by Chân Đẳng Nghiêm
I had the opportunity to see Thầy at the root temple, Từ Hiếu, in March 2019. Thầy was eating breakfast when I walked in. He looked at me intently as I knelt with joined palms. “Dear Thầy, I am , your child and disciple,” I said. Thầy smiled and nodded several times. I settled on the floor by his feet as Thầy returned to his breakfast.
Occasionally, Thầy looked into my eyes with his Zen Master’s penetrating gaze, and I smiled brightly in return. It seemed Thầy was checking, “Are you here?” and my smile confirmed, “Yes, I am absolutely here!” At one point, Thầy held out his left hand to me. I held Thầy’s hand with both of mine. I closed my eyes and breathed mindfully as I felt the softness and warmth emanating from Thầy’s hand. The stillness in our connection was profound.
Thầy eats each morsel of food slowly and mindfully. He closes his eyes while chewing, alternating from his left jaw to his right jaw consistently. Although his food is puréed, Thầy takes around forty-five minutes to finish each meal. There is much wisdom in Thầy’s mindful eating. Because he chews on both sides, muscles on both sides of his face are exercised, and thus his face remains proportional, relaxed, and serene. Moreover, chewing the food carefully allows Thầy to swallow small quantities, preventing him from choking and getting pneumonia.
Thầy has a good appetite and appreciates his food thoroughly. While Thầy eats, one Brother sits on his right to assist. At least two or three Sisters also eat with Thầy. The two Sisters who cooked that day stop by to see how Thầy likes the food, and to decide what to cook for his next meal. A group of about twenty-four monastic Brothers and Sisters take turns caring for Thầy. Sisters cook, and Brothers attend to Thầy’s needs. These Brothers and Sisters care for Thầy with so much joy, attentiveness, and tenderness that I cried out of gratitude, happiness, and reassurance. Day or night, every gesture Thầy makes is acknowledged and responded to. Deep love and affection flow between teacher and disciples. The transmission continues uninterrupted.
One morning, some of us Sisters decided to make lotus tea for Thầy. To mark the occasion, we each playfully donned gigantic lotus leaves like wide-brim hats, and with a bouquet of lotus buds in each of our arms, we organized a small procession past Thầy’s window. Thầy watched us with interest and amusement. Settling outside his room, we filled each lotus bud with black tea leaves, wrapped the bouquets in lotus leafs, and placed the stems in a bucket of water to infuse water into the buds. Finally, we froze the bouquets. This opens the cells so the tea can fully absorb the lotus fragrance.
At one point, the attendant brought Thầy to the door in his wheelchair to watch. I was afraid Thầy could not see well through the glass, so I cracked the door and asked, “Would a Sister bring it closer for Thầy to see?” Immediately, I felt Thầy’s hand on my right elbow. His clutch was sudden, firm, and powerful, like thunder! It was a moment of profound stopping for me. When I turned around, Thầy was already wheeled away. I was stunned because I did not expect that Thầy could reach out that quickly. I did not try to analyze Thầy’s action. Most importantly, I touched directly Thầy’s steady, powerful life force and realized that Thầy is not simply holding on to life for our sake. Thầy’s vitality is potent, and he continues to experience life in the deepest way.
I was also moved deeply by the wholeheartedness, persistence, and forbearance of our monastic Brothers and Sisters. Plum Village practice is still neither acknowledged nor accepted in Vietnam. At the government’s whim, centers we build can be confiscated and the monastics evicted, just like Prajna Monastery in 2009. Yet Brothers and Sisters continue to practice diligently and train many incoming aspirants. Presently, we have two nunneries. The one right beside the root temple in Huế is aptly named Diệu Trạm (Wonderful Dwelling). Another, Trạm Tịch (Imperturbable Dwelling) is also earning its name, as I will share below.
Trạm Tịch Monastery is beautiful, with a forest and a large stream crossing in front of the nunnery. Unfortunately, about a year after the monastery was founded, a gigantic pig farm was built right on the other side of the stream. So much pig excrement and urine are discarded into the stream that the water has become a dark green to blackish sludge. The stench is unbearable, penetrating every room and quarter. The morning I was there, I went to sitting meditation with the thirty Sisters and ten aspirants. Some Sisters rubbed oil and covered their nose and mouth with a scarf to dampen the stench. I had so much respect for these Sisters. I also knew that the polluted water would continue downstream and affect the health of innumerable other people and animals. Around 5 a.m. we were momentarily jolted from meditation by the ear-splitting squealing of hundreds of pigs. I had never heard sounds like that before. It was definitely a realm of hell! Yet, there we all were, continuing to practice diligently together in our Imperturbable Dwelling.
Through these experiences I see that Thầy’s vital life force is palpable and thriving, both in his personal presence, and through the diligence and determination of his students. To see Thầy’s teaching so fully manifested in these monastics and their practice is humbling and inspiring. I sincerely hope there will be enough collective awakening, in Vietnam and around the world, so that Plum Village practice centers may thrive under more encouraging conditions in Thầy’s homeland. Young people yearn for the practice, and people need spiritual guidance now more than ever. We are fortunate to have Thầy’s example to follow at a time like this. His legacy shows us that even in unpleasant circumstances— especially then—we can meet the moment where it is in order to cultivate what is good and wholesome. Just like lotus flowers, when we are down in the mud and muck, that is our invitation to grow towards the light, blooming with courage and grace.
Sister Dang Nghiem’s new book, Flowers in the Dark, is now available at Parallax Press.
Editor‘s note: this article is reprinted from The Day I Turn Twenty, the magazine commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Deer Park published in the summer of 2020.