Prajna Temple

Vietnam Journal

When Thich Nhat Hanh left Vietnam in 1966 to teach in the United States, he told his friends that he would be back in three months. Thirty-nine years later, he has finally returned. As Thay said in the letter he wrote to the Sangha before the trip, he left as a single cell and returned as a Sangha body. Along with the one hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, approximately three hundred lay people from dozens of countries had the privilege of accompanying Thay. Many of them generously shared their writings and photos with the Mindfulness Bell—we wish we had room to print everything! Look for more impressions in prose, poetry, and pictures in the fall issue.

In a Dharma talk upon his return to Plum Village, Thay said that anyone who was on the journey, especially for the whole three months, was transformed. Each day was packed full of activities, even though Thay reported that he had to turn down ninety-five percent of the invitations he received. Like a delicious, heavy meal, it takes time to digest. “We need to give ourselves at least six months,” he says.

Time will tell what miraculous transformations take place—within each participant in the journey, in the people of Vietnam, in Buddhism worldwide, in our Sangha. Brother Phap Luu has called the journey “Thay’s Magical Mindfulness Tour.” The miracle of mindfulness continues to unfold.

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A Letter from Thay to the Sang­ha Members Going to Vietnam

January, 2005

As the date of our departure to Vietnam approaches, I would like to express my joy and gratitude to all of you for joining me on this historic trip. Our three-month visit will be an offering to the land and people in Vietnam; therefore as a Sangha we would like to offer our best.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

Vietnam is a beautiful land and a beautiful people, and we shall have the opportunity to contemplate many beautiful things. These will include walking meditation by the Ho Guom lake (Lake of the Returning Sword), climbing Yen Tu Mountain where King Nhan Tong practiced as a monk, and visiting Halong Bay which is considered to be the most fantastic landscape in Asia. Wherever we go, we will practice dwelling happily in the present moment, radiating peace and loving kindness around us. Those of us who stay in hotels will consider our hotel as a practice center, walking, talking, sitting, and eating in mindfulness. All of us will be closely observed, especially by secret agents, who will be able to appreciate our wholesome energy and certainly will profit from it.

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are the most concrete expression of our practice. There will be no consumption of tobacco, meat, or alcohol; no talking while walking; etc. As we practice to be the Sangha body of the Buddha, we are also the body of Thay at the same time. Those of us who are Dharma teachers or Dharma teachers in training will make sure that the practice of the Sangha body is solid, fresh, and joyful. We shall certainly make many people happy with our presence and practice.

When I left Vietnam thirty-nine years ago to come to the West to call for a ces­sation of the hostilities in my country, I was like a cell of the Sangha body, taken out of that body. If I did not dry up after a few years of being in exile, that is because my practice was to carry the Sangha body in myself. And there was not one day when I did not try to build a Sangha.

While talking and working with friends in Europe and America, I naturally shared the practice, and we always tried to incorporate the practice of mindfulness in our work. I have been able to regenerate a full fourfold Sangha from a single cell. I am therefore going home not as a Sangha cell any more, but as a whole Sangha body. And you are my body.

We’ll be together in a few days

Thay


Hanoi January 12 to January 22

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Thay’s Arrival in Hanoi

We all got up at four a.m. to meet Thay and the Plum Village Sangha at Hanoi airport. We arrived to crowds, and more and more people kept coming: monks in bright yellow robes, lots of people with cameras, old men and women wearing amazing regional costumes.

When Thay entered the arrivals hall total mayhem ensued: everyone surged forward, trying to get a glimpse of Thay, who was tightly surrounded by a pair of monks to keep him from being trampled. People threw flowers, climbed on chairs, pushed and pulled, while three film crews tried to get their footage, and countless cameras flashed.

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Arriving at Bo De Temple, where Thay and the monastics stayed, rows of people lined the road leading to the temple. As Thay passed they threw flowers, and chanted, and bowed deeply —not just for Thay, but also for us, which was a strange experience. So much devotion!

For me, the most moving moment happened a couple of hours later, when Thay was walking in the temple grounds with Sister Chan Khong and the abbot of Thay’s root temple in Hue. Thay squatted between the cabbages planted around the stupas, picked up some earth and let it flow through his hands, remarking that it was the first time in nearly forty years that he was able to touch the earth of his homeland. The abbot started to cry and I couldn’t stop myself from joining him.

—Evelyn Van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, Amsterdam

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Vietnamese country scenes Rice paddies and lakes Big French style homes And muddy shacks

In rain and cold Unexpected weather In farms and cities People work so hard

Road construction Buildings go up In fortune of peace Vietnam smiles

—Joy Magezis, True Wonderful Commitment, Cambridge, England

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What It Means

Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam is about importing the Buddhism he built in the West. When Thay came to the U.S. to try to stop the war, he already had a record of developing practices and approaches that would revitalize Buddhism and meet the real needs of people, both spiritual and material. It was labeled engaged Buddhism, a term that has become synonymous with Thay and his teaching.

Thay started the Order of Interbeing and the School of Youth for Social Service, a kind of Buddhist domestic Peace Corps, where volunteers studied medicine and nursing, economics, agriculture, and architecture and construction. They then went to live in rural villages to help with grassroots development. Thay was not popular with the Buddhist establishment of the time, nor the government. Not taking sides, speaking out against injustice, calling for change got him thirty-nine years in exile, which ended when he landed in Hanoi on January 12.

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Our job, one hundred monastics and ninety lay persons, was to display Thay’s Buddhism: gender equality; Sangha-centered decision making; lay persons who practice as well as support practice; close and happy relationships among lay and monastic Sangha members; engaged practice; enthusiastically embracing what can be learned from other traditions. These are all new and radical things in Vietnam. A Vietnamese member of the delegation told me, “You are the message. Educated westerners practicing and walking mindfully, that’s the news, that’s what gets the attention, that’s what gives Thay added credibility.”

—Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, Missoula, Montana

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First Days in Hanoi

The trip is starting to find its own rhythm: getting up around 4:30 a.m., having breakfast (sometimes on the bus), and visiting an average of four temples and shrines each day. We are met with exceptional warmth and kindness: people lining the streets, schoolchildren singing, women throwing flowers, followed by a sumptuous meal.

—Evelyn Van de Veen

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Letting Love

The Vietnamese are giving us a profound teaching with the abundance of love that they offer so effortlessly. Accepting it is easier when we look deeply and see that each one of us represents the love and wisdom that Thay generated over his forty years in exile. To the people who have been without their master, we are a walking, breathing, smiling testament to his life’s work. When I think of myself as capable of being a vessel for peace and wisdom, I feel for the first time that I can receive what comes from other people’s hearts and be deserving of it.

I find myself moving with marked slowness after seeing Thay pass by, because his formless beauty awakens the same in me. At times I find myself moving like him, curling my lips with ease like him, speaking with gentleness like him, and it is in these moments that I have come home. I am not so distinctly me or him; I am a vessel of stillness that is as quiet as a boat on a waveless ocean. Perhaps this is what the Vietnamese see—so many offerings of peace flowing in a river to their temples, warm with burning incense, into their hearts and palms pressed together in prayer.

—Kate Cummings, Asheville, North Carolina

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Saigon January 22 to February 18

A Sea of Monks and Nuns

There was a Day of Mindfulness at Vinh Nghiem Temple, an enormous, modern place with a grand stair­case leading up to a huge Buddha statue. The turnout in the south is even bigger than in the north, with a sea of grey robes and bare scalps, packed in knee to knee.

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Thay’s tone today was light-hearted and informal. Addressing the Vietnamese monastics, he told about many of the practices at Plum Village, such as shining the light, using Sangha eyes, not going out alone, doing everything together, and working through a democratic system. “Our abbots are not so busy; mostly what they do is drink tea,” he said.

—Alissa Fleet, Boundless Transformation of the Heart, Berkeley, California

Sacred Ground

Thây told us that Dharma Cloud Temple (Chua Phâp Van) is on sacred ground. More than forty years ago Thây designed and built the original thatch-hut temple, and the first classes of the School of Youth for Social Service were held here in 1964. Two years later, the first members of the Order of Interbeing were or­dained here. “Phâp Van is the cradle of engaged Buddhism,” says Thây. He describes the beautiful memorial garden where victims of war-time violence are honored: Nhat Chi Mai, one of the original members of the Order of Interbeing, who immolated herself for peace; the two people killed in a grenade attack on the temple; the eight social workers who disappeared, presumed dead; and the four social workers who were shot. “I could no longer cry. I had engaged them and now they were killed.” Thây then reads the letter that Nhat Chi Mai wrote to him before her death; he tells us that Nhat Chi Mai’s sister is in the audience, and even he does not keep the tears from his voice. Then he reads some of his poems.

—Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, Loubès-Bernac, France

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My Teacher Is In Me

In the Dharma talk today, Thay spoke at length about how our parents and grandparents are in us, in every cell of our body, that all our ancestral teachers are in us, as well as our teacher in this lifetime. Afterwards, wandering among the people in the temple courtyard, I was approached by a woman who bowed and offered me a book of Thay’s to sign. (A few of his books are being published, legally, in Vietnamese for the first time). It was open at the title page, and with pen in hand, she insisted that I sign the book! I laughingly resisted, until I remembered–– Thay is in me. This woman understood that, and was happy for me to sign the title page, since he could not. So, I happily signed my Vietnamese Dharma name, Chan An Dinh, True Concentration on Peace.

—Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace

Heaven on Earth

We took a bus out of Saigon and visited Bat Nha (Prajna Temple). This was among the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. To get there, we drove for two hours through wild, green mountains that rose up dramatically on either side of the winding, two-lane road. Arriving at the temple, we stepped into a utopia deep in tea and coffee plantations. Sloping fields full of tea bushes drop on all sides of this gorgeous refuge, making an almost flat, lush, waist-high green carpet of landscape. The air smelled like jasmine, and red earth paths circled in and around the grounds. From a speaker somewhere, voices were chanting with bells, the effect being nothing short of celestial.

We spent one day and night here, sleeping on the floor in buildings ringing the main temple. I awoke before sunrise to the steady, deep sound of a single drum heartbeat, then heard male voices chanting. I walked outside into the warm air following the sound and entered the temple. Twenty saffron-robed Theravadan monks visiting from Thailand were greeting the day. I sat in back on the smooth marble floor for almost an hour, listening, breath­ing, absorbing the sense of unity that voice, drum, and quiet early morning created among us. This place, Prajna Temple, deep in Vietnam’s tea fields, is a bit of heaven on earth.

—Lisa Haufschild

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Love Food

I have never had such delicious, sim­ple, lovingly prepared food.

At Phap Van, our main temple in Sai­gon, food was prepared by the nuns. On temple visits, the women prepare beautiful things. We have had banana leaves folded origami style into octagon shaped boxes holding a coconut tapioca square. Sesame squares are in handmade packets wrapped in colorful gift-wrapped cellophane. Tan­gerines, the sweetest I’ve ever had, are stacked and wrapped. This is not restaurant food. It is love food.

—Lisa Haufschild

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Transformation

By the last evening, people know that Phap Van is no longer an ordinary neighborhood temple where you smoke cigarettes and offer a cursory handful of in­cense. You can now hear children singing “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “Here Is the Pure Land.” When something wonderful happens on stage, people know to wave their hands in the air rather than applaud. And when the bell is invited, there is a long moment of settling and quieting. A transformation has clearly happened here: people are listening to the talks with a deeper stillness now.

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The local practitioners sit beautifully, some with their eyes closed, their hands folded before them. They listen peacefully as Thay delivers his farewell: teach­ings on interbeing; no coming, no going; no birth, no death. He holds up a sheet of paper, he strikes a match, he watches as the flame goes out. Where did it go? With deep intimacy, Thay speaks directly to each person: some day you might hear that I am deceased. And you might think I am gone. But all you need to do is look deeply to see that I am still here.

—Alissa Fleet


Hue February 18 to March 15

Thay’s Return to Tu Hieu Pagoda

Walking in long lines in silence we made our way towards the temple entrance. We heard drums in the distance, and tradi­tional Vietnamese music. We were surrounded by trees, the leaves glistening in the damp late morning air. The route was lined with people holding Buddhist flags, flowers, and paper lotuses contain­ing candles. Some cried silently; no one said a word. After fifteen minutes we arrived at an archway, above which a sign said, ‘The Tu Hieu Temple Welcomes the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh and the International Delegation from Plum Village’.

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Ahead of me I could see the Half Moon Pond. As Thay stood opposite me, he turned, looked at the pond and said to one of the monastics, “Am I dreaming or is this real?” “It is real, dear Thay,” came the reply.

—Sita Ramamurthy, Compassionate Understanding of the Heart, London

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Heaven

Tu Hieu Temple, set in the forest a few miles from town, is where Thay became a monk at the age of sixteen. Our ancestral teacher, Master Nhat Dinh built the hermitage which served as the starting point of this temple in the middle of the nineteenth century. He was a highly respected abbot at a larger temple, but when his mother became ill he decided to find a place to build a small hermitage and take care of her. He found this place, crawling with tigers and thick with forest. Undaunted, he made a little hut for himself and another for his mother. Despite his intentional isolation, disciples found him and eventually it expanded into a monastery.

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Returning to his childhood home and learning more about his teacher, we are all beginning to understand Thay in a wonderful new way. A remarkable thing is happening — he is looking younger each time I see him. We were told his teacher also began to look markedly younger during the last years of his life. The happiness on Thay’s face makes us all glow.

—Kate Cummings

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Releasing the Fish

One day the delegation piled into seven boats painted red and yellow with dragon-headed prows. For two hours we floated up the wide and languorous Perfume River, through a landscape of brilliant green forest dotted with the occasional pagoda, vil­lage, or cornfield. On the way back, we stopped in the middle of the river across from Thien Mu Pagoda, one of the most famous landmarks in Vietnam. The dragon boat captains maneuvered to face upstream all in a row, anchored, and roped their boats together side by side. From the prow of the central boat, a senior monk led the Ceremony Releasing the Fish. After the monastics chanted the ritual, a monk took a fish out of a tub bubbling with big catfish and ceremoniously released it into the river. Then dozens of squirm­ing fish were given their freedom, more and more, finally whole buckets of them dumped into the water. Such joy!

—Janelle Combelic

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Walking Meditation

Thay and the fourfold Sangha practiced walking meditation through central Hue, Hanoi, and Saigon. In Hue, the traffic was confined to the left side of the busy streets as we walked on the right half. The pavements were lined with people with palms joined. Hundreds more joined the walking meditation along the way until we were a body of many hundreds. This, for me, was a powerful expression of Thay’s teaching that society cannot thrive on economic advancement alone, but needs to have a spiritual dimension.

—Barbara Hickling, True Wonderful Land, Plymouth, Devon, England

mb39-Vietnam23Engaged Buddhism

While the monastics held a one-week retreat at Tu Hieu Tem­ple thirteen lay Dharma teachers led us in a lay retreat. Every day ninety of us came to the Dieu Nghiem nunnery next to Tu Hieu, for sitting and walking meditation, Dharma talks and discussions. The week was a sweet respite from the sometimes befuddling intensity of the pilgrimage. One afternoon we were joined by a dozen Vietnamese members of the Order of Interbeing, including some who had been part of the School of Youth for Social Service, founded by Thay in 1965, as a helping arm of Van Hanh University. Through the war, through the brutal years of communist rule since 1975, often working underground, they have continued feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, educating the poor.

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Describing their work over the past forty years and continuing today, they told us: There are many people not cared for by anyone so we build schools and hospitals to care for them. After 1972, lots of people in the South were evacuated so those who remained grew crops to help feed the rest. A lot of blood and sweat was shed on those lands to grow crops. After 1975 all operations were terminated by the government so we stopped officially for several years but continued working underground. In 1985 we received from Plum Village, packages of medicine to sell so we could buy rice to give to people in poor areas.

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Thay has taught us not to be attached to the political system, so when the government officials ask us to stop, I tell them that we only work in the spirit of loving our people and our country. We can continue because of the nurturing support of the Buddha, of all of you and of the energy of streams of all our ancestors.

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“Thây left us when I was twenty,” said a dignified gentleman with tears in his eyes, “and now we’re all in our sixties. We have missed Thây very much, always hoping and praying that he could return. When he came to Phâp Van temple (in Saigon,where the school was located) and touched our hands we were very emo­tional, very moved. Having Thay here for the past two months has nurtured us tremendously and we do not wish for him to leave.”

—Contributed by Sozan Schellin, Wild Rivers of the Source, Austin, Texas; Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, Washington, D.C.; and Janelle Combelic


Hanoi March 15 to March 30

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Halong and Yen Tu

Gliding past islands Stretching up from green water With tree topped hair At Halong Bay

What peace Steaming along No sign of mines Long past

mb39-Vietnam27Atop small mountain Red pagoda Against grey sky fog hovering at base

Yesterday Yen Tu Mount Crowds gathered for fest Climbing muddy rock steps To Zen King’s home

I climb with Nyu 74 year old pilgrim Holding hands I support her Others come past and help

With my grey robe, brown jacket I’m less an outsider Myu translated comments I smile, laugh with Viets

At heart of island There wondrous cave Stalactites drip beauty Into silent pond

Sangha walk through cave Stand chanting to Avalokita Feeling old water energy Releasing mind to touch joy

—Joy Magezis

Flow

And just how do I step into this beginningless flow? This I am taught by the flow of traffic in Hanoi. I stop and watch, and when I begin to feel myself slow down inside, when trust arises that the flow is there for me to tap into, the fear dissipates and I can see the openings in the traffic. Only after I am aware of this slowness in and outside of myself, have stopped and concentrated on what is flowing right before my eyes, am I ready to step into the traffic. And once I step in, it must be without hesitation; any hesitation separates me from the flow and actually causes danger to others. If I am tired, or shaky, as I often have been in Hanoi, I take the arm of a Sangha sister or brother, and let them lead me into and through. If I am alone, it’s harder. I will wait until someone else is crossing; it could be an old woman or someone carrying large bundles on either end of a bamboo pole, or even a bicycle or motor scooter crossing in my direction. The guide across the river will always come if I am patient, just as the opening in the throngs climbing Yen Tu mountain always came, if I waited and watched.

—Roberta Wall, True Insight of Peace, New York

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Binh Dinh Province March 30 to April 10

Monks and Nuns on the Beach

Now we near the sea Beyond salt drying fields Sister tells of old home Then white waves, clear sand

 Off the bus we go Onto peace time beach Old bunker behind Young monks jump into sea

Others follow joyfully Soon half the Sangha’s wet Brown robes bob in blue sea Laughter fills the air

—Joy Magezis

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How Was It?

It was exhausting. It was pivotal, I think, for Buddhism in Vietnam. It was a floating celebration. It was a reunion and a triumphal return. It was one of the most profound experiences in my life. Every night I dream about the trip and the Sangha; a different person every night. The night before I wrote this it was about Chuck, the twelve-year-old. The night before that about Terry Barber. Tonight, who knows. Maybe I’ll sleep through the night and won’t remember dreams. But the dreams will be there as Thay lives his dream—returning home and retooling Vietnamese Buddhism for the twenty-first century.

—Rowan Conrad

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PDF of this article

Nurturing Bodhicitta in Vietnam

An Interview with Sister Thoai Nghiem By Janelle Combelic

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I found Sister Thoai Nghiem at Lower Hamlet before the Breath of the Buddha retreat, mindfully hacking away at overgrown bushes behind the Dharma Nectar Hall. We met for this talk after the retreat, on June 25, 2006.

Mindfulness Bell: You’ve spent a lot of time in Vietnam since Thây’s trip early last year. There are two monasteries in Vietnam now that practice in the tradition of Plum Village—Tu Hieu (Thây’s root temple) in Hué and Bat Nha (Prajna Temple) in the south. How did that come about, and what has happened since then?

Sister Thoai Nghiem: During the trip Thây gave ordination to nineteen young people. They had applied to be monastics the year before, when several brothers and sisters and I came there to give teachings. So we sent them to Tu Duc Temple in Cam Ranh, whose abbot had come here to practice. We asked him to babysit them and he gave them guidelines of the practice. When the trip took place Thây gave ordination to them at Hoang Phap Temple [outside of Ho Chi Minh City] during the monastic retreat, with more than one thousand monastics. That was the first batch of Thây’s new students.

Two Dharma teachers, monks of Plum Village, agreed to stay behind in Hué to look after the six novice brothers ordained by Thây and fifty young men aspirants in Tu Hieu root temple. And Sister Bich Nghiem, a Dharma teacher from Plum Village, also kindly accepted to look after the twelve novice nuns and sixty new young women aspirants in Dieu Nghiem nunnery.

After Thây went back to France, the rumor circulated that you can practice engaged Buddhism in Thây’s style in Vietnam if you join Tu Hieu monastery or Dieu Nghiem nunnery. More aspirants kept coming to both temples, and after a couple of months Dieu Nghiem became too small. So we made the decision to move all of them to Prajna because it has more space.

So that’s how it started. When we first came to Prajna, we had seventy or eighty. But soon right after that, hearing of our presence, people started coming—more and more and more—and within a year we got up to two hundred nuns and aspirant nuns.

Mindfulness Bell: How many people were living at Prajna before you came with the nuns from Dieu Nghiem?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: There were no young nuns. Along with the abbot, Thây Duc Nghi, the residents consisted of a couple bhikshus [monks] and some very young novices, and two or three old bhikshunis [nuns]. They lived in the main house, and we moved into the place that was built supposedly for the elderly—the one where we stayed at night when we were there with Thây, a little bit further away.

For the winter retreat, Thây Duc Nghi with the support of our Thây of Plum Village wanted Prajna to have both monks and nuns. In September Thây Phap Kham and Thây Nguyen Hai of Plum Village came and started setting up the monks’ side. At that point we clearly started to have two hamlets, one for nuns, named Rosy Hearth Hamlet, and one for monks, called Fragrant Palm Leaves Forest Hamlet. And they also had more and more monks coming, and started accepting aspirants. We are now one hundred ten monks and aspirant monks and two hundred twenty nuns and aspirant nuns.

Mindfulness Bell: What is happening there now?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: At Prajna before I left for three months here, nobody really wanted me to go. But I said I needed to have a break. It’s not really a break to come back here and have four retreats (laughter). And when I go back to Vietnam I will bring some of the sisters, over fifty, to move back to Dieu Nghiem temple.

There are so many people who love the Dharma and love Thây’s teaching but also there are some who say that Thây’s teaching is good but it applies only to the Westerners. A few of them who have come to Plum Village are impressed but say that they cannot do anything, especially in Hué, because Hué is too proud of their conservative tradition.

Mindfulness Bell: For many of us Westerners who are immersed in the Plum Village practice it’s difficult to understand the contrast with traditional practice in Vietnam. As I gathered from the trip, Buddhism in Vietnam has endured constraints for many decades because of the political regimes in that country and today there are signs of some corruption in monastic practice. What does the tradition look like today, and why is Thây’s teaching so revolutionary?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: My explanation is probably not a complete one. But some basic differences that I have experienced are that all the temples in Vietnam like to chant in Sino-Vietnamese; they have been doing it for hundreds of years and they have difficulty chanting in Vietnamese. They go for the sound more than for the meaning; and we go for the meaning.

And secondly, they go more for ritual. The tendency is to think that the more ritual you have, the more you win the trust of lay people. We focus more on the content and the transformation. One tradition, for example, is to have formal lunch with monks wearing orange formal sanghati robes, sitting on chairs around a table, while devoted lay Buddhists offer them food and prostrate to them in order to obtain merit. This is not the simplified way of formal lunch in Plum Village.

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Even at Tu Hieu, Thây’s root temple, there was resistance. Before Thây’s return, we asked the monks in Tu Hieu to practice in Plum Village style: no private money except some monthly pocket money offered by the sangha ($3 per month), no private motorbike, no cell phone, no going to Internet except for sangha work and only with a second body, and so on. Two dozen monks left Tu Hieu because they could not live with these new trainings. But then forty new monks and aspirant monks filled in.

Another tradition is that they don’t let the sangha of bhikshus make decisions; the abbot has the authority to do everything. When I left the Rosy Hearth Hamlet of Prajna, even though I was not the abbess, just one of the oldest ones over there, some didn’t think that the hamlet of nuns could survive! I said, we have fifteen sisters from Plum Village working together, and if I leave, that directing sangha of fifteen sisters from Plum Village will take care of it. And I feel completely confident in leaving. It works! Thây put us into the position, where the decisions are made by the whole council of bhikshus or bhikshunis, not by one person.

Another example, as Thây has often said, here we don’t have individual money, individual cars, individual telephones. In Vietnam right now, most people get used to having their own money. If they go out and do a service [like funerals or rituals for ancestors] and receive money offered by lay Buddhists, that’s their own. In Plum Village when we are offered money we put it into the sangha budget.

In Prajna Temple right now, the abbot has requested that his old monastic students not have mobile phones, and they didn’t follow the rules. And finally the abbot had to ask them to go to another temple.

They love Thây’s Dharma talks, they love everything Thây says. Except they cannot live it. That’s why it’s difficult for them to give up everything and come and join the sangha and follow Thây’s path.

Many young people in Vietnam during the French colonization joined the jungle guerrilla to resist the French, as an ideal of service. Nowadays the young people in Vietnam have seen that being a monk or a nun in Plum Village style, with a very simple life full of joy in the practice, is an ideal of service too, and the number of those who aspire to become monks and nuns is increasing every day. For many months now, we have had to stop accepting new requests to join us because there is not enough space. Hopefully by setting up a nunnery in Hue we can accept more. We want to do it now because we see that it has been successfully done at Prajna and in Tu Hieu. In Tu Hieu the sixty-five new novice monks and the twenty old-style bhikshus have adjusted to the way of living in Plum Village style. It proves to all of Vietnam that Thây’s teaching is applicable; it responds to the needs of the younger generation who have the bodhicitta and would like to lead the monastic life as an engaged step to improve society in a happy way.

Mindfulness Bell: There’s also the gender issue in Vietnam that Thây is revolutionizing—where nuns are always subservient to monks, even if the monk is very junior to the nun. It must be hard for both men and women in Vietnam to learn a new way of being together in monastic life.

Sr Thoai Nghiem: The new aspirants who come in and become nuns under the tradition of Plum Village, they love it. In their life right now, they like that the monks and nuns are equal. The nuns that got trained in the traditional way, yes, they always feel like they are behind.

This makes me think of a story. We wanted to have an alms round for Prajna Temple, just before the Buddha’s Birthday, where we go around and ask for food. We did several of these during the trip with Thây and this was the first time it was done in Bao Loc.

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But when we went as a committee to talk with the monk who has authority in the area, he said no. He said he would authorize it and join it on the condition that nuns would not be allowed to walk parallel to the monks. As you remember, our monks walk on one side of the street and nuns on the other side. He said no, he would not accept that. The second thing he asked is that no novices are allowed to go on an alms round, only bhikshus and bhikshunis are allowed. Our Plum Village monks told him that Rahula, an eightyear-old novice in the time of the Buddha, went on alms round for food too. But the traditional monk still refused. The third thing he asked was that we wear the orange sanghati robe. But Thây is a revolutionary, he wants us to go back to the traditional way of Buddhists in Vietnam; since Buddhism arrived in this country, monastics have worn brown, the color of poor farmer cloth, the color of the poor. We save sanghati for more ritual ceremonies.

So that high monk in Bao Loc refused to join us if we do not follow his requests according to the “traditional” way. Then we had to go on with our Plum Village way without him!

And it made a big impression on the people. We were there with 200 monks and nuns, most of them young, and they had never seen that. It was very beautiful. We just did what Thây did, we wore brown and our straw hats and carried our bowls.

Mindfulness Bell: How will Thây’s next trip be different from the previous one?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: Most people say it will be easier to organize than the last one, because we already know Vietnam and this is the second trip. But I don’t think so. Each trip has a different flavor, and Thây is an artist full of creative ideas. We have to trust that he will invent many interesting loving offerings to the nation during the trip, on the spot, and everyone will be happy.

But the second thing is that now we have so many people who know about Thây and I cannot predict the number of people who will come and listen to Thây.

We are busy trying to build some more facilities to host people when they come to Prajna. One thing for sure, every time we have a day of mindfulness, just among us, we already have three or four hundred people. We have a day of mindfulness for lay people once a month and we have up to eight hundred already. People come from all over Vietnam, relatives of those monks and nuns. And that’s without Thây! Just think if Thây’s coming!

I’m not sure if I’m exaggerating but I think it could be up to four thousand people coming or attending retreats. That’s quite a big job for us to do in organizing things over there.

Mindfulness Bell:You’re up to it! I admire you so much, Sister. I’ve heard you tell some stories from the last trip about the challenges you faced working on the accommodations for the lay delegation, challenges with hotel owners and so forth. How do you manage to keep your stability, your mindfulness in the face of so many challenges?

Sr Thoai Nghiem: Walking meditation! Follow my breathing! (laughter) I suppose that’s all. I always have to remember what Thây says—your practice is the most important thing.

Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, is editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Remember Remember Remember

By Sister Dang Nghiem mb43-Remember1

When I close my eyes, I see hundreds of little eyes looking at me: round, dark, innocent eyes, eyes opened wide. They wrench my heart and force me to seek deeper understanding of my path.

Therese came to visit our Understanding and Love Program in the highlands of South Vietnam. We organized a tea meditation at Prajna Temple on the night of her arrival to celebrate her visit and the visit of one of our elder sisters. The meditation hall was packed with over 250 monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen.

Our Venerable Abbot spoke warmly to welcome the visiting sister and Therese. He told the history of our Prajna monastery (“Prajna” means “understanding”). Around 40 years ago, inspired by Thây’s teachings that he had read in Fragrant Palm Leaves, he and seven other young novices had the aspiration to continue Thây’s teachings and practices of engaged Buddhism in the highlands of South Vietnam. They built their first hermitage in what is now known as An Lac Temple (Temple of Peace and Happiness). That temple gave birth to seven other temples including Prajna, the most recent, established in 1998. Except for An Lac, the temples are situated in the remote areas of the highlands where the aboriginal K-ho people live and the poor people from North Vietnam have come to resettle.

Over the years, our Venerable Brother and his monastic disciples lived with and supported the people in these underserved communities. They established a school following the model of the Understanding and Love Program begun by Thây’s social workers in the 1960s.

When our Venerable Brother wanted to expand the school program, he went to Plum Village to ask Thây for support. For the eight years that followed that visit, Thây’s lay students trained through the School forYouth and Social Services have worked with the Venerable to establish 39 kindergarten schools for children in the distant areas of the highlands.

The next morning we all got in a van—our Venerable Brother, Therese, four social workers, the driver, and me, Therese’s translator.

Noble Veterans of the School for Youth and Social Services

The four social workers who accompanied us were young men in their twenties when they joined the School for Youth and Social Services (SYSS), established by Thây. Now they were all in their sixties. In the 1960s they had gone to war zones and worked together with the villagers to build bridges, create makeshift classrooms, and establish health clinics.

“Over three hundred social workers had graduated from the School for Youth and Social Services,” they said. “Thây continued to provide us guidance even after he went to Europe and the United States to call for a stop to the war in Vietnam. However, when the communists took over Vietnam, all of our social works were forbidden. We lost contact with Thây for fifteen years!

“After contact was re-established, we began to do social work again. Now, there are only a few more than 30 active social workers working throughout the three regions of north, central, and south Vietnam.”

I asked the men what fueled their minds of love after all these years. “It’s our love and loyalty to Thây,” one replied, and the three other social workers nodded in agreement. “It’s also the practice of the Dharma that nourishes us. We certainly would not be able to continue this work if we did it for the money.” (They receive every month from Plum Village an equivalent of less than $100 dollars.)

Fresh as the Dew, Solid as a Mountain

The first of the kindergarten schools we visited was not far from our monastery. I hesitate to call these locations schools, because they are just one to three rooms (each room about 3 by 4 meters), one small kitchen, and a toilet (squatting style). Most of the schools stand isolated in a field of tea plants; some are built adjacent to the house of the people who have donated the land.

As we walked to the door of the first school, the children stood and joined their palms into lotus buds to greet us. “We respectfully greet Thây” (to our Venerable Abbot). “We respectfully greet Su Co” (Su Co literally means Miss Teacher, which referred to me, a Buddhist nun). “We respectfully greet our aunts and uncles” (this to the social workers and Therese). The children all looked at us with their big eyes, then quietly returned to their places. There were no tables and no chairs. Thirty to forty children sat on the floor next to each other along the walls of the room. At some schools, the floor had ceramic tiles, but at the more remote locations, the floors were made of bare cement.

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Therese and I walked into the room and sat down with the children. Their teacher led them in a song: “Here is the Pure Land. The Pure Land is here. I smile in mindfulness and dwell in the present moment....” Then she started another song: “Breathing in, breathing out. Breathing in, breathing out. I am blooming as a flower. I am fresh as the dew. I am solid as a mountain. I am firm as the earth. I am free.” The four- and five-year-olds sang enthusiastically with their hands gesturing for flowers and mountains. The very little ones just lip-sang or sat wide-eyed in silence.

Keeping the Children Safe and Fed

At each location, Therese asked why there was a need for our Understanding and Love Program. The teachers and social workers explained that the local government only provided primary schools; there were no schools for toddlers. In addition, the parents had to pay for school fees and daily meals. Since most of the people in these regions work on tea and coffee plantations, either working for themselves or for the Taiwanese companies that have 50-year contracts for use of the land, they are too poor to send their children to the government school. Many parents had to leave their children at home so that the parents could go to work in these plantations. The children had many accidents at home by themselves. These were the reasons the parents came together and petitioned our Venerable Abbot for a school for their toddlers.

The families promised to take turns offering a room in their house for the school; often the woman in that family also offered to be the teacher for the school. Eventually the parents planned to put together enough money to buy land for a real school for their children, but when the parents cannot raise enough money for a school, the Understanding and Love Program helps them buy the land, purchase the materials for the school building (the parents work together to build it), pay the teacher’s monthly salary, and feed the toddlers two times a day.

The Joy of Giving

In some locations, the parents donate the land for the school. I met a woman who had offered the small piece of land that her family owned for a place to build a school. The Understanding and Love Program has not yet collected enough money to build it, so she was also allowing the school to meet in her house. Her house has only two rooms and it is small and shabby. I was too curious not to ask her, “Your husband and you are so poor. Why did you not sell the land that you have? Why did you donate it to the school?”

She exclaimed, “We would never sell the land!”

“Then why did you donate it?”

“Grandfather Monk (referring to Thich Nhat Hanh) and the monks and nuns do charity work for us. This is my contribution to the charity work,” she said.

My heart sank into a deep silence.

Her two children were helping with the school program. I asked the younger one if it was annoying that so many children were in her house. “Not at all, respected Su Co,” she replied.

“Does it bring you joy then?” I asked.

“Yes, very much so, Su Co,” she answered with a smile. “What do you do to help?”

“When I come back from school, I help my mother wash the children’s hands and feet,” she said.

I turned to her older sister. “Do you help your mother with the children, too?”

“Yes,” she answered quietly. “Are you still in school?”

“No, Su Co. I stopped going to school after fourth grade.” “Do you wish to go to school?”

“Yes,” she replied quietly.

“Does it make you sad that you cannot go to school?”

She simply looked down to the floor; her face turned pale. I stroked her unkempt hair and breathed mindfully. Later, as we walked out of the woman’s house, Therese said to me, “It’s so sad that the mother’s salary as a teacher is not enough to put her own children in school!”

Serving the K-ho People

We visited a school of the aboriginal people of K-ho. The teacher was 24 years old. She had received a scholarship to go to a university in the city, but she chose to stay and teach her own people. She taught a night class to teenagers and adults for a number of years, and thanks to her, illiteracy was eradicated in her area. During the day, she took care of toddlers and taught them how to speak, read, and write in Vietnamese. Each year, she would take the ones who had just turned six to the public primary school, then for a week to ten days, she walked with them to their new school, staying in class with them as they got familiar with the place and became less frightened. Then she returned to her own preschool class. She was the only teacher to thirty toddlers. Another woman helped cook breakfast and lunch for the children.

We went deeper into the forest to visit another location. The local government had received funds to build a primary school in each sub-district but they ended up leaving many of the schools vacant since the parents could not pay for their children to attend the school. Our Venerable Brother borrowed one of these primary schools for our Understanding and Love Program. (“We’ll eventually borrow all of them,” he said with a charismatic smile.) I was surprised to discover that these public schools include just a few relatively big rooms and no toilets or sinks! (The tea plants surrounding these schools must grow well with the natural fertilizers.)

The children at this location were also of the K-ho ethnic group. Their clothes were discolored and many did not even have socks or hats. It was cold and windy, but they all sat on a thin straw mat on a cement floor; there were no toys and no decorations in the room. The children simply sat still and silent.

I placed a small girl on my lap. The teacher said to me, “The father of

that child died last year in a vehicle accident. Her mother is only 22 years old and she has to take care of two children by herself. They are very poor.” The child was 17 months old, but when I pulled her up, she could stand for only a few seconds before she sat back down. Yet her face was beautiful and calm like a full moon, and her eyes opened wide.

Little Zen Masters

Again and again at each location, Therese and I were deeply struck by the children’s demeanor—and by their eyes. They were quiet and still, but their bodies and minds were not flaccid or lethargic. Their eyes were wide open and calm, yet penetrating. I saw them as little Zen masters in meditation, sitting in ease and acceptance.

We went to three more locations that afternoon. When we arrived at the last school we had tea with the two teachers and an elderly woman whose granddaughter attended our school. The tea was particularly strong and fragrant. The women told me that most of the tea plantations in this area belonged to Taiwanese owners who lived in Bao Loc with their families. The local workers were allowed to use only the old tea leaves for drinking (called chè); the young tea leaves were harvested for exports (called trà). I said to them that I must be drinking trà, and the elderly woman smiled in embarassment, saying, “Well, it’s a special occasion that the Venerable and you are here, so I went to the tea garden back there and took a few young leaves.” She smiled.

Spiritual Nourishment

I asked the teachers if they were tired after taking care of the children from 6:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday. They smiled, a smile of kindness, acceptance, and endurance.

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“How do you nourish yourselves?” I asked them.

“We go to Prajna temple and the monks and nuns teach us how to take care of the children and of ourselves,” one teacher told us.

“How does the practice help you?”

“I learn to bring joy to other people. I don’t get so upset anymore. If I didn’t hear the children’s voices for a few days, I would miss them!” she replied.

On our visits to the schools we discovered the importance of spirituality. “Hunger and poverty is one kind of suffering,” said our Venerable Abbot. “Yet, the lack of spirituality is a greater suffering. The people in these areas are very poor, but they live their lives with honesty and joy because they have a spiritual practice. If not, their lives would be much darker,” he said.

The Beauty of Interbeing

Towards the end of our time together, our Venerable Brother slowly looked at each of our faces. Then he turned to speak to the four social worker brothers, “Well, do you have any last thing to say to sister Therese? Tomorrow, on our way to Saigon together, we will be practicing silence and hand gestures!” Everyone laughs wholeheartedly because they know I will not be in the car with them to translate.

On the way to the car, Therese and I reached out to embrace one another. I follow mindfully my in-breaths and out-breaths, as I feel concretely Therese’s presence in my arms. We have shared meaningful and beautiful moments together. I am keenly aware that I may never see her again, yet our lives are forever intertwined.

And the eyes of the children, they will always remind us to reflect deeper into our path and to remember. Remember. Remember.

Sister Dang Nghiem worked in the U.S. as a medical doctor before she became a nun. She lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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