“The highland after the fire,
Is greener and more fragrant than ever.”
Another spring is coming to Khao Yai highland. In spring, there is some gentle rain after quite a bit of dry and cold days; trees offer their buds, and it is time for you to visit the Monastery to take part in special events like Vietnamese traditional Tet Lunar New Year, retreats, or The Great Precepts Transmission ceremony. But we all know that no spring is the same. If you had been present with this land from its beginning, you would have seen trees growing, getting greener and greener every day; new faces of monastic brothers and sisters mature every day along with our various construction projects at Thai Plum Village, also known as Nursery Monastery (Vườn Ươm). This year, you will have a chance to accompany us in celebrating our 10th anniversary. Looking at the past ten years, we will understand how Thai Plum Village has been and will proceed to continue Thay in our individual practice and also in our practice as a community. Each tree, each pebble found on the walking meditation path, each monastic brother and sister who used to be with us, who is still with us now, each being and non-being can tell us a story. Our history of more than ten years on this land is still manifesting itself in the present. As Thay has taught us, coming back to the present moment allows us to get in touch with the past.
A Newly Formed Village
Ten years ago, our Beloved Thay has given Thai Plum Village a new ‘body’. However, the story of this land has already started many years before the milestone year of 2013. Thanks to countless Bodhisattvas, the Nursery Monastery was well prepared in terms of spirit, materials, and human resources. Bearing a deep love towards this newborn yet far away child, Thay managed to visit the Kingdom of Thailand many times to set up the future of this monastery. Thousands of practitioners have witnessed Thay performing the purification ceremony, planting the bodhi tree in the New Land, which would later become the Thai Plum Village International Monastery.
The New Land at that time only had gardens of mango trees, lines of tamarind trees, and clumps of bushes; while the construction sites were only pieces of concrete set on the ground. Now every room, every corner of this land has been filled with human warmth and joyful energy. Our bamboo lines, gardens of mahogany, flamboyant, and peach blossom… may still be young, but have been able to offer shades, replacing acacia trees and cogon bushes. The planted trees have offered greenery all over the residences. Well-surfaced walk paths around the hills have now replaced the muddy worn paths after every heavy rain. Newly built guest houses have now replaced temporary tents. Passing by the new kitchen, food serving hall, dining hall, all the way to the classrooms, the playground, etc., you will easily see a monastic in a brown robe with a fresh smile. Whether in the Meditation Hall, on Anapana Hill (Đồi An Ban), in Looking Far Hut (Cốc Nhìn Xa), or the Buddha Garden, you will always be able to find a space that satisfies your yearning for nature.
Arriving at Thai Plum Village, you will become our resident for seven days, two weeks, three months, or longer. As a villager, you will attend working sessions in groups; each group takes care of a specific work, diligently together like a swarm of bees, sweeping the floor, planting vegetables, watering trees, or classifying rubbish, etc. The Village’s vitality is most clearly seen in community activities. Thay was a cultural activist and this Village located in Khao Yai highland is continuing his aspirations to preserve Viet Nam’s cultural beauty, integrate it with Thai culture, all the while being aware of the multicultural trend of modern society. However, Thai Plum Village is not a cultural museum. It is a living cultural entity reflected by its cuisine, costumes, ceremonial chants, and language, etc. If you visit the Village at the right time, you will experience activities like putting up the ‘Nêu tree’ (high bamboo representing wishes for the new year) and wrapping ‘bánh chưng’ (traditional square sticky rice cake or “Earth Cake”), welcoming New Year’s Eve, reading ‘Kiều’ (poetic lines explained as instruction for one’s practice), Songkran water festival, lion dance, playing with lanterns in the mid-autumn festival, clipping a rose on your pocket during the lunar month of July, as well as celebrating Christmas, etc. Compared to simple activities in the early days, our events have become homey routines, and when the time nears, everyone will be eager to prepare and look forward to attending them.
A Well-disciplined Monastery
Thầy not only gave Thai Plum Village a body but also a direction for the land’s consciousness, which is to be a place where a mindfulness community would consider a home to share. A practice community is different from a normal village. We monastics always have a practice schedule at hand and are always ready to organize our activities accordingly wherever we go. From our early days with a humble range of activities, now Thai Plum Village from morning till night, has The Great Bell, the activity bell, the harmonious sound of the bell and the fish drum, together with the chanting voice, making a well-disciplined monastery.
Arriving at the monastery, you will quickly see everyone stop, smile, and enjoy their breath as the clock chimes; you will also attend silent meals, days of mindfulness when the fourfold sangha practice walking meditation together, attend Dharma talks and share their practice in Dharma sharing sessions. When you come to the meditation hall early in the morning, you will see beautiful seated practitioners coming early for the activity. Even during the noble silence time, you will still see our novice brothers practice Touching the Earth, etc.
In this environment, no matter what purpose you come to the Monastery with, you will always see yourself surrounded by a community that is always practicing. Despite being in the form of “practicing together”, each activity is an opportunity for us to return to our own mind, to take refuge in the island within.
An Institute of Applied Buddhism
The past ten years have seen Thai Plum Village sangha thrive every day. During our first days in the New Land, the monastic sangha could only manage to care for the monastic community; we did not have many guests visiting. As the Monastery could offer retreats more frequently, our capacity to take care of more significant events with more participants also started to be better. Events like retreats for Vietnamese speakers, WakeUp, Thai New Year, Teenagers, Year-end Holiday, Order of Interbeing, monastics, short-term monastic ordination program, baby Buddha ordination program, etc., have become annual activities.
Weekly mini-retreats are being organised consistently. During these retreats, practitioners receive careful guidance for their practice and is able to attend nourishing activities. Simultaneously conducted in three languages: Vietnamese, English, and Thai, activities in the monastery are maturing to welcome practitioners from all around the world. Much suffering has been transformed; many smiles have bloomed in this land. Thousands of practitioners have benefited from the land and therefore have contributed much happiness to society.
In the Monastery, the majority are young monastic brothers and sisters. In our first years, we attended recorded Dharma talks by Thầy and had personal self-study time. Gradually, Dharma classes, skill classes, and language classes were organised more systematically. Later, the Seven-Year Education Program was set up and taken care of by the Education Council, providing a detailed curriculum.
The Monastery has functioned like a training center offering mindfulness practice to both monastic and lay practitioners. The structure of the classes, course descriptions, contents, methodology, assessment, and certification is not similar to that of any other school. In the monastery, we teach each other with our own way of living and we live to practice what we learned. We know that not all of us are comfortable with classes, cooking, or good at planting flowers or socializing, not all of us prefer a peaceful corner like the elderly. That is why the education model in Thai Plum Village aims to embrace different personalities instead of one rigid mold for everyone.
Many generations of newly ordained monastic brothers and sisters have relocated and contributed to other practice centers in the tradition of Plum Village. The Thai Plum Village is home to countless sanghas in Việt Nam, Thailand, and other countries in the Asia-Pacific to take refuge in. More sanghas now manifest, allowing more practitioners to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.
An Extended Family of Fourfold Sangha
We often use the phrase 'spiritual family'. In the monastery, it is easy for us to sense the atmosphere of a family. The way we address each other, make decisions together, work with each other, welcome newly ordained brothers and sisters, take care of the sick, etc., have helped to realize the spirit of “accepting and loving each other like blood brothers and sisters” that Thầy usually reminded us. A spiritual family has no worldly attachments like a typical family. The strings that connect members of our spiritual family are our common ideals and common disciplines. That is how living in a spiritual family allows us to do better than in a blood family.
Not restricted to only monastic members, the extended family also includes members like parents of the monastics, volunteers, Thai members of the Order of Interbeing, as well as sanghas in the three areas of Việt Nam. Those who have contributed their spirit of life to this Pure Land are not only monastics but all who have joined us in practice. We are present to both benefit from and contribute to it. The extended family members nourish each other through our practice and love for the path.
You may ask what is and will continue drawing everyone to assemble here to share the collective space and consciousness. As a lay practitioner, you may want to visit the Village for a pure and peaceful space, a slow, simple lifestyle that is made of human kindness, awareness of protecting the living environment, and a well-cultured setting for the future of your children. As a student monastic, teacher, businessperson, health care professional, or any intellect from the East or the West, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, you may wish to visit the Village for a week or a big retreat to directly learn how to apply the practice of mindfulness into their family life, office, as well as their community.
The Monastery has no certificates after a retreat like other training centers; however, according to one’s own experience, everyone feels like they have received a lot of nourishing teachings. Certain brothers and sisters have also experienced the beauties of our practice and way of living and therefore have aspired to stay longer so that they can go deeper into the teachings, have more space and time dedicated to the practice of sitting and walking meditation, etc. Personal practice is strongly supported by the solid collective energy of the monastery, thanks to our well-organized residents’ regulations and schedules, as well as opportunities to help society by utilizing practical and effective measures.
You may wonder what would the “residents” of the village do to satisfy society’s growing need for practice. Should we only focus on organizing retreats and events? If right on this land, by attending daily activities and nourishing healthy relationships with our siblings, we can see ourselves better, we can generate happiness and transform the mud from within, we will have already contributed to and satisfied such needs. When you experience the benefits, naturally, you will nourish the aspiration to practice so that everyone else can also receive such benefits radiated from you. Having this as our foundation, to help others in the world or not is no longer the question. But without such foundation, many troubles can arise. That allows us to realize that what needs to be done for tomorrow is not something to worry about. There is nothing too far from what Thầy often reminded us of.
That is the work and the direction that Thay has spent so much time experimenting with and transmitting to us. However, we still have not done our best to fully realized Thầy’s wish. Here and there, many shortcomings can be improved that will allow us to nourish more monastic brothers and sisters as well as enhance the quality of education.
Let’s pose ourselves a fun question: “Is the happiness we generate every day enough to ‘cover our expenses’?” One time, a young brother shared that, given the sangha's imperfect conditions, if asked whether such conditions are enough for his practice and happiness, his answer will always be Yes. Whether the Thai Plum Village Nursery Monastery will have a well-established future or not depends significantly on the members of this land and whether we have successfully harnessed conditions transmitted by Thầy for the practice of self-transformation. If each member plays their part, practicing together, we will have more freedom and capacity to help society.
The recent years of the world have shown us clearly that humankind shares a future on this Earth. Whether the Thai Plum Village Nursery Monastery will have a beautiful future or not also depends on other issues like how the world will cope with the climate crisis, how the wars will end and how the epidemic will be contained. Next will be internal affairs relating to both the whole community and individual such as whether other Plum Village centers are stable and strong, whether brothers and sisters could walk together in harmony, whether my anger or any other negative thoughts can be successfully transformed or not; whether your loneliness or inferiority complex can be contemplated deeply or not. “Peace in oneself, peace in the world”. That is the message of wisdom that Thầy expected us to spread. It seems like we are taking very slow and tiny steps in a world that is changing so quickly, but in fact, we are dealing with the roots of the problem. That is the transformation from the depth of human consciousness. Helping a suffering soul, in the light of Buddhism, is bringing peace to a whole small universe. We have been given both the opportunity and the methodology to help ourselves and be helpful, which in turns, will allow Thai Plum Village Nursery Monastery to help others and contribute to life.
Looking into the elements that made up Thai Plum Village, we can improve aspects of practicing, learning, brotherhood and sisterhood connection, and serving regarding both our individual garden of consciousness and of the collective consciousness of our brothers and sisters. Together, we are standing in the garden transmitted by our ancestors, full of extraordinarily beautiful flowers and trees; we learn how to benefit from the garden and bring goodness to more friends.
What dreams do you have? Are they being forgotten? What is your ideal village? How can Thai Plum Village contribute to turning your dream into reality, even if it is a big dream like attaining enlightenment or a simple one like living a wholesome life? Thai Plum Village is the manifestation of the collective consciousness built from individual dreams; therefore, such a task will start with each individual, with the stupas of practice we build to offer to our Beloved Thầy.
Thầy taught that the future is already here, right in the present. Thai Plum Village Nursery Monastery is no longer a dreamy image but a reality that has manifested so clearly that we can all experience right now. The pictures of Thai Plum Village presented here are not aimed at lullabying us with beautiful words. In fact, they remind us to be aware together, to equip us all with a firm stance before stepping into the future.
With the Thai Plum Village Sangha,
Thích Chân Pháp Anh