I had no idea what lay in store for me, but my time at the mini Plum Village in Vietnam was exactly what I needed at this point in my life. The lessons, the gifts, the manifestations that took place over those ten days have had a profound impact on my life going forward.
I will share my experiences over the next few posts, which will include:
My personal experience at Plum Village Vietnam (this article)
A guide to Plum Village Vietnam for English-speakers (also covered in this article)
Profound spiritual incidences during my time at Plum Village Vietnam
Vipassana meditationvs Plum Village tradition
A poem I wrote about one nun I deeply connected with
The Dieu Tram Buddhist nunnery is probably one of the smallest practice centres of the Plum Village meditation tradition. It neighbours the Tu Hieu monastery where Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh was first ordained and has now returned to spend his last days. The monastery is under construction, and the few monks present are mostly dedicated to tending to Thầy (the fond term used to refer to Thich Nhat Hanh, meaning “Teacher”). In fact during my time there, I met two doctors who had flown down from the US to provide voluntary medical assistance to the great teacher. The nunnery, however, is fully running on a strict practice routine, inhabited by around 30 Buddhist nuns and aspirants. I was surprised by how young the nuns at Dieu Tram were. Most were in their twenties, some even younger!
How I ended up at this Plum Village nunnery for 10 days!
I ended up here quite by accident. After 2 weeks on holiday with my excitable family on a packed schedule of touristic activities, I needed to tone down and go within. Since I was in Hanoi, I started investigating all the possible places one could meditate in northern Vietnam. I read about the caves in Ninh Binh, the famous Yen Tu pagoda on a forested mountain, and the ancient pagodas of the Dinh mountain. But it was difficult to find a pagoda where I was sure people go to truly meditate in silence – a lot of the pagodas are full of loud tour groups, and many others are more about the beautiful statues that one pays respect to with bows and offerings then leaves. Also I noticed that the more serious meditation practices seemed to be prominent in Southern Vietnam, which was too far away for me to bus to.
The day before my family left Vietnam, I wasn’t sure where I’d be the next night as my couchsurfing (CS) host had gone MIA for the last 2 weeks since agreeing to host me. When another girl I’d been chatting to off CS with suggested I head down to central Vietnam to experience the meditation tradition she practiced, I thought “Why not?” and bought the bus ticket the same evening. The next night, off I went on a comfortable night bus (so worth it) to Hue.
Upon arrival at 6am in Hue, I took a motorbike taxi (using the Grab app) to the Tu Hieu monastery, hoping that I might be able to stay at the monastery for a few days of meditation. I was taken round to the nunnery to be received. When I climbed off the motorbike with my giant backpack, I was greeted by a young, sweet, gentle Buddhist nun, who became my good friend in the days to come. She explained apologetically that the nunnery had no capacity to host visitors, but I was welcome to join the nuns for walking meditation, breakfast, and to take a rest before figuring out where to stay. Gladly I dropped my backpack, and followed her. After a tasty breakfast eaten in meditative silence, I looked up a cheap homestay nearby using the good old Maps.Me app , and joined the daily routine of the nuns.
I had showed up with no particular plan in mind except to find a place to introspect and meditate quietly for a few days. The peace and sense of home that I felt upon slipping into the peaceful routine of the nuns found me staying on a full 10 days. I have twice previously undertaken a Vipassana meditation 10-day silent retreat, and found it interesting to compare my experiences in that strict routine versus this self-imposed one (article on this upcoming). Both were profound and insightful in their own way.
The haven that is this space blessed by Thich Nhat Hanh
The Tu Hieu monastery and Dieu Tram nunnery together comprise a green, serene haven of peace. The forested grounds and arching bamboos provide shade and calm over the contemplative paths and benches overlooking the lake with catfish splashing around. Visitors are welcome to walk around the grounds and visit the Tu Hieu pagoda.
In the nunnery, there is a meditation hall upstairs. Unlike most pagodas and temples in Vietnam, it is simple, bare and unadorned. A clean white floor with brown meditation cushions and a giant meditation bowl; a simple alter with a modest white Buddha and smaller alters for the deceased; I loved it. The serenity that fills your soul when you enter that room – you can feel the deep meditation and depth of transcendental chants filled with loving vibrations that take place there.
A typical day at the nunnery
My personal routine went as follows
- 3:30 Wake up, shower, bike to the nunnery
- 4:30 Sitting meditation & Chanting
- 5:30 Exercise
- 6:40 Walking meditation
- 7:15 Breakfast
- 8:00 Household delight
- 9:00 Working meditation
- 11:00 Lunch
- 12:15 Walk/bike to the homestay to nap and do personal chores
- 17:00 Bike back to nunnery for dinner
- 19:15 Sitting meditation & Chanting
Pretty much the same as the nuns. On the evenings when they had “lazy nights” off, I visited the nearby Tường Vân pagoda to join in the meditation there. I swear the old monk looks like an incarnation of Yoda from Star Wars! He is very kind, and gifted me with a printout of a Discourse on Happiness and 2 mala bracelets, welcoming me to join their meditation every night. I found the congregation very sweet, though I was amused at the high speed of their walking meditation. #YodaOnAMission!
Believe you me, I woke up at 3:30am every single morning. Not wanting to miss a single morning meditation, I dragged myself out of bed even if I’d slept at 11pm the night before. That precious hour before dawn when the world is still, holds the key to the deepest meditations. Not to mention the enchanting, haunting, transcendental chants of the nuns. Just to have been able to meditate with such aware souls, who are emanating such pure and sweet vibrations, is a gift from the Universe that I do not take for granted.
Then onto exercise. This is an individual, meditative undertaking. Each to their own. One nun would run laps around the lake and some aspirants were practicing Qi Gong outside the dining room. I joined the majority who took up spots in and around the meditation hall to practice slow, mindful Tai Chi or yoga. I used to think I was a yoga teacher, but here I learned through observation and imitation how to truly practice what should be a self-absorbed movement meditation.
By 6:30am or so, the nuns gather in a circle outside to sing some mindful Plum Village songs before embarking on the walking meditation. The few sung in English brought tears to my eyes with their simplicity, truth and beauty. “I am a cloud, I am the blue sky… And I am free when my heart is open, I am free when my mind is clear…” Then off we would slowly and solemnly walk along the grainy leaf-strewn path into the trees. No talking, full absorption into each step taken, each breath inhaled. At the same time, one with a feeling of deep peace and bliss stemming from utmost presence of mind.
Back at the nunnery for breakfast. The meals too, are no light affair. Then again, when you are filled with such pure bliss at every daily task, though your external appearance may be a long, serious face, your inner heart is singing with lightness and your eyes may betray that sweet secret when your love and compassion leaks out. Anyway, meals are undertaken in silence. After sitting down, one closes their eyes to contemplate on the origin of the food and to manifest love and compassion. Then, upon opening your eyes, you bow to those sitting around you, and they bow in return. Finally, the slow process of eating – chewing and tasting each different item on your plate with full presence and acknowledgement of where it came from. This is one of my favourite practices that sends me deep into introspection – one of the days I actually experienced ego death while chewing on a sweet potato! After finishing your meal, you close your eyes to integrate your meal with gratitude, then bow again to your companions to thank them for sharing the meal with you.
I should mention, some of the nuns really love bowing! To the bowls, to the kitchen, to the food,… It’s a beautiful expression of reverence and gratitude for the gifts of life.
Washing up is a meditation too! Thich Nhat Hanh taught to wash the bowl as though you are washing a baby Buddha! With full presence and tenderness, the process of washing your plate can actually be a lot of fun rather than a chore. I enjoy observing the various sensations of water, soap and plates as I wash dishes. Presence and bliss.
Next up is “household delight.” With a term like that, how can you do anything but enjoy? The nuns were organized into groups with various tasks assigned, and never expected me to help. But here and there, I did what I could, receiving smiles and gratitude in return. I usually joined in the group sweeping leaves off the paths outside, or cleaning the meditation hall. Note, it’s not just cleaning the meditation hall, it’s cleaning the meditation hall!! It really felt like a deep honour to show love and worship through mopping, sweeping and arranging this spiritual space where such pure, high vibrations are created and shared by earnest seekers. I was humbled to be a part of it, alongside the nuns who often giggled at my puzzlement how to use their East Asian cleaning tools (fancy twisty mops and all).
During “working meditation” hours, I usually sat in the visitor room and took the time to peruse the few English books available, especially loving Peace is Every Step and Happy Teachers Change the World, both of which I ended up buying copies of. After that it’s lunch, at which the 5 Contemplations are recited aloud (usually in Vietnamese, except on Fridays when it’s in English).
After lunch, my sleepy body finally got its wishes fulfilled when I dragged it home to collapse on the bed for an hour or two. Evening was usually dinner back at the nunnery, evening meditation, and an early night back home.
All in all, the ten days spent in Huế with the nuns of Dieu Tram were profound, to say the least. Though I could not communicate with most of the sisters, who barely spoke communicable English or were too shy to try, their smiles were all we needed. As I passed a nun in the corridor, each of us in meditative silence, she would flash me a heartwarming smile filled with pure love and glee. That was enough to know I was welcome.
Plum Village history and global practice centres
That being said, if you are looking for an experience of the Plum Village tradition, there are 9 practice centres around the world. Many of these organize programs for lay friends, and also have focused retreats. The monastery and nunnery in Vietnam are not formal practice centres for now, though they try to accommodate lay visitors. For me, it worked out well to not have too much interaction and explanation, nor many people to talk to, as I was in a very introspective space. But it can be confusing for a first-timer in the practice, and especially if you do not speak Vietnamese.
There is actually a political history behind why the monastery and nunnery are so small. The Communist Party of Vietnam clamps down viciously on religious freedoms. Back in 1966 when Thich Nhat Hanh was organizing nonviolent resistance against the Vietnam War, he was exiled from Vietnam for 40 years. Upon return in 2005, he opened up the Bat Nha Monastery for mindfulness training and retreats. Not long after, Thầy was requesting the president to discontinue the oppressive Religious Police. He was also publicly supporting the Dalai Lama and Tibet. This was too much of a threat and the Religious Police took increasingly violent measures, eventually forcing the monks and nuns to flee the now-abandoned monastery in the Central Highlands. Many have had to leave the country to practice in peace. Meanwhile, the current monastery and nunnery in Huế are only able to remain small and low-key in order to survive.
Thus, there isn’t much formal programming, especially for English-speakers at Chua Tu Hieu and Dieu Tram, but they do their best to accommodate visitors. For me, I was happy to follow by imitation and take refuge in the peaceful haven. As a seasoned meditator, I drew on my own practice and intuition to fill in the parts that I didn’t fully understand. The spiritual energy of the place and dedicated practice were enough to have me in a constant state of meditation and gratitude that I was on the verge of tears several times. They finally flowed and rolled down my face when I bade the Sangha goodbye at the end of my final lunch.
Life lessons and loving gifts
My deepest lesson here was unconditional giving, and every time I received this from the nuns, I was driven to the verge of blissful and grateful tears. I was welcomed with such open arms to share in the deep practices, meals, meditation and community (Sangha) with nothing asked in return. During working hours, they expected nothing of me, and it was me who inserted myself into the sweeping groups – after which they thanked me with grateful welcoming smiles. I had to take the initiative to inquire where I could possibly donate, and was pointed to an anonymous box in the meditation room where I could drop what I felt like. And on my last day, what gifts the nuns showered upon me! Coming from people who literally own nothing, I was so touched that I was speechless with disbelief. I received in gifts:
- A purple cloth zip-bag for pencils or phone
- A wonderfully old used copy of ‘Peace is Every Step’ with annotations in Vietnamese from various nuns who have studied it
- A copy of ‘Chanting from the Heart’, with all the beautiful chants I had been transported with during morning and evening meditation
- The book ‘Practice from the Heart’, which contained all the answers to the questions that had been flitting around my head concerning the Plum Village practices (such as touching the Earth), the most important chants and discourses, and some Plum Village songs!
- Two cards with Zen Buddhist sayings of Thầy in traditional ink calligraphy and watercolour paintings by the sisters. One says “I have arrived, I am home” – my favourite quote from Plum Village, which I have gifted forward to a dear friend. The other says “tiñh lãng,” meaning “mindful silence” – the perfect reminder for myself.
- A little white bowl with etched flower petals, with a sweet note inside from the nun who gifted it: “A lotus for you, a Buddha to be!”
And these are the physical gifts. I also received lessons on breathing, special moments of sisterhood shared over bansuri playing and singing songs by Nepali nun Ani Choying Drolma, and much more. In general really, I felt so privileged to walk with the nuns, eat with the nuns, meditate with the nuns. They are such kind and beautiful beings, working so hard on purifying their bodies, minds and souls. They are like floating angels in human form.
I am eternally touched, grateful beyond belief, and determined to take these lessons of unconditional giving forward into my own life and actions.
A taste of pure paradise, peace and bliss within. Fond memories to inspire a different outlook on life. I hope to be back again!