Dreaming with My Dad

Growing closer to those we love who have already passed away

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

How many of us have suffering from our past, especially when it comes to relationships and how we live our life? Many people ask how we can fix mistakes or heal deep wounds we carry with us in our daily life. The Buddha teaches us that impermanence is life. We like impermanence when it benefits us and gives us what we want, but when it takes us away from our loved ones or causes us to suffer, we don’t know how to accept it. We want to be with our loved ones forever. We want to make our life meaningful and precious.

I was raised Jewish and went to synagogue for all the High Holidays; we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with the family. Every once in a while we went to minyan (prayer service) on Friday night, but still I felt a sense of emptiness and a lack of spirituality and guidance. I did enjoy the Jewish traditions and how the Jewish observances were so family oriented. When it was time for the family to gather for holidays, it wasn’t about gifts; we came together to remember our ancestors and to let go of regular daily routine, to reflect on our lives.

A Heart-Breaking Loss

Actually it was my dad, Barry Allen Brodey, who had the Jewish roots. My dad passed away ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. Some teenagers shot him in order to get into a gang. I remember the day my mom had to break the news to us. She wanted to do it as skillfully as possible and took us to a beautiful wooded area near our house, where we sat on a log surrounded by trees in the early summer sunshine. The news was so shocking that I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how or what to feel. I thought you only heard this news on the TV. I just turned into a frozen block of ice, filled with disbelief and despair. A part of me wanted to believe that he just went on a vacation. But he wasn’t on a vacation, and he would never come home. I never got to say good-bye or I love you one last time. He had to die alone and far away from home.

My father was like the summer sun, making everything around him vibrant and alive. There was no way any person could have a dull moment with him. He was the life of the party. He not only called me his little princess but also treated me like a princess. My dad was always more than happy to take me out with him, but like most kids I took it all for granted. He gave me all I needed to be happy—life and his love. But while he was still alive, I focused so much on wanting to understand his suffering, the part of him that was closed to the world and simply untouchable.

I was stuck on a weed rather than enjoying his garden. I didn’t feel it was my place to pry into his life and open up wounds, but it made me feel hopeless because I didn’t know how to connect with him. I couldn’t help him for fear that the family would deny what I saw, and I felt like a fool for saying anything. If my dad did share his sadness with me, I was afraid of having to truly face it and deal with it.

Looking back now, I know what I was doing at the moment was just perfect. I was there with him and in my heart I was happy to have him as my dad.

A Gift of Healing

After I was ordained, I started having dreams of my dad. They are such a refl    of how I was and how I have been transformed. The first happened five years after his death. I had been ordained only a few months. In this dream, I was in my bedroom—there were no colors. My dad walked in with a melancholic look, his head bent, his shoulders slumped. He gave no hint that he might be harboring a childlike hope to receive love by coming into his daughter’s room. I just sat there on my bed unmoved by his presence, nor did it dawn on me to show my love to him.

The second dream occurred about a year later. My dad came to visit me still very sad and depressed, oblivious to the world around him. This time I acknowledged his presence happily. The atmosphere was still somewhat gloomy, but there was love present. I took him on a tour of the monastery grounds and brought him up to a room to rest. I carried with me a photo album to show my dad the special events that had taken place in the past years. Many sisters came along with us to make both of us feel supported and loved. Then we parted company as he lay down on the bed and peacefully sank into it for a much needed rest.

In the last dream, which took place a year later, I was together with my dad, my sister, and my brother at some kind of celebration. There were lots of colored round balloons, red, yellow and blue ones, and many green trees under a clear sunny blue sky. We sat around a white table with a floral centerpiece, laughing and giggling as Dad told us stories. My dad was so happy. He looked as if many of his burdens had been lifted from him and his heart was much lighter. I could see his joy and freedom as my own, which made my heart rejoice in a peaceful way. Over the course of my stay in Plum Village, I have learned how to take refuge in the Sangha and break down a few of the walls around my heart to allow the love and wisdom of the Sangha to embrace me. But it didn’t embrace only me, it embraced my dad.

The Faith and Obedience of Abraham

My dad was not a Buddhist nor would he have wanted me to be a Buddhist nun. But one thing is for sure, he always wanted me to be happy. I took to this path out of faith and in obedience to what I heard in my heart, I think much like our Father Abraham did with God. Thanks to the practice of non-fear and learning to open my eyes to the life around me, my dad and I have the chance to live together for a long time. I have no regrets about our past relationship. Nor do I feel that he is alone, because he still lives with me every day, just as our spiritual ancestors continue in us through our faith and obedience.

Each time I hug a person or share my pain with someone, I know that he too is loved and he too is cared for, and we smile together in peace.

Sister Hanh Nghiem lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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Poem: The Gift of Non-Fear

Three Moments on the Way to Dwelling in Equanimity By Lyn Fine

1: Sumb60-TheGift1nday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village, France. Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

We are sitting together in the Meditation Hall at the Lower Hamlet. Listening, we are aware of our breathing. We are present together.

In the midst of your Dharma talk, you pause. Quietly, you strike a match. You touch the flame to a sheet of paper. Smoke wafts into the air. Flames appear. The paper is burning. Now there is only black charcoal ash.

Gently, between the thumb and two fingers of your right hand, You pick up the charred remains. “It’s hot,” you say softly, calmly. On your lips, there is a half-smile. You hold the black charcoal for an instant. Then, releasing your fingers, you let the burnt remains drop into the bell.

In mindfulness I watch, aware of my breathing.

Breathing in, I am aware that ancestors are present Jewish ancestors burning in ovens — here, now Vietnamese sisters and brothers burning in self-immolation to stop the bombs of war — here, now wise-woman witches burning at the stake — here, now churches of African-American brothers and sisters burning in the United States — here, now ancient trees burning from human forgetfulness — here, now Breathing out, I do my best to smile with equanimity and compassion — but I cannot — not yet.

Breathing in, I know I am touching seeds of pain and suffering in me from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief Breathing out, I am aware that I am unable to smile — nor to cry, nor to cry out. I cannot — not yet. Breathing in, I know I am breathing in Breathing out, I am aware: conscious breathing is my anchor.

Suddenly, your gentle voice penetrates the clouded-over sky-mind. “We will put these [charred remains] in the garden,” I hear you say. Tears come and a half-smile. Fear has released. The heart opens.

mb60-TheGift22: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village. Outdoor Walking Meditation

It is Sunday, September 15, 1996. It is the second day of the Jewish New Year, 5757. This year at Plum Village, during a three-week retreat,

— “The Heart of the Buddha,” it is called — We are observing the highest holy days of the Jewish people, in the way that they — or some of them — would observe them.

The seed you planted more than a decade ago has borne fruit. “To make peace on the planet,” you said at a Reverence for Life Conference in 1982, “each religious group should observe the most important holiday of each other religious group in the way that group would observe the holiday.”

For the seed and for the fruit, And for all the conditions which have allowed the gradual ripening of the fruit I am grateful.

Now we are walking together in walking meditation. Hand in hand, we walk through orchards of plum trees in the Lower Hamlet. The trees are bearing fruit — sweet purple plums. Our steps touch the Earth gently. We are embraced by sunshine and blue sky.

Breathing in, I know that sunshine and rain, blue sky and Earth have nourished the fruit and its gradual ripening that residents of Plum Village, lay and monastic, have cared for the trees, harvested the fruit, and turned it into plum jam that children in France gave money to plant these trees so that children in Vietnam could have medical supplies and food Breathing out, I am aware that present in us in this moment are all of our ancestors and all of our descendants We are the sunshine. We are the blue sky. We are the trees bearing fruit.

Here, now, we walk, hand in hand. We are walking as a community, a Sangha. We are walking with each other, we are walking for each other. I walk for you. I know you are walking for me.

“Touching, touching” “Connecting, connecting, connecting” With each in-breath, I am walking two steps. With each out-breath, I am walking three steps. Step by step I am walking, breathing in, breathing out. But I am aware that I am not truly present — not yet.

I walk in peace, but the mind goes in a million directions. The energy of seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness remains strong. The mind remains caught In a net of burnings.

Breathing in, I am aware of regret: There is sadness in me. I am caught. Present in me — here, now — are blue sky, white clouds. But I am not wholehearted. The mind is caught In the past. The wounds of suffering, still present.

mb60-TheGift3Breathing out, my resolution deepens: I vow to cultivate mindfulness with determination I aspire to be fully present to the miracle of being alive — here, now. I aspire to open, wholehearted, in joy, to this present moment.

Crossing a narrow plank bridge, we arrive at the pond. Human beings and trees, we encircle the water. Together we stand, in the stillness. Listening. Waiting. Breathing in, I am aware: breathing in. Breathing out, I am aware: breathing out. We hear the silence.

Hearing, hearing. Breathing in, aware of birds chirping. Breathing out, aware of leaves rustling. Jacqueline begins to play her violin — the ancient Jewish melody Avinu Malkeinu. We sing. No boundary. Touching Jewish ancestors. No boundary. Touching all ancestors. No boundary. For some of us, this moment is the first time To touch our ancestors.

In silence, We pick up small sticks and stones, take lint from our pockets. We name the times when we have missed the mark. We acknowledge that we have sinned, as individuals and as communities. By omission and by commission, we have caused suffering. One by one, and together, we cast our sticks and stones and lint into the water. One by one and together as a Sangha we transform consciousness.

Breathing in, I am aware of our multiple origins — We are from Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Israel, Egypt, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Romania, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, France, England, Spain, the Netherlands, Canada, U.S.A., Indigenous Peoples, New Zealand, Australia Breathing out, I realize: not two, not one.

Breathing in, I am aware that in our Buddhist retreat center We are observing tashlich, an ancient Jewish custom of renewal. We are observing tashlich as Jews would observe it. We are observing tashlich as Jews around the world are observing it, on this day. We are observing tashlich amidst the trees, around a pond. We are observing tashlich with friends from numerous countries — former enemies. Breathing out, I know we are returning home, to our true origin and Source.

mb60-TheGift43: Sunday, September 15, 1996, Plum Village. After Outdoor Walking Meditation

Now the walk is over and tashlich too. We have cast into the water Our unwholesome states of mind

And those times when we have missed the mark — sinned — Individually and collectively. We have deepened our determination To cultivate wholesome states of mind, Deep listening, deep looking, and wise action that meets the mark.

A novice monk thanks me for the tashlich observance. He speaks to me from a place of love. He speaks to me from the depth of his experience. I hear what he is saying, and I am very happy. We breathe together. I speak softly of the burning of the paper, Of the seeds from the individual and collective storehouse consciousness which arose in me, and remained so strongly present.

I speak of the black charcoal remains, Of your suggestion that we would put them in the Plum Village garden — “We will put these [charred ashes] in the garden,” you had said — I speak of the release in me when I heard you say that. For a moment, we breathe together in silence. “The ashes have been put in the Plum Village garden,” My Dharma brother says with a gentle smile. And I wonder — is it only by chance that I am speaking to the very monk Who was given the ashes, who himself scattered them in the garden?

So — Now it is done. In nurturing soil of love and remembrance and compassion In a small hamlet in southern France Burned ancestors, brothers, and sisters, and children Rest now. Charred remains renew the Earth. Burned and burners: not two, not one.

A meditation appears: Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of suffering in me from my [Jewish and other] ancestors — seeds of terror, seeds of rage, seeds of grief Breathing out, I vow, for the well-being of all beings, to transform these seeds with gentle caring

Breathing in, I am aware of the seeds of well-being in me from my [Jewish and other] ancestors — seeds of joy, seeds of love, seeds of wisdom Breathing out, I vow, for the benefit of all beings, to discover and nourish these seeds with tenderness

Breathing in, I touch no birth, no death Breathing out, I go beyond fear Breathing in, I touch the Ground of All Being Breathing out, I know that in this moment I have returned home, to my true self A smile appears. The precious gift of non-fear, always offered, has been received. Thank you, my dear friends, for our observance together.


Reprinted from I Have Arrived, I Am Home (2003) by Thich Nhat Hanh with permission of Parallax Press, Berkeley, California,

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, is from New York City and now lives in Berkeley, California. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in Plum Village in 1994.

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