Plum Village : Vietnamese New Year

It is the 28th of January, the New Year in Vietnamese culture, and the doors are open to welcome all who wish to visit and enjoy the celebrative ambience within Plum Village monastery, in south-west France.

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My companions and I remove our shoes outside the doors of the meditation hall, and step through. We are greeted by a large space, with warm wooden floors and walls. Brown mats and cushions are scattered about. My spirit is lifted immediately by the indoor early springtime of blossomed trees, and colourful flowers. The atmosphere is relaxed, children are playing, people chatting, monks sleeping in corners, and thoughtful people sit quietly.

We walk toward the altar table on which are placed lit candles and bright potted flowers. Through the tall, wide window behind is a view of a stone Buddha meditating in a shrub garden.

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We ask someone what we might do, and are advised to sit quietly and wait for a question to arise within us, then to find our answer in an envelope, that we pick out of one of the three ceramic pots. I have many questions, but eventually I choose and ask. I dip my hand into the pot with english Oracles, taken from the writings of the playwright named Shakespeare, and randomly take a red envelope. I open and read in amazement, for my Oracle writes on the exact theme of my question. Shakespeare quotes, “But that the dread of something after death, it droppeth as gentle rain from heaven”. I am deeply moved.

I continue to contemplate the full meaning of this Oracle, as we decide to return to the outdoors, where we are drawn to the striking central building of the village, that is the Temple. We are suitably impressed with its authentic and intricate construction in traditional Vietnamese architecture. But it is not long before our curiosity leads us further along a path toward another low building where many people are walking to and fro.

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Its entrance beckons through more blossomed trees, decorated with red banners, white lanterns, and envelopes. A gentle breeze plays tinkling music through chime bells. I wonder about the significance of the black umbrellas. I find out later that they promise blessings of protection, and the bringing of peace.

Again we remove our shoes before entering the private quarters of the male monks. We pass a library with a large collection of books, a timetable on the wall, and then find ourselves in a pretty garden courtyard where dainty trees lean over a small pool.  On its four sides the bedrooms lie, twelve in total, and in each corner, a communal room. The planked walkway is full of people brushing past each other, sitting on its edge, going in and out of doors. Someone, somewhere is playing a guitar.

We shyly open one of the doors, and step inside a bedroom. A group of people turn to smile. They sit on the floor in an intimate circle. We quickly determine who are our hosts, as they welcome and encourage us to join them. We learn that we are sitting with three monks who share this bedroom with a fourth. One is Vietnamese, the other two are english, judging by their accents. The room is small, housing four beds, a low round table made with a solid slice of a tree trunk, meditation cushions, a few shelves with tea making equipment, and bits and bobs.

We visit for ten minutes, drink tea, eat from a selection of snacks, and share polite conversation, in the english language. The room continues to fill with new visitors, and ours comes naturally to an end. We give our New Year wishes, bid farewell and leave.

Slowly we amble back toward the meditation room, now openly discussing our questions and answers, and it seems fitting to return to the meditation hall for a few more moments. Inside we delight in the auspicious sight of a Robin flitting between the tree blossom, hopping across cushions, and onto each Oracle pot, in his well-known curious manner. Finally it is time to leave, and on my part, I do so feeling refreshed and peaceful.

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A little more..

Thirty five years ago, the Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh came to the south-west of France to found a Beloved Community, in a Buddhist monastery he named ‘Plum Village’. He created a place “where people could learn the art of living in harmony with one another and with the Earth” (Plum Village website). It thrived and extended. At the present time there are four monasteries separated for monks and nuns, in four different hamlets.

In their long brown gowns, with their shaven heads and smiling faces, they are recognisable, yet invisible amongst the french community where they shop, post letters, and drive their cars. One of their monasteries is alongside a road that I use often, and it feels like a blessing to see them gardening, or to wave to those taking their afternoon walks.

During certain times of the year they close their doors in retreat. But more often they invite visitors to take rooms, and become part of their commune. In doing so they offer their guests an opportunity for mindful living and rest. This is also how they financially support themselves. Periodically they hold public meditation sessions and lectures. And most enjoyable are their open festival days where they welcome all to eat, talk and play with them.

I have visited only twice, but each time, I slip with ease into mindful activity, simply by being there.

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“Cung Chúc Tân Xuân”.

“Gracious Wishes of the New Year”.

Learn much more about Plum Village at; plumvillage.org/about/plum-village/

Frost fields of January

Now is my breath caught
in beauty of crisp frost fields
a frozen moment.

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I love those mornings,
when the world
is white, and
frost sticks tight,
sparkling ice,
hoofprints light of
fleeting deer,
and flitting birds
in bare branches.

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I’m waiting impatiently for the new lambs. I thought they’d be born already, but the ewes still carry their bundles. For months I have watched a lamb protruding uncomfortably from her mother’s side. So, I wonder if she’ll have triplets!

Sur le chemin des Crèches : On the path of Nativity Cribs

Each December, in villages and churches the length and breadth of France, families follow the custom of visiting the Nativity Crib where Jesus of Nazareth was born.

‘Sur le chemin des Crèches’, my neighbours take the path that leads them from one village church to another, where they find Jesus lying in his manger. They marvel at the Nativity scene, in forms ancient and modern, life size and miniature, the twinkling lights and warm wine welcomes. At the end of the path is Castelmoron d’Albret, and it is here that house windows display the village collection of ‘Crèches’ donated from across France and the world.

A little history

It was in his Gospel that St. Luke described how and where the birth of Jesus of Nazareth took place. Yet while he expressed  the joyfulness of this birth, it was not celebrated in the early centuries of Christianity. It was six centuries later that the first Mass took place during the night of December 25th, in St. Marie of Rome. Frances of Assisi created the first living Crèche in Italy for the Christmas of 1223 in which St.Lukes story was enacted. The Holy family, witnesses and animals were portrayed by the villagers and their animals. The living Crèche gave birth to a tradition that continues today, but the Nativity story is more usually presented in model form using diverse materials such as wood, metal, plaster ect, and fabricated by craftsmen and artists. The most ancient known was made by the Jesuits of Prague in 1562.

During the French revolution the Crèche was forbidden in Churches and public spaces, so Catholic Christians placed a miniature Crèche in their homes. In Provence particularly, the first Crèches were inspired by the landscape, colours and artisans of their region. ‘Santons’ or ‘Little Saints’ took the form of local characters such as the baker, teacher, lavender grower, ect.

Today, Christian Catholics across the world still make a place for their family Crèche, so that they can remember the humble birth of baby Jesus, son of God, and his message of love and peace.

Publicly, a part of the french Christmas festivities involve the creation of wonderful and diverse styles of Crèches, set in miniature towns and landscapes, with running brooks and Santons of all lifestyles, and taking centre stage Jesus lying in a manger.

Peace and Joy To All

Referenced ‘Portail de la litergie Catholic’ website.

Expressions of loss by three french poets

Way  (Voie) by Tristan Tzara 1896-1963

What is this road that separates us,
Across which I extend the hand of thought?
A flower is written at the tip of every finger,
And at the end of the road is a flower that walks beside you.

 (Translated by Michael Bendikt)

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My forehead against the glass (Le font aux vitres) by Paul Éluard 1895-1952

My forehead against the glass like watchmens grief,
Sky whose night I have surpassed,
Plain so small in my open hand,
In their double horizon, inert, indifferent,
My forehead against the glass like watchmens grief,
I look for you beyond all expectation,
Beyond even myself,
And no longer know, loving you so,
Which of us two is absent.

(translated poem taken from ‘Selected French Poems’, poetsofmodernity website)

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Tomorrow, at dawn (Demain, des l’aube) by Victor Hugo 1802-1885

Tomorrow, at dawn,
Tomorrow, at dawn, at the hour when the countryside is white,
I will depart, you see, I know you wait for me.
I will walk by the forest and by the mountain.
I cannot stay far from you any longer,

I will trudge on, my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Seeing nothing about me, without hearing a sound.
More, unknown, back stooped, hands crossed,
Saddened, and the day will be as night for me.

I will see neither the golden glow of the falling evening,
Nor the distant sails going down toward Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will place on your tomb,
A bouquet of green holly and flowering heather.

(Much of the translation taken from allpoetry.com)

Victor Hugo describes his walk to the graveside of his drowned daughter, whose husband drowned also while trying to save her, only seven months after they were married in 1843.

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Dedicated to my husband, Jean-Michel Lacroix (15.09.1955-17.10.2016)

The Grape Harvest : Vendange

The Grape Harvest by Léon- Augustin L'hermitte, 1884.
The Grape Harvest by Léon- Augustin L’hermitte, 1884.

Their faces are blushed and tanned, their long skirts lifted, and brown arms bare. Their sweet laughter drifts on the early autumn breeze as they deftly move between, and along the vine row, using their pruning knives to cut away clusters of warm red grape, then handling them gently into willow or wooden baskets. The men tease, and take the ‘cutters’ baskets to fill their own larger ones swung over their backs, then to the barrel on the cart, which when full is pulled by the donkey to the chateaux winepress. The workers toil all morning, row by row, basket by basket, until they hear the midday ‘Angelus’ bells ring from the village church that tell them it is time to rest. They make their way to the cabane de vigne, a small stone cabin at the edge of the field. There they eat, talk and sleep, until it is time to resume their work.

Relics in the vineyard

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Under a stone shelter an old farm cart rests. It was just the right size to carry a barrel of grapes, and hay too.

Across the road, a metal crane rusts from time and misuse. It once was useful, during the early years of industrialised viticulture, to load wooden crates of grape onto a trailer, to be pulled by a tractor.

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Cabane de vigne

In every the vineyard, a little house remembers,
The vineyard workers, sheltering from the sun and rain,
Eating saucisson and bread, washed down with a swig of red wine.

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NB   If interested, you can find a little more to read about the history of wine              agriculture here, and winemaking there..

épi de faîtage : finial

I wonder, where did the ‘épis de faîtage’ originate; those decorative ‘finials’ on roof tops, that I see on old houses hereabouts?

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These particular ones date to the late nineteenth century, when interlocking roof tiles crowned with decorative ‘épi de faîtage’ was quite the fashion.

But I’ve learned, that since the thirteenth century, a turned upside down clay pot was used to protect the wooden key post of a roof, and that it was quickly refined into a very decorative ornament full of symbolism and significance. Also, that a house owner could order an original design that he favoured, or one that informed onlookers of his status, wealth, politics or profession.

Yet if I look more closely, I see the finials resemblance to a ‘bouquet’, and then recognise it as the beribboned sheaf of wheat our ancestors placed on top of the wheat cart at Harvest, and then on their thatched roofs, believing it would ward off malevolent spirits, and attract good fortune and well being. The sheaf of wheat symbolised so many things for them; the roof over their head, the home, the family, their sustenance, and by its fatness, their wealth.

It pleases me that our house carries ‘épis de faîtage’ of its own. As in tradition they were made in three parts. Their base, as a ridge tile (faîtage) with a flattened top, on which the central pieces form the vase, and finally the crown or épi (ear of grain).

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Les Abeilles de Rimons : The bees of Rimons

See there, beside white Lily floating,
Under scented shade of Arcacia bloom,
Lies the citadel of les Abeilles;
And within these walls, with industrious duty,
Les Abeilles sacrifice for Queen and young,
Alchemic transforming of flowers divine.

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Watch how les Abeilles bustle in blossom,
Forage deep within fine Chestnut forest,
Labour lucidly midst camphoric Lavender,
And resolutely gather from Rosemarys flower.

Then ask Les Abeilles,
“Will you share with us your harvest?
Not too much, yet just enough,
Of liquid gold, Gods gift of nature,
Sweet fragrant taste of summertime,
And in return we promise you,
Honour, and love, and protection too”.

Family snapshot.
Family snapshot.