In the early years of Plum Village there were only two hamlets—Upper Hamlet at Thenac and Lower Hamlet at Meyrac. The hamlets were open for visitors one month each summer from mid-July to mid-August. A few dozen Westerners from all over Europe and North America stayed in Upper Hamlet, and Vietnamese émigrés stayed in Lower Hamlet. Thay gave several Dharma talks each week at one of the hamlets, sometimes in English, sometimes in French, and sometimes in Vietnamese. We walked back and forth between the hamlets to her Thay speak and to visit with our friends in the other hamlet.
One day, I was late for the Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, and was hurrying along the road when I saw a small yellow Renault, clearly a Plum Village car, come trundling along. I waved at the car, somewhat frantically, and stood in the road in such a way that the driver couldn’t miss seeing me. I really wanted a ride. I really didn’t want to miss the Dharma talk, and my gestures made clear that I needed the car to stop and pick me up. The car came to a halt and I saw it was Sister Chan Khong (Chi Phuong in those days) driving Thay up for the Dharma talk. Embarrassed by the demanding and impatient demeanor I had shown in ﬂagging them down, I nevertheless crawled into the back seat and offered apologies. Sister Chan Khong gently admonished me, saying something to the effect that of course they would stop and pick me up, and then she turned around to drive us up the hill.
The ride was short, maybe fifteen minutes, and we passed the time in silence. But it was a silence that was infused with a feeling of love. It was palpable. The air of love was thick enough to touch, and I was humbled by it. I knew this love wasn’t about me, particularly, but that I was included in it. Eventually, after many more years of practice, I came to realize that I and all beings were always embraced by this love. As I sat in the back seat, quiet and at peace, I rested in the warmth of love. The Dharma talk had touched me with no words at all.
Carrying the Light
I carried Thay’s teaching with me whenever I left Plum Village and came back to my home in Western Washington. Once again I entered the life of a householder, with job, husband, daughter, and many friends. Sometimes I would long for the love and ease I felt when I was at Plum Village. I knew it was in me, as well as at Plum Village, so my practice became to create within my family and community the peace and love Thay had shown me. And what a sweet practice it was. It began with being aware of what I was thinking and feeling throughout the day. When my mind was distracted, I would let go and come back to my breathing, particularly when I saw that my thoughts and feelings were creating harm or suffering within me. I knew that if I held on to these thoughts I would believe them true, and from them I would create suffering around me. I saw all of this clearly, over and over again.
One time, when my two-year-old daughter fell from a countertop onto the ﬂoor, I was ﬂooded with anger. I’d frequently lifted her down from high places and told her of the dangers of climbing on things, but she persisted when my back was turned. After she fell, she was scared and crying, but initially my anger prevented me from going to her. When I felt the heat of my anger, I turned my awareness to my breath, and took a few conscious breaths to see her with fresh eyes, remembering how I’d felt when I saw her for the ﬁrst time. Instantly my anger melted. I was ﬁlled with love for her. Instinctively I went to her and cradled her in my lap. After a few more sobs, she jumped out of my lap, smiled, and said in her baby-talk way, “That why no climb, Mama.” I never had to rescue her again from high places.
In 1990, Thay transmitted the lamp to me and asked me to begin teaching. In spite of feeling unworthy, I felt honored to accept the transmission and to carry the light of Buddha’s lamp forward in North America. But in my mind, I wasn’t a teacher unless I had students. So when I came home from Plum Village that summer, I waited to see if people would invite me to teach. And they did, so along with students came the new practice of sharing the Dharma by words and activity. My model was Thay. Through the many years of teaching, I still look to him whenever there is a difﬁculty in Sangha or with Sangha members. I always ask myself, “What would Thay do here?” And I pull up all of his patience, his love, his gentle spirit and rest there for a while. Then, when I am solid, I step forth with the Thay who lives within me, in honor of Thay, who continues to show me the way in this life.
Eileen Kiera, True Lamp meets regularly with Sanghas in her area and has led retreats throughout the United States, in Europe, Australia, Canada, and Mexico. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp community, a rural lay practice center in northwestern Washington state, where she lives with her husband and community of practice.