The Emerald Stream Flows On
Sister Chân Thoại Nghiêm
Forty years of Plum Village, forty-five issues of the Plum Village Newsletter (“Newsletter”). From a few folded pages of Thay’s writings sent to the family and friends of Plum Village as a Tet (Lunar New Year) greeting to a thick journal, colorful both in content and form, it has been one long journey. The intimate words about life in the “village” within those first letters have transformed into articles and sharings with contributions from five continents. Though still bearing the name “Lá Thư Làng Mai” (literally meaning “The Plum Village Letters”), the latter is no longer in letter form. The current editorial team wanted me to write a few lines about the early days when I had the chance to work with Thay. I agreed right away. The months and years that have passed appeared clearly in my mind, but I did not know how to begin.
The Newsletter began in 1983. I was ordained ten years after that when I started to help Thay and Sister Chan Khong with creating the Newsletter. While working, I only knew the part that I was working on directly with Thay. I did not know what the others were doing because Thay divided the work into many parts and each of us helped him in one area. At the time, Thay took charge of most of the work. Thay was the chief editor; Sr. Chan Khong assisted; I typed, laid out the pages, and checked for spelling errors.
From the first year when Plum Village still had the name “Persimmon Village,” the Newsletter was literally a letter from the “villagers” to other villagers–telling stories of village happenings during the past year, and always with a postscript: “This is a private letter. Please do not publish it in the press.”
The first newsletter was only two pages long and written by Sr. Chan Khong, who at the time was still a lay member of the Order of Interbeing. It was written by her because she was the one who had bought the land and opened Plum Village. The following letter was a report from a lay elder brother in the Order–Chon Le, whose lay name is Le Nguyen Thieu. He was living as a long-term resident at the Village. The third newsletter in 1984 still had the postscript: “This third Persimmon Village Newsletter is an in-house publication. Please do not release it to the press. With deep gratitude.” Because it contained internal news, both the format and the content were very intimate. The readers were family and friends of the Village.
The Newsletter is a plate of spiritual food, offered every year coupled with the parallel verses on red paper. It was a new year’s greeting and a message about the practice. The year I started to help Thay, the Newsletter was already far richer in content. The main article was usually a Dharma talk or a piece written by Thay. Then there was a report from Sr. Chan Khong documenting all the happenings in Plum Village for the past year as well as Thay’s teaching tours. She also wrote about the flood relief activities and the programs to help the hungry children in Vietnam (later becoming the “Love and Understanding Program”).
The following section introduced Thay’s books which had been newly published by La Boi Press, or the cassette tapes of Thay’s talks that were released at Ms. Tinh Thuy’s bookshop, in Vietnam, during the year. The rest of the newsletter contained contributions from friends of the Village. Thay sometimes chose a letter sent to him by lay friends that he felt would be beneficial for the readers. For example, a letter from a prisoner in the U.S. who, thanks to reading Thay’s book, learned how to apply the practice while being in prison, or letters from Thay’s disciples about their practice.
I remember as we entered late autumn and early winter, Thay started to call on all of his students to write a contribution. One year, there were probably too few articles, so Thay gave us topics and then handed out pens and paper for us to write with, on the spot, while he walked around like an exam supervisor. At that time there were only a dozen or so monastics, filling up the “examination room.” We had to write about our practice–no one dared to refuse. But if we wrote something, we knew it might “unfortunately” be published. I remember sitting there the whole time without putting much down on paper.
At the Hermitage, there is a room with a printing press which was used for printing the early books of La Boi Press. Anyone who was newly ordained went to the Hermitage to be introduced to the room by Thay. I have an image of Thay placing four benches into a rectangle and arranging each newly printed page of the newsletter, stacked by order, on the benches. Then Thay went on walking meditation around the benches and collected one sheet of paper from each stack, straightened the collection, then stapled it. After watching Thay’s “demonstration,” we practiced to do the same.
Every year, printing the newsletter coincided with the day the sangha wrapped earth-cakes. So one side wrapped earth-cakes while the other side “wrapped” newsletters. It was very exciting and lively. One person collected the pages; another person took the pile, one person stapled it, then it went to another person who folded the pile in half and slid in the red-papered parallel verses. (In later years they were not only red but many other colors). It was stapled again and then the postal address was glued on. As our family and friends were all over the world, there was one person just to sort the mail by continent, because different stamps were needed. After sticking on the stamps, the newsletters were put in a box for Sr. Chan Khong to post the next day in time for Tet.
Later on, the Newsletter became thicker and could not be folded in half anymore, so we put them in large envelopes. It wasn’t until 2002 that the Newsletter started to have a cover. The reason was that the cover had to be printed in color–This was too expensive, and the treasurer hesitated. But in 2002 we were commemorating “The Day I turned Twenty”! I don’t know how Thay managed to persuade the treasurer, but in the end, the 2002 Plum Village Newsletter manifested with the front and back covers printed in color on both sides. The colored covers continued from then on. Of course, with the new covers, the fun of folding the newsletters disappeared because the printing agent did all of that work. We had to design the double pages and the printing agent printed them on large paper to fit our design. In those years, we did not yet have the advanced design software we have now, so we still did many things by hand.
An historical document
When Thay asked me to take on the work of selecting articles for publication, he told me that the Newsletter is a document which archives the process and development of the Plum Village community. Therefore, no matter how busy she was, Sr. Chan Khong always wrote about the year’s activities, Thay’s teaching tours, and the relief programs in Vietnam. Every year, Thay chose one or two of his representative Dharma talks to help the “villagers” practice. The achievements or newly published books from the year were also recorded. My “Mountain Lion” articles were a personal log of how a young monastic grows in the practice in Plum Village. Plum Village is not just in France now, but also in all the places where there are centers practicing in the Plum Village tradition.
Once a younger sibling said to me with a frown: “Reading the Newsletter is like reading reference material, it’s so dry!” Another one complained: “Only one voice, one content, I already know the ending without reading it.” I smiled. This is not an art magazine for many “hundreds of flowers to bloom.” This is not a “playground” for scribblers. The articles selected need to be based upon the practice and on real transformation that can benefit the readers.
One younger sibling wrote very well, but Thay did not allow us to publish their article because they did not practice what they wrote. Thay did not want to ruin their path of practice. Some articles were written with a pseudonym, and Thay asked me to convince the writers to use their Dharma name before the article could be published. I believe that Thay wanted to teach us to be responsible for what we write. As practitioners, everything must be clear and transparent, especially when we are recording our own history. Some articles about the teacher-student relationship were very moving, but too personal. They were not published because it could easily create the misunderstanding that Thay, even though a Zen master, was unfair and biased. The truth is, Thay had a particular way of teaching each of his disciples and each one was loved and cherished by him.
I remember the first time I read the Newsletter and came to the reports of Thay’s U.S. tours, I was stunned by the spectacular number of people attending retreats in the hundreds and thousands. But it also made me feel uncomfortable. I was a firm believer that the wise ones cannot be long hidden.The idea being that if you are wise, people will find you by themselves. I was completely in awe of Thay as I read about the tours. Reading the numbers however, I wondered if it was necessary to report on them in such telling detail? But I dared not say anything. It was not until two years after I was ordained and I could follow Thay on his teaching tours in the U.S. that I understood.
During the tour, before the retreat started, we had a chance to go on an outing with Thay. An “outing” meant not going to the retreat venue but to a bookstore. Wherever Thay went, he visited bookstores and plant nurseries. It was a large bookstore displaying Thay’s books on the shelves. Near the entrance, I saw a flyer prepared by the organizing team who had advertised Thay’s retreats in English. Having the opportunity to be close to Thay, I dared to ask him why we had to publicize the retreats in bookstores like that. Fortunately Thay is very compassionate. When I asked this foolish question, which seemed to be questioning Thay, he simply looked at me and replied: “My dear, people are really suffering. Sometimes even just one chance to meet us, to come to a retreat, can save their lives. So when we are here, we let them know. Otherwise after reading a book, they would not know where to find us.” I quietly nodded.
During the retreat I heard the retreatants crying and sharing their suffering, as well as their happiness after being part of the retreat. Then I understood and loved Thay so much. I saw that Thay is compassionate and very selfless. I, on the other hand, kept getting stuck in the comparing mind and that’s why I reacted with a big ego. Slowly I understood, when I heard Thay teaching, that in the mass media no one talks about the good news, like how many people are happy, how many have transformed after attending a retreat; there is only an excess of bad news about violence and hatred. The work of a teacher and their students is to sow the seeds of faith widely in order to balance those negative energies. The Newsletter is there to reflect the reality that there are many people who are fortunate enough to know how to live a happy and peaceful life, no matter if there is also suffering. Those numbers are no longer a boast. They represent trust that a kind heart and a wholesome life still exist, even though they may pale in comparison to the suffering faced by humanity.
Drink your tea, my dear
I cannot talk about the Newsletter without mentioning those hard-working final days to publish in time for Tet. Somehow we were always late in starting our work and nearing the end, we went to Thay’s “office” to work together and format the layout according to Thay’s ideas. My technical capacity was just to “copy and paste” and I had a tiny bit of experience from working on the Buddhist Youth Newsletter. In those years, that was sufficient for the time being. To tell the truth, sometimes I even cut and pasted by hand! Later on, more technically skilled novice brothers came along, and the equipment was also more modern, so I no longer worked on the layouts.
Anyone who has worked in editing knows that no matter how careful you were from the start, when you read over again, you always found errors–Thay called them “the worms.” For one stack of papers I had to flip back and forth “catching worms” until my eyes were bleary. After working for a while, Thay would always stop to invite his students to join him for walking meditation, or brought a cup of hot tea right to us and said: “Drink your tea, my dear.” Then, teacher and students talked a little about things unrelated to the newsletter in front of us.
I was very foolish then. There I was, drinking tea with Thay, but my happiness of being in his presence was very small. I could only relax for about ten minutes and then my mind would drift to the newsletter and our conversation was also carried in that direction. Thay laughed, patted my head and went out, letting me continue to “keep my nose to the grindstone.” Perhaps the mantra Thay used the most with me was “Drink your tea, my dear” because I used to drink very little water or tea.
As for the chance to go on walking meditation with Thay, I was a little more “grateful.” I love the garden in the Hermitage, no matter the season. From time to time Thay would stop and share an anecdote with me. Anyone who has walked with Thay knows that the energy of peace and ease emanating from him allows one to truly make each step “without needing to arrive anywhere.” Just walking one round I was refilled with enough energy to continue the work.
I usually tried to finish the newsletter a few days before Tet so that Sr. Chan Khong could bring it to the printing agent as scheduled. I put aside all the New Year preparations–apart from attending the sitting meditations–and hugged the computer day and night. Despite that, every year we still worked until the last minute and hoped for a little more time to read it over one more time. Because every time after printing, I always caught a few more “worms” that were inexplicably missed.
One year on the night before the newsletter went to print, I found a few technical errors–“big, fat worms.” I cranked up the pace and by the time I shut down the computer, it was three in the morning. I took a car and drove to the Hermitage with another sister as my second body. It was a very cold winter night. We parked the car outside so as not to wake Thay and crept into the Hermitage. We came to the plant glasshouse, held our breaths while opening the sliding door, put the newsletter stack in there, gently slid the door back and crept out the gates. Phew! It was like being thieves!
Thay is a professional editor so he was very particular in choosing the font. He usually used only one font from the beginning to the end so as not to confuse the readers’ eyes. One year, a younger brother helped with the layout and used many different fonts. I spoke to him, but he would not listen. In the end I had to sit down and reformat all the articles and of course, that also affected the distribution of paragraphs and pages. It took us a whole extra week to finish.
Thay did not make flashy titles either. Usually I asked him to write one line of calligraphy for the title and that was enough. I felt very glad when Thay was ready to help. For each title he wrote several calligraphies with different styles for us to choose from. Later the technology was more advanced and the younger siblings were also more colorful. And because the layout was done on a computer without having to print the drafts (in the past I was afraid to waste ink), the designs became more eye-catching, but it somewhat lost a little of the original simplicity. There was one younger sibling who liked to make the background stand out and chose white text on black, which was very painful for the eyes to read. I could understand that the younger ones loved to design and to be creative, but unintentionally, the result made it difficult for the readers to focus on the content.
One person even cut out sentences and words so the article could fit within the frames of their design. It was too late by the time I found out. I begged them to correct it, but when the newsletter was printed, it was still the same. I could only apologize when the author blamed me. While working on the newsletter, I often met with blame and anger from others, but I had to keep going. Besides, without the younger siblings who had the technical skills, the newsletter could not be completed in time. Therefore, each person lent a hand; the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood is the most important thing.
I worked on the newsletter with Thay until 2000, and then I went to the Deer Park Monastery in the U.S. Being far away, I no longer had to be on the editorial team, so I took to the stage for New Year’s performances and enjoyed the festivities to my heart’s content. I remember my happiness and fulfillment when, for the first time, I held a new copy of the newsletter (not edited by me) to read. Each article was wonderful, each one unique. While working on the editorial team, I had to read the articles over and over again in order to edit them or correct spelling errors. Then I lost the pleasure of enjoying the newsletter as a fresh experience. But when I was far away from Plum Village, reading the articles about Plum Village filled me with a sense of familiarity. I was grateful to the brothers and sisters who had helped Thay to bring the Newsletter to life.
I learned a great deal while working with Thay because he is so careful; attending to each comma, each full stop. Every time I read the manuscripts edited by Thay, I learned how to make sentences more concise and clear, how to use simple and precise words, and to be more grammatically correct. After a year in Deer Park, I returned to France and continued on the Newsletter with Thay. He brought out a lot of material and “obliged” me to select and edit the articles myself. I had to make more decisions and not just help to correct spelling or technical errors. Around October, Thay called for submissions. This time, he announced in front of the sangha that the submissions were to come to me. I was stunned and very embarrassed.
In 2005, I left France to go and help establish the Prajna Monastery in Vietnam. The Plum Village Newsletter continued to be “born” regularly, increasingly rich in both content and form. The younger brothers and sisters who came after me were technically skilled and had better Vietnamese, so Thay had more helpers.
In 2010 when I returned to France, I thought I had been “released.” I asked Thay (just to be sure) to allow me to come out of the editorial team. Thay was silent. Then Thay announced to the sangha that I was taking care of that year’s Newsletter (Thay gave me such a heart attack!). Not daring to bargain with Thay, I invited other younger siblings to join the team. The year after, I had a list of suggestions for Thay’s approval and to announce to the sangha. Thay nodded. The day the list was announced, I was feeling excited when I heard my name brought up as if I was the responsible person. I knew Thay was training his student, but I still felt pressured. How many years have I celebrated Tet accompanied by worries about the newsletter? Was there ever a year when I was free to sit down and wrap earth-cakes with the sangha (in Plum Village)?
Then when Thay got sick, I invited younger brothers and sisters who had the skills to join the editorial team and announced this to the sangha. Gradually these young ones took on the key roles and managed the work by themselves each year. My only responsibility was to call for submissions (which was late every year). The pressure of creating the newsletter was shouldered by the sangha. The editorial team grew stronger and stronger. There were many articles to choose from. The team started to create an English edition for the younger, international monastics. But the Newsletter still has the spirit of an in-house publication, the spirit of Plum Village. So don’t anyone “complain”: Why only one voice, one content, one stream…?
Thay will also be smiling because this continuation of his will always be present and grow in ever more wonderful ways.