The Culture of the Buddha

By Sister Ha Nghiem When I first became a nun I felt like a bird trying to live in the ocean. Under the water I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. Everything I had learned of what was important, what was beautiful, was somehow different here. Sometimes I felt lonely and out of place. A few times I thought about leaving to go back to a community where I could easily engage myself in the life of the community and I could receive the nourishment I was used to. Luckily there was always something deeper which held me here.

I discovered that I was full of ideas about life and how to do things based on how I was raised. Being a rare bird who decided to try to live underwater, I found that how I learned to live was not the same as most of the Sisters. When we would sit down to have a meeting it was always such a collage as sisters from Vietnam, Germany, Ireland and America had all learned how to arrange a kitchen in a different way. It is so easy to be trapped in our ideas, thinking ours is the correct way. Our ideas about little things can create big barriers between us. When I hold on to my ideas I suffer. I needed to learn how to let go of all these little ideas and customs in life in order to touch something deeper. I discovered that the most important thing is not our ideas, but to be truly there for each other, to be open, to love our sisters and support each other in our path of practicing the Dharma.

The first new source of nourishment I found here under the sea was the present moment. Although I may not have understood what people were saying I was supported by their practice of mindfulness. I learned to come back to myself and open my eyes to the wonders of life around me. When I can stop my usual thinking and simply be present to what is around me I discover so much beauty. Slowly I learned how to enjoy my sisters even when I could not understand their words. I could understand the beauty of their suchness.

My sisters did not leave me alone for long. The other sisters who ordained around the same time as me found a way to bring us together. We called it novice gatherings. On lazy nights we would sit together and have tea and cookies (which our older sisters and Thay donated to show their support). We would bring some of our favorite things along; flowers, candles, incense, musical instruments, inspiring poetry and books to read to each other. On lazy days we would go for picnics outside. Before we began our walk one sister would take me to the garden. In the early morning light she would show me which herbs were good to pick for lunch. Meanwhile another sister would find some mats to bring to sit on, and another would boil some water to bring for tea and soup. These times were always filled with laughter and affection. That is how I learned to enjoy eating instant noodles - it was contagious, the noodles and the laughter. After lunch one of us would sing as we did total relaxation and enjoyed nature. We shared with each other how we were doing, what difficulties we were having. We took turns to tell stories about our childhood and why we had become a nun . We began to understand and feel close to each other. That is how I began to feel rooted in the Sangha.

If I didn't have my sister beside me I would be so unfortunate. Just her presence, so calm and peaceful, her mindfulness is teaching me and healing me. The Dharma is not only in the sutras, or in Thay's Dharma talk, it is in my sister here beside me, following her breathing as she washes the dishes.

Over time I have been able to open up to see the many beauties in Vietnamese culture. There is something very fine and spiritual naturally present in much Vietnamese culture. In a Dharma discussion with young Vietnamese who had grown up in the West I realized that by living in a Vietnamese community for all these years the Vietnamese culture had begun to enter me and I now felt like them, part Vietnamese and part Western. The stream of life entering me from Vietnam is very beautiful and deep. Every day I am discovering the treasures of both Western and Vietnamese cultures.

However, I love most of all the culture offered by the Buddha. I feel I am one of the richest people in the world . From the moment I open my eyes in the morning until I lie in bed to sleep at night I am nourished by the practices given by the Buddha. I am aware that I am surrounded by noble people, I admire and cherish each of my Dharma brothers and sisters. I used to have a dream that I would find a place where people lived in a noble way. Where people walked with peace. Where we could practice meditation every day and study the path of awakening. Where we could put our energy together to help transform our society so there would be less suffering and more beauty. I am so grateful that I have found such a place on earth and that it has become my home and family. Our life is so simple, yet in my eyes it seems we are learning a very high culture. A cu lture where we learn practices which help us to live our day in a very peaceful way, with freedom and deep happiness. Our food is our practice, our insight, our love, our brotherhood and our work to support life and happiness in the world.

This was taken from a writing assignment given to the Sangha by Thay during last winter retreat. The assignment was to write about our difficulties and transformations throughout our life in the Sangha.

Sister Ha Nghiem (Sister Fern) practices at Deer Park.

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