At 5:00 each morning the deep resonate sound of the very large bell at Plum Village would reach my ears. Waking up to a bell is not a new experience. You see, I went to church camp in my childhood and youth. That is another setting where the morning bell rings and everyone gets up. The bell at church camp, however, I remember being much higher in pitch, much faster in tempo, and much later in the morning. The morning bell at Plum Village is very deep and low, with each strike of the bell allowed to be heard before the next would come in the dark of early morning. And unlike the morning bell of church camp, when this bell rang, all remained quiet as we dressed and made our way from our rooms, outside, across the Village, mindful of each step until we found our way to the Meditation Hall. If we encountered others along the way, we would simply smile and nod or bow in recognition, but remain silent.
Upon reaching the Meditation Hall, shoes would be removed outside before quietly entering the hall (pictured above), bowing in gratitude, finding a place with a cushion and mat, and settling in. As you can see from the picture, there are two sides for sitting with an aisle down the middle. That is also similar to going to church. Except here, we sit on a cushion on the floor, and face the natural world just through the windows. Getting here in the dark and leaving in the light was part of the beauty and wonder as I would come to experience. Once we were gathered, at the appointed time, another bell would sound, words would be spoken by a nun, then more sounds of the bell would bring us into our collective silence. And there we would be, sitting, silent, and together for over an hour.
When I was a child in church I sat with my mother. She would tell me in every way she could to sit still and be quiet. Sometimes that even involved a pinch to my arm. I remember sitting very close to the front for what sometimes seemed like an eternity each Sunday morning. I was expected to be quiet so I could hear my father, the minister, speak. I was expected to be quiet so others could hear as well. I was expected to be quiet and sit still so I didn’t become a distraction to others. And I get that. I appreciate that. But what I didn’t get growing up in church that I got in the Meditation Hall of Plum Village is another reason to sit still and listen – to hear deep within myself so that I might understand my own heart and emotions and use them as a springboard for love and compassion toward others. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining or criticizing. I appreciate my upbringing in the church. It has shaped me and made me who I am today. I only use the contrast to share my experience and to emphasize what I did hear and receive as I stepped out of the comfort of my own tradition to encounter another. Gathered together in the Meditation Hall was a community of people – myself included – seeking greater understanding of themselves, others, and the connection of all creation sitting in silence. In that silence there is no distraction of what is going on with anyone other than myself, but there is the comfort and support of others doing the same thing at the same time in the same place. It is quite beautiful and powerful to be in such company yet allowed, indeed expected, to be focused on our own heart, soul and mind. As I sat still in the silence and in the company of a community of practice, I was touched by the holy presence of God both within me and filling the spaces separating all gathered in this quiet place of beauty and grace.
There is so much to be said about sitting meditation. I will close this post by sharing from Plum Village’s website: https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/sitting-meditation/
Sitting meditation is like returning home to give full attention to and care for our self. Like the peaceful image of the Buddha on the altar, we too can radiate peace and stability. We sit upright with dignity, and return to our breathing. We bring our full attention to what is within and around us. We let our mind become spacious and our heart soft and kind.
Sitting meditation is very healing. We realize we can just be with whatever is within us- our pain, anger, and irritation, or our joy, love, and peace. We are with whatever is there without being carried away by it. Let it come, let it stay, then let it go. No need to push, to oppress, or to pretend our thoughts are not there. Observe the thoughts and images of our mind with an accepting and loving eye. We are free to be still and calm despite the storms that might arise in us.
Upon rising each morning I heard the sound of the bell summoning me to silent sitting meditation. And before bed each evening the process was reversed. Rising in dark and silence to greet the sun. Then returning to silence as the sun went down at the close of the day. And as I returned to my room, the sound of the bell would make it’s final sounds of the day, calling us to more quiet, calling us into Noble Silence. That will be the topic for another post.