Monk Life: An Entirely New Way to Enjoy Life

Reflections from my week-long stay at a Buddhist Monastery

Note: I stayed at Plum village in mid-July of 2019, wrote the majority of this refelction shortly after, and never did anything with it until now. I hope you enjoy it!

I don’t have any terrible addictions, but like many thirty something-year-olds, I have my millennial buffet of vices. I have a few drinks the majority of nights most weeks, I enjoy weed, I eat all types of meat, I drink coffee whenever I feel like it (read: all day), I play on social media in most down moments, and I always fall asleep sometime after midnight and wake up 7 to 8 hours later.

To be fair to myself, I should point out I do also work quite hard, I exercise 5 or 6 days a week, I practice yoga, I read a lot, I drink a lot of water, and I try to be grateful and live mindfully from day-to-day. In general, despite all the unhealthy habits and low-key addictions I just listed off, I would describe my own physical, emotional, and mental health to be quite good. Better than the average for a 35-year-old male if I were a betting man—one vice I don’t have. My overall health has never been better, however, than during my week at the monastery called Plum Village. While there I was learning an entirely new way to enjoy life, which the conditions were certainly assisting.

It’s not that hard to not drink alcohol or eat meat when it’s not even possible, and it’s not a challenge to enjoy things and be grateful in each moment when that simple idea is at the center of most conversations. When there’s a break in the dialogue and you take a deep breath and look around, you’ll notice birds are singing in the giant oak trees, flowers are swaying happily in the foreground, and there is sunlight refracting and dancing all around you.

In that world, it’s simple to feel grateful.

I didn’t know I needed to visit Plum Village, a Buddhist monastery in the south of France, I was simply drawn to it by a long-held curiosity. I didn’t know it would quiet my mind, challenge some long-held assumptions, and slow me down in all the ways I needed—I just knew that I loved Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. Since I discovered his writing around 8 years ago, he connected to something deep in my heart, and if he started a community somewhere in the countryside of southern France, I wanted to find out what that was about.

If you’re not familiar, Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk from Vietnam who is one of history’s most important thinkers, peacemakers, and community builders, now in his early 90s living out his final years in Vietnam after being exiled from his home country for over 30 years, during which time he founded Plum Village.

He’s a poet, philosopher, teacher, lecturer, and author of something close to 100 books. He was nominated for the Nobel peace prize by Dr. Martin Luther King and has a biography of accomplishments, publications, and famous quotes that will lead you down a deep Internet rabbit hole. I encourage you to follow it as soon as you’re done reading this.

Suffice it to say, he’s an inspiration and I’ve never experienced reading someone’s words in the same way I experience his. I can sense his calming presence just by reading a page of his writing, and I have a genuine love and deep respect for the man. That love drove me to book a week-long retreat at a village he started in France, without knowing much more than, ‘it was his monastery and you could go stay there.”

I’m not sure I would have signed up for 5:30 a.m. wake-ups followed by a sitting meditation and a vegan breakfast all before 7:30. Sometimes skipping the research pays off, and through that decision I found myself taking a flight, then a train, then a bus, and eventually I was in a small van being driven by a kind French man named Remi with four other retreat goers, passing fields of sunflowers on our way to Thich Nhat Hanh’s former home. It was a real place of wonder that I had held in my mind for years, but I had no idea what to actually expect.

When we arrived at Plum Village around seven that evening, the sun was still setting, and I was taken to my little dorm room, which was comfortingly familiar to a shared room in a hostel. I dropped my bags and was led to the communal dining hall, surrounded by beautiful towering pine trees, where there was still some vegan pasta leftover from dinner.

As one of the monks who was showing me around explained how meals worked, a bell rang and he cut himself off mid-sentence. He closed his eyes, straightened his back, breathed in deeply and remained perfectly still until the final reverberations of the bell left our ears. I looked around confused, tossing my vision back and forth across the room as the bell echoed in the dining hall, which is when I noticed that on the far end of the room five other people had also frozen with their eyes closed. I knew then this week was going to be very different from everything I was used to.

In my eight years of travel before arriving at Plum Village, I experienced a lot. I’ve been to a lot of new cities and countries. I’ve been to Myanmar, Bolivia, Montenegro, and Tanzania. I’ve gone skydiving, I’ve dived with sharks, I’ve ridden a rickshaw across India, and I’ve eaten the still-beating heart of a king cobra (true story). I’ve always thought of travel and the adventures that come with it as a way to push myself outside of my comfort zone and into a more foreign culture, into another way of doing and perceiving things, revealing another version of how to go about this one shot at life. It’s exactly what I love most about life on the road.

Travel is all of that at times, but as my first days at Plum Village began unfolding and I tried my best to just get in the current of its river, to look around, breathe, and smile, I kept coming back to the thought “this is really different.” Every country I’ve been to over the past eight years has WiFi, meat, alcohol, shopping malls, night clubs, dive bars, and movie theaters, and most even have McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks if that’s what you’re after.

You might be looking at signs you can’t read in a foreign language and waking up in a new neighborhood you’ve never explored halfway around the world, but when your iPhone alarm goes off, you turn it off, then open Instagram and mindlessly scroll in bed for ten minutes to see what you might have missed while you slept.

After you get outside, maybe you’ll head to a cozy restaurant, navigate a slightly different breakfast menu, and sip your coffee waiting for what you pointed to on the menu, and you’ll pull up Instagram a second time, check your email, maybe swipe on tinder, and expectantly fall into the habits and rhythms that will follow you to the ends of the earth.

One place these habits couldn’t go, a place where everything my 35-year-old life was made to look, feel, taste, and be like couldn’t follow me, was Plum Village.

There were lots of bells and a lot of bowing. There was only vegan food, periods of “noble silence,” and 9:30 bedtimes. At my first “Dharma sharing” gathering with my “Dharma family” led by my “Dharma leader” (one of the elder monks), someone in my group asked, “Does anyone have a song they’d like to sing?” I thought, “Hmmm, maybe I should suggest Shallow from A Star is Born. Everyone loves that song.” While my brain was busy doing that, Mike, a young German kid in the group interjected with the suggestion of “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” and after a few people nodded the majority of the group launched into a campy Buddhist sing-along all at once.

“Breathing in, breathing out; breathing in breathing out

I am Blooming as a flower; I am fresh as the dew.

I am solid as a mountain, I am firm as the earth; I am free

Breathing in, breathing out; breathing in, breathing out

I am water, reflecting what is real, what is true

And I feel there is space deep inside of me;

I am free, I am free, I am free”

I didn’t join in. I didn’t know the words. Instead, I sat there uncomfortably thinking, “WHAT. IS. HAPPENING.” I was a camp counselor for many summers, so I tried to place the singing in that category as opposed to a more culty vibe, which is what the other side of my brain had me thinking in all caps.

There are many “Dharma things” at Plum Village. Dharma families are simply break-out groups of the retreat goers, so you can get to know a smaller group of 15–20 people more intimately over the week. Dharma sharing is the key time that the group gathers outside of certain family meals and service meditation (mindfully helping Plum Village to properly function) and is basically a very structured sharing circle. Dharma leaders are the brothers, the monks, who are assigned to a specific dharma family and who lead the sharing circles.

The one main difference between this and all other sharing sessions I’d ever participated in previously is that, when there was a silence during the session, you are meant to slowly bow to the group to signal that you want to share. The group would then all slowly bow back, which was a sign of yes, go ahead, we’re ready for your contribution. The bowing was strange and very forced for me initially, but the sharing and listening were nice. I’m a community guy, an old-school camp counselor, and pretty comfortable with my feelings, so I always love a good deep sharing circle.

The “Understanding Family” started to get to know each other as we would discuss how our day was going, what we took away from some of the all-retreat sessions like Q&A with the monks and nuns or the “Dharma talks” which were essentially lectures led by the more senior brothers and sisters who earned the title of “Dharma teacher.” We would also just discuss how we were doing. I never considered before arriving at Plum Village that it might be a refuge and place of great hope for people struggling with mental wellness, but it most certainly is.

Between my room-mates and Dharma family, I got to know at least five people who were struggling with an array of things such as depression, anxiety, addiction, or a lack of purpose. It wasn’t the majority of people I met all together, but after being there for a single day it made sense to me that some people came to Plum Village to seek an answer or in hopes of an antidote. If I ever have a friend who is struggling with something heavy in the future, staying at Plum Village will be the first thing that pops into my mind.

During our Dharma Sharing circles, I contributed about once per session and mainly tried to focus on just listening and enjoying the togetherness. In the first session, I shared that I’m a very upbeat, fast-moving, fast-talking, fast-thinking, always-on-the-move type of person, so I knew it was going to be a challenge to match the pace of Plum Village. Everything there moved like molasses, and I was keen to try my hand at slowing down for a week, but bowing for three full seconds, looking around, and then saying what I’m thinking is not my normal communication style. Walking “as though each step is a kiss for Mother Earth” is also not my normal way of moving around. I asked the group to call me out on it if they saw me running around the Upper Hamlet or talking too fast. With that, I looked around the group purposefully and slowly bowed to signal that I was done sharing.

In the next Dharma Sharing session, I shared some of the same reflections I’m sharing here. How being at Plum Village was far more outside of my comfort zone than any country has ever pushed me.

How after nearly eight years on the road traveling can sometimes just feel like ordering from different breakfast menus, but that this place was something wholly new for me.

Along with Dharma Sharing, the all-retreat sessions, mealtimes and “service meditation” (during which our group specifically helped with the recycling, compost, and dry toilets), the days at Plum Village were filled with lots of relaxed downtimes. Every day I took a nap under a tree after reading for a while. Some days we took trips to the other hamlets where we would meet retreat goers staying in the “Lower” or “New” hamlet. We would go on group walking meditations or hear dharma talks from elder brothers and sisters in beautiful new settings.

I drank a lot of tea in the open air “tea house,” which was a beautiful community fulcrum where you could have unlimited loose leaf tea from an enormous selection, laid out on wooden shelves in earth-toned jars. I chatted with fellow retreat goers and the monks who hung around, then after the final evening session, I would enter into “noble silence” along with everyone else at Plum Village. I would enjoy a last cup of tea (normally around my tenth of the day) brush my teeth, read a book, and fall asleep around ten. A few days earlier I was in Lisbon finishing dinner at that time.

As I write this, it’s been about a week since I left Plum Village, and I’m still processing everything that happened during my time there. I imagine I will wrest lessons and meaning from that week for months and maybe years to come, but one conclusion I’ve come to know for certain is that we all can be more adaptable creatures than we might assume. Plum Village kindly forced me to adapt well beyond what any country has ever asked of me. This change came over me gently, like a sunset. From one moment to the next, I didn’t notice the sky getting any darker, but at some point, while drinking my 47th cup of tea, it was pitch black, and I was happy being a sober vegan with my iPhone alarm set for five the next morning.

The 70 brothers who have taken the robe and committed to the monk life might have something figured out. They seem genuinely happy and have certainly stopped asking themselves a lot of the questions we all roll around in our minds from day to day and year to year. What to do for work and money, whom to date, should I end this relationship or just commit fully, where to live, where to visit, where to go for dinner, what to order when we get there? Should we get dessert? Should we Uber home or just walk? What should we watch on Netflix when we get home?

All of those questions were answered in this single defining decision they made.

One monk told me on my last evening at the monastery, “People say we’re brave for making this choice, but I see it the other way around. You have to make decisions for the rest of your life, you have to worry about so many things, but since I became a monk, I’m on vacation now every day.” Sure they can’t smoke, drink, have sex, or eat a pepperoni pizza, but from what I can tell they genuinely don’t seem to be dwelling on what they’re missing, only enjoying what they do have — a crisp bite of an apple in the morning, pine needles under their feet, a cool breeze on a warm summer evening, and the ancient comfort of living in community.

After leaving Plum Village, I flew to Brussels to meet with an old friend, and I told one of the brothers I got to know well that when I landed I was going straight for a beer with my buddy. He said in his heavy Irish accent, “That’s great Travis, I’m glad you’ll get to see your friend. Just drink that beer mindfully—Reeeaaaally enjoy each sip.” As I write this, I have delicious Belgian beer next to me, and beef stew in my belly.

I’m committed to being more aware of my habits, vices, choice of words, pace of life, and general appreciation for each moment, but pepperoni pizza and a cold beer still have a spell on me. I respect and admire the brothers for the path they’ve chosen, and I love Plum Village for inviting me to experience something so far from my comfort zone and so distant from my vices that I didn’t even miss them at some point well after I was fully immersed in the river, riding its pleasant healing current.

In the end, I don’t think I’m quite ready to take the robe and become a monk. But, I do imagine I’ll return to Plum Village as many summers as I can going forward, and dear reader, I hope you consider it as well for a seismic change of, well if you’re anything like me—pretty much everything.

Traveling, working, and living abroad for over 8 years. I recently published my first book—Not That Anyone Asked. www.traviswking.com

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