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.

27 responses to “Meeting Thầy’s Life Force”

    • I do not understand how a great master like Ven TNH can end up having this stroke – with his healthy lifestyle, meditation skills and protection of the Triple Gems? Why does this great man need to suffer this calamity? There are many normal, non spiritual humans, less kinder than him who live up to 100 years old with no such suffering. Karma is fair and equal. Perhaps he still has negative karma to purify. What about us??? Life sucks.

  1. Dear Sister Dang Nghiem

    It is so refreshing to learn about Thay⏤my silent GURU⏤ whose presence I feel through every breath and every step, having adopted his wisdom in my personal lifestyle. I am deeply troubled by the suffering of animals in this world and your story inspires me to continue to accept things the way they are since change is only possible from within. I take refuge in the Buddha Dharma and its exalted virtues of ‘wisdom~Compassion’ extended to all beings of the six realms.

    With Gratitude,


  2. Thank you my dear sister for this lovely article and many blessings to you, my sisters, brothers and our dear teacher. Blessings indeed.

    • Dear Sister Dang Nghiem,
      Thank you so much for writing this beautiful article. Sometimes I feel so far from dear Thay and the loving monastics. Yet this article reminds me that we are not far apart. For even though I live in Northern California, lead the life of a lay person, single parent, homeschooling and caring for my family, I know that in some mysterious way we are connected. For I feel the love and beauty of these simple and profound gestures of service and love the Brothers and Sisters perform for dear Thay. With all my heart I wish I was there, in each of the settings you describe, serving, loving, being…and Thay’s loving-kindness reminds me as I hear his words in my head, I am there…and here. I am in the clouds, the tea, the sweet wind on his cheek, for I am inter-being, as we all are.
      Thank you Sister for your beautiful words. Thank you for your heart-lead service.
      Your friend,
      Joyfulness of the Heart

  3. Hmmm. Reading this makes me think that if someone who cannot speak can still teach, albeit differently, perhaps someone who cannot hear much can find a different way to learn. Thank you.

  4. Gracias por compartir!!!
    Es como escuchar una profunda y nutritiva charla del Dharma.

  5. Thank you for sharing this, it is lovely to hear How thay is doing, is there any way to campaign the Vietnamese government re recognition of these communities

  6. My heart is full of joy and gratitude to hear this, thank you Sister D for sharing so eloquently and beautifully. . May Thây, you, and all the monastic brothers and sisters dwell in peace and harmony every moment of every day ❤️

  7. I can still remember the amazing day in 1993 at the retreat with Thây at Camp Swig, just outside of Sacramento, California. I had a book to give Thây and one of the sisters suggested I wait until Thây was just about to enter the meditation hall. I waited outside and soon saw him slowly walking towards the hall unaccompanied. He stopped at the base of the step and looked up at me. “I would like to give you this book Thây… we are trying to save the forest!” I said. He took the book ever so gently and looked inside. “It is so beautiful… thank you!” he replied, and put his hand on my shoulder. I couldn’t help myself… “May we hug?” I said and we both proceeded to engage in hugging meditation – the practice that Thây developed after coming to the West. After our 3 in and out breaths, we moved away and bowed. “Thank you!” he said. “Thank you Thây, I replied.” He turned and went into the meditation hall and started his afternoon dharma talk. Such a beautiful, gentle and giving soul. Bless you, my dearest teacher!

  8. Thank you Sister Dang Nghiem. It always makes me happy to hear about Thay and his daily living.
    Your story is told so eloquently.
    Blessings to Thay and all his Brothers and Sisters who daily care for him.🍃

  9. Dear Sister D,
    I appreciate your kindness sharing your story of Thay and your experience with the nuns and aspirants.
    With deep gratitude from my heart to your heart and Thay’s heart,
    ♥️ 🙏🏾
    Chan Lien Tam
    (Elaine Sparrow from Colorado)

  10. A deep bow of gratitude, dear Sister Dang Nghiem, and also to the Brothers and Sisters who are Thay’s caregivers. I am so encouraged to see Thay so alive and to hear of his vitality and to also feel it through the pictures and these words. Many blessing to you, dear Sister, and to the Brothers and Sisters who care for Thay and, of course, boundless love to Thay.

  11. Thank you Sister Dang Nghiem; thank you Thây. You practice penetrates the whole universe, throughout space and time. It awakens hearts everywhere. It brings light to the darkest of places and reminds us of the joy hiding in every moment. You are the sound of the rising tide heard by all who listen.

    With love,
    Beverly Alexander
    Courageous Turning of the Heart
    True Holy Insight

  12. Dearest Sister D – thank you for your thoughtful words here.
    With deepest gratitude,
    Great Equanimity of the Heart

  13. Very Dear Sister Dang Nghiem Your words have touched my heart deeply. To know that our Beloved Teacher is still teaching us all by his continued
    Presence amongst us. A deep look from Thay now since his stroke is also my own experience at Plum Village in the June Retreat. You have the capacity to write beautiful words that we can all share. Thank you to you,and all the monastics for their continued devotion to Thay and his life’s practice.

  14. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you Sister Dang Nghiem for sharing your extraordinary experience visiting our Venerable Thay. It’s a blessing to hear about him and of course about his health, specially in your gentle words of wisdom. My gratitude to you for your kindness every single moment that I have had the opportunity to interchange same words with you. My honor to the Sisters and Brothers whom takes care of him. Lots of hugs. Sincerely, Evangelina Cortes.

  15. Dear Lovely Sister D!

    How wonderful to read your sweet, gentle and loving words about Thay. It is comforting to hear that he is living his life Moment to Moment as he has taught all of us to do as well. It’s nice to hear your “voice” as well and I hope that your health is better. I think of you and Thay often, sending much love and smiles :-). I have Thay’s picture and the picture of you and I hugging on my puja table. Love you! Mariann:-)

  16. I am so grateful to you Sister Dang Nghiem for giving us this story of your visit to Vietnam. Through your words I feel like I was there with you and our beloved teacher. This is a wonderful gift you have given us.

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