A Chance to Go Onwards on the Path of Practice

Visiting Vietnam By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

Before our party of monks and nuns left Plum Village and Deer Park Monastery to go to Vietnam, Thay gave us instruction. His first words were, "We are sending you as an offering to Vietnam." These words impressed us deeply. They made us feel light and easy and strong as well. Our teacher and our Sangha had formed us and now we could make a suitable offering to Vietnam. How happy we felt! We were not going to Vietnam as individuals but as representatives of our teacher and our Sangha.

mb32-AChance1

Being in Touch with Our Spiritual Ancestors

The first fruit of our practice in going to Vietnam was being in touch with our ancestral teachers of the Buddhist tradition. As soon as we arrived in Vietnam we went directly to the Root Temple carrying a letter from Thay. The Root Temple is where Thay ordained and practiced as a novice. Thay is considered by the monks of the Root Temple to be their spiritual guide and master and he often sends teachings to them. In his letter he gave instructions for the organization of a seven-day retreat in the Plum Village style. Many monks, including the Abbot and several Dharma teachers, had not returned from their pilgrimage of study and practice to North Vietnam and we wanted to wait for their return to begin our retreat. During the absence of the Abbot, the venerable Thien Hanh was the head of the Root Temple. Ile greeted us with much warmth as a kind spiritual father. He eagerly encouraged us to organize the seven-day retreat so that as soon as the monks returned from Hanoi we could begin the retreat. On the day following our arrival he took us on a tour of the monastery, which we call the Root Temple. We visited the stupas of all the high monks who had studied, practiced, and taught in that temple, being nourished constantly by their spiritual energy which has never been lost, because it has been maintained by the daily practice of generations of monks. Many outstanding monks have been formed here and many Zen masters have practiced here as abbot before retiring to a hermitage to continue the practice towards the end of their Lives. The very earth and trees of the Root Temple have absorbed this practice and we all benefited greatly from this environment.

In the following days we visited various temples which are closely connected to Thay. On our three days of excursions to other monasteries we were able to be in touch with the years of suppression of Buddhism under the Diem government. We saw the place in the Phuoc Duyen Temple where a young monk whose Dharma name was Thanh Tue had immolated himself in 1963. We circumambulated his stupa and saw Thay's poem "The Fire That Consumes My Younger Brother" which had been inscribed there. (See poem on page 37.) This reminds me of Thay's words:

"It is better to die than not to speak out the truth. If you are too cowardly to speak out the truth then you die as a monk and teacher anyway." Our visit to the Thien Mu Temple was also to be in touch with the temples' long history of resistance to efforts to suppress Buddhism, including the most recent protest to the governmental authorities wanting to make it necessary for people to buy a ticket to enter the temple. We could also pay respects to our own teacher's preceptor who was abbot of that temple at one time. Whenever we touched the earth with our five limbs we were aware we were watering the seeds of continuation of our ancestral teachers in us.

Organizing a Seven-Day Plum Village Style Retreat at the Root Temple in Hue

Three days of visiting temples, sometimes as many as six in one day, made us feel ready to begin our retreat. I was impressed by the first Sangha meeting I attended in the Root Temple to finalize our schedule for the retreat. The whole Sangha was present, so there were at least 60 monks including the Abbot and Dharmacharyas of the temple. Our small organizing committee of eight was requested to present the proposed schedule. This committee consisted of two monks and two nuns from the Plum Village delegation and four monks from the Root Temple. Thay Van Phap expressed himself well in meetings and so he was chosen to represent our committee. The Abbot and one Dharmacharya sat at the front of the meditation hall facing the rest of the community. Whenever there was a point which was not clear the Dharmacharya would demand further explanation from the organizing committee and if he was not satisfied with the proposals he would make suggestions for change and the rest of the community were also free to give their suggestions for changes.   After that the Dharmacharya would make a new proposal and put it to the community in the form of a sanghakarman procedure. (1) If the whole community agreed by silence it was accepted.

The first matter that came up for discussion was the ho canh (inviting the bell to call people to meditative concentration in the morning and evening). It was agreed by everyone that the whole retreat would be conducted in the Plum Village style of practice but there were points that needed to be clarified as to how this practice could be carried out. In Plum Village the ho canh is conducted inside the meditation hall but in the Root Temple it is conducted outside. We agreed that it would be good for the ho canh to take place outside of the meditation hall on the path leading to the meditation hall since the cloud bell could easily be hung from the eaves of the covered walkway there. Then there was the matter of the sports period that had been included in the timetable. The Dharmacharya wanted clarification on exactly what this involved. We explained the sports period we had had every day in the monastic five-day retreat in Plum Village with badminton, volleyball and ping-pong. Some monks wanted it to be optional but in the end it was agreed that what was on the timetable could not be optional. We were also given a firm warning by the Dharmacharya that this period should not be any less of a practice period than the sitting meditation. Thirdly there was the matter of how exactly we were going to organize the mindful meals. It was readily agreed that all the meals should be self­service. But exactly how was this to be done? Breakfast would be taken in the new Buddhist Studies hall, sitting on the floor. Lunch would be taken in the meditation hall also sitting on the floor and supper in our family groups wherever the family wanted to sit. The meeting was very long but I never felt tired. Everyone listened deeply with great interest and harmoniously resolved every detail. It was truly a practice of the Togetherness of Views. (2) It was democratic but at the same time the element of seniority was always there. The Dharmacharya made the proposals after listening deeply to everyone. These proposals were always based on the Dharma and the Vinaya. (3) Therefore the monastic Sangha respected the proposals and very readily agreed to them. The atmosphere of the meeting remained light throughout. I have never enjoyed a meeting so much in my life, largely due to the fact that every decision was based on the Dharma and the Vinaya and that all of us were always ready to let our individual ideas go to be in harmony with the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.

When we returned to the Root Temple after a week visiting North Vietnam, we practiced two full days in the tradition of the Root Temple. It should have been seven days, but unfortunately we only had a week left. We spent one day recovering from our journey and preparing for the grand memorial ceremony of Zen Master Thanh  Quy, who was the direct teacher of our own teacher. It was a day of many arrivals in the temple. Buddhist lay practitioners came from places far away in the provinces and as people arrived laywomen and nuns made their way to the kitchen and the dining room (which had turned into a temporary kitchen) in order to prepare for the next day's feast. We sat down too and helped make little cakes of rice flour pastry and mung bean paste. Our cakes were not so beautiful at first but after making a few dozen they certainly improved. People slept the night lying side by side in the Buddhist Studies hall. As for our delegation from abroad, we had to go back to our hotel.

Paying Respect to Our Grandfather Teacher Thanh Quy

The memorial day was calm, light and joyful. I enjoyed very much hearing from the Dharmacharya about the great humility of our ancestral teacher. He would always join his palms first to greet anyone who came before him. He was a true Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta. (4) One day when a Dharma brother from another temple had sent a letter to him carried by a novice, he insisted on standing up. The novice invited the teacher to sit down so that he could read the letter to him. The ancestral teacher refused; he said that the letter came from an elder brother in the Dharma and possibly contained instructions therefore it was only right for him to stand while the novice read. On another occasion the ancestral teacher had to go to a meeting of the Buddhist Assembly of the Thua Thien province. Su Ba Dieu Khong was also there. (5) The ancestral teacher had come with a novice as attendant but the novice had stayed outside. The ancestral teacher asked Su Ba to allow him to go out and bring the novice in. Su Ba replied that it was hardly necessary for an elder to go out and fetch in a novice. The ancestral teacher replied that the novice was still young and would be afraid to enter an assembly of high venerables alone. The ancestral teacher did not want the novice to be afraid. Deeply moved by the humility and loving kindness of the old monk, Su Ba then and there touched the Earth three times before him

At noon on that memorial day we enjoyed our first formal meal in the tradition of the Root Temple. For this meal you sit at the table and eat from a small bowl. The different dishes are set out in front of you for you to help yourself and others who may not be able to reach the dish nearest you. As you eat, the laypeople come and touch the Earth towards the end of the tables because the formal meal hall opens onto the same courtyard as the ancestral hall. After lunch the monastic Sangha processes into the Buddha hall in order to practice circumambulation and reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. You can imagine that such a meal involves quite a bit of preparation on the part of the younger monks. All the dishes have to be divided up on to small platters and carried from the kitchen to the formal meal hall (not a small distance). After the experience of the seven-day Plum Village style retreat the self-service meal was felt to be more practical and now in the Root Temple the monks help themselves to food and process with their bowls to the formal meal hall.  They call this "going on the alms round."

The division of the Sangha into five families was a very successful part of the seven-day Plum Village style retreat. Each family found a place outside to sit together just as in the Summer Opening in Plum Village. After eating we would sing. Singing was the activity the monks in the Root Temple enjoyed most of all. Never a day went past without singing. ln a very short time the monks in the retreat had learnt all the new Vietnamese songs we had brought from Plum Village and very often they had memorized them even better than our delegation had. The favorite song was "Qua Con Me" which can be translated as "After the Passion."

mb32-AChance2

Praying for Rain: Buddhist Practice in the North

The north of Vietnam is very different from the center and the south. All three regions have their own special characteristics. Not only does the accent and some of the vocabulary differ in each of the regions but there is a difference in culture also, which includes ways of preparing food. There is poverty throughout Vietnam but in the north it is most apparent.

Moreover the north has lain for more than twenty years longer and this has had an obvious impact. Looking at the old people in the north you see how worn they are. Stunted and often bent, they continue to do voluntary construction work in the temples, pushing cartloads of bricks and sand or earth. The people are more dour than in the other regions. The old people remember Buddhism from the time before communism and they come to the temples with these memories. As for the young people, they still have not wholly understood Buddhism. Superstition is more evident in the north. It is common for people who come to the temples not to learn the practice, but to pray for things to go well for them.

One day I heard an old woman praying out loud in the early morning before it was light. I wondered what she was praying for. When I came near I heard her chanting a repentance chant and making the vow that all could reach awakening. It is more the younger generation who come and pray for material success. Some people in the north will still make offerings of chicken or cigarettes or beer on some of the altars in the Buddhist temples. This is because they think they are offering to gods or to spirits.

Buddhism has always wanted to help in times of hardship and it is right that the temples should do so. In the chant "May the day be well" we also pray: "May there be no place at war. May the winds be favorable and the rains seasonable and the people's hearts at peace." When we pray like this there is the underlying meaning that we shall practice in such a way that war is no longer possible. We do not pray for grace and favors that are not linked to our real efforts in the practice. We visited the temples that have been connected to the four bodhisattvas of rain, of clouds, of thunder, and of lightning. These bodhisattvas belong to the time when Buddhism had only just come to Vietnam. There was a need to assimilate some of the previous rites and rituals into Buddhism. This does not seem to have been difficult. Vietnam was and is a country of peasant farmers and the rain is needed for the people to survive. Tremendous hardship has always been experienced because of drought. The practice of the Three Trainings (mindfulness trainings, concentration, and insight) is essential for the practice of praying for rain. The monk's prayer must be based on his virtue and his insight into the three Dharma Seals of impermanence, no­self and nirvana. The making of statues to represent the four bodhisattvas, their being venerated in the temple and taken out once a year or in times of drought is also a necessary part of the practice. It is the outer form that contains the content and the content is the practice of the Three Dharma Seals, the Three Trainings and compassion. Someone who has not understood the emptiness of self cannot pray efficaciously because they have not seen that the one who prays, that which is prayed for and the person for whom it is prayed are one.

We visited the Dharma Rain Temple, now known as Chua Dau, and the Dharma Cloud Temple. The first patriarch of Vietnamese Zen, Tang Hoi, must have frequented the latter temple, (6) although he was not trained there as a monk, because he was a monk in the town to which it belonged, the ancient capital of Luy Lau.

There are so many beautiful temples in North Vietnam but not enough monks and nuns to look after them. In the district of Hai Duong alone there are 700 temples but only 200 monks and nuns. The care of many temples lies in the hands of committees of laypeople. The But Thap Temple (Stupa like a Calligraphy Brush) is an example of a temple which has no abbot. The solution to the shortage of monks and nuns has been approached by inviting bhikshus or bhikshunis to be Abbot of more than one temple at a time, but But Thap temple does not even have a shared Abbot or Abbess. This temple moved me deeply.  It has been a Pure Land temple in the past.  It has a large statue of Amitabha Buddha and a stupa of nine stories (not the stupa after which the temple is named), made of wood. The nine stories represent the nine grades of lotus and it is said that people would throw flowers up to the story which represented the grade of lotus in which they aspired to be born. As we walked around that temple there was a sense of interbeing of everything flowing into everything else. The peasants were working in the rice fields around the temples. There was an angry cow who had been tied up and could find no more grass to eat in her range. All we had to do to remove her frustration was to untie her tether and tether her to a fallen tree a few meters away. I thought that if a cow can be angry in these circumstances, how much more angry the cows must be who are factory­ farmed in Europe and North America.

In the north of Vietnam the temples have many halls with small altars for the veneration of different Buddhas, bodhisattvas, monks and also lay practitioners. Most temples have an altar where the laypeople can pay their respects to Anathapindika. (7) There are many altars to nuns, queens, and princesses. Those who reached awakening in this very life are depicted seated on lotus thrones. In the beautiful Thay Temple there are four or five altars where it is possible to pay respect to women who had high realizations in the practice. (8)

When Buddhism came to Vietnam from India it came to North Vietnam in the first century of the Christian era and so the vestiges of Buddhism there are very ancient. The temples we visited in the south of Vietnam were much more modern. In the south the Buddha hall is usually light and spacious. In the North the temples are always quite dark inside.

Visiting Our Grandmother Teachers in the South

Our great joy in the south was to visit the high nuns who had already graced Plum Village with their presence. Many of them had visited Plum Village specifically to be present at the great ordination ceremonies there and to transmit the full ordination to the nuns. We visited Su Ba Bo De, Su Ba Pho Da, and Su Ba Long Hoa. Every Su Ba allowed us to visit their temple, gave us lunch or the evening meal, and had us come and speak informally with the nuns about our practice. In the Long Hoa Temple we also practiced walking meditation. The sharings usually took place in the Buddha hall in the form of a presentation. Su Ba Bo De gave us much support as did Su Ba Van Hanh. Su Ba Bo De was with us on every excursion and every Day of Mindfulness that we led in the south of Vietnam.

Our first trip was to the Bao Loe area. Itis a beautiful mountainous area north of Saigon in the direction of Da Lat. The indigenous mountain people work in the tea and coffee groves here but because of the drought and the fall in world tea and coffee prices the people are in great need. They no longer have a means of making a livelihood. Many women with their little babies carried in a sling over the shoulder would come hungry for the midday meal, which was offered to them at the Prajna Temple where we led a Day of Mindfulness. It rained heavily that day, the first time for many months. The deluge was so great that we could not have the Dharma discussion groups on the different walkways around the main halls. The doors had to be closed and we all crammed ourselves into the Buddha hall for a 200 person question and answer session.

This temple is very near to the Fragrant Palm Hermitage that Thay established in the 1960s. We visited it the day after the mindfulness day. It was hot and dry and the grass was tall and yellow. The tea grove started by Thay and his disciples was still there. It seemed that any vestiges of the former practice center had been razed to the ground. All that remained was the foundations of the hut of Su Ong Thanh Tu upon which had been constructed a new home for a poor family, which now lives there. The most beautiful aspect was the view and a shady grove of fragrant pine trees planted recently. The security police had told us we were not to go to this place because for some reason they have always been afraid that it might be the headquarters for a counterrevolution. This is probably why the buildings were razed to the ground. When the security police realized we had gone anyway they sent three of their members to supervise us while we were there. We walked, sat, and ate our lunch with the two members of the resident family who were present. It would have been good if we had taken the book Fragrant Palm Leaves with us to read aloud and recreate some of the spirit of the practice center in former times.

The Phap Van Temple is the place where you can still feel Thay's presence. The Abbot, the Elder Phuoc Tri, who has been to Plum Village, told us that as soon as we arrived in the temple we should see our Su Ong. I said that I was sure we would, because I knew that Thay was with us wherever we went in Vietnam. What the Elder meant was that he had a large photograph of Thay in the dining area of the temple. Nevertheless, with or without the photograph, Thay is always there.  It is the temple which is next door to the buildings of the former School of Youth for Social Services and the present Buddha hall is the library of that School. Thay Thanh Van's memorial stone is in the garden of that temple as are the memorial stones to the young disciples of Thay who were killed as a result of their being part of the School. This year and ten years ago when I also visited this temple I have felt inspired by the work and sacrifice of Thay and his disciples in wartime.

mb32-AChance3

Su Ba Bo De came with us to the beach at Vung Tau. She told us that we must not swim out too far. She went swimming too, stayed in the water almost an hour and swam out farther than anyone else. Su Ba must be a contemporary of Thay. She has probably been through the rigors and strictness of a traditional Vietnamese nunnery but now she is free to enjoy herself as part of her practice. That freedom was probably made possible in part by her visits to Plum Village and the love shown to her by Thay. All the Su Bas showed us infinite kindness when we visited their temples. They love Thay very much even if they have not always been able openly to support him. When they show such care and concern for the disciples of Thay; or our delegation from Plum Village, it is a way of expressing their love for Thay. Su Ba Pho Da cooked personally for us, saw to it that we had the most comfortable siesta and afterwards served us with green mango accompanied by sugar and soya sauce, grapefruit, and many other delicacies. We then asked if we could have a Sangha meeting among our delegation before we left the temple because we needed to organize the rest of our stay in Saigon. She joined the meeting and made many helpful suggestions. It reminded me of how subtle and wise her contributions to Dharma discussions in Plum Village had always been.

Being in Touch with the Youngest Generation of Monastics

The Elder Minh Canh attended our Days of Mindfulness in the Phap Van Temple. Everyone said how much he had benefited from his stay in Plum Village. He was eager to have a copy of the latest book by Thay to appear from the underground press in Vietnam. This book is mostly the articles from the last edition of the La Tho Lang Mai, the annual newsletter of  Plum Village in Vietnamese. Monks told us that they had stayed up late at night just to read it to the end. It was so interesting. When in the Phap Van Temple I had talked about the situation of many children in the West whose parents work all day and never have time to spend with their children. One young dieu (9) told me that he was moved to hear that. Although in the country districts parents continue to love, care and have time for their children as they have always done in the past, in Saigon the situation is becoming very much the same as in the West and many of his friends suffer deeply from being isolated from their parents.

Because we were from abroad young novices and dieu would often come and confide in us their difficulties.  There is a very high "dropout" rate for dieu. One dieu told me that in the beginning they were ten but now they are only four. The dropout has something to do with the fact that the dieu have to go to school and they are influenced by their classmates who invite them to go on excursions away from the Sangha. Another reason l was told on many occasions is that the young children have an idea of what monastic life must be like before they enter the monastery and are severely disappointed when they confront the reality. Some said that they did not feel love from their teacher and elder brothers and that their ideal of service was not nourished. The lack of understanding between teacher and disciple was frequently cited. In the Root Temple there are twenty­four dieu. The "dropout" is less than in many other places because the elder brothers and the teachers have a real concern for the young dieu. When we went on an outing to the mountains and sea from Hue, it was considered at first to allow a limited number of dieu to come in order to act as attendants on the elders. On second thoughts that seemed very unfair. The second decision was that it would be better to leave all the dieu at home because there was no more room on the buses. The looks of disappointment on their faces were so great that another decision was made: each bus was to have five or six dieu squeeze in extra. So we sat three to a seat instead of two and everyone went.

We later had a question and answer session for the dieu, who asked questions such as: "What happens in Plum Village if you feel tired and do not attend the walking meditation? What does Su Ong do?" When we asked them which part of the practice they enjoyed most, the answer was unanimous: chanting, and they chanted very well. During the Plum Village Retreat we had a Beginning Anew session sitting in a circle in our family groups. In my family was a young bhikshu who was overseer of the dieu. He readily admitted his mistakes such as not listening deeply enough or being patient enough with the novices who had been dieu under him. The novices also readily revealed their difficulties under him but without forgetting to appreciate his good qualities. All this was done in the spirit of deep listening and loving speech and no one was hurt.

We returned from Vietnam more mature in the practice and more rooted in our ancestral teachers. We had a deeper understanding of our own teacher and the life of practice in which our teacher had been formed from an early age. Maybe we had brought to Vietnam a taste of Plum Village and the practice in which Thay is forming his own disciples now. Although this practice has been devised in the West, the young people of the East are increasingly becoming close to the West and calling for a renewal of Buddhism such as Thay's practice can offer. Just as Indian Buddhism was fortified by its establishment in the Far East, so Far Eastern Buddhism can be fortified by its establishment in the West.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in  Vermont. She has translated several of Thich Nhat Hanh's books from Vietnamese into English.

Endnotes

  1. A democratic procedure for verifying that the whole community is agreed for the measure in question to be undertaken.
  2. The Buddha taught Six Togethernesses (saraniyadhamma).
  3. The body of precepts and explanation of precepts given by the Buddha.
  4. A bodhisattva is someone who has devoted their life to liberating themselves and liberating all other Sadaparibhuta means literally "Never Despising." The life of this bodhisattva is described in the Lotus Sutra. He devoted his life to letting people know that they should not disparage themselves because they had the Buddha-nature.
  5. Su Ba is a respectful title for a senior nun who has been ordained for at least forty years, meaning "Grandmother Teacher." For a monk of the same standing the title Su Ong is used, meaning "Grandfather Teacher."
  6. 2nd century C.E.
  7. A layman of the time of the Shakyamuni Buddha who devoted his life to serving the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and donated the Jeta Park monastery.
  8. Belonging to the Le era (15th century).
  9. The young monk or nun of school-going age who has entered the monastery in order to prepare for the lifelong commitment to the monastic The dieu has already left home and lives and practices fulltime with the monastic community.

PDF of this article