Updated: May 25
Her lilting voice was powerful. The body may have been aging, and physical strength not what it once was, but the voice and the tack sharp mind that it came from were constant. “You didn’t ask me about ‘Beloved Community,’ it's important that we talk about that. It was what MLK first dreamed of and Thích Nhất Hạnh picked up on the concept, and both worked so hard for this ideal.” I turned my camera back on, adjusted the tripod and continued the one on one interview I had been granted by Sr. Chân Không, the Vietnamese peace activist, co-founder of the Plum Village Buddhist Monastery in southwest France, and for all practical purposes, the person who is filling the vacuum a year after the physical death of Thích Nhất Hạnh. I was in awe, and in some disbelief that I had been given this wonderful opportunity to sit and visit with such a revered spiritual figure, not only in the commonwealth of Buddhism, but in all other traditions as well.
Sr. Chân Không was the first fully-ordained monastic of Thích Nhất Hạnh and one of the original emissaries of engaged Buddhism. And here I was, a relative newcomer to Zen Buddhism and photographer from Texas sitting down to interview the person one of the monastic brothers at Magnolia Grove had described as a “rock star.” Tupelo, Mississippi may have given the world Elvis Presley, however, the more than 300 individuals who attended the “Learning True Love” retreat in Batesville were eagerly awaiting their own star, and we were not disappointed.
Her presence at Magnolia Grove Monastery afforded attendees compassionate insights on confronting their grief, mindfully working through daily difficulties and utilizing spiritual tools to love themselves and others more authentically. She was present and visible, or in other words, ‘engaged.” Sr. Chân Không rendered her energy and presence to all of us. Two mantras she repeated continually during the retreat were, “Flower: Fresh, Mountain: Solid.” This was her exhortation to each of us, stay fresh, stay solid…immovable, rooted. There was a pathway out of our suffering if we but only dared to work through it nobly and mindfully.
As well, we quickly discovered that she indeed was a “rock star,” for on several occasions
she serenaded us with beautiful songs and chants in Vietnamese, French and English, each a parable, a teaching, an insight by which we could walk our own paths in a more genuine way. The strong, vibrant and accordant voice filled the Rising Tide Meditation Hall and the dining area. An angel was singing to us, bringing tidings of great joy. She seemed her happiest when she was able to offer us a lesson through song, and each of us were more than receptive to her enthusiastic performances. Marie Dean, a volunteer at the retreat was visiting from Chattanooga, Tennessee and reflected on the impact the singing and chanting had on her during the deep relaxation sessions led by Sr. Chân Không, “I didn’t always know what words she sang, but I knew what she was singing ABOUT. She was singing about her love for me and the community. During the deep relaxation exercises, she helped me drop my defenses. I felt like an infant being sung to sleep by her mother." Caroline Felker, who lives in a closer proximity to Magnolia Grove, in Oxford, Mississippi, has made numerous trips to Magnolia Grove offered the following, “What a blessing to be in her presence, with her lively songs and funny stories. I felt so honored.”
The monastics were equally excited to welcome Sr. Chân Không into their presence, especially the younger nuns, who see her as a mother. Sr. Harmony, who has called Magnolia Grove home for the last six years reflected on her love for Sr. Chân Không in this beautiful manner, “For me, she is like a cool, clear stream, flowing free wherever it goes. That stream makes fresh grass and trees cool themselves there. She has loved and helped people with an empty and boundless heart.” Another, Sr. Boi Nghiem, a Dharma teacher at Magnolia Grove Monastery reflected on the influence that Sr. Chân Không has had on her as a monastic nun and person, “Sr. Chân Không is the representation and expression of true love. Her love to offer happiness and lessen the suffering of others is a reminder for me to live each moment meaningfully.”
True love was indeed palpable, the enormity of the occasion not lost and for five days a Buddhist monastery in northern Mississippi became the epicenter for family, insight and spiritual intimacy. Visiting from Birmingham, Alabama, Chris Davis, extended the following, “Her presence was strongly felt whenever she entered the meditation or dining halls. She was fully engaged with any individual she was having a conversation with. At 85, I saw no signs of her slowing down.”
With my camera turned back on and the question posited to Sr. Chân Không, she addressed “Beloved Community”:
“Our teacher (Thích Nhất Hạnh) admired Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of ‘Beloved Community.” We were doing this as monastics, however, he called it monastic practice of mindfulness. It was the same. It was the dream where all live ethically, no quarreling, a brother and sisterhood and understanding of each other. When we are doing this together, practicing together, we have a spiritual home. We are aware of each other, where we are and how we are. It is a rule or a guideline to live together in harmony. There must respect for one another so we can build even greater this community. This is the important aspect of our community. It must be.”
With that she gave me a smile and a blessing with her hands in prayer at heart center, and the interview was over. However, the lessons and insights of this living saint had only began, and will continue eternally.
It must be.
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