Quick and Cool News!....

This August, the Sanghabuild duo of David and Vanessa participated as staff in the Wake Up retreat in Plum Village, where we were joined by over 500 young adults. No, not 50… yes, 500! It was an incredible retreat with an explosion of meditation practice combined with creative expressions. To learn more and get a peak window into the retreat, feel free to check these sublime photos by Mercia Moseley.

But back to our mission of lay mindfulness centers…

 Part 1 of the West Hamlet Series

The Creation and Recreation of the West Hamlet, Plum Village

August, 2017

“Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

After staffing the Wake Up retreat for two weeks, Vanessa and I spent one week with the community at West Hamlet, located in Plum Village about 2 kilometers from Upper Hamlet. We spent a week with its then current resident couples, Serge and Josselyne, and Michel and Pascal, who have been living in West Hamlet for almost 2 years. Later that month, another couple from Wake Up Paris moved in with their new baby, giving the small hamlet a holy resident number of 7.

So how did this lay hamlet sprout up so vibrantly in the monastery? There are two threads we will weave together here: the early construction and renovation of West Hamlet by pioneering lay Dharma teachers Karl and Helga in 1993, as well as the re-establishment of West Hamlet as a lay residential community in 2015 with its current residents. The older story is told in full glory and details in a separate post, Treasures of the Elders. For now, we offer the newest story of its re-creation, including reflections and growing ambitions from the current community, and photos comparing West Hamlet of the 1990’s with West Hamlet of 2017. Let’s see how this river has wound its way down the mountain over the years…

The historic meeting between West Hamlet founders Karl, Helga, and Karl Schmied in front of the old buildings…

25 years later, in the exact same location, Sanghabuild meets the new West Hamlet caretakers Josselyne and Serge.

In 2011, Serge and Josselyne were among a group of deeply committed lay practitioners envisioning a new ‘manyfold’ community practice center in the south of France, known as Montagne du Dharma, or Dharma Mountain (manyfold meaning monks, nuns, and diverse lay practitioners). A group of 15 to 20 people, including 3 nuns and 2 monks started working together, holding a few visioning retreats for themselves, and sharing dreams to manifest a center that could especially support the future of young people in France. They envisioned a community where lay friends lived all-year round, and the monastics would often come to support it with retreats.

As they enthusiastically shared their visions and plans with others, a growing tidal wave of interest and questions from lay friends around France came as a response. They started a blog with news of its early development, and started receiving donations, collecting 30,000 Euros as a starting fund. This number soon grew to 60,000 Euros, even with no building or land yet under their name.

Eventually, a donor appeared who wanted to offer a large house in the mountains of Ardeche, which was remarkably beautiful in the pristine forest, but also remarkably cold in the dead of winter. After some months of discussion, the community knew it wasn’t the right conditions for a community practice center, and the project was placed on hold. The steering community, including Serge and Josselyne, needed to let go of their dreams for the moment and let Montagne du Dharma breathe by itself for the time being.

But the seeds for a residential lay community were still deeply planted in them all.

Larry Ward offers the gift of song to the West Hamlet community in their dining and living area during the annual New Years Eve retreat and celebration…

….Meanwhile, over 20 years later, joyful community living still ripens in the same space.

Soon after, while visiting Plum Village, monastic Brother and longtime friend Phap Lu spoke to Serge and Josselyne, “Why don’t you have a practice center close to Plum Village instead, where you can form community the easiest, and have the most support from the monastic Sangha for your practice?”

There were already many lay friends living in the vicinity of the Village; it was clearly a burgeoning Sangha for both monastics and lay friends, no doubt about it. People were attracted to the monastery and days of mindfulness, and keen on community living.

Serge and Josselyne visited the monastery often and finally the monastics invited them to live there temporarily to help with some administrative documentation. This admin work was essential for the monastery, but time-consuming and challenging for the monastic Brothers. Serge and Josselyne thought about it for a short while, and then finally said to themselves, “Ok, why not? We’re ready. Let’s try it.” Like two young hippies cutting loose from mainstream society, they sold their lot, bought a camping car together, and moved to Upper Hamlet, arriving just before the French speaking retreat in April, 2014.

Josselyne shared, “We decided to sell our home, even if we didn’t know exactly what would happen. We wanted to go with the project in the Village, and be close to the monastics, even if we were unsure what that would look like.”

I was sure that Serge and Josselyne lived off of the money that they used to sell their house, and asked them to clarify how they supported themselves while living in Plum Village full time. Well, I was wrong. Josselyne explained, “We wanted to take care of our children, as well as ourselves. So we divided the sales of our house into 7 parts, because we have 5 children. So 5 parts for them, and 2 for us – that makes 7.” This was the kind of faith and generosity with which they embarked upon this new Sangha journey. “We didn’t know what would happen, but we did have a lot of confidence, faith, and a little camping car for the two of us. And we lived comfortably in it for 6 months with the Brothers.”

Karl and friends prepare the ground of renovation for West Hamlet, building a community home for generations to come…

Decades later, a lay community is reborn and flowers adorn the Sangha home of its recent ancestors.

Upon moving to the Village, Serge worked on the long and tedious process of preparing official documents for the fire marshal, as well as other bureaucratic measures that were essential for the monastery’s running as a retreat center. French speaking monastics were short in number for such tasks. Serge’s help, later aided by Michel, became an invaluable support for the community, and earned the deep respect and trust from the monastics.

Brother Michel and Sister Pascal, who practiced for years with Serge and Josselyne in the Montepelier Sangha in the south of France, joined their longtime Sangha friends in July and lived there throughout the summer and early autumn. They too were part of the collective visioning for Montagne du Dharma, and later found greater inspiration to live in Plum Village with Serge and Josselyne. Slowly dreaming of long-term living in Plum Village, they helped out here and there in the Village by cooking meals in New Hamlet, assisting with administration tasks, and teaching French courses to the monastics, loving every minute of community life in the Sangha.

By September, it was getting cold, and a small camping car wasn’t going to make it through the winter for either couple. They asked the monastics for a more sustainable living solution, patiently waiting for a response, knowing full well how fast time travels on the Plum Village clock…

Finally, by October, the brothers came with a solution, and they offered the couples an opportunity to live and practice as caretakers of the historical West Hamlet! (Okay, we knew that was going to be the solution now, but they didn’t back then). And thus West Hamlet was reborn, not merely as luxurious retreat housing just outside of Plum Village hamlets, but as a true lay residential hamlet in Plum Village.

In the backroom of the Upper Hamlet registration office, the abbot Phap Huu, and a few other brothers met with new core lay community of West Hamlet, and together they carved out details for how West Hamlet could best function and support a growing manyfold community. This is what they drafted:

  • Returning to its roots in 1993, West Hamlet is re-established as a lay hamlet; its residents live there full time, taking care of the property and guests.

  • Conviviality: every week during the lazy day, the community invites the Brothers to come over and join them for dinner! (Later, this included the Sisters too)

  • Serge and Michel take responsibility for all external bureaucratic relations of Plum Village.

  • Pascal, a former French language teacher, offers weekly French courses with the Brothers, assisted by Michel.

  • Josselyne and Pascal both work in the registration office as part of a 6 member lay-monastic team.

If you can believe it, this is the same room, separated by over two decades, great loving efforts, and countless community meditations.

Two years later, West Hamlet has been growing and thriving as a lay residence and communal space. I asked Serge and Josselyne how they have felt living and working so closely in the monastery, as opposed to their previous aspirations to build a lay center in the south of France.

Serge reflected, “We often ask ourselves this question, ‘What is really important for our lives together?’ For us, we wish to live the practice deeply, but we also wish for regular contact with the monastics to nourish our practice and relationships, not only lay friends anymore. We love the fluidity of the Village and with so much brotherhood. I like being here, because I’m in the monastery, and I’m still near the Brothers, but not with the brothers. That lets me keep some independence while still expressing my lay life. Here I have more space, whereas the monastery has the Vinaya. Here, I have the best of both worlds.”

As for Josselyne, she beamed a bright smile back at me in response to my question. “It’s an adventure. We don’t know what will happen, what will evolve.” Let’s be reminded that these are 60 year olds, not 16 year olds… I was beyond impressed how they embody the joyous vitality of impermanence in their lives, family, and community. Intrigued by Josselyne’s sense of adventure, I later asked her again about what she loves the most about living there in community.

She explained that every day she has the sense of “living vibrantly, because it’s very impermanent. I love sitting and living with that sensation. It’s living by letting go, because we don’t know what’s going to happen. And so we are very present, even if it’s not always easy. We don’t know what’s going to happen here, but it’s the best environment for us. And that’s not going to change.”

The bucolic abode of West Hamlet under sunset illuminated clouds, with its traditional stonebuilt walls and modern renovations.

Josselyne also shared about what it means for her as a grandmother. “We have grandchildren, who can come and visit here whenever they want. And that’s what we want for them. Our children found a home near here too. I am happy here because I have my blood family as well as my spiritual family. What do I want more than that?”

Talking to Serge and Josselyne, you have the sense that they’ve struck gold in their lives. But not the kind of gold you find in the earth, the kind that you find in their eyes and their hearts.

As for Montagne du Dharma, in the following two years, a donor offered a beautiful property in the southwest of France accessible to urban centers, and their visioning community renewed itself while including a group of young adults passionate about the Dharma.

Serge and Josselyne are still greatly supporting its development, but like Michel and Pascal, they have already found their home in Plum Village.

Like a father or uncle, Serge embraces Vanessa as they celebrate the moment under a windswept sunset.

This is the first of a 4-Part Series of West Hamlet, Plum Village. Stay tuned for Parts 2, 3 and 4:

Fig Picking and Harmonious Living

Living as a Couple in Plum Village Community: Interview with Michel and Pascale

Visioning a Sustainable Lay Residential Community near the Village