Fragrant Flowers

Being with Thay in China By Ming Fei Chung (Fei-Fei)

The name of the street was "Fragrant Flowers." The pungent smell from boxes upon boxes of dried fish and sea horse mingled with sandalwood incense, contrasted to collections of wooden Avalokiteshvara statues smiling serenely, each priced 2000 yen for us tourists.

Thay walked straight in concentration, unmoved by the bustle of the daily business and I followed closely behind, carefully avoiding the puddles. We were on our way to the beach, me and my teacher, on the Island of Putosan where there had been held a seven-day retreat for the Chinese monastics together with the Plum Village delegation. This island is considered the Holy place of Avalokiteshvara, a two-hour rough boat ride from Shanghai's main port. Thay wanted some fresh air and a break from the heavy schedule. Me too, after translating two weeks in a row without enough rest, I felt happy to be outside and not in the stuffy meditation hall of the monastery where we were staying. Thay had met me in the corridor. He said to me, "Fei-fei, Thay wants to go to the beach. Do you think it is possible to get an attendant monk out of the meditation hall?" I shook my head, knowing how strict the Chinese monks are with their Zendo practice. But the beach was too tempting. Thay looked at me for a couple of seconds and said, "OK, you count as a monk. Come with Thay."


The time with Thay on the beach was nice and easy. We sat on the rocks listening to the waves crashing against the shore. The air was pleasantly refreshing, without the salty stickiness of the seaport. We talked about the future of Chinese Buddhism, how we could help to shape the spirituality of this country. Thay sees it 300 years from now, without calculating what credit he may get for it. It seems something gives him much peace and joy in simply carrying on his work as he has gone beyond personal rewards. After the visionary discussion, Thay rolled up his flare trousers and ran along the beach, inspiring the surprised locals to do the same. I chuckled the whole way, enjoying the vitality and the childlike playfulness of my 75-year-old teacher.

I have learned a tremendous amount from staying close with Thay, both in my last five years training as a lay resident of Plum Village, and especially as his personal interpreter during our teaching tours in China. I have witnessed Thay handling each situation with a fresh perspective. Somehow Thay holds all views, and therefore has no  view to defend and this enables him to understand where people are coming from. However when needed Thay speaks his mind. I have seen Thay together with high officials, powerful politicians and religious leaders. He met them without fear and gave them something to think about beyond their daily routine. He reminded them skillfully how they, in their current position, may make a big difference to help improving the quality of people's lives.

Thay embraced all kinds of people with compassion, even those who misperceived him. For instance, there was a young abbot who was challenging Thay over a diplomatic banquet dinner and was geared up to enter into a "Dharma combat" with Thay the next day. I was shaken by his overt unfriendliness, after all we were in his territory and at his mercy, I thought. On the way home, I sat next to Thay and sought refuge in Thay's solidity. Thay smiled and said very calmly, "Don't worry, Fei-fei. Thay has seen too many people like him. You have to have compassion. He is still young, you know. We just do what we have to do tomorrow and everything will be fine."

Many people have not understood Thay's desire to put energy into visits to China but I believe that Thay has a long view. People of this rich land have suffered tremendously over the last 150 years from poverty, injustice and the loss of cultural and spiritual life. Materialism, however, has found its way into  many corners of the society including the monasteries, promising a better and brighter future. The well-intended self-sufficiency schemes of monastery-owned businesses have slipped into competition between monasteries to build bigger and more luxurious tourist attractions. Thay wants to remind the monastic community of their bodhicitta to serve and their responsibility to direct people onto a path of true happiness, and not to be swept along in search for power and money. On the other hand, more traditional temples guard against materialism by holding tightly onto the teachings and methods, which need new interpretation in this confusing time. The collective consciousness of this vast country will no doubt have an impact on the whole world because we inter-are. And I think these are all concerns of Thay.

I am grateful to be given the opportunity to make some positive contribution for the world. And I am mostly grateful that Thay is here with us.

Fei-Fei, True Eyes of Virtue, lives in Upper Hamlet with her husband Brendan.

PDF of this article