by Br. Minh Luong
A journal from Plum Village Thailand – September 22, 2022
I can’t believe I’ve lived in Thailand for five months now! Only one more month to go before returning to Deer Park in the U.S. One month before I taste the burritos and acai smoothies of Southern California and leave behind the delicious Vietnamese soups of Thai Plum Village: phở, bánh canh, and mì quảng. The brothers and sisters here are Vietnamese, and living amongst this foreign culture, I find my perspective shifting in unexpected ways. I’ve been struck by the community’s deep appreciation for the monastic path and their reverence for teachers, both those living and those already passed away. Never before have I been surrounded by so much energy and enthusiasm for studying the Dharma and discovering the gems of wisdom unearthed by our ancestors.
This morning, a group of brothers and sisters presented to the Sangha a new Thai Plum Village newsletter. One sister shared about an article in the inaugural issue on the parallel verses in the root temple (the root temple is called “Từ Hiếu”, it is in the city of Huế, central Vietnam). These verses are prominently displayed in the main hall of the temple, on either side of the altar, but because they are written in Chinese, many of the brothers and sisters don’t know what they mean. This article shines light on the verses, giving our siblings a chance to learn the translation and, through the article’s commentary, discover the deeper meaning beyond the words. My sister’s eyes shone with excitement as she shared, each phrase punctuated by an enthusiastic smile. With this article, she revealed another gem for her brothers and sisters to enjoy, another gold coin in the treasure trove of our Zen lineage. I could feel her pride and delight at our rich tradition and, at the same time, her sense of place, of knowing her roots.
Of course, she is right to be joyful. There are so many things to discover in the work of our ancestors, and there seem to be countless ancestral teachers. Who can say how many Dharma jewels are contained in their twinkling eyes? When I think of our spiritual lineage, I feel as if, after hiking through a dense, obscure forest, I’ve come upon the worn but dignified remains of an old stone house. It is solid, patient and persevering despite all the years gone by. I wonder, if it could speak, what stories it would tell. Who lived in this house? What were they like? What did they hope for and dream of? What did they fear? As I contemplate the worn stones of this old house, all those people who came before me manifest, present there with me. I can’t see or hear them directly, but the forest lets me know they’re there. I hear them through the rustling trees, and I see them in the house they once built.
In Deer Park, we sometimes come across circular impressions on the tops of large boulders. They are perfectly round, nothing that could be produced by the natural cycle of rain and erosion. They are the mortars created by the native people who once lived and thrived on the land we now call Deer Park. When we see these, we’re struck by a sense of awe and wonder. The distant past seems to reach out and take our hand as we feel the rock’s smooth surface. How ingenious, how resourceful were our ancestors? We could never imagine living in a valley like ours without the help of the grocery store down the road and the water pumped up from the city. We’re grateful that we aren’t the first people to live here, that we have wise elders who have come before us. Even if we don’t know their names, we feel a connection.
When I was growing up, it was the holidays, like Christmas and the Fourth of July, when I felt most connected to my culture and to my ancestors. I remember joyful traditions like decorating the Christmas tree or watching the fireworks, and as a young child, surrounded by my family in an atmosphere of celebration, feeling warm and safe. Life made sense. I had a place where I belonged. As I sat there this morning, in the meditation hall of Plum Village Thailand, I was halfway around the world, thousands of miles from my homeland. I was in a foreign country, listening to a foreign language, and yet I felt that same belonging. I couldn’t help but smile with her, my sister in the Dharma, this young nun from Vietnam, so energized and animated by her spiritual lineage. How wonderful to be part of this great stream of wisdom, to be born in a land dotted by ancient temples, and to have renowned ancestors who have transmitted deep and profound teachings. How wonderful to have a home, like an old stone house in the forest, keeping her warm and safe. A house that has stood for many years.
As I looked into my sisters eyes on this sunny morning, I knew this house would continue to stand from the present onwards, for our descendants and their descendants, shining light and offering refuge for all future generations, and that one day someone will come upon a clearing in the dense forest and see those old, worn stones, and wonder if that house could speak, what stories it would tell.
Based on a journal entry written at the stated date, but it was edited and expanded in November, 2022.