becoming monastic

The Culture of the Buddha

By Sister Ha Nghiem When I first became a nun I felt like a bird trying to live in the ocean. Under the water I couldn't understand a word anyone was saying. Everything I had learned of what was important, what was beautiful, was somehow different here. Sometimes I felt lonely and out of place. A few times I thought about leaving to go back to a community where I could easily engage myself in the life of the community and I could receive the nourishment I was used to. Luckily there was always something deeper which held me here.

I discovered that I was full of ideas about life and how to do things based on how I was raised. Being a rare bird who decided to try to live underwater, I found that how I learned to live was not the same as most of the Sisters. When we would sit down to have a meeting it was always such a collage as sisters from Vietnam, Germany, Ireland and America had all learned how to arrange a kitchen in a different way. It is so easy to be trapped in our ideas, thinking ours is the correct way. Our ideas about little things can create big barriers between us. When I hold on to my ideas I suffer. I needed to learn how to let go of all these little ideas and customs in life in order to touch something deeper. I discovered that the most important thing is not our ideas, but to be truly there for each other, to be open, to love our sisters and support each other in our path of practicing the Dharma.

The first new source of nourishment I found here under the sea was the present moment. Although I may not have understood what people were saying I was supported by their practice of mindfulness. I learned to come back to myself and open my eyes to the wonders of life around me. When I can stop my usual thinking and simply be present to what is around me I discover so much beauty. Slowly I learned how to enjoy my sisters even when I could not understand their words. I could understand the beauty of their suchness.

My sisters did not leave me alone for long. The other sisters who ordained around the same time as me found a way to bring us together. We called it novice gatherings. On lazy nights we would sit together and have tea and cookies (which our older sisters and Thay donated to show their support). We would bring some of our favorite things along; flowers, candles, incense, musical instruments, inspiring poetry and books to read to each other. On lazy days we would go for picnics outside. Before we began our walk one sister would take me to the garden. In the early morning light she would show me which herbs were good to pick for lunch. Meanwhile another sister would find some mats to bring to sit on, and another would boil some water to bring for tea and soup. These times were always filled with laughter and affection. That is how I learned to enjoy eating instant noodles - it was contagious, the noodles and the laughter. After lunch one of us would sing as we did total relaxation and enjoyed nature. We shared with each other how we were doing, what difficulties we were having. We took turns to tell stories about our childhood and why we had become a nun . We began to understand and feel close to each other. That is how I began to feel rooted in the Sangha.

If I didn't have my sister beside me I would be so unfortunate. Just her presence, so calm and peaceful, her mindfulness is teaching me and healing me. The Dharma is not only in the sutras, or in Thay's Dharma talk, it is in my sister here beside me, following her breathing as she washes the dishes.

Over time I have been able to open up to see the many beauties in Vietnamese culture. There is something very fine and spiritual naturally present in much Vietnamese culture. In a Dharma discussion with young Vietnamese who had grown up in the West I realized that by living in a Vietnamese community for all these years the Vietnamese culture had begun to enter me and I now felt like them, part Vietnamese and part Western. The stream of life entering me from Vietnam is very beautiful and deep. Every day I am discovering the treasures of both Western and Vietnamese cultures.

However, I love most of all the culture offered by the Buddha. I feel I am one of the richest people in the world . From the moment I open my eyes in the morning until I lie in bed to sleep at night I am nourished by the practices given by the Buddha. I am aware that I am surrounded by noble people, I admire and cherish each of my Dharma brothers and sisters. I used to have a dream that I would find a place where people lived in a noble way. Where people walked with peace. Where we could practice meditation every day and study the path of awakening. Where we could put our energy together to help transform our society so there would be less suffering and more beauty. I am so grateful that I have found such a place on earth and that it has become my home and family. Our life is so simple, yet in my eyes it seems we are learning a very high culture. A cu lture where we learn practices which help us to live our day in a very peaceful way, with freedom and deep happiness. Our food is our practice, our insight, our love, our brotherhood and our work to support life and happiness in the world.

This was taken from a writing assignment given to the Sangha by Thay during last winter retreat. The assignment was to write about our difficulties and transformations throughout our life in the Sangha.

Sister Ha Nghiem (Sister Fern) practices at Deer Park.

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Simplicity, Sisterhood and Freedom

Interview with Sister Ha Nghiem (Sr. Fern) By Sister Chau Nghiem

Why did you become a nun?

Sister Ha Nghiem: There are times in life when you touch life really deeply and you touch yourself really deeply. You can see how beautiful life is and there's a deeper connection between everything than you can usually see with worldly eyes. When I saw that deeper connection between things, their suchness, it made me want to love everything and take care of everything. You never want to see harm come to anything and you have a desire to help others touch the deep beauty of life. For me, it was only something I could touch sometimes. But I was very inspired by reading about people who understood themselves deeply, and I saw that it was only then that they could help others. That's why I ordained.

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There have been two elements always in my life since I was little. The first is that we lived in the mountains in a cabin without electricity and it was so peaceful and so simple. Because it was so quiet and peaceful you could touch everything and see beauty in everything. You could touch the life of the forest and even the house itself. And when I came to Plum Village, it had a similar kind of simplicity like my childhood that I loved. Sometimes when material conditions are less, there's more room for people and life.

The second element, also since I was quite young, was that I learned about environmental and political issues. By age sixteen, I was so concerned about the state of the world and I cared so much that I knew I had to give my whole life to try to improve the situation. When I came to Plum Village, I loved it because the lifestyle was so simple. Thay's teaching was very deep, but very much about being engaged. For me it felt perfect - I felt so at home. I loved whenever I saw a monk or nun, even before coming to Plum Village - the image of their simplicity, lightness and how they gave up everything except what's most important to them: the path of practice and to be there for everything that needs them.

Was being Western difficult?

Sister Ha Nghiem: At first it was hard being a westerner because I had lived in a lot of other communities and I had my own ideas about how things should be. Of course other sisters had their own ideas and not much openness or communication. There were only three other western sisters before me and they were already much older in the practice. So I felt quite alone a lot of the time. People were always talking around me but I didn't understand. It was hard in that sense. But there was always the teaching and  practice that helped to nourish me.

But all that changed. Now it's so different. There is much more understanding between the sisters. We all practice a lot of patience and try to listen and look deeply in order to understand each other, with all our cultural differences. Some time after I ordained, Thay said, "We need to get you some younger western sisters." I would pray "I know you are out there in the world somewhere, please come." Now there are so many of them!

How have you changed because of the practice?

Sister Ha Nghiem: I can take care of my feelings and my mind now, whereas before I knew the practice, they were so strong and would carry me away. Now, no matter how strong they are, I always have the practice, so I don't feel afraid. Before I used to cry pretty often, or feel sad sometimes about things in the world. But it seems I hardly cry anymore. Sometimes six months pass and I realize I haven't cried once! Because I can touch something deeper in life, things don't make me so sad anymore. When I am troubled I know how to look deeply, using the teachings of the Buddha as my guide, in order to gain understanding and peace.

You ordained with your partner of seven years. How have you practiced to transform your romantic love and attachment?

Sister Ha Nghiem: For me it took a long time. I'm still working with it. It wasn't hard to become a monastic, but I still had feelings for him that would bother me. I didn't accept them, because I thought as a nun, I shouldn't have these feelings. A few times I talked to Thay about it. He always told me it's normal, it's fine, and l just need to keep watering my happiness, to find out how to be happy in the Sangha and see that as a nun, we don't want to love just one person but many. He encouraged me to keep trying to open my heart wider.

But I found we went through difficult times when we stopped showing our love for each other in any way. We were kind of cold. We would pay lots of attention to other people, but not to each other. It was at that time that I saw the weakness in my love, I saw that if my love for him was dependent on him loving me, then I wasn't loving him deeply. I spent time in meditation looking at that, trying not to see him as my partner, as mine, as someone who cares for me, loves me, spends his time on me. And I was able to touch and see him as a person with many beautiful things inside as well as difficulties. I cultivated, I practiced to touch a feeling of love for him without wanting anything in return. I practiced to care most about his path. So even when there were times I wanted to go talk to him, if I felt it wouldn't be supportive of him , then I wouldn't talk or have fun with him. And also not give him things. This is really deep caring, the kind no one can see, when you just want what is good for the other.

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Often I had the impulse to give him something or do something for him, and then I would say no because it wouldn't help him become more free in himself, nor me either. It wouldn't help us. We have known each other since we were teenagers. When we were together, we were very close, we spent all of our time together and lived together for many years. Our minds moved together from being almost children to being adults, from being teenagers, to finding a direction. Before we were monastic, we already had chosen a very simple life, learning about things that watered our deep aspirations. In many ways, we found the spiritual path together, supporting each other. We were so much a part of each other before ordination.

I think I'll always fee l very close to him, because part of our root is one. Just like one would feel for a mother or a sibling because we really grew up together. But I know that the most important thing deep in his heart is the same in mine - it is our aspiration on the path . So that's what's most alive between us now, whereas before there were many other things.

How do you practice to build sisterhood?

Sisler Ha Nghiem: For me it is the most important thing we can do. I had a lot of aspirations coming to Plum Village, but I learned that the best way for me to realize them is for our whole Sangha to grow really strong. I saw that helping the environment, helping children, or anything that I want to do can be done best if the whole Sangha can become really strong. We can do so much together when we have the stability and clarity to look deeply into the situation in the world. The more we practice, the more our minds can see things clearly and the more joy we will have to offer.

I can see that most people in the world are so agitated inside, always reacting to things. If you have people who know how to practice, being there, they can be calm and find a harmonious solution, by stopping, not reacting. I realized that the most important thing I could do to help the environment and the whole world was to help my sangha. At first this was a conflict within me. I wanted to keep doing other things, but building the Sangha was working towards those other things also.

In my meditation, I like to contemplate my sisters - to see their potential. I take time to look into them and into myself. I see in my daily interactions I can be quite unskillful. I 'm very shy and not always really present for others. So when I look back I see, oh, I just walked by that sister, or maybe during the whole month I have n' t acknowledged her. I may be doing something with a sister and I realize I am only concentrating on what I'm doing, like cutting wood. But I could use that time for us to get to know each other more and to show my love, to show that I'm here for her. So when I realize that, sometimes I practice it right away. If I have even a very little thing to give to a sister, I do it with my whole heart; I know I'm alive and she 's alive. It's wonderful , it can mean so much and bring a lot of joy.

I try to find little opportunities to connect with my sisters. But I think one of the most important things is my own practice. If I'm really practicing walking, and during sitting, I water my bodhicitta and cultivate insight while we do chanting, then I'm offering a very deep energy to the Sangha. That's what we're all trying to do together. That's the best thing I can offer. Whenever I see other sisters doing that it nourishes me so much. I feel so happy that they are just there and practicing.

I know there are times when I'm not practicing deeply, I'm not offering the right energy to the Sangha. And I know I have to be careful to practice equanimity. I know I am not always able to have complete equanimity but at least I'm going in that direction. I do take care to try and not water the seed of jealousy in one sister or another - to see who needs support, not just being there for one, two or three sisters. I practice to keep opening my heart to have friendships with many different sisters.

Of course, there are some sisters you feel really nourished by, sisters I can talk to deeply about the practice, my difficulties, and touch the seed of joy with very easily. This is very important. But I use the energy and openness I get from these moments and I try to share it with the next brother or sister. T never think I have one, three or five good friends and I can stop here. I'm so happy I have a sister I fee l close to on the path because when we talk we help each other grow. But I always feel inspired to have that with other brothers and sisters, so that this kind of bond and support can grow throughout the Sangha.

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Sister Ha Nghiem, True Adornment with a Lotus, grew up in New York State. She ordained in 1996 and received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan) Sister Thuc Nghiem's Insight Gatha

Just one instant of the present moment and something knocks so loudly at my heart; The love that we all belong together. A star at dawn above the darkened earth, they talk together of this. The blades of grass, the dew and the sunshine, they talk together of this. My in-breath, the apples and the soil, they know this together. The breeze, the flowers, the moon beams and my heart, we interare. My teacher, my sisters, brothers, my children, ancestors and all people did you know we talk of this all the time. My out-breath and my smile, the rain and my tears, the trees and my carbon, they just can 't stop talking together of this.

Six birds flying overhead with the rising sun, I suddenly wonder if any of them feel exhausted or have a deep pain in their wings. I see it must be so and I am shaken by compassion. Who am I, if I am not these birds? Who am I, if I am not all things? We do this together, what happiness, what joy.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

The full moon that looks like a ripe fruit, is used as a mirror by a beautiful lady. The autumn hills stand quietly and majestically around us. As soon as you smile at someone's footprints on the Ben Duc harbor, the Lord of Compassion 's boat of loving-kindness will have already brought you to the other shore.

note: The Ben Duc harbor is the harbor you must use to go to the Perfume temple in North Vietnam. The water is a little muddy at that harbor.

Thay's Words of encouragement

Avalokiteshvara is always there around us and inside of us. In a time of confusion and suffering we need the bodhisattva of deep listening and of great compassion to be with us . The bodhisattva may manifest herself in every step we make, in everything we say. Our daily life should embody the capacity of deep listening and compassionate action. The seeds of compassion should continue to be planted in our society. Whether that seed can sprout today or tomorrow depends on many conditions. But the bodhisattva does not worry about the outcome. The bodhisattva takes care of the action only. Every day we keep sowing the seeds of understanding and compassion and we have the conviction that alI these seeds planted today will sprout tomorrow or after tomorrow. That will bring enough happiness and peace. We try to do this together as a Sangha.

There are many seeds planted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Some seeds waited for 2600 years in order to sprout. The same thing is true with us. The essential thing is to plant the seeds of understanding and compassion. This is the meaning of the lamp transmission, the continuation of the practice. It is wonderful that the light of the Buddha has still come to us as bright and alive as ever. Now the light is being transmitted to you, Sister Susan.

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem's Dharma Talk

A tool that Thay has given us is the ability to find healing in nature, to go sit in the middle of a field and do nothing. In the past two years I have found an apple tree out in front of the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Is it under it, near the fence, every morning. I see the same patch of earth, the same landscape in front of me and the same trees, in the springtime, in the summer, in the fall and in the winter. I think I began doing this because one morning I saw a bird watching the sun come up. I felt that that bird was more wholehearted than I was in being with the sunrise. About a month later I was taken by surprise and I really saw the sun come up. [t pierced me straight to my core.

I wanted to watch the sun come up and after a while I noticed the earth also. When it was cloudy, rainy or snowing I didn't see the sun but the earth was very wonderful. I began to feel very close to the earth. It was so wonderful to go and sit cross-legged on the earth every morning. I began to appreciate the apples in the different seasons and the chipmunks and the squirrels who would run by me. One time a chipmunk landed on my head. One time a bird landed on my head. I think from this, on a deep level, I began to feel the interbeing of the earth and the sky and the chipmunks and the raindrops and I certainly saw them interbe with my happiness. It was this time I spent under the apple tree that really gave me a smile so easily. It gave me love in my heart so easily. I could see that everything was connected. The teachings on Buddhist psychology also helped me to see that everything is connected. In nature it is easy to see that everything is connected. I think that is why I can sit and stare at it for so long because something in me recognizes that I am looking at everything.

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I could see that my sisters and I were connected very deeply and we affect each other. Perhaps the greatest happiness is knowing that we live in a community. It doesn't matter if sometimes the community has difficulties or I can't get along with someone or a million other things that can happen in a community that lives together twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that we are living together, that we are trying to make the Sangha work and we are making it work, that we support each other by practicing the same guidelines (the mindfulness trainings) and we are really there for each other, to me that is one of the most beautiful things on earth. To me it makes all the difference when I recognize the fact that we all belong together, that you can't take the father out of the son, you can't take us out of each other, you can't take anything out of us . We all belong together.

On our trip in China last fall on the last morning Thay woke up very early to see some of us off who were leaving for America, after a late night at a public talk. He was sitting outside with us. I was sitting at a table with another sister. She turned to Thay and said, "I want to thank you for allowing me to come to China and I want to apologize for any mistakes I have made." She went on to say, you know I have many weaknesses and I am trying to overcome them and it is difficult. And Thay quietly stopped her and said, "We do it together." To me that was the most incredible thing to say.

All our pain, all our difficulties, all our joy, we do it together. And when we do this we are following the truth of things and that brings about our greatest happiness. What if all the Sanghas we know have that idea, we do it together, for each other. If in a family something comes up, they can do it together, they work it out together. As a nation, we can all help each other to do it together. So when some group suffers, we do it together. We think about it, we look deeply into it. And as a world we do it  together. We have many ways of diplomacy and we know we are doing it together for all of us. We know we alI belong together as one family and so we will find the best ways to bring about happiness for all of us.

Sister Thuc Nghiem, True Adornment with Ripeness, lives in the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael) Brother Phap Hien's insight gatha

Remembering your peaceful steps along the ancient path, the sound of the old bell carried me out into the night sky. I return now with a bright message from faraway stars, and Oh, how my weary feet adore the tender earth. We have always known each other. There are thousands of generations of tears, smiles and laughter echoing through the great hall. In this endless embrace with this unfathomable aspiration, my teacher, my brother, my friend, what have we possibly to fear?

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

The Dharma handed down by wise ones from long ago is like the sound of the rising tide, echoing tens of thousands of songs and poems. Having been brothers and sisters to each other during innumerable past lives we should hold firm to the door of the practice so that the true vehicle can go vigorously far into the future.

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien's Dharma Talk

It's hard to say anything to a community that is you. When I was six-years-old I went to the dentist and the dentist asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I had never thought about that question before, but I remember I answered him very quickly. I said, I want to be a farmer. He looked at me and he said, a farmer? What about a doctor or a scientist? I said, no I want to be a farmer. The seed of the simple life and the family life living close to the land was very big in my ancestors.

And then when I was about twelve-years-old my parents separated. That was a great wound for me, a big wound in my heart. I lost all my trust and faith in my family. I remember also at that time someone asked me a question of what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was completely different. My answer was, I want to be alone. I wanted to live in a little house all by myself way up in the north of Canada with no one else around, with long, cold winters. Still a simple life, but with no more family. Actually what I really wanted was to be in the embrace of Mother Earth. But that dream to live alone didn't last very long. When I was seventeen I fell in love. That gave me the incentive to open up a little bit, to try to learn to be honestly close to someone, to share my life with someone. It was a very good thing that that happened. The inspiration ofthe family life came back into my dream.

About a year later when I began college I did a solo retreat for three days all alone in a desert canyon. I didn't eat anything. It was very hot. I barely wore anything. I just sat on a rock and did nothing for three days. I had never done anything like that before. During that time, without any kind of words or cognitive process, I understood something very deep about myself. When I tried to put it into words it didn't work. But I knew deep inside I had found something that resonated deeply with a place, a home within.

When I was twenty-one I was living in Northern California in the redwood forest. On my twenty-first birthday I received a book, Peace is Every Step, from my next-door neighbor. I was very happy to receive the book and I asked her, what is it? She just said, it's a lot like you. A few weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again. She is a kind of bodhisattva for me because giving me that book opened a big door for me. I read Thay's teaching and I felt as if someone was speaking what was inside of me. But he was able to put it into words, to give clear examples of what it meant to have that inside of oneself and to live it. I tried my best to practice walking mediation right away, but I didn't really understand it. But I did understand that my life had to be about what was going on in the here and now from that point on or it wasn't life. That is what I wanted. I had met the Buddha and the Dharma and a little piece of the Sangha. Soon after that I found myself here in Plum Village.

When I was twenty-four I became a novice monk and I started my life all over again. I didn't realize that I was doing that, but I did. I don't think I have fully realized it yet actually.

Before I became a novice I had had a dream of going to India and Nepal. This was before I had fully met and experienced a Sangha body. I had the idea that I would go there and find a place to touch something ancient. When I arrived in Plum Village and I heard the monks and nuns chanting at a formal lunch in the summer retreat I felt that something ancient, something very powerful. It is strange, but I gave up that dream to travel to the East and then eight months after becoming a novice I went to India with Thay and the Sangha. That next fall I also traveled with Thay and the Sangha to America and I found myself doing walking meditation in the redwood forest in Northern California at Kim Son Monastery one morning. I suddenly realized it was only ten to fifteen miles from the spot where I had first received Peace is Every Step. I had also been very intent on having a family life before I became a monk. In giving up that dream I got the biggest family I could possibly imagine.

The Dharma is very powerful. To be in touch with the Dharma through the Vietnamese Buddhist culture and community has been very important for me. Through my life in the monastery I have learned a lot about place, relationships to others and to environment, which I never knew before; relationship to elder brothers and sisters, relationship to younger brothers and sisters and so on. Being born in Plum Village as a monk is to be born in a group of several brothers and sisters who ordain together on the same day, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as an animal , a fruit or a flower. I was born in the coconut tree family. There were five of us; Phap Kieu, Thuc Nghiem, Ha Nghiem, Phap Hien and Hy Nghiem. We had many elder brothers and sisters who ordained before us also in groups, like batches of children or batches of cookies. There are many ofthese batches in our community but we make up one family and we are all children of Thay, our teacher. Thay has also been in that same place. He has been a child of his teacher in a community of monks and nuns and so on and so on.

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It has been very important to experience that kind of connection as part of my life .  When I was growing up I only knew my mother, my father and my two sisters. I didn't have much connection to other people around me. Then my parents divorced and my family broke up and I felt I had nothing. Living in the community of Plum Village I have learned roots. I learned to open my heart and to see my roots, both in my blood family and in my spiritual family. To experience a lineage, a transmission, a continuation has brought stability into my heart. It has brought non-fear into my heart.

This is a great medicine for westerners, wandering souls that we are. Many of us have not grown up, as many brothers and sisters from Vietnam have, with a lot of family members around and a culture that waters the seeds of being rooted, having a lineage, and being aware of one's ancestors and descendants. We have not had that in America for a long time. Many of us wander around in a lot of pain, with a lot of loneliness because we don 't know who we are and we don 't know where we come from. It has been really important for me to enter into the awareness of being a part of a lineage and to experience it living all around me in the community of Plum Village and also in the culture of Vietnam.

I said to Thay several years ago that while practicing touching the earth I suddenly discovered who I was and because of that I was not afraid anymore. I knew who I was and where I had come from. Sometimes the seed of fear still comes up in me. But when I can remember my roots, through my brothers and sisters in my spiritual family and through the generations of my blood family, I can feel within me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

The gatha that I offered to Thay is about that. It is about entering into the stream of practice, discovering my afflictions and about getting grounded in the practice, down through my belly into my feet. I really love to walk on the earth now. It is about understanding, I am you and you are me. It has been that way for a long, long time.

Brother Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained in 1996 in Plum Village. He received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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Buddba Body

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Larry Ward's Insight Gatha

The sound of the great bell has awakened the Golden Buddha in my heart. Grace arrives on the holy wings of a breath, in the here and now. I am at home without desire. The cloud of forgetfulness fades away. My eyes open wide to the wonders of life, each a Buddha land. Bright light shining in every direction, healing and transforming me. My happiness and freedom overflow into the river of great compassion.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

When the great Drum begins to play, we hear the thunder its sound vibrates even the golden moon light Beams from the four directions are projecting in witnessing to a mind that manifests both purity and oneness If one is attentive, one will notice that both the cam and the sat are still playing the harmonious song of great courage.

Cam and sat are ancient instruments that are always played together. They are associated with husband and wife, who compliment each other, creating a harmonious duet together.

Thay's words of encouragement

The gatha I just chanted is about the moment when the Buddha attained Great Awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree after having defeated Mara, the energy of darkness, the energy of fear, the energy of ignorance, craving, and discrimination. The Buddha and many generations of practitioners have followed his example and succeeded in defeating the power of darkness. We need the light and courage of the Buddha especially in this time of distress and fear. We need a long process of education in order to transform fear and discrimination in our society and within ourselves. Through the light of the Buddha we can see habit energy deeply rooted in our society - the tendency to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, to be taken by despair, the tendency of craving, of fear, of discrimination. We have to be patient, we have to continue with our practice and our work of education in order to uproot this negative energy.

It's wonderful not to have any desire in our heart. It means that we only have one desire, the desire to uproot evil, to uproot the negative energy within our society. This lamp transmitted to you today, Larry, is the symbol of love and trust from the Buddha and from our ancestral teachers that you will continue to do your best to improve the quality of life in our families, in our communities, in our societies and never lose hope. I have faith in you; the Buddha and the patriarchs have faith in you .

Larry's Dharma Talk

To go with my whole life for refuge is to put my life in the Buddha's life and to find my story in the Buddha's story, to find the Buddha's story in me. And to surrender having to be someone else other than the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To surrender to my Noble Teacher, the Venerables here and the Noble Sangha. To be willing to be taught by the ancestral teachers, to be willing to be taught by each breath, each step, each sigh, each star, each blade of grass, and each smile, each heartbreak and each disappointment. To surrender. To be willing to be taught. And so the transmission continues.

Finding the heart of the Buddha in my heart, finding my heart in the Buddha's heart, my heart is as big as the whole world.

Finding my feet in the Buddha's feet. Two years ago during our retreat in China we had wonderful walking meditations. One morning during one of our walking meditations I looked down and I didn't recognize my feet. I could not find Larry 's feet, and realized they were becoming Buddha feet.

And my ears becoming Buddha ears. Hearing the cries of the world, the laughter, the tears, the unspoken dreams and hopes and the whispers of love quietly held in the night.

And my eyes becoming Buddha eyes. Seeing wonder everywhere I look, beholding a miracle in every moment.

And my mind, slowly, and forever becoming the Buddha's mind, the mind of practice, the mind of coming back to the here and now, the mind of knowing when I'm not back in the here and now and the mind that gently brings myself back.

Our beloved teacher has been transmitting no less than 100% of himself to us, as his teacher did for him, and his teacher before him. And the Buddha has transmitted no less than 100% of himself to us. And so this coming summer I am preparing to receive the Buddha's hands. And I surrender having to have Larry's hands, I surrender having to be somebody so I can happily be nobody and so I can serve the world in that way. And so our bodies are becoming the bodies of the Buddha, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, our smile. And so the transmission continues.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives in Clear View practice center.Peggy Rowe Ward also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh Lisi's Insight Gatha

A tear from the ocean of suffering fell into my hand. Looking deeply into this tear, I found a precious jewel. Looking deeply into this jewel, I found an open heart. Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. Walking this path, I found the ocean Embracing it all.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

You have always embraced with all your heart the great cause. That is why crossing so many paths and bridges you are still able to walk with freedom and ease. Since the beginning of time clouds are always traveling, water is always flowing And it could be lovely to learn to sing the song of the ultimate every morning when the east gets rosy.

Excerpt from Lisi's Dharma Talk

My husband and I decided to step out of our very busy lives and take a sabbatical. We spent part of this sabbatical in a Swiss mountain village on retreat. Every morning we read one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings and then during the day we went for long walks in the mountains, feeling the training that we read in the morning sinking into our consciousness. In the evening we would sit by the warm fireplace and share what feelings and thoughts had come up.

When we read the fourth mindfulness training about the reality of suffering, I remember sitting in meditation and suddenly feeling tears running down my cheeks, warm, wet tears. And one tear fell into my hand. Have you ever looked at a tear? It's something really beautiful. If you have a chance to look at a child and a little tear is caught in the eyelashes, it's like a dew drop in the heart of a lotus leaf. It reflects the whole universe, it's shining bright like a jewel. Tears are truly a universal human language. A mother whose child has died - maybe in Israel, maybe in Germany, maybe in Afghanistan - has the same tears. She might express them differently, but the tears are the same, wet and warm and salty. I once had a tremendous privilege to hold a mother whose eighteen year old son had just died. I held her and cradled her for many, many hours and the tears were running down my shoulder and making my clothes wet. I had the feeling I was holding the most precious jewel in my arms.

Jewels are something that you take good care of. They are in the crowns of kings, they are on the engagement ring of your beloved. When you look at jewels, they are so pure and so transparent and so full at the same time. Human suffering is the same, it is extremely precious. You don't throw jewels on the floor or put them where you keep your shoes; you keep them in a special place. And human suffering is the same, you have to take really good care of human suffering.

In my gatha, I said, "Looking deeply into this jewel l found an open heart." I am Austrian, coming from a Catholic tradition. When my parents took me to church when I was small, you could buy pictures of Mary and Jesus. There was one picture that intrigued me immensely, the picture of Jesus with an open heart - he was standing there and his breast was torn open and you could see his heart. When I saw this picture I was always so worried, thinking how could you live like that, it's so dangerous, somebody bumps into you and you get hurt. At the same time I was incredibly amazed at the look on the face of Jesus, which was somehow fearless. To me an open heart and fearlessness go together. A vulnerable fearlessness of an open heart.

Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. So I come back to the mountains where we walked every day. Every step was pure joy and pure gratefulness for this incredible beauty of nature. There was one little path that went through a forest with pine trees that lose their needles in autumn so they turn yellow and orange. One time we walked through this forest and all the golden yellow pine needles had fallen on the ground and it was like walking on pure gold. I can fee l right now the happiness of that moment. I can still hear the sound of the silence of our steps . Beauty is always available at every moment.

Walking this path I found the ocean embracing it all. The tears of pain and the tears of joy all contained in the ocean of life. And I wish us all a safe and joyful journey on this ocean.

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Lisi Ha Vinh, True Great Bridge, was born in Vienna, Austria. She has developed educational and humanitarian projects in Vietnam together with her husband Tho, True Great Wisdom, over the past twelve years. Lisi and Tho have been married for thirty years, have two grown up children, one grand child, and they consider their couple and family life as an important part of their spiritual path. Tho also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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A Life of Faith

An Interview with Sister Giac Nghiem, A Nun in Plum Village By  Sister  Steadiness

You have said that you have two roots, Buddhism and Christianity. How do you integrate these in your life of practice as a Buddhist nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I met the Buddha twenty-seven years ago. I was in Laos with my former husband. Early in the morning we woke up and my husband said, “My dear, do you want to see something beautiful, the sunrise over the Mekong River?” We went together and I was so happy. At the moment we arrived at the banks of the river the sun was just beginning to rise. Standing by the river we saw many Buddhist monks begging. They were walking very slowly in silence, very mindfully. They were walking on our right and on our left there were four ladies sitting on the ground with food in front of them. The monks came and opened their bowls and the ladies filled up their bowls. It is difficult to express how I felt at that moment.

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I felt that I was the lady who was filling up their bowls. I was a monk bowing in front of the women. I was the sun. I was the river.  I was a buffalo drinking the water.  I was a young child taking care of the buffalo. It was like meeting someone after a long time and suddenly he is here. It was something very deep; I cannot describe it. I met Thay a long time afterwards. Between meeting the Buddha in Laos and meeting Thay I practiced yoga.

I met Thay in 1987. Sister Chan Khong had long beautiful hair and Thay was young. When I met Thay I met the Buddha again and I also met St. Francis of Assisi because they are the same. The first time I met Thay was at a two-day retreat in Lyon where he taught in French. He spoke about the piece of paper and seeing the whole world in it. I felt the teaching was familiar and I thought, this is my master. When I returned home my family asked me what happened during the retreat. I smiled and I said, I found St. Francis of Assisi again and I am free from the fear of abandonment now.

My Christian roots are very old.  They are older than me because they flow in the blood of my family, very deeply. When I was a child knitting a small blanket for my doll and I didn’t want to go to bed before finishing it, my mother would come and say, “My dear child, you can go to bed and perhaps Mother Mary or an angel will come and finish your work.” Sometimes in the morning I would see that the row I was knitting had been finished for me. And I knew for sure that it was Mother Mary or an angel who had done that. Perhaps it seems like nonsense but this kind of faith is in me very deeply. I really have faith about the capacity of the spiritual ancestors to take care of us. Even if something happens that is very difficult they are always here.

I am a Buddhist nun and I am deeply Christian too. I found the key to Christianity in Buddhism. For example, Jesus said, “Forgive the people who make you unhappy.” I try my best all the time to do as Jesus tells us, to be generous and so on.  But I did not know how to put Jesus’ teaching into my daily life. Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gave me the key. The key is mindfulness, concentration, insight and understanding. When we have understanding we are free from our hatred, our guilt, and our worries. I am not free yet but I try. This key helps me.

One time Jesus came to a synagogue and there was a crowd who intended to stone a woman who had committed adultery. Before I encountered Thay’s teachings I thought Jesus said to the crowd, “If you look at yourself, you cannot throw stones at the woman because you have also made mistakes.” Now I see this story so differently. I can really see Jesus waiting for the man to come to ask his advice. He already knew what would happen. The young man told Jesus that they wanted to kill the woman and asked him what was the right thing to do. Jesus said, “The one who has never sinned can throw the first stone.” He said this lovingly. He did not speak out of anger; he did not want to teach them a lesson as we have the habit to do. He just loved them; he understood them and he wanted to put a clear mirror in front of them, a clear mirror full of love. This way of seeing more deeply comes from my encounter with Buddhist teachings. What I have learned here in Plum Village has enabled me to be closer to my Christian spiritual ancestors.

How was the transition from your family life to the monastic life?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha offered me the opportunity to become a nun even though I had a lot of difficulties. Before ordaining as a novice I lived at Plum Village for a year and a half as a lay person. Then I became an aspirant and began to enter the monastic life of the community. During my stay before ordination the Sangha allowed me to go back to my hone in St. Etienne and Lyon to see my family, my Sangha, and our center for homeless people four or five times a year. I would stay with my family for three or four weeks before returning to the monastery. It helped me to be gradually less attached to the projects in my home Sangha. But it was very difficult. At the beginning our Sangha and our association for social work had the feeling that I was abandoning them. But I realized that though my family and friends are not physically here, they are here in my body. I really found them in me. Their feelings and their lives are in me. I take care of them through my own life and my own body. That is why it became easy for me to make the transition from family life to monastic life. But it was more difficult for them to experience me within them. For my beloved ones it is very big sacrifice but because of their love they have accepted to offer me to my way.

The monastic life is wonderful. I chose it because Jesus and Mother Mary and angels are very close to me. When I was a child I went into a church in Casablanca where the sisters of St. Francis are. They sang so beautifully and I thought, I want to become a nun and sing as they do. Often when I felt an aspiration to become a nun during my life I said to my children, “My love, if in the future I lose your dear father, my beloved one, and you grow into adults I will become a nun.” But when I felt a calling, in my mind I said to Jesus, “Oh, my love, you know I am so busy. I have a wonderful husband. I have wonderful children; I am so happy with them. Perhaps if you call me later I will be free to come to you.” And I would say, “Oh, my love, do you know I have such wonderful work. There are so many people who need me. We have an association; we have a Sangha; we take care of homeless people. I do not have time to become a nun.” I felt I really could not become a nun because I love so much my wonderful family. I thought about becoming a grandma, making jam for my grandchildren and taking care of the babies coming from our daughter or our son. But Jesus is very persistent. He would knock at the door and in my heart I would hear him say, “My child, now are you free to become a nun.” And I kept saying, “No, I have a loving family, the association, my friends and so on.” But he kept knocking at the door and finally I said, “Yes, I am so happy to come.” And then I said, “Oh, what am I saying? That is not a possibility.” I was really in touch with this kind of conversation inside of me. At that moment I felt so deeply fulfilled by love that all my resistances fell down.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty that I have to overcome is my feeling of inferiority. I feel the teacher, the place and the Sangha are so wonderful.  But many times I have the feeling that I do something wrong, that is not beneficial for the Sangha. Often I feel difficulty because of my perception about what I did or what I thought. But because the Sangha has a big heart and accepts me even if I have this kind of difficulty, I have the opportunity to transform myself and to find clarity on my path. I can walk on the beautiful path taking the hand of Jesus on one side and taking the hand of the Buddha on the other side. Now I have lived in Plum Village for four and a half years. I became a nun on the 4th of December, 2000. I feel at home. I feel loved and happy. I love the Sangha a lot.

How do you stay in touch with your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning my suffering and that of my family was very strong, but now it is lighter and lighter. Some members of my family could accept my path and others could not. The best way for me to be in touch with my family is to telephone them once a week. When I hear their voices I can tell how they are and they know how I am. Recently, our mother, our daughter and her family and our son all came to Plum Village to visit me. Now they know that this is my home, it is our home. I hope they will take root in this home and come more often.

Did you ever think of leaving the monastic life and returning to your family?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: At the beginning I felt the desire to return and help my family, my Sangha and our association, and to be in touch with them with my body and not only with my heart. But because I can really find my family in me, this kind of desire has become smaller and smaller. Sometimes I dream that I am at my family’s home and am living with my family. It is okay for me to go in my dream to my family. But I did not come here to hide myself or to protect myself from suffering or from my life before. I have the aim to really become someone who is awakened, to help more people.

We have many people coming to Plum Village who are full of anger and despair, burned by the fires of craving and suffering. One day Thay said we are like nurses or doctors who take care of the people who come from outside to help them relieve their suffering and become healthier. We give them the key to transform their suffering into something wonderful and to find more ease in their family life.

Society for me is sinking like a big boat. I know that if I were in society I would not have the energy to transform myself enough to become someone who can help. It is because I have this ambition to help the most people that I can that I go on this path. I start with my family, but I want to help many more people. I know if I return to my family I would not be able to transform because so many  people already need me outside and I would not have enough strength to do it. My life in our temple, close to our master, to Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha gives me enough strength to  transform  myself,  to transform my difficulties. The loving-kindness of the sisters and the brothers is so wonderful. Often I make a mistake and I make someone unhappy. But they always find a way to accept and to help me to accept and to transform, and in that way we live together beautifully. I know that I have often made mistakes. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in front of everyone. If I have made a mistake and hurt you, please forgive me.

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Tell us about your experience with the practice of Touching the Earth.

Sr. Giac Nghiem: In November 1996 Sister Chan Khong offered me the practice of the three Touchings of the Earth. Soon after that my husband left me. Sister Chan Khong asked me to use this practice as medicine for twenty-one days. One sentence in this practice touched me so much, “I accept you as you are with your strengths and weaknesses as I accept myself as I am with my strengths and weaknesses.” This helped me a lot when my husband left.

I first practiced the five Touchings of the Earth in June 1997 when I came to Plum Village for ten days. I came to learn how to be compassionate towards my former husband. Since then, Touching the Earth has been one of my basic practices. I used the five Touchings of the Earth almost every day for two years. We say that reciting the Diamond Sutra cuts through afflictions. For me practicing Touching the Earth cuts through my afflictions and helps me to transform. It is my second diamond. I practice Touching the Earth to nourish myself. At the beginning sometimes I practiced it for one or two hours.

Before I practice Touching the Earth I look deeply into my spiritual ancestors and into my society. I know I am made of all the input I receive from my ancestors and my society. The collective and the individual are together in me. I want to transform many things in me for the benefit of my descendants,  my  children,  my grandchild, and my parents. I don’t want to transmit the difficulties I have had.   When I found the blocks of suffering in me I took care of them even if I had to cry a lot.  I always had a handkerchief close to me to absorb my tears.  I would only stand up after I could see something beautiful coming from the earth.

At the beginning I did not want to lie down on the earth because the child in me was afraid of getting dirty. When I was a child I often had a pretty dress on and I heard, “No, don’t get mud on your dress; don’t get dirty.” But Sister Chan Khong told me that if I can open every cell in my body, the earth will be very happy and will eat and drink from me and will transform my suffering. The young child in me is very fond of sweet foods. So only when I could see beautiful, sweet foods like strawberries, little mushrooms, and blueberries coming from the earth could I stand up and smile.

One time I found a way to touch the earth with more ease. I was in the Buddha hall and I allowed my imagination to touch the earth with me. I imagined that I was lying on a beach. I was feeling dirty and the waves came and washed me of everything I didn’t like in myself from my family and my society and from myself. The waves washed away all the dust and it was transformed into beautiful fish and coral, into beautiful colored sand and the blue of the waves. I felt so happy because the sea is really my ground, more than the soil.

At the beginning when I practiced for twenty-one days I had so many things to put into the earth, but day by day it was transformed. At the end of the twenty-one days I was very surprised because for the fifth touching of the earth, when I send my love to the one who has destroyed my life, I no longer had an image of anyone. At first when I practiced this I had the image of different people in front of me, but then finally there was no one left. That was a big transformation. Now when I touch the earth I don’t have many negative things to put on the earth; sometimes I have nothing to put on the earth because my difficulties have been so transformed.  I can see the beauty of my family and my society. It is like the practice of total relaxation. At first we need to take a long time to feel the relaxation, but after we have practiced for a long time, we just lie down and breathe a little bit and we experience the relaxation.

One time my father told me that my brother was suffering. I said, I will take care of him even if I am in the monastery. My father has faith in this practice because I have shared it with him. I went in front of the Buddha and Jesus together, because they are my two spiritual roots. I said, I want to touch the earth in the name of my brother because he is in every cell of my body. We have the same blood ancestors, the same education and civilization. I am him and he is me. It was absolutely successful. After practicing for twenty-one days in the name of my brother, my brother’s situation improved a lot. He became lighter. I put his suffering on the earth for him because he did not know how to do that for himself. I have done that for other members of my family as well. It is very important to understand that I’m not trying to transform them, just to alleviate their suffering. This practice is the key for me to make life lighter so that is why I do it and offer it in the name of others.

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How did you begin helping hungry children in Vietnam?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: I was born in Morocco and I spent my childhood there. I lived with my family in Djema el Fina, the Medina, close to the marketplace in Marrakech. In the Medina there were a lot of handicapped people, without their legs or blind or diseased. One day when I was around four-years-old I went out and just outside our door I saw a very poor handicapped child. I asked my mom, “Why is this child like that?” She said, “My love, you were born on the other side of this door but if you had been born out here you might be like that too.” During my whole life I have had the desire to help because I know that that child could have been me.  All my life I have carried this thought. Helping people however I can is my way. Nearly ten years ago I had a dream, where I saw a beautiful young woman who was full of light. I remember with her left hand she showed me a young child, a very tiny, skinny child. I saw this child and my heart was filled with suffering. Then she showed me a candle and said, “One candle, ten days of life for a hungry child.” A few days before I had met a lady who decorated candles with the dried petals of flowers. They were very lovely and they seemed easy to make. When I woke up I was full of desire to help put an end to suffering in Vietnam and everywhere. That aspiration was already in me, but now I had a plan. I realized my dream could help me relieve suffering through my work. At that time I was a physical therapist working in the hospital and clinic with terminally ill patients.

I began making the candles as my  friend showed me. One day our son came into our kitchen and he saw me making the candles. He said, “What are you doing, my love?” He was very gentle. I said, “My love, for Mother’s Day I want to sell one thousand candles.” He said, “You are doing it alone?” I said, “Yes, but it is February and I have a lot of time to do it.” But I didn’t really because I had a lot of other work to do also. He laughed because he has faith in what I do even if it seems impossible. I tried to do a little bit every day. After one month four people came to our house and when they saw what I was doing they were so happy and they wanted to help me. For Mother’s Day we had one thousand candles and I was so happy. A lot of people came to help, but I didn’t think about anything but that the children need our help. That was ten years ago. I think the presence of Thay, Sister Chan Khong and the Sangha was a catalyst for my dream.

We gave Sister Chan Khong the money we raised to help the children in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong is a big master for me. After that she gave us information about needy children so that we could find sponsors for them. I also received inspiration and support from Sister Minh Tanh, the abbess of a big temple in Vietnam who takes care of many children there. Our Sangha in St. Etienne created an association called it “Le Coeur a Vivre,” or “The Heart to Live.” Two or three years later we began to help the homeless people and others in difficulty in our country, who were close to our homes. Our bodhicitta grew because we watered the seed of loving kindness in us. Mother Theresa was also always dear to me and an inspiration for our work.

How are you nourished by the social work now as a nun?

Sr. Giac Nghiem: Because of the desire I have to help I suffer a lot here. Why? Because I feel the world is so full of suffering. Everywhere someone is suffering. Not to help our children, parents, family and friends and to let go of my work at the hospital where all of my friends are dying slowly or not doing anything for the homeless people because I am here: all of this filled me with suffering. It was very difficult for me. One time I said to Thay, “My dear teacher you can imagine my suffering because you stay in France and you cannot return to your home monastery in Vietnam to give your support.” I know my dear Sister Chan Khong can understand me too, because she also knows the suffering of not being able to help at certain times. I did not know if I could stay in the monastery because my suffering of letting go of my children, my mother, my father, and my mother-in-law was so deep. I felt I have so many people to take care of and I suffered so much. But I became a nun to help, to become someone very solid who can really help everywhere, not to escape from my own suffering or the suffering of society and of the world.

Sister Chan Khong gave me children from Vietnam to take care of. She was watering my bodhicitta to help others. She let me know that when we spend a lot of energy to take care of children in Vietnam, we can release a part of our suffering in the world. That is why I accepted with great gratitude to take care of the hungry children projects for France, Belgium and a part of Switzerland. I enjoy very much taking care of these children, seeing their little faces with different expressions. I read the letters about the children. In December of 1999 there was a big flood in Vietnam and the city of Hue was under water. Sister Chan Khong came and gave me a lot of children to take care of who were crying and asking for help. Now we have many sponsors and we wait for more because we have so many children who need help. They are so in need. We really need help. For instance, a flood during August and September devastated so many homes.

Sometimes I stay up late working. But I feel close to the children. I take one child’s photo and I say to him or her, “You know, we have a sponsor for you now. My love, do you know you can sleep and dream very well now. Do you see me in your dream?” I smile to him and I enjoy sharing good news like that. Every time I find one sponsor I am happy for many days. I think about the family who has so much difficulty and the child who needs to go to school, to have something to eat and to learn. I think that one day that little child will become a strong, beautiful man or woman and he or she will already know the key of how to help other people.

Sister Giac Nghiem, Adornment with Awakening, ordained as a nun in 1999.  She is French and often goes out to lead Days of Mindfulness and retreats in France.

 

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Why I Chose the Monastic Path

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen mb66-Why1

During last spring’s Francophone retreat, Thay gave Dharma talks on the theme of “recognizing the conditions of happiness in and around us,” a subject that is very important and helpful for today’s living. Thay taught that to be able to hear the birds or see the sun rays in the morning, or to recognize that life has lovingly offered us our good eyes and strong heart, is already a source of happiness. So many people are not so fortunate with their poor faculties, and still countless others are suffering from serious illnesses.

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One day, we had a formal lunch, a solemn and powerful event well attended by the fourfold community. Yet during the afternoon’s Dharma discussion, one practitioner shared that while the meal was something very special, she gained from it neither any sense of happiness nor any understanding of its purpose. Further, she felt pity that monastics could be made so happy by something as insignificant as an ice cream bar while a few cartons would be what she herself would buy. Monastics would derive happiness just from watching simple things like a cloud, a ray of sunshine, or a flower; she felt sorry for them.

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I was not surprised by this sharing because I’ve known many other people with similar thinking. The sharing made me reflect more deeply on the sources of happiness in my life before and after I became a monastic.

Never Really Satisfied

I am Vietnamese American. In high school, I studied diligently for admission to a good university. That done, I continued to work hard for a good degree so I could get a decent job to help my family in America and in Vietnam. After four years of hard work, I graduated with degrees in international business and finance. I had wanted to go further for Master’s degrees in international law and international relations, but after much thinking, I decided to defer additional schooling in favor of work to help my family financially, and also to get real work experience. Just before graduation, I was fortunate to be hired by a stock brokerage company, with the work to begin one week after graduation. Everything appeared to progress as I had wished.

But my ambition did not stop there. Once employed, my next desire was to buy a house and a good car. These goals were achieved after three years of high-intensity and high-pressure work. In my job, dealing with many of the clients, especially wealthy ones, was difficult. There were days I left work with a headache. In seven years, I moved through two houses and was into my second car. I had a job, money, a good dwelling and means of transportation, but I was never really satisfied with my life. I always felt that I was missing something. The help I gave my family was never enough. The situation was the same with everyone around me.

I found instances of joy in being with my family, in material things, and travels. Every time I felt boredom, excessive work pressure, or the need to resolve some personal issue, I would travel. I visited many places, some of them with rather luxurious and elegant accommodations. I felt happy during those travels, but upon returning home to face the busy and tense life, and especially my own dissatisfaction, I began to feel the boring repetitiveness of my life. I wanted to change it.

Waking Up

When I was little, my mother used to take me to the temple to worship the Buddha and chant the sutras. I remember the lightness I felt on those occasions. Although I was too young to understand myself, I liked the quiet, serene atmosphere of the temples. Growing older, I continued to like those visits, but I only went to the temples when I felt my mind was unbalanced. Many people go to the temple to pray for favors, but I went just to chant a sutra or to do some temple work to find peace; that was it! Every day after work, I would stop by the temple for sutra recitation. Gradually the wonderful words of the sutras began to penetrate my mind. I became more familiar with the way life was lived at the temple. What I most valued was the peace that I felt there. Suddenly I began to see the beauty of monastic life. Images of the brown and saffron-yellow robes quietly entered my store consciousness. From there the seed of a monastic life began to sprout in me.

One day while doing research on Buddhism on the Internet, I found Thay’s name and the Plum Village (PV) website. Out of curiosity, I studied the information and became very interested in what I found. I began to read Thay’s books, and the more I read, the deeper I was moved. I decided to travel to PV once to check things out; sometimes, reality might not be the same as what we’ve read on the Internet or in books. I arranged my schedule to allow a one-week visit to PV. During that week, I had the opportunity to be in direct contact with the practice of mindfulness in the PV tradition. I learned to walk, sit, and breathe. In a few days, I felt there was already transformation in me: I felt light and peaceful. I liked PV’s natural settings. Thay’s Dharma talks moved me very much. I felt like a person just waking up from a deep sleep. After the week, I returned home with the vow to come back and ask to be Thay’s disciple. And true to that vow, I returned one year later and was permitted to join the monastic community.

While back in the US to rearrange my personal affairs, I continued mindfulness practice at Deer Park Monastery, another PV center in America. There I was given much guidance and help by Sister Dang Nghiem. One time, I was having dinner with her and another practitioner. That simple meal turned out to be an unforgettable experience. We were eating leisurely while the sun was setting in the distance. No one said a word: it was enough to simply enjoy the meal and value one another’s presence. It was wonderful. I felt the energy of peace enter my body and a sense of happiness I had never experienced before—one of peace, freedom, and contentment, so gentle and soothing.

The Joy of Non-Desire

Before getting to know the practice in the PV tradition, I was confused between the happiness derived from sensual pleasures and that derived from real peace. I had thought that happiness meant having one’s desires satisfied. But desires can never be satisfied because by nature, they are bottomless. Once a desire is satisfied, another one, even larger, appears. Eventually we become enslaved by our own desires.

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On the other hand, there is the happiness born from mental stillness, a joy that comes from the non-desire within us. Looking closely, we can see that the process of going after desires until they are satisfied brings not so much joy but a lot of suffering. Our greater joy actually comes from the moment of non-desire, which happens between the end of one desire and the beginning of the next. For example, from the very first few months of my first job, I worked hard to save for a modern car. Once I got the car, I was quite proud and happy for a few weeks, and then my next goal was a house. The joy of having a new car gradually disappeared, and in its place were new efforts, new worries, and new plans to gather enough money for the new house.

When we look for externally generated pleasures such as travels, good food, and luxurious dwellings, we are really looking to satisfy just our physical needs. In the depth of our consciousness, our difficulties, sadness, loneliness, etc., are being suppressed. While sensual pleasures can bring us short moments of joy, they make our desires stronger in the long run. I had thought that graduating from a good university, having a good job, big house, beautiful car, much money in the bank, etc., would bring me happiness. But no! Looking back, I now realized I was a slave to my own desires.

Like many other young men, I was drawn to fame and fortune. Chasing after fame and fortune and never satisfied with what I had, I was like a person drinking seawater: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. In those days, I had worked hard to prepare for the future and lost sight of the wonderful present. Now a monastic, I’ve discovered that happiness is something that’s already in myself; there is no need to search elsewhere. But it takes mindfulness to recognize this. Mindfulness helps us to become aware of what is happening in the present moment and to more clearly see our emotions and mental formations.

A New Ideal

Is what I am saying familiar to you? Does anything here resemble what’s inside of you? I hope you will agree from reading my story that not recognizing correctly our sources of happiness is a common sickness of our time. I was a youth living a worldly life. Having experienced suffering, psychological complexes, sadness, and attachments, I can identify to some extent with the feelings of many young people. Nowadays, youth are facing many kinds of pressures from society, family, school, friends, and sexual tendencies. From puberty into young adulthood, sexual needs can develop so quickly and strongly that they are difficult to control. And if we do not know how to channel them, we can end up being controlled by them. Therefore, we have to deal not only with external issues, but internal ones, too.

Our society is very modern today, but the more modern the world is (with computers and other electronic gadgets, for example), the more lonely and lost people can become since there are now fewer opportunities for personal contacts between individuals. Such feelings of loneliness and emptiness could take us very far in the wrong direction. I think my earlier feelings of unease, worry, and loneliness came from my original ideals, which were based on the ambition for fame, wealth, and sensual pleasures. That’s why I was not very happy. Now I feel very happy: Thay has opened my eyes to a new life ideal, the development of understanding and love.

Dear friends! Young people like us need an ideal in life. A wholesome ideal is useful to ourselves and others. It will bring the fruit of love and happiness. The life of a young person is very beautiful, like a full moon, clear and undefiled. Let’s value it and keep it well. In order to do so, we have to practice stopping, deep looking and listening, recognizing and transforming, like Thay has taught. Our breaths and steps are the very beginning of this practice. I am walking this path of practice with much joy.

I hope you can live your lives so you can be like proud and solid pine trees. If you know how to take good care of your garden of the heart and your ideal, you too will experience the taste of peace and happiness. If you are happy, your loved ones and others will benefit. You will be like one of those blue pine trees: if it knows how to send its roots deep into the earth and stand straight with solidity and dignity, its trunk and foliage will bring much refreshing shade to life.

Translated from Vietnamese by Dat Nguyen.

mb66-Why5Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the US with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

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From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had flak jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

Running at Night

By Dave Kenneally mb66-Running1

I have been practicing in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for eight years and living at Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate NewYork since November of 2012. I am the inaugural intern in a one-year program for laypeople who want a longer and more intensive retreat at the monastery. My position is called “Sangha Outreach,” and I work to keep the monastery connected to lay practitioners all over the world. Last summer I was invited to join Thay and about one hundred monks and nuns on their biennial tour of North America. At one stop on the tour, Thay recounted a dream he had about twenty years ago. (Full disclosure: I’m going to leave out some fascinating parts; this is the dream life of a Zen Master, after all.*)

Thay dreamt he was still in university, in his body as a young man. The school secretary informed him that he had been admitted into a very selective honors course that was starting immediately. Thay hurried up the stairs, thrilled because this course was taught by a highly renowned and much-loved professor. When Thay walked into the classroom he was startled by what he saw. Rather than the small room with just a few students that he was expecting, he saw thousands of students in the grandest of halls. The windows all around him framed the impossibly beautiful view of snow-capped mountains, the sun, moon, and stars. While they waited for the esteemed instructor, Thay asked what the subject of the class would be, as he had neglected to ask the secretary in his excitement. “Music, of course,” was his classmates’ response. They went on to tell him that he would be giving the first presentation as soon as the teacher arrived. Music? Thay was not a student of music! He felt very embarrassed and was not sure how he could possibly give a presentation on the subject. In his nervousness, Thay fumbled around in his pockets, as if something hidden there could save the situation. Sure enough, he found a small meditation bell. Thay had been using the bell to bring himself and others back to the present moment since he ordained as a novice monk. He had been studying a musical instrument after all! With this realization, all of Thay’s confidence came flooding back, and just as the instructor was about to walk in, Thay woke up.

For me, the standout detail in the dream is the symbol of the bell. The bell is at the center of our mindfulness practice. Its sound is often referred to as the voice of the Buddha, and listening deeply to it has the power to bring us back to ourselves, back to our true home. Thich Nhat Hanh is a bell. The depth of his mindfulness ensures that his sound is very beautiful and pure. It radiates in a way that penetrates everyone and everything around him. I could feel how all of us on the tour were harmonizing ourselves to the sound of Thay’s practice. Not just trying to mimic it, but using it to gently guide us back to the sound of our own lives. Only in that place of deep and compassionate listening do we have a chance to realign with our deepest intentions. I felt powerfully embraced by the collective energy of thousands of people practicing like this during the tour. The safety and support of it enabled me to listen more closely to the sound of my own bell than I ever have. I was able to hear both its burgeoning harmonies and its lingering discords. This process made the three-month tour simultaneously very joyful and quite painful. Thay spoke again and again about the inseparable nature of happiness and suffering. He instructed us to learn how to “suffer well, so that we can suffer much less.” But what does that really mean?

Twenty years ago, while Thay was visiting nirvana in his dreams, I was a newly minted United States Marine, waking at dawn every morning to run with my platoon. We ran behind our commanding officer, following his pace and his silently chosen route each day. Some days it was three miles on the road, others it was five miles over hill and dale. The pain of not knowing was a practiced torture, meant to bend the iron wills of a hundred young men to an idea of discipline. Among the toughest ores ever to be pulled across that anvil was my childhood best friend, Christian Regenhard. Early on in our training, he started running alone at night. After watching him return home from another punishing session through the hills that surrounded our barracks, I asked him what he was doing. Wasn’t it enough to be dragged around the base each morning? He answered plainly and without hesitation, saying that he couldn’t take the pain of those morning runs. He shared openly, without shame, that he couldn’t bear starting every day at the mercy of another man’s whim. He had decided to train himself hard enough at night to bravely face even the worst of our morning circuits. When the sun rose, Christian was ready and could greet it with a smile. By embracing his vulnerability, he saw that happiness lay in training himself to be with his suffering, so that he could suffer less.

Like anyone, I know the seemingly senseless suffering that any given morning can bring. I remember and carry the pain of many such mornings. The grey day in childhood that I realized my father was an alcoholic. The spring morning of young adulthood, when my brother told me over the phone that our father was dead. The dawn in the South Pacific, when I clearly saw that I had spent three years of my life training to be a blunt instrument in another man’s hand. The fall night in a bar threatened by sunrise, when no amount of drinking or lying or crying could change the fact that Christian, now a firefighter, had died running up into the World Trade Center. In spite of all this and more, happiness is possible.

I can no longer endure the pain of being unprepared for the inevitable. I know that the tender spaces deep within my heart cannot be defended. It is time for me to throw open the doors behind which I have hidden my weakness and shame. Time to be open and vulnerable, so that I can learn how to suffer well. Listening deeply to the sound of Thich Nhat Hanh’s bell, I’ve heard its call. I have asked the brothers of the Blue Cliff Monastery to accept me as a monk. I have decided to train for happiness.

This article was originally published on Dave’s blog, davekenneally.wordpress.com. It also was included in the Blue Cliff Monastery Newsletter.

Dave Kenneally, True Precious Mindfulness, is a native New Yorker and a child of the Rock Blossom Sangha in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He has been living and practicing at Blue Cliff Monastery since November of 2012.

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Seasoning the Soup with Peace

An Interview with My Elder Brother by Phap Lai

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Brother Phap Do and I sat and drank tea together on a number of occasions. Sharing tea is a time-honored way of building brotherhood in Plum Village. As the story of my elder brother’s journey and transformation unfolded I felt inspired to record it.

In this interview Brother Phap Do shares how he transformed his anger through practice, moving stories of reconciliation with his father, and how his mother started a Sangha after meeting a strange monk at their loved ones’ gravesides. Now forty-two years old, Brother Phap Do ordained as a monk in Plum Village in 1996.

Su Anh (elder brother), can you speak about your family background?

I was born and brought up in Hanoi, North Vietnam, with four generations, twenty-six of us all together in one house. When I was ten my father was posted to Saigon so then we no longer lived with all the grandparents. With twenty-six family members living in the same house you have a Sangha. We had to learn how to live with each other and practice patience. I received love from my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. Sometimes my mother would be too tired and busy to give me attention or would scold me. My grandmother would take care of my mum while my great grandmother took care of me. That’s when I really saw the strength of the family all together—it was a circle of love. I learned about building family from them. There was much tension too, but my main memory is that there was a lot of love in that house.

What made you want to be a monk at fourteen?

My grandmother used to take me to the temple every week. She was the only religious one in the family. One time I stood mesmerized while a monk arranged flowers with such care: he was so peaceful. I wondered how anyone could have peace like that when everyone was going to war. We had just finished the war with America and then started one with Cambodia. I told my parents, “I want to be a monk,” and they responded “No!”  It was simply out of the question.

Why were they so definite, saying no like that?

I was the only son. They were relying on me to continue the family through having children and taking care of the family’s future. Also my father was a military man, a communist high in the government, a man of action. According to him, monks were lazy and shirked their responsibility to build the new Vietnam. They were anti-communist. For his own son to be a monk was unthinkable.

What was your father’s career?

My father’s elder brother joined the resistance army, fighting the French when he was sixteen. It was the branch of the Viet Minh which was to become Communist. He soon persuaded his fourteen-year-old brother to join him. It was 1945 and my father stayed in the army until 1968. The Communist Party put him in charge of a construction company and eventually he became the main government official for construction in Vietnam.

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There seems to be a parallel between his choice to join the resistance army in the mountains and you as a boy of the same age wanting to become a monk. Both offer a life in Sangha and a sense of purpose, even adventure.

Can you say something of your experience as a soldier?

I didn’t choose to go into the army, I was drafted. Before that I’d trained as a chef and was working for a tourist company. In 1985, I underwent six months of army training and they singled me out to be in the special forces and receive more training. I found myself being dropped into Cambodian forests on reconnaissance missions. Many traumatic things happened. One day in a jeep I heard a loud crack and looked around to see that my friend had been shot in the head. I drove off, escaping his fate. After two years in Cambodia one mission went badly wrong and we found ourselves surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers. One of our team made a run for it and was shot down immediately. The rest of us waited, defending our position for days until another team was sent in to rescue us. One other soldier survived along with me without serious injury, another I had to carry out after he lost his legs stepping on a land mine. He died later in the hospital. Although my father was proud that I was in the army, after that incident he was scared for my life and arranged through his contacts to have me taken out.  I am grateful to him for that.

Did you have to kill people on the missions?

We were there to gather information so the regular army could go in. But on occasion that happened. It was always dark, silent, and I seldom saw their faces.

How do you feel about them now?

They are still with me.

How did you feel about your two years of army service and being a civilian again?

I felt happy to be alive—I had survived. I also felt very proud and confident. I had risked my life carrying out a noble task. As my friend in our team put it in a song he wrote: we had taken on the burden everybody else refused. We had freed Cambodia from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. That is how we saw it. I don’t view it so simply now—there was also the desire to conquer another land and people.

But as far as being back in civilian life was concerned, I was fearless.  I wouldn’t let anyone speak down to me no matter what position they were in. I never physically hurt anyone but no one ever challenged me. Looking deeply now I can see that the pride and violence in me caused me and others to suffer. But at the time I felt okay and focused on making a success of my life as a civilian.

What happened then?

I got a job as a chef and soon after my boss asked me to go to Frankfurt to be head chef at his Vietnamese restaurant there. I had the usual dream of making lots of money, having a fancy house and car for me and my fiancee. We were very committed to each other and she completely supported me in going abroad. We thought it would be a good start for our security and happiness in the future. And I’d be able to give money to my family. It’s not that they were poor, but to be able to repay your gratitude to your parents is a big thing in Asian culture and money is the usual way.   So off I went.

After some time in Frankfurt some disillusionment with my dream crept in. Although I admired the owner of the restaurant for his success, I could see that it did not bring him happiness. He had family difficulties and suffered a lot. I began to have difficulties too. The restaurant work was stressful and I couldn’t control my anger with the other cooks. We had a big turnover of customers who would often come in drunk, would drink more, be noisy, eat quickly, and leave. I would get back home most nights at around two a.m. and drink beer, smoke, and watch videos to unwind. But I found that, especially with the alcohol and violent images, memories would come up in my mind, particularly in dreams.

I knew something had to change. I began by quitting smoking and drinking and exercising regularly, and I started to feel much better. Still it wasn’t enough. So when my friend Vinh said he was planning to start a quiet vegetarian restaurant in Berlin I told him I wanted to join him.  A few months later I moved to Berlin.

In the vegetarian restaurant, the customers enjoyed their food and they seldom smoked or drank, except for a glass of wine. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant. Vinh went to see Thay speak in Berlin in 1994 and when he came back, he offered me an audiotape of the talk. I was extremely impressed so I started reading Thay’s books. Then some monastics came to Berlin in the spring of 1995 to offer a Vietnamese retreat. We invited them to the restaurant, and talking to Brother Phap An, Brother Phap Dang, and Brother Phap Dung, I could see a real quality of happiness and peace about them that I wanted too.

So I went to the summer retreat at Plum Village. I ordained as a novice monk on February 15th, 1996.

How did it feel, becoming a monk?

It was very clear—I had been reborn. I had had a feeling of being reborn when I went back into civilian life, having survived, against the odds, my time in the forces. But this was different because I had been reborn onto a completely new path, one my ancestors could not really tell me about—a path of peace and happiness and understanding. My ancestors were reborn with me even though they didn’t know it. The fourteen-year-old in me said, “Now I got my wish.”

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How did your family react?

Not happy. I had told them of my intentions beforehand. But when I actually ordained they were in a state of shock and didn’t want to believe it. When I visited Vietnam later, even my grandmother asked me, “Why a monk?” And I told her, “It was you, Grandmother, who took me to the temples. You showed me the good way, now I’m only trying to follow that way.”

My parents felt betrayed and that I had brought shame onto the family. I was their only son and their hope for the future of the family. So, many times they told me I had run away from my responsibility. They had matched me with my fiancee at an early age. She was part of the family. How could they explain to her and her family? And my fiancee was very hurt, which is a wound yet to heal. It gave rise to a complex in her: if I had become a monk there must be something wrong with her; she hadn’t been good enough to keep me. This is totally untrue but I cannot persuade her otherwise.

It was a difficult time for all of us but I knew I was on the right path. I had faith in the Dharma and was convinced that eventually my family would come to understand. But my father was angry and for the following two years avoided speaking to me whenever I telephoned home.

What finally brought about a change in their view?

It wasn’t until my father became ill with a worsening heart condition in 1998 that the door opened.  Before he went into the hospital I insisted he come to the phone and I told him I was going to send him some material to help him.  I sent the book Breathe!, You Are Alive, with Thay’s commentary on the Anapanasati sutra, the sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Then I gave a visiting monk from Vietnam a box of cookies to take to my parents’ home. By the time these arrived my father was already in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

My family sat down to share tea with my cookies. At some point—I can only imagine how their faces looked—my mother removed the plastic cover for the second layer of cookies. It was then they saw the carefully wrapped tape cassettes of Thay’s teachings, which accompanied the book I’d given to Dad.

My mother took them to my father in the hospital and he listened to them every day. It really helped him. Back from the hospital, he sent me a letter with a photo which I still keep. It is a picture of him and on the back he wrote: “You see your father is always waiting for you.” In his letter he said, “I know your way now.” Asian fathers don’t say they are sorry or admit they were wrong to their sons directly. I spoke with him on the phone and he said he was feeling good but a week later he had another heart attack and died later in the hospital.

Hadn’t you wanted to go be with your family at this time?

Sr. Chan Khong and Thay offered to pay my airfare, but I only had two years in the practice and didn’t feel stable enough. In 1999, on an invitation from Thay, my mother came to Plum Village for three months. We spent a lot of time together.  She enjoyed the way of life here so much she wanted to become a nun but the family back home wasn’t happy with that idea so she gave up her desire and went back.

Then in 2001 I went with the Sangha to Vietnam and spent two weeks with my family, which was also a healing time. My mother and I went to my father’s grave in a special memorial ground for government officials and officers. I offered incense and chanting for the deceased that we offer in Plum Village. It happened that a neighbor of my mother’s, a family friend, was also there visiting her husband’s grave. Her husband had been a close comrade of my father in the army. After the chanting she came up to us and said, “How lovely. I suppose you made a request to the temple for the venerable monk to come and chant for the peace of your husband?”

“But, this is my son,” my mother exclaimed.

The woman stared at my face, bewildered at first but soon recognized me and began to cry. She shared about her family’s suffering. Her son had gone to Germany at the same time I did. She said, “He has returned with lots of money but he has no peace. Your son has come back with no money but he has brought back peace. That is something so precious for your family, no money can buy that.”

Soon after I left Vietnam, my mother and this friend started a Sangha, offering mindfulness days and raising money for the hungry children in their region.

Can you share how, as a monk, you are transforming your anger?

Anger was the main obstacle for me. It came from my army training and from my father who had also been shaped in the army. Every single thing they tell you in the army waters the seeds of fear,

anger, and violence in you. The way your superiors relate to you is violent and you have to take all of that without reacting, but it goes in and then you dish out the same treatment when you’re in charge. All your training and what you do generates anger and you use the energy of anger, very focused and somehow cool, to do your job. It’s hard to imagine another way, although Thay teaches it is possible for a soldier to act from the base of compassion.

Living in the Sangha, it was easy to see my anger. Learning how to handle it was my practice. Over my six years as a monk I guess my brothers have had to go through a lot with me. Sitting in a meeting one time I became so angry at a brother as he was sharing, I had the idea to put the big bell over his head and turf him out of the hall.  Fortunately I was able to breathe and stay still. The energy in me caused me to feel I was the size of the gorilla in King Kong. If I stood up, my head was sure to touch the roof. I asked to hold Br. Phap Dzung’s hand for support. Soon I excused myself from the meeting and walked to Thay Giac Thanh’s hut. He was quite ill with diabetes and had recently broken a bone, but he was able to accept his illness and discomfort and be happy and peaceful. I would often do walking meditation to his hut and share tea with him when I was angry. I didn’t need to tell my story—just his presence calmed me down.

With  time,  through  the practice  of  mindful  breathing, I have developed a zone of peace in me and have had more and more space for my anger.  I say to myself, There is anger in me, but I am not this anger.    I can recognize it as it is coming up and take care  of  it. When  driving  I used to notice that my foot was pressing harder on the accelerator because my anger had manifested.  But because the  peaceful  mindfulness energy was also there, I was able to ease off very quickly. I would slow the car right down and go back to my breath. Mainly  walking  and  sitting meditation was the base of my practice but I also used other skillful means. I found writing poetry about my situation and feelings helped me. By  finding  eloquent  words and  putting  my  anger  into a larger context which contained positive thoughts and aspirations,  it  detached  me from the emotion. So gradually I know myself better and better and can recognize all the signs of my anger coming up and am able to take care of it right away.  Now I see the peaceful zone prevents the seeds of my anger manifesting, even when I see them being watered.

What do you wish for your future practice?

Just to continue the basic practice, to increase my happiness and peace. That is enough for me. I do see I have a strong seed to be an elder brother. I like to support my younger brothers but not as an authority.

I see also that here we have an opportunity to live together, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. It is a challenge to live together, to understand and connect with each other. Sometimes the seeds of prejudice are very strong. For instance, many Vietnamese still resent that Westerners tried to colonize our land and that they looked down on the Vietnamese as inferior. Many Vietnamese had a rough time integrating as immigrants. There can be a desire to show “I’m not less than you, I can do everything you can do and do it better.” But here we are together under the roof of the same teacher and as monastics we have left everything else behind for the love of the same practice. So we should make the effort to get to know each other and love each other. We can live together. It is an important act of peace— stopping the war—that we do this. I feel very at home with the Western people. I don’t care if my English or German is not perfect—even with my limited French I just go ahead and have a conversation. I don’t feel a barrier or a difference but relate to people on a human level.

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Br. Phap Do became a Dharma Teacher in 2002. For me his character echoes those samurai of ancient Japan who gave up their swords to become monks and channeled their one-pointed determination and zeal into the ways and practices of a monk.  Every morning at five a.m., Br. Phap Do is at the bell tower of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, calling us with the deep bronze sounds and his strong chanting voice to sitting meditation.

Br. Phap Lai is a novice from England, currently living in Deer Park.

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Monks & Nuns: Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part One By Lori Zimring De Mori

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On a quiet summer morning in the French countryside near the village of Thenac, several hundred people sit patiently in the boxy, light-filled room which serves as Upper Hamlet’s main meditation hall in Plum Village. Children are at the front—some squirming, some with their heads in a parent’s lap, a few sitting still and straight as little Buddhas-to-be. The rest of us are crowded onto cushions, meditation stools, and chairs which spill out of the hall into the summer sunshine.

Monks and nuns begin to file in from opposite sides of the room. They have the shorn heads of those who have renounced the material world in favor of a life of the spirit, and walk in the measured, unhurried way of those who have spent a lot of time with Thich Nhat Hanh—utterly without false piousness, but as if every step were the final destination. Their robes are the warm brown color of loamy soil and hang straight from their shoulders to the ground.

They assemble themselves into several rows, monks on the left, nuns on the right, facing us and holding song books. Everything about their dress and demeanor expresses the intention to de-emphasize the self-absorbed “I” whose hungry ego obsesses with the mundane vanities of fashion, hairstyles, and superficial beauty. They look composed though not solemn; cheerful but not chatty; eminently likeable and unintimidating. Some of the nuns have covered their heads with brown kerchiefs knotted at the nape of the neck. A few monks wear woolly brown caps. Mostly there are bare scalps over bony skulls. And faces. Western ones, Asian, some wizened and a great many fresh and smooth as plum skins.

I find myself studying them carefully. I’m trying to imagine what they were like before they’d taken their vows, when they were living in the world like the rest of us. Wondering what made them leave that world for one of silence, service, and vigilant mindfulness.

A bell rings clear and high, like a single note from a songbird. We scramble to our feet as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh enters the room. He seems to move in slow motion, or as if he were inhabiting some other dimension (or more likely, fully inhabiting this one)—and his gaze, should you happen to catch it, is a compelling mixture of vibrancy and stillness, so alive as to be startling.

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Thay embodies the Buddha’s instruction to “make of yourself a light.” He combines the moral authority of Gandhi and Martin Luther King with a resolute steadfastness of purpose and unwavering patience and kindness. His impeccability as a teacher and a human being is inspiring, and more than a little intimidating. There is still so much work to do—so many habits of mind to recognize and transform; so many petty thoughts, self-obsessed fears, and hollow vanities to let go of; so many ways to be more kind, more patient, more generous.

Thay sounds the bell and the monastics begin to chant the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. Some sing phonetically from song books, others from memory, but all of them know the words by heart in one language or another. In English the chant is slow and melodic, one word flowing into another in a river of sound. This version is deliberately monotone, each syllable distinct and staccato, rhythmic as a chisel hacking away at the rough husks around our hearts. “Listen Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.” What does this mean? The words are plain enough but to gnaw on them with the everyday, rational mind yields little or nothing.  I imagine they can be understood with the wisdom mind—the “heart mind” that looks courageously into the true nature of things, and is nurtured by a steady diet of mindfulness and compassion. Thay calls this “watering our seeds” of kindness, compassion, and mindfulness through how we walk, eat, listen, speak, consume (or don’t), do virtually anything and everything. It seems a good way to live well. If an understanding of emptiness eventually comes with it, all the better.

The next chant is a heartfelt wish for happiness: “May the day be well and the night be well. May the midday hour bring happiness too. In every minute and every second may the day and night be well.” The words wash over us like blessings and we lap them up like hungry puppies. In any other context the world-weary cynic in me might reject the chant’s simplicity of expression. But somehow these voices, this place, and our shared aspiration to live life as a conscious journey make it feel as if our efforts actually could generate happiness. Not the impossible happiness of a life without pain or loss or disappointment, but the happiness that comes from being open to this life, at every moment, whatever it has to offer.

Coming from the monastic community the words have an added potency. We spend our days with the nuns and monks—both inside and outside the meditation hall. We share meals, conversations, slow morning walks to neighboring hamlets, and cups of tea. There are little moments—waiting in line for a meal, beginning to eat, washing dishes—when I can tell they are reciting gathas, the short mindfulness verses that help bring awareness to even the simplest actions. But they also run (barefoot, robes flying) after soccer balls with the teenagers, strum guitars and bang out rhythms on African drums, rehearse plays with the kids, and wrestle with sophisticated sound and computer equipment.

Their generosity towards us has a quality of effortlessness to it. Their practice doesn’t feel dogged or forced. To put it simply, they seem happy and joyful—not in some sort of mystical, blissed-out way, but in a most ordinary one. On some level this surprises me. I’d always thought of monastic life as requiring a noble and unnatural giving up of things: ego, wealth, possessions, sex, marriage, children. I’d expected there to be at least a whiff of teeth-gritting renunciation; a spectral air of deprivation; something other than the bright radiance of people whose lives seem to agree with them.

It is unfair and unwise to project one’s own imaginings onto the monastic robes. Things are so rarely what they seem. Yet it seems legitimate to wonder, and ultimately to ask what brings a person—especially a young one—to choose monastic life over the “go-to-college-get-a-job-get-married-raise-a-family” paradigm that propels so many of us. I posed the question to four young monastics—two I’d met on retreats, two I hadn’t known at all. What I found were four unique human beings whose individual life paths have intersected in a place called Plum Village. These are their stories.

mb40-Monks3Phap Xa

Phap Xa came to Plum Village from Holland and took his monastic vows in 2002. He is twenty-nine years old, tall and lanky, with clear green eyes and an angular face brightened by a great, flashing smile. Like all monks ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh he carries the name Phap. Xa—“equanimity” in Vietnamese—is his given name. “Thay gives us the name he thinks most suits us. It is meant to be a door to practice, either reflecting a quality or pointing to one to be developed.”

How does one become a monastic in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order?

You can’t just show up at Plum Village and ask to ordain. First you practice with the community. If you decide you want to ordain you write a letter to the Sangha saying that you aspire to become a monk. The community meets to consider whether they feel you would succeed as a monastic. If the answer is yes, you become an aspirant and live—together with other aspirants—with the monastic community for at least three months before ordaining.

Did you always want to be a monk?

[Laughter] No! It feels like my decision is a miracle. While growing up I never imagined I’d become a monastic. I was raised on a farm in Holland. My family was Protestant—we went to church every Sunday, said prayers before and after meals and read from the Bible before dinner. My interests were pretty typical: I loved soccer, hanging out with friends at bars, girls. I wasn’t a social activist. I cared a lot about myself and my own comfort.

The shift was actually a very slow process. When I went to university I had to become more responsible. I started looking for a better way of taking care of myself, of facing difficulties. My older brother was practicing transcendental meditation. My parents weren’t happy about it, but the idea seemed interesting to me. When I was about twenty I became fascinated with Eastern thought and life—especially Taoism and martial arts. I began studying kung fu, moved on to tai chi and finally to chi gong. As I kept moving to softer forms of martial arts I was always inspired by my teachers’ way of living.

When did you begin meditation practice?

When I was twenty-five I started practicing Zen meditation with some other university students. I remember feeling strange and awkward the first time I sat. Eventually I wanted to practice formal zazen so I attended a sesshin with a Dutch teacher. My practice at this point was centered around sitting in groups and by myself. I was dedicated to it but I didn’t really have any Dharma friends.

What brought you to Plum Village?

I began reading Thay’s books—they made me want to practice with someone who had great authority. I came to Plum Village for a week. I was so happy on that first retreat. I shared a room with people who had come for three months. It inspired me that they made the time to stay. One of them had a book called Stepping into Freedom that Thay had written for monastics. I ordered it.

A year later I came back for another week. I was inspired by Thay’s writings about right livelihood and I began to feel that mine was “not that right.” I wanted my work to have meaning, to help lessen suffering or bring happiness. Working at an engineering firm wasn’t going to do that. I decided to return to Plum Village for three months in the spring.

What appealed to you about Plum Village?

The Sangha—the community of people practicing together. Thay was such a great inspiration and I looked up to him so much as a teacher but I also began to see that practice wasn’t only about a teacher. There is great value in a Sangha. I feel that what I can accomplish by living in a Sangha is so much greater than what I can accomplish by myself. Back home I felt alone in my practice and my life ideal. At Plum Village there were all these people with a similar life ideal, guided by the same teacher whom I love so much.

At what point did you decide to become a monastic?

During the first weeks of those three months my determination to practice became very strong. I’m a bit shy, but there was a Vietnamese Dutch monk I felt very comfortable around. I asked if I could speak with him, ask him a question. We found a quiet place to talk and I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. He just looked at me and said, “Do you want to become a monk?” The question went straight to my heart. I knew it was what I had wanted to talk to him about and the feeling grew stronger every day.

How did your family react to your decision?

It was a very difficult time for them. I was so happy but my parents were skeptical and concerned for me. They thought the whole thing very strange and were not happy, not supportive. I returned to Holland for six long and difficult weeks, gave most of my belongings away and came back to Plum Village with only a few things.

Were you ordained right away?

No. Thay ordains monks two to four times a year. I lived at Plum Village for six months before being ordained as a novice. As novices we take ten precepts. At full ordination (three years later)

monks take 250! The people you ordain with are like a family. There were eighteen of us all together—thirteen brothers and five sisters. As aspirants we were each assigned a Dharma teacher to mentor us—mine was the Vietnamese Dutch monk.

How has life changed now that you have ordained?

Being ordained is like a rebirth. Monastic life has been very good for me. I’m a bit shy—I need time to feel comfortable with people, to create a space for myself to feel free. I’m beginning to feel more and more at home, to build relationships, to live harmoniously with the Sangha.

My doubts are less and less, and my practice has become deeper, more stable.  My aspiration has always been strong, but at the beginning I was still ingrained with the ideals of happiness I grew up with: being successful, having a beautiful wife and children. For awhile I still had the habit of looking at women as potential partners but that has lessened. Now I feel a part of the Sangha—loved and supported by it like a family. I see more and more clearly that the life that was expected of me wouldn’t bring me the happiness that monastic life brings me.

mb40-Monks4Tue Nghiem

Tue Nghiem left Vietnam by boat with her family when she was nine years old. I first met her on a retreat with Thay in Rome where she helped run the children’s program. She is now thirtyfive years old and has been a nun for twelve years. My daughter was smitten with her playfulness, quiet wisdom, and lightness of spirit. We all were. Nghiem is the name carried by all nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order. Her given name—Tue—means wisdom and understanding.

Were you raised a Buddhist in Vietnam?

Yes and no. My family was Buddhist but we didn’t practice the way we do here at Plum Village. We went to the temple on the full moon and every New Year. My older siblings were in a Buddhist youth group. I was the youngest of five kids. My father died when I was young but I grew up feeling very protected by my family. The values I grew up with were very much like the five mindfulness trainings given at Plum Village, but they were taught to us as life values rather than Buddhist ones. There was more faith than formal practice.

What do you remember about leaving Vietnam?

I lived in a big village about fifteen kilometers from Hue. There was a lot of fear and uncertainty—people’s freedom was restricted, their property taken, education had become an indoctrination in Communist thought. Many people left by boat—they left because they felt there was no future. My family wanted us to have one.

We went on my uncle’s boat. I didn’t know we were leaving. I was only told I had to go somewhere with my sister. The rest of the family split into groups and left the village in different directions. We met in a remote seaside village that night. When I saw the rest of the family I was afraid. They were acting so secretive. We had to hide under bushes and not say a word.  A man helped us onto the boat. By the way my oldest brother hugged him I knew we weren’t coming back.

There were about twenty of us on a small open boat, a third of us children. We were on it for a week. I wasn’t sad—it felt like an adventure, but I could sense my mother’s fear. We arrived in Hong Kong and lived in a refugee camp for a year. I loved that time—we were all crowded together having fun, playing.

Where did you go from Hong Kong?

My uncle asked a Protestant church to sponsor us to go to America. A couple from Oregon sponsored us—when I went back to Vietnam for the first time in 1999, they came with me. We went from Oregon to Stockton where we had family. My mom worked on a farm and took English classes in the evenings. I started school in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. I was a good student so I was transferred to the regular English classes. I wasn’t happy because I didn’t understand English and my friends were still in ESL, but I felt I was in school for a good purpose and I studied hard and ended up enjoying myself.

Did you have any sort of religious practice at that time?

There was a network of Vietnamese temples in Northern California. In Stockton we went to the temple every weekend. It was not so much a place to practice as a place to connect to our roots. There were Buddhist youth groups at the temple where young Vietnamese kids would come to learn the language, history, and Buddhist teachings.

When I was fourteen I went on a one-week Buddhist youth retreat and met Thay. Watching my breath, walking slowly, the idea of being mindful was all very new to me. At the retreat I felt like I wanted to live in that way—though not necessarily as a monastic. For the next few years three friends and I would spend our summers living at the temple in Stockton. I realized that before I hadn’t really been suffering but I was a bit lost, had no path. Adolescence was difficult—my mom supported me with all her heart but she didn’t really know how to help me understand what was going on with my body, my mind, school. I was balancing two cultures and not completely accepted by either.

Why did you feel you weren’t accepted by the Vietnamese community?

The problem wasn’t with my friends—they were mostly Vietnamese from the Buddhist youth group and temple. The conflict was between the Vietnamese who arrived in the states as adults and those who arrived as kids. We were the first generation of boat people to go to college. They were traditional, had a restrictive view of women, and thought many of us were too Americanized. I was young, playful, loud, and outspoken—and I was going to the University of California at Davis to study psychology and education. I was criticized because I was going to college. They felt I thought I was better than they were because of my education.

I stopped going to the temple because I no longer felt supported there. I decided I wanted to work with problem kids from Southeast Asia. I took an internship where I counseled kids who were having difficulties. Sometimes I’d go to their houses to meet with the parents. There was a tremendous culture, language, and generation gap between the parents and their children.

What brought you back to practice?

In my second year of college my brother became a monk (instead of going back to college to get his masters as he had planned). He didn’t tell us until he had already taken his vows. My mom and sister were so upset. They’d dreamed a dream for him which he wasn’t going to live.

When I graduated from college my brother sent me money to come to Plum Village for a month-long retreat. For the first time I felt so at home. I’d never felt like that before. My brother wanted me to come back with my mom for a three-month retreat in the fall. We did. Thay was teaching Buddhist psychology. I learned so much—so much more than I’d learned during my years at college. At college it felt like what I’d studied had nothing to do with me. These teachings felt so deep. So related to me. I was finally learning how to take care of my own emotions and I felt I could be so much more helpful counseling kids if I had a better understanding of myself. I liked the practice so I decided to stay at Plum Village—as a layperson—for the year before starting graduate school.

What did you like about the practice?

The sutra that really struck me was the Establishment of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—body, feelings, perceptions, and objects of mind—the Satipatthana Sutra. I thought, “It can’t be this easy. It can’t be the Buddha who said this. It must have been Thay.” Of course it wasn’t, but because Buddhist psychology was so much more complicated, I couldn’t imagine that these simple, straightforward teachings also came from the Buddha.

When did you decide to become a monastic?

Toward the end of the year, before the summer retreat, I knew I had to make a decision to return to my studies or become a nun. It was a huge decision. I was so nourished by the practice and the place but I was also judgmental, resistant, stubborn, and wounded by the trouble I had with my temple in California. The nuns—there were only five of them at that time—were very supportive. So was my brother. During that year at Plum Village we would bike, take hikes, and talk. He helped me overcome my resentment.

I made the decision to become a nun only after I left Plum Village. I chose this path so that I could be myself, accept myself as I was and grow from there, never being discouraged simply because I was a woman. When I returned to the States I was struck by the amount of consumption I saw, the carelessness towards the earth.

That October Thay taught a retreat at a Vietnamese monastery in California. My brother was with him.  One afternoon I was having tea with Thay and I just blurted out, “Thay, I want to become a nun.” He didn’t say anything! After awhile he said, “Look at the sunset.” When my brother and another monk came in Thay sent us off to have dinner. I didn’t know if his answer was yes or no. I almost wished it was no. It was very scary—I felt like I was swimming against the stream. I returned to Plum Village in November—not knowing if it was to become a nun or stay as a layperson.

Three friends picked me up at the train station. They gave me a hug and I knew Thay’s answer. We all ordained together. We are so much closer now as monastics than we ever were as lay friends. I feel tremendously supported by them.

Was the transition from layperson to monastic difficult?

In a way. I had extremes of emotions, a strong, outspoken personality, and a lot of resistance to the idea of conforming. I’d do little acts of defiance—wear bright socks, mix the colors of my robe and pants, knit myself a colored hat. I was afraid of losing my identity, of not being unique anymore. I liked the practice though—sitting, walking, working wholeheartedly—and everyone was supportive.

And now?

I’ve realized I can never be like anyone else. The idea of conformity was an illusion. It doesn’t matter anymore how I look on the outside. Who I am is so much more than how I wear my clothes or what people think of me. I’m happy. My happiness used to be so dependent on exterior conditions. I couldn’t find it in myself. Now I feel a kind of inner path—my own—not even created by Thay. Seeing that path brings me a happiness not so dependent on exterior things. There is a continual sense of understanding and self discovery. Even now. Always.

I don’t know where I got the courage to become a nun. I’ll never regret the decision. It’s funny. I never wanted to have my own family and kids—my dream was to have a small house with lots of trees, take care of my mom (who is a lay resident at Deer Park in California) and have lots of friends over on weekends. In a way, that’s what I have here at Plum Village.

You’ve become a Dharma teacher by the Lamp Transmission. What does that mean?

The Lamp Transmission—given five years after full ordination—is one of the deepest ceremonies. All the elders are there and Thay officiates, but he is really holding the ancestral energy and passing it down. At the ceremony we give a short Dharma talk and are encouraged to fulfill the role of teacher, to be a lamp, a light to all beings.

Do you like teaching?

I’m nervous if I speak from my intellect, but if I speak from what Thay calls the store consciousness—from deep knowing— then teaching and sharing become easy. You feel lighter when you speak. Your ego is not involved. I think that is how Thay speaks.

mb40-Monks5Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

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Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

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Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country....” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit before I go out again.

mb42-Fragrance2To you our deepest gratitude. Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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One Year as a Monk

By Brother Pham Hanh  July 4, 2012—Independence Day, the day I became a monk—is now one year ago. What is a monk? Why become a monk? Is it the best way to live your life? Did this year really make a difference for me? Did I really transform?

I always have many questions. I remember the first question I wanted to ask Thay as a lay friend: How do you know if an answer you give to yourself comes from the reasoning mind or from deep wisdom? At that time, I thought Thay did not understand my question because, in response, he talked about which seeds you should help to grow and which seeds you should not water.

To Live My Aspiration 

I grew up in the Netherlands within a Jewish/Christian-based contemporary religious community. At age nineteen I’d finished high school and started working in the computer business full time while studying IT in the evening. Always very eager, hardworking, and looking for challenges, I made good progress. At age twenty-six, I was working for myself as an IT consultant and earned the money and got the fancy car I always thought I deserved for my efforts. But in 2009, after ending my second long-term relationship, I’d worked myself into a burnout and ended up in Plum Village, which drastically changed my life.

mb64-OneYear1In Plum Village, many of my questions were answered, about relationships, love, volition, and purpose, and I started dedicating more of my life to service by building Sangha and organizing Wake Up retreats. My life became simpler. I ended up selling my house and car and living on a small patch of land in a wooden hut. With a decent amount of money, I didn’t need to work anymore and had all the time in the world. So now I could do what I’d always wanted to do, but what was that?

Wake Up became the main focus in my life. I found out deep in myself that happiness is found not in having ideal conditions, but in having a healthy, free attitude. In order to be able to deeply live my aspiration, I needed to transform many things. The best way to do this was to train as a monk for five years, as this could lay the foundation for a deep, meaningful life, either as a layperson or as a monk for life.

Training in True Love 

What did I realize in this first year as a monk? First and foremost, I have cultivated more ease. I feel less eager to think that I should be the one doing things. Before, I thought that I knew better how to do things or wanted to have the attention. I now see that things are okay as they are. I do not feel changed or transformed; I just notice that I react differently. I don’t take things as seriously, and the need to change things immediately is much less strong. I just smile.

Being a monk at this point is a training. I look like a monk, keep the precepts, and try to apply the mindful manners, but mostly I try to be in harmony with the brothers and enjoy my own presence. My habit energies could easily make me behave un-monk-like, to be honest. But as I have committed to train as a monk, I do not follow those habit energies. The training helps me more and more to see the deeper roots of my thinking, habits, and feelings. I see my suffering in a different light and have a better understanding of why my relationships did not work out, why I struggle in work and with accomplishments, and why there was so often a feeling of pointlessness in my life before.

By not being involved in sex, drugs, alcohol, money, fame, and power, I more clearly see the effect of these influences, and my mind does not create excuses as to why they are not a problem. I look at couples, see their attachment and their craving, and remember the suffering that I also had before. I do not condemn it, but I see that in me there are still many seeds that need to be transformed in order to not create suffering in the future, if I ever have another romantic relationship. As a monk you are protected from such relationships, though living with the monks and being close to the sisters does not mean there is no love or intimacy.

I’m building up real friendship here in which I’m still free, but we have joy together. I do not get too attached, so I do not have to claim the other person for my needs. At the same time I see the brothers’ efforts to understand me and give me what I need. It is not always pleasant to hear what they have to say, because it might not be what I want, but it may be what I need. This understanding, friendship, joy, and freedom is real love and is not limited to one person.

For me, being a monastic is about learning true love in the safest way. It does not involve expressing sexual energy. This energy is so strong and deep that it is often destructive and addictive. I still have a deep wish to understand it, so it is not by chance that I received the name Pham Hanh, brahmacharya, Brother Holy Life,

or more simply Brother Abstinence or Brother Celibacy. Sexuality is a topic I discuss often with the brothers and I’ve learned so much about it. I’m not ready to make a commitment to never have a romantic relationship again, and it comforts me that I’m doing the five-year monastic program so I do not have to worry about that desire. I’m here to train with the desire because I have created enough suffering and I do not want to repeat my mistakes. But an intuition tells me that by practicing as a monk, I will be able to love and experience intimacy so deeply in every moment that the desire for sexual intimacy will be transcended. That is my aim, but I will take my time. If that happens, or I have enough faith that it will happen, I can be a real monk.

Just Enjoy 

How does being a monk help others? Just living freely, happily, and easily already helps others. When you cultivate those things, they naturally flow out of you. Just looking at a young child makes us smile, so how do we feel looking at a monk or nun? I’ve noticed that the most beautiful things we offer are mostly not the things we think we offer, so I do not worry about what I offer as a monk. I practice to be happy.

I see how fortunate I am with the roots and seeds I’ve received from my parents, my church, my country, my teachers, and the whole world. I recognize my ancestors in me and see that I continue their aspiration. As a monk I can honor this aspiration just by practicing. Plum Village is a wholesome environment where many good seeds are watered, and I can be lazy. When you learn to be mindful and you can relax, then you become less uptight and things flow naturally. That is the deepest meaning of laziness, allowing things to manifest without control. So now I just allow my questions to sink in. Maybe an answer will manifest, maybe not. By practicing and watering the good seeds, I transform my base and it does not matter if my question is transcended or not. We can just enjoy our life, just enjoy ourselves.

What I do not understand is why we’re not flooded with new monks. Sure, you need to step into the deep and let go of stuff and ideas (the ability to let go is what makes happiness possible in the monastery), but what you get back is so much easier to carry with you. I was afraid of losing my money when I had it. Now I just have the Dharma and I’m not afraid of losing that! My favorite question remains: What do you really want?

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This article was originally published on the Wake Up website. Please visit wkup.org to learn more about the Wake Up movement, an active global community of young adults established by Thay in 2008. 

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