Thay’s 2005 return to Vietnam

Nurturing Bodhicitta in Vietnam

An Interview with Sister Thoai Nghiem By Janelle Combelic


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.


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.


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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Sangha Building in Hanoi

By Trish Thompson mb43-Sangha1

I am living in Hanoi. Am I dreaming? How has this happened? The answers can, as always, be found in the teachings. This is because that is. Manifestation occurs when conditions are sufficient. The understanding of the answers, however, is found in life, and mine has definitely taken some unexpected turns.

When I arrived in Vietnam in January 2005 for the trip with Thây, I was feeling especially happy and free. I had finally completed a five-year divorce process, the culmination of many years (and perhaps, many lifetimes) of bobbing about in the ocean of suffering. I had lived for decades in a hell realm which left me no alternative but to practice. My teachers, the teachings, and the sangha, as well as my determination and effort, had allowed me to transform the negative energies which had been so all-consuming. Now, how perfect to begin this new phase of my life by traveling and practicing for three months with Thây and the sangha in Vietnam! I had laughingly told friends and family in the U.S. that “I just might not come back.” I was joking, or so I had thought!

Right away, riding into Hanoi from the airport, I felt a strong attraction to the landscape and architecture. The lushness of the rice paddies, and the bent backs and conical hats of those who were working them, stirred something in me. A thought came, “I could live here.”

Over the next weeks, as is usual for me, I fell in love with the sangha and with everything and everyone around me, but something was different. The ocean of suffering had been transformed into a sea of love, and I was swimming in it. The Heart Sutra became real. I was living it. There seemed to be no obstacles for my path, and consequently, the trip unfolded easily. Even though our schedule was very full and the law of impermanence sometimes manifested quickly and unexpectedly, nothing could mar my happiness.

I quickly made wonderful connections with Vietnamese people, first in Hanoi and then in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). During a Day of Mindfulness at Van Hanh University, the Buddhist institute in HCMC that Thây had co-founded over 40 years ago, I had surprising encounters with two faculty members and the president, who all agreed that they needed to have a foreigner on staff. And they invited me to return to teach mindfulness meditation and English. Our shared enthusiasm was somewhat tempered when they remembered that for them to receive permission to hire a foreigner would not be easy and would take time. While I knew this invitation might be withdrawn, the seed of possibility had been thoroughly watered.

In segment two, I experienced a strong connection to the land during an overnight visit with Thây and the sangha to Bat Nha [Prajna Temple], the practice center in the central highlands. I felt such profound contentment and immediately visualized myself spending time there. When the announcement was made that Bat Nha would become a Plum Village monastic center, a surge of joy ran through my body.

During Têt, which we celebrated in HCMC, my oracle was read by Sister Chan Khong and Brother Phap Tru. My question was, “I am happy here. I am also happy there. In Vietnam, however, I see love everywhere, especially in the eyes of the people. I want to live here. I want to help build a bridge between the East and the West. How can I do that?” The answer from the Patriarchs came down through the centuries, declaring, “If you meditate consistently in your meditation hut, in a balanced way, all your wishes will come true.” I think I floated out of the meditation hall. Carried by feelings of calm confidence, I had my assignment and somehow I knew I could do it. A few days later, Sister Chan Khong announced that lay friends could invest in the construction of meditation huts at Bat Nha, and I immediately committed.

My future seemed clear. I would live in HCMC. However, several times I heard myself say to others, “I wish something would happen in Hanoi.” Something seemed to be pulling me to that northern city, even though nothing very special had happened to me there. But the trip was not over.

Love and Service in Hanoi

At the end of the three-month tour, I had two nights and three whole days to enjoy being in Hanoi before returning to the U.S. An American lay-sister, a roommate on the tour, suggested that while there, I should meet her cousin, for “he is very interesting, loves living and working in Vietnam, and is a good person for you to know.” I agreed, so she introduced us via e-mail. An American lay-sister suggested I meet an American woman, a Quaker who has lived and worked in the country for more than 30 years.

Conditions were truly sufficient. I met the cousin for dinner, and we agreed to meet for a second evening. I met the woman, and we enjoyed time over lunch. They each, in their own way, urged me to stay, and I did. I postponed my departure for some weeks, then returned to the U.S. only to pack a few things for my move to Hanoi. These life-changing decisions were the easiest I have ever made.

The woman became a dear friend. The man became my beloved and my partner. I was home. I am often asked how I found this partner and this relationship that brings me so much joy. I did not find him, for I was not looking. I was becoming. I became the happy, loving person I wanted to meet, and there he was!

Planting a Dharma Garden

For years, when voicing a wish to become a monastic, I was told to create happiness through sangha building. I tried, but my practice was too weak. Sister Susan said, “Nurture yourself. Plant a garden,” and I did. I withdrew from that which brought no happiness. Several years of gardening were required before flowers could bloom, but with right effort and the support of the sangha, all things are possible.

I received the transmission for membership in the Order of Interbeing in 2002. While that is certainly not a prerequisite for sangha building, my own practice deepened, and in 2003 I started the Sea Island Sangha of Beaufort, South Carolina. I found much happiness in my work there.

The Hanoi Community of Mindful Living (HNCML) became a reality in April 2006. We are a very dedicated group, many of whom are new to the practice. Each week seems to bring one or two experienced practitioners. We are a diverse sangha of many cultures, with both foreign and Vietnamese friends. Our core is made of 15 to 18 people who love to practice together. Already, more than 120 names are on our e-mail list.

Our weekly schedule is quite full, with something for everyone. Early morning sitting and walking meditation is three days a week. A compassionate listening group meets every Tuesday. One evening is devoted to sitting, walking, and Dharma discussion. On another, we chant for peace. Occasionally, we enjoy a special practice or day of mindfulness.

I do not question for a moment why I am in Vietnam. I am here because I am happy here. I am here to build sangha. The roots of my spiritual family are in this land. Sanghabuilding here, I have discovered, is no different from sanghabuilding in South Carolina, and, I suspect, anywhere else. Nurturing myself and taking care of my inner garden is my priority. When I do that, my loving energy is boundless.

mb43-Sangha4Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, recently helped translate and edit an anthology of Vietnamese women’s poetry, to be published by Vietnam’s Women’s Publishing House and the Feminist Press of New York City.

A Recent Evening of Sitting & Chanting at the Hanoi Community of Mindful Living

Linh’s face breaks into a broad smile, as she bows and begins to speak. “I am thirty years old, and I hope I can come to this place forever!” The rest of our group laughs. “I feel so happy here,” she says. “All my colleagues at work tell me I am so much happier, since I began to come to these meetings, and it’s true!” The next to speak is Alan who bows and offers, “I’ve done a lot of work with the mentally ill and the mentally challenged, and I’ve been thinking this week about how I can introduce that population to the practice of chanting. After only a few weeks, I can see that chanting is very healing.” Hang speaks next: “ My whole life has changed since I found this group. I have fallen in love with the teacher, the teachings, and the practice!” Daisuke introduces himself. He has meditated for many years in a Japanese tradition. “I am so surprised at my feelings,” he says as he pats his chest.


On this Thursday evening, we are a group of eighteen. Chanting is a new practice for our members. We are learning to chant the Opening Verse and the Heart Sutra in English, after which we sit while listening to the Vietnamese version on CD.


We follow this with twenty minutes of sitting and chanting Namo ‘Valokiteshvara, a weekly practice. We send our loving kindness energy to ourselves and then to all places and people who are experiencing violence and war.

The last thirty minutes we devote to the singing of Plum Village songs. Tonight, we learn “No Coming, No Going” in English. Tam, a seasoned practitioner, sings it in Vietnamese, earning our silent, enthusiastic applause. She agrees to teach us next week. Someone suggests we sing it in French, and we do. Huong, a newcomer, beams and says, “I love singing! My favorite sentence is ‘I am in you, and you are in me.’”

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