An Interview with Sister Giac Nghiem, A Nun in Plum Village
By Sister Steadiness
You have said that you have two roots, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you integrate these in your life of practice as a Buddhist nun?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: I met the Buddha twenty-seven years ago. I was in Laos with my former husband. Early in the morning we woke up and my husband said, “My dear, do you want to see something beautiful, the sunrise over the Mekong River?” We went together and I was so happy. At the moment we arrived at the banks of the river the sun was just beginning to rise. Standing by the river we saw many Buddhist monks begging. They were walking very slowly in silence, very mindfully. They were walking on our right and on our left there were four ladies sitting on the ground with food in front of them. The monks came and opened their bowls and the ladies filled up their bowls. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment.
I felt that I was the lady who was filling up their bowls. I was a monk bowing in front of the women. I was the sun. I was the river. I was a buffalo drinking the water. I was a young child taking care of the buffalo. It was like meeting someone after a long time and suddenly he is here. It was something very deep; I cannot describe it. I met Thay a long time afterwards. Between meeting the Buddha in Laos and meeting Thay I practiced yoga.
I met Thay in 1987. Sister Chan Khong had long beautiful hair and Thay was young. When I met Thay I met the Buddha again and I also met St. Francis of Assisi because they are the same. The first time I met Thay was at a two-day retreat in Lyon where he taught in French. He spoke about the piece of paper and seeing the whole world in it. I felt the teaching was familiar and I thought, this is my master. When I returned home my family asked me what happened during the retreat. I smiled and I said, I found St. Francis of Assisi again and I am free from the fear of abandonment now.
My Christian roots are very old. They are older than me because they flow in the blood of my family, very deeply. When I was a child knitting a small blanket for my doll and I didn’t want to go to bed before finishing it, my mother would come and say, “My dear child, you can go to bed and perhaps Mother Mary or an angel will come and finish your work.” Sometimes in the morning I would see that the row I was knitting had been finished for me. And I knew for sure that it was Mother Mary or an angel who had done that. Perhaps it seems like nonsense but this kind of faith is in me very deeply. I really have faith about the capacity of the spiritual ancestors to take care of us. Even if something happens that is very difficult they are always here.
I am a Buddhist nun and I am deeply Christian too. I found the key to Christianity in Buddhism. For example, Jesus said, “Forgive the people who make you unhappy.” I try my best all the time to do as Jesus tells us, to be generous and so on. But I did not know how to put Jesus’ teaching into my daily life. Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gave me the key. The key is mindfulness, concentration, insight and understanding. When we have understanding we are free from our hatred, our guilt, and our worries. I am not free yet but I try. This key helps me.
One time Jesus came to a synagogue and there was a crowd who intended to stone a woman who had committed adultery. Before I encountered Thay’s teachings I thought Jesus said to the crowd, “If you look at yourself, you cannot throw stones at the woman because you have also made mistakes.” Now I see this story so differently. I can really see Jesus waiting for the man to come to ask his advice. He already knew what would happen. The young man told Jesus that they wanted to kill the woman and asked him what was the right thing to do. Jesus said, “The one who has never sinned can throw the first stone.” He said this lovingly. He did not speak out of anger; he did not want to teach them a lesson as we have the habit to do. He just loved them; he understood them and he wanted to put a clear mirror in front of them, a clear mirror full of love. This way of seeing more deeply comes from my encounter with Buddhist teachings. What I have learned here in Plum Village has enabled me to be closer to my Christian spiritual ancestors.
How was the transition from your family life to the monastic life?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha offered me the opportunity to become a nun even though I had a lot of difficulties. Before ordaining as a novice I lived at Plum Village for a year and a half as a lay person. Then I became an aspirant and began to enter the monastic life of the community. During my stay before ordination the Sangha allowed me to go back to my hone in St. Etienne and Lyon to see my family, my Sangha, and our center for homeless people four or five times a year. I would stay with my family for three or four weeks before returning to the monastery. It helped me to be gradually less attached to the projects in my home Sangha. But it was very difficult. At the beginning our Sangha and our association for social work had the feeling that I was abandoning them. But I realized that though my family and friends are not physically here, they are here in my body. I really found them in me. Their feelings and their lives are in me. I take care of them through my own life and my own body. That is why it became easy for me to make the transition from family life to monastic life. But it was more difficult for them to experience me within them. For my beloved ones it is very big sacrifice but because of their love they have accepted to offer me to my way.
The monastic life is wonderful. I chose it because Jesus and Mother Mary and angels are very close to me. When I was a child I went into a church in Casablanca where the sisters of St. Francis are. They sang so beautifully and I thought, I want to become a nun and sing as they do. Often when I felt an aspiration to become a nun during my life I said to my children, “My love, if in the future I lose your dear father, my beloved one, and you grow into adults I will become a nun.” But when I felt a calling, in my mind I said to Jesus, “Oh, my love, you know I am so busy. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful children; I am so happy with them. Perhaps if you call me later I will be free to come to you.” And I would say, “Oh, my love, do you know I have such wonderful work. There are so many people who need me. We have an association; we have a Sangha; we take care of homeless people. I do not have time to become a nun.” I felt I really could not become a nun because I love so much my wonderful family. I thought about becoming a grandma, making jam for my grandchildren and taking care of the babies coming from our daughter or our son. But Jesus is very persistent. He would knock at the door and in my heart I would hear him say, “My child, now are you free to become a nun.” And I kept saying, “No, I have a loving family, the association, my friends and so on.” But he kept knocking at the door and finally I said, “Yes, I am so happy to come.” And then I said, “Oh, what am I saying? That is not a possibility.” I was really in touch with this kind of conversation inside of me. At that moment I felt so deeply fulfilled by love that all my resistances fell down.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty that I have to overcome is my feeling of inferiority. I feel the teacher, the place and the Sangha are so wonderful. But many times I have the feeling that I do something wrong, that is not beneficial for the Sangha. Often I feel difficulty because of my perception about what I did or what I thought. But because the Sangha has a big heart and accepts me even if I have this kind of difficulty, I have the opportunity to transform myself and to find clarity on my path. I can walk on the beautiful path taking the hand of Jesus on one side and taking the hand of the Buddha on the other side. Now I have lived in Plum Village for four and a half years. I became a nun on the 4th of December, 2000. I feel at home. I feel loved and happy. I love the Sangha a lot.
How do you stay in touch with your family?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning my suffering and that of my family was very strong, but now it is lighter and lighter. Some members of my family could accept my path and others could not. The best way for me to be in touch with my family is to telephone them once a week. When I hear their voices I can tell how they are and they know how I am. Recently, our mother, our daughter and her family and our son all came to Plum Village to visit me. Now they know that this is my home, it is our home. I hope they will take root in this home and come more often.
Did you ever think of leaving the monastic life and returning to your family?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning I felt the desire to return and help my family, my Sangha and our association, and to be in touch with them with my body and not only with my heart. But because I can really find my family in me, this kind of desire has become smaller and smaller. Sometimes I dream that I am at my family’s home and am living with my family. It is okay for me to go in my dream to my family. But I did not come here to hide myself or to protect myself from suffering or from my life before. I have the aim to really become someone who is awakened, to help more people.
We have many people coming to Plum Village who are full of anger and despair, burned by the fires of craving and suffering. One day Thay said we are like nurses or doctors who take care of the people who come from outside to help them relieve their suffering and become healthier. We give them the key to transform their suffering into something wonderful and to find more ease in their family life.
Society for me is sinking like a big boat. I know that if I were in society I would not have the energy to transform myself enough to become someone who can help. It is because I have this ambition to help the most people that I can that I go on this path. I start with my family, but I want to help many more people. I know if I return to my family I would not be able to transform because so many people already need me outside and I would not have enough strength to do it. My life in our temple, close to our master, to Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gives me enough strength to transform myself, to transform my difficulties. The loving-kindness of the sisters and the brothers is so wonderful. Often I make a mistake and I make someone unhappy. But they always find a way to accept and to help me to accept and to transform, and in that way we live together beautifully. I know that I have often made mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in front of everyone. If I have made a mistake and hurt you, please forgive me.
Tell us about your experience with the practice of Touching the Earth.
Sr. Giac Nghiem: In November 1996 Sister Chan Khong offered me the practice of the three Touchings of the Earth. Soon after that my husband left me. Sister Chan Khong asked me to use this practice as medicine for twenty-one days. One sentence in this practice touched me so much, “I accept you as you are with your strengths and weaknesses as I accept myself as I am with my strengths and weaknesses.” This helped me a lot when my husband left.
I first practiced the five Touchings of the Earth in June 1997 when I came to Plum Village for ten days. I came to learn how to be compassionate towards my former husband. Since then, Touching the Earth has been one of my basic practices. I used the five Touchings of the Earth almost every day for two years. We say that reciting the Diamond Sutra cuts through afflictions. For me practicing Touching the Earth cuts through my afflictions and helps me to transform. It is my second diamond. I practice Touching the Earth to nourish myself. At the beginning sometimes I practiced it for one or two hours.
Before I practice Touching the Earth I look deeply into my spiritual ancestors and into my society. I know I am made of all the input I receive from my ancestors and my society. The collective and the individual are together in me. I want to transform many things in me for the benefit of my descendants, my children, my grandchild, and my parents. I don’t want to transmit the difficulties I have had. When I found the blocks of suffering in me I took care of them even if I had to cry a lot. I always had a handkerchief close to me to absorb my tears. I would only stand up after I could see something beautiful coming from the earth.
At the beginning I did not want to lie down on the earth because the child in me was afraid of getting dirty. When I was a child I often had a pretty dress on and I heard, “No, don’t get mud on your dress; don’t get dirty.” But Sister Chan Khong told me that if I can open every cell in my body, the earth will be very happy and will eat and drink from me and will transform my suffering. The young child in me is very fond of sweet foods. So only when I could see beautiful, sweet foods like strawberries, little mushrooms, and blueberries coming from the earth could I stand up and smile.
One time I found a way to touch the earth with more ease. I was in the Buddha hall and I allowed my imagination to touch the earth with me. I imagined that I was lying on a beach. I was feeling dirty and the waves came and washed me of everything I didn’t like in myself from my family and my society and from myself. The waves washed away all the dust and it was transformed into beautiful fish and coral, into beautiful colored sand and the blue of the waves. I felt so happy because the sea is really my ground, more than the soil.
At the beginning when I practiced for twenty-one days I had so many things to put into the earth, but day by day it was transformed. At the end of the twenty-one days I was very surprised because for the fifth touching of the earth, when I send my love to the one who has destroyed my life, I no longer had an image of anyone. At first when I practiced this I had the image of different people in front of me, but then finally there was no one left. That was a big transformation. Now when I touch the earth I don’t have many negative things to put on the earth; sometimes I have nothing to put on the earth because my difficulties have been so transformed. I can see the beauty of my family and my society. It is like the practice of total relaxation. At first we need to take a long time to feel the relaxation, but after we have practiced for a long time, we just lie down and breathe a little bit and we experience the relaxation.
One time my father told me that my brother was suffering. I said, I will take care of him even if I am in the monastery. My father has faith in this practice because I have shared it with him. I went in front of the Buddha and Jesus together, because they are my two spiritual roots. I said, I want to touch the earth in the name of my brother because he is in every cell of my body. We have the same blood ancestors, the same education and civilization. I am him and he is me. It was absolutely successful. After practicing for twenty-one days in the name of my brother, my brother’s situation improved a lot. He became lighter. I put his suffering on the earth for him because he did not know how to do that for himself. I have done that for other members of my family as well. It is very important to understand that I’m not trying to transform them, just to alleviate their suffering. This practice is the key for me to make life lighter so that is why I do it and offer it in the name of others.
How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: I was born in Morocco and I spent my childhood there. I lived with my family in Djema el Fina, the Medina, close to the marketplace in Marrakech. In the Medina there were a lot of handicapped people, without their legs or blind or diseased. One day when I was around four-years-old I went out and just outside our door I saw a very poor handicapped child. I asked my mom, “Why is this child like that?” She said, “My love, you were born on the other side of this door but if you had been born out here you might be like that too.” During my whole life I have had the desire to help because I know that that child could have been me. All my life I have carried this thought. Helping people however I can is my way. Nearly ten years ago I had a dream, where I saw a beautiful young woman who was full of light. I remember with her left hand she showed me a young child, a very tiny, skinny child. I saw this child and my heart was filled with suffering. Then she showed me a candle and said, “One candle, ten days of life for a hungry child.” A few days before I had met a lady who decorated candles with the dried petals of flowers. They were very lovely and they seemed easy to make. When I woke up I was full of desire to help put an end to suffering in Vietnam and everywhere. That aspiration was already in me, but now I had a plan. I realized my dream could help me relieve suffering through my work. At that time I was a physical therapist working in the hospital and clinic with terminally ill patients.
I began making the candles as my friend showed me. One day our son came into our kitchen and he saw me making the candles. He said, “What are you doing, my love?” He was very gentle. I said, “My love, for Mother’s Day I want to sell one thousand candles.” He said, “You are doing it alone?” I said, “Yes, but it is February and I have a lot of time to do it.” But I didn’t really because I had a lot of other work to do also. He laughed because he has faith in what I do even if it seems impossible. I tried to do a little bit every day. After one month four people came to our house and when they saw what I was doing they were so happy and they wanted to help me. For Mother’s Day we had one thousand candles and I was so happy. A lot of people came to help, but I didn’t think about anything but that the children need our help. That was ten years ago. I think the presence of Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha was a catalyst for my dream.
We gave Sister Chan Khong the money we raised to help the children in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong is a big master for me. After that she gave us information about needy children so that we could find sponsors for them. I also received inspiration and support from Sister Minh Tanh, the abbess of a big temple in Vietnam who takes care of many children there. Our Sangha in St. Etienne created an association called it “Le Coeur a Vivre,” or “The Heart to Live.” Two or three years later we began to help the homeless people and others in difficulty in our country, who were close to our homes. Our bodhicitta grew because we watered the seed of loving kindness in us. Mother Theresa was also always dear to me and an inspiration for our work.
How are you nourished by the social work now as a nun?
Sr. Giac Nghiem: Because of the desire I have to help I suffer a lot here. Why? Because I feel the world is so full of suffering. Everywhere someone is suffering. Not to help our children, parents, family and friends and to let go of my work at the hospital where all of my friends are dying slowly or not doing anything for the homeless people because I am here: all of this filled me with suffering. It was very difficult for me. One time I said to Thay, “My dear teacher you can imagine my suffering because you stay in France and you cannot return to your home monastery in Vietnam to give your support.” I know my dear Sister Chan Khong can understand me too, because she also knows the suffering of not being able to help at certain times. I did not know if I could stay in the monastery because my suffering of letting go of my children, my mother, my father, and my mother-in-law was so deep. I felt I have so many people to take care of and I suffered so much. But I became a nun to help, to become someone very solid who can really help everywhere, not to escape from my own suffering or the suffering of society and of the world.
Sister Chan Khong gave me children from Vietnam to take care of. She was watering my bodhicitta to help others. She let me know that when we spend a lot of energy to take care of children in Vietnam, we can release a part of our suffering in the world. That is why I accepted with great gratitude to take care of the hungry children projects for France, Belgium and a part of Switzerland. I enjoy very much taking care of these children, seeing their little faces with different expressions. I read the letters about the children. In December of 1999 there was a big flood in Vietnam and the city of Hue was under water. Sister Chan Khong came and gave me a lot of children to take care of who were crying and asking for help. Now we have many sponsors and we wait for more because we have so many children who need help. They are so in need. We really need help. For instance, a flood during August and September devastated so many homes.
Sometimes I stay up late working. But I feel close to the children. I take one child’s photo and I say to him or her, “You know, we have a sponsor for you now. My love, do you know you can sleep and dream very well now. Do you see me in your dream?” I smile to him and I enjoy sharing good news like that. Every time I find one sponsor I am happy for many days. I think about the family who has so much difficulty and the child who needs to go to school, to have something to eat and to learn. I think that one day that little child will become a strong, beautiful man or woman and he or she will already know the key of how to help other people.
Sister Giac Nghiem, Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999. She is French and often goes out to lead Days of Mindfulness and retreats in France.