Sister Chân Giác Nghiêm

Thinking of Plum Village in its early days is like opening a sacred and wonderful book where peace and happiness walk hand in hand.

Arriving in Plum Village

Let’s imagine a path in the countryside bordered on the right by oak trees with thick trunks, looking like large legs, or as Thay would have said, like a herd of elephants welcoming us. On the left, the path leads to a very large field where there is a farm. A young linden tree stands near the entrance to the buildings. There is also a large barn, which in the future, miraculously becomes a big meditation hall.

The building that follows shelters our Teacher: Thay on the first floor and his monastic children below, sharing the premises. The entrance opens into a small living room, furnished soberly, with a fireplace. This is where Thay will welcome me for our first meeting in Plum Village.

Facing the staircase leading upstairs is an alcove enclosed by a curtain, a shared room with four very simple beds. The place is offering me some rest: four bricks high, a wooden plank for the bed base, a yoga mat, a small pillow, and a light blanket. I cannot find words to express the joy I feel when I see this great simplicity. On each side of the entrance, two rooms protect the numerous joyful Vietnamese families. The laughter of their children delights our hearts.

Just opposite the entrance another stone building conceals the heart of the community: the living room (salle à vivre), which simultaneously serves as a dining room, kitchen, and meeting place. This is where our dear Thay prepares tea with great simplicity, which he then offers to us with a gesture of great gentleness. I am impressed by the deep mindfulness in the gestures of our teacher. At this time — I did not know what mindfulness was — I discovered: it is the beauty of full awareness. Thay is true, Thay is love.

At the end of the room, a door opens into a small meditation room where a fireplace serves as an altar. Here the whole community gathers to meditate. There, all is happiness. Another door opens onto a vast field with a white cloud of wild carrot flowers interwoven with the sky-blue flowers of chicory, just like the Milky Way. I secretly think: God has laid his finger on this precious earth. I have arrived, I am home. Thay is there, his attentive presence pervades the garden, Thay removes the wilted flowers at the end of each day, and waters the plants with care.

Under the oak trees in Lower Hamlet

On arrival, I met Thay and Sister Cao Fleurette in the garden. This was in 1985. Sister Fleurette had long hair and beautiful eyes, like the eyes of a deer–full of understanding and love. Since then, I have been growing slowly next to these two wonderful trees.

It was a reunion. I had had the joy of meeting them a few months earlier in Lyon, at the home of Dr. Do Trong Le, an acupuncturist friend who invited me to come to his house to listen to the first teaching that our teacher was giving in French. At that time I was desperately looking for a teacher to help me on my spiritual path. A profound encounter took place during the teaching when Thay held a sheet of white paper in front of him and said, “In this sheet of paper lies the whole universe.” I was filled with joy, I had found the teacher I was looking for, the one who could understand me. The Dharma door was wide open.

When I reread Old Path White Clouds, I always feel great emotion when Thay writes about Sujata searching for the Buddha in the early morning, and the moment they meet each other. My spiritual life resumed its course in peace.

One day during this first retreat, I did not participate in the walking meditation around Upper Hamlet. Instead, I sat under the linden tree to write. At the end of the walking meditation, Thay approached me gently and asked me in a friendly manner:

“What are you doing, Sister Elisabeth?”

“Dear Thay, since I met you, I have been applying your teachings in the hospital where I work with my patients. I have a very busy life and I don’t have time to write about these practices, so today I have chosen to take the time to write about them. Please forgive me.”

“Carry on and offer me your work,” said our teacher.

From then on, all the mindfulness practices I applied while working in the hospital were written down and offered to Thay as well as to the head of the department of the hospital where I was practising. Seeing the results with the patients, he generously gave me carte blanche to practise mindfulness! It was in 1985. Such happiness!

Working in peace

Every day we had some working meditation with the sangha. At that time, Thay printed his teachings and then placed the pages of the future book on a table. With mindfulness, we walked slowly around the table, collecting the sheets of paper one by one, following our breathing and our steps, before placing at the end of the table the united sheets awaiting to be turned into a book. Then we started again, with smiling faces, to give birth to the next book.

With one step I breathe in, I take a sheet of paper,
With one step I breathe out, I smile.
With one step I breathe in, a book will be born,
With one step I breathe out, I smile.

This is an amazing experience from my early practice. I really enjoyed working meditation with the community. Everyone participated, including Thay. One morning a young woman came up to me and asked me to cut some bread, “in mindfulness,” she added seriously. I breathe in, here’s the bread, I breathe out (Heavens, how do you cut bread in mindfulness?), no breathe out.

Huge doubt arose in me… With this on-going question: What does it mean to cut bread in mindfulness? The lady came back a while later, nothing had happened… She kindly liberated me from my frozen state of mind. When the intellect dominates, doubt appears.

Plum Village is full of fond memories.
sitting in Peace,
at the feet of Thay,
in the shade of the great venerable oaks
in Lower Hamlet.
Brown heads, blond heads,
turned towards the light,
the Nectar of Dharma
trickles down.

Sr. Giac Nghiem (left), Sr. Trang Khuong Am (center), Sr. Dao Nghiem