by a Plum Tree Sister in Deer Park
Though I’ve been alive for over two decades now, Tết (Lunar New Year) is still new to me. Living full-time in the monastery and wearing the brown robe every day, I don’t have the feeling of excited expectation—like most young people in Vietnam—to receive and wear new clothes on the first day of the year. For me, it’s just the same brown robe—the robe that we sisters always joke about, saying that we would wear it whether we are down in the mud gardening or we are about to greet the President of Vietnam in a diplomatic ceremony. The New Year comes, and there’s nothing new to replace this brown robe! But what I do have are new wonders: I love to watch everything in a new way each day, I love watching Tết arriving in each spring bud, each flower, each trail, each person, and within myself.
Tết returned to the forests and mountains of Deer Park this season with a gift of rain from the earth—a new set of clothes to prepare for the returning spring. Young leaf buds broke through their sheaths, and the flower buds I’d been waiting for shyly spread their petals out to greet the coming year. The eager Tết atmosphere quickened its pace after the ceremony to raise the New Year pole and flag: a simple ceremony that carries a deep meaning for the sons and daughters of the Buddha who wish for a peaceful and smooth New Year. Next, the sangha at Deer Park prepared to welcome Tết. We don’t wait till Tết arrives to welcome or celebrate it, but instead greet it right from the moment we begin preparations together. We roll and shape the sticky rice earth cakes and banana-filled cakes, clean up the rooms, make dried fruits and roasted watermelon seeds, arrange flower bouquets and ornamental trees—and, especially, let go of the things that need to be let go of so that we can enter the New Year with a blank slate.
Even though things are busy, I still feel the warmth and happiness of welcoming Tết in its sacred and traditional way. Tết is not simply a time to hang out and have fun; it’s also a chance for distant children to come back to the family, a chance for the children and grandchildren to show their love and care to their parents and ancestors, and a chance for the students to express appreciation to Thầy. It is a chance for us humans to be grateful to the earth and sky. Those who carry the blood of Vietnam in their hearts love this Tết ceremony so much they continue to carry and maintain the spirit of Tết generation after generation wherever they go: from rural towns in the countryside of Vietnam to far-flung places around the world where Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants now live.
I love Tết, and Tết returns inside me like that.
I remember the day the sangha wrapped earth cakes together. The smell of the banana leaves—the smell of home—made the dining hall fragrant. Everything was prepared ahead of time, from the banana leaves, to the different fillings, to the wooden molds; we had even prepared our minds with the spirit of trying out new things! My monastic siblings, though not Vietnamese, were ready with the earth cake molds and a few banana leaves in their hands for an impromptu wrapping class. Some siblings demonstrated the technique, others observed, and some started shaping. The ones who knew how would show the ones who didn’t; those knowing more would show those knowing less. Just like that, our jokes and giggles wrapped around the day. Just like that, the earth cakes and banana-filled sticky rice cakes were made. Even though they weren’t as round and perfect as the ones sold in the supermarket, they contained the beauty of siblinghood and friendship. Outside, the fire was red hot and the cakes were lowered inside the giant boiling pot, their warmth spreading to the winter scenery of the mountain. All around me were voices and laughter: the bright faces of siblings of one family gathering together. I knew Thầy was smiling. Tết returns inside me like that.
We often dedicate a period at the end of the year to do a deep clean of the dorm rooms and residence so Tết can arrive in a sparkly brand-new environment. Cleaning day in Clarity Hamlet was a festival of fun: all the windows and door screens were removed and thoroughly wiped, and all the corners and corridors neatly swept. It was a good occasion to relinquish things that we didn’t use anymore. Each room would be decorated— in its own style—a small and happy area to greet guests with the parallel verses, fresh flowers and fruits, making the atmosphere very Tết! Each sister had her own little corner, so we all spent a bit more time cleaning and decorating the space for our own enjoyment of the season. In one corner we would see a plum branch, in another corner a pot of cheery yellow chrysanthemums or an orchid, and red paper strips of the New Year parallel verses would dangle on the branch. Each person was bringing Tết home. I spent some time in my own corner. I love mai flowers (Ochna integerrima) for Tết so I added a few fake yellow flowers on the branch of a local tree, placed a plate of earth cakes and mini banana sticky rice cakes on the mat, along with a candle, an incense bowl, and a tea tray. Just like that, in my little corner, I brought Tết into my heart. Tết returns inside me like that.
Like all of my sisters, I always call home to my family during Tết. I ask my parents, younger siblings, nieces and nephews how they are preparing for the New Year. Though we live halfway around the world, the bonds of family still connect children to parents and ancestors. I cannot be there in person with my mother and father, but I still feel their presence next to me. I can still connect to my family and ancestors in each cell and blood vessel in my body. In this way, I am never lonely or isolated. I can still express my gratitude to my parents and ancestors by expressing gratitude to myself. I can still say “I will come home this Tết.” I return home whenever I sit peacefully, whenever I take a stable step, and whenever I see my true self. Tết returns inside me like that. I did not want to go to sleep on New Year’s Eve! I wanted to experience this sacred moment together with the earth and sky. I wanted to ask myself at this incipient moment of the year: “How have I spent this past year? What have I learned? What have I lost and gained?” Perhaps these questions are all not as important as when I ask myself: “Am I happy? or, How have I been happy? What will I be like in the New Year?” Suddenly I realized in that sacred moment that I was smiling to the new me of the New Year. Tết returns inside me like that.