An Interview with Brother Phap Trach By Sister Chau Nghiem
Question: Thank you, Brother, for taking this time. Can you share some of your early childhood experiences of spirituality, Buddhism, or mindfulness? What experiences or conditions watered your seed of becoming a monk?
Brother Phap Trach: When I was little, my mother always took me to the temple. When I, my father, and my brother left Vietnam on a boat, we went to Hong Kong. My father was very religious, very active in the Buddhist Scouts, so he helped to start a Buddhist Scouts in Hong Kong for the Vietnamese refugees, and he always took us to the temple. It was a Chinese temple, but we’d do Vietnamese-style chanting. For three years, every Sunday, we took the bus and the train to the mountain, very high in the mountain. We had to climb a thousand steps. When you’re little the steps are huge. That was when I was about six, seven years old. In my childhood, there were always monks coming to stay in our house. I think they watered our seeds. When I looked at them they were very free. They didn’t have so many worries. I felt very inspired by them. I just liked the way they were. I had a thought when I was young: “Well, if I don’t do anything else, then I’ll become a monk.”
Question: How old were you?
Brother Phap Trach: I was twelve or thirteen. I thought, “If I’m not successful in life, then that’s the way I will go.” Yet there was a point when I said, “I will become a millionaire when I turn thirty.” You just let life carry you away, and you lose touch with your spiritual side.
After you’ve been through a lot and suffered, you ask yourself, “Is there anything else to do in life besides just having a family, being successful, going to work, and spending all your time and energy trying to be wealthy? Is there anything else?” You hit the point where you have suffered enough. There’s something wrong. Something is missing in life. You start to think there must be another way of doing things. There was a point where I gave up. I didn’t really have a path, a direction. I became depressive. On the weekend I partied or went to casinos. I was wasting my time and energy. I broke up with my girlfriend. She was concerned about me. I wasn’t happy with myself. So I escaped into entertainment, gambling, and unwholesome activities.
One day I ran away from home. I didn’t want to go home; I didn’t want to face my difficulties. My family was looking for me and called the police, trying to find me. They found me in a casino. My family suffered a lot with this situation. That was the turning point in my life.
After that situation, Thay led a retreat in Key West, Florida. My brother knew Thay and he knew the practice. He took me, and my brothers and sister also, to meet with Thay and the Sangha. I saw the monks and nuns, and many people practicing. They were walking very slowly. The environment was very calm and peaceful. I talked with the brothers, and they showed me how to practice.
Thay and Sister Chan Khong and the brothers and sisters were doing a skit about novices sleeping and inviting the bell for everyone to wake up. It was wonderful, a real family atmosphere. It really inspired me to consider the path, which had been watered since childhood. That experience made me want to change my life. I really wanted to change the way I was behaving and how I consumed things. It influenced my decision to become a monk. I tried to practice and it really brought peace and calm in me.
Question: Like sitting meditation?
Brother Phap Trach: I did sitting meditation, walking meditation. I read Thay’s books to water the positive seeds in me. And that really changed my mind. My body and my mind became more peaceful. I saw how the practice really works. I had learned many things about the Buddha and how he had all these magical powers. That really didn’t work for me. I wanted to learn more about the more human aspect of the Buddha, because this is what inspired me and made me want to become a monk.
I really wanted to do the practice. I hadn’t really aspired to do something in life before this. I see that in many people in society, who have nothing to do, who may be lost in life. Maybe they need a path also. I felt that if I went on the path I would have a chance in life, and then other people would have a chance, too—many young people who didn’t know what to do with their lives.
Question: What was the most difficult thing to give up when you became a monk?
Brother Phap Trach: The habit of looking for entertainment. Growing up in America, we’re always bombarded with entertainment—video games, movies, and things like that. I used to go to a movie every weekend. I think that energy was really strong in me, looking for entertainment. Becoming a monk, in my novice year, I always looked for entertainment. It’s still there, but it’s not strong. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but you need to channel it into a wholesome direction.
Question: Which practices do you find the most natural and rewarding for you, and which practices do you find the most difficult and challenging?
Brother Phap Trach: Breathing and walking meditation are very basic, profound practices. The practice of being in touch with our body is so important. Wherever I am, I come back to my body. When I am able to do that, I can touch the present moment. It starts right there. At that moment, we have a chance to look at ourselves. We see our environment. We can release whatever is in our mind. We just come back to our breathing. It’s very profound to practice constantly dwelling in the present moment, being happy with that moment. Whatever will happen, or has happened, it’s not a big deal anymore when we’re with ourselves, when we’re with our body. It’s very nice, the feeling of being there, happy with being alive, happy with what we have. It’s very profound.
Yet, the hardest practice is the simplest practice. I constantly have to remind myself, “You don’t have to look for something extraordinary, but just enjoy the ordinary.” This is the most difficult thing to do, because our mind is a monkey mind, always looking for something difficult and extraordinary. This habit can sometimes make us lose our mind; we lose ourselves. I always remind myself, “You have what you need right here. Doing what you’re doing right now is a wonderful thing.” Thay always reminds us to do that.
Question: In 2008, Thay asked you to come to the EIAB to be abbot of the brothers’ Sangha. How did you feel when he asked you to do this?
Brother Phap Trach: I like adventure, so I just try to accept whatever comes, and take it as a learning opportunity. “Abbot” is just a label for me. Someone needs to take that label on. It’s like someone gives us a name, and we take that name. “Okay, I’ll take that name, to be there.” But living in the Sangha, I can just be myself. I contribute whatever I can, whether that role is an abbot or just a brother. I do what I can do.
Question: You don’t feel some pressure inside that you’re the abbot and you have to do things a certain way? Do you feel it somehow constricts you?
Brother Phap Trach: It’s a challenge to take on that label, because even though I don’t expect much from myself, other people expect things from me, whether the expectations are said out loud or not. The practice is to hold those expectations and accept them as they are, and try to do the best I can to fulfill them. If I cannot do more, then I accept my limitation. That’s my practice. If I don’t have any challenges, then I will not grow. It’s good to have challenges.
As a monk, I have moved around a lot, always traveling, going here and there. Being an abbot helps me to settle, to stay. It’s an advantage and it’s a lesson for me. I enjoy it. It also makes my commitment stronger, to be in one place. It helps me to be more responsible in the Sangha, just to be here, to take that label. It drives me to do better, to learn more, to invest more into the Dharma, to help the young people.
Question: I’m wondering if there’s a time when you had something in mind that you wanted to do, just as Brother Phap Trach, but then because you’re also abbot, you decided to do it differently.
Brother Phap Trach: I really like to travel with the large Sangha, to be able to hop from monastery to monastery, and not stay in one place for a long time. It’s like when we want to do something, or go somewhere, and then we have to stay put. It really brings up challenges in our mind. Like, “I’m supposed to go; I deserve to go on that trip.” But just being, just staying, helps. We don’t have to go. We don’t have to be with Thay to be happy. We don’t have to travel to Asia to be happy. We don’t have to do the things that we think we need to do. We can be happy here, too. We can always find the present moment pleasant. When we accept something, then new doors open to our mind. We can enjoy the new things.
Question: What have you learned in the last three years at the EIAB about Sangha building and how best to support yourself and others on the path?
Brother Phap Trach: I think I’ve grown a lot in learning to be patient and accepting what comes. It takes a lot of time to adapt to a new environment, a new culture, new brothers and sisters. It teaches me to be patient; it tells me, “You have to let yourself adapt to the environment. You have to be patient with your brothers and sisters; they also need time to adapt to the new environment. They have difficulties to transform.You have to accept them as they are.” Everything takes its time to change, to adapt. It’s more like adaptation than change. Like ants—when their organization is disturbed, they need time to reestablish it again. In the beginning, we didn’t know what to do and how to structure our Sangha, but when we allow enough time and space things take care of themselves.
Question: What are some particular things that you’ve had to adapt to here in Germany, in the town of Waldbrol, in this big building, with its tragic past?
Brother Phap Trach: When we become a monastic, we want to live in a simple, secluded place. There was my idea: “Become a monk—simple place.” Coming here, my ideas changed. Even though I still live very simply, I learned that simple living is not dependent on the place we live. Simple living is more about our attitude and our way of being. Even though the building is very big and special, like a castle, and we are next to the city, it doesn’t make us more glamorous. To keep a simple attitude, a simple life, is challenging, but it makes our practice more solid to deal with the suffering that was here in the past. We come here and we slowly change the past. Monks and nuns are living here now. This energy is coming into that past, and it really changes people’s way of seeing this place. I think it’s very good. I think in the long run, we’re creating a wonderful, nice history for this place. It was bad at one time. But we re-create that part. Now it’s something wonderful, and many people benefit from us being here.