Happy New Year!
i’ve just returned from a four-day New Year’s Retreat at a monastery in Batesville, Mississippi. I was there for four days, together with my partner John, to learn more about Zen Master Thich Nhat Han’s (Thay’s) approaches and teachings in Engaged Buddhism from an experiential and ethnographic perspective. It’s a path I have found increasingly meaningful in my teaching, retreat-leading/facilitating, and also for my own personal practice and way of being in the world.
We belong to a sangha (a meditation practice group m) in Albuquerque in this tradition, called Plum Village. (Plum Village is the name of the community in France that Thay formed when he was exiled from Vietnam for protesting the war). Part of what draws me to this school of Mindfulness is the way it actively integrates contemplation with political activism and social justice work. Practitioners don’t just think about the problems of the world from the space of their safe meditation sanctuary: they engage, intentionally and by applying Buddhist teachings, directly in and with the world, with all its joys and sorrows, to make it a better and more humane place for all creatures—human and nonhuman—to live. This is part of the phililosophy that Thay has called InterBeing.
I have written elsewhere (see my July 2023 blog) on how to balance being on input and output as an artist and teacher and the role that Mindfulness retreats can play in finding this balance; here I’ll dwell on the uniqueness of the intercultural work that Magnolia Grove Practice Meditation Center offers alongside the practice of mindfulness throughout our experience, there.
In some regards, rural Mississippi is the last place you’d expect to find a Buddhist monastery. And in fact, some of our family and friends in Albuquerque expressed surprise that Mississippi was our destination for a Buddhist retreat. Some of these expectations, certainly, play on tired stereotypes of Mississippi and the deep south as cultural backwater to the rest of the nation. But others were simply in response to the juxtaposition of one type of place—deep rural—against another—a Buddhist retreat.
But it’s easy to argue that this is exactly why it’s most needed. The monastery is in rural Mississippi: from Memphis airport to Magnolia Grove, you pass many small, rural towns: Seven Elevens dots the landscape in a virtual food desert, as do multiple, single-wide older trailers and four way crossroads in a flat, Delta landscape. It reminds me in many ways of rural North Carolina when I lived there, and the central plains area known as the Piedmont in particular. And so it’s even more surprising when you pull up to an enormous, lush meditation hall, pergola and a statue of Kwan Yin (the female Buddha) along a rural Mississippi two-lane dirt road. But of course, as anthropology teaches us so beautifully, one person’s ‘nowhere’ is someone else’s center of the world.
And so it seems to be for the thirty or so male and female monoastics who live in close-knit community on forty rural acres at the monastery.
We arrive, and John and I place our possessions in our respective dormrooms—eight people to a room, divided by gender—and eat our first meal, in a large dining hall, seated next to three hundred other practitioners. We eat in complete silence, waiting for the sound of the bell to start, and are served some of the most amazing Vietnamese soup (a version of Phô) I’ve ever tasted: rich, orange broth, a variety of fresh mushrooms, sauteed sweet potatoes, and rice noodles inside it, with cilantro and crushed peanuts on the top. I sip gun powder green tea to go with my meal.
This monstery had a unique beginning: it was founded by the Vietnamese community in Mississippi and Houston, Texas, and all the monks except for one are Vietnamese or Vietnamese American. All chanting, meditation, songs and announcements are done in both English and Vietnamese.
Retreat participants at this retreat were about 50% Vietnamese, and 50% from other communities across the US. This was offered through food, through smiles and bows, and through the many songs and prayers offered in Vietnamese. So, it is a fully bicultural and bilingual space.
Above all, two things stay with me most strongly:
1.The palpable love and care with which the Vietnamese community cares for this space, and which was built, from the grassroots up, with support from Vietnamese Americans, and the ways they have invited others—non-Vietnamese folks like myself and John— to share the space with them to practice, be nourished, and learn about meditation. This, of course, is not and never was a given. For the monks, we are visiting their home. And many monks were alive during the Vietnam war (what they call the American War), or lost family members in that war. For Vietnamese folks from across the country, I can only imagine there are not many places to gather in shared community and a deep sense of safety in a US context. So, that is a precious thing to find. Despite all that, John and I were made to feel deeply welcome and at home, which I find to be extraordinary. Would US citizens, living as guests in Vietnam, be able to do and say the same? When I think about the atrocities of the Vietnam war, including my uncle’s own involvement as a soldier, this becomes even more poignant.
Second, I think about the ways that caring for one’s own anger and pain—something that Thay emphasized over and over with the beautiful phrase, “come here, my anger,” in which you invite your anger to have a cup of tea with you—is manifested in the sense of welcome all were given at Magnolia Grove. It is not a coincidence. Thay worked with his own anger and hurt from that war, and from the residual effects of colonialism and occupation in Vietnam, enough so that he could not only reach the other side and be healed, but so that he could hold space for other Americans and perpetrators of that war to also allow them—us—to heal. And the monastics have done the same. And so, at Magnolia Grove, that is some of the work that we are doing, as we sit, eat and walk together.
Songs can also be a part of ths work. On the final night, there is what’s called a ‘Be In,’ in which different participants share a talent or a performance. At the last minute, I was asked to accompany a young boy named Ethan, who wanted to sing his own version of an achingly beautiful song called ‘Please call me by my true names.’ It’s from a searing poem written by Thay, in which he identifies with both the victim and the abuser, showing how both of those parts lie in each of us.
The lyric is as follows:
My joy’s like spring so warm
It makes flowers bloom all over the earth
My pain’s like a river of tears
so vast it fills the four oceans
Please call me by my true names
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once
So I can feel that my joy and pain are one
Please call me by my true name
so that I can wake up
and the door of my heart can be left open
the door of compassion.
As Ethan sang from his heart, in a tender, husky voice, other children in the audience started waving their arms in unison back and forth, holding their cell phones as little lights of support for their brave peer and friend. While I don't feel comfortable sharing Ethan's version of this song on this public blog, here is a version of the song, recorded for my dad on Cape Cod a few days after the retreat, if you'd like to listen, here: "Please Call Me by My True Names" (Kristina Jacobsen)
To learn more about Magnolia Grove, please visit: https://magnoliagrovemonastery.org/