After two years of being unable to visit the Plum Village monastic community in southwest France for the Summer Opening Retreat, conditions were finally right for me to return to my spiritual home for an entire month this summer. This was my first summer retreat facilitated only by the monastic brothers and sisters of Plum Village. Seeing all the familiar faces once again of the brothers and sisters I’ve known for years was really the greatest gift of my visit, especially seeing them still practicing together with smiles on their faces and laughter all around—these are things that I treasure and that make Plum Village feel like a home to me. Although Thich Nhat Hanh—whom we know as Thay—could not attend the retreat in person, it felt as though all the brothers and sisters carried Thay within them—sometimes what they said or did would just make me think “WOW! There are a lot of ‘Thays’ around!”
After I returned home to Hong Kong, I rearranged my room and created a little altar for myself, with two photos of me walking with Thay. When I was asked to write this article, I thought that these two pictures would be the best expression of gratitude I could offer to the sangha and also to Thay.
I first visited Plum Village with my mom in 2002 when I was just four years old. One of the photos from my altar is of the sangha doing walking meditation that year. Thay was holding my hand, but I was too shy at the time and I needed my mom to hold my other hand. This is one of my few memories from that first time, however subconsciously it planted a seed deep within me that motivates me to keep going back to Plum Village, to participate in retreats in Hong Kong, and even in other parts of the world. At the time, I never really thought about what was I doing or learning at Plum Village, I was just having so much fun playing with the brothers and sisters—learning pebble meditation, singing, freezing while listening to the mindfulness bell, as taught by Thay. He was the one who allowed us to sleep while the adults were listening to Dharma talks, and he never asked our parents to quiet our crying or to stop us running and screaming. Of course, I knew I was quite a troublesome kid!
My mom and some of the other practitioners regularly told us that we were very loved by Thay. One year, the Hong Kong kids were invited to visit his hut and Thay gave a Dharma talk to help us not miss our parents too much when he heard that we were feeling very homesick. We were really very lucky to have this environment in which to play. And although those early memories of directly interacting with Thay are not so clear in my mind, I’m very sure that Thay planted a seed deep within me, letting all the brothers and sisters continue to water the love and understanding in me, a manifestation of how Thay loves us all.
It was not until I became a teenager that I started to think about and look deeply into my practice. The other photo on my altar was taken in 2011, when Thay and the sangha came to Hong Kong. It was also the year when our Plum Village center in Hong Kong—the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) moved to Lotus Pond Temple. The day after, Thay had lunch with the sangha and he asked me to accompany him and his attendant Brother Phap Huu to the lawn where his hammock was waiting. I sat beside the hammock and Thay suddenly said, “Thay Phap Huu was ordained when he was really young and he is now a Dharma teacher!” Thay also mentioned the names of a few more brothers and sisters who had been ordained very early and later became Dharma teachers. I remember feeling quite shocked at the time; my mind went blank and I didn’t know how to respond. I told some other brothers and sisters and sangha members, and they teased me that Thay was asking me to ordain as well! But now when I think back, it just feels like my grandpa telling me stories about all these lovely people who could be my refuge on the path of my practice, and that the practice and the sangha is also a continuation of Thay.
Last December, I went to Plum Village Thailand to participate in the Asia-Pacific Core Sangha Retreat. It was so touching to see Thay when he came out to see the sangha from time to time—the most memorable moment was when we were doing seated meditation to welcome the New Year, and Thay came up to the hall 10 minutes before midnight and sat in front of the line with the monastic brothers. Thay was sitting very straight and from the side, he looked so vital and healthy. It was almost as if Thay hadn’t had a stroke—the energy given to the hall was enormous; so many people were smiling so brightly when they saw Thay. New Year’s Day is also my birthday, so I told myself that having Thay sit with us was one of the best birthday gifts I could have had! He also reminded us that the practice is not only the form, but also the energy given out, and that the collective support is also a practice to transform and heal.
Being in Plum Village this summer, seeing the brothers and sisters and the way they all carry Thay within them, I was reminded each day to simply breathe and walk with mindfulness and this has made me aspire to be a continuation of Thay in my own practice.
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