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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Retreat Among Jacarandas

By María Jiménez

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The Felicidad family, originally from Mexico City, was spread out. Some of us had known each other a long time; others, however, weren’t aware of the existence of happy and enthusiastic brothers and sisters in search of someone with the same last name. But thanks to the efforts of our Sangha in February of 2012, hundreds of emails went out and arrived like rainfall of flowers inviting people to “Coming Home: The Road to Our Happiness,” the big family reunion to be held in April. The response was immediate. Thirty-six sisters and brothers accepted the invitation, because who wouldn’t want to come back home? Who wouldn’t want to find the road to happiness? Besides, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, two monks from Deer Park Monastery, would be coming to share ways of conscious living with us and to converse intimately with the earth.

The location of the retreat, Casa Xitla, is a big old house surrounded by gardens in the southern part of Mexico City. It is a spacious place that invites one to withdraw and reflect; silence is the order of the day here. Thanks to the infinite goodness of Mother Earth, our encounter is dressed in violet; at this time of the year the jacaranda trees are in their most conscious here and now. Our hosts, a community of people in charge of administering and caring for this place, are an example of interbeing. As in a colony of bees, they organize themselves to live in harmony: they care for the water, use solar energy, protect the vegetation, and maintain a compost heap.

On April 4, Casa Xitla begins to buzz with our arrival. The brothers and sisters who organized the retreat and the monks Phap Lac (Happiness Monk) and Phap De (Young Monk) await us with their conscious presence. The smiles with which they greet us are an unmistakable sign that we have arrived home. Adults, some in couples, some with their families, and the majority alone, begin to fill up the space and prepare for the experience of the next five days. The majority of us come from bustling cities; we are full of expectations, with our minds agitated. The sweet sound of the bell, the conscious embraces of our sisters and brothers, the dim lights in the hallway on the way to the bedrooms, the shade of the trees, and the night remind us that we have arrived home. In an instant, all these signs come together, form a stream, and invite us to flow as a single river. “Happiness is here and now,” they whisper in our ears.

The Fountain of Life

In the first Dharma talk, Brother Phap De delicately suggests that we observe in our inner selves the impulse to do things: eat, read, talk. He proposes, instead, that we walk or write. “Life comes from within ourselves; we can feel it; we can connect ourselves with the fountain of inner and outer life, all united.” Like an expert gardener, the brother knows that before planting the seed, we must loosen the dirt. He invites us to recite gathas. It’s impossible to turn down his invitation, knowing that we can cultivate flowers in the garden of the heart.

At five o’clock in the morning, the bell wakes us, and a half hour later we begin guided meditation. Our bodies are tired; the majority of us aren’t used to waking up so early. However, our conscious inhaling and exhaling wake us up and fill us with joy. At 6:30 a.m., our sister, Norma Inés, better known as Hapinés, guides us down the roads of Qigong. With the noble bamboo pole at hand and the sweetness of her voice, we travel to the interior of our bodies, feel how our muscles stretch, and begin a dance that connects us with the foliage of the jacarandas. The pivoting of legs, trunks, arms, and eyes lifts us to the clouds and slowly and softly allows us to take root in the earth.

The morning advances. The bell invites us to share a delicious breakfast, which we enjoy slowly from the silent line. We share the table and the reading of the Five Contemplations. We eat slowly, looking to feel in every mouthful the flavor and goodness of all the beings who prepared it and made it possible.

Work meditation offers us the opportunity to do chores in the garden, which for some of us are unusual; some chores are light, like picking up leaves and branches; others are heavy, like lifting and moving the compost. Cleaning and arranging the building and preparing food for the whole group are some of the other tasks at hand. We have the opportunity to learn and to teach, to lead and to follow, to see our old habits as we work, to smile, embrace, and be present in the here and now.

At ten in the morning, the bell calls us to walking meditation. Our sister Gaby shares her experience:

I remember that marvelous walk as an experience of conscious enjoyment that keeps love, peace, calm, serenity, and forgiveness alive in my memory. I return to live in plenitude and to understand and experience interbeing with my new Felicidad family, to feel myself as part of nature, to be present, feeling the caresses of the air and the heat of the sun on my skin. I feel how Mother Earth receives me and comforts my every step, and I see and feel the happiness of the monastic brothers.

I remember Phap Lac’s talk about forgiveness. Nine months ago I’d signed my divorce from the father of my children and I had such an emotional charge that I asked myself how I could forgive myself for the guilt that I felt. I asked: ‘Is it strange that after years of sharing a life with someone you loved, you now ask yourself how to forgive?’ The walk was about to start and the brother said that we should invite our loved ones to walk with us. He suggested that we take the hand of one of the members of the Felicidad family and even that we invite our absent loved ones to come with us.

The sensation I felt is indescribable: I imagined my little children, Emilio and Sofía, at each side, felt their still-tender hands, and felt the peace and love of being united as one. I advanced slowly and smiled genuinely and lovingly, with gratitude and respect. Later I invited my parents and sister to walk hand-in-hand and felt the same sensations. Finally, uninhibitedly, with thanks, and in peace, I invited the person who had been my partner for ten years. I embraced him while I walked, thanking him for having shared his time, space, and love, for having participated with me in giving life to these two gifts. I decided to forgive the things that we consciously or unconsciously did when we lived together that hurt or damaged us or made us uncomfortable and I smiled at him. We stayed together like that for a few moments. Then I let go of his hand and saw him go, smiling and relaxed.

Drops in a River

At the end of each morning, Thay Phap Lac and Thay Phap De, taking turns, offer us a Dharma talk. Next to them a Mexican sister or brother listens attentively and interprets simultaneously. During these talks, the words of Phap De and Phap Lac weave in interbeing. Phap De speaks of his own life experience and shares the stories of his parents and the seeds they deposited in him. He shows us how the spiritual life of our ancestors is connected with our own. And he invites us to recover the spirituality of the people who inhabited these lands before the arrival of white people. Our spiritual realization, he says, is a matter of integrating ourselves like drops of water in a river that has flowed for thousands of years. This moves us, because in Mexico, indigenous blood is an underground river that only awaits our glance to revitalize us with its powerful energy.

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Thay Phap Lac offers other seeds. With soft strokes he recreates his experiences in the company of our dear master Thich Nhat Hanh. The words of Phap Lac have the power to bring Thay to our encounter: we can see and feel him; the voice of the brother becomes the voice of Thay. With simple stories of day-to-day life, Phap Lac reveals the efficacy of our practice. He shares a story of a single mother who learned to enjoy working meditation, and that of Thay, who, having suffered an injury in a crowd in Vietnam, sat down calmly to drink a cup of tea. Phap Lac is also a master of dispelling uncertainties. To a sister who has doubts about forgiveness, Phap Lac says sweetly: “The only help you have is your happiness. Only love can cure—love with compassion.” This teaching is an outstanding moment during the retreat.

mb62-Retreat3After lunch comes total guided relaxation. We lean our bodies against the earth, which generously receives our tensions, our tiredness, and our worries. With our minds we pass through each part of our body, we smile at it with thanks, we loosen it, and we relax. We listen to our guide from afar, as if in a dream. He sings to us a sweet song that rocks us and he brings us back, little by little, to the happiness of the present moment.

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The Dharma sharing at mid-afternoon is a moment of encounters. Some of us know each other from long ago, others have seen each other a few times, and there are those who are meeting for the first time. In two groups, each guided by one of the monastic brothers, we focus on practicing compassionate listening and loving speech. Little by little, our hearts open as we share happiness and sadness, presences and absences, hope and despair. We offer our loving presence to our friends; we receive their experiences and their smiles.

After supper we have another guided meditation, and then go off to sleep smiling, crossing the garden of Casa Xitla in silence, now lighted by a moon full of the here and now.

Like Water Reflecting

The second night, five sisters and brothers who have taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings share their personal experiences and reflections. The struggles and the joys of the road of Dharma parade before us. We hear that the trainings are like the North Star, a light that orients us. As the days go by, the question continues to arise: Who will take the trainings? Many of us are confused. We don’t know if we can meet the goals, if we should or want to commit ourselves. Thus three days pass. In Dharma sharing, some people express their decision to take the trainings. Others reveal confusion or a negative decision. We all listen with care and attention. Eleven brothers and sisters take the vow to revere life, practice generosity, look for true love and fidelity, practice loving speech and deep listening, and procure a nutritious and healthy life. It is beautiful to share this intention, knowing that these trainings will take us all our lives, and that we are accompanied on this road.

One memorable practice is that of starting anew. One night, Laura and Jorge water their flowers in front of the community. At first, they look each other in the eyes and each says the virtues that she or he sees in the other. Then they offer apologies for the discomfort or suffering they have caused each other. We see how their words turn into sun and water, the nutrients of the seeds of love and compassion. They give us a living example of the fourth training: our eyes witness the fact that loving speech and compassionate listening are the tools of the artist who creates reconciliation and peace. Later, Thay Phap De invites us to practice in couples. Some of us are with our life companions and we practice with them. Some are with parents or children. Those who have come alone pair up and practice watering the flowers of an absent person. It’s an intimate time, deep and hopeful. We learn that it’s always possible to start over.

As the days pass, we cultivate silence, but also listening. Mónica, Hapinés, and Laura help us to sing in key, inspiring cantos. We give thanks to life with our Chilean sister Violeta Parra. With Mercedes Sosa we remember that everything changes and with Fito Páez we offer our heart. Phap De teaches us an Irish blessing: “May love hold you in the hollow of her hands.” During the last night’s gathering we all sing “Cielito Lindo,” a traditional Mexican song, which our monastic brothers love. Three children who have lent a special touch to our time together, David, Elías, and Sofía, sing the turtle song, and Fausto thrills us with a cappella numbers. His crystalline voice reminds us that we are like water that reflects what is beautiful and true.

The last day, we finish our meditation by walking under the shade of a jacaranda. With the children cross-legged at their sides, Phap Lac and Phap De teach us the art of waking up the bell. Only five days have passed, but the conditions of the retreat have let the people of the Mexican Felicidad family recognize each other in interbeing. Without coming or leaving, neither before nor after, we embrace firmly and then let each other go. We know that each of us is in the other and that the other is in us. We leave Casa Xitla wide awake. We have learned to recognize that the present moment is a wonderful moment.

Thank you, dear Thay; thank you, dear family.

mb62-Retreat5María Jiménez, Felicidad Valiente del Corazón (Courageous Happiness of the Heart), is a professor at Autonomous University of Mexico City (UACM). Maria enjoyed the retreat among jacarandas twice: the first time while living it and the second while writing this article. Two other members of the Sangha in Mexico City, Jorge Hirsch and Gabriela Rosales, contributed. Their voices are a vehicle to convey the sound of a single river: the Felicidad Family.

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I Am Not Different From You

A Portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

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Her original name is Phuong; her monastic name is Chan Khong (True Emptiness). Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is, to a great extent, a result of Sister Chan Khong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984, during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening, there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point, the music stopped abruptly, and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open, and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

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During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun. She had lovely long black hair that, when in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days, and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time, she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk, or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that, even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

mb61-NotDifferent3Three years later, when I moved to Plum Village, I was often the only one during the winter season who didn’t understand Vietnamese. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments, I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence.

She strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter, I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a Tea Meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zendo and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands, telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking, she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle, and . . . voila! Her creation was complete, and the Tea Meditation could begin. While we entered, she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “Pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village, and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes, I looked like a mineworker. Many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later, I seemed to have made no progress at all. One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared, joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all she has to do, I never heard her complain that she was too busy. I also never heard her complain of feeling cold, although in the wintertime in the drafty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn, when I was already wearing two pairs of socks, I saw her walking without any. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

mb61-NotDifferent4During a Tea Meditation, many years ago, I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke. I felt so touched. While I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others. Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation. Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure, we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice “hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting. Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in- and out-breaths, fully aware of the fact that (1) you yourself are still alive, (2) the friend in your arms is still alive, and (3) you are lucky to be able to hold each other. Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come up to say goodbye to one of the visiting monks. In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! They both stood in front of each other. After exchanging a short, uneasy glance, they started bowing very deeply, and the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took all of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud; and like us, Sister Phuong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn’t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

mb61-NotDifferent5Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention, Sister Phuong also kept an eye on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us, she asked straightaway about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging. When I spoke with her, I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation—completely unexpectedly, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that this moment could arrive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck. Because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well. Just like that. It has happened to me more than once. In the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken. At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was very harmonious and without tension. Once, however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice: “Finish your meal!” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few grains of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate, and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest at having been addressed that way.

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads—they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return, when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Chan Khong, he invited me to touch Sister Chan Khong’s head to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While I was very carefully touching her head, she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Chan Khong. I felt the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly, she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because, as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Chan Khong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that, she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn’t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun, she received from Thay the name “Chan Khong,” “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being. 

Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I am Home  (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

mb61-NotDifferent6Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and helped translate Thay’s books into Dutch. She was ordained as a Dharma teacher in 1994. 

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Plum Village Smiles

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During the Summer Opening in the first years, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They stayed in the room with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor.

I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life…” for the children. One afternoon we did sitting meditation in the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life, Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, “I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation.” However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, “If it’s going to be like this, I might as well compose the song now.” So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded in order not to forget it.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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In the past I taught several generations of monastic disciples, but I was never as happy as I am now, with teacher and disciple living together and practicing together. Every day I find ways to transmit all that I have realized for myself to my disciples, like the first banana leaf transmitting to the second and the third. The happiness that monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles, and twinkling eyes.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them, and apply them. That is a big success of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sanhga.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

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Photos courtesy of Plum Village, Jeanne Anselmo, Lyn Fine, Eileen Kiera, and David Lawrence. Quotes reprinted from I Have Arrived, I Am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, www.parallax.org.

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