The Story of Thay Phap An
By Thay Phap An
Before I became a monk, I suffered from depression but did not know it. This created a deep need within me to look for something, although I did not know exactly what I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to search for some direction, some path. This longing began early in my childhood and it became dominant when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.
I looked for meditation books and pursued different types of practice, beginning in the ninth grade, and continuing after I escaped from Vietnam to live in a refugee camp and then in America. I was a very good student, but there was this sense of sadness deep within me. Often it lasted for days, and it paralyzed me, so that I could not feel the joy of life. However everything seemed very normal to me. Sometimes we suffer and we are not aware of our suffering, so we perceive it as something normal.
“Who Am I?”
When I graduated from college at age twenty-three, I felt a strong wish to become a monk. But my parents did not want this; they encouraged me to continue my studies. So I did. After graduate school, I began to work as a mathematical researcher for an oil company. At that time, I took up the practice of koans very seriously. A koan is a set of practices in which you raise your question and allow it to go deep into your consciousness. You do not look for an answer; any answer that comes to you may not be valid, because it comes from your intellect. It may be merely a set of perceived ideas, a projection. Later on, when the conditions are sufficient, your consciousness will offer its answer to you.
I practiced the koan, “Who am I?” Whenever I moved my hand, I asked, “Who is moving my hand?” Whenever I walked, I asked, “Who is walking?” Whenever I was about to go to sleep, I would ask, “Who is sleeping?” I continued to ask the question, “Who am I?” This question began to work very deeply in me and started to interfere with my work. When I asked the question, “Who is thinking?” my thinking disappeared. This created a problem. I had to think in order to solve problems for people and earn a living.
I fell into a very deep spiritual crisis. I did not know what the best path for my life was, but I knew that I wished to become a monk. However, I loved my family very much, and wanted to respect their wishes, so I could not yet take that step. I stopped working for the oil company and took a post-doctorate position in order have more time to practice meditation and look deeply into what direction I wanted to take for my life.
I shared with my post-doc advisor my long-time wish to become a monk. He advised me, “For once in your life, you have to listen to your heart. Otherwise you will regret it.” He kindly offered me the option to try out being a monk, and if I didn’t like it I could return to the university and he would still have a job for me. Even now, when I talk about him, I feel very moved and grateful to him for giving me this advice. I collected all my belongings and sent them back home. On March 26, 1992, I left the U.S. to become a monk. I didn’t realize at that time what a shock and source of suffering this was for my family.
When I came to Plum Village, I practiced but did not have much joy. I listened to Thay’s teaching about the present moment, about cultivating joy and happiness, but a deep sense of sadness still hung over me. I tried my best to live in the present moment, in the here and now, and to cultivate happiness. But I could not touch the reality of happiness.
After practicing for three years, I began to lead retreats around the world. I invited people to practice being happy in the present moment. But I was aware that a block of sadness in the back of my mind prevented me from being truly happy. One time, I went to Russia to lead a retreat. A young woman served as my assistant. A few years later, she traveled to Plum Village before she returned home to Vietnam. She became a very close friend who shared openly with me. I remember one time she shared with me, “I have to be very honest with you. You gave a very good Dharma talk about happiness and being in the present moment. But it really puzzles me that you do not look very happy. You look sad all the time.” She meant to ask whether my practice was effective. I offered the teaching to cultivate happiness and live in the present moment, but I still had this block of sadness within me. That was six or seven years after I became a monk.
I had a lot of questions about everything in life. Did our lives have any meaning? Was there something called reality out there that I had to touch? Whenever I had an opportunity, I would ask Thay a question. Whenever there was a question and answer session, I would ask a question right away.
Thay tried to help me to get in touch with the beauty of life around me. When I was attending Thay, he would say, “Look! Phap An! Don’t you see the beautiful blue sky?” He would pour tea for me when I was about to ask another question, and invite me to enjoy a cup of tea. During our walking meditation together, he would stop, point out a flower and teach me, “Look! Phap An! The flower is very beautiful.” Or he would point to a cloud and ask, “Don’t you see the cloud is beautiful?” He had a lot of compassion. He didn’t give me a jumble of thoughts or theories. He pointed me directly to the source of happiness and joy, because he wanted me to taste it for myself.
Touching Images from the Past
I struggled very much with my depression. There were moments during sitting meditation when I would invite my sadness to come up and embrace it. Looking at the sunshine through the window, tears would fall from my eyes. Sadness simply overwhelmed me. When I embraced my suffering, memories slowly surfaced and the roots of my sadness began to reveal themselves. One image led to another. In the midst of this stream of my past experiences, I continued to go back to my breathing and stay aware of my body. The wave of sadness returned, over and over, until it slowly calmed down. I continued to go back to the emotion, embrace it, and observe it. I saw many different images from my past.
I discovered that I had been wounded as a child in the war in Vietnam. I was born in a rural part of Central Vietnam. There, the war was very intense. Every night I heard bombing in the distance. There were people who lived around me who became mentally ill; the pressure of the war became too much for them. There were soldiers who took off their clothes and ran around naked. I remember a woman who screamed and cried every night. She lived next to our house. As I lay down to sleep, I listened to her moaning and screaming all night long in the dark. I felt a lot of love for her and also a lot of fear.
We lived next to an air force base, and fighter jets flew by in the middle of the night. They flew above the roof of our house as they took off. The sound was very loud, and my brother who slept next to me would sit up and scream along with the jets, in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He simply sat up in the bed and screamed. I was one year older than him. I woke up because of the noise. Every night, when he sat up screaming, I gently pushed him back down to sleep. It happened almost every night.
I lived with a lot of fear and uncertainty. Once or twice a year, the communists would attack our village. Houses burnt down. We had to get out. One time, during an attack, my father was standing. Something fell to the ground; he bent down. Just as he bent down, a bullet hit the box behind him. If he had been standing, he would have been killed. Luckily the bullet missed him and broke the box behind him. In just one single moment he would have been killed.
From time to time, South Vietnamese soldiers would come to our parents’ pharmacy and shoot into the shelves of medicine. They held up a grenade and threatened to throw it if we didn’t leave. Then they broke into the cash register and took whatever medicines they wanted. There was no law around, so they came very often, to take money and medicine. They used harsh language. They shot anywhere they liked.
Slowly but surely, I went back to the past to touch all these images as I sat in meditation. Then I saw the image of myself as a little boy. I think that I was only four or five years old. I was hiding myself in a medicine cabinet. Looking out, I could see military men in the front of our house—Americans and South Vietnamese in camouflage uniforms. They were carrying all kinds of equipment, with many weapons of war, and setting up camp in the twilight and drizzling rain. As I looked out, I felt so scared.
In my meditation, I had a clear memory that that little boy said to himself, “There’s no future for my life and I don’t want to grow up. What’s the point? If I grow up, I’ll be like these men who carry guns around, and either I will kill someone or be killed by someone.” As I looked back, I asked myself: how could I have such a thought when I was so young, only four or five? This incident continued to affect me without my knowing it.
At the age of seven or eight, I began to draw human faces. I would spend a lot of time in my room, looking at magazines and drawing the beautiful faces I saw in them. I drew like this for about five years, until the war was over. Deep within the mind of that little boy was the belief that humans were cruel and ugly. I sensed the dark side of human beings, so I drew beautiful human faces as a defense mechanism. I accumulated several books of drawings of faces, but because of the war we fled to the South and I lost all of them.
When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, every day at about sunset, from about five to six o’clock in the afternoon, I experienced a pain in my forehead, which I now understand was a migraine. I couldn’t stand it and my father took me to the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t figure out the reason for my chronic headaches. When the war ended, the migraines went away. Thanks to my meditation, I now understand what was happening. Around sunset, the military men came and camped in front of our house. That was also the first time I had the thought that my life had no future, that life had no meaning, and that I didn’t want to grow up. Whenever the sun set, this feeling was re-activated. My depression was triggered by the sunset.
A New Perception
I worked on this block of sadness and the tendency to withdraw for many years. Sometimes, it seemed there was no hope. Many times Thay told me that the sky was very beautiful, and the blue sky was indeed very beautiful, but I could not touch that blue sky. Many other young brothers and sisters came to Plum Village and lived without much difficulty. They could be happy and play with each other. But I could never taste such joy. Therefore, I felt quite lonely in the community. I was in that state of loneliness, with my own struggle, but I tried to embrace my sadness whenever I had a chance.
I learned to go straight to this primary perception. The sadness was due to the perception that there was no future, no point to growing up because life was very ugly. It was very difficult to embrace the sadness. At first I didn’t understand how to do it, but gradually, I learned. I had to balance my mind with the energy of joy and happiness before I could embrace this pain. Over the years, I have been trying my best to embrace my emotion and I have learned that it is inseparable from the perception that I had as a little boy, that there was no future for my life. After many years of practice, I have been able to purify and transform this emotion and am cultivating a new and more positive perception of life.
In Upper Hamlet, there is a walking meditation path, from which we can see the sunset. Many times when the sun set this sense of sadness would come up. I practiced walking meditation along this path in the middle of sunset, and tears would come. With each of my steps, I would tell myself, “This is truly beautiful. This is truly beautiful.” I would say, “I’m really happy now. I’m really happy now.” I trained myself like that. This exercise does not do violence to ourselves; instead, it is a training that tries to cultivate a new kind of perception. I tried to look at each flower on the road, to look at each stone, and say, “I’m really happy now. The war is over. I’m not living in a time of war anymore. It’s okay. It’s safe. There’s life. There’s a meaning to life. It’s very beautiful now.” I practiced this often, for many years. I tried to build a new perception to balance the child who saw no future.
We have to train ourselves to develop a new perception. At the beginning, this new perception is weak. It’s just a skinny bone, a skeleton; there’s no flesh to it. Over the years we have to build new flesh, to build a thicker layer around our new perception. As I cultivated this new perception, I built new flesh around it. As I said to myself, “This is truly beautiful,” I tried to feel beauty and happiness. I continued to build layers of flesh so that I could balance the block of pain and suffering that I had gone through. Over the years, bit by bit, it worked.
In addition to transforming my perceiving, I also changed my way of eating. I noticed that around five or six o’clock in the evening, at sunset, I had trouble with my colon. I couldn’t digest food, and suffered from a lot of gas. It became very disturbing. My depression had come into my body and embedded itself into my colon. I decided to stop eating dinner. I did this for two to three years. Amazingly, as the colon healed, the depression also healed.
This transformation has to do with both the body and the mind. We cannot focus on the mind alone, because our sadness and depression have turned into a part of our body. We have to purify our body in order to purify our mental difficulties. It took me a long time, but I was able to transform this block of sadness and depression within me by looking deeply into my food, taking good care of myself, fasting, exercising, and building a new perception.
I Could Feel the Blue Sky
After seven or eight years of practice, during the springtime, I was in Thay’s hermitage. He organized a picnic day for the monastics; the brothers and sisters were playing volleyball, cooking, and having a barbecue. I was standing at the veranda, looking at my brothers and sisters playing joyfully. I didn’t join them but I stood near them. Then I looked at the poplar trees, with no leaves, standing against the blue sky in spring. I followed my breathing and practiced the mantra Thay taught us. “I’m here for you. Breathing in, I am aware that the poplar tree is there, that the blue sky is there. Breathing out, I’m really here for you.”
I followed my breathing for a long time, and remained in touch with the poplar and the blue sky. Suddenly, for the first time, I could feel the blue sky. Tears ran down my face. I just stood there crying. I was able to touch that moment with such deep joy and happiness, from the depths within me. The blue sky was so beautiful that day. The poplar tree was so beautiful. After seven or eight years of practice, I was finally able to touch all that.
Nowadays, I am more stable. My anger, my temper, my sadness and depression have transformed to a large extent. This year marks my eighteenth year of practice as a monk, and I have changed a lot. I have healed my body and healed my mind, for the most part. I do not get caught by anger much. I do not get trapped by my sadness and depression much. It is very important to identify the very beginning of a negative perception before it turns itself into a mental loop, a block of strong emotion. We can learn to embrace and understand it before it begins to affect our life and our relationships.
Thich Chan Phap An, True Dharma Seal, was born in 1963 in Vietnam. He was ordained into monkhood in 1992 and received Transmission of the Lamp of Wisdom in 1999. Since 2008, he has served as the Director and Dean of Studies at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.
This article is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given on January 29, 2010. It was edited by Thay Phap An, Sister Chau Nghiem, Charles Wheeler, and Natascha Bruckner.