by Founding Director, Mel Duncan
About twenty-two years ago I walked into Plum Village, a place I had never heard of when I had left Minnesota fifteen months earlier. I was on the last leg of a fellowship that started at a place called the University of Creation Spirituality at the edge of downtown Oakland California. There, I was challenged by a Sufi, who I believed didn’t know me but later came to think otherwise, “to enter the heart of my enemy.” From that moment on, I was challenged to my core about the way I advocated for peace, social justice and the environment: us versus them, right versus wrong, good versus evil. Instead, I was prodded to see my work, in fact to see life, from an understanding of our UNITY, the UNITY of all living beings.
When the student is ready, the teachers appear. That confrontation diverted my journey to places I had not imagined. I engaged in deep conversations with classmates and professors. I started participating in a sangha for social activists in the San Francisco Bay area. I sat and walked in meditation. And, I started studying the work of Thich Nhat Hanh, some Vietnamese monk I had never heard of back in Minnesota.
At the end of my sojourn in September of 1998, I found my way to Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in southern France. I was in way over my head. Within minutes of my arrival, I understood that I had entered a realm where many social elements I relied on: affirmations, gestures, eye contact, words… didn’t matter.
Starting our first meditation at 5 am, we lived in silence most of the rest of the day and when we talked it wasn’t very much. I lived with monks who didn’t seem to care what century we were in, while I pondered the status of the Chicago Cubs during meditation.
At some level, I was being drawn to understand my connection with all sentient beings. No one was my enemy. Thay—as they called Thich Nhat Hanh—wrote “Call me by my true names.” Through this poem, I saw that I am the fly AND the bird. I am the sea pirate rapist and the twelve-year-old girl.
Questions seeped into awareness’, like I knew them all along. Could all sides be within me? Had I entered my enemy’s heart and found it was my own? Thay taught:
“Take the situation of a country suffering war or another injustice…See that the two sides are not opposing but are aspects of the same reality. See that the most essential thing is life and that killing or oppressing one another will not solve anything.”
The horror of Kosovo was exploding as I left Plum Village. Riding on a bus in southern France I wrote the vision of a nonviolent peace force in my ever-present notebook.
Pam Costain and I have been friends for over 50 years. She has worked for peace and justice for her entire life including serving as chair of the Minneapolis School Board and as a member of NP's team at Standing Rock. I take part in a mindfulness meditation group that she facilitates three times a week. Last month Pam Costain made a pilgrimage to Plum Village to commemorate Thay’s passing. She brought NP’s flag and carried it with her during a walking meditation through the Buddha Hill where Thay’s ashes are scattered. She then presented it to Phapp Huu, the Abbott of Plum Village.
I felt a sense of completeness when Pam texted me the photo of Phapp Huu and her below. A circle had been completed. Much more is going on in this world than we can see. There are many of these circles. They are strong and durable. We can rely on them. They will hold us up.