Editor’s note: Mehn Tala Norm is a student in Professor Rebecca Finlayson’s introductory journalism course at Rhodes College. Students taking the course spent time this spring researching and writing about Memphis. They learn the basic principles and techniques of journalistic writing while learning about their local community. Memphis will share examples of some of the students’ work over the coming days and weeks.
One Sunday morning in November 2021, I headed south towards the Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi, in a small car packed with friends from Rhodes College. When our Buddhism teacher suggested the class join “A Day of Mindfulness” at the monastery, we agreed to go: we would observe monastic life and learn about the plum village tradition founded by Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk known to his followers around the world as “Thay” or teacher, an advocate for world peace and a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Little did we know this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to heal from the grief and anxiety surrounding the Rhodes community at that time.
The fall of 2021 had been particularly difficult for the Rhodes family, starting with a racist incident on campus in September and then the October homicide of a senior Rhodesian near campus. Although the hour and 15 minute car ride on I-55 was marred by the occasional chatter and yawn, there was an unspoken agreement that we all needed a break from reading lessons. increasingly demanding and a remedy to heal wounds. inflicted by these recent events.
Only one of us in the car had a clear idea of what the day ahead would be like. My friend Justin had completed a week-long retreat at Deer Park Monastery of the same Plum Village tradition near his hometown of San Diego, California. It is a collection of monasteries and meditation centers, first established in France by Thich Nhat Hanh, then eight others across Europe and the United States.
“The mindfulness day is very well suited to students like us. It gives me a break from endless planning, worrying and stressing about tomorrow and the days ahead,” Justin told me. Before arriving at the monastery, he advised us to turn off our phones, not to check our emails, and not to think about homework or homework due tomorrow or even next week. I readily accepted as the advice reminded me of the wonderful 10-day meditation retreat I had in a rural Buddhist monastery isolated from my home in Myanmar, when all my electronics were kept away by monks.
After a few minutes of driving on a narrow, unmarked road shaded by tall trees, we realized we had arrived upon seeing a three-meter-tall statue of Guanyin, a revered enlightened woman, a few cars, and a collection of a- storey buildings nestled under the trees. A middle-aged monk in a faded dark brown robe greeted us with a smile and, after checking our vaccination cards, asked us to join an already formed circle of about 20 people outside the main meditation hall. .
I was a little nervous walking into a group of strangers, but the nerves went away as soon as I saw the monastic brother – monks and nuns are called brothers and sisters – giving instructions for the day. He spoke slowly, with occasional pauses to smile. His not too loud but not quite soft voice exuded a warm welcome and a sense of joy and reflected the calm state of his mind. We were witnessing mindfulness.
The first activity of the day was the walking meditation. The brother asked us to simply focus on the natural rhythm of the in-breath and out-breath and our steps. The goal of mindful meditation, as he explained, is to be fully present in the moment.
“There is no need to exert yourself. The rhythm should come naturally to you. Just be aware that you are walking,” he said. First we walked on a small concrete path, then on the carpet of lush green grass, then on a small dirt road leading to woods of tall trees with dead leaves.In the silent background, I heard only the tiny chirps of small birds and, more distinctly, the the crackle of meditators’ footsteps crunching on the brownish-yellow leaves that covered the ground. With each step, I felt the slight upward pressure on the soles of my shoes as they hit the ground. I felt my chest rise and fall as my lungs breathed. I felt the cool, moist, woody air. My mind was calm. My head was empty of thoughts. I remembered Thich Nhat Hanh, who had written: of our five senses, we will know that we are s arrived at the present moment. I felt fully present. I started to feel happy.
By practicing mindfulness and bringing the mind home to the present, we spent the rest of our day away from busy school life freeing ourselves from fears and anxieties about the past and the future. We listened to a brother give the Dharma talk on a particular aspect of Buddhist teaching – that day, deep and active listening to others which prevents the formation of misperceptions, ignorance and fear. Another brother rang a large temple bell to mark the beginning and end of the interview, and we held our attention to the sound of the bell ringing as he slowly faded away.
During the 15 minutes of seated meditation that followed, we simply watched the colder and then warmer air touch the tip of the nostril as we inhaled and exhaled while acknowledging, without pursuing, the thoughts that came and went in the air. ‘spirit. Then we sang the five mindfulness training verses with a rising and falling melodic tone following the example of the monks.
Finally, a little after noon, monks and lay visitors met in the refectory for the last activity of the day: eating mindfully. Each of us served ourselves a hot, deliciously cooked vegan meal with a distinct ingredient of Southeast Asian bamboo shoots that reminded me of home. Before eating, the community said aloud in unity a five-verse contemplation showing their gratitude to nature and all those involved in the production and preparation of food.
The dining room clock chimed every 15 minutes to remind us to bring the spirit back to the present in case it wandered off. Slowly chewing on the succulent leaves, bamboo shoots, tofu and rice, our taste buds seemed fully open to the minimal but perfect blend of spices. I rarely have a meatless meal, but this mindful vegan meal was one of the most mouth-watering ever. After lunch, my mind and body felt refreshed, ready to face the challenges of college life again.
Only a little over an hour’s drive from Memphis, discovering the monastery as a place of escape from the hassles of life gave me the most reassuring feeling of my stay in Rhodes. This refuge from burdens is there not only for me, but for all Memphians. Magnolia Grove’s proximity to Memphis, a city with a deep-rooted history involving the struggle for civil rights and social justice, is no coincidence but the result of the deep friendship and respect that Dr. Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh had for Both. Twenty years ago, Hanh led a peace march in Memphis’ Overton Park, honoring Dr. King’s nonviolent teachings that inspired five Vietnamese families in Memphis to purchase and donate the land that would become the monastery of Magnolia Grove.
When they first met in 1966, these two pioneers of world peace and non-violence agreed that, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “the true enemy of man is anger, hatred and discrimination that lie in the heart and mind of man.” Upon learning of King’s assassination, Thay Hanh “made a deep wish to continue building this [Dr. King] called the beloved community.
The monastic and lay community established at Magnolia Grove and other Plum Village monasteries around the world is inclusive and welcoming to members of society from all walks of life. Monasteries are community spaces where everyone can take refuge from the stress and anxiety of ordinary life. They teach mindfulness as a cure for ills and as an antidote to the suffering caused by a violent and unjust world. They spread happiness, peace and love with every conscious movement, word and expression.
Thich Nhat Hanh passed away at the age of 95 on January 22, 2022, but the beloved community building efforts will continue with these monasteries.
Source: “Founding of Magnolia Grove”, by Brooke Schedneck, September 2020. Visitors are welcome. To schedule a “day of mindfulness”, visit the Magnolia Grove website.