With gratitude to FCM member Betsy Arizu for sharing these reflections.
I heard one of the monks call this gathering legendary. For me it was extraordinary, traveling to Plum Village in France with our teacher, Fred and fellow FCM members, Diane, Angie, Anne, Beth, and Rosaria. We gathered with people from around the world to celebrate 50 years of the Order of Interbeing, to connect with others, and touch life deeply in the present moment with the wonderful teachings and practices developed over the years at Plum Village. Gathered were many lay Dharma teachers (like Fred) from Vietnam, Thailand, Botswana, Israel, India, Italy, France, New Zealand, Netherlands, Portugal, Ireland and Canada. A number of the original Vietnamese students from the School for Youth for Social Services organized by Thay and Sister Chan Khong in the 1960's traveled to Plum Village especially for this event. Thay, the teachings of the Buddha and the fourfold sangha (women, men, lay and monastic) were joyfully present.
Thay's presence and continuation were clearly felt throughout the retreat. On the second day during the Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet Thay was wheeled in by two attendants through a side door. Raising his left forefinger to his lips in the gesture of silence, he remained deeply present with all for the next 10 minutes as the Dharma talk continued. After the talk we gathered at the bell tower for walking meditation. Thay joined us in a circle as we sang, Happiness and other songs as we prepared to walk. Thay, pushed by his attendants, led the group in mindful walking meditation just like he had done so many times before, first through the plum trees and then up a very steep hill overlooking magnificent green hills and countryside. We sat down on the grass around Thay, quietly, peacefully in the wonder of the moment. Thay deftly used his left hand to drink his tea, to push back his brown cap back from his forehead and to signal to his attendant that he wanted another cup of tea. He slowly turned his head from side to side as he gazed at us, his eyes indicating such presence and deep awareness.
The day reserved for the 50 years of the Order of Interbeing celebration was quite festive. Fred and Shantum Seth, from India were the facilitators. Fred shared about his early visits to Plum Village and conversations with Thay about the Order of Interbeing. A delicious cake was offered and performances included a beautiful instrumental piece composed by Brother Phap Linh, a moving play performed by Vietnamese OI members commemorating the immolation of Nhat Chi Mai as a profound cry for peace during the Vietnam War, and a skit by young monastic aspirants. The skit was colorful and entertaining. From the dry ice mists of the stage a young monk was revealed sitting in meditation. The narrator began describing what this young Thay had seen--discrimination, fanaticism, intolerance, and how he had implored great bodhisattvas to come forth into the world. To the grace and rhythm of Pachelbel's Canon, one by one the aspirants with colorful face paint and creative costume came forth as bodhisattvas onto the stage. Each one represented one of the essences of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings: openness, nonattachment to views, free thinking, embracing suffering, compassion and healing, embracing anger, dwelling happily in the present moment, community and communication, loving speech, protecting and nourishing the sangha, right livelihood and protecting our environment, reverence for life and the insight of interbeing, generosity and nonexploitation, and true love. In this delightful depiction Thay's brilliance and profound contribution to the world was evident. The rich meaning of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings and the compass they provide for living one's life, building and caring for community and engaging with compassion in the word were real and alive for me, and my aspiration to live a life of awakening and service to others was deeply nourished. The celebration continued. Three flowering trees were presented and offered in gratitude on this auspicious occasion--one to Thay, one to Sister Chan Khong and one to Fred. There are now over 2,000 OI members since Thay ordained the first 6 in Vietnam in 1966. Fred was the 11th to be ordained and the first Westerner. Fred wrote the introduction and as editor helped Thay put the OI Charter and 14 Mindfulness Trainings into the book, Interbeing. Fred was acknowledged for having brought the Order of Interbeing to the West. I was very moved at this presentation. How fortunate we are to have such a bodhisattva as a teacher.
During the retreat we savored the quiet stillness during meals, working mediation and walking meditation, and listened with quiet wonder and openness to the deep and profound Dharma talks. Much of the rest of the time was playful and meaningful interchange between people, deep sharing and listening, and for me long conversations with others about sangha building, family programs, death and dying, mindfulness in education and creativity in the arts. I jokingly told our FCM group as we did a circle of sharing on the last day at Upper Hamlet that I had never talked so much in my life. There were affinity groups, panels, and presentations on topics of engaged Buddhism. Fred, with true energy and inspiration, shared about our urban practice center on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa. He and Angie led a workshop on sangha building. Connection and relationship were so rich and meaningful for me at this retreat.
When we said goodbye at the end of the retreat it was with deep gratitude and a sense of no coming and going. As the little green plums continue to form on the trees, and the monastics end one retreat and prepare for the next, it is clear that Thay and these beautiful teachings of the Buddha continue in the world.