Abi shares with us their experience of the big Wake Up Humanity Retreat that took place with several hundred young adults in July 2022 at Plum Village, France.
A friend comes to the tea house with his dream journal in hand. He passes it around for us to peruse. I flip through the pages to see they are filled with beautiful handwriting and drawings. I find it striking that the dreams are noted down in the present tense.
As he reads aloud a favourite, I am transported to a cream carpeted apartment and follow along an adventure of odd conversations and objects. Wow, describing dreams like that sounds fun! I recall an old friend who had persisted over two years in persuading me to keep a dream journal. Maybe I will start one again.
My arm fumbles in the direction of my alarm clock. I can just about lift my eyelids. The clock says 5:15am. I turn it off and go back to sleep.
The tea house is bustling with conversation. I am pacing around in the area. I’m tired, but still want to be around people. I hear someone is playing classical piano in the dining hall, and wander over.
A friend is sitting on the one brown sofa that watches the piano player. His eyes are closed, arms folded. I join him on the sofa, close my eyes, and breathe out as I lean back into the cushions. We sit in wordless presence of each other.
Br. Duc Tri finds me while I’m by the meditation hall. He even knows my name (ah, perhaps that’s why we upload pictures of ourselves when registering!). As a volunteer, I’ve been assigned to his breakfast team.
”Let’s meet 5:30am at the kitchen,” he says.
“I’ll try. But I might turn up a bit late,” I confess.
There is a pause.
“Five hundred people, you know. We’re responsible for their breakfast.”
The next day, I turn up at 5:30 on the dot. We work mostly in silence, stirring porridge and scooping condiments into various containers. I’m surprised by how content and energised I feel while doing it. We end our service meditation with a quiet song and bow.
The pillars outside are lit with sunset. I’m in the meditation hall with about forty others. Our group feels cosier than when the hall is completely full, as it does get during the day.
Br. Pham Hanh gets us to sing a song. “Hello, hello, something in me. I am aware that you are in there. And I’m going to keep you company.” On the whiteboard he writes the names Peter Levine and Eugene Gentlin: psychologists he’s drawing from for this workshop on how to deal with strong emotions. I find the content familiar, but I can always do with hearing it in-person from a practitioner.
Relax, I am reminded. Step back from your radio mind and rebuild a base of mindfulness. This way, you can then more fully attend to strong emotions. I see I’ve been obsessing with my issues on a surface level. As a result, they haven’t been seen or embraced as deeply. I feel relieved. Now, I have more of an excuse to fully enjoy mindful sitting, eating, and walking. I will return to my worries and keep them company, in time.
I am in the bathroom brushing my teeth.
Over a hundred young women have gathered in the hall at Lower Hamlet. I am sitting among them, in a circle nested within circles. At the centre is our host, Sr. Dang Nghiem. She sits poised with a large bell in front of her. Other sisters are dotted along the circumference to hold the space for us too. It’s the largest women’s circle I’ve ever attended and there’s something special about it, as if a spark was in the air.
One by one, people volunteer to share their stories. Themes range from childhood and relationships, to pressing life questions. We do not need many words before we intuitively start to get why the story hurts, why it’s frustrating, or why it’s beautiful or funny. I laugh and cry a lot. I run out of tissue and a friend (also crying) hands me some of her own.
To close the circle, we sing, “I get my joy from the simple things.” It’s relatively low pitched (as Plum Village songs can go), so I relish singing it a bit more loudly. I’m moved by how the lyrics evoke the talk Sr. Dang Nghiem had given us earlier on being a true lover to ourselves.
The moon hangs low in the sky. I am lying on the grass with two friends. We giggle at the stars and sing little tunes together.
“Did your mum sing you any Vietnamese lullabies?” one friend asks. I hum a melody. ”Ah, I know that nursery rhyme.” “I don’t know the lyrics to it, could you teach me?”
I learn that the song is about a bird who flies away without telling their mum. When the bird comes back, the mum feeds the bird as an act of love. Funny I hadn’t known the meaning of the song until now.
I remember the first line easily, but get stuck on the second. It’d be great if I could just learn two lines, let alone the whole song, I decide. My friend kindly repeats the second line over and over: “Nó đậu cành tre (NaWW-dou-Gan-cheh).” (It’s something about bamboo).
The hall is packed to the brim for the Q&A session. Waves of giggles erupt as one of the questions submitted is read out for the panel. “How do I deal with having a crush on someone at the retreat?” I find myself grinning along with everyone else.
I’m walking on the way to join my Dharma Sharing family. It’s the last hour or so available to practice before tonight’s performance evening. In one corner, I spot the Spanish family rehearsing their dance. In another corner, there is a group playing drums and singing. It’s fun to witness all this flurry of activity. I wonder what my group will be doing.
I’m sitting with friends on Buddha Hill watching people perform on the grass stage. Almost everyone who goes up to perform feels like a familiar face to me now. There’s a hyper sense of energy about, charged with knowing this is our last time gathered together as a whole group.
I love so many of the performances. One that stands out to me was a musical sketch on competitive buddhism (Brothers!💪), a hilarious take on some of the shadows of practice (Enlightenment twice, anybody?). We close on a big dance together, hosted by Palestinian friends.
Most of the retreat attendees have departed. As a volunteer, I stay behind for a few more days. The tea house is much quieter now. The queues at the dining hall are shorter.
The circular platform by the lotus pond is empty, at last. I hop onto the opportunity to do mindful walking at this special location and enjoy feeling the platform’s ridged texture upon the soles of my feet. I notice there’s quite a few ants to dodge.
Out of the blue, the lyrics I’ve been trying to remember float to mind. “Nó đậu cành tre.” I’m thrilled to have finally got them and can’t wait to tell my friend. But as I sing the words to the melody, I feel a cloud of sadness come up too.
I am reminded of the love and aspirations with which my mum sang the lullaby. I see that I am the bird. I have flown away. Sitting on the platform, I breathe in to embrace the sadness and let it thaw my heart.
Abi sits with an all-age Sangha in North England.
Thanks to friends who reviewed earlier iterations of this piece.
We thank Erica Fugger for editing this article and Joy Re Cecconi for providing their photos.