A Portrait of Novice Life in Solidity Hamlet

In anticipation of the upcoming Đại Giới Đàn, or Great Precepts Transmission Ceremony, taking place at Deer Park on October 1st-4th—with the support of the monastic from Blue Cliff Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and several Venerable Teachers from Southern California—we offer this snapshot, taken from our The Day I Turn Twenty book, of a few novice brothers who are eligible to receive full ordination as bhikshus. Most of these novices began their journey a few years ago in the 90-Day Rains Retreat, the next of which begins October 17th.

In 2013, the last time Thay visited Deer Park, he was walking with the abbot, Brother Pháp Hộ, down the steps from the residence to the dining hall in Solidity Hamlet. At that time, Blue Cliff Monastery had been open for five years, and was in the process of training its first four novices. Thay stopped, turned to Brother Pháp Hộ, and asked him, “Why doesn’t Deer Park have any novices?”

Why doesn’t Deer Park have any novices?

Thich Nhat Hanh, in 2013

It was a good question. Deer Park had been open since 2000 and novices had yet to live or ordain there. Thay’s curiosity turned out to be prophetic. The following year, in 2014, Deer Park ordained its first novice, and over the last five years, a total of eighteen novices have trained at Deer Park. Amongst us, fourteen are still ordained as monastics, and eleven are still living at Deer Park. Today novices account for over 25% of the total monastics, and over half of the Brothers.

Brother Minh Dung
Brother Minh Dung (Brother Embrace)

What caused this upsurge? What is it really like to be a novice at Deer Park anyway? And what is the role of young Buddhist monastics in the West? Recently, several of us gathered for tea to discuss these questions and others. Freedom from suffering is what first interests most people in monastic life, and Brother Minh Dung (Brother Embrace) is no exception. “Looking around at life, and the examples that I saw, the pursuits and ideals that are so rampant in our society, I didn’t feel inspired to get up off the couch. When I looked into the suffering of the world, I wanted to find a way out. That motivated me to try to understand myself, and to do that, I saw that I needed support from people who are also wanting to change and grow. I needed to get out of the environment that helped create the person I was trying to change, and I needed people who are ahead of me on the path, who can be a mirror for me, so I can see where I’m making mistakes. And everyone in the Sangha offers that.”

For some of us, worldly success proved unsatisfying. Brother Minh Nhân (Brother Kindness) ordained after steady employment as a research technician. “I realized there was something that had been in the background that was actually more meaningful to me. This had been calling to me for over ten years, and I figured if I’m going to keep putting it on hold, my life will very likely pass me by, and I’ll have wondered for the rest of my life, ‘If only I could have been on that path…’ So now, for me, it’s important just to show that it is possible to be a monk in the West, just to show: Look, it’s possible, and it can been joy able and rewarding beyond measure.”

Brother Minh Nhân (Brother Kindness)
Brother Minh Nhân (Brother Kindness)

Community life can be  challenging too. Brother Minh Hội (Brother Understanding) became a monk after spending time practicing in solitude in North Carolina. “In a lot of ways novice life is nothing like I imagined it would be, but actually it’s exactly what I was looking for and exactly what I needed. One of my aspirations for ordaining was to dive head-first into community life, to put myself in a situation where growth would happen inevitably. And there are times when living in the community feels natural, and there are times when it really feels nearly impossible to engage. So, part of that process for me has been to be honest with myself: Am I spending time alone because it’s really nourishing me right now? Or am I doing it because I feel afraid to be around others, or I want to hide, or I feel ashamed of the challenges that are coming up. It’s been important for me to be honest about that distinction, and now when I reflect on the time I’ve spent here, I’m able to see such fruit of what we do and such progress on the path. I can say with full sincerity that I’m a happier person now than I was when I go there.”

Life as a monastic gives us the opportunity to learn a variety of skills, and occasionally it can be alluring to entertain ideas of a career other than perfect understanding. For much of his monastic life, Brother Minh Lượng (Brother Generosity) has been responsible for maintenance. “There have been times during my career as the “maintenance Brother” that I think, ‘Oh maybe I could be a ‘maintenance man.’ Like, I wonder what it would be like if this was my job, you know?’ But I always come back to feeling like ultimately, that would just not be satisfying. I really have this longing for a deeper dimension in my life, to have a spiritual path, and for that to be the focus. I feel happy that I can channel my energy into these other things and really enjoy them, and I also feel really grateful that they are just an aspect of my life, not my main thing.”

Brother Minh Lượng (Brother Generosity)
Brother Minh Lượng (Brother Generosity)

As he was sharing, he began to reflect on the Sisters in his ordination family, the first nuns to ordain at Deer Park. “I think about our novice Sisters in Clarity Hamlet, and I think about how someday maybe they will be the big Sisters for some young women who want to become nuns, and how valuable it will be for those women to have role models.”

Today only five out of the sixteen Brothers at Deer Park are Vietnamese. One of them is Brother Minh Địa (Brother Earth). “There have been times I’ve thought, ‘Oh, I’m one of the only Vietnamese novices,’ and I’ve felt somewhat separate.   But it’s a very powerful practice to just be another Brother and let go of my labels. By doing that I can be open and learn so much. And I am glad that at Deer Park we’re going in this direction of westernization. Of course, we are not abandoning the Vietnamese roots of the tradition; actually, I feel like I traveled half the earth to learn something about my home! But to have westerners give their views is very useful. We are in the U.S., after all.”

We have a lot of faith in our tradition, and our teacher. “The Plum Village tradition, to me, is unique because we touch so much on the current topics and sufferings in the world today, so that creates this curiosity, you know? ‘Do these monastics have more to offer? What is beyond the dharma talks? What is beyond what’s being offered online?’ And people naturally want to visit the monastery because they are curious about the lives of monks and nuns, and the peaceful energy they carry. So, it is not just the teachings, but in the way we are, the way we interact.”

Here’s Brother Minh Lượng again: “I feel like people do have a spiritual longing, they’re looking for guidance, and they’re looking for something true and beautiful to believe in. I feel that Buddhism can offer that, and I feel like Thay’s teachings can offer that. Part of the responsibility of being a western Buddhist monastic is continuing Thay’s work of making the practice accessible. If we can continue our practice for a long time, we can offer new practices that will be appropriate for the times. We may be able to open up this path for a lot more people.”

Being a novice at Deer Park is exciting. There is a distinct feeling amongst us that we are part of a spiritual revolution, a collective awakening, a “Great Turning”, in response to a world engulfed in growing chaos. All but one of us is under the age of 35. Brother Minh Thang (Brother Victory) ordained when he was only nineteen. “I have strong faith that people, especially young people, who have been sold a consumerist vision of well-being their whole lives, have the capacity to wake up and realize you don’t have to subscribe to this never-ending cycle of desire. My hope is just that my novice siblings and I are able to inspire young people to embark on their own spiritual path, whether it leads to monastic life or not.”

Brother Minh Địa: “Traditionally speaking, when people establish a family, when they have everything they need, then they go and ordain. But our tradition is so different because it’s applied Buddhism, it’s evolving, it’s alive.”

But we did not ordain because we thought the path would always be easy, and in truth, we are finding out through experience that it often isn’t. Particularly, many of us struggle to go against that very stream of desire we set out to oppose when we first decided to come to the monastery.   Brother Minh An (Brother Peace) left a committed relationship to become a monk. “I wasn’t looking to end my relationship just to find another one. If I was going to end that relationship, it was because I wanted to go in the direction of freedom, and even though I know I’m doing that, that seed of romantic love, of sensual love, has been watered for so many years, so many generations… I know I’ll have to practice very skillfully with it to transform that energy of craving into something that serves all beings.”

Brother Minh Dung: “It’s through these challenges though that I’m able to see the direction that I need to go to heal. And what I’ll say about my most recent challenge is, as unpleasant as it is, as painful and uncomfortable and anxiety-inducing and sad and lonely as it has felt, for the things I’ve learned by going through it with the tools that have been offered by the community and by Thay, I am so grateful for it all. I know that the way out is in.”

We stand together at the beginning of our monastic life, and our bodhicitta is strong. Already, we have transformed great suffering and healed deep wounds. As a novice community, we have sown seeds and harvested fruits of peace, joy, and happiness. It would be naïve to think we are under no illusions about what the future may hold. Surely there will be difficulties we cannot foresee. But we have the practice, we have the Sangha, and for this precious moment, we have each other, new, young Brothers on the path of understanding and love, living harmoniously together in the Great Hidden Mountain.

6 responses to “A Portrait of Novice Life in Solidity Hamlet”

  1. Bravo and sweet gratitude for sharing dear brothers…What a joy to learn from you and wish you well. sister silent strength of the 💛

  2. Thank you for sharing your journeys. It feels important for the lay community to know more about our monastic family and to learn from the experiences you share. Many good wishes for the next step!

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