In an interview with the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, Deer Park Monastery’s Brother Freedom (Brother Ngo Khong) shared his hopes and aspirations for the upcoming Happiness is the Way: Road Retreat. The three brothers left Deer Park Monastery for the first stop on the Road Retreat: Phoenix, Arizona (August 12-14).
Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation (TNHF): What are you most looking forward to in the Road Retreat?
Brother Freedom (BF): To connect with our Sangha members in the far west! For me this tour is like a family reunion. We visit our aunties and uncles, cousins, and siblings. We meet old friends and new. I want to see how they live and how they practice, what conditions they have to practice. Because practice can be implemented in so many ways according to how and where you live. We want to learn more about the conditions of our Sangha members and to meet everyone! Our aspiration is to build siblinghood and bask in each other’s presence.
TNHF: You’ve been a year and a half without having visitors to Deer Park. You just recently had several retreats. What was it like to welcome retreatants back?
BF: We are so happy! We are so happy to be together again as a Sangha. We had a Wake Up retreat, Summer retreat, and Vietnamese retreat. We re-started Days of Mindfulness in person on Sundays. It is so vibrant, and there was so much life. Everyone was so thirsty to meet each other and to practice together as a collective. Everyone is so eager to offer their best practice. Every step is peace. Every step is practice. Everyone tried to live up to Thay’s vision to build Sangha and walk as a Sangha. This was really tangible. We created this aliveness which was much needed.
TNHF: Could you say a little about the importance to the monastics of practicing with lay people? We often talk about how important it is for us to practice with the monastics, but what about from your view?
BF: Thay says, “this is because that is.” Monastics are because lay friends are. As monastics, we are beggars. That is the meaning of the Sanskrit word “Bhikshu/Bhikshuni.” We are nothing without lay friends. We say that “the giver and the receiver are one.” There is no real difference except the choice we made in our lives. Do we want to practice full time, or are we practicing in society with our family and friends and with our profession? It’s about the practice energy that we generate with every breath, every step. That dissolves these boundaries.
But practically speaking, we are really dependent on the generosity of lay friends. We only have income from our retreats, and we didn’t even have that since the start of the pandemic.
Begging is an old tradition going back to Buddha’s time when the monastics made alms rounds through the villages. This is where the exchange happens between the two life choices. This is where monastics and lay people meet. The villagers put some food in the monastics’ alms bowls and the Buddha and his disciples gave a teaching or answered questions. That is basically what we are doing today in a modern way. We [monastics] receive the generosity, the heart, the love, the care from lay friends who in turn appreciate the choice we made with our lives. We are aware that without the lay friends and Sanghas, we could not survive. We gain the fruits of a full-time practice, and we return it to the lay friends so they can implement it and be more happy and at peace. This exchange is a living organism.
TNHF: All of us who have had the privilege of visiting the monasteries keenly miss the energy of being together.
BF: There was a silver lining of the lockdown. People for sure feel the energy of mindfulness throughout the monasteries – in every tree and plant, in how people talk and treat one another. People come to the monasteries to take refuge in the Three Jewels [the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha], and that is legitimate.
But maybe we believed that we depend on coming here for our practice. What the lockdown and having online retreats taught us is that lay friends were actually able to build a practice center within their own homes. This is the feedback we have gotten. Together with the online Sangha, people were behaving and practicing like they do at the monastic centers. They transformed a lot of habit energy and patterns they had for years and years. They generated the energy of mindfulness in their own homes. When the retreat was over, the energy was still there. When you come home from a retreat at Deer Park, you come to an empty space which is full of your habit energy, but maybe not your mindfulness energy. This feedback led us to the vision of having hybrid retreats in the future – having people come to Deer Park or practice in their homes.
TNHF: For the Road Retreat which kicked off August 12, what are some of the themes you will cover in your Dharma talks?
BF: We reached out to the Sanghas to ask them what is relevant to them, to their practice. Where would you like to have some support and what would you like to hear about? Based on their feedback, we have chosen some topics. We will speak about coming home to our true selves, about quieting the mind, about being free wherever we are, and about generating loving kindness in the moment. The talks will be very specific to each state.
Please join the brothers on as many stops as you are able. More information and registration can be found on the Road Retreat event page. If you would like to help support the brothers’ outreach, please make a donation through the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.