How did you find Deer Park Monastery and what inspired you to ordain?
Br. Minh Dinh: I found Deer Park through the website. I was going to become a therapist and got into a school, but decided I needed some time before I jumped into school again. I searched online for a monastery and Deer Park was the first place to show up. I just thought: it’s in California, it’s different, it’s centered on meditation. I was already into meditation at the time. I decided just to go for it, since it was a nice change of pace but also a quiet, quiet place where I could just think about things and heal a little bit. Coming here I didn’t expect to become a monk or to ordain, but, month by month, I got closer each day to ordaining. I fell in love with the practice of wanting to suffer less, wanting to feel better. Thay, our teacher, makes this so accessible through his teachings to find ways to accept yourself and to be happier. It’s very concrete. and I really fell in love with that. So why I wanted to ordain, in short, is just to know myself and be happy.
Br. Minh Luc: I discovered meditation in my freshman year of college and really took to it right away. Throughout the four years of college, it helped me with my social anxiety, and also with baseball and just life in general. So, after I graduated, I was going to start a meditation center in Milwaukee. I had done guided meditations for four years and I thought I knew what meditation was all about. So my buddy and I did a business competition, and we won the competition, and it was for this meditation program, and I said to him, “I need to kind of go to a monastery to find out more about what meditation is like.” [My friend] actually told me before I left, “I’m worried if you go do that, that you’re gonna become a monk,” because, I guess, he saw those qualities in me. So I looked on Google [for a] monastery to stay long term at and uncle Google showed me Deer Park as the first option. I clicked on Deer Park and it said, “we practice mindfulness,” and it’s a Thich Nhat Hanh monastery. I had heard that name before. It was also in California and I’m from Wisconsin, so I’m like: okay, well, I’ll live in paradise for three months. It was during the winter. So I jumped at the opportunity and I came here. I think by the second day, I knew that I just loved this place. I loved all the people that were coming. I loved all the monks over here and the energy here was just so peaceful and supportive. Within a couple of weeks I knew I wanted to stay here to live here. I knew that I needed more time to understand what meditation and the path had to offer. After seeing all these other brothers that were here, and sitting down with them and talking more with them, I found a lot of role models that I wanted to learn from. So I called my friend, probably a month into this three month stay, and told him “Hey, I think I want to be a monk,” and he’s like, “Oh, that’s great. I knew you were gonna do this.” I’ve stayed here and I’ve been learning ever since.
Br. Minh Niem: I first came to Deer Park back around 2003. I was 16 and my parents brought me and my sister to hear Thay around the same time that the Big Hall was first finished. I don’t know that I really remember much of Thay’s talk, but I really remember being struck by his presence. I really loved the atmosphere of Deer Park in general, and I kept coming back with my family for days of mindfulness. I think what inspired me to want to ordain was partly a love of the practice and partly a desire to do something really good for the world. I had been thinking about it for a number of years, but I didn’t think the causes and conditions would ever really be there for me to ordain—I still had work and I was living out of state. A few years ago there were some changes in my life—the stars lined up—and I had a chance to come back and explore my aspiration. I came for a week-long personal retreat, and then I staffed the family retreats in 2019. That convinced me that I really did want to ordain.
Were there any particular transformations you saw in yourself that helped you make the decision to ordain?
Br. Minh Dinh: Coming to Deer Park, I felt instantly this is a place where I could let go of unpleasant emotions. I had a lot of things stored up, and I feel like Deer Park is designed to feel what needs to be felt. It’s designed to give you space, and I could feel that right away and that’s what I needed. I needed space and time to actually process my emotions. I didn’t know how to do [that]. This place taught me how to do that. I could just slowly let go of all this baggage I was carrying with me so I could become more myself. I became less bogged down by sadness, by fear, by many unpleasant emotions, by shame. I just let go, bit by bit, day by day, and that’s really what I want out of life. So that prompted me to ordain: just to see that this is the place I could transform and I can have space to be myself.
Br. Minh Luc: For a lot of my life I’ve been trying to put on this outer mask of a very happy, successful person. It took me a while to discover that that wasn’t making me happy. It also wasn’t actually showing to people what I wanted to show them: that I was a happy person. People just know when you’re not happy and when you’re putting on the mask of happiness. They want a real person to talk with. So I discovered very quickly, especially in my aspirancy, or maybe in the rains retreat, that I had this habit of cultivating an insane amount of joy and kind of leaving out all the other yucky stuff. I think the transformation was just to be more real with myself. To be more honest with myself and see what’s coming up. I allowed, little by little, more space for those [emotions] to show and learned how to work with them as well. It’s a long process and I’m just at the beginning, so I’m not a master at being myself. But I’m learning little by little.
Br. Minh Niem: Yeah. I think the biggest thing for me was just the immense feeling of peace and calm that came from living in the monastery and practicing with the Sangha every day. Worldly life can be so busy, and I think I often got caught up in my habits and emotions. When I could practice consistently I found that I was happier and better able to take care of myself. Living a worldly life I found it difficult to really maintain that level of practice. The practice energy is just so strong living in the Sangha, and the support of the community and the schedule is always present. That makes it really easy for me to slow down and let go. I’ve learned a lot about how to practice with ease over the last year. I don’t feel so much like I need to be constantly doing things to be happy anymore. I’m learning to be happy just being in my body and breathing and enjoying being alive.
What was the aspirancy process like for you? Did it go like you expected?
Br. Minh Dinh: Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect. This whole thing is still very new to me. In part, that’s a great thing because I’m just going with the flow; everything is new. So I don’t really have too much to expect. I had a great group of aspirant brothers, so that made the process very easy. Like in any relationship, we had our ups and downs, but it was mostly very smooth. So aspirancy for me was just going through those emotions and learning things about myself. It also meant learning about Buddhism, which I took to very well because it’s a way to get out of suffering.
Br. Minh Luc: Well, I think I did come into aspirancy here with a lot of expectations. I thought that I would meditate for four hours a day. I thought I would cultivate a lot of peace and be a very wise person. What I found is that I was learning more and more just how to be with whatever was coming up—and whatever was coming up was not this peace of wisdom that I thought would be coming up. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of joy comes up and we live a very happy and relatively peaceful life here. [Deer Park] offers the environment for other stuff to come up like the anxiety that I’ve been running away from for so long. I was finally able to kind of see it more as something to take care of and not something to destroy. I think there was a lot of play too. I didn’t think that we’d be playing so much but, as Minh Dinh shared, I have two very amazing aspirant brothers and we played a lot in the room and outside the room. Yeah, it was just a lot of fun. It felt like college again. Like I never left college, but college got a little bit more wholesome.
Br. Minh Niem: Aspirancy was really good, but it definitely didn’t go like I expected. Two months in we had a global pandemic and had to shut the gates [of the monastery]. I would not have predicted that. I was expecting to have a lot of retreats and to interact with a lot of people—to be kind of busy—and instead life got really quiet. The Sangha in the brothers’ hamlet was pretty small for most of the year. I think it was really good for me, honestly. There was a lot of time to practice and observe my mind, and I learned a lot about myself. I don’t know if I would have discovered this in the same way if it hadn’t been for the pandemic. I learned a lot about being solid in myself and taking care of my own practice. It was a pretty unique experience. That said, I’m really looking forward to the day when we can open up again. I know how much Deer Park meant to me over the years and I know it means just as much to so many other people.
How was the experience of the ordination ceremony like for you?
Br. Minh Dinh: I don’t think my body knew what was going on. It was just new. It was like a graduation or some other kind of big event that I’ve gone through before, but it was different as well. I think for days after I couldn’t fully grasp what it was actually like. During ordination, it was one thing after the next; a lot of things were happening. My head was being shaved ,our families were there, and we had the full long robes on for the first time. Ordination and going through all of that is good because it brings you to that next chapter. Ceremonies are good in that aspect. They let you transition, so I appreciated that.
Br. Minh Luc: The beginning of ordination was bumpy for me. My family had never been to Deer Park before and I had to run them through what they were about to see and catch up with them and we also had to maintain social distancing at the same time. There was some anxiety. I wanted them to have a really good first impression of Deer Park so I was trying to ease them in but the way it worked out is that they just had to jump right in. The first time that they saw a monk was in the ceremony with people chanting and touching the earth but I think by the time that we stood up, about maybe 10 minutes or so, I was able just to let that be and enjoy it.
From where I was standing it was easy because I didn’t have to know what I was doing; I just followed my two brothers in front of me. Being the youngest brother has some advantages. I also felt, especially with the touching of the earth, like I was becoming lighter. With each touching of the earth, I would get up a little bit quicker, a little bit more effortlessly. I felt very emotional, especially after our hair was cut and after we all received our names. I remember I was crying a bit when our hair was being shaved off and my mom was able to come in to help finish the job. It was a very emotional day, a very beautiful day, especially in this pandemic time. I felt so happy to actually become a family member of these brothers that I had been hanging around with for the past year and a half. It was nice to actually become a part of the brown family.
Br. Minh Niem: It was pretty calm all things considered. When it came time to ordain I really felt ready. I felt like I had prepared myself and I had all the support of the Sangha behind me and all I had to do was be there and be present in my mind. We were able to have the ceremony in the Big Hall and the sisters came up to support and all of that was really special given the circumstances of the pandemic. When the venerable sprinkled the water on me tears just started to come up. I felt so happy. I really did just start to feel lighter and freer. Getting my head shaved by all the brothers felt special and when it was done and I looked in the mirror it just seemed so natural. Like this was how it was always supposed to be. It was really amazing.
For Minh Dinh and Minh Luc, you’re both in the Five-Year Program, do you have anything in particular you want to get out of the next five years?
Br. Minh Dinh: I think I do. I just want to be happier and calmer and more present. I just want to understand myself more and be more aware.
Br. Minh Luc: I still have the aspiration to help people on the path. It’s my long term aspiration to help relieve people’s suffering and I see that in order to do that I have to actually go through my own suffering and relieve my own suffering. That requires being honest with myself and just seeing parts of me that I don’t want to see and learning to let them be and allowing them space instead of trying to destroy them. I want to continue to learn more about Buddhism and meditation, but also learn about myself. I think Deer Park gives us the best environment to do so. I feel very lucky to have found Deer Park.
Thank you for reading and getting to know our new White Sage brothers. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.