Story, photos by Mark Boehler
PANOLA COUNTY — It’s an unusually hot late fall day at Magnolia Grove Monastery and Sister An Nghiem awaits visitors for the day.
“You here for the Day of Mindfulness?” she asks in the dining hall, one of many buildings on the monastery’s 120 acres in a rural area north of Batesville.
The visitor acknowledges he is there for this Day of Mindfulness, one of many teachings in the only Buddhist monastery in Mississippi and the newest in the United States, having been started by the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation of the Plum Village Community in 2005.
The visitor is 32-year-old Josh Groce of Hernando, who is earning his Master’s of Divinity Degree from the Memphis satellite campus of Ashbury Theological Seminary of Wilmore, Ky.
“Who knew?” asks Josh, whose visit is a requirement in a World Religion class. “A monastery in Mississippi. I had no idea.”
Sister An Nghiem – whose name in English is Peace – is a native of Washington, D.C., and has been at Magnolia Grove for just over a year.
Peace provides a hug and a smile. She guides the visitors on a tour and makes note of the day’s activities.
There are 20 nuns, also known as sisters, staying at the monastery, along with 10 monks, also known as brothers.
Many brothers and sisters are of Vietnamese descent, staying at Magnolia Grove as part of a worldwide path. The monastery on this particular weekday, but depending upon weekend activities and scheduled retreats, could host anywhere from 50 to 400 with overnight accomodations for up to groups of 200.
Josh listens to Sister Peace and first learns the custom of the bell, which requires listeners to be silent and breathe three times for a brief time of meditation.
“We punctuate our day with pauses,” explains Peace, who informs the visitor he must take off his shoes before entering any building.
“No problem,” says the seminary student, who is wearing loafers. He slips off his shoes. “I quit tying shoes a long time ago.”
He meets Sister Tri Nghiem, which translates to True Holding in English. The nun grew up in Australia, considers herself a native of Switzerland and lived in France for 11 years. True Holding has been living at Magnolia Grove for six months and will stay for at least a year or more.
The visitor also meets practitioner Pat Buchanan, a native of Toledo, Ohio, who has lived most of her adult life in North Carolina and Virginia.
As a practitioner, she will help teach and live in the monastery for a three-month period.
Sister Peace, Sister True Holding and Pat show Josh the way to join the other nuns and monks on a 45-minute Walking Meditation.
It is a slow walk. “Breathe. Don’t think. Just follow,” says Sister True Holding.
Pat offers a can of Off insect repellent to the visitors before the mid-morning stroll. The offering was a reminder. “We are in Mississippi,” whispers the practitioner to the visitors, smiling. The guests took the offering and sprayed arms and legs.
On their silent journey of the monastery grounds, a playful puppy tags along. The brothers stroll past the majestic Bell Tower, which is common in most monasteries. This is near a statue at the Lotus Pond with a walk bridge and memory garden. The centerpiece of the campus is the Rising Tide Meditation Hall, the largest of its kind in the U.S.
There remains history and symbolism at every pause.
Nuns and monks take turns cooking for meals and cleanup duty. They grow many of the vegetables they consume in a garden on the grounds for their vegan diet.
Linh Phan is another practitioner at Magnolia Grove. The native of Vietnam has been in Mississippi for three weeks and will stay at the monastery for three to four months.
The 42-year-old earned her Master’s Degree in Public Affairs at Indiana University and spent seven years as a journalist.
She says the monastery experience comes at a crossroads in her life.
“After all of those jobs, I asked what I should do with my life,” said the practitioner, who agreed to an interview before lunch, as once the meal begins, there is 20 minutes of silence.
Linh is not married and has no children. “It’s a good time to answer life’s call,” she says, sitting on a couch in the dining hall. “I have freedom.”
“You have a lot of time to live within yourself,” says the journalist. “People need to live happy — no matter the religion.”
Although Magnolia Grove is a Buddist monastery, “all religions can come,” explains Linh. “You keep your root religion.”
Linh joins Kate Cummings for the noon meal. Kate is staying in Memphis and remains between jobs after many years employed with a non-profit organization in Africa.
The Asheville, N.C., native will stay at the monastery for a week. A visitor asks about the friendship between Kate and Linh.
“We meet here,” says Linh after the 20 minutes of silent meditation during the meal is complete. “Here, we are friends.”
Kate admits she doesn’t know what the next step in her life might be, but a week at the monastery “gives me time to stop and reflect. Relax. We need more of this in our lives.”
The bell sounds. Kate pauses for the brief meditation. “Like that,” she says, as the bell was right on cue.
There was silence, if only for a moment.
Things to know before you go
What to wear: Slip on shoes, for sure. Comfortable clothes. Change of clothes for each extra day of stay. A jacket depending upon season for the walks.
What to pack: It’s just like church camp. Overnight stays will need a toiletry bag for toothbrush, soap, shampoo and such; bath towels; something to wear to the bathhouse, such as a robe; although linens are provided in cabins, think about a pillow and sleeping bag or blanket; insect repellent (It’s Mississippi, right?); snacks and drinks.
When to visit: Day of Mindfulness is every Thursday and Sunday. Many curious folks and couples visit on a Friday through Sunday for a weekend getaway. Check the website for visitor retreats as there are plenty planned in 2020, such as Wellness Retreat March 4-8; Silent Retreat May 20-24; Retreat for Educators June 10-14; Summer Family Retreat July 1-5; Health Care Professionals and Caregivers Retreat Sept. 3-6; 12-Step Retreat Aug. 19-23 and others. Arrivals are at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday with departures at 2 p.m. on a Sunday. There are numerous special days throughout the year where visitors are invited — such as Rose Ceremony — and there is always a five-day Holiday Retreat after Christmas Day and through New Year’s Day.
Off the record: Remember the bell and respect the pause; turn off all electronic devices; cell service is very limited in the monastery with AT&T having some service in certain locations while some cell service companies do not exist, which ties into the disconnect experience very well.
Where to eat: Visitors will be invited to the vegan meals and are encouraged to participate, but it is optional. The food is Vietnamase vegetables and soups. Those with tender tummies be advised to not venture far from the restroom facilities. Visitors can bring food and snacks. Coffee, water, cold drinks and tea are available for guests.
Bring the kids? The monastery encourages families and there are things for the young and young at heart to do, such as an outdoor basketball court (bring your favorite basketball), ping pong table and other activities in the dining hall. There is also a library.
Where to stay: There are 15 air-conditioned cabins for small groups, couples or families and bunk houses for larger groups up to 200. The monastery welcome RVs and camping is encouraged, said Sister Peace, who noted visitors mostly enjoy the privacy of the cabins. Nearby Batesville has a wide selection of hotels along Interstate 55.
Cost: Donations are accepted, but not required. Feel free to ask about the recommended donations, especially if staying overnight or eating the monastery food. This is a common question and the suggested donations are minimal, yet gladly accepted to help fund the monastery.
Directions: Plug in 123 Towles Road, Batesville, Miss. in your GPS. Print directions from the monestary website, but it is easy to find. Take your favorite route to Oxford, then get on Highway 6. Stay on Highway 6 through Batesville, then turn right on Eureka Street. This street changes names twice, but just stay straight through the downtown area. Eureka becomes Panola Avenue, then Old Panola Road outside the city. After just under three miles outside the city, take left on Wilson Road. After 1.2 miles, take left on Towles Road and monastery is on the right.
Travel beware: The most confusing thing is the arrival, which is not on the GPS. The first set of buildings on the right is the library, bunk house, basketball court and older cabins. The second set of buildings is the place to arrive at the dining hall and bathhouse. Note the statue and Bell Tower will be to your right. There is also an old homeplace here used for a women’s dorm. Newer cabins, Meditation Hall and newer dining hall and dormitory are not visible from the road.
Area attractions: Batesville has a cool downtown area to experience shopping and meal. The train depot is home to the Polar Express (Train to Christmas Town) during the holiday season. Check out The Square and its historic homes, churches and old school building. There is a Farmer’s Market with fresh produce during warm months and select special events throughout the year, including SpringFest each May.
Drive time: About 2 1/2 hours from Corinth
For more information: Call 662-561-1145 or visit www.magnoliagrovemonastery.org
Please note it sometimes takes several weeks to get a response from an e-mail seeking information, depending upon the time of year and monastery calendar.