TRAVEL AND TEACHING STORY IN SWITZERLAND
This year, the annual retreat in Switzerland took place at Vaumarcus Le Camp, a renowned holiday center located on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel. This is a large lake measuring 38 km long and 8 km wide. It is the largest lake located entirely within Switzerland’s borders. While Lake Leman is even larger, it is split between Switzerland and France, near the Alps. Lake Leman is also known as Lake Geneva.
This year's retreat took place over 7 days, from Monday, August 29 to Sunday, September 4, 2022. Nhu Dung was also part of this trip. We left on the 27th at 1:30pm from LAX airport. From the monastery to the airport, it takes about 1h30 by car with no traffic. Since there’s always traffic during rush hours, we had to leave the monastery around 7:30am. The flight from LAX to Istanbul airport in Turkey took more than 13 hours – an exceptionally long journey, sitting, eating, and sleeping on a tiny seat. We arrived in Istanbul on the 28th at noon, followed by another 2h30 transfer before embarking on another Turkish Airlines plane. The flight from Istanbul to Geneva only took about 3h15. When we arrived in Geneva, it was already 5:30pm local time on September 28. After clearing customs and retrieving our luggage, we arrived at Ms. Hue Thuan's at the end of the day. Ms. Hue Thuan has been the president of the Śūnyatā Meditation association of Lausanne since its creation, over 10 years ago. This long and detailed account is probably because after almost 3 years of stay at the main monastery, I am resuming a long transatlantic flight again and I am a little affected by it.
Ms. Hue Thuan's house is on a hill in Lausanne, surrounded by streets that go up and down, with terraced houses along Lake Geneva. From her balcony overlooking the lake, one can admire, just on the other side of the small street, the landscape filled with the sun glistening over the lake. After a night's rest, we left early in the morning for the center of Vaumarcus Le Camp. Located on a high hill extending to the shore of Lake Neuchâtel, the center is surrounded by a vineyard producing small, ripe, black-colored grapes for winemaking, and a forest with a well-tended walking path that is pleasant and conducive to meditative walking.
All the meditators gathered around 10am. This year, the reserved room is not as well equipped compared to those of previous years. The organizers must typically book the rooms a year in advance. Because of the last two years of the pandemic, the local Sangha could not organize anything. Once booking became available again, the two pavilions reserved in previous years were no longer available. Only one pavilion remained, including the ground floor which consisted of a dining room and a kitchen. The bedrooms and the meeting room were on two floors. The meeting room must accommodate thirty-four participants, seated next to each other, with no one wearing a mask. Therefore, meditators often practiced outdoors, when the weather was nice, sunny, not raining, or not too cold. Fortunately, although the weather forecast announced rain, it didn’t rain, or only light rain.
The particularity of this year's retreat in Switzerland was the participation of many meditators from Paris, Toulouse, and Berlin, alongside many members of the Śūnyatā Meditation association of Lausanne. Given the limited number of places, registrations had to be closed before the deadline. Out of the thirty-four participants, there was one Swiss and four French, who were all French-speaking, hence the bilingual French-Vietnamese nature of the retreat. One of the main translators was Tâm Minh, who incidentally took refuge in the Three Jewels on the closing day together with Nhu Lien (a French meditator), Nhu Bao and Nhu Ha (meditators from Berlin, Germany).
In Vaumarcus, the sun was slow to rise at 6:00am. The meditators gathered in the meeting hall and started by greeting Buddha in Sanskrit "Namo Sākya Muni Buddha" including the French meditators from Toulouse and Poitiers. All of them often practice meditation based on breathing: inhaling and exhaling slowly and naturally, while being aware that they are breathing, and nothing else, in accordance with Buddha's teaching: "The bhikkhu goes into the forest, or towards a tree, or an empty house, sits cross-legged, back straight, placing the Knowledge right in front of him, inhales, aware of the breath-in, exhales, aware of the exhale..." There are also bell sound listening sessions. The bell rings slowly, sporadically, and increasingly spaced out, which raises and prolongs the awareness of hearing sounds for the meditator. To hear the bell or to hear the absence of the bell is always with awareness, even when the object of meditation is no longer there. This is the first step in bringing the mind back to the sound of the bell. Gradually, the meditator notices that he stops hearing the bell. This means his mind recognizes itself. In other words, he is peacefully abiding in a unified knowledge: calm, pure, which is his own original and clear mind. Our path of practice is as simple as that.
Here, the sun rises around 6:45 in the morning. When the bright red rays of light appear on the horizon reflecting on the surface of the lake, the meditators go out into the yard, and watch the rising sun for about ten minutes. Then the sun gradually rises above the water, becoming brighter and brighter. Looking at the pink rays of the sun for 10 minutes at dawn activates the pineal gland (which is in the middle of the brain, behind the thalamus). It is like looking at the reflection of sun shining on the garden, on the surface of the road, on a car parked in the yard, for 10 minutes. This acts on the pineal gland which secretes serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin gives us joy, energy, can alleviate depression, migraine, and lethargy. Melatonin improves sleep, strengthens our immune system, our eyes and can prevent cataracts. These two substances, serotonin and melatonin are found in the pineal gland, as well as in the brainstem. If we practice breath-based meditation, our mind will become calm, the parasympathetic nervous system will be activated, the brainstem will secrete serotonin and melatonin with the same effect. In addition, there will be acetylcholine secreted by the extremities of the parasympathetic system, which helps to neutralize the two substances noradrenaline and adrenaline, thus rebalancing the internal organs, bringing good health.
After contemplating the sunrise, meditators practiced Qi-Gong outdoors. With the sun high, the cool air warms up. Outside, only standing postures are practiced which are beneficial to the heart, lungs, kidneys, knees (relieving rheumatism). In the meeting room with wooden floor, you can practice sitting, lying, and kneeling positions.
A small group of meditators start preparing breakfast at 7:30am. At 8am, everyone is there to greet Buddha in Sanskrit and have breakfast in silence or whispering only when necessary.
Classes start at 9am each day. Usually with a walking meditation when the weather is cool and sunny. The route of the walk varies: going into the forest, taking the village road along the vineyard, going around the yard, going to the lake, up and down, tiring the elderly. If they are tired, they can sit down and rest on wooden benches set up here and there in the grassy field. Each mindful walk lasts about 15 minutes there and another 15 minutes back. The theme is usually "Be aware of the step", that is, our attention is focused on the foot touching the path. There are also other subjects: "To know everything, through the eyes, the ears, the nose, the skin against the cold, the heat... without saying a word in the head". Or let go of the subject "Be aware of walking". This practice of using different methods of awareness so as not to become attached to any habit. Do not clinging to a Dharma (teaching).
Sometimes, after 15 minutes of meditative walking, practitioners sit on wooden benches, or on chairs arranged here and there, look at the landscape in front of them, see, recognize... then 15 minutes later, they return to the meeting room and present what they see. Given the large number of participants, it is not possible for everyone to do so, but only for those who wish by raising their hand. In addition to this, the discussion is bilingual, which slows down the exchanges a bit despite the efforts of the organizers to ensure instant translation via portable and individual listening devices.
It is thus the practice of meditative walking and contemplation, to realize the impermanence, the interdependent conditioned production of phenomena. Many meditators notice and then painstakingly describe the scene. It is their knowledge in the moment, meaning to see and know "what is currently happening", without worrying about the past or the future. The meditator looks at the landscape organically, then describes it as faithfully as if it is not a Zen practice. Thus, everyone is at ease, even those who have never practiced Zen or those who are not familiar with the Buddhist scriptures. They can understand and do the right thing. At the end of the session, the meditators clearly realize that they have practiced Anupassanā (Contemplation), or Samatha or Samadhi, or Vipassanā (Wisdom).
This is the new adopted approach: not explaining the Buddhist teachings and scriptures beforehand, but letting each meditator experience for themselves, realize for themselves first, or "Living naturally in Zen". So, Zen is simply living with yourself, sharing honestly and harmoniously with everyone. It is simply that.
There is no need to preach diligence, patience, earnestness, right Knowledge (non-verbal), vigilant mindfulness, renouncing family life, desires, eliminating ego, greed, hatred, ignorance, etc. Too many books that comment on the Dharma, confuse beginners, and lead others to search for truths from outside?
My dear meditators, this spirit is ours, it is always within us. A simple, natural life is a peaceful, pure life. Knowing what you are doing, watching, walking, eating. What is complicated, difficult in all this? To meditate while walking, to sit and look at the landscape, to see a tree, a flower, clouds in the sky... How can there be manifestation of greed, hatred, and bewilderment? How can there be attachment to the past, the future, and the present? How can one have the intention to kill, to steal, to commit adultery, to lie, to drink alcohol or to make use of illicit products such as narcotics…? Even when recounting them afterwards in the meeting room, there are no manifestations of malevolence. As such, the mind is also pure, relatively objective at that time. Regular practice of such a simple life is also beneficial to our health and wisdom, since we are lay practitioners who have a family and social life.
A unique feature of the Vaumarcus center is the possibility of making a campfire. There is always a campfire at every spiritual retreat here. The wood for the fire is available there, in the past, you sometimes had to get it in the forest. Just some snacks to get ready: sweet potatoes, potatoes, or corn to put on a charcoal grill, and cakes, fruits... according to our wishes. The weather is cool, the breeze light, we are sitting close to each other, next to the burning fire, the crackling of dry wood, the flickering flames, the songs, the laughter…, it is so heartwarming.
After a peaceful and joyful retreat of 7 days, finally comes the closing day with the bonus of a ceremony of taking refuge in the Three Jewels for four meditators: a man and three women, including a Frenchwoman.
A small group of Parisian meditators stayed with the head of the association to take advantage of a few days of free time, visiting Lausanne and its surroundings: a famous wine-growing region of Switzerland, the old church in the city center, Lake Geneva … And especially the Charles Chaplin Museum, where I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes the private film set of Charlot and his former family home. Today it is a tourist destination for fans of this actor of black and white cinema, very funny, theatrical, lively, and deep from the first decades of the 20th century, when the world of cinema was just beginning.
We finally leave Lausanne for Paris by high-speed TGV train. Ms. Huê Thông, from Śūnyatā Paris, bought tickets in advance and stayed in Lausanne to accompany Nhu Dung and myself to Paris on September 10th. The train is not really crowded, the seats are comfortable, and the scenery is pleasant along the way. On sunny days, the sky over the lake is incredibly beautiful: many clusters of snow-white clouds float on the huge blue sky. We sometimes cross completely straight green fields, sometimes villages and their sparse houses, sometimes see cows grazing the grass. From a distance, they look like white sheep, but they are really cows: their tails float, their backs raised. On entering the cities, the houses are close together, the cars are busy, the railway line runs along many streets. At the station, people wait, get off, get on.
The scene of life changes. Human life is like an express train, moving fast, extremely fast, through many bends, hills, plains, with people arriving, people leaving, difficult to find, until the last station. Then the next morning, another express train leaves, taking other travelers, sometimes the same usual customers.
Then this train also speeds up to arrive at its last station. Then it all starts again. But when will our express trains stop?
Main Monastery, September 17, 2022,
Group of meditators from Paris
Group of meditators from Toulouse
A pavilion of the Vaumarcus center