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.
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