Did you ever think to put the words “barn-raising” and Buddhist in the same sentence together? “Barn-raising” events typically refer to North American farming communities that gather together to help each other to build a new barn. Everyone pitches in, young and old, and contributions come in the form of labor, building supplies, food and attendance to share the camaraderie of the project. It is a heartening affair infused with duty, friendship and connected purpose in their common venture.
So where do the Buddhist farmers fit into this picture of rural Americana? Well, perhaps not farmers per se, but a barn-like structure that needed ‘raising’ in their Buddhist community. Come and meet the monks and nuns of Magnolia Grove Monastery, and their new beautiful Meditation Hall. Magnolia Grove is one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s smaller and more obscure sangha communities located in rural Mississippi (USA).
Most people may not be aware that this Buddhist community lives in the deep south of America, colloquially known as the “Bible Belt” for its majority Protestant Christian population. It is a calm and bucolic location with the familiar sight of the simple brown robes of Plum Village sangha members welcoming guests upon arrival. Over the years, Vietnamese immigrants came to Mississippi and nearby Tennessee to begin new lives in America. They brought some of their cultural and religious heritage with them to dwell in a peaceful manner, influenced by the teachings of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh.
Magnolia Grove was founded in Thich Nhat Hanh's tradition to serve as a residential monastery and haven for meditation retreat and dharma learning. Monks and nuns live simply, going about their own practice, and also hosting visitors who come to learn about meditation and mindfulness. The property now includes a brand new large barn-like meditation hall. The architecture is certainly impressive, and the communal effort involved to build this grand space is reminiscent of farming kinship.
In June this year, I had the good fortune to visit this lovely place. What struck me was the curious energy in the air: a fusion between ‘calm’, and diligent construction efforts around the property. Bits of hammering here and there, a delivery truck lumbered in, that high-pitched whine of a stone cutting saw along the steps – all parallel to the graceful movements of the otherwise normal routines. Tradespeople, householders and monastics alike were all pitching in to prepare for the imminent arrival of Thich Nhat Hanh in September. The place was alive with a dedicated sense of purpose and equipoise.
Magnolia Grove Monastery is a place to practice meditation and mindfulness. It is where every breath we take reminds us of the wonders of life. A place to sit and relax. A place to walk and kiss the earth beneath our feet. A place to rest under a willow tree on an island in a lotus pond. A place to eat together and savor every bite. A place to listen deeply to the sounds of life and the sound of our hearts. A place to work together to build a community of love and understanding.
I arrived at dusk to the sound of crickets, the smell of red earth clay and the crunching of gravel under the rental car tires. It was a long day’s travel by air and road, gladly leaving behind the fast urban pace of New York. Mississippi is a farming state from my childhood memories, and even in the dim light of a new location, the scented air was intimately familiar. A quiet nun greeted me to enter the guesthouse and I bunked in for the night with a recent university graduate, and a novice nun from Vietnam. Silence descended upon us together after a few brief instructions for the visitor’s stay.
Early the next morning in the weak light of dawn, monks and nuns appeared from their quarters and seemed to float across the landscape of dewy ground mist that typically arises. Silently we filed into the hall for meditation before breakfast, the quietude a blanket of comfort. The day unfolded with mindful eating, mindful walking and some dharma sharing. All the while in respectful practice with the deep resonating Plum Village bell for punctuation. Within this frame of retreat routines, local trades arrived to join the working day. In afternoons, all four pillars of the sangha shared a harmonious hum of preparations around the grounds.
It was inspiring to witness the spirit of community effort and be included in the process. Vietnamese vegetables arrived from local growers and a group of us trimmed the greens. Delicious Asian food was cooked for everyone, including the Spanish-speaking stonemasons. Rick was a visiting volunteer, friendly and retired, with construction expertise to build the hall. One monk wore a tool belt atop the ladder, nuns in straw hats tended gardens, and retreat visitors pitched in where they wished to help. Soft voices in dharma exchange and meditation intervals provided respite from the withering summer heat.
This community has successfully “raised their barn” in the shape of the large new Meditation Hall. It has been a mindful project on a grand scale with loving attention from local community and visitors alike. May it serve as inspiration for all to share in the blessed teachings of the Plum Village tradition. If you come by around here, try out this delightful meditation practice center that offers special Vietnamese, Buddhist and southern style hospitality for those in need of some spiritual nourishment.
Magnolia Grove is a place where we can stop running, and discover peace with every step we take. It's a place to remind each one of us that the present moment is a wonderful moment.
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