The captivating autobiography of the first Western nun ordained in Thich Nhat Hanh's Vietnamese Zen lineage.
In 1988, Sister Annabel Laity became the first Western person to be ordained as a monastic disciple in Thich Nhat Hanh's Vietnamese Zen lineage. She was given the Dharma name Chan Duc, which means True Virtue. Thirty years later, Sister Annabel is a much-loved senior Dharma teacher in the Plum Village community. She teaches and leads retreats worldwide, and is widely recognized as an accomplished and insightful Buddhist scholar.
In this autobiography, Sister True Virtue shares the trials and joys of her lifelong search for spiritual community. First inspired by the kind Catholic nuns who ran her primary school, she encounters Buddhism while studying ancient languages at university in England. A few years later, when teaching classics in Greece, she meets a Tibetan Buddhist nun, an encounter that changes the course of her life and eventually leads her to her teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and to her spiritual home in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh's practice center in France. True Virtue is a timeless testament to the importance of spiritual exploration, and offers a unique perspective on Thich Nhat Hanh's monastic community.
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About the Author
Sister Annabel Laity (Chan Duc, True Virtue) was born in England, and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986. In 1988, in India, she became the first Western European woman to be ordained as a nun by Thich Nhat Hanh. Sister Annabel was director of practice at Plum Village for many years. She travels widely, leading meditation retreats and inspiring many with her unique teaching style throughout the world. In 2000, she became the first Western/European nun to teach Buddhist Dharma in Thailand, and is currently head of practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.
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Childhood in Cornwall
I grew up in a part of England on the southwest coast that enjoyed the effects of the Gulf Stream. Although temperatures did fall below freezing sometimes and even snow fell, it was not cold for very long. The nearest village was called Flushing. It was on the Fal estuary opposite the town of Falmouth in Cornwall. Because of the mild climate, daffodils can grow in Cornwall in the early months of the year and palm trees can be seen in many of its seaside towns.
It was a lovely place to grow up. Our house was on a hill above the sea. To the north you could see Austrian pines towering over the roof of the house. Crows nested there and the wind soughed in the pine branches. The fragrance of pine wafted through the windows facing north. You could play in the pine needles under the spreading branches in a dark and mysterious place where fallen trunks two feet in diameter were boats to sail across foreign seas. To the south of the house was the flower garden, the orchard planted by my great-grandfather, and then the vegetable garden. On coming home from school in the autumn, my younger sister Sarah and I would climb the apple trees to pick the apple we wanted to eat and together we would sit right there to enjoy eating them in the tree. There were many ancient varieties of apple — Orange Pippins, Julipers, Beauty of Bath, American Mother, Bramleys — each with its own particular flavour, and our family would pick them to eat immediately between July and October, or to store in crates until the following March in the coolest part of the house. Our younger brothers, Stephen and Thomas, played other games.
The orchard was the place for orphan lambs in spring. Sheep often have difficulty in giving birth, so sometimes the ewe dies. The orchard was walled and the lambs were very tame and never wandered far from the house. As children we enjoyed helping our mother take care of the lambs, feeding them from bottles of cow's milk.
The house was 500 years old in parts, and was haunted by a decapitated ghost who carried his head around on a tray. Sometimes people would hear footsteps on the landing, but no one was to be seen. When my mother put me to bed I would ask her to look under the bed to see if a ghost was hiding there. She left a night-light flickering on the bedside table.
When I was born, the house had no electricity, and in winter when temperatures would fall, the only warm place was the kitchen where my mother kept the stove alight twenty-four hours a day. We snuggled up in bed under layers of several blankets.
The sitting room had a fireplace, and in the winter a log fire was lit late in the afternoon. The warmest place was in front of the fire, so we took it in turns to sit in that spot. No other room had heating, although the kitchen stove provided hot water for all our needs. As soon as outside temperatures began to fall in the late afternoon, all doors and windows were closed, and when night fell, we would draw all the curtains. Father was strict about this and supervised it. When I was a teenager and needed to study in my bedroom, Father bought me a greenhouse heater, which was designed to keep the heat above freezing in a greenhouse. Still my fingers grew numb from cold as I was writing.
Father was a farmer. As a small child there was nothing I enjoyed more than following him around feeding the animals, the cows, the pigs, the sheep; watching him repair farm machinery; riding on the tractor; looking to see how the crops of barley, oats, kale, potatoes, and mangolds were growing. My mother looked after the vegetable garden, the hens, and the orphaned lambs; she made butter and sometimes helped working in the fields at harvest or planting time. Mother had four children to take care of. Often she forgot to drink anything while she was caring so much for her children and husband, and at the end of the day she would say, "My goodness! I have not drunk anything," and pour herself a glass of spring water from the glass jug. She devoted herself to caring for husband and children from early morning to late at night, cooking, cleaning, comforting and consoling us when we were sad. We did not have a washing machine or refrigerator and neither did my grandmother. When I was very small I used to like watching Mother and Grandmother washing clothes. There was a piece of equipment called a mangle, which we used to wring the water out of the newly-washed clothes. It was made of two rollers connected to a handle. The wet clothes were passed between the rollers, wringing the water out of them. It was hard work for a small child to turn the handle and usually my mother or grandmother had to do the work.
My mother took care of the animals too. The little lambs whose mother ewes had died or who were born prematurely had to be wrapped up and put in the bottom oven to keep them warm and then fed cows' milk in a bottle. Many cats lived on the farm, some of whom were very tame and some were half-wild. As children we liked the little kittens. The pregnant mother cat would seek a warm place in the hay or straw of the barn to give birth to her kittens and when we went into the barn we could hear the gentle mewing of newly-born kittens. We knew that Father wanted to keep the cat population down and would sometimes drown the kittens while they were still blind. Father would never drown a kitten once it could see, so we tried to hide the kittens until their eyes were open.
Around the house and garden was a cobbled yard; cows walked there when they were brought in from the fields, and the cats would run about their feet. Leading from the cobbled yard there was a lane, which led to a pond and then down to the sea, simply called Pond Lane. When you had walked down the lane a quarter of a mile, you would see the wide-open sea.
In autumn the blackberry bushes that lined the lane and the hedges in the fields were ripe for picking. Each child had a colander or basket to fill. We made blackberry pies or stewed blackberries or blackberry jelly. The best thing about blackberries is their fragrance! Arriving home our hands were purple and our clothes a little stained too. If there was time, we would take a picnic lunch or tea with us when we went blackberrying. We children helped mother to prepare picnics. There would be sandwiches, a large thermos of tea, and a small bottle of milk. Sitting on hills 200 feet above sea level, we could enjoy the beautiful views of the sea and the creeks winding between forested banks. It was a true childhood paradise.
When Father was busy, he could not come home from the fields for lunch or tea. One child, myself or my sister, would be appointed to take his lunch to him. She could sit with father as he ate or leave the basket by the gate for him to pick up later.
I was born not long after the Second World War. Food was strictly rationed during the war and for some time afterward until 1954. Mother, my teachers, and the parents of my friends did not want to waste any food. We ate everything on our plates. Much of what we ate was produced locally: potatoes, runner beans, and brussels sprouts came from our own fields and garden. Tangerines were a once-a-year treat at Christmastime. Picking food in the wild was such fun, mushroom picking especially. In August, if the weather conditions were right, mushrooms would spring up everywhere in the fields.
A mushroom is a miracle. Their spores, which are always in the air, can land in the grass blades and spring up as mushrooms in the course of the night. They only take one night to grow and the next day they can be eaten. The secret is to wake up early before the other villagers and go out picking, when the grass is wet with dew. The mushrooms are closed tight, perfectly round like little buttons. It is a game of hide-and-seek finding them in the grass. You may feel a little greedy taking them all, so you leave some behind for those who did not rise so early. When you come home you would eat them for breakfast fried in a little butter or baked on toast in the oven.
Water came from a spring at least half a mile from the house. It was pumped by an engine driven by a windmill, and in dry weather there was not always enough. We were taught to use water sparingly. When we were small, two children would share the same bath. When I was three years old, my father had enough money to bring electricity into the house. My father said it was a real blessing not to have to heat the iron in the oven or clean the paraffin-filled Tilley lamps and the black marks they left on the ceiling — just a flick of a switch and we would get a bright light. Father had his own chair in the sitting room and at table. Mother had her own chair too, which was quite small, by the piano. Father came in late and would eat on his own. He also ate breakfast earlier than the rest of us. Sometimes we would sit near to Father as he was eating, and he would give us a tiny piece of meat or potato or a bean off his plate.
My mother was very tolerant and accepting. She was the peacemaker in the family and could accept people as they were and make friends with anyone. She had been a nurse when she was very young, and I suppose she chose that vocation when war broke out because of her compassionate nature. She worked during the blitz in London. She had been trained in a large teaching hospital in London in the 1930s. It was a very strict training, and she was especially afraid of the matrons. The first principle all nurses had to learn was that the comfort and well-being of the patient matters above all else.
My mother's mother, whom we called Granny Smith to distinguish her from my father's mother, Granny Laity, was proud of the compassion my mother showed to the patients. Her father, my grandfather, had been a drunkard and beaten my grandmother, but when my grandmother ran away to Cornwall he followed her, and she agreed to live with him if he mended his ways, which he did. My mother must have suffered a great deal as a child although she never talked about it very much. She had a sister who was two years older than she and they loved and supported each other. The worst thing for my mother growing up was when her sister contracted tuberculosis and was sent to live in Switzerland for two years. The best thing was the holiday times that she spent with her maternal grandmother in Yorkshire. When her sister, Pam, was not in Switzerland, my grandmother, mother, and aunt would be together. They would spend time on Filey Beach, riding the donkeys, or singing and dancing as my great-grandmother played tunes from The Scottish Students' Song Book on the piano. As a result of all my mother had been through, she was both compassionate and stoical.
My maternal grandparents lived in a large house by the Mylor dockyard, situated on Mylor Creek, a tributary of the Fal River estuary called Carrick Roads. It was only a kilometre across the fields from where we lived, but we did not see much of them. As a child I felt that my father did not approve of my grandmother too much, although he never said so, and we spent far more time with our paternal grandparents. My maternal grandfather was a mechanical engineer who mended ships' engines, and my father was also an engineer, so my father and maternal grandfather conversed together with a certain camaraderie. My maternal grandmother and my father had nothing in commmon to talk about and her ways were very different from the ways of my paternal grandmother. Maternal grandmother's house was never very clean and tidy. Later my mother told me that the fact we spent less time with maternal grandmother than we did with paternal grandmother was painful for her. Although my maternal grandmother had no dislike of my father, she too must have felt his disapproval. Once she had seen my father and us children in the dockyard near her house, but we had not gone up to visit her. She told my mother about it and my mother instructed us that whenever we were visiting the dockyard we should call in on my grandmother.
My maternal grandmother used to catch shrimps in a net and cook them in boiling water. She liked painting and writing fiction about events that had happened in history. She would pick up shells on the beach and glue them together to make shell flowers, which she then painted. She gave us a chance to learn this art, but her shell flowers were always the most beautiful and remarkably delicate. She loved her little rose garden, which went down to the edge of Mylor Creek and she transmitted her green fingers to my mother.
As children, we benefited from Mother's training as a nurse. Whenever we were sick, we had her undivided attention. She kept us warm and brought us what food or drink was needed. Whenever she had a moment and we were recovering, she would read to us. Mother read aloud very well; her expressive voice engaged us in the story she was reading. My mother has always been the model of loving kindness for me, the virtue of loving.
We had a motor car but we did not use it much. We walked to the village, Flushing, or took the ferryboat across the estuary to the nearest town, Falmouth. The way we lived was quite simple; we didn't consume much, and we produced very little refuse. There was the compost pile, an occasional bonfire, and for metal that the scrap iron man did not take, there was an old quarry.
Just after my fifth birthday I had to go to school. Later on, I learned that it was quite a sacrifice economically for my parents to send me to school. I could have gone to the local state school, but my father believed that a private education would train our character best, so he paid for all his four children — myself, Sarah, Stephen, and, later, Thomas, or Tom, to go to private schools. My school was called Truro High School for Girls. It was an Anglican foundation school, founded by a Bishop Benson. This meant that we began our day with Anglican prayers and hymns, and we had an annnual service in the cathedral for the whole school and parents. We had to study the Bible twice a week in a class called Divinity.
The students entered the kindergarten by the conservatory. It was warm in mid-September in the autumn sunlight. On those first days of school, even though I was there only for the morning, I missed my mother so much I cried my eyes out. I was five years old and it was the first time I had been separated from my mother. She had always been there somewhere in the house, or grandmother had been there to replace her for a few hours. I missed my father too. He had started to teach me to read when I followed him around the farm before school began. He taught me the names of the stars and the wildflowers which grew in the meadows.
In the conservatory there were pegs for us to hang our coats and hats, and lockers for our shoes — we wore laced shoes outside and buckled shoes inside. After a week or so at school I managed to find peace with the new situation. I even managed to stay on happily for two hours longer on Tuesdays to attend the ballet class. Everyone had a tiny cardboard case, and inside were a pair of ballet shoes and a ballet tunic of pale blue, green, or turquoise. We walked for a mile or so in a crocodile to the senior school for the ballet class holding our little cardboard case. We learnt all five positions of the feet, plié, and arabesque-en-posé to the sound of the piano. My best friend and I enjoyed the class so much that we would play games that included ballet dancing. I used to enjoy dancing for my mother and my grandmother. Many years later when my mother, then in her nineties, was very weak and had dementia, I would ask her: "Mummy, can I dance for you?" She always said yes, and watching me dance helped her forget her sadness and anxiety.
Just before my sixth birthday, the youngest child of my parents was born. We were now four. Tom, my youngest brother, sometimes had great difficulty breathing when he was a baby. He would be gasping for breath. When that happened, we needed the doctor to come quickly. One time the doctor was a bit reluctant to come out so my grandmother took my little brother to where the telephone was in our home and placed the mouthpiece so that the doctor could hear him gasping for breath. The doctor came immediately. When I went to school, my sister, then three years old, took my place as my father's favourite. She became the one to follow my father around the farm. In my mind I felt that my father loved my sister and did not love me anymore. This was not true. It was just that I was difficult by nature and my sister was easy-going. She had a sweeter nature than I did. Strangers liked her, and I withdrew like a tortoise into its shell. My perception caused me to suffer from jealousy of my sister.
Father would take us to the nearby Anglican church on Sundays. Mother did not like religion very much, but she would come to early morning Communion with me after I was confirmed, formally entering the Church of England at the age of eleven. I am always grateful for this. I know she would not have gone if it had not been for me, and she wanted to support my spiritual life because she knew it was important to me. She had to work very hard in the house and on the farm during the week and could have stayed in bed a little bit longer on Sundays, but she sacrificed that.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "True Virtue"
Copyright © 2019 Sister Annabel Laity.
Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Childhood in Cornwall, 3,
Chapter 2: London University, 35,
Chapter 3: Greece, 47,
Chapter 4: India: Tilokpur, 63,
Chapter 5: India: Sherabling, 75,
Chapter 6: India: Ganges Valley and Sikkhim, 87,
Chapter 7: California, 97,
Chapter 8: Italy, 103,
Chapter 9: Second Time in India, 107,
Chapter 10: Greenham Common, 123,
Chapter 11: Meeting Thay, 139,
Chapter 12: Plum Village, 149,
Chapter 13: India with Thay, 183,
Chapter 14: First Years as a Nun, 199,
Chapter 15: Vietnam, 225,
Chapter 16: Asia with Thay, 265,
Chapter 17: Establishing Monasteries Outside France, 289,
Chapter 18: Fragrant Stream, 325,
Afterword: Reflections on Living in Spiritual Community, 335,
About the Author, 347,