Meeting Thầy’s Life Force

By Sister Dang Nghiem

“I realized Thầy is not simply trying to hold on to life for our sake…”

I had the opportunity to see Thầy at the root temple, Từ Hiếu, on March 16, 2019. Thầy was eating breakfast when I walked in. He looked at me intently as I knelt with joined palms. “Dear Thầy, I am Dang Nghiem, your child and disciple,” I said. Thầy 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 45 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 join in to see how Thầy likes the food and decide what to cook for his next meal. 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.

“Right away, I realized Thầy is not simply trying to hold on to life for our sake. Thầy’s vitality is potent, and he continues to experience life in the deepest way.”

One morning some of us Sisters wanted to make lotus tea for Thầy to see. To start, we each placed a gigantic lotus leaf on our head, held a lotus blossom by the stem, and walked slowly one by one in front of Thầy’s window. Thầy watched us pass, with interest and amusement. Then, settling outside his room, we filled each lotus bud with black tea, wrapped it in a lotus leaf, placed the stem in a bucket with water to pull water into the tea, and finally, froze them all so the tea could 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 door, so I gently opened it and spoke through the slit door: “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. Moreover, I was in touch directly with Thầy’s steady, powerful life force. Right away, I realized Thầy is not simply trying to hold 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, one right beside the root temple in Huế, aptly named Diệu Trạm (Wonderful Dwelling). Another, Trạm Tịch (Imperturbable Dwelling) is in Đồng Nai, an hour outside of Saigon. It’s a beautiful place, with a forest and a large stream crossing in front of the nunnery. Unfortunately, about a year after we arrived, a gigantic pig farm was built right on the other side of the stream. Pig excrement and urine are discarded into the stream, so the water looks blackish or thick, dark green. 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, but I also knew that the polluted water will continue downstream and affect the health of innumerable people. Around 5 a.m., suddenly the pigs started to squeal. I had never heard the squealing from hundreds of pigs simultaneously before. It was definitely a realm of hell! Yet, we were all there, in our imperturbable dwelling.

Witnessing Thầy’s life force fully manifested in these monastics and in the practice is humbling and inspiring. I sincerely hope there will be enough collective awakening in Vietnam and worldwide so that Plum Village practice centers may thrive in Thầy’s homeland. Young people yearn for the practice, and people need spiritual guidance now more than ever.