Interbeing — The Spirit of Community and Human Connection
Kim Nhật Nguyễn
With an aspiration of practicing deeply and dwelling in Plum Village for the three months Rains Retreat, I packed my bags and excitedly and nervously, flew across the Atlantic Ocean. Landing in France, right away I was warped into a different culture. I smiled as my ears attuned to hearing the different languages. I could feel my heart opening as I popped out of the bubble I created for myself at home.
Arriving at Plum Village, the familiarity of the practice and the sangha made me feel a deep sense of connection. For many years, I have been practicing and contemplating interbeing. Similar to any new concept, I am able to visualize and reflect on it intellectually. Only when I am lucky, am I able to receive a felt sense of it. My eyes widened and my heart fluttered at the amazement of the sangha embracing me and me embracing the sangha: giving, receiving, learning, practicing together as an organism.
I witnessed interbeing in action on my rotation team, especially on cooking day. After finishing my usual responsibility of cutting and washing vegetables, two types of rice are steamed, a few entrees are made and a delicious pot of soup is ready to be served. This is for a community of up to 200 practitioners on a regular week. After my first few cooking days, I stood in the serving line amazed and surprised at the many dishes that were offered—it was as if I had not even been in the kitchen! I saw the carrots or leeks I had washed and cut in a bowl of soup and knew that many hands were there for it to manifest, even though I did not directly see the boiling pot.
The meticulous planning, the contribution of each practitioner in ceremonies, sitting, walking practices and other daily life activities can be broken down into tiny actions that may not seem important. Yet at the same time, all of it is very important for our sangha to create a “bubble of mindfulness.”
What was special for me during this Rains Retreat was collaborating with the inter-hamlet Care Taking Council (CTC) to support the Lay Day of Mindfulness hosted by one of the three hamlets each Thursday.
On these days, the monastery is entrusted to lay practitioners from all three hamlets while the monastics gather at another hamlet. The interbeing of these days of practice are incredible and clearly, no one individual can do it. If someone forgot to set up the extra serving table, then the queue will be longer than usual. If someone forgot to fill up the dish-washing basins or put out the sponges, well then, the dishes won’t be washed! Organizing “Lay Days” opens a path for lay practitioners to contribute to the Rains Retreat, and to trust in ourselves that we also know how to build sangha as lay practitioners. I tasted a very small bite of the many responsibilities our monastic sangha does everyday to keep the monastery and the practice alive.
The Plum Village practice center is truly a net of Indra, holding space for an international community from all over Mother Earth to come home to, to take refuge in, and to learn to understand one another. For the first time in my life, I must have come in contact with thousands of people from all over the world, coming and going every week or fortnight. I’ve established a closer connection with lay friends who have stayed here for three months. Interestingly, I feel at home and not lonely.
Loneliness is a common experience of many immigrants such as myself, regardless of being a part of many communities “out there.” My family’s narrative has been, “we just have our immediate family here in the United States,” and our friends and community are the closest to having relatives nearby. Living in an individualistic society further increases this inner sense of loneliness and decreases the sense of belonging.
Life here in the monastery reminded me that the feeling of loneliness is a signal for a need of connection; that nothing is wrong with this loneliness. I can clearly see that living in an individualistic society has denied a part of my innate human need—of having a tribe and to belong. Neuroscience has shown us that our brain is wired for connection and to be in community with one another. Over the course of the Rains Retreat, I connected with other first, second, or third generation immigrants, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) / BAME (Black, Asian, minority ethnic) practitioners. My experience of loneliness and longing for a community where we all belong was reflected back to me again and again. I cannot help but ask, how did we as a society get here? And how do we bring back our innate sense of connection with one another so that it is a natural part of our life?
In Thay’s writing and songs, he expressed a longing for his homeland, Vietnam. Touching on his insight from a song of “Quê hương nơi này” (loosely translated as “Home, In This Place”), I feel connected to his experience and the insight of arriving in his inner homeland and allowing it to manifest outwardly through sangha building and establishing practice centers.
As a bicultural individual, my birthplace in Vietnam does not feel 100% home. The US also does not feel completely like a true home. When I am at Plum Village monasteries, I feel both parts of the East and the West in me and around me. I have a sense of arriving at an inner and outer home, both at the same time. The monastic and lay practitioners became my spiritual siblings, teachers, and friends. Here, the fruits of practice and interbeing can penetrate deeply into my consciousness. And I know I am receiving the seeds and flowers Thay and the multi-fold sangha has been tending to for many decades.
Yours on the path,
Kim Nhật Nguyễn
(Chân Thôn Xuân - True Spring Hamlet)