The True Musician

An Interview with Sister Trai Nghiem

By Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai

 

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Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai interviewed Sister Trai Nghiem at Plum Village in the spring of 2011.

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Question: Were you always a Buddhist, you and your family?

Sister Trai Nghiem: By birth, yes. But not practicing. In Japan, we call it “funeral Buddhism.” Most people go to the temple for the first time when someone in their family dies, for a funeral.

I was twenty-eight when my mom died from cancer. I had contemplated death and impermanence before, but it’s completely different when somebody close to you is actually dying. The comfortable world that I was used to was falling apart. It was really her death that brought me to Buddhism.

Q: As a professional violinist, how has your music motivated you?

TN: I wanted to create something beautiful and to see how far I could reach as a violinist in the world of classical music. I wanted to be part of a world-class orchestra and I enjoyed the years I traveled and performed as a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Q: Did you have doubts about how far music could take you?

TN: When I was in college, I came across the following quote by Plato: “It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.” These words shook me violently, as I knew in my heart that I was not the true musician that I wanted to be. Even though I was enjoying a successful career and a lifestyle I had dreamed of, I was feeling stuck. The only way out was to completely let that go. When I decided to ordain as a nun, and was cleaning up my apartment, I found Plato’s quote again. This time his words brought me a smile. I still keep that piece of paper with me.

Q: What brought you to Plum Village?

TN: When I was younger, I saw beauty in fighting and going against the flow. But when my mom died, I ran out of energy to fight, and I decided to just let myself be carried in the flow of life and see what would happen. At that time, Thay’s books came into my life and they brought me a lot of comfort. I came to Plum Village for the first time in the winter of 2007 and I immediately felt at home.

Q: Did it feel like a paradise?

TN: To be honest, I couldn’t stand the practice songs, like “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” at first. And when I heard the monks and nuns chanting, it was so out of tune! But there was something else. There was this sweetness and warmth.

Before Plum Village I went to some zazen meditation sessions and yoga retreats. But it seemed that we were all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of whatever we were trying to attain. And at Plum Village it was just a bunch of people living simply, being kind to each other, just like the way human beings are supposed to be. I fell in love with it.

mb58-TheTrue3Q: With the songs, too?

TN: Not immediately… but then I realized that this was my practice and saw that I needed to practice letting go of my judgmental, analytical, and cynical mind in order to just enjoy the present moment. Today I realize that the practice songs are one of the most clever methods of practice in our tradition. The moment I find myself in a foul mood, a song like “Happiness” comes to my rescue. Because we sing the songs every day, they are embedded in our store consciousness and become available whenever we are carried away in forgetfulness. Knowing their powerful “medicinal” effect, now I sing songs wholeheartedly with the gestures and everything.

Q: What attracted you to becoming a nun?

TN: I was always interested in some kind of spiritual life. But I could not imagine letting go of this wonderful life as a professional musician. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me. I had a consultation with a sister on my first visit to Plum Village and she said, “You don’t need to think about it now, because when the moment comes, you will know.”

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Three months later, there was a retreat in Rome, and luckily I happened to be working in Italy so I went. On the last day of the retreat I was taking a train back to my work, and got a phone call from Japan, saying my father was very ill and was hospitalized. So I cancelled my work and went back to Japan to be with my father.

That summer, my father passed away. I had a lot to take care of around his death as well as with my work. I felt like I was running and running and could not stop. I knew that I could not go on like this for too long without damaging myself completely. I decided to be compassionate with myself and signed up for the Winter Retreat. I told myself, I don’t need to do anything, just let myself rest. Every night I’d sit in the Buddha Hall for a long time, alone. I wanted quietness. No music, no talking. After about a month of living with the sisters in New Hamlet, I knew this was it. The question, “Do I want to quit my job and become a nun?” was no longer there because I was already on the path even though my head was not yet shaved.

Q: What happened to your relationship to your music when you became an aspirant?

TN: One night I was sitting and I understood for the first time what it means to have “nowhere to go, nothing to do.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m actually letting go of all the things that used to mean so much to me.” I had had no desire to listen to music since I arrived at Plum Village, but suddenly I had a desire to listen to a Brahms symphony. In my bed, I turned on the iPod and tears kept flowing. I realized, this is the world I was living in, and I have never appreciated it the way I could have. This incredible world of music had been with me since I was five. And now I was listening to the music and it touched me in a completely different way. I knew that the music was in me, but at the same time I was already standing outside of that world I was so used to. I knew there was no going back. I realized how lucky I had been my whole life to have music to take refuge in and to guide me.

Q: Do you see a similarity between being a musician and a monastic?

TN: Very much so. The Sangha is like an orchestra. Each member has a unique role and is irreplaceable. There is a percussionist who may play only one note in the entire symphony, while the violinists are playing the whole time without any rest. We’d never think of complaining that it’s not fair because that’s what makes the music so beautiful. To live happily in the Sangha, we also have to accept that each person has his or her own role. Some work more hours than others, but that’s just how it is. We suffer when we get caught in the complex of equality. When the orchestra is in harmony, we hear the sound of the orchestra as a whole, as one big instrument. If you heard the individual sound of each violinist in the orchestra, it wouldn’t be pleasant. We melt our individual sounds into the collective sound, so that there is no longer the distinction between “my sound” and “others’ sounds.”

One time, Sir Colin Davis, a wonderful English conductor, said during a rehearsal, when things weren’t quite jelling together: “Whoever tries to prove himself right is a terrorist!” Miraculously, we played in perfect harmony after this proclamation. Each member of an orchestra is an artist in his or her own right, yet when we try to convince others how it should be done, it never works. This teaching can very well be applied to Sangha life. In order not to create suffering for myself or others, I need to monitor my thoughts constantly, to see if I am caught in my own ideas.

If Sangha is an orchestra, Thay is a conductor. A skillful conductor never tries to control the musicians. He just lets the orchestra play. That’s exactly what Thay says to us all the time: “Di choi!” The literal translation is “go play!” It can also be translated as “go hang out and have fun.” Thay, just like a skillful conductor, trusts the Sangha, and based on that trust, he can bring out the best in each member of the Sangha. A layperson asked me once why Thay travels with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour. I said, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra. We inter-are.”

When the whole Sangha is sitting together in the morning, it’s like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I never tried to play the violin without tuning. Why should it be different with my body and mind? If I start out a day by tuning myself with the Sangha, the whole day is so much more harmonious and pleasant.

Q: You’ve lived and worked in many countries, and it seems like you led a very independent lifestyle, choosing your own schedule. The Sangha has a more mannered and restrained lifestyle. How does that feel?

TN: I used to have an idea about what it meant to be a monastic. I told my colleagues that I was quitting this traveling lifestyle and going into a quiet monastery in France, and for the first two years I wouldn’t go anywhere. And suddenly Thay says, okay, you’re going on tour. And I thought, this is not very different from what I was doing before. That’s what makes Thay a Zen master, because as soon as you get caught in your idea of how things should be, he will give you the Zen ax with a smile. I was caught in my idea of what monastic life as a novice was, a quiet life, out in the countryside, tending the vegetable garden.

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Actually, the practice doesn’t depend on outer form at all. It’s not what you do but how you do it. If I choose to be fully mindful when traveling and going out on retreats, I can make progress on the path. If there is no mindfulness, it’s a waste of time to be sitting, walking slowly, and studying sutras, even in a monastery. No matter what I do, whether cooking, cleaning, studying, or traveling, I remind myself to be mindful and enjoy doing it.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a novice?

TN: It’s like being a protected baby in a family. There are so many older brothers and sisters who can teach and guide me in different ways. I enjoy having the space to make mistakes. I have the habit energy of wanting to achieve something, so I’m practicing to let go of my idea of what it means to be a “good nun.” There’s a kind of collective idea of what a good monastic is, just as there is a collective agreement of what a good musician is. If I try to become “a good nun,” I will get stuck in the same place where I got stuck as a musician.

Since I was small, everything I did, I did quite well. So I still have the feeling that whatever I do, I should be able to do well. Even though I am aware of this habit energy and am carefully monitoring it by recognizing the motivation for my actions, it’s still there on a deeper level and is the cause of some basic underlying stress.

Q: Is pride an issue for you? Does it manifest sometimes as feeling superior towards others in the community?

TN: It manifests with self-disgust. It’s probably one of the most shameful things to admit. But a superiority complex is nothing more than another face of an inferiority complex. They are like two sides of one coin. Whenever I notice the complex of inferiority manifesting, I tell myself, “You ARE enough.”

I am happy to acknowledge that in the fifteen months since I became a nun, I’ve reduced my level of judgment and criticism towards myself and other people greatly. Having negative thoughts like judgments is a great waste of precious energy. Just as I take care not to waste natural resources like water and food, I also try to conserve my own energy so it can be used for something more beneficial. As a result, I feel much more relaxed than before and many people have shared with me that they notice the difference. Thanks to the Sangha, one thing I have learned so far in my novice life is this: being kind is so much more important than being good at something.

Q: Do you have any aspirations?

TN: To be happy. I didn’t always have a good relationship with my parents, but after they passed away I realized how much unconditional love they gave me. Whatever they did, I feel the only thing they wanted was for me to be happy. But because I was not able to recognize it until they were gone in their physical form, I had this regret; I wanted to make them happier, to do something for them. Now I know the way to pay respect to my parents is to just be happy. I’m practicing with and for my parents.

After their death, I’m so much more in contact with them. This sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like they’re guiding me in every moment. I really feel their presence a lot more than I used to. If I don’t know what to do, I take refuge in my parents and let them do things. If I listen deeply, they always guide me to the right direction. I really feel that my parents brought me to this point in my life right now. And not only my parents, but all my ancestors—blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. And that includes all the wonderful musicians I have encountered in my life, like Bach and Mozart.

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Twenty-two Years of Plum Village

By Paul Tingen  

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My first visit to Plum Village, twenty-two years ago, is still as vividly engrained in my memory as if it happened last week, probably because it was packed with surprises, ranging from the eyebrow-raising to the jaw-dropping. I arrived in Lower Hamlet on a warm evening in July 1990 during the Summer Opening. The first person I encountered was Shantum Seth, who looked rather splendid in his Indian outfit and who seemed to be the only one who had an overview of what was happening. As I put my ruck- sack down, I asked him where I could sleep, and he replied, “You can put your tent anywhere, or sleep in a room.” I looked around for where I could pitch up my tent, but Shantum’s next question stopped me in my tracks. “You want to join the evening meditation? It starts in half an hour.”

I’d just hitchhiked from London and was tired, but I was also eager for my first experience of what Plum Village was about, so I said yes. Half an hour later I sat in the Red Candle Hall, puzzled by the fact that we were facing the wall and not one another, and impressed by the sound of the big bell. The session turned out to be a guided meditation on death, with phrases like: “Breathing out, I see my dead body festering.” The whole meditation was a visualisation of the process of one’s own corpse decaying until it turned to dust. I was shocked. Some part of me guessed that this was about training our minds to get used to the idea of physical death and to chip off bits of the big rock of our fear of death, but at the same time, as a horror show of images paraded through my mind, I thought, “Are these people morbid or something? Have I ended up in the clutches of some crazy religious sect?”

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears2Fateful Decision 

The fact was, at that point I knew nothing about the practice. The reason I was in Plum Village was that a few months earlier, in April, I had attended a talk by Thay in London. At that time a series of mostly New Age talks was held every Monday night in St. James’ Church, near Piccadilly Circus. I was on a spiritual search for the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, and I also had a lot of suffering that I didn’t know how to transform, so I went every Monday night, looking for answers. I had no idea who Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong were. After everyone had taken their seats, Sister Chan Khong sang to us and explained the practice of the bell, and there was a lot of stopping, going slowly, and breathing. I recall thinking, a bit impatiently, “This is going to be a long evening.” I looked at the exit and considered going to a local café to have some cake and coffee and coming back later to meet some friends. Then Thay came forward, and from halfway down the church he looked like he was thirty-five years old. Add his gap-toothed smile, soft voice, and extremely simple language, and I remember thinking, “Who is this young upstart and what does he know?” My decision to delay my exit for coffee and cake for a few more minutes turned out to be one of the most fateful of my life.

Ten minutes later I was hooked. Not long afterwards, I started to cry. I cried for the rest of Thay’s talk. When I occasionally looked around me, I saw that at least half the people in the audience were actively weeping. Thay’s talk was extraordinary, and as he kept talking, I realised that there was a wealth of experience, wisdom, depth, and insight behind his very simple words. The main thing I recall is that I was deeply touched by his attitude toward suffering. He acknowledged suffering with compassion and without judgment. It was okay to suffer. Thay showed a way that accepted and embraced suffering with tenderness, but he also offered a way out of suffering that was light, simple, and delicious. As he talked I kept being stunned at how much of what he said was common sense. I recognised everything he said as obvious life truths, yet I’d never heard anyone formulate them before. At that point I had an inkling that I’d found my teacher, and to this day my life is separated into the time before and the time after that April evening.

Naturally, when I found out that Thay had a centre in the south of France, one of my favourite areas in the world, I decided to go. And so a few months later I found myself sitting in the Lower Hamlet Red Candle Hall with horror movie images running through my head. I didn’t immediately plan my exit, but I did go to sleep with mixed feelings. The next morning we all went to Upper Hamlet for Thay’s Dharma talk, which was in the Transformation Hall. The Summer Retreat was attended by perhaps two hundred people, and while most fit in the hall, a couple of dozen listened under the linden tree. Thay was only five minutes into his talk when I experienced the same feelings I had had in London a few months earlier. I was deeply touched, and the doubts that had arisen the evening before fell away. He was indeed my teacher. I had arrived.

A New Direction

Life in Plum Village in 1990 was very different than it is now—for starters, the schedule. I remember that we got up at approximately 6:30 a.m. and began practice at 7:00 a.m. Morning practice consisted of the round of sitting-walking-sitting meditation, followed by sutra reading with sometimes a bit of chanting. Breakfast started at 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. Thay’s Dharma talk was planned for 10:00 or 10:30 a.m., but because he took so long to casually stroll towards the hall, while chatting with people on the way, he often didn’t start until later. Thay’s Dharma talks often were long, so lunch tended to be at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m., after which there was rest time. Walking meditation was usually at 4:30 or 5:00 p.m., and after dinner there was another sitting-walking-sitting meditation session beginning at 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. (I invite those with better memories than mine to correct these times if I haven’t got them quite right.)

In addition to Thay, there were only three other monastics living at Plum Village: Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina (who was still walking around in very striking black and white Japanese robes). Thay and Sister Chan Khong were very available and approachable. Thay would chat with loads of people, particularly before his Dharma talks. Very early on during my stay, he heard me playing my acoustic guitar under the linden tree, and he approached me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar in the meditation hall before the Dharma talk, to calm people down and keep chatting to a minimum while they waited for him. I was very happy to oblige, and it was the beginning of a whole new musical direction for me. When he arrived thirty to forty-five minutes later, he’d sit next to me, listening and waiting for me to finish my piece, after which we bowed to each other and I left the stage.

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It was fairly easily organized in those days to have tea with Thay, and during this occasion I remember being struck by seeing Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving among the five books on his bookshelf. Sister Chan Khong was also very approachable, and I regularly sat next to her in an old Peugeot 505, mostly driving between Upper and Lower Hamlet. I have no idea why we went up and down so often, but it gave me a chance to talk about what was bothering me. She was always very present, and many of her pearls of wisdom are still with me today. I was practicing in an esoteric Christian tradition at the time, and in response to my feeling uneasy about the Buddhist aspects of Plum Village she replied, “You don’t need to feel this is your home; just relax and regard it as a hospital for you to heal.” To my question about how to stay mindful when playing rock and roll on my electric guitar, she advised, “Just breathe before you play, and breathe again after you play.” Simple, and no judgment. She also told me, “Don’t think about what’s bothering you all the time. Breathe and focus on other things, and then, when you’re no longer thinking about it, a solution will suddenly pop into your head.”

It was also Sister Chan Khong who at one point tapped me on the shoulder and gently asked, “Why don’t you join the walking meditation?” As a left-leaning young man who had been strongly influenced by the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, I had a strong habit energy of rebellion and non-conformism, and didn’t immediately join in with all the practices. The immense tolerance in Plum Village was therefore a godsend for me. For example, for more than a year I refused to bow. Once someone gently asked me why and then appeared to happily accept my answer. There was no pressure to do anything or be anything other than myself. This gave me the space to discover for myself what bowing is about, and when I realised that honouring the Buddha in the other person is a very beautiful practice, I could bow from a place of total authenticity. To this day, bowing is an important practice for me that feels completely comfortable and genuine.

I felt that Thay and Sister Chan Khong personally took me under their wing and opened doors for my Plum Village experience—Sister Chan Khong with her compassionate listening and wisdom, and Thay in encouraging me to follow the new musical direction I had taken. Until my first visit to Plum Village, I was involved in making rock music, but it never felt quite right. With Thay’s encouragement, more and more acoustic guitar pieces came rolling out of me, and I eventually realised that this was my true musical voice. I recorded parts of my first CD in Plum Village in 1993, something that Thay personally made possible, saying that he wanted the community to be able to support artists.

Presence of Compassion 

Until I (temporarily) moved to the U.S. in 1999, I travelled several times a year from England to Plum Village, and every time I arrived I noticed changes that were not to my liking. For example, the wake-up time became earlier and earlier; there were more people, more buildings, and stricter practice; men and women were separated between the hamlets; and gradually Sister Chan Khong and particularly Thay became less available to laypeople. Every time I initially thought, “Oh, no!” And yet, every time, this reaction dropped away within hours as I noticed that the energy of the practice and the presence of compassion and understanding were the same as the last time I visited.

However, as the morning wake-up time became earlier and earlier, I did become a morning meditation truant, eventually abandoning that practice altogether. I could barely function for the rest of the day when I did attend. And after my first child was born in 2002, and sleepless nights became the norm, I learned to grab every second of sleep that I could.

And then, one summer morning in Upper Hamlet a few years ago, I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I went to the big meditation hall, arriving fifteen minutes early for the morning meditation. A few people were already there, and I sat down far away from them, in a quiet corner where I expected to have a lot of space to myself. I had just settled in my meditation when I heard someone enter the hall, move slowly in my direction, and sit down right beside me. I wondered who would choose, out of all the free places in the hall, the seat immediately to my left. I glanced sideways. It was Thay.

mb61-Twenty-TwoYears4Paul “Ramon” Tingen, True Harmony of Loving Kindness, is an anglicised Dutchman who now lives in France, near Plum Village. Paul writes for music technology magazines and is the author of a book about the electric music of Miles Davis entitled Miles Beyond. Paul has recorded one CD, May the Road Rise to Meet You, and is currently recording a second album. He ordained as an OI member in 1997. His website is www.tingen.org.

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