I dress and go outside into the darkness. Someone is singing. By moonlight, I follow the sound – it’s coming from the belltower. A nun is standing by the enormous bell, singing and ringing in the first glimpses of light. I stay with her until she finishes. Then we make our way to the meditation hall, lit by candles. A voice murmurs in the darkness. I sit and follow her voice. When the session is over, I open my eyes and see that dawn has arrived.
Last night we joined our ‘families’ – I’m in the Fragrant Breath Family. It’s also known as the Pot Washers. Being assigned to the gardening/flower-picking family would have been my first preference, but I was just glad I wasn’t on Toilet duty. The Pot Washers is a catch-all group of about 20 people. We’re mostly American, English, French, Scottish, Swedish and Irish (5 people!) – we live in Prague, Laos, New York, Cambridge, Madeira…
Everyone in Plum Village washes up after themselves, but we’ll take care of the big pots. I’m on the breakfast/dinner shift, which means I get the whole afternoon to myself. Naptime.
After breakfast we go to Upper Hamlet, to hear Thay speak. Having read his books for years, it's a thrill to see him in real life. The children sit closest to him. He talks about monsters – the real monsters, like despair and anger. Every day, 35 children in France die because of these monsters. He talks about grief and love and suicide and impermanence. After an hour, he lets the children go outside and play in the sunshine. He is a wonderful speaker, and his talk is funny, insightful, thought-provoking. But we’re new to this. We’re exhausted; we’ve been a day without coffee or alcohol - headaches abound. He runs over time. We’re fading fast. Across the room, heads droop and jerk awake. His talk lasts nearly three hours.
The schedule is tweaked to catch up: we’ll do walking meditation to a nearby temple and have a picnic there. Walking meditation is slow. Really slow. About the speed of shopper’s shuffle, that most exhausting of paces. And we’re all starving now.
Last night the bookstore opened up after dinner. I noticed a crowd milling around, imagined everyone eager to buy Thay’s teachings, posters, bookmarks.
It turns out the bookshop sells Magnum ice creams.
I walk along, worrying about food. The bookshop also sells chocolate biscuits. Maybe I’ll get some, to have something nibble-able in silent emergencies.
We get to the temple and have our picnic. Back in the Lower Hamlet, I sleep all afternoon. When I wander outside, it's dinner time.
I meet a fellow Potwasher and we join the queue, scrutinising the pots and baking trays - checking how much work lies ahead of us. Dinner is eaten in family groups – the Potwashers eat by the Lotus Pond. As we head down, I realise I'm humming Amy Winehouse "They tried to make me go to Rehab but I said no, no, no...". It's been stuck in my head for a day now. We're just tucking in when a third arrives. "No eating yet," she explains with kindness. "We wait until the whole family is here." The two of us nod. We swallow self-consciously.
Later that evening, we meet for a family discussion about Thay’s talk this morning. I’m interested to see how it will work – he hit all the main pressure points: love, parents, death, children, infidelity, paralysing sorrow.
People speak slowly and thoughtfully about the subjects. They share eloquently, profoundly. I feel privileged. It’s an extraordinary evening.
I came here thinking that the week would revolve around Thay – that he would be the person I learned from. I am very surprised, and very pleased.