Profile: The Plum Village Tradition in America

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s practice communities, “Lazy Day” rolls around once a week. “Everyone is invited to use it as a personal retreat day, but there is no official schedule,” says Brother Phap Hai, who lives at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California. “Sometimes people ask Thich Nhat Hanh why he didn’t call it personal practice day and he says, ‘The Dalai Lama is called His Holiness. I would like to be called His Laziness.’ For us, laziness means really encountering the moment as it comes.”

The root temple for Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh’s students is Plum Village in the Dordogne region of southern France. In America, practice in the Plum Village tradition is thriving, with three centers and dozens of small sanghas scattered across the country.

“One of the main teachings in our tradition is interbeing,” says Phap Hai. “So although we have all these different centers and groups, we see ourselves as very much the same—we’re different branches of the same tree.”

While the monasteries work together to plan and facilitate Nhat Hanh’s teaching tours in North America, including one this summer and fall, there is a degree of autonomy regarding in-house affairs. “If you travel to our different centers in the U.S.—Deer Park, Blue Cliff, and Magnolia Grove—you can see that over time, because of the environment, the people that come, and the makeup of the monastics, that a certain emphasis begins to develop,” Phap Hai says. For instance, he says, although Deer Park offers many retreats aimed at the general public, “it would be fair to say that our emphasis is on young adults, teens, children, and families.”

Deer Park, the tradition’s largest American center, was founded in 2000 on a property that over the years had been a detox center, a nudist resort, housing for prisoners, and a marksmanship training center for police officers. When the sangha bought the complex, the buildings were dilapidated and full of bullets and trash. Many of the buildings were barracks. Yet, with its mountaintop view and wooded glen of lilacs and sagebrush, the natural beauty of the place was evident.

 “In the first few years after the founding of Deer Park, families—particularly those of Vietnamese origin—would visit,” Phap Hai says, “but frequently the children didn’t seem to connect with the practice. There was a lot of fear in the parents because they didn’t know how to transfer the Buddhist tradition to their children. So over time we started up the teen camp. Teens come without their parents and we’re able to share the practice in a way that’s appropriate for teens. They’re here for four or five days and they have to release all their electronic devices. Releasing these things is very difficult for them at first. They’re fidgety and agitated. Then they start to open up, and they really enjoy being here.”

After teen camp comes family camp. The teens are still at Deer Park when their families come, so they then practice together. “In our tradition we really want to help families develop into little practice sanghas,” Phap Hai says. “It’s beautiful to see the teens open up to their parents, and the parents open up to the young people. Communication develops in that way.”

Blue Cliff, the tradition’s center in the Catskill Mountains in New York, is also attracting more families. “When you have little buddhas waltzing around, it changes the chemistry of what’s going on,” says resident monastic Brother Phap Tri. “There’s an ease they naturally exude and that supports their parents as well as single people. It helps them touch the lighter side of themselves and to realize we were all that young once.”

Blue Cliff was founded in 2007, but its roots go back to the late nineties when the tradition’s first two American centers were established in Vermont—Green Mountain Dharma Center, which was primarily home to nuns, and Maple Forest Monastery, a residence for monks about eight miles away. These centers proved to be too far from major cities, and the sangha decided to replace them with the more easily accessible Blue Cliff. They chose a property in the Catskills, one of the many former resorts that had been popular summer haunts in the forties, fifties, and sixties, and the Blue Cliff property had been one of them. So many Buddhist communities now have centers in the region that some have dubbed it the Buddha Belt.

Blue Cliff, like Deer Park, offers retreats regularly, including ones for families, young adults, and people of color. One program at Blue Cliff is a creative artists retreat, which explores art as a gateway to the dharma and how the dharma can become part of practitioners’ artistic expression. This retreat is designed for visual artists, poets, writers, dancers, and musicians.

Both Blue Cliff and Deer Park also offer what’s called a general stay, where people can stay for a weekend, or a week or two. Staying for at least a week is recommended. Longer stays require permission from the monastery. “The longer you spend in a practice environment, the more benefit can be derived,” says Phap Tri. “On a cellular level you’re gaining an understanding of what the practice of mindfulness can be like in your daily life.”

Some of the small American sanghas, which often meet just once a week, have held retreats at Blue Cliff. “We like to provide those sanghas with an opportunity to visit the monastery on a long-term basis and to intensify their practice,” Phap Tri says.

Local sanghas are generally started by people who have been to a Plum Village tradition retreat. Wanting to practice in their own community, they put up notices inviting others into their homes. Over time, a group develops. They make contact with local dharma teachers, whether lay or monastic, and invite them to offer retreats or classes. The focus of the practice will differ slightly depending on the group, and there isn’t an umbrella organization that determines whether groups are practicing in the Plum Village tradition.

In the same vein, none of the three American monasteries have a single person making the decisions. “We don’t emphasize a top-down hierarchal approach,” Phap Hai says. “In our tradition it’s important that we balance the enthusiasm of the youngsters with the experience of the elders. They both need to inform each other.”

The tradition’s third U.S. center is Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi. The 120-acre property was purchased in 2003 and slowly established by lay practitioners who donated time, labor, and money to build the structures needed for a practice center—a meditation hall, kitchen, dining hall, guest dormitory, and so on. In 2005, Thich Nhat Hanh officially accepted Magnolia Grove as a mindfulness practice center and led a three-day retreat there.

“Our only intention,” says Sister Hy Nghiem, who lives at Magnolia Grove, “is to offer what is needed in today’s society: a haven where people can reconnect with themselves and in turn with their families and with society, and where people can cultivate more peace, stability, freedom, and happiness in order to live enriching lives. From that foundation, they have a greater capacity to embrace, heal, and transform their deep sorrows and wounds, both physical and mental. Through deep listening and mindful speech, we share whatever experience is appropriate to the needs of those who come to practice with us at whichever monastery.”

The tradition’s centers regularly hold free “days of mindfulness” that Phap Tri describes as “an entry level introduction for people that have not been to our centers before.” They are an opportunity for newcomers to listen to a dharma talk, practice walking meditation, participate in a formal lunch, and discuss practice.

In discussing the essence of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, what Phap Hai keeps coming back to is the simple sentence that Thay, as he is known to his students, recently offered as a practice focus: This is a happy moment.

“So often when we’re caught up in our thinking and our plans, we’re not really here at all,” Phap Hai says. “When we’re present with what is, not only are we able to touch more conditions of happiness, we’re able to generate insight.”

Thich Nhat Hanh is scheduled to lead mindfulness retreats in Vancouver, Canada, in August, at Deer Park and Magnolia Grove in September, and at Blue Cliff in October. Visit www.tnhtour.org for more information.