I guess I am due a bit of an update. Having written one blog last November on the eve of arriving in Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Centre/ Buddhist Monastery I mentioned I would write something else in the Spring. Well Spring has disappeared and mid Summer’s day has passed, but such is life. I’m writing this seated at the top of the hill town of Duras a bastille town in the South West of France in the Dordogne region. Looking out over the surrounding countryside I’m enjoying the tapestry of vineyards, fields of sunflowers and wheat, orchards and oak forests. It’s been over 8 months since I moved to Plum Village. Life has taken on a different rhythm and a different schedule than in my recent past in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Some news. I recently accepted the position of Farm Manager for the Plum Village ‘Happy Farm’. This is the two acre organic farm that grows a lot of the seasonal and organic food for the Plum Village community. I’m already engaged in my responsibilities and i have committed to this post until at least November 2017. I’ll be working with the support of my dear Brothesr Tif Eccles (County Clare, Ireland via Scotland) and Scott Morris(Toronto, Canada).
When I decided to move from Ireland to Plum Village here in France I had one major reason for doing so. I moved to live as a part of the community here so that I could explore my aspiration to become a Monastic Brother in this spiritual tradition ( a Buddhist Monk in the Plum Village tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh). I have had this aspiration for many years. Whilst I am here I am living that question. To ordain or not? The aspiration is deep within me, in my blood and in my bones. However at present this monastic aspiration is not immediate. So I am taking my time and who knows if I will ever journey down that path. At present I am delighted to be participating and serving as part of what we call here the four fold Sangha (community)- Monastic Sisters, Monastic Brothers, Lay Sisters and Lay Brothers (I am a Lay Brother in case you were confused by this odd description- a lay friend living full time in the community).
So if not a Monk then what? I have the deep aspiration to live here in Plum Village alongside our teacher Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) and the Monastic and Lay Sanghas. I want to live together to study and learn, to serve and to practice together with my community, my Sangha. I want to be able to make a contribution whilst living here so I am delighted that after 8 months serving and working on the Happy Farm I am able to share my experience and expertise with the community and take on this role as Farm Manager. As mentioned this is not a role to be taken on alone and along with Tif and Scott I will have the help and brotherhood of our team of farm interns to depend on.
For all of my working life I was engaged in a 5 day working week, racking up the hours, mostly averaging around 35- 50 hours of work each week. Well the Happy Farm is a little different, yes I still work 5 days a week and some times more if needed. But my core hours will be less, somewhere around 25 hours a week, spread over mornings and evenings in the cooler parts of the day. This is my working week, but what else is on offer? Having worked in horticultural and environmental education circles since 2001 I can really say that this project: The Happy Farm, is globally unique. I have not discovered anywhere which has taken our practice of Mindfulness and Engaged Buddhism and mixed it together with this model of organic faming, engaged spiritual practice and education whilst offering a green oasis, a spiritual refuge for thousands of retreatants annually.
The Happy Farm is amongst other things an experiment in bringing mindfulness into a working environment. We practice as a team, a group of friends and Brothers. Together we practice stepping over the threshold of the farm just as we would when entering the meditation hall. We bring a sense of gratitude, respect and reverence to the land and to the farm. So alongside our daily work of growing the best quality food you can ever eat (homegrown food!) we practice working mindfully together. Before each working session we take turns to offer a short silent sitting meditation and share quotations and practices from three core texts. Theses are the ancient Buddhist text: The Dhammapada and Thich Nhat Hanh’s books ‘Work’ and ‘Joyfully Together’. Together we hold a space of contemplation on the farm to develop our mindfulness and concentration as we work together. We support each other practicing periods of ‘noble quiet’ each working day where for an hour of each work session we limit conversation to to just the necessary practical words we need to share with each other. Just like in other parts of Plum Village we also have a beautiful Mindfulness Bell which hangs in the centre of the farm. We the team and our volunteers regularly invite the bell to sound every 15 minutes or so. When we hear the bell we practice stopping, laying down our work and enjoying our breath for a moment, reconnecting with our bodies, our friends and the beauty of nature on the Happy Farm. So the idea is that we are cultivating a working environment that can exist with minimal stress and anxiety and offer our service or working meditation joyfully and peacefully (when possible!).
This space is held throughout the year for the family of Happy Farm interns (of which there are 7), but also for those thousands of people who come to spend between one week and a few months each year on retreat and join us working and serving on the farm. We offer this space of practice on a weekly basis throughout the year and in mid August we will be at the peak of our period of Summer service when we welcome 400 retreatants onto the farm as part of the ‘Wake Up Earth’- retreat for young adults involved in the global Wake Up movement.
The practical contribution of the Happy Farm (when we put aside the spiritual space and service it provides) is that we grow and offer a huge amount of food for the community. In the 2015 season the Farm produced nearly 40,000 Euro’s worth of seasonal and organic food. All of this food is given to the community and cooked daily in the kitchen, feeding the four fold community. Last year the amount of organic vegetables and fruit offered to the community was equivalent to over 50,000 meals (we are a vegan community!). This model of farming is demonstrating that we can sustainably cultivate our food in a low impact manner that benefits the environment and our Mother Earth. There is no packaging involved and less than a kilometre to transport the food to the kitchens for cooking. Everyone knows the ‘local food is miles better’.
The Happy Farm is also a space for education. One concrete example of that is how we offer educational and entertaining visits for the Childrens Programme during the Summer Retreat (entertaining for the Happy Farmers as much as we hope for the kids!). By the end of next week we will have welcomed over 400 kids from all over planet Earth onto the Happy Farm for interactive, hands on sessions on organic farming. Education is not just for the kids but also for the retreatants who offer their help to us on the farm each year and lastly and significantly the team of annual Happy Farm interns. Many of these international interns will come with little or no experience in organic farming, we hope that by the end of their one year internship they will have learnt enough to go off and start their own small organic farming project, wherever that may be on this green planet.
The fact that I am able to slot into this role and to serve and offer so much to so many is only possible due to the fact that a few friends actually took the idea for this project under their wing four years ago and physically made it happen. I express my deep gratitude and thanks to my friends and Happy Farm ancestors Stuart Watson and Daniel Dermitzel. I wish them both the very best in the future on their individual projects where they are cultivating hearts and minds in the UK and Germany. Also huge thanks to this years team of Happy Farm Interns, Izzy, Eamon, Tif, Scott, Guilluame and our Monastic Farm Mentors Thay Phap Dung and Thay Phap Luu.
In the words of Satish Kumar, this small two acre green oasis is manifesting a new trinity for our times:
“Soil, Soul, Society” or my own take on this unique little farm… “Clay, Consciousness, Community”.
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