Getting Into the Stream: a visit with Thich Nhat Hanh in Fontvannes

Thich Nhat Hanh 1974 Paris (Jim Forest)
Thich Nhat Hanh, summer 1976 (photo: Jim Forest)

by Jim Forest

Doing some tidying up of papers yesterday, I came upon a copy of a letter I sent forty years ago to the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in Nyack, New York. At the time I was editor of Fellowship, a monthly magazine of peacemaking published by the FOR.

June 9, 1976 / Fontvannes, near Troyes in France

Dear co-workers in Nyack:

Let me try to bring you up to date on the visit with our friends at Fontvannes.

The three principal residents here, Nhat Hanh, Phuong and Sudarat (the last a spirited young Thai woman who is preparing for work in Thailand similar in character to what the School of Youth for Social Service was doing in Vietnam), have an extremely solid communal life and one which, at the same time, seems unbelievably productive not only in the quality of the work but also in the quantity. They demonstrate well that time put into developing the human dimensions of common life and work pays off in what they, as a group, are able to accomplish. The cheerful name they have given the community is The Sweet Potatoes—Les Patates Douces.

The work is of several kinds. There is an extensive garden — and it is the primary source of the vegetables we eat. There is at least a large head of lettuce at both the afternoon and evening meals each day. And such lettuce! I’ve never eaten its equal. Remarkable. And there are carrots, onions, cabbage, various herbs, spinach, tomatoes, etc. But it all takes a good deal of time, mainly Thay’s time. (“Thay” is the Vietnamese word for teacher and is what Nhat Hanh is normally called within the community.) It‘s eye-stopping to notice him in the garden, often wearing an enormous Mexican sombrero, a startling substitute for the conical hat farmworkers wear in Asia, but it serves the same purpose quite well. His garden work is more demanding than it might otherwise be as Europe is suffering a very dry year; for England, the Herald Tribune reports, it is the worst drought in four centuries. Thus Thay was out last night, under the half moon at 1 a.m., watering the plants. He was very pleased when we saw him on waking this morning, because, he reported, the water pressure was so much stronger in the middle of the night than it is during the day. Besides the watering, there is the work of keeping the soil soft and comfortable for the roots. The soil here, even in more generous weather, is a challenge as it is mostly clay and seems generally of a mood to become hard as clay in a kiln. (When I’m back I can show you the blisters turned callouses on my hands, mute evidence.)

There is also the work of building the house. This dwelling was a barely habitable ruin when they first found it but for that reason it was extremely cheap, along with its (I would estimate) half acre of land on a steep bit of hillside. Bit by bit they have done remarkable things with it. No longer do mice run over one’s sleeping bag at night. The floors are no longer earth but cement, and now over that there is linoleum, and over other parts, in Vietnamese fashion, raised platforms covered either with bamboo mats or rugs. Though it isn’t needed during these August-like days, the fireplace is fixed and works well. There is a very beautiful meditation room with a small altar over which a photograph of a Quan Yin statue hangs (Quan Yin is the Bodhisattva who personifies compassion). An adjacent former stable, rather small, has been renovated and now serves both as a printing shop and as a room for Thay. That is to say, in one corner there is a bed and along one wall there are bookshelves. But the main impression the room gives is of a very crammed print shop — a press as one goes in, large and new, great quantities of paper, a large iron paper trimmer that looks like an old Franklin press, a device for making plates for the press, and an old but hard-working typesetting machine; and in between all these things, stacks of pages waiting to be collated, books under weights while the glue dries, and old yogurt jars now serving as glue jars, with tooth brushes sticking out of them which are used in applying the glue.

At the other end of the house is a kitchen and bathroom added two years ago. These adjacent rooms have a flat roof, unlike the very steep tiled roof over the rest of the house. In the attic they have, last year, divided the space into several rooms but it provides little protection from extreme temperatures.

And now there is another addition under construction, a large rectangular space out from the kitchen. Two of the villagers, and sometimes more, are up helping with this as their time allows, and Thay and Sudarat were at it bright and early this morning. Sudarat is particularly excited about the project because she wants to be able to build houses in Thailand. She has quickly become skilled in basic masonry. The new space will hold tools and equipment, provide storage space for paper and the books they are printing—and space, too, for one of their cottage industries: making maysing, a traditional Vietnamese candy, produced mainly in Hue, and beloved by Vietnamese in a special way. (When our artist friend Vo-Dinh received a box, we learned, he was so delighted and so overcome with nostalgia that he could barely bring himself to let anyone else in his family share it!) Once or twice a month they make another batch, singing as it is made. And in each small box they insert an explanation about maysing, telling the story of how they sing while making the candy and why the “company name” they have chosen for maysing is La Maison de la Demi-Sourire (the House of the Half Smile), the half smile being an element of the community’s meditative practice.

They encourage the maysing eater to read Nhat Hanh’s manual on meditation, The Miracle of Being Awake. So, a la Gandhi, they turn even these small projects of self-support into vehicles of teaching. (In a more subtle way, there is teaching on the box itself: a Vietnamese color woodcut of a fish leaping above the water and gazing at the reflection of the moon in the water. The image is really like a zen koan, a seemingly unanswerable question that draws the one who struggles with it toward enlightenment. Not exactly a Tide detergent box!)

But the main project here is the La Boi Press. La Boi: The Vietnamese words for the type of leaf on which the teachings of the Buddha were first written down. The La Boi Press has actually been twice-founded. La Boi was first begun by Thay in Saigon. It was one of the principal elements of the movement for socially-oriented Buddhist renewal that Nhat Hanh and Phuong have been so important a part of. Almost all of Thay’s books have been published in Vietnam by La Boi, sometimes, however, under pseudonyms, particularly since the banning of his writings by the Thieu government. But—in the ironies of “liberation” — the La Boi Press itself has been banned by the revolutionaries and apparently all its books were burned in those great bonfires of “corrupt” texts that were translated into smoke last year. One of the books to be thus recycled was the just-published first Vietnamese edition of The Miracle of Being Awake. [The English-language trade edition has the title The Miracle of Mindfulness.] Only today is the Vietnamese text again in print. A few feet from where I sit the glue is drying on the spines of the first few copies.

Their publication technology is, by any standard, labor intensive. Books are normally printed on very large sheets, 32 pages to each side of a sheet, then machine folded and trimmed into 64-page signatures, then the signatures machine collated and bound, a very rapid process in which the considerable expense involved is a result of costly equipment, the high salaries paid to those skilled in using such equipment, and, not least, the profit of the company. Here the main expense is time. Phuong sets the type and makes the plates for the press. Thay prints on the letter-size stationary the machine is designed to handle — two pages to a side. With its 120 pages, the Vietnamese edition of Miracle requires 60 plates and 60 passes through the press. To print 350 copies, Thay was at the press for much of the last two days. But printing is really the easier part of the process. Collating the sheets by hand comes next — 60 piles of sheets are put in available spaces on the floor. Then in groups of five or six copies, the backs of the books are scored with a hack saw, a rather demanding physical labor, but the groves add considerably to the holding strength of the glue. And then the gluing of the pages, the addition of the cover for each book, and finally the trimming.

But the final results are very attractive and the monetary expense very little. With their extremely limited financial means, the community is able to produce a durable, presentable product. In six months time, they have established a book list of fifteen titles, an extraordinary accomplishment for three persons with many other tasks.

first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is "The Miracle of Mindfulness"
first English-language edition; the title of the trade edition is “The Miracle of Mindfulness”

What they are accomplishing with this immense physical labor is really of immeasurable importance. In Vietnam itself, doubtless, there are already various underground presses struggling against enormous odds to keep open some channels of uncensored communication, but it seems wildly unlikely that anyone is able to do much there at present to keep the literary or religious heritage alive. Of course it is still only a slight hope that some of the books printed here in France will find their way to Vietnam, at least for some time. The censorship of mail in and out of the country appears to be extremely rigorous. As the official cultural publication for all of Vietnam, Van Boa Nghe Thuat, published in Hanoi, says in the first issue of 1976, the “new colonialists” (that is, the Americans) made “use of religion” as a weapon, spreading “pessimistic thought” as a principal political force. “The reactionary anti-Communist band, disguised as religious people, work actively in the cultural field, using such slogans as ‘actualized religion,’ ‘bringing religion to life,’ ‘the religion of the poor,’ ‘using love to overcome hatred’ — all key points in the machinery of neo-colonialist culture … adapting religion to the American puppet policy.” Which is to say, the place of religion in the post neo-colonialist Vietnam will be to stick strictly to “cultic activities” — ceremonies inside religious buildings. Thus no books about “engaged Buddhism.” Nothing critical of the society. Doubtless if some Buddhist group emerges who will be seen as “patriotic”, that is, fully supportive of the government, they will be free to publish their support as much as they want. Only cheerleaders allowed.

I cannot help but write of the situation with bitterness. As Jean Lacouture, Le Monde‘s Vietnam correspondent and for so long one of the most enthusiastic journalistic voices of support for the Vietnamese revolution, says in his most recent reports from Vietnam, “one cannot speak so well of the victors as those who struggled for victory.” For while the Vietnamese government never ceases to reaffirm its commitment to reconciliation and national accord, in reality no one is allowed a public voice or a public role or access to a printing press who hasn’t proven to be completely loyal to the government and its ideology.

from the first English-language edition of "The Miracle of Being Awake"
from the first English-language edition of “The Miracle of Being Awake”
It is interesting to note that the new La Boi Press here in the French countryside, despite its editors’ deep anguish with the suppression of the religious press in Vietnam and the destruction of many literary as well as religious works, is not publishing anything critical of the Vietnamese government. They are enlivened with the hope that, over an extended period of time, their publishing work will not only be useful and encouraging to other Vietnamese exiles but that a respect toward the work will emerge from the Vietnamese government as it realizes, at last, the constructive and reconciling purpose of the project.

At times the hopes that Thay and Phuong express seem to me terribly naive. What is happening in Vietnam has happened in too many other countries. In the name of the people and of national security, governments both of the left and the right have restricted religion to the narrowest and most ineffectual roles, not hesitating to oppress and imprison those religious activists who, like Gandhi, insist that there is not and can never be a wall between religion and politics, in the sense of public life. But the only kind of politics that is welcomed from religious quarters is obedience. Vietnam, in this area as in so many others, seems no different than Chile, the Soviet Union, China or Brazil.

On the other hand, Thay and Phuong’s almost miraculous ability to remain hopeful even in the most hopeless situations makes me think again about what Jesus said about “the mustard seed” of faith: the tiniest seed becoming so large a plant, the smallest bit of genuine faith being able to move mountainous obstacles. Not that faith is magical, as if one with faith can order the universe around. But, in faith, one enters into a dialog with creation itself, in the way that Abraham is shown conversing with God, arguing, even bargaining, for the sparing of the city. So perhaps, in the mustard seed of the hope that surrounds me here, in that faith they have in the possibility of adversaries being slowly transformed, I am seeing something that is far rarer in the world than thousand carat diamonds, the kind of transforming faith that does move impossible loads, that does “shift mountains.” It’s a quality, I realize, that we desperately need in our own peace movement, in which so many of us act for peace but do so in a kind of sour obedience to values we are certain will never be accepted by anyone else. We seem, at times, to be perversely nourished by bad news and by rejection, in a cantankerous, Jonah-like way, not bargaining with God for the city’s salvation and transformation but egging on God’s wrath. But that quality, so familiar to me in the American dissident scene, is completely absent here.

On Friday Phuong goes into Paris in response to an invitation received earlier this week to discuss “national affairs” with the Vietnamese ambassador. She has no idea what has prompted the invitation, but goes in the hope that, at last, there will be news that the Buddhists will be allowed to renew their interrupted work with Vietnamese orphans and their adopted parents. Perhaps she even harbors the hope that she and Thay will be allowed to return home, an immensely unlikely prospect given the number of persons (like the novelist Doan Quoc Sy, one of the more recently arrested in Saigon) who are of similar convictions and who are now among the estimated 300,000 (this figure from various sources, including Jean Lacouture and the Agence France Presse) “students” being “re-educated” in Vietnam. But whatever her hopes are, she prepares for the encounter in a way very expressive of the atmosphere of the community. She plans to bring with her a newly-printed copy of Phep La Cua Su Tinh Thuc — The Miracle of Being Awake. And she is considering, as well, a gift of Vietnamese herbs, grown in the garden from seeds sent here by Buddhist monks in Vietnam. I try to imagine meeting in a similar spirit with some of the Americans officials who have imprisoned me and my friends.

What makes all this possible — their ability to work so well and so productively without the deterioration of community, their ability to function so creatively and hopefully — is clearly the meditative element in their lives. The method of their meditation practice is the subject of Thay’s book, The Miracle of Being Awake.

Usually, the community has tea together at about 10:30 at night and then starts sitting in a room lit by a single candle at 11. The sitting lasts about 40 minutes, beginning with Thay’s quiet chanting alternating with the ringing of a very sonorous bell and ending with a silent walk inside the house when it’s too dark or cold, but outside when the moon is bright and the air comfortable, as it was last night.

Thay says that meditative sitting ought to leave the individual feeling very deeply refreshed, if he or she sits comfortably and quietly follows the body’s breathing, not being attached to passing thoughts or moods. I was so exhausted last night, and suffering a headache after leaning over this typewriter yesterday writing the first two pages of this letter, that I was somewhat amazed with myself for joining in the meditation period. I was tempted to lie down.

I think what drew me to try, despite everything, was Thay’s explaining to me the last part of a poem he wrote several years ago and which I helped to translate into English while with him in Paris during the summer of 1972. The poem is called “Getting Into the Stream”:

Each monk has a corner of the mat
a place to sit
for meditation.
There, monk, sit still on it.
The spinning earth carries us all along.

The place you sit is like a seat on a second class train.
A monk will eventually get off at his station
and his place will be dusted for another.

How long is the monk to sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat?
Sit still on it anyway. .
Sit as if you will never give it up,
as if there is no station to arrive at.
The engine with its flames will carry you along.

Each monk will sit in the lotus position
at his corner of the mat.
The monk will sit like an ancient enormous mountain.
The mountain is still there
but like the monk is on the turning earth.
This train of ours
this fire-filled engine
is hurrying ahead.

This morning
the monk sits as usual
on his corner of the mat
but he grins.
“I shall not sit here forever,”
he tells himself.
“When the train arrives at the station
I will be elsewhere —
a corner of the mat
or an armful of grass
I am sitting down
just one more time.

Last night, over tea, keeping as still as possible so as not to jar my headache, Thay explained that enlightenment is irrevocably initiated when, in Buddhist terms, you “get into the stream.” For the Buddha, the endpoint of being carried along in the stream, finally to the point of being beyond birth and death, came when he decided that he would sit one more time and, even should he die and rot on the spot, not get up again until, as Thay says, “he got it.” A buffalo boy saw him getting ready to sit and was filled with awe at the Buddha’s beauty. He gave the Buddha the gift of a handful of grass. It was on that grass, the Buddha sat through the night. On seeing the morning star before dawn the next day, his illumination occurred, the point that Buddhists describe as “no return” was reached.

Meditation in the community is approached with that sort of life-and-death seriousness. It isn’t something that should be done whenever there is some extra time. It has priority over meals and over every aspect of work.

So I too sat with the community last night, worn out, and got up an hour later feeling as if I had been thirsty and had been drinking from a mountain stream. Thoughts had come and gone during the time. I had frequently strayed into mental noise and the mind’s calendar and its bulletin board department, yet I found myself letting go of the mental habits quietly and calmly each time I realized what I had drifted back to. Certain thoughts and reflections seemed to drift by. I noticed them, sometimes looking at them closely as at a postcard. Some were interesting and helpful. I let them all go by. When the meditation bell rang it seemed much too soon. I wanted to keep sitting. But we walked out into the garden, each following a different path, feeling the bricks of the pathway, enjoying the grass pushing up through the crevices, seeing the moonlight on the lettuce. I found myself silently singing a Gregorian alleluia verse.

It is in this element of the community’s life that its spirit is renewed. And my guess is that no element of life is more necessary for peacemakers in general — and nothing so undervalued by us, nothing more likely to be seen as a kind of luxury or pious affectation. But without it, here at least, not only the work but the hope that work expresses would be inconceivable. It would fail because they are dragged back, nearly each day, by so much very painful news. Not only are they no more welcome in “liberated” Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — than they were welcome in Thieu’s Saigon, but it is just as painful to bear the news of imprisonment and suppression after the American withdrawal and the collapse of the Thieu’s regime. And it is painful to see the collapse of the values in whose name the revolution was fought, albeit a familiar pattern in other societies. So many people dared hope that this revolution would be different, that these victors would do something unique in history and allow, within a revolutionary society, a space for diversity.

But I see even now I speak in too despairing a way. I am reminded by the hope that nourished these “sweet potatoes” that, even now, in the spiritual resources that evolved in Vietnam in the midst of its long agony of occupation and war, that there are many others like these few, that they are similarly nourished in their inner life, even in prison and “re-education” camps, and that they will quietly but stubbornly — like Phuong, with gifts in hand — make themselves felt in the future of Vietnam, and perhaps, I can’t help but hope, where we live as well.

Much love,


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other Nhat Hanh-related links:

Only the Rice Loves You

Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh