I remember the first time I met my root teacher Thich Nhat Hanh face to face. It was early spring of 1983, the weather blustery and cold. The Vietnamese Zen monk and poet had come to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center to offer a dharma talk. I met him on the high bony spine of the dirt road connecting the farm fields to the meditation hall. A slight man of compact animal intensity, Thich Nhat Hanh was dressed in a three-quarter-length old-fashioned camel hair coat worn over his monk’s robes. I introduced myself. He took my arm and together we practiced slow walking meditation. I followed my breath all the way in and all the way out. We paused briefly to stand beneath wind-contorted Monterey pines just outside the zendo. I looked down at the muddy road where we stood. A juvenile garter snake with patterned scales of brilliant olive and hammered gold slithered across the spring road to rest under the raised arch of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wooden clog.
Unbeknownst to him, this potent teacher had influenced the destiny of our family. My father was fiercely political. I remember Dad’s well-worn copy of Thich Nhat Hanh’s 1967 classic, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, on our dining room table around the time I graduated from high school. After reading this book my father left his job as a publisher in New York City to engage in full-time draft counseling against the Vietnam War.
In the summer of 1982, just before I met Thich Nhat Hanh in person at Green Gulch, my father and I joined him on the hot streets of Manhattan for a huge antinuclear peace march along with one million other participants. Thich Nhat Hanh led a contingent of peace demonstrators, urging us to slow our exuberant pace. “You moved so quickly through my country,” he reminded us with solemn gravity. “Today, be mindful of your walking. Life depends on your peaceful steps.”
Hungry to study Zen with Thich Nhat Hanh, I began to train with him in the early 1980s while continuing to practice and garden at Green Gulch. This was difficult to navigate at first, but a clear path of practice opened and I entered it.
In the summer of 1987 I traveled with my farmer husband, Peter, and our 10-year-old son, Jesse, to practice for five weeks with Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village, his new meditation community in southwestern France. When he was exiled from his homeland in 1967, Thich Nhat Hanh had sought asylum in France, where he welcomed members of the worldwide Vietnamese diaspora and an interdenominational floating sangha of practitioners who joined him every summer for engaged mindfulness meditation. Plum Village was named for the one thousand plum trees of Agen (prune d’agen) that the sangha planted in the first seasons of settlement with the idea that when this prized fruit ripened it would be sold to support hungry children in Vietnam.
Our family lived with a large contingent of Vietnamese practitioners in the Lower Hamlet of Plum Village. Each morning we gathered in the Red Candle meditation hall to sit on rough cushions stuffed with sawdust or sand. Our life together was complex and intimate; we came together to practice across barriers of culture and language. Jesse quickly befriended Tam, a Vietnamese boy his age living in San Jose, California, with his parents, who had sent him to Plum Village to reignite the spark of Tam’s ancestral roots. After meditation, he and Jesse ran out across the sunflower fields of France that surrounded us and traded baseball cards in their strange new linked world.
Thich Nhat Hanh (or Thay, as he was affectionately known), practiced with us every day. In the afternoon he retired to his second-floor room in the stone farmhouse where he was writing Old Path, White Clouds, a fresh account of walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. I remember the silence as we walked under the window of Thay’s writing room, its white gauze curtains softly blowing in and out.
My gardening life did not cease at Plum Village; rather, it deepened. From years of living in the West, Thay was aware of the dangers of alcoholism and unwilling to support the local wine “industry of suffering” so dominant in his region of France. He asked Peter to organize a team of practitioners to remove a fully bearing small vineyard within the Plum Village property. We worked for days in sweltering heat, an international team wielding heavy French mattocks and grubbing out gnarled vines. When the vineyard was cleared, every evening for a week after supper the sangha savored dark burgundy grapes dripping with the intoxicating syrup of summer.
Our practice period ended in mid-August with an intercultural celebration and feast. Vietnamese friends prepared savory spring rolls and spicy balls of vegetable rice, and Peter baked loaves of whole wheat bread in the wood-fired oven not far from the cleared vineyard site. Succulent German dumplings and little Dutch pastries dotted with pink and green sugar sprinkles were served. French friends delighted us with frozen tubs of ice cream—cassis, noisette, and miel—flavors that I still taste in the back of my mouth. At the close of the day the children of the floating sangha read haiku that they had composed for the occasion. I remember Jesse booming out his lines across the darkening fields of France:
Soaring over the ocean
I am free to fly back home
Not like my friend Tam.
It has been many years since I practiced at Plum Village, although I was ordained there in the Lower Hamlet in 1991, receiving Lamp Transmission as a lay dharma teacher from Thich Nhat Hanh during the first Gulf War. There are now four thriving year-round communities of practice at Plum Village, with hundreds of peacemakers convening there every year.
On November 11, 2014, Armistice Day and the centennial year of World War I, the Great War, the War to End All Wars, Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage at age 88 in Plum Village, surrounded by his loving community. Although we are several time zones and a continent apart, I imagine him there in France, walking beneath the plum trees of Agen, now heavy with ripe fruit. He pauses in the half light to remind me, as he so often did, that there is no being and no nonbeing. We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.
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