What brought you to Plum Village and Mindfulness practice?
A friend of mine had been suffering from chronic headaches for over a decade. He had tried all kind of treatments (conventional and unconventional) to no avail. I felt it was more to do with his soul and spirit rather than a physical problem and suggested he tried meditation.
I was searching for some meditation courses and retreats for him. I stumbled on Vipassana (a ten day silent retreat), but thought it would be too much for him as he knew nothing about Buddhism.
Then I remembered my mother had mentioned about Plum Village in France. I searched on the internet and realized it was a Buddhist community led by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I had heard of him and seen some book titles in English that he had published. I felt proud of him, a fellow countryman, who was well respected in the West but I knew little about him.
At that time I had been influenced by a wrong perception about monastics and monastic life. Although I had been practicing Buddhism as a lay-person since I was a child, I thought monastic life was monotonous and most monastic people (monks and nuns) were those who suffered so much that they could not deal with the real world and had to seek refuge in the monastries.
That wrong perception and unhealthy sentiments were reinforced by folk songs and stories in my country. One particularly popular love story called Lan and Diep (the name of the two main characters – a Vietnamese version of Romeo and Juliet) used to make me cry when I sang it. The girl was betrayed by her childhood sweetheart, renounced her youth, beauty and worldly life, sought refuge in a Buddhist temple and died there with a broken heart. This story used to invoke tremendous sorrow in me as my heart would sink at the loss of their love.
Also, in my earlier experience of Buddhism in Vietnam, although I saw a great deal of generosity and compassion amongst fellow practitioners, I felt they were passive in engaging with the real world. Little did I know that there existed “Engaged Buddhism” and Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the founders of that movement in Vietnam! Sadly I did not have the chance to experience that progressive tradition because I was brought up in the Communist era when religions were suppressed. (Unlike now, Buddhism is flourishing in Vietnam and it has been adapted and made relevant to modern life which is wonderful.)
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” – Confucius
So, my friend and I packed our warm clothes and off we went to Plum Village for that winter retreat in 2007. Neither of us realized at the time that we embarked on the most ever wonderful journey in our lives. It has changed our lives – my friend’s headache has now been cured and I am now as happy and free as a bird, soaring high in the sky, dancing and singing to the rhythm of life.