Meeting Thầy’s Life Force
By Sister Dang Nghiem
I had the opportunity to see Thầy at the root temple, Từ Hiếu, on April 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.
These Brothers and Sisters care for Thầy with so much joy, attentiveness, and tenderness that I cried out of gratitude, happiness, and reassurance.
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, the muscles on each side 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 cook that day join in, to see how Thầy likes the food and 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.
It was definitely a hell realm! Yet, we were all there, in our imperturbable dwelling.
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 hell realm! Yet, we were all there, in our imperturbable dwelling.
Witnessing Thầy’s life forcefully manifested in these monastics and in the practice is humbling and inspiring.
Witnessing Thầy’s life forcefully 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 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.
Beautiful Practice, Beautiful Continuation is the theme of the Order of Interbeing Retreat.
It will begin from 24 April to 28 April 2019.
When you look at an orange tree, you see that the orange tree is producing beautiful green leaves, fragrant orange blossoms, and sweet oranges. Those are the things an orange tree has to offer to the world. A human being is like that too. In her daily life she produces thoughts, speech, and actions. Our thoughts may be beautiful, compassionate, and loving. Our speech may also be compassionate, inspiring, full of love and understanding. And our actions may also be compassionate, protecting, healing, and supporting others and ourselves. Looking deeply in the present moment we can see that we're producing thoughts, speech, and actions. In the Buddhist tradition, our thoughts, our speech and our actions are our true continuation. -- by Thich Nhat Hanh from Answers from the Heart
This is our annual retreat for Order of Interbeing members and formal OI aspirants. The Order of Interbeing is a community of monastics and lay people who have committed to living their lives in accord with the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. This five-day retreat is a chance for OI members and aspirants, both monastic and lay, to strengthen our practice, deepen our connection as a community, and explore ways to nurture and strengthen our aspiration to live beautifully and mindfully in the spirit of togetherness.
Note: An aspirant must have already begun his or her aspirancy and must have a current OI mentor who is an ordained Dharma teacher.
The Four Principles of the Order of Interbeing, a dharma talk by Br. Phap Dung, 9-30-2018 on the genesis of the Order and the Four Pillars.
The practice phrases are a traditional parallel verse (or “couplet”) for the Lunar New Year or Tết in Vietnamese, which we celebrate in Plum Village every year.
We are very happy to announce the new Plum Village practice phrases to celebrate the upcoming Lunar New Year of the Pig. The phrase is a poetic gift that we can print out and post on the walls as a reminder to practice mindfulness.
The couplet can be combined with our breathing. For example, we can contemplate “Harmony in our Home” as we breathe in, and contemplate “Joy in the World” as we breathe out. These words are not a declaration, but a living aspiration we wish to nurture.
In Plum Village practice centers all around the world, we print out these calligraphies (keeping the diamond form), paste them onto coloured card, and pin them up around the dining halls, meditation halls and living quarters in preparation to celebrate the Lunar New Year. We hang them (with the help of a little cotton thread) from early-blossoming Japonica and Plum branches that we bring in to brighten our rooms.
Ancient tradition, creatively renewed
Poetic couplets for New Year are an ancient tradition in the East, especially in Vietnam and China. Often on red paper, they are pasted on door-frames, lintels, and even farm tools to bring good luck for the year to come. Calligraphies by spiritual masters are especially popular. The traditional couplet written in Chinese characters is a masterful art – a kind of profound and concise “written form of counterpoint”.
Thay has established a tradition, on the eve of the Lunar New Year, of offering the sangha a simple poetic couplet in calligraphy that can inspire and nurture our mindfulness practice. Thay’s innovation has been to offer the couplet in English, French and Vietnamese (rather than in Chinese characters). The Plum Village Community is very happy to continue this beautiful tradition.
Sr Can Nghiem and friends preparing parallel verses for the community
Join us in this practiceYou can print out and post the couplets on your fridge, doors or near light switches as an auspicious reminder to be mindful of their message, and renew ourselves by applying them in our daily lives. You can get creative with how and where to post and practice the phrases. You could post them on the doorframe as you step out to face your day, or even on the bathroom mirror.
In Plum Village, we always post the two complementary diamonds as a pair, near each other (above, below, beside – it doesn’t matter which) – typically on doors, windows or walls.
We hope this brand new couplet will bring you and your loved ones inspiration and nourishment in the New Year to come. This year the calligraphy is by Thay Phap Huu.
Download PDF for various sizes of the verses: