August 22, 2013
After several years of living at plum village and a year since my ordination, I was recently allowed to go on my first home visit to be with my sister at her marriage in Toronto, Canada. Since both of our parents have died and we are only 2 siblings, it was very meaningful for us my sister and for me that I was able to attend. It was also the first time that most of my family has met me as a nun. I had a beautiful visit and wish to share some of my experiences.
While everyone can tell that my sister and I are related by our smiles and mannerisms, we are also quite different in many ways. As teenagers we just tried to change the other. Of course, this didn’t work. Once I moved away for university, we somehow realized that we needed to learn to become friends. Slowly we have learned to accept and appreciate each other without needing to change each other. Over the years we have developed a beautiful friendship on this basis which continues to grow day by day. It nourishes us deeply and it has helped us get through many challenging times of illness, loss and the daily challenges that afflict everyone. I was so happy that she could be with me at my ordination ceremony in France last year and it meant so much to both of us that I could come to support her at her wedding.
One of our differences is that my sister enjoys meat and some alcohol, which she would want to offer to her guests at her wedding (a very normal thing to do in Canada.) I, on the other hand, have been a vegetarian since my teenage years and hadn’t even consumed alcohol for many years before ordaining. My family was already used to the fact that i do things differently. They teased me, and accepted me with much love. But now that I am a nun, wanting to respect the precepts to stay away from these things, I didn’t really know what to do. Of course her wedding would have alcohol and meat served and I did not want to ask her to change this. With a little creativity and much support from my family and friends, we were able to arrange for me to sit at a table with 2 other vegetarians and we asked everyone at my table not to drink any alcohol. This turned out to be very easy. After the dinner, I visited with family and friends outside of the banquet hall, where there was no alcohol served. It felt like a reasonable balance and the joy of being with my family will continue to nourish me for a long time.
While the meal wasn’t particularly dharma-filled, the ceremony was a place that I was able to share some very meaningful moments. I used to be a Lay Officiant and have performed dozens of weddings for people that I don’t know. To get to help offer a wedding ceremony for my sister (with a legal officiant) was a highlight of my life. In particular, I was able to share an adaptation of Thay’s introduction to the book “love’s garden” during the ceremony – at my sister’s request. This brought in the ideas of selective watering (nourish the positive qualities, not the negative), caring for one’s own garden before tending the other’s garden, the four qualities of true love (kindness, compassion, joy and inclusivity) and non-discrimination. It was very simple and brief and such a delight to bring Thay to the wedding!
There were other ways that Plum Village manifested during my home visit. For the rehearsal dinner and the family picnic after the wedding, my sister was able to arrange for these to be vegetarian and alcohol-free so that i could participate freely. I heard that a few relatives didn’t eat at the picnic because the food was a little too “strange” for them, but they came and made no complaints! At the rehearsal dinner, I overheard someone say with a laugh, “Imagine that! A whole evening without drinks and we still had a good time!” The comment wasn’t made knowing that I was standing there. It was just a comment made in passing but it meant so much to me. I saw so clearly that without saying anything, someone could touch part of the joy of practice without even knowing! Had I tried to explain why it’s important for our community to not consume intoxicants it would have turned into a lecture and closed everyone right away, But this was so natural. Thay always tells us that even as novices, we can share the Dharma just by our presence and that we don’t need to wait to be Dharma teachers to “teach” the dharma. this experience really proved it.
The next of the interesting situations that arose was trying to figure out how to introduce myself. Of course I use my Vietnamese monastic name – Chân Trăng Hải Ần – at Plum Village. With the guests who come for a short time and do not speak Vietnamese, I use “Sister Ocean”. Yet my family and most friends still call me by my birth name – Melina Rose Bondy. Truthfully, I love all of my names! My birth name was given to me by my parents and as they have now both died, it carries a special love from them. My monastic name (which translates to “true moon of the ocean’s seal”) is a beautiful poem given to me by my teacher. It moves my heart deeply though I don’t fully understand it yet. It opens me up to wonder. The English version has a powerful simplicity that inspires me to open myself up to be as vast as the ocean. Each name carries so many blessings!
With my family and friends, I knew that a few would try to learn my new name and likely feel a little worried about forgetting my new name, and that many wouldn’t even remember that I have a new name. I would also be meeting many people who have heard of me as Melina and if I used anything else, it might get confusing for everyone. So after much consideration, i introduced myself at the wedding ceremony with, “My name is Melina Bondy, sister of the bride, and my ordained name is Sister Hai An.” When people asked what to call me, I offered Hai An and then said not to worry if they just used Melina.
Forcing everyone to use a foreign name seemed too rigid. To only use my birth name seemed too dismissive as my monastic life brings me such joy that I cannot help but share it. So I offered both options. In the end, many ended up using “Sister Ocean” as they wanted to learn my new name but couldn’t remember the Vietnamese. They were so happy to have an English version to remember and to understand! I was touched by the effort that they made. I know that the families of some monastics never use their ordained names so I felt even more grateful for those who did, and happy that we could all be together no matter what names were used!
Another benefit of going on a home visit is that how much more grateful I feel to be a nun at Plum Village! Driving through rush-hour traffic made me even more grateful to get to live in the quiet countryside without any commuting. Seeing everyone getting ready for the wedding made me feel so grateful for the simplicity of my brown robes and shaved head. Doing a little shopping reminded me how easy it is in the modern world to consume and consume and consume – and consume some more. I felt the urge take me over many times. I remembered how natural it seems to be distracted all the time – with work, activities, advertising, cell phones – and the nearly endless possibility of choices. Coming back to Plum Village, I feel so grateful for our practice and precepts which make it easier to live a simple life, cultivating true peace and joy each day.
Perhaps the most interesting moment arose just at the end of the visit. I went to see Eva gold, an energy healer that my whole family has seen for years. part of Eva’s work involves “muscle testing” where different questions are asked and the body answers. You hold out an arm, listen to a question and are asked to “resist” while pressure is applied. The standard way to begin is to say, “My name is …” and use your true name. Then you get to say something like, “My name is mickey mouse” and no matter how hard you try, the arm will hold strong for your “true” name and become weak with the “false” name because the body knows a deeper truth than the mind. We started with this exercise and when Eva asked me to say my name, i still wasn’t sure which one to use. so we used all three and then a “false” name. the beautiful thing is that all three of my “true names” proved to be equally strong and the “false” name proved to be very weak. It ended up being a beautiful affirmation for me! I knew that I loved my names but I wasn’t sure what the body would say. In the end, it affirmed all of me.
I found this event symbolic of the the wedding and of the whole visit, clarifying what i already knew. I don’t have to discard my past to become something new at the same time. I am still a Canadian woman with all sorts of labels and experiences and I am also a young nun with so many things to learn. I am still who I was before and yet I am also different. There is nothing to worry about and nothing needs to be left out. I just have to hold the Dharma into my heart, listen deeply to be present and flexible in each situation, listen to my intuition and just trust.
Wait a minute. I think that this practice has a name. I think that it’s called mindfulness.
Sr.Trang Hai An