A barely visible, tilted, sign was the only makes-shift indication that we had found what the pages of the book had promised- “Nouveau Village.” We pulled into a field serving as a parking lot. Our family of four uncurled from the small rental car and peered at the miles of farm land surrounding us. A woman with a British accent causally greeted us. “You will find a welcome table inside,” she said pointing to a path flanked by iron gates. With this little bit of direction, my husband, two children and I crossed the dusty parking lot. A stone path guided us past a wooden swing hanging from a large tree. Plastic white chairs formed a circle. A large semi-permanent canopy tent stood on the left. A brass bell hung off the wall of a stone building. It seemed as though we were someone’s yard, rather than a world-renowned retreat center. On cue, inscribed signs of calligraphy greeted us, “I have really arrived. I am truly home.” I looked at my husband sideways. Walking a beat ahead, he smiled. “Cool. Like summer camp!”
I only knew of Plum Village from the books on my night stand, yet my urgency drove our Jewish-Episcopalian, non-meditating family to rural France to be in the presence of a great teacher. It was summer 2013. Recent events -the school shooting in Newton, my mother’s failing heart, and multiple hurricanes- bared the roots of our collective vulnerability. “We need to go to Plum Village. We need to show our children another way of living.” Seven months later we arrived.
As the days progressed, the structure of the day unfolded. My expectation of a schedule transformed from a linear to do list of rigid expectations to a wave of intention gently nudging us along. As we moved from meals, to dharma talks, and a walk among stone buddhas, the brown-robed monastics served as beacons, reminding us that everything was meditation. Even the cats sat in quiet contemplation.
My feet felt the warmth of the earth, and my skin felt the tickle of ants. My hands lingered in the tub of cool rinsing water and brushed against the smooth metal pots. With each scrub, my own senses washed clean. The dark purple stain of mulberry and the shell-like hue of a newly fallen plum expanded my color palette. Deep pots of vegetables, spices, and rice reflected the abundance of the surrounding tangled gardens, and the silent tending of the family groups.
In this spiritual thin place of Plum Village, a stalk of the Queens Anne’s lace grew as a silhouette against the dawn sky, and one rose pronounced its aliveness in a clump of purple lavender. Under a forest of trees, Thich Nhat Hanh shared apple slices with the children. My twelve year old son contemplated the “faint taste of lemon” and “hint of honey.” My daughter, along with children from 54 other countries, was welcomed into the branches of the mulberry trees, promising shade and bursting purple berries.
We come home in every moment we are fully present. We notice the sharp clarity of the world around us. Our senses serve as conduits to the natural abundance and beauty that patiently await our arrival. As we take in life with the whole of our senses, we see that every moment contains a radical invitation. These moments are not meant to erase personal or collective suffering, but rather they call us into a more expansive relationship with all that is. It is our relationship to aliveness that allows us to survive our suffering. Meditation practice, such as it is, becomes both the path and our companion on that path. Whether through breath, or “kissing the earth” with peaceful steps, or a simple “hugging meditation”, these moments germinate the very seeds of aliveness. A deeply reparative and nurturing relationship with the world emerges as a possibility.
I ventured to Plum Village, family in tow, in search of hope; borrowing the faith of a Zen Buddhist monk, who had witnessed the worst human atrocities and still landed on the side of peace, and nonviolence. Driving through the lighted hills of sunflower fields back into the life we left, Thich Nhat Hanh’s words reverberated “It is possible that the next Buddha will not take the form of an individual. The next Buddha may take the form of a community…”. For now, we start with just us, an interfaith, mostly non-meditating family of four; alive, and, for the moment, aware of our aliveness.