One Week In Plum Village: Heart Of Buddha's Teaching

Posted by Zilong Wang on Aug 12, 2017
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There have been people who have asked us: “Who are you to change the monastic codes made by the Buddha?” Our answer is always: “We are the children of the Buddha. We are his continuation, and we are practicing to carry out his wishes." […] For Buddhism to remain a living tradition, the teaching and practice should remain relevant. […] We are certain that the Buddha counts on the insight, intelligence, and courage of his descendants to continue making the path of liberation accessible and open to our current generation. Therefore, revising the teaching and the practice is truly necessary.

-- "Freedom Wherever We Go: A Buddhist Monastic Code for the Twenty-first Century", by Thich Nhat Hanh

I never expected that I would feel so disoriented and uncomfortable in a Buddhist monastery -- much more so than during a previous week in Taize, a Christian monastic community. After all, I have spent months in meditation centers and Buddhist monasteries, and have been feeling increasingly at home.

But that's exactly how I felt when I first arrived at Plum Village, a monastery founded by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh (called "Thay" by his students) in southern France, and the largest monastery in Europe. I stayed for one week there during the Summer Opening Retreat -- the "largest and most festive retreat" of the year. My discomfort lasted -- and evolved -- throughout the week :)

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("I have arrived. I am home.")

​The difficulty was not due to the material environment -- Plum Village is beautiful and tranquil; the vegan organic meals are delicious. Nor was it about the people -- the monastics and the retreatants are most kind and generous.

The "difficulty" stemmed from my own fixed views about what "Buddhism" and "real cultivation" should look like. My subconscious "Buddhist orthodoxy" was exposed and challenged.

My point of reference for "serious Buddhist practice" is the rigorous schedule of Vipassana meditation, and the ascetic discipline at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. I thought, the more intense and austere the practice, the better it is for spiritual progress.

Not so in Plum Village :)

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(Children taking vows of compassion)

​​When I first arrived there, I stood in shock and horror to see a wild little boy crawling over a young monk, drooling on his robe, and even biting the poor monk, who welcomed the boy with patience and smiles.

I saw monks and nuns sitting together and chatting over lunch, as well as monks who don't shy away from the hugs from female retreatants. (At Vipassana centers, no bodily contact is allowed, not to mention from the opposite gender.)

I saw monks eating three meals a day, and wondered what happen to the 2,600-year-old precept of "no eating after noontime"? (At the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, the monastics and even some lay people eat only one meal a day.)

I saw monks singing in their own rock band called "Bald Eagle", and merrily jamming "Don't Worry, Be Happy" with young retreatants. I scratched my head: what happened to the fundamental precept of "no dancing, singing, music, and other entertainment"?

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(Monk & lay-people jam session outside the Buddha Hall)

​I saw that there were only half an hour of sitting meditation every day in the retreat schedule, and wondered how could someone even get a taste of mindfulness with such short sittings?

In small group "Dharma sharing" circles, I sat there listening to people sharing their mom-and-dad issues. It felt more like a New Age men's group than a Dharma reflection.

In the bookshop, there are dozens of books by Thay translated into world languages, explaining mindfulness to general audience. But there is only one book on the shelf offering a compilation of short sutras -- translated into English by Thay. I thought to myself: a Buddhist bookstore without sutras is like a church without the Bible. Is this "Dharma-lite" and pop-Buddhism?

Basically, just about everything that was happening at Plum Village, I found myself wondering, "Well, all of this is good… But, how it is Buddhism? Isn’t it a bit too casual and too watered-down? Is this what Buddhism looks like in Europe?"

I guess you can say that I started off pretty confused and judgmental :)

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(Retreat schedule)

What the Buddha actually taught

But, as I deepen into life at Plum Village, I started to notice another set of signs.

I notice that there was much joy and liveliness. Monks lead children in guitar songs of mindfulness. Children are given permission to make noises and be themselves. There are smiles on everyone's face, especially the monastics.

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((kite) flying monks)

I noticed that mindfulness was weaved into the daily life, not just in sitting meditation. Every 15 minutes, the bell rings, and everyone pauses whatever they are doing to enjoy three mindful breaths. There is mindful eating, mindful walking, and even hugging meditation.

I noticed that ancient and wholesome values were transmitted to the younger generation without invoking the moralistic vocabulary. Teenagers write letters of gratitude to their parents; kids bow to their elders. Instead of "bowing", Thay calls it "touching the Earth in gratitude". Instead of "precepts", Thay calls it "mindfulness training". Instead of explaining the Buddhist notion of "non-self" and the Asian value of "filial piety", Thay introduces "the ancestors" to the same effect.

I noticed that the retreatants were incredibly diverse. One thousand retreatants came from nearly 50 countries. Each Dharma talk is simultaneously translated into six or seven languages by volunteers.

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I noticed that the vast majority of retreatants were Westerners who have no earlier contact with Buddhism. Nor are they likely to set foot in a traditional monastery or hardcore meditation centers. But they can encounter and practice Dharma here in an accessible form.

I noticed that the young generation of monks or novices were mostly Westerners. They came to train as monks at Plum Village even after Thay is no longer present here physically.

I started to appreciate Plum Village's adaptation of traditional Buddhism for a Western audience.

As I looked at this happy and peaceful Sangha practicing mindfulness, I had to ask myself: Are these not good results? What did the Buddha actually teach, if not wisdom, compassion, and mindfulness? Why am I feeling uncomfortable?

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Letting go of fixed views

In fact, I had felt much more uncomfortable at Plum Village than at Taize, a Christian monastic community. It is because, at Taize, I had no expectation of what a Christian monastery should be like. I am much more ready to accept the reality with openness and curiosity. Whereas for Buddhism, I have accumulated much (subconscious) assumptions of what a monastery should look like. It turns out that it is easier to reconcile Buddha with Jesus than it is to reconcile "one Buddha" with "another" :)

With the help of discussing with other retreatants and monks, I realized that my discomfort stemmed from existing views about Buddhism. I have equated orthodoxy with faith, austerity with effort, and pain with progress. I have derived a subtle sense of superiority by believing that I am practicing the "pure, rigorous, undiluted" form of Buddhism.

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Thay offers 14 Mindfulness Trainings to those who want to ordain in the Order of Interbeing created by him. The second Training is exactly about "non-attachment to views":

"Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We are committed to learning and practicing non-attachment to views and being open to others’ experiences and insights in order to benefit from the collective wisdom. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Insight is revealed through the practice of compassionate listening, deep looking, and letting go of notions rather than through the accumulation of intellectual knowledge. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives."

While at Plum Village, by observing my own reactions, I got a taste of what religious fundamentalists might possibly experience. There is self-righteousness in austerity. The "license" to judge others is almost the consolation prize for self-denial.

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(Which one is the real Buddha?)

Changing, changing

Buddha taught that all phenomenon are impermanent, including the face of Dharma. Buddhism has been among the most adaptive religions in history, changing its outer forms to suit the local culture while preserving the inner essence.

When Buddhism came to China, it has gone through hundreds of years of adjustments and adaptation. It has exchanged heavily with Daoism and Confucianism, and has become an integral part of Chinese culture. Thay is continuing this (r)evolutionary legacy in the West.

However, the adaptations are not without risks. Thay is acutely aware of them. I think the greater risk lies in the second or third generation after Thay. The adaptations Thay have made to "Westernize" Buddhism is built on his masterful understanding and practice of the heart of Buddha's teaching. His scholarship and cultivation lend legitimacy and protection to his daring adaptations. But it seems that none of Thay's disciples has come close to his stage of realization, thus making further innovations more vulnerable.

Also, by loosening certain cultural restrictions (such as the separation of genders), I wonder if a slippery slope is created. One senior monk at Plum Village also shared with me that he worry the popularity of Plum Village's retreat programs might entice the community to offer more "activities" and veer away from the core practice of Liberation.

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To bring Dharma to the West is hard work. The culture is so different. Master Hua once remarked, "It is easier to make the sun rise in the West than it is to teach Dharma to Westerners." (Christian missionaries might have expressed similar sentiments in China.)

At Plum Village, Thay has faced similar difficulties in nurturing Western disciples. Western disciples -- even those who have been in robes for 10 or 20 years -- are much more likely to return to lay life. At Plum Village, the most senior monks have an age gap of 40 to 50 years with Thay -- that's two entire generations. The wonderful abbot is only 29 years old (although he has been a monk since age 14, serving as Thay's attendant for years). So far as I can see, there is no single monk who could be Thay's successor.

But, Thay has said, if Buddha were to come to our world again, he might not come as an individual, but as a sangha -- a community of practitioners. I pray for the harmony and strength of the Plum Village sangha.

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(At the annual Full Moon Festival)

Two skillful ways to bring Dharma to the West: Master Hua and Thay

Master Hua and Thay are two important Zen masters who brought Buddha Dharma to the West. Their outer approaches to establishing sanghas in the West seem to be on the two ends of the spectrum. (And the spectrum has more than two ends.) But I feel they are animated by the same spirit of the living Buddha.

Master Hua's approach is to preserve the Mahayana Buddhism in its pure form, so that future generations have access to the "source code". Master Hua has essentially transplanted the best of Chinese Buddhism in its totality to the US. He placed great emphasis on precepts and ascetic practices, so that the proper Dharma can be preserved in integrity. He labored tirelessly to teach the voluminous sutras, so that Westerners can access Buddha's own words. He laid a solid foundation for future generations to draw from and innovate upon. However, the limit of this approach is that it is not readily digestible to most Westerners. They have to work through layers of unfamiliar culture to reach the universal wisdom. The Westerners who are drawn to Master Hua's teachings were often those who have deep (past life) affinities with the Master.

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(Master Hua and his early Western disciples in 1968)

On the other hand, Thay's approach is to bring the "lowest common denominator" of Buddha Dharma -- mindfulness -- to the West, bypassing most cultural and traditional aspects of Buddhism. Thay's bold adaptations emanate from his world-class scholarship and deep practice of traditional Buddhism. He has both the authority and the courage to "Westernize" Buddhism, and has done the hard work for us. The upside of this approach is that Thay's teaching is appealing to the average Westerner -- even featured on Oprah. The downside is that we risk loosing access to much of the "source code". It is not guaranteed whether Thay's disciples would have the same grounding in Dharma to continue Thay's innovations.

On the personality level, Master Hua seems disciplinarian and strict on the outside, but inside, he is fully liberated and joyful. Master Hua often said to his students, "Everything is OK!" Thay appears liberal and casual on the outside, but inside, he understands and observes the precepts scrupulously.

Neither masters have ever claimed their way to be the "only way". Master Hua said repeatedly, "Of the 84,000 Dharma doors, each one of them is the number one. There is no number two." In fact, the two masters present just two of the many ways in which the universal wisdom is crossing borders and cultures today.

Both approaches are skillful means worthy of admiration. The masters have done their fair share of the hard work. It is incumbent upon the future generations to continue their legacy. If Master Hua's disciple do not innovate upon the rich "source code", we risk turning the Master's teaching into museum exhibit. If Thay's disciples do not root themselves in the core cultivation, they risk becoming Buddhist camp counselors.

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(Thay's seat remains empty, but his spirit is palpably felt here.)

Plum Village and Taize

One day at Plum Village, I suddenly heard people singing the familiar Taize songs. I was overjoyed to find a stack of Taize songbooks in the dining hall at Plum Village. In the next few days, I met quite a few retreatants there who are also Taize fans.

Plum Village and Taize are more similar to each other than to the orthodox monasteries/churches of their own religion. Indeed, the "living Buddha" and the "living Christ" are more alike than they are similar to the religious institutions that have sprung up in their name. ​

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(Taize song books at Plum Village)

Here are some key spirits shared by Plum Village and Taize.

Simplicity. Both places embrace voluntary simplicity. The church at Taize and the Buddha Hall at Plum Village are minimalist and functional. No elaborate decorations or expensive statues. The simplicity helps to keep the capital investment and operational overhead low, and allow people to focus on the essence of the practice.

Joy. Both places are filled with joy and laughter, radiating from a deep relaxedness and love for life. Thay famously said, "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."

Youth. Both places attract crowds of young people, and have made a conscious effort to make the ancient teachings accessible to the young generation. I heard a Taize Brother saying this at the orientation for adults, "In most places, we adults tell the youths what to do. At Taize, it is exactly the opposite. The youth tell us what to do." Underneath is a deep trust and optimism of the future.

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Music. Both places have developed a rich repertoire of songs over the years. Their songs are simple but not simplistic, deep yet inviting. Singing is weaved into daily activities, and forms a core part of their practice. Nor was the singing for show. Participation is key. No one is turned away for not being able to sing in tune.

Engaged spirituality. Both places are actively engaged in the worldly issues, like environmental sustainability, migration and refugees, and education. Thay even coined the term "engaged Buddhism" during the Vietnam War. For both communities, spiritual life is not separate from facing and alleviating the suffering of our messy world.

Focus on sangha-building/communal life. Ever since he was a young monk, Thay has believed that communal living is a key ingredient for liberation. "The most important ability a human being can have is to live in harmony with everyone." Brother Roger of Taize also always had the intuition that communal living is key to being "a parable of communion".

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(Teenage choir singing before a Dharma talk)

Living Buddha, Living Christ

Plum Village and Taize are two of many places where the living Buddha and living Christ dwell and teach today.

Along the pilgrimage, I am deeply grateful and humbled to encounter the many manifestations of the Universal Love. I wholeheartedly bow down to the Buddha, Jesus, Master Hua, Thay, Brother Roger of Taize -- all of whom are opening doors to the sublime. The many faces of Love help me to see and dissolve my hidden assumptions and inner biases, and recognize the essence.

In Buddhism, the Universal Love is exemplified by the Great Compassion Guan Yin Bodhisattva. In Shurangama Sutra, Guan Yin Bodhisattva explains her/his practice of manifesting in whatever shape or form that suits the temperament of the living being in order to help it to attain liberation and true happiness:

"If there are Bodhisattvas who enter samadhi and vigorously cultivate the extinction of outflows, who have superior understanding and manifest perfected penetration, I will appear in the body of a Buddha and speak dharma for them, causing them to attain liberation…

"If there are living beings who enjoy being born in the heavenly palaces and to command ghosts and spirits, I will appear before them in the body of a prince from the kingdoms of the Four Heavenly Kings and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…

"If there are living beings who enjoy governing the country and who can handle matters of state decisively, I will appear before them in the body of an official and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…

"If there are dragons who want to quit their lot of being dragons, I will appear before them in the body of a dragon and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…

"If there are living beings who like being people and want to continue to be people, I will appear in the body of a person and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish…

"If there are non-humans, whether with form or without form, whether with thought or without thought, who long to be freed from their destiny, I will appear before them in a body like theirs and speak Dharma for them, enabling them to accomplish their wish."


The Bodhisattva does not judge if our aspirations are "right or wrong". She/he appears in a form that we could understand, and gently guide us toward our highest potential of awakening. For a Christian, he is Jesus. For a Buddhist, he is Buddha. For a man dying of hunger, he is bread.

May we "touch the Earth in gratitude" in front of all the manifestations of Love, and touch the living Buddha and living Christ within!

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P.S. Here is a video of Thay leading the Plum Village sangha in chanting the name of Great Compassion (Avalokitesvara) Bodhisattva. At that time, Thay was 89 years old, and 3 months before he had a stroke. He is now recovering in Thailand. Sending all metta and gratitude!



P.P.S. While at Plum Village, I receive my first Dharma name, "Generous Commitment of the Heart", in the lineage and spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh. Master Hua once said, "I have had many names, and all of them are false." The Dao De Jing says, "The name that can be named is not the eternal Name." May my new "false" and "non-eternal" Dharma name be a reminder and a guiding light on the path toward the eternal truth(s)!

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(My bed for 7 days. Deep bows to Thay.)

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Comments (5)

  • Ari wrote ...

    I feel wiser having read your comparison of plum village to CTTB and Goenke Vipassana. Lately I've become aware of my own doubts about the path of Buddhism and its ability to truly manifest the union of compassion and wisdom. There doesn't seem to be the evidence, in my humble view, that historically this path is much more adept at overcoming delusions around the superiority and separation of a gender, a species or a nation over others. It's curious to me that Buddhists are not at the forefront of justice movements or environmental advocacy. So now I'm in a quest to figure out how I can augment the practice of western Vipassana in my life and to kindly observe the limitations of the practice or the Sangha which practices the dharma.

  • Viral Mehta wrote ...

    always a joy to read your deeply sincere and clear reflections, brother zilong!

    re: your exploration of our deeply rooted tendency toward false/incomplete views -- reminded of an analogy (perhaps by ramana?) that likened the mind to a thorn that can be used to take out the actual thorn stuck in our body. in the end, the thorn (the mind) is still just a thorn :)

    wishing you all good things as you continue the pilgrimage!

  • Pavi Mehta wrote ...

    Zilong - thinking of you and sending a heartful of good wishes your way for your ongoing pilgrimage. Thought of your post today, and the ways in which your views and understanding are expanding and deepening as you enter these widely varied communities of spiritual practice when I came across this article byJon Kabat-Zinn titled: "Too Early to Tell: The Potential Impact and Challenges—Ethical and Otherwise—Inherent in the Mainstreaming of Dharma in an Increasingly Dystopian World" :) [View Link]

  • Preeta Bansal wrote ...

    Thanks Zilong for this thoughtful reflection. So hard to escape judgment (of self and others) as we find our own way on the path. Especially loved this: "There is self-righteousness in austerity. The "license" to judge others is almost the consolation prize for self-denial."

  • Somik Raha wrote ...

    Zilong -- really loved reading this. Brought up the labor of love Holy Beggars (http://holybeggars.com) that Aryae wrote about his teacher Shlomo, who, like Thay, modified how he shared the deepest teachings of Judaism/Kabbalah.

    To Viral's point, some of the greatest Hindu philosophers talk about renouncing renunciation or else further progress is hard. Of course, the tough question is to figure out when that point has been reached for oneself :).

    I also think your commentary has broader applicability outside Buddhism and on whether we truly "tolerate," far less, "accept" diversity. The obvious examples of non-tolerance by others people are easy to spot and criticize. However, subtle ones, perpetrated by the more educated, compassionate, politically correct and sophisticated amongst us (i include myself in this bucket), have in so many ways sowed the seeds for our present and are far harder to acknowledge.