On Being an Aspirant


In June 2023, during the “Love Is Freedom” Earth Retreat, I had the chance to interview four aspirants belonging to the Wake Up Family. We sat together near the Tea House in Upper Hamlet, enjoyed the blue summer sky, the quiet warm wind and, together, we breathed a few moments in silence. After that, we talked about being an aspirant.

From left to right: Luca, Viktor, Christian, Yann

Greg: The first question is a short introduction about yourself. How are you, where are you from, what were you doing before Plum Village and why do you want to become a monk?

Yann: Hello my name is Yann, I am from Paris, in France. I am 22 Years old and I have been living in Plum Village for 21 months. During the meditation before the interview, I was counting the month, so I’m sure it’s 21 months. Laughs

Before Plum Village, I was Studying in High School for my Baccalauréat. After receiving it, I started doing social work in the Parisian suburbs for a bit less than a year. I was already practicing with Plum Village since 2019. When I first arrived in Plum Village, I was 20 years old and I wanted to discover what life in a monastery was like. What made me first want to come to Plum Village was the curiosity of a life close to nature and close to people, because living in a community is also living close to people. So yes, I came here for community and nature and also to learn how to take care of my emotions.

What made me choose to become a monk after two years in Plum Village is the art of living together and living with oneself.

Viktor: Dear Friends, Thank you Yann.

My name is Viktor, I am from Sweden and I am 28 years old as of June 2023. I have been in Plum Village since October 2022 with a small break for Christmas and New Year and I came here because I wanted to deepen my practice in mindfulness and grow as a person. I want to develop myself as much as possible and I see clearly that Plum Village is the best path for me, and the fastest for me to get where I want to go.

Before coming here, I was working with helping old people for three years, with the sick and dying. Taking care of them, nursing them, which is very rewarding, a very fulfilling work. But outside of that my life didn’t have so much meaning. I felt like it was kinda stuck, not much happening. So I wanted to have another spiritual dimension, to do something meaningful. Being here in Plum Village, I feel like everyday is very meaningful and a bad day here is not so bad. It is better than a bad day outside of here. To live in a practice center really helps me to be more aware of myself, how I am living, my habits and how I am affecting other people and how other people are affecting me.

In my aspiration letter, I wrote that my biggest aspiration is to be happy, and then, help others to be happy too. I am aware that I first need to focus on myself, and, I feel that being here for now 7 months-ish equals probably 4 or 5 years of not being here in personal growth. Like, I know where I want to go. A good simile is if you want to go high up in a sky scrapper, you can take the stairs or you can take the elevator. And being in Plum Village, for me, is taking the elevator. So it is the fastest way of going where I want to go.

So for me, it is more about spiritual growth and being able to, later on, help others with that as well.

Luca: Hello I am Luca, I am from Italy and I am 29. I arrived in Plum Village the same time as Viktor, in December 2022. I think, very briefly, what got me here is that I feel my values are more represented here in Plum Village than in the outside society. So, it wasn’t a hard choice for me, it was just about choosing the right community. I just tried one actually, I just came here and I loved it, so I thought: OK, this is something I will try! Then, I just went for it and now I am here with the robe, I don’t know. It is really really simple, thank you.

Everybody laughs

Christian: Hello, my name is Christian, I am from Sweden, and I am 29 years old. Did you have a birthday recently Luca?

Luca: Yesterday.

Christian: I didn’t know! Congratulations! You were not telling us! Keeping it a secret!

Everyone: Happy birthday!

Christian: So, congratulations Luca!

I have also been here since the Rain’s Retreat, September 2022, I guess and I haven’t been home since. Before Plum Village, I was painting, I was doing Fine Arts in school for two years and I was going to start the University of Arts in Stockholm and I was gonna paint there too, I think. But then I found Thay, few months before university. It was everything that I had been looking for. So I came here instead of university. But because of Covid I couldn’t come here as early as I would have wished, so I went woofing, backpacking and volunteering in farms for two years, practicing Thay’s teaching. I was also working to have enough to come here and pay back some student loans that I had. Then I came here.

I want to become a monk because… Since I was a child I always wanted to be happy and I think, more or less, I was always interested in finding out how to be happy. When I found Thay, it felt deeply very good and also I experienced happiness.

I felt like Thay’s teachings are so wide and it spoke to something very deep within me. For example, when I heard about the deep teaching of Interbeing, it was so beautiful. It was a feeling of “wow, I have found a beautiful spirituality, finally.” But also I could experience happiness from starting to meditate, starting to change how I looked, how I was thinking, how I related to the world and myself. When I found this feeling of happiness, I felt “I have finally found my path and I know no one can stop me now to continue this.” Thank you.

Greg: So the article we want to publish is for people aged between 18 to 35. Some of them might be very curious about a life dedicated to the practice, or some might even want to become aspirants. So what is it like to be an aspirant? What is the aspirant life like? Maybe you can share one thing that you really like about it and one difficulty in being an aspirant.

Luca: The best thing for sure is actually the sense of community, not always having to rely on rules and laws to keep things going. But actually having a human approach to everything because, yeah, this place is not based on laws at all. It is just based on humans. If there is no human approach, it doesn’t work. So this is something I really like and I was looking forward to.

Something difficult might be that it is obviously a pretty harsh transition from the lay life. Because you need to be being used to things here pretty fast I guess because you can just gradually go in and at one point you say; “OK, I want to be an aspirant” and the moment you become an aspirant a lot of things change. Like immediately, maybe they try to make it a bit smoother but it is still a difficulty in becoming an aspirant.

Viktor: I will start with the positive things, which is something similar to what you said Luca. Everything here is very grey when it comes to the guidelines. There is always the individual part to it. Like, we see case by case. So there are some things black and white but there is always the openness to have a discussion or see if we can find something where both parties are happy if there is some sort of issue.

And the difference between being aspirant to being non aspirant is that, I think, you are more a part of the community now. It feels like you have stepped over a threshold and more energy is put into you. You become more a part of the community and I can really feel that. Also, wearing the robe help me coming into character, being more mindful and embracing those qualities I want to embrace. Also, you have the Sangha Eye, or people that are helping you and want you to make progress on the path. They give you support that really helps in the practice. That is a big benefit from being here as an aspirant compared to being here as a long term. You don’t have as much support as a long term.

I’m having trouble with coming up with one point negative.

Greg: No, it is not negative but more you can say something that you didn’t expect for example, maybe a difficulty…

Viktor: I think I want to say something positive again. I can say when I first came here, because I knew about Plum village since 2017, everything was better than I expected. The biggest thing is how close the monastics and the lay friends are. You know, we do all the activities together. For me, it was very inspiring to see that there are no separation between them so you can really relate to everyone. You are welcome to sit next to a brother even if it is your first day as a lay friend. That openness is really amazing. And also what I like is the progressiveness of this tradition. That it is so modern and keeping up to date with the latest science of everything like climate change, neuroscience and other things. It is also a really inclusive tradition in a sense that you really feel that everyone is welcome. That’s really great.

I will pass the mic to the next brave man who dares to hold it.

Christian: Thinking… I can also, I maybe have two things to say. Even now it is blank in my mind. But it is always like that. Laughing

Cause I can add to what was last shared because it comes to this question… I felt very…
Also, why I came here was a deep aspiration to have a purpose in life, to help the world in a way that I felt was important, beneficial to the world. So that was very strong in me. So, when I am here now, after seeing what the community, what Plum village can offer to the world, I feel a very strong volition, a very strong motivation to have a beautiful thing to do with my life. That is very wonderful thing to have. Then everything becomes much easier. When I have a beautiful and strong reason to live then life becomes very nice and that makes me feel like it is a beautiful thing to be here.

Also, another wonderful thing is really to have so many people around. It is so wonderful for me to have so many friends so close… I once spoke with Thay Bao Tang and he said, don’t quote me on this, it’s like the monastery is his living room and he is just hanging around here in the big living room. There is so much space and people. To me, it is such a wonderful thing, I realize, for the mind, for the human experience, to have so many wonderful people around that we can talk to, look at, or just… have around in different ways. It is such a luxury.

I really feel that my mind feels very well when it is surrounded by people in the community. One reason also why I think it feels so good is that everyone has some kind of similar aspirations, we have something in common and that is wonderful. We have this place where we can cultivate kindness and care and these beautiful aspects of the human experience. And then, because of this, maybe it is a really beautiful place and energies to be surrounded with nice people.

So, it is a really wonderful experience for me to be surrounded by people like this that are very nice and friendly. Ah it feels so good. The body and the mind loves, I realise, to be around nice people. Laugh. That is a very beautiful aspect of life and then, woah, life becomes so nice.

And difficulty? Yeah for sure… For me it is one difficulty is to be surrounded with people sometimes that you don’t get along with… That you are different from, that you don’t really… Yeah, like you have some difficulties. For me, for example, when I don’t understand someone, someone has a behavior that can trigger some things in me, like fear and anger. Often, I feel that fear or anger when I don’t understand them. And it can be difficult to understand people that come from completely different backgrounds, different ages. So that can be difficult but also to me, in my experience it can be so wonderful when I finally understand them. So, my whole experience of life becomes very much bigger. But yeah, that is a difficulty that I am happy that I can encounter actually. But for sure a difficulty. Sometimes it is like “Will I ever be able to understand this person? I don’t know.”

Thank you.

Yann: So I think something I like about living in a community for a long period of time is the feeling of being at home, somewhere where I feel really home.

Here in Upper Hamlet, during the whole year, except on some retreats, we have the same schedule but there are periods where we practice all together as a community and we have periods where we practice maybe more in what we call a lazy way. So we don’t really have a schedule and we have to find our own schedule.

What do I like about aspirant life? I think one thing I would like to share is about being open. I think we all come with ideas, why we want to live in the community and why we want to become a monk. We all have ideas of what is going to happen but when we live here our ideas can change if we stay close to the reality of life and the community. I felt for the time where I was closed, I struggled a lot. You don’t benefit from what the community has to offer to you. Also, I think the main training for us, and especially as aspirant, we change many things quite quickly. One thing is to be open to the experiences of our elders and when we are aspirants we only have elder brothers.

So basically, being open to the wisdom and experience of the whole community. Sometime we think maybe something is good for us. Maybe we think practicing like this is better and I should not listen to others. We generally follow our intuition, and here in Plum Village we learn not to follow our intuition, we learn to also listen to other people’s wisdom and experience in a way that it can benefit to our own happiness and our own freedom.

And I think it is really something new for me.

Something, maybe challenging, is that we have less ways to escape our own suffering and our own discomfort. So, we learn new ways to live and to live both with happiness and with suffering. We learn new ways to embrace both happiness and suffering by staying open to other’s experiences. We can get more along and more in the flow of the Sangha rather than thinking “I know how to do” and then getting lost. And I am surprised how much the community allows me to be vulnerable and to be in touch with my own suffering. And how much the collective wisdom helps me to touch this suffering but not to be too attached to it and to continue to nourish joy, not see only the suffering. Talking with people who already have been through similar things allows us to develop joy out of this suffering.

Viktor: About some difficulties or things that are more troubling. One would be the hierarchy. I am not used to that, having that kind of order, so that is something that still feels unfamiliar that I am practicing with. That is something that I struggle with.

And also another difficulty can be that there are so many people coming. Plum Village is so engaged so sometimes it can be hard to find space in all of that. So that is also something I am practicing with. Like stopping with a lot of people around me. To be comfortable with that instead of running away in the bushes.

Greg: Thank you.

So we don’t want to make it too long but do you have anything that you think people should know ? What would you say to young people that also aspire to move towards the community?

Viktor: Come and see. Laughter

So if you are wondering about Plum Village or the practice. The best thing to find out is to just come and see with your own eyes and being being here because otherwise you would never understand. It is like someone talking about eating a banana, you cannot understand what it’s like until you eat the banana yourself. And the worst thing that can happen is that you come and it is not your thing and then you know it’s not your thing so you can try something else.

Christian: Yeah, I would say come and see. Laughter

But I will also say that if you are interested in trying to live here for a longer period, also I think, it depends on who you are, but some of us are not used to living with so many people around us, so if you feel like you are not connecting to the community, don’t be too quick to feel like it is not the place for you. Because it can take a while to connect to people. At least for some people it does. For me it did.

So like, continue to try a bit more. In the beginning, it can feel a bit strange with all these people that you don’t know and that you think you can’t relate to. So work a bit on it and I am sure in a while you feel “Oh this is my brother, or sister that I can understand and enjoy so much”

So like maybe take steps to actively connect to the community and be part of the community because that can also be… Sometimes we have to take active steps to become a part of the community. It is really nice to part of a community but sometimes we have to actively take actions towards that, and then it can be a wonderful experience than to have a community.

Yann: So during the last Rain’s Retreat, our teacher Thay Phap Linh invited us to read the book Stepping into Freedom, and he asked us a question.

He asked us to go in the forest with the book during a lazy day, so during a day when we have nothing to do, and read it all in one go and to connect to our feelings and ask ourselves “Do we want to live this life? With these precepts? With this community?”

So I would invite, like our teacher did, people interested in monasticism to read the book and see if you are interested about the aspirant program. Is this something appealing for you? Even though it seems a bit strange, just come and see.

Luca: Yeah, if you mention the question that should be asked? I think a really important aspect of it is actually the practical aspect. So coming here in Plum Village. You don’t have to be well off and be supported by someone, but actually you are going to be fully supported by the community and that for me is actually a pretty good thing because I didn’t have the money to be able to sustain myself to live here for a year without working. So it was a really good thing to here “just come and don’t worry about the money, we are going to take care of that,” and also a really important thing, at least for me, was how you need to detach from your previous life and how strong is the switch and actually the wisdom stays in the fact that they know, it is difficult. It is not so easy to say to your family “Ok I’m gonna go in a Buddhist monastery and that’s it, deal with it.” No, so they know it should be like a slow approach to monastic life. It is not like you shave your head, you get rid of all your possession and then from one day to the next, you are a monk.

So that for me, it is a really good thing, and it is still an ongoing process and I am really happy that the community also supports this passage.

Viktor: Also, Yann mentioned reading the book before coming here but you shared that, Luca, if you were to read the book before coming here, you would not have come, because it is very strict.

Luca: Yeah, ok. It’s kinda relates to this. So, basically, I think most of the time, really at this point I can say: Come and see. Because most of the time, maybe, if you read the book. It can be a bit overwhelming actually and it is not fully representative of what the community is, actually. It is a book, maybe on some part it is very strict and so it is better to actually see if it is really like that. Because most of the time you can get surprise at how different things really are.

Viktor: Maybe we can say that if you are able to follow all the fine manners and the guidelines in the book then you are already enlightened. The goal is to come as close a possible but slowly slowly, over time. Step by step. Or as we say in Plum Village: Breath by breath

Greg: Thank you all! Any Closing words?

Christian: Bye dear lovely people, I look forward to seeing you.

Viktor :Don’t underestimate the support of a community. It makes a difference.

If you are interested in learning more about becoming a monastic, you can find more information here: https://plumvillage.org/about/becoming-a-monastic

You can also find information about local Wake Up Sanghas here: https://wkup.org/sanghas/

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