On the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the Plum Village community was shaken by a tragic event. Ordinarily Tet is celebrated over three joyous days, the most festive season in the Vietnamese calendar. This year at Plum Village, it was an occasion for quiet reflection, for smiles through the tears.
Brother Phap Kinh, also known as Brother Christopher, died early in the morning of January 23 by his own hand. He was a middle-aged Western monk who ordained two years ago, was fluent in both French and English, and was responsible for the Upper Hamlet bookshop. Before he ordained he was very active as an OI member in the Paris Sangha. His sudden death sent shock waves through the worldwide Sangha.
Speaking to the assembled community in a special meeting at Plum Village, Thay said, “Brother Phap Kinh is a wonderful brother. He has been taking care of the Sangha in the Upper Hamlet in the best way he could; he behaved like an abbot, welcoming guests and taking good care of them. The news this morning was very shocking for Thay and the Sangha.” Thay went on to explain that “maybe a strong impulse or emotion took over Phap Kinh. While all the brothers were still sleeping, he left the residence and went to the forest, outside the boundaries of Plum Village, and took his own life in a hut used by hunters. That came as a big surprise to me and to the Sangha, because he was such a dedicated practitioner and devoted himself fully to the practice of a monk.”
In attempting to understand, Thay remembered that Phap Kinh’s mother had committed suicide years before, also in mid-winter. “All of us are in a big shock, so we need to practice breathing and walking to calm down. Breathing in, we have to be aware of our own body and the body of the Sangha. Breathing out, we have to calm our own body and help calm the body of the Sangha. Because when Phap Kinh dies, we all die with him somehow.”
Brother Phap Kinh was cremated in Bergerac on January 28, with many of his monastic brothers and sisters in attendance. The energy of the formal ceremony at the mortuary was powerful and full of love.
Many Sanghas around the world paid tribute to Phap Kinh with written messages and special ceremonies. Thousands of people who knew him in the Paris Sangha and at Plum Village reeled from the news and searched their hearts for understanding. Words of gratitude for his life of service and inspiration poured onto blogs and email lists, along with blessings for his continuation.
Friends who were at Plum Village during this difﬁcult time marveled at the love that Thay radiated. He said, “If we know how to walk and breathe mindfully and become aware that Mother Earth is always embracing us with her wonderful and powerful energy, we will get the healing, we will transform our suffering. That is why, when we express homage to the Bodhisattva Mother Earth, we allow the Earth our mother to embrace us and calm and transform the suffering in us. Buddhists and non-Buddhists can practice the same.”
Brother Phap Ho, a senior Western monk and acting abbot of Deer Park Monastery, wrote: “The basic practice of mindful breathing and walking, touching the wonders of life, remembering all the reasons why life is beautiful and worth living is my insurance if monsters from the depths would appear.... I feel that this past week I have been more acutely aware in a relaxed way what seeds I water and give attention to. I have not left brother Phap Kinh behind, I still breathe and smile with him.”
For many of us, this tragedy precipitated deep soul-searching. We touch the earth in gratitude to Brother Phap Kinh, and pray that his continuation on this mysterious journey brings him the peace and joy that he brought to those he touched in life.
J.E. Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, lives near Findhorn, Scotland where she practices with Northern Lights Sangha.