I have always been curious about Plum Village in France, especially since founder Thich Nhat Hanh is a teacher whose writing I deeply appreciate. So the film ‘Walk with Me’, documenting life there, called to me.
Thich Nhat Hanh appears in the film and his words are a presence, but the focus is on life at the monastery and what it’s like to be a Buddhist monk or nun.
Certain scenes stay with me: A small group of novitiate nuns have their heads ritually shaved as their families watch with great emotion. Monks and nuns walk slowly together following their teacher to the dining hall. The many shots of the French countryside in all its pastoral serenity. The difference between the cooler seasons when life is quiet and the summer onslaught of tour bus loads of secular visitors coming to experience Plum Village. Whatever the season, whatever the situation, the monks and nuns go about their daily chores, welcoming whatever arises. Any emotion we as viewers may feel at the vision of noisy busloads of people arriving, is ours to notice. The visitors with their heads full of hair and their colorful clothing are incorporated into the life of the monastery, and are touched by the experience deeply. And so are we.
Then we travel along with TNH and a few monastics as they go to New York City. As the teacher gives lectures at large venues, we stay with the monks and nuns who, among other things, visit a local prison and engage in conversation with curious inmates.
In a couple of cases, we learn a little bit about their past as a nun visits her family in New York and a monk has a chance encounter with someone he worked with in his previous career. These smiling sharers of the many blessings they receive from their meditative practice are both endearing and inspiring.
There were moments in the film that resonated as part of my experience of being on retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Sitting in silence eating in the dining hall was the same wondrous sensory experience. I remember writing a poem about the symphony of sounds in all the clatter of earnest meditators clearing their plates. So to have that sound and the sight of a nun mindfully eating her breakfast, was a delight.
The filmmakers made a wise choice in having no typical narration explaining what we are seeing. We are just there. This creates an experiential intimacy rather than travelogue-style acquisition of information about the experience — an important distinction. Instead they chose to have Benedict Cumberbatch read from Thich Nhat Hahn’s early writings interspersed throughout the film. So the wisdom teachings were well represented, but almost unnecessary, as the monks and nuns themselves evoked pure joy that was contagious.