers are  rich treasures of inestimable beauty and value.  On each rib, each spine of the fan is the gift of a possibility. Plum Village for me was about the manifestation of possibilities I had not yet known or imagined.   As follows:

For  a Possible Place on Earth

       Arriving at Plum Village I felt a sense of place, with roots in ancient India.    Surrounded by monks and nuns wearing the saffron robe, I noted the care of the land., the simplicity of the living arrangements and, the food .  We ate the same root vegetables and rice over and over, drank milk and cream from the local dairy, slept on pads on boards and felt we were beautifully taken care of .


For Family to be Possible

       At Plum Village I felt a sweetness, in consideration and respect  between family members -- how each was named by a relationship  --  auntie , uncle . . .   grandfather unlike anything I had experienced before. The atmosphere was not like the post-traumatic WWII family I grew up in, my father a wounded veteran.  So I fell in love with Vietnamese people   --  so open, so kind and so very intelligent.  Perhaps, I thought, I should move to the third world to experience true family.   

For Mindful Walking and Breathing  to be Possible

       Although I loved and admired  Suzuki roshi very much, try as I might, I could not find a way into the rigors and martial challenges of  Japanese monastic style. That  Plum Village practices were available to everyone, and bore fruit immediately was wonderful . . . sitting meditation, walking meditation, deep listening.  From the very first day of retreat, even beginners were asked to take responsibility for their mindfulness, and share their fruits with others. My presence as a complete beginner was valued.   

For the Arts to be Possible

       With talent shows two evenings a week, the afternoons  filled with the songs and dances of children, the frequent tea ceremonies, arts in many forms were encouraged and available to everyone.  One morning I heard Thay say that he expected someone would be writing a song about Avalokiteshvara soon, and lo and behold it appeared.  While  considering music for  Thay’s little volume Zen Poems, Wendy Johnson looked at me and said, “I bet you could write the music,” and so I found melodies for each of those poems, although I had never written music before. Plum Vllage was about empowerment.  After all, we were, after all,  in the presence of earth bodhisattvas, with unlimited capabilities.   

For Balance between the Vertical and Horizontal in the Structure of Sangha to be possible.

       At Plum Village, when the teacher spoke, there was only listening.  No one took notes.  Later, when we  met for discussion with each other in small groups, no teacher was present, only a facilitator. This is the most effective teaching strategy, the most complete pedagogy I have encountered in my lifetime. Both the vertical --  from teacher to student; and the horizontal, among students --  were manifested .  This was the  critical balance that made true understanding widely possible.

For Deep Insight and Political Awareness to be Possible

       When Thay posed this question to the assembled:  “where is the bomb?”  I heard   representatives from around the world  each given 15” to respond, and again experienced the power of correct and fruitful organization in sangha life.  That question, that message would reach many corners of the world.

For Beginners to be Possible

      Each practitioner, no matter how new, was responsible not only for  the practice, but for expressing his understanding to the community.  Coming from a more patriarchal Zen tradition, this was impressive.  Everyone counted, everyone belonged from day one.

Awareness of the Beauty of Traditional Forms

       I was so happy to see the Vietnamese people wearing their traditional dress.  I fell in love with Vietnamese people at Plum Village.  The first thing I did when I returned to Paris for the trip home, was to seek out a Vietnamese restaurant.

For Continuous Long-term Cultivation of the Land to be Possible

       As a new farmer from Green Gulch Farm, I was deeply impressed with the results of generation after generation of land-tending in fields of Southern France, in fields of sunflowers encountered in our daily walking meditation. 

I went back home to America filled with love and happiness.

The Satipatthana Sutra, Plum Village, 1990

Although practices like imagining my own death were not as delightful as singing, I was in complete awe, filled with appreciation for the profound exposition of the structure of human consciousness Thay  presented during this retreat.  A former philosophy major, I had heard nothing that came even close to revealing the structures of human consciousness as did this teaching.  Enthralled, spellbound at each lecture, listening intently each time that Thay took to the blackboard to make his  drawings of how eyes, ears, smell, taste and touch were related to the 6th and 7th consciousnesses, and the alaya vijnana my life was changing. I was learning how to  go about transforming my own, and others’ suffering.  Over time, I was able to access the stores of  alaya vijnana in my own body , and my practice with this teaching continues.  Now able to access early mental formations as far back as infancy --  things like early nursing trauma buried deeply in the root chakra – I can bring about release.  Nothing in my whole life has been more transformative than hearing these talks and learning very practically how to bring about the end of suffering in myself and others. 

This is the love letter from Plum Village and the beautiful earth bodhisattva I am most grateful for.

Thay Nhat Hanh and the Brocade Fan

     The fan opens, the fan closes.  With a practice expounded on each rib, one is never far from help, never far from true community.   Thay Nhat Hanh dresses and speaks very simply, but deeply, beautifully and profoundly reveals  treasures beyond compare, those capable of bringing about an end to suffering on this earth..