Get to Know Our Novice Monastics at Deer Park Monastery

toyon family novice ordination ceremony

On September 24, 2023, six aspirants of Deer Park Monastery became novice monastics of the Toyon Family in a beautiful and moving ordination ceremony in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall.

In a series of interviews with the novices – including one that was conducted on the top of a mountain during a 4-hour hike – we catch a glimpse into their minds and hearts as they journey through the aspirancy process, ordination ceremony, and beyond.

Supported by over 130 monastics, family, friends, and the broader Sangha, the aspirants, who practiced and trained at the monastery throughout the year, took vows to live a celibate life, transform their afflictions, and bring happiness to all beings. 

Help us extend a warm welcome to our new siblings:

  • Nathan Gordon Hansen: Chân Nhất Lâm (True One Forest) 真一林
  • Jahnavi Jeanne Newsom: Chân Ân Hạnh (True Gratitude Action) 真恩行
  • Thảo Ngọc Đặng: Chân Thuần Hạnh (True Adaptable Action) 真淳行
  • Andrew Michael Gerges: Chân Nhất Thiên (True One Sky) 真一天 
  • Joseph Walter Flumerfelt: Chân Nhất Điền (True One Field) 真一田
  • Colin David Ambrose: Chân Nhất Sơn (True One Mountain) 真一山
novice ordination ceremony 2023
Novice monks and nuns at the ordination ceremony, holding their Sanghati Robes.

Each novice either has “Hạnh” or “Nhất” in their name in order to honor the continuation of our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.
Nhất means “one” and Hạnh means “action.”


How did you find Deer Park Monastery and what inspired you to ordain?

Sr. An Hanh: “First I started reading Thay’’s books when I was a teenager, but I didn’t really understand that he was Buddhist. I just appreciated his books and teachings. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago when I was 27 that I joined my first sangha in Vermont. Wherever I traveled after that, I would find a sangha in that area and practice with them and do retreats with the lay sangha. And then in 2016 I had a big loss in my life and that woke me up to the reality of how fragile our lives are… I’d been given the book “Old Path White Clouds” but when I originally had tried to read it, it didn’t draw me in. This time was different. This time, I had that moment of ‘Oh, I want to become a nun.’

My family is in a spiritual tradition from India and my brother was ordained as a monk when he was 14.  So even back then I’d had some small aspiration to be a monastic, but for women in that tradition, they didn’t have the same kinds of opportunities as they do at Deer Park.”

Br. Nhat Lam: “I found one of Thay’s books called The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings and immediately fell in love with Thay’s teachings and how he taught similar things that I had read in other books about Buddhism, but in a very clear and approachable way. Thay’s writing and teaching really touched something in me. And I knew that I wanted to ordain in this tradition.

I chose Deer Park because Deer Park was a monastery that said yes to me. The other monasteries were still closed during COVID, but I knew I wanted to become a monk and Deer Park said, ‘yes, you can come here.’ I wanted to ordain because I saw so frequently in my life that the practice works. By paying attention to the little things throughout the day, I’m less caught in my worries and concerns and things I’m anxious about. I would suffer, I would practice, and then I would suffer less. I kept seeing that pattern over and over again. As I practiced more continuously, I also suffered less frequently, resulting in me being a happier and kinder person.”

Br. Nhat Son: “Before coming here, even before I knew about Thay’s monasteries, I knew I wanted to become a monastic. I’d been reading for quite a while, but I had not put personal practice in motion until 2020 during the pandemic. After a year of solitude and focused practice, I stumbled into some clarity that gave me the understanding that everything I was doing before, including my artistic endeavors, occupation, and relationships, were each a search for a type of completion. I felt like I was drinking sand before. And at that moment, I felt like I drank water for the first time.

After a friend told me about Thay’s monasteries I then joined a local Plum Village sangha in Los Angeles, began reading Old Path White Clouds, and started to visit Deer Park. It was immediately clear that this community and tradition resonated deeply with me, so I made the preparations to attend the Rains Retreat in 2021 with the intention of aspiring.”

Sr. Thuan Hanh: “I came to Deer Park for the first time in 2007, and I had already gone to Plum Village a couple of times before then. When I really think about my aspiration, the roots of it are from when I first went to Plum Village, France when I was 13 in 2000. It was my first time experiencing an environment with so many different people from different cultures and backgrounds. They were like strangers, but such a loving feel of nourishment and a safe space; I really treasure that type of environment. I remember thinking to myself, this is the type of person I want to be when I grow up. For the first time, I wasn’t asked all the time by adults the same questions of, ‘what do you wanna be when you grow up? How are your studies? What subject are you good at?’

At home, I just felt there wasn’t really a sense of truly wanting to know or understand me. But in the environment in Plum Village, no one asked me those questions and it was really just their presence and seeing me for who I am and not reprimanding me as I experienced at home. I felt they were truly friends, even though the age is really wide. 

So when I went back home and experienced my day-to-day life in school, in work, in society, I thought to myself, this is how it ought to be. And anything that’s not as beautiful, I would question: ‘how can people think so cruel of each other? How can people be so mean to each other? don’t they know the practice?’

I was oblivious to recognize that it’s actually a very precious and sacred jewel that we have – the Plum Village tradition that Thay has offered to the world.

And as I go through my own life challenges and suffering, such as depression, burnout, family issues, and so on, it became clearer to me how precious and valuable the practice is to help me through those life challenges and overcome them.

So finally when I watched Thay’s ceremony after his passing, the livestream in Vietnam, I just felt something really striked my core and to my soul that it was as if Thay is calling to me –  this is it, this is the time, no more waiting. And it just felt so clear that this is the time.”

Br. Nhat Thien: “I found Deer Park Monastery on the listing of monasteries in the back of the audio book No Death, No Fear. The monastic vision elucidated by Thay and the evolving community here at Deer Park inspired me to ordain.”

Thuần Hạnh (True Adaptable Action) enjoying the ordination ceremony.

Were there any particular transformations you saw in yourself that helped you make the decision to ordain?

Sr. An Hanh: “There were 10 layfriends that were interested in becoming monastics that year. Spending time with others who were my age or younger who were also becoming aspirations was validating. Because out in the world when I expressed my desire to become a monastic to my friends and family, some of them dismissed it and did not take me seriously…I also found relief from my suffering just by doing the practices and taking advice from the sisters.”

Br. Nhat Lam: “It isn’t one specific transformation that occurred, but instead I just saw that the practice worked. Just seeing it over and over again made it very obvious that this was the way out of my suffering.”

Br. Nhat Son: “I had a moment that showed me the uselessness of so much of what I was doing. I no longer was interested in the way that I was interested in certain things before. I realized my artistic endeavors were laden with a type of egoic pursuit of building up myself as a “character” and my identity was wrapped up in a specific way that I think I intellectually knew for quite a while, but I didn’t feel the emotion of it until that moment which hit me like a wave. I cannot put into words what this experience was.”

Sr. Thuan Hanh: “The first wake-up call for me was that one of my best friend’s cousins had passed away at 27. Witnessing the friends and family and the grief was so heavy. It made me contemplate a lot about my own life and the teaching of impermanence. At the time, I was feeling drained working in a toxic environment. I knew this was the end of my time there, but I didn’t have the courage to leave because I had been in that career for almost 5 years.

I asked myself, “if I only had 6 months to live, how would I live it?” and it became clear that I would not be in that work anymore and I had to step into taking care of finding my life’s purpose.

One of the reasons I didn’t pursue the monastic path at the time was because I felt a responsibility to take care of my parents. I’m the youngest of 9 siblings, and I’m the only one who finished higher education. There were a lot of expectations on me and I wanted to be a good daughter…but I knew that that would not bring true happiness to myself or to my parents. I didn’t know what to do at that time to make amends with my parents. I gave myself a time out where I moved out of the house and listened within. I gave myself time for a solo retreat – meditated, listened to dharma talks, ate in mindfulness, attended sangha meetings – for almost 6 months. After this, during the Lunar New Year ceremony with my family, I shared from my heart my wish for my parents. I was bawling, and I thought ‘this could be the last moment that I can share with them. There could not be another tomorrow for me to share how much I truly love them and am grateful for them.’ It felt so real and deep. My parents were touched by what I shared, we embraced, and I continued crying in my room. After that, I felt such lightness, as if the blockage between my parents and me had vanished and all that remained was a true connection. It became clear to me then that there would be so much more that I could support them with, on a spiritual level, through the monastic path.”

Br. Nhat Thien: “No. Only the repeated reminders and my inability to turn away from the fact of suffering in my life helped me make my decision.”

Novice monastics before haircutting ceremony

What was the aspirancy process like for you?  Did it go like you expected?

Sr. An Hanh: “For the first 6 months or so at Deer Park, I lived in a hut with 4 other female-bodied pre-aspirants in a hut. Eventually we were invited to write our aspiration letters to make formal requests to the Sisters to accept us as aspirants. The pre- pre-aspirant time was really difficult emotionally because I had ideas about what was expected of me and what I could and couldn’t share about myself. I felt fear and judgment, but at the same time, no matter what I was going through, I knew I was going to stay. My goodness, I cried A LOT. Buckets of tears.  One of my mentors told me, ‘don’t worry about whether you’re going to be an aspirant or not, just focus on healing.’ which was exactly what I needed to hear at the time.”

Br. Nhat Lam: “I went through two aspirancy periods. The first year did not go at all like I expected. I was here for 10 months and I left two months before ordination. It was a very challenging year for me and I had a lot of deep habits come up that I didn’t know existed. One being I take a lot on; if someone else is suffering, I unskillfully take on their suffering in an effort to help them. Another thing that came up for me during those first 10 months was a desire to be close to my family again. My father had been diagnosed with cancer and I think that the fear of the unknown regarding his health, combined with the emotional stress I was feeling from these old habits of mine,  resulted in me making the decision to leave. Though I love my family very much, and it was great to be closer to them physically, I knew that being at the Monastery, in a supportive and loving environment of practice, gave me the best conditions to practice and transform. And that when I do practice, and I do transform, my transformation is not for me alone. It has an effect on my family and the insights I gain can be of benefit to them as well. One of the great things about the second season was that I felt really connected to the other aspirants that I was with. We all were very dedicated, and they’re now my monastic brothers, very dedicated to the practice and studying. So it was very refreshing to have that experience in my second year.”

Br. Nhat Son: “I don’t really think I had much expectation. I came here for the Rains Retreat and after a month or so it was clear that this was the community that I wanted to join. I had a bullseye volition of fulfilling my aspiration. After being accepted as an aspirant, the initial feeling was just relief – that I was being welcomed and within the threshold – this was a big source of joy in the initial phase. A couple of months later I was a little surprised by the intensity of my own suffering that was arising. Once you have a phone number for 20 years, it strangely becomes a part of your identity in a certain way. And it’s not really even really letting go of the phone itself at all, it’s the act of severing your communication with your loved ones, and the formal identity that has in regards to that change within your life. I was married for 8 years, and we were close even after our divorce. That was one of the largest pieces of suffering for me; the remnants of attachment we had for each other, so the pain was pretty exquisite. Ultimately though, my time as an aspirant was a wonderful experience. I’m very grateful for my ordination brothers and sisters.”

Sr. Thuan Hanh: “I really value the aspirancy time. I remember at the beginning, I felt an urgency of, ‘I wanna become an aspirant now!’, but going through the aspirancy process, I was able to recognize and see that this time is so necessary for untraining my mind so that I can be retrained. For example, before coming to the monastery, I would scroll through my phone daily. During aspirancy, we’re given a limited time for using the internet. So there’s more awareness around what we’re using that time for and recognizing, ‘what story is my mind playing?’ While there was a fear in me of being disconnected from friends and relations without social media, I recognized that out of those connections, I wasn’t really present for many of them. There always had to be a reason for us being together, and even while with each other we still used our phones. We would take a photo just to post online. But how much of our presence was truly there?”

Br. Nhat Thien: “During aspirancy, I grew closer to my fellow aspirants. I learned to share my spaces and daily activities and interests with them.”

Touching the Earth during Ordination Ceremony

How was the experience of the ordination ceremony like for you?

Sr. An Hanh:It was the best wedding I could’ve ever asked for!  It was epic to have almost all of the monastics in the U.S. there present for it from other centers and the number of lay friends who I may have known well or not known at all who came in person for the ceremony and my family members who came in person and then all of the friends who watched on the live stream – it just felt so powerful with all of this collective spiritual energy focused in and it felt so much bigger than all of us. We were the focal point because we were ordaining but really it was representing the continuation of Buddhism in the West. I just felt so happy, especially receiving the precepts. Some people commented on how loudly I was responding, ‘yes, I do!!’

During my wedding in the lay life, I was not in a good place emotionally during that time and we got married with only my mom as a family member there and in a place where we didn’t know many people; we didn’t have much of a community and I remember it just didn’t feel the way I would have wanted a wedding to feel like…so then to have this ordination ceremony where… I really just needed to show up and the sangha just took care of everything and I just felt so much love and support and… to know all my brothers and sisters’ lifetime aspirations, so it felt like we’re getting married to each other and to the whole Sangha. It’s my second and last wedding!”

Br. Nhat Lam: “The ceremony was very powerful. I feel very lucky to have been ordained when there were almost 150 monastics here. I remember after my head was shaved and they’re cleaning us up, I felt like a baby. Like someone was helping me dry off or clean me up. So that was very moving to see how much love the brothers have for us and how much they really care for us.”

Br. Nhat Son: “I was very joyful during the ceremony. And when they were announcing our names it was a particularly joyful experience, because no one knew what the names would be until they read them in that moment in front of everyone. And getting a new name is a significant event. So the unveiling had a particular electric feeling, with the whole monastic community expressing “oohs” and “ahhs” when hearing each new name. The whole ceremony and the care shown to us was very special, the embrace was deeply moving.”

Sr. Thuan Hanh: “It was a lot happening all at once. You know the movie, Everything Everywhere All At Once? It kinda felt like that [laughs]. But everything was so in sequence and meant to be. Leading up to it, I didn’t feel nervous. I felt a deep sense of ease and calmness. I just focused on what I was told by our mentor to focus on – memorizing the ten precepts – because when we really allow it to penetrate in our body and soul, when we receive it during the ordination, it will rain upon us like Dharma rain.”

Br. Nhat Thien: “The ceremony gave me an opportunity to practice moving in harmony and in mindfulness with the other ordinees. I also developed a much deeper appreciation for the Plum Village community, the monastic lineage, the precepts, and all conditions that have supported me thus far.”

Brothers giving haircut to novice monastics during Ordination Ceremony

What would you say to someone who is considering monastic life?

Sr. An Hanh: “I think that it’s really helpful to come to the monastery or to visit different monasteries. Just be there in person and experience it firsthand to know if it’s the right decision for you. Because we can do research and we can have conversations and think about it but ultimately you just need to come to the monastery and live there and that will answer all your questions, like ‘how badly do you want it? Is this the right place for you? Is your happiness increasing over the weeks, over time? Are you feeling lighter, more joyful, or are you not?”

Br. Nhat Lam: “You should practice as if you are at the monastery. Thay teaches from, and mentions in many places, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. And he says this is important for monastics and laypeople. So if someone is considering monasticism, I think that they should do as Thay is saying: read the books, sutras, and Thay’s commentary and then practice what he is saying. If someone is considering monastic life and they study and practice in this way, whether or not they should become a monastic will become obvious through their own practice. Also in our tradition, sangha is extremely important. Join a local sangha. Our lay sangha has the same values as the monastic sangha, ideals like harmony and compassion for all beings.”

Br. Nhat Son: “Old Path, White Clouds” – read that book, for sure. That will help to really blow on the ember of your bodhicitta, as they say.  And if you can, join a local sangha and get to know the practice that way. If you’re wanting to become a monk, to have the “image” of being a monk, but your practice isn’t there, then you probably shouldn’t become a monk. Because I don’t think any of the true practitioners here came to be a monk. They came here to practice the way Thay has taught, to serve other living beings and to transform their suffering. And it just so happens that there’s a moniker of monk on top of that, monk or nun. But being attached to the idea of monk or nun is a danger. And Thay talks about that as well as being attached to form. I think a lot of people have a preconceived idea of what a monk is and some of that can be especially attractive in this day and age. I think the practice is the most important telling of how ripe you are to become a monastic.”

Br. Nhat Thien: “Come and practice in a monastery for long enough until you gain more clarity about your consideration.

Group shot of all newly ordained monastics at Deer Park Monastery, Sept 2023

Watch the Full Novice Ordination Ceremony:

Ordination Ceremony Photos

One response to “Get to Know Our Novice Monastics at Deer Park Monastery”

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us! this is such a special moment in each of your lives! Loved the heartfelt answers. Sending you all much love !

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