An Interview with My Elder Brother by Phap Lai
Brother Phap Do and I sat and drank tea together on a number of occasions. Sharing tea is a time-honored way of building brotherhood in Plum Village. As the story of my elder brother’s journey and transformation unfolded I felt inspired to record it.
In this interview Brother Phap Do shares how he transformed his anger through practice, moving stories of reconciliation with his father, and how his mother started a Sangha after meeting a strange monk at their loved ones’ gravesides. Now forty-two years old, Brother Phap Do ordained as a monk in Plum Village in 1996.
Su Anh (elder brother), can you speak about your family background?
I was born and brought up in Hanoi, North Vietnam, with four generations, twenty-six of us all together in one house. When I was ten my father was posted to Saigon so then we no longer lived with all the grandparents. With twenty-six family members living in the same house you have a Sangha. We had to learn how to live with each other and practice patience. I received love from my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. Sometimes my mother would be too tired and busy to give me attention or would scold me. My grandmother would take care of my mum while my great grandmother took care of me. That’s when I really saw the strength of the family all together—it was a circle of love. I learned about building family from them. There was much tension too, but my main memory is that there was a lot of love in that house.
What made you want to be a monk at fourteen?
My grandmother used to take me to the temple every week. She was the only religious one in the family. One time I stood mesmerized while a monk arranged ﬂowers with such care: he was so peaceful. I wondered how anyone could have peace like that when everyone was going to war. We had just ﬁnished the war with America and then started one with Cambodia. I told my parents, “I want to be a monk,” and they responded “No!” It was simply out of the question.
Why were they so deﬁnite, saying no like that?
I was the only son. They were relying on me to continue the family through having children and taking care of the family’s future. Also my father was a military man, a communist high in the government, a man of action. According to him, monks were lazy and shirked their responsibility to build the new Vietnam. They were anti-communist. For his own son to be a monk was unthinkable.
What was your father’s career?
My father’s elder brother joined the resistance army, ﬁghting the French when he was sixteen. It was the branch of the Viet Minh which was to become Communist. He soon persuaded his fourteen-year-old brother to join him. It was 1945 and my father stayed in the army until 1968. The Communist Party put him in charge of a construction company and eventually he became the main government ofﬁcial for construction in Vietnam.
There seems to be a parallel between his choice to join the resistance army in the mountains and you as a boy of the same age wanting to become a monk. Both offer a life in Sangha and a sense of purpose, even adventure.
Can you say something of your experience as a soldier?
I didn’t choose to go into the army, I was drafted. Before that I’d trained as a chef and was working for a tourist company. In 1985, I underwent six months of army training and they singled me out to be in the special forces and receive more training. I found myself being dropped into Cambodian forests on reconnaissance missions. Many traumatic things happened. One day in a jeep I heard a loud crack and looked around to see that my friend had been shot in the head. I drove off, escaping his fate. After two years in Cambodia one mission went badly wrong and we found ourselves surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers. One of our team made a run for it and was shot down immediately. The rest of us waited, defending our position for days until another team was sent in to rescue us. One other soldier survived along with me without serious injury, another I had to carry out after he lost his legs stepping on a land mine. He died later in the hospital. Although my father was proud that I was in the army, after that incident he was scared for my life and arranged through his contacts to have me taken out. I am grateful to him for that.
Did you have to kill people on the missions?
We were there to gather information so the regular army could go in. But on occasion that happened. It was always dark, silent, and I seldom saw their faces.
How do you feel about them now?
They are still with me.
How did you feel about your two years of army service and being a civilian again?
I felt happy to be alive—I had survived. I also felt very proud and conﬁdent. I had risked my life carrying out a noble task. As my friend in our team put it in a song he wrote: we had taken on the burden everybody else refused. We had freed Cambodia from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. That is how we saw it. I don’t view it so simply now—there was also the desire to conquer another land and people.
But as far as being back in civilian life was concerned, I was fearless. I wouldn’t let anyone speak down to me no matter what position they were in. I never physically hurt anyone but no one ever challenged me. Looking deeply now I can see that the pride and violence in me caused me and others to suffer. But at the time I felt okay and focused on making a success of my life as a civilian.
What happened then?
I got a job as a chef and soon after my boss asked me to go to Frankfurt to be head chef at his Vietnamese restaurant there. I had the usual dream of making lots of money, having a fancy house and car for me and my ﬁancee. We were very committed to each other and she completely supported me in going abroad. We thought it would be a good start for our security and happiness in the future. And I’d be able to give money to my family. It’s not that they were poor, but to be able to repay your gratitude to your parents is a big thing in Asian culture and money is the usual way. So off I went.
After some time in Frankfurt some disillusionment with my dream crept in. Although I admired the owner of the restaurant for his success, I could see that it did not bring him happiness. He had family difﬁculties and suffered a lot. I began to have difﬁculties too. The restaurant work was stressful and I couldn’t control my anger with the other cooks. We had a big turnover of customers who would often come in drunk, would drink more, be noisy, eat quickly, and leave. I would get back home most nights at around two a.m. and drink beer, smoke, and watch videos to unwind. But I found that, especially with the alcohol and violent images, memories would come up in my mind, particularly in dreams.
I knew something had to change. I began by quitting smoking and drinking and exercising regularly, and I started to feel much better. Still it wasn’t enough. So when my friend Vinh said he was planning to start a quiet vegetarian restaurant in Berlin I told him I wanted to join him. A few months later I moved to Berlin.
In the vegetarian restaurant, the customers enjoyed their food and they seldom smoked or drank, except for a glass of wine. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant. Vinh went to see Thay speak in Berlin in 1994 and when he came back, he offered me an audiotape of the talk. I was extremely impressed so I started reading Thay’s books. Then some monastics came to Berlin in the spring of 1995 to offer a Vietnamese retreat. We invited them to the restaurant, and talking to Brother Phap An, Brother Phap Dang, and Brother Phap Dung, I could see a real quality of happiness and peace about them that I wanted too.
So I went to the summer retreat at Plum Village. I ordained as a novice monk on February 15th, 1996.
How did it feel, becoming a monk?
It was very clear—I had been reborn. I had had a feeling of being reborn when I went back into civilian life, having survived, against the odds, my time in the forces. But this was different because I had been reborn onto a completely new path, one my ancestors could not really tell me about—a path of peace and happiness and understanding. My ancestors were reborn with me even though they didn’t know it. The fourteen-year-old in me said, “Now I got my wish.”
How did your family react?
Not happy. I had told them of my intentions beforehand. But when I actually ordained they were in a state of shock and didn’t want to believe it. When I visited Vietnam later, even my grandmother asked me, “Why a monk?” And I told her, “It was you, Grandmother, who took me to the temples. You showed me the good way, now I’m only trying to follow that way.”
My parents felt betrayed and that I had brought shame onto the family. I was their only son and their hope for the future of the family. So, many times they told me I had run away from my responsibility. They had matched me with my ﬁancee at an early age. She was part of the family. How could they explain to her and her family? And my ﬁancee was very hurt, which is a wound yet to heal. It gave rise to a complex in her: if I had become a monk there must be something wrong with her; she hadn’t been good enough to keep me. This is totally untrue but I cannot persuade her otherwise.
It was a difﬁcult time for all of us but I knew I was on the right path. I had faith in the Dharma and was convinced that eventually my family would come to understand. But my father was angry and for the following two years avoided speaking to me whenever I telephoned home.
What ﬁnally brought about a change in their view?
It wasn’t until my father became ill with a worsening heart condition in 1998 that the door opened. Before he went into the hospital I insisted he come to the phone and I told him I was going to send him some material to help him. I sent the book Breathe!, You Are Alive, with Thay’s commentary on the Anapanasati sutra, the sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Then I gave a visiting monk from Vietnam a box of cookies to take to my parents’ home. By the time these arrived my father was already in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack.
My family sat down to share tea with my cookies. At some point—I can only imagine how their faces looked—my mother removed the plastic cover for the second layer of cookies. It was then they saw the carefully wrapped tape cassettes of Thay’s teachings, which accompanied the book I’d given to Dad.
My mother took them to my father in the hospital and he listened to them every day. It really helped him. Back from the hospital, he sent me a letter with a photo which I still keep. It is a picture of him and on the back he wrote: “You see your father is always waiting for you.” In his letter he said, “I know your way now.” Asian fathers don’t say they are sorry or admit they were wrong to their sons directly. I spoke with him on the phone and he said he was feeling good but a week later he had another heart attack and died later in the hospital.
Hadn’t you wanted to go be with your family at this time?
Sr. Chan Khong and Thay offered to pay my airfare, but I only had two years in the practice and didn’t feel stable enough. In 1999, on an invitation from Thay, my mother came to Plum Village for three months. We spent a lot of time together. She enjoyed the way of life here so much she wanted to become a nun but the family back home wasn’t happy with that idea so she gave up her desire and went back.
Then in 2001 I went with the Sangha to Vietnam and spent two weeks with my family, which was also a healing time. My mother and I went to my father’s grave in a special memorial ground for government ofﬁcials and ofﬁcers. I offered incense and chanting for the deceased that we offer in Plum Village. It happened that a neighbor of my mother’s, a family friend, was also there visiting her husband’s grave. Her husband had been a close comrade of my father in the army. After the chanting she came up to us and said, “How lovely. I suppose you made a request to the temple for the venerable monk to come and chant for the peace of your husband?”
“But, this is my son,” my mother exclaimed.
The woman stared at my face, bewildered at ﬁrst but soon recognized me and began to cry. She shared about her family’s suffering. Her son had gone to Germany at the same time I did. She said, “He has returned with lots of money but he has no peace. Your son has come back with no money but he has brought back peace. That is something so precious for your family, no money can buy that.”
Soon after I left Vietnam, my mother and this friend started a Sangha, offering mindfulness days and raising money for the hungry children in their region.
Can you share how, as a monk, you are transforming your anger?
Anger was the main obstacle for me. It came from my army training and from my father who had also been shaped in the army. Every single thing they tell you in the army waters the seeds of fear,
anger, and violence in you. The way your superiors relate to you is violent and you have to take all of that without reacting, but it goes in and then you dish out the same treatment when you’re in charge. All your training and what you do generates anger and you use the energy of anger, very focused and somehow cool, to do your job. It’s hard to imagine another way, although Thay teaches it is possible for a soldier to act from the base of compassion.
Living in the Sangha, it was easy to see my anger. Learning how to handle it was my practice. Over my six years as a monk I guess my brothers have had to go through a lot with me. Sitting in a meeting one time I became so angry at a brother as he was sharing, I had the idea to put the big bell over his head and turf him out of the hall. Fortunately I was able to breathe and stay still. The energy in me caused me to feel I was the size of the gorilla in King Kong. If I stood up, my head was sure to touch the roof. I asked to hold Br. Phap Dzung’s hand for support. Soon I excused myself from the meeting and walked to Thay Giac Thanh’s hut. He was quite ill with diabetes and had recently broken a bone, but he was able to accept his illness and discomfort and be happy and peaceful. I would often do walking meditation to his hut and share tea with him when I was angry. I didn’t need to tell my story—just his presence calmed me down.
With time, through the practice of mindful breathing, I have developed a zone of peace in me and have had more and more space for my anger. I say to myself, There is anger in me, but I am not this anger. I can recognize it as it is coming up and take care of it. When driving I used to notice that my foot was pressing harder on the accelerator because my anger had manifested. But because the peaceful mindfulness energy was also there, I was able to ease off very quickly. I would slow the car right down and go back to my breath. Mainly walking and sitting meditation was the base of my practice but I also used other skillful means. I found writing poetry about my situation and feelings helped me. By finding eloquent words and putting my anger into a larger context which contained positive thoughts and aspirations, it detached me from the emotion. So gradually I know myself better and better and can recognize all the signs of my anger coming up and am able to take care of it right away. Now I see the peaceful zone prevents the seeds of my anger manifesting, even when I see them being watered.
What do you wish for your future practice?
Just to continue the basic practice, to increase my happiness and peace. That is enough for me. I do see I have a strong seed to be an elder brother. I like to support my younger brothers but not as an authority.
I see also that here we have an opportunity to live together, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. It is a challenge to live together, to understand and connect with each other. Sometimes the seeds of prejudice are very strong. For instance, many Vietnamese still resent that Westerners tried to colonize our land and that they looked down on the Vietnamese as inferior. Many Vietnamese had a rough time integrating as immigrants. There can be a desire to show “I’m not less than you, I can do everything you can do and do it better.” But here we are together under the roof of the same teacher and as monastics we have left everything else behind for the love of the same practice. So we should make the effort to get to know each other and love each other. We can live together. It is an important act of peace— stopping the war—that we do this. I feel very at home with the Western people. I don’t care if my English or German is not perfect—even with my limited French I just go ahead and have a conversation. I don’t feel a barrier or a difference but relate to people on a human level.
Br. Phap Do became a Dharma Teacher in 2002. For me his character echoes those samurai of ancient Japan who gave up their swords to become monks and channeled their one-pointed determination and zeal into the ways and practices of a monk. Every morning at ﬁve a.m., Br. Phap Do is at the bell tower of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, calling us with the deep bronze sounds and his strong chanting voice to sitting meditation.
Br. Phap Lai is a novice from England, currently living in Deer Park.