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Nurturing Bodhicitta in Vietnam

An Interview with Sister Thoai Nghiem

By Janelle Combelic

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Mindfulness Bell: There's also the gender issue in Vietnam that Thây is revolutionizing--where nuns are always subservient to monks, even if the monk is very junior to the nun. It must be hard for both men and women in Vietnam to learn a new way of being together in monastic life.

Sr Thoai Nghiem: The new aspirants who come in and become nuns under the tradition of Plum Village , they love it. In their life right now, they like that the monks and nuns are equal. The nuns that got trained in the traditional way, yes, they always feel like they are behind.

This makes me think of a story. We wanted to have an alms round for Prajna Temple, just before the Buddha's Birthday, where we go around and ask for food. We did several of these during the trip with Thây and this was the first time it was done in Bao Loc. But when we went as a committee to talk with the monk who has authority in the area, he said no. He said he would authorize it and join it on the condition that nuns would not be allowed to walk parallel to the monks. As you remember, our monks walk on one side of the street and nuns on the other side. He said no, he would not accept that. The second thing he asked is that no novices are allowed to go on an alms round, only bhikshus and bhikshu nis are allowed. Our Plum Village monks told him that Rahula, an eight-year-old novice in the time of the Buddha, went on alms round for food too. But the traditional monk still refused. The third thing he asked was that we wear the orange sanghati robe. But Thây is a revolutionary, he wants us to go back to the traditional way of Buddhists in Vietnam; since Buddhism arrived in this country, monastics have worn brown, the color of poor farmer cloth, the color of the poor. We save sanghati for more ritual ceremonies.

So that high monk in Bao Loc refused to join us if we do not follow his requests according to the “traditional” way. Then we had to go on with our Plum Village way without him!

And it made a big impression on the people. We were there with 200 monks and nuns, most of them young, and they had never seen that. It was very beautiful. We just did what Thây did, we wore brown and our straw hats and carried our bowls.

Mindfulness Bell: How will Thây's next trip be different from the previous one?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: Most people say it will be easier to organize than the last one, because we already know Vietnam and this is the second trip. But I don't think so. Each trip has a different flavor, and Thây is an artist full of creative ideas, we have to trust that he will invent many interesting loving offerings to the nation during the trip, on the spot, and everyone will be happy.

But the second thing is that now we have so many people who know about Thây and I cannot predict the number of people who will come and listen to Thây.

We are busy trying to build some more facilities to host people when they come to Prajna. One thing for sure, every time we have a day of mindfulness, just among us, we already have three or four hundred people. We have a day of mindfulness for lay people once a month, we have up to eight hundred already. People come from all over Vietnam, relatives of those monks and nuns. And that's without Thây! Just think if Thây's coming!

I'm not sure if I'm exaggerating but I think it could be up to four thousand people coming or attending retreats. That's quite a big job for us to do in organizing things over there.

Mindfulness Bell: You're up to it! I admire you so much, Sister. I've heard you tell some stories about the challenges you faced working on the accommodations for the lay delegation, challenges with hotel owners and so forth. How do you manage to keep your stability, your mindfulness in the face of so many challenges?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: Walking meditation! Follow my breathing! (laughter) I suppose that's all. I always have to remember what Thây says--your practice is the most important thing.

Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, is editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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