newsletter logo: Sangha Reflections

Like A Flower

by Inessa Love

We left for Plum Village from the Montparnas train station in Paris. The station was no different than a dozen other train stations around the world that I have been to before. Yes, it was big, but nothing really special about it. We boarded the train and set off for a week in Plum Village.

A week later we arrived back at the same train station. Boy, did it look weird. All these people running around, talking on their phones, looking so concerned and stressed out. All those huge posters and neon signs advertising anything from cigarettes to Disney World resorts. All those glitzy stores calling "buy me now, or else…." The whole place looked out of order; it did not seem like the same place we’d been to just a week ago. The transformation was unbelievable, but I suspect it was not the station that got transformed….

Upon arriving at Plum Village, I felt like I had gone to another world. People walked slowly and looked really peaceful. A few people were hanging out by the huge linden tree, seemingly without any purpose. We got out of the van. Nobody seemed to rush out to greet us; everybody was going about their life. But somehow I got a feeling that things would just take care of themselves. In a few minutes a monk appeared and directed us to the office.

A little office table was set up under a pine tree and an Indian man sat there with a bunch of papers. He had a friendly smile and talked to us like he’d known us for a very long time. He seemed to like us because he assigned us to a White Cloud family, which he happened to lead. The week was promising to be a really special one and, unlike my usual self, who is always worried and concerned about how things will turn out, I felt like I was at home.

The first Dharma talk was about sanghas, how they are like a boat, supporting us from drowning in the sea of our suffering. Thay said, "Go to your sangha and say, "Here is my pain, here is my suffering, please help.’ And the sangha will carry you along." Right! I, with my huge pride, am going to go to a group of strangers (i.e. the "family" I was assigned to) and tell them I am suffering, right here in Plum Village. No way, I thought.

Later that afternoon, I was trying to take a nap in the meditation hall, but that did not work out—some people came to rearrange it. Half asleep and groggy, I came to the first Dharma sharing with my family, resolved not to say anything. To be certain, I positioned myself outside of the circle, kind of at a distance and responded with "leave me alone" when my partner tried to make room for me in the circle. Then the bell rang and I took a few breaths and decided to join the circle, just to watch other people. The discussion was about the Dharma talk and when my turn came I took a breath and shared about my difficulty with sharing my pain with a group of strangers. Surprisingly, many people nodded in agreement, like they felt the same. I felt much lighter by the end of the discussion and the Dharma talk had begun to feel more real.

By the end of the week, the group of strangers felt a lot more like a family, and it was hard to say good-bye. I felt so fortunate to have a sangha to go back to. I have been taking it for granted. But meeting people with no sangha around, I felt so much appreciation for mine. My commitment to take refuge in the sangha has really grown.

Until Plum Village, I had never seen a Lotus flower before. I had also never understood what it means to be "fresh like a flower." After a few days, I realized that it is impossible not to smile inside when I see a blooming lotus flower that just opened up the same morning. The dew is still on the leaves and the sun is reflected in a myriad of tiny drops of water. And it just sits there, in the middle of the mud pond, so beautiful, pink and fresh—the Lotus flower. It has no worries, no fears, no insecurities, and no self-doubts. It knows it is beautiful, and its only purpose is to make us smile deep inside. After that, I now understand what it means to be like a flower—it is just to be there, in the middle of the mud pond, and to make life beautiful for others.

A few times I asked my partner, "What flower are you today?" And he said, "I am a dandelion." And he smiled at me in a way I have never seen before—with such a spark in his eyes that filled my heart with so much joy. Being together in Plum Village, holding hands and smiling at each other like flowers, seemed like the best experience of my life.

On the last day, I went to say goodbye to the Lotus flower. I walked slowly and peacefully, with a smile on my lips. On the way to the pond I noticed, for the first time, that the lawn was full of beautiful wild flowers. They were growing everywhere. I stopped by a bush with small blue flowers. I looked deep inside one of them and it was so simple and so beautiful at the same time. The tiny petals were so tender and little seeds inside of it were so perfectly blue. And I looked at this wild flower like it was the most precious thing in the world. I felt like I was five years old again; it is a great feeling. I can still see this flower when I close my eyes. The "flower is in me" idea feels a lot more real now.

Thay said in one of his talks that children are naturally like flowers—they have this capacity to make life beautiful for others simply by smiling. They can smile like there is no tomorrow, like the whole world belongs to them. They look at the world with fresh eyes, without any perceptions or any expectations. Somehow when we grow up we loose this capacity. It is a pity. After a week in Plum Village, I know I have recovered some of it.

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