On your Guide’s adventures exploring meditation retreats around the world, I was always looking for an opportunity to attend a meditation retreat at Plum Village, the Buddhist retreat centre established by Thich Nhat Hanh in the south of France as a refuge of healing for people fleeing the Vietnam war. It has grown into a home for many around the world to connect with the practice of mindfulness. So in 2019, when they announced a meditation retreat for business leaders, I was on it like a monk on a zafu.
What is Plum Village like?
Right before you pull into the driveway at Plum Village’s Upper Hamlet, you get this postcard French countryside image: rows of Château Thénac’s grapevines arcing down a dell, ending at a pond with its own little island, connected to the fields by a slender bridge. Maybe a horse or two grazing on the island. And above them, on a treed hill, the town of Thénac, with its medieval church and château. Picturesque French countryside. And amongst this living postcard, there’s a collection of converted farm houses and temple halls that have become a global center for mindfulness study and engaged Buddhism.
If you ever went to summer camp, the construction and layout of Upper Hamlet may remind you of that. There’s a large hall used for meditation and dharma talks, several dormitory buildings, administrative buildings, and a large kitchen hall. One building that’s quite unique and important, and you probably did not have at summer camp, is the tea house in the center of Upper Hamlet. We’ll get to why it’s in the center of things later on. But first, let’s situate Lower Hamlet and Son Ha.
You’ll have plenty of time to enjoy the countryside because Plum Village is spread out. It’s really three farms (plus New Hamlet, which is further away). Lower Hamlet has the larger meeting hall, so if you’re staying at Upper Hamlet or Son Ha, you’ll walk to Lower Hamlet several times during a retreat for dharma talks. From Upper to Lower, it’s a 30-40 minute walk. Make it 40. Walk mindfully.
Son Ha is an old stone farmhouse and barn converted into a dormitory and temple, at the foot of the hill below Upper Hamlet. It’s a ten minute walk through a quiet forest of towering trees and silently meditating buddha statues. It might be my favorite place at Plum Village.
Stay at Son Ha
When you sign up for a retreat at Plum Village, you’ll need to request a dormitory. Never having been, I randomly selected Son Ha. For me, it was the perfect choice: The quiet meditation room in the converted barn. Thich Nhat Hanh’s calligraphy hanging on the old stone walls. Walking back to bed through the fields under the summer moon.
However, I know some retreatants asked to be moved due to the distance from Upper Hamlet. If you don’t appreciate an uphill early walk through a forest to morning meditation, it’s not the place for you. But if you like that, it’s perfect!
One morning, I startled a family of wild boar on my walk up to the main meditation hall. Those cute beasts will run right through your femurs. After that, I walked mindfully, but more loudly.
Beds at Son Ha are comfortable but simple, arranged in an open room. We had nine beds in our room. The bathroom and showers had little hand-written messages stuck behind pipes and mirrors reminding us to be mindful of the journey water travels to our bodies. The showers are indoors but you’ll need to walk outside to access them at Son Ha, and Upper Hamlet, so bring clothes to stay warm in the cool mornings.
What happens at a Plum Village business leaders retreat?
You will not spend six hours each day meditating against a wall. You won’t really do much sitting meditation at all. In fact, perhaps ideally for people that struggle to stop, we spent more time doing deep relaxation meditation, lying on the floor of the meditation hall, than we did seated meditation. The work of the retreat is much less individual. It’s about mindful communication and relationship building.
You’ll spend a lot of time in the airy tea pavilion that stands in the center of Upper Hamlet. It’s a tea lover’s buffet, with fine organic teas brought from all over the world by community members, and often a verdant selection of aromatic and medicinal herbs from Plum Village’s own farms, to create your own herbal teas. And in stopping to have tea with other people from all over the world, with a shared passion for bringing mindfulness into their businesses, that’s when the real work begins!
There will be dharma talks and mindful walking. You’ll be assigned a group led by two experienced monks, and you’ll do difficult work together exploring your own journeys with mindfulness practice and your role in the world. You’ll also get to experience one of the most challenging exercises of all: Lazy Day. It’s a totally unstructured day where you’re encouraged to do nothing. See if you can make it through the day.
If this seems too casual, trust me: it is not. It’s very smartly designed to get you to stop and notice your place in the world, and work on bringing your mindfulness practice into your everyday interactions.
Meditation isn’t this solitary thing we do alone in a quiet room, separate from our business. It’s certainly not something we do to get an edge in the corporate world. Mindfulness is an understanding of the world as it is and what’s important in each moment. That understanding must extend through how we move in the world, what we create, and the impact our business has on people and the environment.
How do you get to Plum Village?
For your retreat, you’ll receive information on the designated arrival day and orientation times. Don’t miss those!
The easiest way to get to Plum Village is likely by train. For the retreat, I trained from Cologne, to Paris, and down to Bordeaux. From Bordeaux Saint-Jean station take the TER towards Bergerac and get off in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande. There are multiple departures throughout the day. Monks will pick you up at the Sainte-Foy-la-Grande train station in vans and transport you to Plum Village. It’s a 25 minute drive from the station.
A suggestion: Bordeaux is a delicious way-point on any journey. Don’t fly right through. If you can take the time, stay for a few days in Bordeaux. Visit the Marché des Capucins early in the morning to gather together an incredible picnic breakfast. Take a day trip to Saint-Émilion for an expert education on wine. Let yourself pause before you rush back into spinning your wheels.
How do you apply to attend a retreat at Plum Village?
During the pandemic, the Plum Village community around the world took their meditation retreats online and did an excellent job of creating an intimate, meaningful experience through clever use of streaming and digital tools. So don’t be afraid to try an online retreat. They have also now scheduled in-person retreats for 2022. For all Plum Village monasteries around the world, you can find a full retreat schedule here: https://plumvillage.org/retreats/
This Guide attended a seven-day intensive, silent meditation retreat led by Zarko Andricevic, in the tradition of Chan master Sheng Yen, at Dharma Drum Mountain