becoming a monastic

Being the Practice

By Sister Annabel (Sister True Virtue) From a talk given in the New Hamlet, Plum Village.

Dear Mahasangha good afternoon. Today is the 9th of December in the year 2001. It seems that the object of mind and the subject are not separate. I could think that I am the subject and Plum Village is the object of my mind. But the way I talk about Plum Village and the way I see Plum Village is not really separate from my mind. It is not separate from the collective mind, the mind of others, either. Plum Village is a collective creation.

"Oh, What it is to be happy"

I have always liked to sing. When I arrived in India in 1979 to practice with some Tibetan nuns I immediately found that I was able to sing in a way that I hadn't been able to sing before. Whenever I had an emotion I would sing about it. The Tibetan nuns liked singing very much. Whenever we had a chance to be a little bit lazy and walk in the forest, which wasn't very often, they would always sing. And they would ask me to sing for them in English. I wasn't quite sure what to sing that would be in harmony with the Dharma. So I had to make up my songs as I went along. Whenever I had even a tiny realization in the practice I would make up a song about it. One song was called, "Oh, what it is to be happy." At that time I didn't know what it was like to feel really happy inside.

One day I was coming back to the monastery carrying some wooden planks on my shoulder because we were building the monastery in the forest. I saw one of the monks sitting on the side of the mountain. The monks live on one side of the river and the nuns live on the other side. We were up in the mountain and down below us in the valley were rice fields. The rice fields looked very beautiful divided by dikes. In the distance there were more mountains with clouds. You could hear the children laughing in the valley and you could smell the scent of pine trees. You could hear the boy who looks after the cows playing his flute. Everything was perfect, a Pure Land. But somehow in my heart I was not happy. When I saw the monk sitting there, he looked as if he were completely free, completely happy. Although I didn't know in myself what happiness was, I thought I could experience it through him. So I wrote that song, "Oh, what it is to be happy." I stayed in India for eighteen months. During that time I appreciated so much the beauty of the place where I was staying. But I never felt as in really got a hold of a practice that would help me to transform.

I wanted very much to be a nun. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a Catholic nun. When I was twenty-one I asked an abbot of a monastery in Normandy if I could be accepted as a Benedictine nun. He said no. When I went to India to be with the Tibetan nuns I still had the dream to become a nun. They also said no. Because I couldn't become a nun I thought I might not be in the right place, the place where I could really devote myself to the practice and really transform myself. I felt I had so much to transform to really be able to feel the happiness that I witnessed in the monk sitting on the hillside. One day I was feeling very lonely. There had been a drought so I hadn't had a bath for three months. That sounds like a long time. My skin was very black with dirt and I knew that I didn't smell very nice and I felt very hungry because we never had enough to eat. In the morning we had a little bit oftea if we were lucky and if we were luckier we had a little bit of barley flour to put in the tea, but not always. At lunch we had one or two chapattis, a kind of Indian bread. And in the evening we had a little bit of rice soup. As we became poorer and poorer the rice soup became more and more watery. When I would wake up in the morning my stomach was always grumbling. It was also cold because we were quite high up in the mountains. I was shivering and hungry. But because of the beauty of the place and because deep down I wanted to practice so much, I stayed for a year and a half.

One day a monk came along from the main monastery and he had a radio. In the place where we lived we didn't have any electricity or running water. I don't know how he managed to have a radio but he did and he could pick up the BBC world news. He understood English, which was very rare. He said to me, "You know in England now there are thousands of women who are sitting around the missile bases to stop atomic weapons from being transported out." There were many American missile bases at that time in England. He said, "This is a wonderful thing to do." When I heard that I thought maybe that is what I would do.

Finding My True Teacher

So I left India and I went back to England and joined the women. They would sit there day and night to block missiles from leaving the base. We would put ourselves in front of the gate so that the missiles couldn't come out. This is also part of my deep aspiration: I want there to be peace in the world. I don't want there to be any war. So I thought this was a way to express my deep aspiration for peace. But in fact it is not enough to sit at the gate of a missile base. You need to sit at the gate of your own mind in order to be able to be aware of mental formations in your own mind and to transform them. That is a very important part of peace work. Some people were not peaceful in themselves. I asked everyone at the missile bases, "Does anyone know about Buddhist practice, does anyone do meditation? Do you know anybody who is in the peace movement and also is a Buddhist?" Everyone said, no, they didn't know anyone. Then one day someone said, "Oh yes, I know someone. He is a Buddhist teacher from Vietnam," and they said Thay's name. Then I remembered that when I was in India, when I was so sure that I wanted to be a nun in the Tibetan tradition, one of the Tibetan teachers said to me, "No, your teacher will come from the far East, not from Tibet." Other nuns said to me, "You have to meet your real teacher in the country of your birth."

I heard about Thay and I wanted to find out more about him. I wanted to read what he had written and I wanted to be with people who knew him. I did my best to find a community. There was a Buddhist Peace Fellowship community in Kent so I joined them. We used to produce the Buddhist Peace Fellowship magazin e. We would go on peace  demonstrations and join discussions on peace. Whenever we went on demonstrations for peace we always tried to practice walking meditation because we were in touch with Thay through his writings. But it was not enough to be in touch with Thay through his writings. I wanted to be in touch with Thay's person also. One day one member in the community in Kent asked, "Why don 't we invite Thay to come to England and give some teaching?" So lmet Thay in England and Thay comes from the Far East. I had all the right conditions to meet my true teacher.

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When [ first saw Sister True Emptiness in the airport I fe lt that she belonged to my blood family. I don't know why but that is how I fe lt. When they had to go home on the last day I was a little bit sad because I didn't know when I would see Thay and Sister True Emptiness again. I was in the car with Thay and I had to get out of the car to go home and Thay was being driven on to somewhere else. As I stepped out of th e car, Thay also stepped out and asked if I would like to come to Plum Village for the summer opening that year. When I heard that, all my sadness went away. That summer, in 1986, I went to Plum Village.

Another Pure Land

It was very hot that summer. The first thing Thay said to me was, "Here is India, India is here." That made me immediately feel at home because the first time I had experienced the Pure Land was in India . Here was another Pure Land for me to experience. The Upper Hamlet was so simple and so beautiful. The Transformation Hall was not yet there. The Still Water Hall wasn't there. Everyone was busy preparing for the summer opening. I immediately felt the atmosphere of complete relaxation. I immediately felt that I was at home. Later on that day someone took me down to the Lower Hamlet. I felt even more at home. It is very strange, from the time that I left the place where I was born I had never felt at home like that. When I looked at the stones the buildings were made of and when I looked out over the hills, I felt like that. Actually I was still a very unhappy person, but I was very happy to find my home, my Pure Land. Thay says you don't need to have transformed all of your afflictions to dwell in the Pure Land. I don't know what good fortune I had to be able to be there.

We enjoyed the summer opening. I spent two weeks in the Upper Hamlet with Thay and two weeks in the Lower Hamlet with Sister True Emptiness. In those days, Sister True Emptiness was the practice leader in the Lower Hamlet and Thay looked after the Upper Hamlet. We weren 't very well organized. We did everything at the last minute. Sister True Emptiness would have an idea to do something and five minutes later we would do it. It was nothing like the summer opening now. The summer opening was very beautiful because it was a kind of haven for Vietnamese refugees. When they arrived in Europe from the refugee camps, many Vietnamese people found themse lves in a situation completely unlike what they had known in Vietnaill. They found themselves living in a place where they could not speak their own language, eating strange food , probably doing menial work whereas they may have had a high degree of education in Vietnam, and so on. Plum Village is a place where there is Vietnamese language, Vietnamese food and other Vietnamese people.

Sister True Emptiness said it is very important to speak Vietnamese. The refugees have to speak a language that isn't the ir own a ll day long and they really need to reconnect with their roots. That is one of the reasons I really wanted to speak Vietnamese. I was lucky because everybody spoke Vietnamese so it wasn't difficult to learn. In those days the summer opening was quite Vietnamese. Now it is a bit more European and North American.

My real Vietnamese teacher was Sister Chan Vi . She was ordained at the same time that Sister True Emptiness and I were ordained in India. She came to Plum Village from the Philippines' refugee camp. In the winter of I 986, Thay and Sister True Emptiness had gone to visit the different refugee camps and share the practice. They had met Sister Chan Vi at that time and asked her to come to Plum Village. When she arrived she felt it was strange to be in a foreign country and especially to stay with someone who was English and only spoke a few words of Vietnamese. At first it was a I ittle bit difficult.

Sister Chan Vi was the first member of my Sangha that I lived with twenty-four hours a day. When I lived in India I had learned about living with people of a different culture. I knew that there were things that might seem quite natural to me that for someone from another culture might seem offensive. When we live with people from other cultures we need to practice mindfulness and be aware of our actions of body and speech because we can easily offend someone without meaning to.

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I remember in India we lived in a little hut. I was a lay person at the time. The hut was on stilts and under the hut they kept the rice and other things. From time to time a nun would have to go under the hut to bring something out. When I was sitting in the hut it was my duty to leave the hut and stand outside for the nun to be able to go underneath because it would be disrespectful to sit on top of the nun going under the hut. That is not something I learned in England. At first r was very offended if in the pouring rain, in the middle of the monsoon I was told I had to leave the hut so they could go underneath and fetch something. But I learnt that this is part of politeness, a way of not offending people and keeping people happy, so after awhile I managed to do it without feeling any resistance in my heart. With Sister Chan Vi I also tried my best to learn about what is considered correct in the Vietnamese culture.

We both liked garden ing. When Sister Chan Vi had been in Vietnam she had spent time in a temple on the mountain and she had looked after the garden there. In our little garden we grew quite a few Vietnamese vegetables. Actually our garden was under plastic because they wouldn't have grown outside. Whenever you went into that garden you could smell the fragrant herbs, just like if you go into the greenhouse here, today.

Every morning we would rise early and go straight out into the garden because there were many slugs and they would eat everything up if you were not careful. We would pick up the sl ugs and take them out into the forest. We pulled up any weeds. After we had looked after the garden a little bit we would go to the mediation hall and practice sitting meditation together. If it was summer time we would go into the Red Candle Hall. In the winter it was too cold, we didn't have any heat, so we would go to the little room next to the Red Candle Hall. When it rained, the rain would come in because the roof tiles were loose; they weren't attached to each other with cement or anything else. When a supersonic plane went overhead and broke the sound barrier, all the tiles would move. When the tiles moved, they left a gap. So whenever it rained, we had to put out all the buckets to catch the rain coming in. In the winter it used to snow more than it does now. The snow would blow in through the tiles. One time we went up into the attic and there was snow quite high, maybe ten centimeters or so. We had to shovel all the snow in the attic, put it into buckets and carry it down. Fortunately someone very kind saw that we wanted to practice and offered to gi ve a donation to fix the roof so that snow and rain wouldn't come in anymore. That was the first time we had a big donation. Before that we were really quite poor.

In the winter we heated the rooms with some wood stoves. But in order to have the wood we had to go out and saw it in the morning. We had a saw with handles on two ends. Sister Chan Vi held one end and I held the other and together we sawed the wood. She said that she used to do the same in Vietnam. She used to go into the forest, saw the wood and sell it to help supprt her family.

I was very happy when Sister Chan Vi came. To be able to live together with just one other person in the Sangha twenty-four hours a day is already wonderful. When you have a sister who also wants to practice with you, you receive a lot of energy in the practice. The energy to practice was not doubled, but it increased ten or a hundred times. She supported me very much. She had often wanted to be a nun when she was in Vietnam, and she really liked the practice. She wanted to practice sitting meditation, reciting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and chanting the sutras, and she chanted very well. She taught me how to chant the sutras. Sister Chan Vi was also a very good cook and she showed me how to cook Vietnamese food.

Sister True Emptiness also supported me and Thay was always patient. I don't think I was an easy younger sister to have. I think I have transformed quite a bit since then, but I haven't transformed everything since you can still see some of the weaknesses I had then. Sister True E mptiness was very patient with me and very open. She never showed any kind of discrimination at all. No one in the Sangha seemed to have any kind of strong racial discrimination, but sometimes we find it a bit easier to be with people of our own culture. But Sister True Emptiness is just as easy with people of different cultures as she is with people of her own culture.

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Thay very kindly allowed me to organize more retreats in England to which Thay agreed to come and teach. The Sangha in England began to grow. I used to meet people whom I had known before I had come to Plum Village and they would say, "Two years ago, you were so arrogant and now you have changed a lot." That I have been able to transform gives me and others so much confidence in Thay's way of practice.

Ordination in India

As well as going to England, Thay said that we would go to India. When Thay says we wil l do something, we a lways do it. In the world often when people say something, they might never do it. Thay had been thinking about going to India for a whil e and it was arranged and we were able to go. I was very happy because India had always been my spiritual home and I couldn't think of anything better than to go there with Thay. I didn't know that Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chan Vi had asked to be ordained as nuns in India. When I found out I thought, 'Why can't I become a nun, too?' I had already tried twice. And in fact I had even asked Thay one time if I could become a nun when I first came to Plum Village and Thay said, "No, you have to do like Sister True Emptiness and become a lay member of the Order of Interbeing." I was very sad when I thought that maybe I couldn 't become a nun with Sister True Emptiness and Sister Chan Vi . I thought, my goodness if we come back to Plum Village and they are both nuns and I am not, I don't know if I could bear it. But Thay said that is not a good reason for becoming a nun. I think the main reason Thay agreed to my becoming a nun was my bodhicitta. I th ink it was there somehow. Maybe an additional cause was Sister Chan Khong who intervened on my behalf.

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We went to India. We went to Bodhgaya. We went to Uruvela and we had tea mediation and tangerines with all the children in Uruvela, the village where the Buddha had gone after enlightenment. We waded across t he Neranjera river. What I remember the most was the beauty of doing walking meditation in the places where the Buddha had walked.

One day early in the morning before it was light, we rose and went to the Vulture Peak. The police went with us because there are bandits there. It was the middle of November so it was not too hot and not too cold. We spent the whole day there. Out of great compassion, Thay ordained us as nuns, especially out of great compassion for me who popped in at the last moment. Sister Chan Khong gave me one ao trang (robe) of hers. When I was ordained I was very happy because I felt very light. I thought that I had cut off everything that had bound me, the past and all the fetters, and they were all gone. The next morning when I woke up and put my hand on my shaved head I fe lt very light and very happy. One morning I woke up, put my hand on my head and then I saw a mother rat with six baby rats run past the foot of my bed. They all had their tails in their mouths. In those times we stayed in very simple accommodations. When I lived in India before, the rats would come at night and eat my hair but now they didn't have any hair to eat.

When I came back to Plum Village I realized that I hadn't cut off all my afflictions and fetters at all. I still got angry, I still got sad, I still had a tremendous amount to transform . But I don't think I can ever be shaken in my aspiration, in my determination to realize as fully as I can in this lifetime my own transformation and helping others to transform. I was thirty-eight, nearly thirty-nine when I ordained. It was a little bit late. I already had built up many worldly habit energies. Maybe my transformation is not as fast as other people's. It is slow, but it is there. When I received the Dharma lamp from Thay in 1990, Thay gave me a gatha which said, "The work of transformation is what reveals the sign of truth." I think this means that all my life I have to keep transforming and  I have to keep transforming and I have to keep transforming and clearly.

Every summer opening people come and I am always  there. The first summer opening missed was my thirteenth summer when I went to Vennont and didn't come back that year. Apart from that summer, I have been to fifteen summer openings. In many summer open in gs someone  comes up to me and says, "You are much better than last year."

Green Mountain Dharma Center, Vermont

In 1997 I went to Vermont. Vermont is extremely beautiful. The snow and the mountains in the winter, the gold and red of the autumn trees, the tremendous shock of green in spring - a very deep, bright green which comes after four or five months of white - the mists of the summer and the clouds in the mountains. The place we live is very beautiful with lakes and a teahouse built in a Japanese style. It was quite different than when I came to Plum Village.

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When I went to the United States, everything was already very comfortable. We didn't have any work to do. In Plum Village to renovate the buildings, we had to lift out the cow manure from the barns in order to transform them into living quarters. It made very good compost for the garden. But in Velmont evelything was ready to live in. We had a beautiful house with carpet and hot running water and evelything was in place. We were seven sisters and two brothers at the beginning. We lived in a little house and the two brothers lived in another little house. Because they were so few they used to come and join us every day for sitting and chanting. When I arrived, everything was covered in snow. It was so silent. You don't even hear the birds because it is too cold for the birds to come out. Every morning the sun rises over the snow and it turns pin k and there is a pink glow about everything. It is extremely beautiful.

I began to know the North American people. We think because we know the same language, we have everything in common and we wlderstand each other immediately. But in fact there is quite a difference between the North American people and the European people. It took me about three years to feel at home in North America. Before that, I expected North American people to be like Europeans and they aren't. The suffering in North America is tremendous. Although materially we have far more than we need, the psychological suffering is huge. I think this was one of the difficult things for me to accept when I was first there. For instance, sometimes we would hear news that the son of someone close to the Sangha had committed suicide or someone else had killed his mother, terrible stories like that, especially among the yo ung people. There were many people we had to comfort because of tragedies in their families that arose from psychological suffering. In some ways I think that psychological suffering is worse than material suffering. But luckily the Dharma doors that Thay has taught can bring relief. It is my deepest asp iration to go back to the United States to understand better the situation there and to devote my life to helping in any way I can.

Often in the United States the newspapers contact us. We are also asked to give talks on international affairs. I have been asked to give talks on the situation in the Middle East. I have been asked to a write an article on Afghanistan and things like that. So part of being in a practice center in North America is that you really have to be in touch with what is going on.

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In Vermont, usually once a week we have visits from school children. Religion is not officially taught in the schools, but many schools have teachers who are interested in Buddhism. They organize courses on Buddhism and the students do a field trip to the Green Mountain Dharma Center to learn how a Buddhist community lives . When the children come we don't teach them theory. We do our best to have them share about their difficulties. Fortunately we've had some young monks and nuns whom the young people from high schools and universities can easily feel close to. The young monks and nuns understand their situation because many of them have been brought up in the United States. Green Mountain Dharma Center is not very big. It may never flourish like Plum Village does. It may always be a little off-shoot of Plum Village. Plum Village is the root, the place for us to come back to, to be strengthened by our spirihlal roots so we can go off again to Green Mountain Dharma Center and offer something better. But we need to have that off-shoot out there because it is like an antenna that is in touch with what is happening and the antenna can let Plum Village know what the needs are over there.

Plum Village in the Future

If I think about Plum Village in the future, I see many westem monks and nuns. I know that the practice has to be developed. A tree always has to grow otherwise it is not a tree anymore. In the futu re there will be many new Dharma doors, new mindfulness practices, adapted to Europe and the United States where arts and music will be integrated into the practice.

Thank you very much.

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Media Reviews

mb56-MediaReviews1HealingA Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun

By Sister Dang Nghiem Parallax Press, 2010 Soft cover, 146 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

Sister Dang Nghiem’s story begins in Central Vietnam, where she was born during the Tet Offensive in 1968. She takes the reader with her to Saigon, to medical school in California, to Africa, to Plum Village, back to Vietnam with her teacher, to the late Bat Nha Monastery, and finally to Deer Park Monastery. Huong Huynh was the child of a Vietnamese mother and a U.S. soldier. At the behest of her beloved grandmother, who raised her until she was six, she made three vows: to raise her brother to be a good person as they journeyed to the U.S.; to get a good education; and to become a nun. As her life has unfolded, Huong Huynh, now Sister Dang Nghiem— “adornment with nondiscrimination”—has ultimately fulfilled all three vows and lived into her new name.

The victim of a torn family, sexual assault, racial taunts and gender discrimination, multiple foster placements, an unknown father, a wounded mother who disappeared when her daughter was but twelve, and a fi who drowned and whose body was never found, her strength in the face of immense suffering is the stuff of legend. Yet she does not tell it that way. She carves out a fearless inventory of her thoughts and actions as, growing up with great energy and determination, she moved from inner and outer war to a life of true peace. How she has honed herself, constantly beginning anew, is a profound teaching.

Reading her book is like having tea with Sister Dang Nghiem. We learn exactly who she is. Humbly, she recounts intimate stories of the horrors as well as the subtle joys, the small aggravations and the sweet triumphs of her pilgrimage through an extraordinary life. Nor does she paint her life as a done deal—more like a flowing river that inevitably hits the rapids. “I once was a river, a river falling in love with a cloud and chasing after it,” she writes. But after many years of practice as a nun, Venerable Dang Nghiem has realized she must release her attachments, because one day she will be left with only her “two empty hands.” She has realized that if she is truly present in the moment, she will see that her two empty hands hold the world.

mb56-MediaReviews2Fire Under the Snow A Tibetan Monk – a spirit unbroken by 33 years of torture

A film by Makoto Sasa Running time: 75 minutes 2008

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

Arrested in Tibet by the Chinese Army in 1959, the Venerable Palden Gyatso spent thirty-three years in prisons and labor camps for the “crime” of peaceful demonstration. Tortured, starved, and sentenced to hard labor, he watched his culture destroyed, and his teacher, friends, and family displaced, jailed, or killed. The film covers Palden’s birth in 1933 and follows him through the long nightmare that began with the Chinese invasion. It explores the escalating cycle of interrogation and physical violation that ended decades later with Palden’s escape from Tibet and a cathartic meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Just after his escape from Tibet in the 90s, I met Palden on a rainy country road in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, marching with a small group of monks and laypeople who carried the flag of Tibet. On our way home from a retreat, my husband and I happened upon the Free Tibet march launched in Washington, D.C., heading for the United Nations in New York City. I joined the march. Palden stayed at our home for five days, along with the late Thubten Norbu Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, and Larry Gerstein, president of the International Tibet Independence Movement. What a joy it was to cook and serve them!

We were distressed by the tortures Palden described. Still, he laughed often and remained cheerful but resolute. All of his teeth had been shattered by a cattle prod placed directly into his mouth. He was hung by his thumbs. He ate dirt. One time, in prison, he vainly spit into the mouth of an infant to keep it alive. Tears came as I listened, and I asked him, “How did you survive?” “I became a monk when I was ten years old,” he replied, putting his arms around me while I cried.

Palden harbors no anger toward the Chinese. He has made it his life’s mission to bring to light the extreme human rights abuses of China that continue to this day, “so that it will stop.” In our home, in our sweet little breathing room on the second floor, Palden spent many hours composing The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, on which the film is partially based. Fire Under the Snow reminds me of the roots of the Order of Interbeing—mindfulness and inspiration in the face of unbelievable duress. For more information, visit www.fireunderthesnow.com.

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Touching the Blue Sky

The Story of Thay Phap An By Thay Phap An

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Before I became a monk, I suffered from depression but did not know it. This created a deep need within me to look for something, although I did not know exactly what I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to search for some direction, some path. This longing began early in my childhood and it became dominant when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

I looked for meditation books and pursued different types of practice, beginning in the ninth grade, and continuing after I escaped from Vietnam to live in a refugee camp and then in America. I was a very good student, but there was this sense of sadness deep within me. Often it lasted for days, and it paralyzed me, so that I could not feel the joy of life. However everything seemed very normal to me. Sometimes we suffer and we are not aware of our suffering, so we perceive it as something normal.

“Who Am I?”

When I graduated from college at age twenty-three, I felt a strong wish to become a monk. But my parents did not want this; they encouraged me to continue my studies. So I did. After graduate school, I began to work as a mathematical researcher for an oil company. At that time, I took up the practice of koans very seriously. A koan is a set of practices in which you raise your question and allow it to go deep into your consciousness. You do not look for an answer; any answer that comes to you may not be valid, because it comes from your intellect. It may be merely a set of perceived ideas, a projection. Later on, when the conditions are sufficient, your consciousness will offer its answer to you.

I practiced the koan, “Who am I?” Whenever I moved my hand, I asked, “Who is moving my hand?” Whenever I walked, I asked, “Who is walking?” Whenever I was about to go to sleep, I would ask, “Who is sleeping?” I continued to ask the question, “Who am I?” This question began to work very deeply in me and started to interfere with my work. When I asked the question, “Who is thinking?” my thinking disappeared. This created a problem. I had to think in order to solve problems for people and earn a living.

I fell into a very deep spiritual crisis. I did not know what the best path for my life was, but I knew that I wished to become a monk. However, I loved my family very much, and wanted to respect their wishes, so I could not yet take that step. I stopped working for the oil company and took a post-doctorate position in order have more time to practice meditation and look deeply into what direction I wanted to take for my life.

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I shared with my post-doc advisor my long-time wish to become a monk. He advised me, “For once in your life, you have to listen to your heart. Otherwise you will regret it.” He kindly offered me the option to try out being a monk, and if I didn’t like it I could return to the university and he would still have a job for me. Even now, when I talk about him, I feel very moved and grateful to him for giving me this advice. I collected all my belongings and sent them back home. On March 26, 1992, I left the U.S. to become a monk. I didn’t realize at that time what a shock and source of suffering this was for my family.

When I came to Plum Village, I practiced but did not have much joy. I listened to Thay’s teaching about the present moment, about cultivating joy and happiness, but a deep sense of sadness still hung over me. I tried my best to live in the present moment, in the here and now, and to cultivate happiness. But I could not touch the reality of happiness.

After practicing for three years, I began to lead retreats around the world. I invited people to practice being happy in the present moment. But I was aware that a block of sadness in the back of my mind prevented me from being truly happy. One time, I went to Russia to lead a retreat. A young woman served as my assistant. A few years later, she traveled to Plum Village before she returned home to Vietnam. She became a very close friend who shared openly with me. I remember one time she shared with me, “I have to be very honest with you. You gave a very good Dharma talk about happiness and being in the present moment. But it really puzzles me that you do not look very happy. You look sad all the time.” She meant to ask whether my practice was effective. I offered the teaching to cultivate happiness and live in the present moment, but I still had this block of sadness within me. That was six or seven years after I became a monk.

I had a lot of questions about everything in life. Did our lives have any meaning? Was there something called reality out there that I had to touch? Whenever I had an opportunity, I would ask Thay a question. Whenever there was a question and answer session, I would ask a question right away.

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Thay tried to help me to get in touch with the beauty of life around me. When I was attending Thay, he would say, “Look! Phap An! Don’t you see the beautiful blue sky?” He would pour tea for me when I was about to ask another question, and invite me to enjoy a cup of tea. During our walking meditation together, he would stop, point out a flower and teach me, “Look! Phap An! The flower is very beautiful.” Or he would point to a cloud and ask, “Don’t you see the cloud is beautiful?” He had a lot of compassion. He didn’t give me a jumble of thoughts or theories. He pointed me directly to the source of happiness and joy, because he wanted me to taste it for myself.

Touching Images from the Past

I struggled very much with my depression. There were moments during sitting meditation when I would invite my sadness to come up and embrace it. Looking at the sunshine through the window, tears would fall from my eyes. Sadness simply overwhelmed me. When I embraced my suffering, memories slowly surfaced and the roots of my sadness began to reveal themselves. One image led to another. In the midst of this stream of my past experiences, I continued to go back to my breathing and stay aware of my body. The wave of sadness returned, over and over, until it slowly calmed down. I continued to go back to the emotion, embrace it, and observe it. I saw many different images from my past.

I discovered that I had been wounded as a child in the war in Vietnam. I was born in a rural part of Central Vietnam. There, the war was very intense. Every night I heard bombing in the distance. There were people who lived around me who became mentally ill; the pressure of the war became too much for them. There were soldiers who took off their clothes and ran around naked. I remember a woman who screamed and cried every night. She lived next to our house. As I lay down to sleep, I listened to her moaning and screaming all night long in the dark. I felt a lot of love for her and also a lot of fear.

We lived next to an air force base, and fighter jets flew by in the middle of the night. They flew above the roof of our house as they took off. The sound was very loud, and my brother who slept next to me would sit up and scream along with the jets, in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He simply sat up in the bed and screamed. I was one year older than him. I woke up because of the noise. Every night, when he sat up screaming, I gently pushed him back down to sleep. It happened almost every night.

I lived with a lot of fear and uncertainty. Once or twice a year, the communists would attack our village. Houses burnt down. We had to get out. One time, during an attack, my father was standing. Something fell to the ground; he bent down. Just as he bent down, a bullet hit the box behind him. If he had been standing, he would have been killed. Luckily the bullet missed him and broke the box behind him. In just one single moment he would have been killed.

From time to time, South Vietnamese soldiers would come to our parents’ pharmacy and shoot into the shelves of medicine. They held up a grenade and threatened to throw it if we didn’t leave. Then they broke into the cash register and took whatever medicines they wanted. There was no law around, so they came very often, to take money and medicine. They used harsh language. They shot anywhere they liked.

Slowly but surely, I went back to the past to touch all these images as I sat in meditation. Then I saw the image of myself as a little boy. I think that I was only four or five years old. I was hiding myself in a medicine cabinet. Looking out, I could see military men in the front of our house—Americans and South Vietnamese in camouflage uniforms. They were carrying all kinds of equipment, with many weapons of war, and setting up camp in the twilight and drizzling rain. As I looked out, I felt so scared.

In my meditation, I had a clear memory that that little boy said to himself, “There’s no future for my life and I don’t want to grow up. What’s the point? If I grow up, I’ll be like these men who carry guns around, and either I will kill someone or be killed by someone.” As I looked back, I asked myself: how could I have such a thought when I was so young, only four or five? This incident continued to affect me without my knowing it.

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At the age of seven or eight, I began to draw human faces. I would spend a lot of time in my room, looking at magazines and drawing the beautiful faces I saw in them. I drew like this for about five years, until the war was over. Deep within the mind of that little boy was the belief that humans were cruel and ugly. I sensed the dark side of human beings, so I drew beautiful human faces as a defense mechanism. I accumulated several books of drawings of faces, but because of the war we fled to the South and I lost all of them.

When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, every day at about sunset, from about five to six o’clock in the afternoon, I experienced a pain in my forehead, which I now understand was a migraine. I couldn’t stand it and my father took me to the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t figure out the reason for my chronic headaches. When the war ended, the migraines went away. Thanks to my meditation, I now understand what was happening. Around sunset, the military men came and camped in front of our house. That was also the first time I had the thought that my life had no future, that life had no meaning, and that I didn’t want to grow up. Whenever the sun set, this feeling was re-activated. My depression was triggered by the sunset.

A New Perception

I worked on this block of sadness and the tendency to withdraw for many years. Sometimes, it seemed there was no hope. Many times Thay told me that the sky was very beautiful, and the blue sky was indeed very beautiful, but I could not touch that blue sky. Many other young brothers and sisters came to Plum Village and lived without much difficulty. They could be happy and play with each other. But I could never taste such joy. Therefore, I felt quite lonely in the community. I was in that state of loneliness, with my own struggle, but I tried to embrace my sadness whenever I had a chance.

I learned to go straight to this primary perception. The sadness was due to the perception that there was no future, no point to growing up because life was very ugly. It was very difficult to embrace the sadness. At first I didn’t understand how to do it, but gradually, I learned. I had to balance my mind with the energy of joy and happiness before I could embrace this pain. Over the years, I have been trying my best to embrace my emotion and I have learned that it is inseparable from the perception that I had as a little boy, that there was no future for my life. After many years of practice, I have been able to purify and transform this emotion and am cultivating a new and more positive perception of life.

In Upper Hamlet, there is a walking meditation path, from which we can see the sunset. Many times when the sun set this sense of sadness would come up. I practiced walking meditation along this path in the middle of sunset, and tears would come. With each of my steps, I would tell myself, “This is truly beautiful. This is truly beautiful.” I would say, “I’m really happy now. I’m really happy now.” I trained myself like that. This exercise does not do violence to ourselves; instead, it is a training that tries to cultivate a new kind of perception. I tried to look at each flower on the road, to look at each stone, and say, “I’m really happy now. The war is over. I’m not living in a time of war anymore. It’s okay. It’s safe. There’s life. There’s a meaning to life. It’s very beautiful now.” I practiced this often, for many years. I tried to build a new perception to balance the child who saw no future.

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We have to train ourselves to develop a new perception. At the beginning, this new perception is weak. It’s just a skinny bone, a skeleton; there’s no flesh to it. Over the years we have to build new flesh, to build a thicker layer around our new perception. As I cultivated this new perception, I built new flesh around it. As I said to myself, “This is truly beautiful,” I tried to feel beauty and happiness. I continued to build layers of flesh so that I could balance the block of pain and suffering that I had gone through. Over the years, bit by bit, it worked.

In addition to transforming my perceiving, I also changed my way of eating. I noticed that around five or six o’clock in the evening, at sunset, I had trouble with my colon. I couldn’t digest food, and suffered from a lot of gas. It became very disturbing. My depression had come into my body and embedded itself into my colon. I decided to stop eating dinner. I did this for two to three years. Amazingly, as the colon healed, the depression also healed.

This transformation has to do with both the body and the mind. We cannot focus on the mind alone, because our sadness and depression have turned into a part of our body. We have to purify our body in order to purify our mental difficulties. It took me a long time, but I was able to transform this block of sadness and depression within me by looking deeply into my food, taking good care of myself, fasting, exercising, and building a new perception.

I Could Feel the Blue Sky

After seven or eight years of practice, during the springtime, I was in Thay’s hermitage. He organized a picnic day for the monastics; the brothers and sisters were playing volleyball, cooking, and having a barbecue. I was standing at the veranda, looking at my brothers and sisters playing joyfully. I didn’t join them but I stood near them. Then I looked at the poplar trees, with no leaves, standing against the blue sky in spring. I followed my breathing and practiced the mantra Thay taught us. “I’m here for you. Breathing in, I am aware that the poplar tree is there, that the blue sky is there. Breathing out, I’m really here for you.”

I followed my breathing for a long time, and remained in touch with the poplar and the blue sky. Suddenly, for the first time, I could feel the blue sky. Tears ran down my face. I just stood there crying. I was able to touch that moment with such deep joy and happiness, from the depths within me. The blue sky was so beautiful that day. The poplar tree was so beautiful. After seven or eight years of practice, I was finally able to touch all that.

Nowadays, I am more stable. My anger, my temper, my sadness and depression have transformed to a large extent. This year marks my eighteenth year of practice as a monk, and I have changed a lot. I have healed my body and healed my mind, for the most part. I do not get caught by anger much. I do not get trapped by my sadness and depression much. It is very important to identify the very beginning of a negative perception before it turns itself into a mental loop, a block of strong emotion. We can learn to embrace and understand it before it begins to affect our life and our relationships.

mb57-Touching6Thich Chan Phap An, True Dharma Seal, was born in 1963 in Vietnam. He was ordained into monkhood in 1992 and received Transmission of the Lamp of Wisdom in 1999. Since 2008, he has served as the Director and Dean of Studies at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

This article is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given on January 29, 2010. It was edited by Thay Phap An, Sister Chau Nghiem, Charles Wheeler, and Natascha Bruckner.

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Orange, Maroon, and Brown

Please Call Me by My True Colors By Brother Chan Phap Tu

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My precious master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Please call me by my true names.” This is a very interesting saying. When I look into myself, sometimes I don’t know which name is my true name! Currently my name is Brother Chan Phap Tu, which means “True Dharma Son.” Sometimes the brothers and sisters in Plum Village like to call me “Dharma Death” because “Tu” has that other meaning, “death.”

My other true name is Tenzin Donpal, a Tibetan name. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave me this name when I received novice ordination in Dharamsala, India, in 2008. Another one of my true names is Nyanabhadra, which was given to me by my first ordination master, Venerable Dharmavimala, in Indonesia in 2007. My master’s lineage is from both the Myanmar Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition from Guang Hua Monastery in Putian, Province of Fujian, People’s Republic of China.

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In Touch with Islam

I grew up on a small island near Sumatra, Indonesia. My ancestors came from Fujian Province in mainland China, so my blood is Chinese and my passport is Indonesian. I’m the seventh of eight children. Both of my parents passed away when I was four years old, and my elder brothers and sisters took care of me. My eldest brother had to continue my father’s business, and my eldest sister had to take over my mother’s duties in the kitchen. I remember my sister crying day and night; she was young and wished to continue her studies, but she could not. After completing high school, I pursued my bachelor’s degree in West Java. I was so excited to study more and more in order to repay my family’s kindness. I earned a diploma in Information Technology and a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.

In Indonesia, the majority of people are Muslim. Naturally, growing up there, I had a lot of opportunities to be in touch with Islam. Even now I appreciate Islamic teachings so much. For me, the five prayer times that are part of every day are a kind of meditation. Whenever I hear the call to prayer from the loudspeaker of the mosque, I stop and breathe deeply at least three times to come back to myself.

In Touch with Buddhism

When I was in fourth grade, I encountered the teachings of Theravada Buddhism for the first time. I was so inspired by the story of Siddhartha sitting beneath the bodhi tree! I liked to read it again and again. The image of Buddha under the bodhi tree has been beautiful to me ever since I was small.

During my university period, I spent a lot of time working as a volunteer in a Buddhist monastery, where I participated in many retreats, seminars, Dharma talks, and workshops. I liked to read about, learn, and practice several traditions, such as Theravada, Zen, and especially Vajrayana. I keep my heart open to accept that these are all the teachings of the Buddha. I believe the Buddha never claimed himself as Theravada or Mahayana or Zen or Vajrayana, and I believe that he is made up of all these elements.

Working as a volunteer in the monastery watered the seed of monasticism in me, but this seed was not strong enough at that time, and I continued working as a computer engineer for almost six more years.

Encountering the Masters

Dagpo Rinpoche recommended that I go to Dharamsala to study Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy. Thanks to him and his guidance, I had the opportunity to be ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama. During the ordination ceremony, His Holiness was telling us a few jokes and making us laugh, but at the same time, the jokes contained deep teachings. He said, “You are my student now, and you have to follow my instruction,” and he listed such instructions as keeping a calm demeanor, eating simple vegetarian foods, and wearing our robe properly wherever we went. Then he said, “Except in a very dangerous situation that threatens your life. For example, when I was fleeing from Tibet, I had to dress in such a way that nobody recognized me, so I could run out easily.”

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I spent almost three years in Dharamsala, the state of Himachal Pradesh, and the North of India. I was so happy to study and practice at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist institutes in Dharamsala. I received many different kinds of knowledge and practices. Whenever H.H. the Dalai Lama gave a teaching at Namgyal Monastery, the institute would declare a special holiday for us so we could attend the teaching.

In 2008, my first ordination master, Venerable Dharmavimala, asked me to go to Hanoi to attend the Engaged Buddhism retreat led by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. I was reluctant to go because I liked Tibetan Buddhism, but I revered my master so much that I flew from India to Hanoi just to attend the retreat. During the retreat, our group facilitator, Sister Dinh Nghiem, arranged for us to meet with Thay, and he invited all of us to Plum Village.

I returned to Dharamsala to continue my studies. When Thay and the Sangha visited India in 2008, I had an opportunity to meet with Sister Chan Khong, and she wrote me a letter to help me obtain a visa to attend a three-month winter retreat in Plum Village. After attending the retreat, I knew that “nothing is more important than brotherhood and sisterhood.” I learned that on the path of practice, I should not be a superhero because I would surely evaporate without a Sangha supporting me, especially a Sangha that lives in harmony and practices mindfulness.

Now I have been in Plum Village for more than two years. Time has passed by so quickly! Last year, Thay and the Sangha were in Indonesia and conducted a five-day retreat in West Java and a peace walk at the world heritage site of Borobudur in Central Java. One evening at the foot of Borobudur, Thay said to me, “Thay Phap Tu, you have to kneel down and make a great vow to renew Buddhism in Indonesia.” I burst into tears but tried to wipe my eyes and hide my tears. I will always remember this vow in my heart. I know that not only are Buddha and Jesus brothers, but Buddha and Prophet Muhammad are also brothers!

My True Colors

If you really want to call me, please call me by my true names. I have to answer, “Yes.” Even though I’m a Buddhist monk, I’m fully aware that I’m made of non-Buddhist-monk elements. Yes, I’m a monk from a Zen tradition, but when I look into myself I see a Muslim; I see myself wearing an orange robe as a Theravada monk; I see myself wearing a maroon robe as a Vajrayana monk; and I see myself wearing a brown robe as a monk from Plum Village. From orange to maroon to brown, I’m not afraid of what color will manifest next because I have found my true color in the here and in the now. I hope you do too!

Brother Chan Phap Tu, True Dharma Son, lives in Plum Village.

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Lightness in My Heart

An Interview with Sister Boi Nghiem By Natascha Bruckner

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Sister Boi Nghiem lives at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, one hour from Memphis, Tennessee. We spoke over the phone on February 24. She said she hoped we could “establish a bond of friendship while we’re having this interview—or let’s say be-in, to make it less formal.” Her gentle words and frequent laughter were delightful.

Question: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I’m twenty-seven years old. I’ve been ordained for five and a half years. I was born in Vietnam, and when I was eleven, my family moved to the United States. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and then I went to Plum Village when I was twenty-one years old. It was the legal age for people to go clubbing, but I chose to go to Plum Village instead.

My sister is also a nun. She’s now at Blue Cliff Monastery. She has been a nun for ten years. That was one of the main reasons that I know the practice, because of my sister. When I was a teenager, I was not so interested in the practice. I was just like any typical Vietnamese American teenager. I liked to listen to music and do other things that were quite fast-paced. I listened to ‘Nsync and Backstreet Boys. Whenever my sister sent videos of Plum Village to my house, especially performances of the monastics, I couldn’t sit and watch because everything was so slow. I would fast forward it. It made me so sleepy.

When I was nineteen, I started to go online and research and read Buddhism. The first book that I read was Thay’s Being Peace. I went to Deer Park for two weeks during a fall break in August 2004. I was able to see the simplicity of the monastics—to see them practice, and how happy they were, and the harmony they had. A beautiful image that I will always remember from Deer Park was that one time, I saw a young sister helping an elder sister to put on her shoes. The younger sister took the pair of shoes and placed it in front of the elder sister’s feet. How often do you see this kind of image in America? It’s very rare. When I saw that image, I was like, “Wow! It’s so beautiful how we can take care of each other in this simple and gentle way, with so much love.”

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On October 20, I went to Plum Village. I only bought a oneway ticket, because I didn’t have enough money to buy a two-way ticket. Some Vietnamese people believed that one of the main reasons why you became a monastic was because your heart was broken or you had difficulties in your family. I didn’t have either of those, so I thought, “This is a great time for me to go, because if I wait until I’m older, I might suffer and it would be difficult for me to have a monastic life.”

Question: What inspired you to become a monastic, instead of remaining a lay person?

Sister Boi Nghiem: In Plum Village I was able to be close to the sisters, and was able to receive Thay’s teachings directly. For the first month, the question, “Should I stay or should I leave?” would arise almost every day. It was quite draining. I decided, “You know what? I’m going to make a decision right now. I’m going to sit next to the ping-pong table and write my aspiration letter.” That was it! I found my decision to become a monastic quite simple, compared to other people. I was able to see the transformation in myself and in other friends practicing. For me, living in a place where no one is smoking or drinking beer, that’s heaven!

Question: In the last five and a half years as a monastic, has the experience lived up to your expectations, or have you been surprised in any way?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I have been surprised in many ways. Before I became a monastic, I thought that the monks and the nuns were angels from above. I didn’t think that they would have unskillfulness or make mistakes. Of course, when you live with the sisters, you are able to see that they’re human beings just like all of us. Their speech can be unskillful; their actions can have a lack of mindfulness, and their words or actions can hurt people. At first I couldn’t accept this, because it was something that I didn’t expect from a monastic, especially someone who practiced for a long time. But then I realized that if I continued like this, I would not be so happy. Now I see that even though I’m a monastic, I also make mistakes. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes; you have to allow other people to make mistakes. What is different is that we have the practice, we have the precepts, and we are on the path of transformation.

Question: Apart from that quality of acceptance, how else have you transformed on this path?

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Sister Boi Nghiem: When I was growing up, I was not aware of my thoughts, my mental formations, or my perceptions, especially the negative ones. But once I become a monastic, I started to feel uneasy with myself. I started to see the other side of myself that I didn’t see before. I asked myself, why am I like this? Why do I think like this? When I had these thoughts, I would lock myself in the restroom, look in the mirror, and talk to myself. It’s very nice if you have personal contact with yourself without any interruptions. Doing this day after day, I was able to accept and love myself more. I started to feel very light. Thay’s teachings are always with me, whenever I feel like this. Simple mantras, like, “I know you are there, and I am very happy,” or, “I am here for you.” I apply these mantras with myself. I know that I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m quite happy with where I am.

Before I go to sleep every night, I take two to five minutes to sit in silence. I make an aspiration. What is it that I want to practice tomorrow? I reflect back on what happened today; if I said unkind words, then I promise that tomorrow I will practice loving speech to my brothers and my sisters and those around me. This allows me to make the past beautiful in the present moment. This is something that I have done during the last three years, and it has had a great effect on my practice; it really makes me feel happier and the mind of love continues to grow and grow every day.

Question: I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that there’s a practice center in Mississippi. Could you share the story of how it came about, and describe what it’s like there?

Sister Boi Nghiem: Magnolia Grove Monastery is 120 acres. At this moment, there are thirty monastics living at Magnolia Grove. There are twenty nuns and ten monks. Ninety percent of our brothers and sisters were ordained at Prajna Monastery in Vietnam. All of us are under forty-five years old, so we are very young at heart!

In 2002, there was a peace walk in Memphis, Tennessee, with Thay and the Plum Village Delegation. At least 3,000 people joined that peace walk. It was the first time that Vietnamese Americans down in this area were able to see a large number of Americans practicing Buddhism with a Vietnamese Zen Master. The Vietnamese Americans wanted to help their children transform their strong emotions and their stress in their daily life. They also they wanted to help themselves. They wanted to establish a monastery down in the south. After that peace walk, a group of lay Vietnamese Americans went to look for a place, and finally they were able to find Magnolia. They purchased the land, and devoted lay practitioners came every week to help build the monastery. They constructed a meditation hall, a kitchen, a book room, and a guest dormitory, and donated it all to Plum Village.

In 2005, we officially accepted it as part of the Unified Buddhist Church. That’s when Thay came to Magnolia Grove [then Magnolia Village] with a delegation and officially accepted it as a Plum Village practice center. The Vietnamese Americans wanted to have monastics right away, but Thay said that at that moment it was not possible; conditions were not yet sufficient. He asked them to please wait a few more years, and then thirty monastics would come. And it’s true—five years later, we have thirty monastics. The patience that the Vietnamese Americans had, the love that they had for us, their devotion to the monastery—those are some of the reasons I decided to come to Magnolia Grove Monastery; it’s like an expression of gratitude to them.

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Currently most practitioners that come to Magnolia Grove are Vietnamese. Sometimes friends from Memphis, Oxford, Alabama, Missouri, New Orleans and other states nearby come to practice with us. Every Sunday, we have a Day of Mindfulness and live Dharma talks. The monastery is near Oxford University—Ole Miss—which is quite well-known for their football team, I’ve heard. From time to time a group of students will come to our center because they have to write an essay or do a research paper, and they choose Magnolia Grove Monastery as their visit site.

We have a Vietnamese class for the young people because we want them to remember their mother language. We also have English classes for our brothers and sisters.

There are many beautiful birds down here. In the summer when you have breakfast, you will see dragonflies—hundreds and hundreds of them. Vietnamese people predict that when the dragonflies fly low, then it will rain. We just look at these dragonflies and predict the weather for that day. If they fly high, it means it will be sunny. They have fireflies at night. It’s beautiful. Mother Nature and the ancestors of the land support us and are always by our side. It’s a very peaceful place.

Question: Almost all of the monastics at Magnolia Grove were ordained in Prajna. They’ve come to a new country and a new culture; how are they doing?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I feel they are quite happy. I see that our brothers and sisters adjust to this environment quite well. Since we don’t have too many guests yet, the brothers and sisters take this time to practice, looking deeply and taking care of themselves. At first, there were some times of struggle with the language, but we are encouraging our brothers and our sisters to please learn English as much as they can. It’s not only for the benefit of Magnolia Grove Monastery, but in the future, it will benefit other centers as well.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to share with people reading the Mindfulness Bell?

Sister Boi Nghiem: From time to time, during the day, ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?” Or, “What conditions of happiness do I have right now?” Don’t just ask this question when you feel sad or depressed, but also ask this question when you are happy and in a joyful spirit. For myself, it really makes my practice more joyful, I feel happier, and I feel there is this lightness in my heart.

Seeing all these things happening in the world—like the protests in Libya and Egypt—they’re going through a lot, fighting for their own freedom. Here in America, we have this freedom. The most important thing is the inner freedom we have. It’s important that we cultivate this inner freedom—free from hatred, enmity, afflictions. When a situation comes and we react, we are the final condition that determines if it will be beautiful or not. If someone comes to us and says unkind words, and we react with anger, then it is our fault. But if someone comes to us and says unkind words and we react with peace, gentleness, and love, then we make the situation manifest beautifully.

Please consider your breathing as your best friend, as someone always by your side helping you to overcome difficulties and cultivate that happiness. See your breathing as a Buddha helping you, as someone that you truly love. It’s amazing how much your breathing can help you. It’s priceless. It does not water the seed of anger. It does not water the seeds of jealousy or irritation. It’s very faithful to you, but how faithful are you to your breathing?

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mb57-Lightness9To learn more about Magnolia Grove Monastery, visit www.magnoliagrovemonastery.org. Thay and the Plum Village delegation will lead a mindfulness retreat at Magnolia Grove, September 28 -October 2, 2011.

 

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Ancestral Insights

By Sister An Nghiem mb57-Ancestral2

I sat here at this same lotus pond in New Hamlet just a few short years ago and wrote my letter of aspiration to become a nun. And here I sit again, this time writing a letter to Thay and my friends, a letter that shares what I will call an “ancestral insight.” During my time as a monastic here in Plum Village, many of my most treasured moments have been the realizations of these deep insights.

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In monastic life, form and conformity are an important part of our practice. One of the expressions of form is the mode of dress we assume. Luckily, we wear simple robes, and on occasion the nuns wear head scarves. I’ve always admired my dear sisters when I’ve seen them with the head scarves and robes as they are literally dressed head to toe in brown—the color of the earth and a reminder of our link to those who work the land and live a simple life. Their beautiful round faces glow with joyful smiles beneath heads wrapped in the earthen color.

Yet, when I looked in the mirror and saw myself with the same scarf, I didn’t see—I couldn’t see—the same beauty. In fact, what I saw was not beautiful at all. It was disconcerting, to say the least; I felt I looked funny and out of place. Of course, I continued to wear my scarf despite this view, and thought, “Well, maybe I just have to get used to the way it looks.” But after more than a year, my view didn’t change, and I couldn’t get used to the way I looked in the head scarf. I began to look deeply and ask, “Why do my sisters look so nice, but I don’t?” I tried tying it on in various ways in hopes of improving the look of it, but this didn’t seem to help either.

So I continued to ask this question, sitting and walking with it. And one day, when I looked in the mirror, a stunning answer came. I didn’t see myself; I saw Aunt Jemima! Aunt Jemima, just like on the maple syrup bottles and the pancake boxes of yore—that infamous trademark depicting a stereotypical African-American woman with her head wrapped in that bandana, smiling, with wide bright eyes. And the memories came flooding back, memories of days from my youth and growing up in the south, in Washington, DC. We were taught to have disdain for this cultural icon, and if we dared to wear a scarf like this as young girls, we were ridiculed and called “Aunt Jemima” in the most condescending way.*

We didn’t want to have anything to do with Aunt Jemima, least of all look like her! When I was a very young girl in the late ’60s and ’70s, there were clearly defined (though unspoken) ideas of what a young African-American girl should look like, and it definitely was not Aunt Jemima. We were somehow taught in silent ways that this important link to our history of slavery, racism, and discrimination in America was to be shunned. The mockery that was perceived when we were labeled or looked upon as icons such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s rice, Rastus of Cream of Wheat, and others, only brought upon us shame and confusion.

As a young girl, I could only see the shame and “ugliness” of these icons. It is only with hindsight, the insight of mindfulness, and the daily practice that I was able to see the confusion, pain, and false sense of security which manifested as a result of this particular view. I realized in an instant, with that image of Aunt Jemima reflected back at me in the mirror, that we held what I know now to be a wrong view. Any view that causes us to see ourselves as separate is a wrong view. I realized that as a child, I had shame and fear about something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t it interesting how our cultural icons affect us, without us ever really knowing it?

And in this wonderful instant of insight I embraced my Aunt Jemima: the Aunt Jemima in me and that is me. I exhaled, felt deep release, calm, stillness … and beauty. How could I have seen her as anything other than myself? Shunning Aunt Jemima was like shunning myself—no wonder I felt disconcerted and disconnected.

Today, I don’t deny the cavernous pain and suffering that these images and what they represent evoke in all of us, but I have learned the value of embracing them and the pain and suffering that lies in my very own DNA. I am embracing, accepting, and gradually transforming these for myself, my parents, my greatgreat-great-great-great grandma Mary who was a “house” slave, and my grandmother, Grammy Nanny, who worked as a domestic in an antebellum mansion in Millwood, Virginia, until very near her death at eighty-nine years of age just over twenty years ago. She cooked, cleaned, managed the household and raised two boys, who wept like babies at the funeral of their beloved Nana. For all of us and all of you, I share and embrace these memories and insights toward transformation and healing.

Thank you Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit, and all the others. Thank you all for being there.Your stereotypes represent countless real people who, through perseverance, courage, and the sheer will to survive and live, did what was necessary so we—all of us, your descendants—could be free and here today. And with the art of mindful living, we can learn to embrace all parts of our ancestral history and ourselves, because in reality we are not separate but one, and part of the same continuum.

When I look in the mirror now, I sometimes still see my old friend Aunt Jemima. But with this powerful new insight, I know not to fear, not to hate, not to have shame. Instead I have awareness, smile, and say: “Hello Aunt Jemima! I know that because you are there, you are one of the conditions that made it favorable for me to be here today … wrapped in a beautiful brown robe, with a headscarf that frames a beautiful round brown face, glowing and smiling happily.”

*Wikipedia says it succinctly: “The term ‘Aunt Jemima’ is sometimes used colloquially as a female version of the derogatory label ‘Uncle Tom’. In this context, the slang term ‘Aunt Jemima’ falls within the ‘Mammy archetype’, and refers to a friendly black woman who is perceived as obsequiously servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites.” [The term was used especially during the time of slavery and the “Jim Crow” era.]

Sister An Nghiem (Sister Peace) was born and raised in Washington, DC, arrived in Plum Village in June 2006, and ordained in September 2008. She currently lives in Plum Village. Her interests include reading, organizing retreats, and traveling with the Sangha to share the Dharma and “bring it on home” to where the rubber meets the road.

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A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian)  mb57-AMonk1

I stepped onto the monastic path relatively late, although the seeds were present at an early age. At age fifteen, a group of friends and I meditated together. When that group disbanded, I continued (for the next thirty-five years) meditating twice daily. At age twenty, in 1978, I studied in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. During my stay, I visited many holy Buddhist sites, though I found mostly ruins. I was looking for my Sangha all along, but I could not define it then.

I discovered mindfulness in 2006 at a psychiatric hospital in Paris where I worked. My introduction was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Total Catastrophe Living, which inspired me to practice some mindfulness techniques. Upon finishing the book, I received an email from a friend in the U.S. informing me that an eighty-yearold Vietnamese monk was coming to Paris to lead a peace walk. I wasn’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s name, but later discovered that Thay had written the preface to Kabat-Zinn’s book!

The Paris peace walk changed my life. As Thay and the Sangha began walking, I knew I had found my teacher and community of practice. I began attending the Paris lay Sangha and, two months later, attended my first weeklong retreat in Plum Village.

No grass grew under my feet. In 2007, I joined the historic tour of Vietnam with Thay. At Bat Nha monastery, I received transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Everything I did with the Sangha seemed inexplicably familiar, and I began to wonder whether monkhood was somehow in my future—but soon found obstacles.

I learned that the maximum age for monastic ordination was twenty at Bat Nha and fifty at Plum Village—and I had just turned fifty. Regretfully, I accepted that I would probably not become a monk in this tradition. I took consolation as an active member of the lay Sangha in France, and clearly saw the applicability of engaged Buddhism in my work at the hospital.

On my way home from Vietnam, I met a venerable Vietnamese monk who asked me why I had come. I told him that I had been traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh. He then predicted I would be wearing brown within two years. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to inquire, he disappeared. Did he believe that I would become a monk? At Bat Nha Monastery? It all seemed like a dream, and impossible.

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Back in Paris, a group in my Sangha started studying the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I found these precepts extremely inspiring. Half of us in the group decided to become aspirants for the Order of Interbeing (OI). Things were moving quickly, but I felt ready. In 2008, I asked for a sabbatical leave to attend a number of trips and retreats.

It still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would follow the monastic path. At the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, I heard Thay say, “It is now or never.” His words resonated with me, and I was ordained as an OI member on that trip. I did not necessarily see monastic life as the next logical step. The venerable monk’s prophecy that I would be “wearing brown in two years” was fulfilled with my OI jacket. During the 2008-2009 winter retreat, I often asked myself what more I could do for myself and for the world as a monk. The answer was not clear.

I sat with this question. It was my koan. It wasn’t something I could think my way through. Thinking about it seemed to drive me crazy. It was a matter of the heart. During this period nothing I initiated came about, yet conditions for things that seemed impossible, such as getting so much time off work and getting ordained so soon as a lay OI member, came together. This was a wonderful apprenticeship in non-pursuit and letting go.

The Bodhisattva Path 

Clarity finally came during a retreat in June 2009. I confided in a number of brothers, both monastic and lay, who served as mirrors for me and helped me recognize my fear. I took refuge in the Sangha, and practiced looking deeply and following my heart. By the end, I realized that there was no going back to my old life. I had already moved on, and my past now belonged to a former life. I spoke to a number of monastics about my intention, and found the courage to make the decision that would free me from all worldly obligations.

That decision took tremendous courage. I had never felt so afraid in my life, beyond all reason. But what was I so afraid of? Making a monumental error? Letting go? Inadvertently abandoning my right livelihood and personal bodhisattva path?

Giving up everything even at the great risk of not being accepted into the monastic Sangha? I loved my job, my Sangha, and my life in Paris. I had nothing to run away from, so why would I uproot myself in such a way? Most of the people I knew outside of my Sangha (and even some inside the Sangha) found the idea puzzling, if not mad.

Making the decision was the hard part. Once I did, there was lightness and ease as everything fell into place. Since ordaining, I have never doubted or regretted my decision and do not miss my former life. The great fear vanished. Fear is, after all, only a mental formation. It can be paralyzing, but mental formations that are not fed shrink.

Why did I choose to become a monk? This is my aspiration: I hope and intend to continue on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering in the world, but I have much to learn in order to go beyond the horizons that I knew before, in my work and in my life. I also have to learn from my own experience of transformation at the base, for myself, my family, and for my ancestors. I have observed that the most credible and inspiring monastics are those who speak from personal experience and live their path. I probably could have studied the Dharma and transformed many of my afflictions as a lay practitioner, but now I am free to dedicate my whole life to it. I am confident that in time, my vocation of relieving suffering will take other forms, and I will be more effective, being solidly grounded both in the Dharma and my personal monastic experience. To my delight, I am feeling younger and younger since ordination, as if the fifteenand twenty-year-olds in me who wanted to embrace the Dharma have finally found what they were looking for, despite all obstacles.

I don’t know where the Dharma will take me and what the Sangha will call me to do. I don’t think much in those terms. I have faith in the Triple Gem, and know that I am on the right path.

Brother Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Christopher currently lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, and spent most of his adult life in Paris. He loves hiking, singing, cooking, poetry, and the Dharma.

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How Many Ways Can You Pray?

By Brother Phap Man  mb57-HowManyWays1My aspiration is to make everything I do a prayer; as beautiful, wonderful, concentrated, full of love, and joyful as prayer. When I walk, when I eat, when I breathe, when I open the door, when I speak: prayer.

In our tradition at Plum Village we don’t use the word “prayer” much; we like “mindfulness” more. I think many people might not like the word “prayer” so much these days—it feels like a struggle, an obligation, or something irrational. But I think mindfulness is the energy of prayer. Can we restore our understanding of prayer as an act of love?

I don’t know if it’s just monastic life that is the life of prayer. I’m sure that married life and other ways of life can just as easily be lives of prayer. And who’s to say that making love is not a prayer? It must be a most holy prayer. Why have we monks committed not to celebrate this kind of prayer? Our celibacy is sacred. It seems that everything we do must become as sacred as making love, or even more sacred.

There is a place where all prayers become one prayer. We live our lives for that. Perhaps we abstain from this one, most sacred act of prayer, so that all of our actions can become as sacred as this. So that in every moment we give birth to the energy of love, to new bodhisattvas everywhere. Saving, healing. Offering that to each other, to everyone.

I see that there are so many young people searching for meaning, for beauty, for the sacred. So many are searching for meaning and fulfillment in sex. But modern people have lost the sacredness of sexuality. How can we bring it back? I want to tell young people, “It’s okay not to have sex.” I think that is essential if we want to really discover the miracle, the joys and the suffering, the life and the mystery, of our own sexuality. That is also part of my vow—to help others make life beautiful, to discover life. To find freedom from desire so that everything, even the most mundane things, can become holy.

I was walking along the path with a brother on the last day of the Winter Retreat. “What the heck is monastic life?” I asked. “I don’t know!” Came the reply. Exactly. We don’t know. We love, we don’t know, we grow, we abandon everything. We are pruned and cut back and burned by mysterious fires within us and around us. We feel pressure, strain, like stalks pushing to break through the soil. We pull each other, we push each other, we lift each other. Reaching for the light. It can be so joyful. It can be so painful. It looks different all the time. We cut through our perceptions, or we let them dissolve, waver, dance. Then suddenly, everything looks completely different. Monastic life is always changing. Like winter into spring.

Monastic life is not about “I.” It is “we.” “I” have a long way to go down this path of “we.” But there is plenty of time. Every day is a miracle. Every day is a chance to love, to look with eyes of compassion, to be broken, to be healed, to learn, to let go of everything, to learn new ways of being, to pray one prayer.

Brother Phap Man lives in Plum Village.

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Waking Up This Morning, I Smile

By Brother Phap Ho  mb57-Waking1One day quite some time ago, I had a realization. It was like a sweet voice from deep inside, my heart’s song, my deep aspiration. The message was simple: I want to live a life and have a livelihood that make me happy to get up in the morning, every morning. This was long before I was introduced to the gatha, “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”

The first time I had the idea of becoming a monk, I was practicing at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamsala, India, in the fall of 2001. I was staying at the Tibetan retreat center with a friend from Germany. We were helping to paint some of the retreat huts in the mountains outside McLeod Ganj. Our bodhicitta was strong and our inspiration to practice meditation was blooming. But still the idea of becoming a monk was just an idea, almost a joke.

Living Examples

Growing up in Sweden, I had no role models for living a spiritual life or practicing chastity, so to be around monastics was still very new to me. As I continued to practice during my travels in India, I found myself thinking, “If there is no life after this, I can just continue the way I live my life already, as I am happy enough. But on the other hand, if there is some kind of continuation, I might as well become a monastic in this life.” I studied and reflected about death and birth during my stay at the Root Institute in Bodhgaya. There was no answer, but I was grateful to have a path of practice to help me experience and look deeply into life.

The previous spring in Stockholm, I had struggled with this same question. I was in a committed long-term relationship, and my partner and I practically lived together. I felt that I had enough happiness living that life and that we could be happy together. There were challenges, but both of us were ready to help the other grow. One day, though, it was clear to me: Happy enough is not happy enough! A sense of urgency, a feeling of the vast potential of life came up, and I knew I had to continue this path on my own, not knowing what to do or where to go.

I remember that at the age of ten or so, I wanted to become an archaeologist. History was my favorite subject in school, thanks to an inspiring teacher. Then one day at a relative’s birthday party, I met a second cousin who was studying archaeology at the university. After talking with her for a while, I decided that archaeology seemed pretty boring and I gave up on the idea of becoming an archaeologist. Looking into my life in the past and present, I see the extent to which I draw from the living examples of people around me.

I eventually decided to study law. I remember the frustration I felt at times in law school and later when I was practicing law. Many days I did not feel happy to get up in the morning. There were elements that I really appreciated and treasured, but as a whole I did not feel at home in my studies and way of life; I was not arriving in the study and practice of law. I tried to make it work, to find a niche of law that was close enough to my passion in life.

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At one point, I did find a position at a nonprofit organization, helping people with different legal issues, people that did not otherwise have access to the rights and services they really needed. This position, the people working there, and the spirit of the organization were all very appealing, and you know what? I got the job. A week or so before I was due to start, though, the manager called me with some bad news. Due to budget cuts in the organization, the position that I was to step into had been eliminated. At the time, I really felt that this was terrible and that I had lost something, but looking back I recognize that had I been able to actually step into that position, it would have taken me much longer to get to the profession I really want to devote this life to.

I remember very clearly the day I first saw Thay practicing walking meditation. The voice from deep inside said, “I want to be able to walk like that!” A living example had once again spoken to me. I stayed in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village for six months before my reasoning mind was ready to accept the idea of becoming a monk. Eventually it was time to step into freedom.

A Vocation That Brings Joy

In the Discourse on Happiness, the Buddha states that to have a vocation that brings you joy is the greatest happiness. After I had been living at Deer Park for about nine months, my brothers suggested that I become the work co-coordinator for the 2006-2007 Winter Retreat. I found much joy in this responsibility and enjoyed making announcements, leading gatherings, etc. But many mornings I was not very happy to wake up. I was receiving many ideas for projects from different brothers, and I did not see a way to realize many of them. I felt too responsible to let go of these projects. Today, four years later, some of them still have not manifested. When conditions are sufficient, things manifest.

You know what? In living and practicing, I feel that I am an archaeologist, discovering layer upon layer of habit energies, ancestors, joy, and peace. The path of meditation is a path of investigation and discovery. Living in the Sangha, we also walk the path of service, offering the opportunity for many people to come and practice, to discover their rights as human beings and their true nature of happiness and peace. Have any dreams of the past really been lost?

Before ordaining and as a novice, we were many times asked why we wanted to be monastics. This is a very good question. And you can keep asking it, because the answer keeps changing. I remember one of the brothers in my ordination family sharing that it simply was natural for him to be a monk. Today I could say the same. It is not destiny, but the conditions are sufficient for me to be a monk. People often ask, “Don’t you miss what you had to give up in becoming a monk?” I have not given anything up, but I have happily let go of many things along the way. Without letting go, how can we be open to receive something new? Our potential for joy and peace is so much greater than I could have envisioned during my time in India when I reflected on birth and death. If I had only one more year to live, I would still do what I am doing right now.

Writing this, I just came back from a five-day camping and hiking trip with nineteen of my brothers and sisters here at Deer Park. The first morning we had mixed feelings about waking up, because the night had been really cold and we had not slept much. Coming together in front of the fire, drinking a cup of tea, feeling the rays of the rising sun on our faces was so precious that morning, thanks to the cold and thick layer of frost of the dark night. So, on some days, “Waking up this morning, I smile” is a practice, and on some days it is a realization.

How can we express the sweetness of waking up? The past, present, and future are the three wheels of my first bicycle, my breath a reflection of all my ancestors. Nothing has been lost, nothing is found, and yet all is present.

Brother Phap Ho was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. He went to Plum Village for the first time in May 2002 and never really left. He ordained as a novice monk on February 8, 2003. Since February 2006, he has been residing at Deer Park Monastery.

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The True Musician

An Interview with Sister Trai Nghiem

By Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai

 

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Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai interviewed Sister Trai Nghiem at Plum Village in the spring of 2011.

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Question: Were you always a Buddhist, you and your family?

Sister Trai Nghiem: By birth, yes. But not practicing. In Japan, we call it “funeral Buddhism.” Most people go to the temple for the first time when someone in their family dies, for a funeral.

I was twenty-eight when my mom died from cancer. I had contemplated death and impermanence before, but it’s completely different when somebody close to you is actually dying. The comfortable world that I was used to was falling apart. It was really her death that brought me to Buddhism.

Q: As a professional violinist, how has your music motivated you?

TN: I wanted to create something beautiful and to see how far I could reach as a violinist in the world of classical music. I wanted to be part of a world-class orchestra and I enjoyed the years I traveled and performed as a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Q: Did you have doubts about how far music could take you?

TN: When I was in college, I came across the following quote by Plato: “It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.” These words shook me violently, as I knew in my heart that I was not the true musician that I wanted to be. Even though I was enjoying a successful career and a lifestyle I had dreamed of, I was feeling stuck. The only way out was to completely let that go. When I decided to ordain as a nun, and was cleaning up my apartment, I found Plato’s quote again. This time his words brought me a smile. I still keep that piece of paper with me.

Q: What brought you to Plum Village?

TN: When I was younger, I saw beauty in fighting and going against the flow. But when my mom died, I ran out of energy to fight, and I decided to just let myself be carried in the flow of life and see what would happen. At that time, Thay’s books came into my life and they brought me a lot of comfort. I came to Plum Village for the first time in the winter of 2007 and I immediately felt at home.

Q: Did it feel like a paradise?

TN: To be honest, I couldn’t stand the practice songs, like “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” at first. And when I heard the monks and nuns chanting, it was so out of tune! But there was something else. There was this sweetness and warmth.

Before Plum Village I went to some zazen meditation sessions and yoga retreats. But it seemed that we were all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of whatever we were trying to attain. And at Plum Village it was just a bunch of people living simply, being kind to each other, just like the way human beings are supposed to be. I fell in love with it.

mb58-TheTrue3Q: With the songs, too?

TN: Not immediately... but then I realized that this was my practice and saw that I needed to practice letting go of my judgmental, analytical, and cynical mind in order to just enjoy the present moment. Today I realize that the practice songs are one of the most clever methods of practice in our tradition. The moment I find myself in a foul mood, a song like “Happiness” comes to my rescue. Because we sing the songs every day, they are embedded in our store consciousness and become available whenever we are carried away in forgetfulness. Knowing their powerful “medicinal” effect, now I sing songs wholeheartedly with the gestures and everything.

Q: What attracted you to becoming a nun?

TN: I was always interested in some kind of spiritual life. But I could not imagine letting go of this wonderful life as a professional musician. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me. I had a consultation with a sister on my first visit to Plum Village and she said, “You don’t need to think about it now, because when the moment comes, you will know.”

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Three months later, there was a retreat in Rome, and luckily I happened to be working in Italy so I went. On the last day of the retreat I was taking a train back to my work, and got a phone call from Japan, saying my father was very ill and was hospitalized. So I cancelled my work and went back to Japan to be with my father.

That summer, my father passed away. I had a lot to take care of around his death as well as with my work. I felt like I was running and running and could not stop. I knew that I could not go on like this for too long without damaging myself completely. I decided to be compassionate with myself and signed up for the Winter Retreat. I told myself, I don’t need to do anything, just let myself rest. Every night I’d sit in the Buddha Hall for a long time, alone. I wanted quietness. No music, no talking. After about a month of living with the sisters in New Hamlet, I knew this was it. The question, “Do I want to quit my job and become a nun?” was no longer there because I was already on the path even though my head was not yet shaved.

Q: What happened to your relationship to your music when you became an aspirant?

TN: One night I was sitting and I understood for the first time what it means to have “nowhere to go, nothing to do.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m actually letting go of all the things that used to mean so much to me.” I had had no desire to listen to music since I arrived at Plum Village, but suddenly I had a desire to listen to a Brahms symphony. In my bed, I turned on the iPod and tears kept flowing. I realized, this is the world I was living in, and I have never appreciated it the way I could have. This incredible world of music had been with me since I was five. And now I was listening to the music and it touched me in a completely different way. I knew that the music was in me, but at the same time I was already standing outside of that world I was so used to. I knew there was no going back. I realized how lucky I had been my whole life to have music to take refuge in and to guide me.

Q: Do you see a similarity between being a musician and a monastic?

TN: Very much so. The Sangha is like an orchestra. Each member has a unique role and is irreplaceable. There is a percussionist who may play only one note in the entire symphony, while the violinists are playing the whole time without any rest. We’d never think of complaining that it’s not fair because that’s what makes the music so beautiful. To live happily in the Sangha, we also have to accept that each person has his or her own role. Some work more hours than others, but that’s just how it is. We suffer when we get caught in the complex of equality. When the orchestra is in harmony, we hear the sound of the orchestra as a whole, as one big instrument. If you heard the individual sound of each violinist in the orchestra, it wouldn’t be pleasant. We melt our individual sounds into the collective sound, so that there is no longer the distinction between “my sound” and “others’ sounds.”

One time, Sir Colin Davis, a wonderful English conductor, said during a rehearsal, when things weren’t quite jelling together: “Whoever tries to prove himself right is a terrorist!” Miraculously, we played in perfect harmony after this proclamation. Each member of an orchestra is an artist in his or her own right, yet when we try to convince others how it should be done, it never works. This teaching can very well be applied to Sangha life. In order not to create suffering for myself or others, I need to monitor my thoughts constantly, to see if I am caught in my own ideas.

If Sangha is an orchestra, Thay is a conductor. A skillful conductor never tries to control the musicians. He just lets the orchestra play. That’s exactly what Thay says to us all the time: “Di choi!” The literal translation is “go play!” It can also be translated as “go hang out and have fun.” Thay, just like a skillful conductor, trusts the Sangha, and based on that trust, he can bring out the best in each member of the Sangha. A layperson asked me once why Thay travels with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour. I said, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra. We inter-are.”

When the whole Sangha is sitting together in the morning, it’s like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I never tried to play the violin without tuning. Why should it be different with my body and mind? If I start out a day by tuning myself with the Sangha, the whole day is so much more harmonious and pleasant.

Q: You’ve lived and worked in many countries, and it seems like you led a very independent lifestyle, choosing your own schedule. The Sangha has a more mannered and restrained lifestyle. How does that feel?

TN: I used to have an idea about what it meant to be a monastic. I told my colleagues that I was quitting this traveling lifestyle and going into a quiet monastery in France, and for the first two years I wouldn’t go anywhere. And suddenly Thay says, okay, you’re going on tour. And I thought, this is not very different from what I was doing before. That’s what makes Thay a Zen master, because as soon as you get caught in your idea of how things should be, he will give you the Zen ax with a smile. I was caught in my idea of what monastic life as a novice was, a quiet life, out in the countryside, tending the vegetable garden.

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Actually, the practice doesn’t depend on outer form at all. It’s not what you do but how you do it. If I choose to be fully mindful when traveling and going out on retreats, I can make progress on the path. If there is no mindfulness, it’s a waste of time to be sitting, walking slowly, and studying sutras, even in a monastery. No matter what I do, whether cooking, cleaning, studying, or traveling, I remind myself to be mindful and enjoy doing it.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a novice?

TN: It’s like being a protected baby in a family. There are so many older brothers and sisters who can teach and guide me in different ways. I enjoy having the space to make mistakes. I have the habit energy of wanting to achieve something, so I’m practicing to let go of my idea of what it means to be a “good nun.” There’s a kind of collective idea of what a good monastic is, just as there is a collective agreement of what a good musician is. If I try to become “a good nun,” I will get stuck in the same place where I got stuck as a musician.

Since I was small, everything I did, I did quite well. So I still have the feeling that whatever I do, I should be able to do well. Even though I am aware of this habit energy and am carefully monitoring it by recognizing the motivation for my actions, it’s still there on a deeper level and is the cause of some basic underlying stress.

Q: Is pride an issue for you? Does it manifest sometimes as feeling superior towards others in the community?

TN: It manifests with self-disgust. It’s probably one of the most shameful things to admit. But a superiority complex is nothing more than another face of an inferiority complex. They are like two sides of one coin. Whenever I notice the complex of inferiority manifesting, I tell myself, “You ARE enough.”

I am happy to acknowledge that in the fifteen months since I became a nun, I’ve reduced my level of judgment and criticism towards myself and other people greatly. Having negative thoughts like judgments is a great waste of precious energy. Just as I take care not to waste natural resources like water and food, I also try to conserve my own energy so it can be used for something more beneficial. As a result, I feel much more relaxed than before and many people have shared with me that they notice the difference. Thanks to the Sangha, one thing I have learned so far in my novice life is this: being kind is so much more important than being good at something.

Q: Do you have any aspirations?

TN: To be happy. I didn’t always have a good relationship with my parents, but after they passed away I realized how much unconditional love they gave me. Whatever they did, I feel the only thing they wanted was for me to be happy. But because I was not able to recognize it until they were gone in their physical form, I had this regret; I wanted to make them happier, to do something for them. Now I know the way to pay respect to my parents is to just be happy. I’m practicing with and for my parents.

After their death, I’m so much more in contact with them. This sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like they’re guiding me in every moment. I really feel their presence a lot more than I used to. If I don’t know what to do, I take refuge in my parents and let them do things. If I listen deeply, they always guide me to the right direction. I really feel that my parents brought me to this point in my life right now. And not only my parents, but all my ancestors—blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. And that includes all the wonderful musicians I have encountered in my life, like Bach and Mozart.

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