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Buddhism blossoms in French wine country.

PLUM VILLAGE, France - Rural southwestern France is green in late spring, the hilly terrain covered with burgeoning grapevines. It is restful to the eyes, an understandable, if unlikely, location for Vietnamese Buddhist contemplatives.

Shortly after noon on a sunny day, I purchased a 61 franc ($12) ticket at the Bordeaux train depot and set off east to a small town called Ste. Foy La Grande, one hour away. Ste. Foy was the tiniest of dots on my tourist map and the last verification I was nearing my destination - a village nearby, home of a small band of Vietnamese Buddhists, headed by a small-framed, bony-cheeked man, Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich is an honorific, akin to reverend. The man, age 67, is more precisely Nhat Hanh. His followers simply call him "Thay" (like tie), meaning teacher.

His core message, or teaching, is "mindfulness," the art of awareness through breathing and ordinary, small acts. Mindfulness, he and his followers maintain, can transform and heal one's psychological state, restoring inner peace. Further, inner peace is part of an interwoven fabric of external peace, extending to peace on Earth.

In other words, the first step toward bringing peace to the land is being peace. Those two words are also the title of one of the monk's 75 or more books that have been printed on the subject in dozens of languages around the world.

First encounter

I first heard of Nhat Hanh in 1966, shortly after I arrived in Vietnam to work with war refugees as a volunteer for a private relief organization, International Voluntary Services. Nhat Hanh's pacifist writings were at the time capturing the imagination of many way-sickened Vietnamese, especially the young, and specifically university students in Saigon, where two years earlier he, along with a group of university professors and students, founded the School of Youth for Social Service, a kind of Vietnamese Peace Corps.

At the time, talk of being peaceful one step at a time, reconciling with one's enemies and working to serve others seemed innocuous enough. Hardly a threat. But Nhat Hanh and his followers were viewed as such by South Vietnam government officials. They suspected virtually any Buddhist intention at the time. Nhat Hanh, word from on high had it, was up to no good.

Not long after that, the monk's writings were banned and he was no longer welcome in his native land. A quarter century of exile was about, to begin.

Curiously, when the communists took over in 1975 they, too, found no comfort in Nhat Hanh's brand of pacifism and would not allow him to return to Vietnam. The Zen master's path eschews political ideologies of all stripes.

U.S. connection

As the war spread during the tumultuous mid-1960s so, too, did word in the United States of the unusual Vietnamese Buddhist who opposed the conflict and seemed to embody the aspirations of war-weary Vietnamese. Nhat Hanh's views began to be picked up by U.S. peace activists who, in 1966, invited him to visit America.

He accepted an invitation from the religion-based peace organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Nhat Hanh, Buddhist peace ambassador, in fact, was one of only a few prominent Vietnamese who could call for an end to the conflict without being cast as a communist.

His May trip had significance for several reasons. It was during this journey that Nhat Hanh - hardly more than 120 pounds - may have altered U.S. history when he met Martin Luther King Jr. He so impressed the civil rights leader that King called a press conference in Chicago and, with Nhat Hanh at his side, declared for the first time his personal public opposition to the Vietnam War.

That announcement marked the formal wedding of two focuses of U.S. unrest at the time, the budding civil rights and antiwar movements. The marriage eventually toppled President Johnson and helped give shape to a generation of young idealists.

King would maintain his ties to Nhat Hanh. A year later King, the 1964 Noble Peace Prize laureate, nominated Nhat Hanh for the 1967 prize, writing: "I do not know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam. ... (He) offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. ... His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a momentum to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity."

In May 1966, Nhat Hanh also visited Trappist monk Thomas Merton at Gethsemani, near Louisville, Ky. and made another lasting impression. Speaking of Nhat Hanh, Merton said to his student novices: "Just the way he opens the door and enters a room he demonstrates his understanding. He is a true monk."

Following the visit, Merton wrote an article for Jubilee magazine (August 1966) in which he stated, "(Nhat Hanh) represents the young, the defenseless, the new ranks of youth who find themselves with every hand turned against them except those of the peasants and the poor, with whom they are working. Nhat Hanh speaks truly for the people of Vietnam ... Nhat Hanh is my brother."

After leaving the United States, Nhat Hanh returned to Europe where he had an audience with Pope Paul VI. The two religious figures urged greater cooperation between Catholics and Buddhists to help bring peace to Vietnam.

Two years later I met Nhat Hanh. We were both in Paris in May 1968 for the opening of the peace talks to end the Vietnam War and spent an afternoon together talking about Vietnam and the prospects for peace.

A year later, at the request of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Nhat Hanh headed up the Buddhist Peace Delegation at the ongoing talks. Accords were finally signed in 1973, but Nhat Hanh was told he could not return to Vietnam. His exile was taking on a permanent look.

One door closed so he opened another, establishing a small Buddhist community 100 miles southwest of Paris. That community moved to Plum Village about 10 years ago.

Village life

I was reflecting on those early years when the train pulled into Ste. Foy La Grande. The train station was a small brick structure with a wooden bench in front. Stepping down from the train, I expected to be met by someone from the community. At least that was the plan, but no one showed. I later learned that holding to schedules or living by predetermined plan are not among the community's celebrated virtues.

The depot's sole ticket agent being asleep behind a glass partition, I walked across the street to a cafe, where I asked someone to call a taxi, one of the town's handful. The driver said he thought he knew where some Buddhists were living about eight miles out of town. Soon we were winding our way along a two-lane asphalt road to Plum Village.

The village - actually two "hamlets," one for men, the other for women - is comprised of a half dozen 19th century stone farmhouses converted into dormitories. Each hamlet has kitchens and dining halls with concrete floors, and meditation centers: large, open rooms with glass windows, and smooth, wooden floors adorned with cloth cushions and straw mats. On the walls hung simple line drawings. Buddha statues sitting on simple altars provided prayerful focal points.

As I arrived, three elderly women wearing gray robes and stooping in a small garden stopped planting vegetable seeds to look up at me. I was greeted by a Westerner, a wide-smiling monk who identified himself as Bro. Gary. Slenderly built in his monk's robe, this thirtyish-looking Buddhist, it turned out, was one of several Americans who had joined the community. He had been appointed to be my personal host and later explained that people from all over come to Plum Village to practice mindfulness. Some stay for a few days, others for weeks, even months at a time.

Nhat Hanh and the two dozen others who make up Plum Village run it as a retreat center. Most visitors seem to be Vietnamese, but others are European or come from as far away as the United States, Canada or India.

During my three-day stay, community members were preparing for midsummer retreats, the peak traffic period. Several monks were washing sleeping bags in buckets of water, stomping them with bare feet in much the way select wines are produced in the Bordeaux region.

Bro. Gary told me he was from Houston and that he has been one year at Plum Village. He said Thay lives at the edge of the village, in a hermitage, with an older Buddhist nun, Sr. Cao Phuong, a cofounder of the community. I am told I will see Nhat Hanh the next day and that I am to spend the rest of today being introduced to mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness

That afternoon Bro. Gary and I sat down in the shade of a tree, not far from a bamboo rock garden. As we talked, a monk struck a brass gong hanging from another tree nearby. The strokes were slow and deliberate. As the gong tolled, all in earshot stopped their work and stood still, gazing into the distance. I looked to Bro. Gary, who had stopped talking in mid-sentence and closed his eyes. With a slight smile on his lips, he took a deep breath then let it out, then took another. We were in the midst of a 15- to 20-second breathing meditation.

Seconds later, Bro. Gary explained that at the sound of any bell - community gong, distant church bell, chime clock or even the ring of a telephone - community members stop to practice mindfulness breathing. Bells, he said, "are invited," like the Buddha, to return the community to awareness, to mindfulness.

I was familiar with the importance Nhat Hanh places on breathing techniques, having read some of his books, commonly thin paperbacks written allegorically in simple prose to make profound points. Some of the most popular are The Miracle of Mindfulness, Being Peace, and Peace is Every Step.

"Breathing is the key to mindfulness," Bro. Gary told me. He said I needed to breathe consciously and to recognize my breath is a contact point with air around me, and in a wider sense, all life that has been, is and will be on Earth.

"And because your mind is being attentive to all this, you are in contact with your mind, too," he added.

The habit of mindfulness, he said, creates an awareness of the singular beauty of the moment - the "eternal now." This awareness, he continued, helps overcome suffering. "It has helped me realize, for example, even when I am hurting for one reason or another that I am more than suffering." My mind lingered on Gary's last thought as the gong tolled again, calling us to eat.

We lined up single file in the dining hall, in silence, and it reminded me of visits to monastic dining halls or retreats I had experienced through the years.

We served ourselves, scooping vegetable stew out of a big pot with metal ladles. Simple food.

No one speaks for the first 20 minutes of the meal. This is when the community "eats in mindfulness." A brochure explained it this way: "To eat in mindfulness is of great spiritual benefit and of great benefit to our physical health." It is "being aware of what you are chewing and not letting your mind be occupied by anything else. ... Chew every mouthful at least 50 times." And in gratitude and an awareness of the unity of all matter.

Fifty times? I tried, but even at 30 my pace had slowed almost beyond tolerance. "Mindfulness," I realized, had something to offer me. A challenge, another perspective on life.

After 20 minutes a small bell was tapped three times - and conversations commenced at the table. A woman asked me in English (we spoke in English and Vietnamese) what the Catholic church's attitude was toward Buddhism. I assured her, perhaps overstating the case, that my church was very open to other religions and wanted to learn from them.

The gathas

That evening, the gong sounded and it was time for evening meditation. By then, the women had returned to their hamlet - celibacy is taught as a requisite path to inner freedom - and we were moving toward the meditation center. I was invited to sit on a cushion in a full or half lotus position (if I could) and, if not, then to kneel on a small wooden kneeler tucking my legs beneath me. Again I was to breath consciously and slowly, repeat a gatha, or refrain:

Breathing in I know I am breathing in. Breathing out I know I am breathing out.

Breathing in I see myself as a flower. Breathing out I feel fresh.

Breathing in I see myself as a mountain. Breathing out I feel solid.

Breathing in I see myself as still water.

Breathing out I reflect things as they are.

Breathing in I see myself as space.

Breathing out I feel free.

The monks at Plum Village teach that gathas are to be recited at key moments during the day - when waking up, during meals, while walking or doing common chores. There seem to be an infinite variety of gathas, all aimed at focusing the mind, connecting the simple with the profound.

During meditation that evening, I was told not only to be conscious of my breathing, but to enjoy it. The exercise lasted for some 30 minutes. Then the monks stood up and began a "walking meditation," inhaling with each left step, exhaling with each right step. After that, it was 30 more minutes of breathing meditation before ending the service with Buddhist chants.

It was time to retire. My psyche had slowed substantially. But to really "come down," I was told, would take at least several days. But I already felt myself entering a space where I began to pay more attention to ordinary things. The wooden door, a green plant on the bed table, a spider web in a corner of the room. I thought of a passage I had read that day in a Nhat Hanh book: "To meditate is to be aware of what is going on - in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in the world. When we settle into the present moment, we can see beauties and wonders right before our eyes."

The moon was bright and full that night, framed by the single window in my room. I looked out, drifting into sleep, thinking of how contemplative life envelopes all religious traditions. I felt a surge of gratitude.

Dharma talk

A dharma, or teaching, talk, is a Buddhist tradition and an important weekly occurrence at the village. One was on the schedule for the next day. Nhat Hanh was to speak. The subject: mindfulness and its applications in Vietnamese poetry. We gathered in the men's dining room and the monk spoke for close to two hours. One Buddhist woman whispered simultaneous translations to the non-Vietnamese-speaking visitors.

The poem was about a Vietnamese woman sold into prostitution to earn her family's liberation. Nhat Hanh spoke of Vietnam's self-imposed slavery to capitalism and to communism. His point: Vietnam will not be free until it develops a deeper self-awareness. Mindfulness, he argues, is the path to that awareness.

Following the talk a group of us, some 20 in all, walked with Nhat Hanh to his hut, a one-room wooden structure, recently built, on the side of a hill overlooking a green meadow. The room was barren except for a coffee table behind which the monk sat in a lotus position after we entered.

I sat down on the floor, waiting for someone to speak. But there was only silence - for more than 15 minutes. Then Nhat Hanh nodded and the visitors began to get up to leave.

That afternoon I returned to the monk's hut for a personal visit. He greeted me with a smile, inviting me to sit down next to him at the table on the floor. But now on the table sat an old thermos and two small glasses with straw mats beneath them. He poured tea and asked the first question.

"How are Vietnamese refugees faring in the United States?" he asked.

I answered that Vietnamese in the United States generally have a reputation for being industrious and most have found some kind of employment."

But that was not what he was asking. He said he wanted to know how they were handling their separation from their homeland. He especially wanted to know about the young. He said he had heard many young were estranged from their parents and some had even joined gangs for mutual support. Additionally, he wanted to know what the Catholic church was doing to reach the alienated young. "What authentic Catholic teaching," he asked, was speaking to the alienated young?

As I struggled to capture the full gist of his probe, he continued, saying that Western church leaders need to work harder to reach the young. He said it was his impression that material things, like designer clothes and fast music, were meeting real needs not being met by religious teachers among the young. He quickly added that Buddhism is not the answer to America's search for meaning. That answer, he said, must come from within Western traditions. At best, Buddhism, he said, can only help point a way.

He stressed that Catholic leaders, including Catholic journalists, need to search Catholic tradition for "authentic teachings" capable of reaching the young. "It must be authentic to be heard," he said, adding that by authentic he means teachings grounded in "true understanding and true love."

He indicated he felt the Catholic church's leadership was preoccupied with the wrong concerns, but he would not spell them out except to cite the examples of birth control and church authority. Vietnamese Buddhism avoids dogmatism. One verse reads:

Do not be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist systems of thought are guiding means; they are not absolute truth.

We spoke of Vietnam and I asked if he would like to return. He said he has never stopped wanting to return but has grown to realize he continues to have followers there and so, as he said, "I am in Vietnam."

Clearly, the exile has been painful, but just as clearly he has adjusted to it. He spoke of what he called "the four noble truths," the recognition of suffering, the isolation of its cause, the healing and the rooting out of the cause. The process, he said, has through his life helped him deal with personal suffering and opened his eyes to the world's beauty in the midst of suffering.

Removing the cause of the suffering, he said, opens us up to the presence of the kingdom of God. It is, he said, the recognition that the kingdom is available "here and now." St. Francis understood this, he continued, telling the story about Francis asking a tree to talk about God's presence. The tree responded, so the story goes, by blooming in midwinter.

We lingered over tea for more than an hour. I was conscious that Nhat Hanh had written we can, through attitude, do violence to tea as well, just as we can to anything else. The lesson: Violence is an attitude, too, and each personal act - because all is interconnected - takes its real toll in the quest for universal peace.

More so, it came to me as we spoke that Nhat Hanh - unassuming monk, odd in looks, exiled from his land, far out of the mainstream and dismissed by the secular powers that be - was, indeed, the genuine thing. Martin Luther King recognized it; so did Thomas Merton.

That afternoon, sitting there with a small glass of tea in hand, after 25 years, looking into his clear brown eyes, I felt the presence of a holy man - and, through him, felt connected in a special way with those spiritual giants. Truth's pathway in rare moments can appear so clear, so simple. If only we learn to see the tea leaves.
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Title Annotation:Ste. Foy La Grande, France
Author:Fox, Thomas C.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 16, 1993
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