As monastics, being invited to drink tea or spend time with our teacher, (affectionately called Thay) are precious occasions. Two sisters, Sr Thuan Nghiem and Sr Thao Nghiem, share memories of what it was like to drink tea and travel with Thay and how they would like to be his continuation.
A Comfortable Silence
[Sr Thao Nghiem] When I first came to Plum Village, I could not feel the love from Thay yet. Raised and ordained in Vietnam, I did not have a chance to be near Thay during my formative years. After staying in Plum Village for a while, I was able to appreciate Thay’s presence and warmth. Once Thay asked me, “Do you feel comfortable sitting with Thay?” I replied, “It’s okay as long as I don’t have to say anything, because I really don’t know what to say.” Thay smiled and said, “You do not need to say anything. You only need to enjoy sitting, breathing and feeling at ease. That’s enough.” From then on, the experience of sitting with Thay became pleasant, calm and profound.
The love between teacher and student blossomed, quietly and peacefully. Words and stories began to appear naturally not long after that, once the comforting feeling had arrived quietly, and the teacher and the student experienced a deep understanding for each other. There was silence, and there was also laughter while we were together. As time went on, I told Thay so many stories, and we discussed a multitude of topics. I treasured those conversations. Thay had given me the space I needed, and our relationship flourished.
Bamboo Shoots and Tea
[Sr Thao Nghiem] We learned so much from Thay’s calm presence and his tender love for nature. Thay particularly enjoyed the bamboo shoot season, which was between April and May. We would enjoy harvesting the bamboo shoots together, stripping their outer coats, boiling them and storing them in the refrigerator. Thay would always make sure to cook a pot of bamboo shoots with tofu to treat his children. The bamboo shoots cooked by Thay were soft, peppery, flavorful, and delicious! Every one of us dreamed of having a chance to taste Thay’s salted bamboo shoots, eaten with white rice, especially during the cold weather!
[Sr Thuan Nghiem] One time after dinner, the phone rang, and it was Thay. He said, “Please come up and spend time with me.” It was very sweet. We went to see the cactus flower in bloom. We arrived around 7 or 8pm and still had two hours to wait before the cactus flower bloomed. The cactus was in the middle of Thay’s room. We were sitting in a circle, Thay poured tea for us and said, “con hat di” (dear child, please sing for me). He asked me to sing, but I was so stubborn. He asked me three times, but I was so stubborn, I did not sing, so he sang. Thay sang us a childhood song, a French one.
When Thay asked someone to sing, he prepared himself. Usually after that person sang, Thay would sing. But in my case, no singing, because I never sang before I ordained!
Another time, Thay was preparing and pouring tea. I looked at him and I knew that it was black tea, it’s very strong, and it was evening. Thay was pouring tea and I said, “I don’t drink tea, Thay”. Thay looked at me and said, “Sit still. This is Sitting Still Hut,” and gave me the tea. I drank it, and after that I said, “Can I have another one?” My novicehood… all the contradictions.
Traveling with Thay
[Sr Thuan Nghiem] When we were waiting to check in at the airport, Thay would walk back and forth and say, “We are checking in, but we are also breathing.” Before we boarded the plane, we would see Thay sitting in the front row of the waiting area, we would be mindful and remember to return to our breathing. That’s how he reminded us. At that time, I did not think about it. As a novice, I had very little mindfulness. But now, when I meditate, I remember all these things. That was exactly how Thay wanted to remind us, sometimes verbally, but sometimes with his physical body. Thay would also be the last one to board.
When we travelled from South California to North California, during the six-hour drive, we had bus meditation. Before we started our journey, Thay was the last one to board the bus. Thay came up, smiled, and said, “We are doing the work of the Buddha, so we invite the Buddha to be on the bus with us.” Bong. “Invite the Buddha inside of us to breathe, to be on the bus with us.” Now I remember all these details. I realize Thay reminded us with every single opportunity, to come back to be mindful, to breathe mindfully.
Continuing our Teacher
[Sr Thuan Nghiem] Thay’s teaching is the teaching on love. Because of his love, he could create such a beautiful community where we can practice and learn from one another.
You have to learn how to love yourself. When we ordained, we don’t really know how to love ourselves. As I said, discipline is the key. If you are able to follow the schedule, slowly you learn to love yourself.
When you see yourself, it becomes easier to relate to other people and you can also see other people. They are going through exactly what you are going through. Maybe you are luckier. Maybe you are transforming faster. But they are actually going through the same things. When you see that, you feel that you can live and practice with people. You don’t feel that there is no hope and you have to give up because you see a lot of negative things in them and they won’t change. Many monastics left because that’s what they saw. But actually, the practice is for us.
When I am able to follow and regulate my energy level, I recognize my habit energies. I look around and I see, Yeah, all people have habit energies. It is impossible to find people with no habit energies. When I see the younger ones come in with a lot of habit energies, I ask myself honestly, “Do I have habit energies?”
Why do we come here? We come here because we want to practice. But fter a while, we forget; we look around and that’s when difficulties arise. We start to see a lot of habit energies in others and we judge and lose a lot of energy. I see that I have a lot of habit energies, especially my short temper. I see that all people are the same. We all need time. We cannot expect people to transform fast, while we allow ourselves to be slow.
[Sr Thao Nghiem] There are days when I receive news that Thay is not not feeling so well, and I recognize that there are worries in me. Sometimes I wish that we were not so geographically far apart, so that we could all meet Thay and have assurance in our hearts. In the past, I had so many chances to hold Thay’s hands and harmonize our breathing. Most comfortable and cozy was the feeling of being truly present for each other.
Being away from Thay, I miss Thay a lot. I sit still and breathe with Thay, regaining the peace for myself and for my sisters around me too. Thay is truly here and in everyone. Taking care of our practice is taking care of Thay. I know Thay is enjoying every meal, breathing deliciously, sleeping well, and feeling happy with the monastic children next to him. When we relish these practices ourselves, I know that Thay is there in our hearts. And when it feels that my practice is not yet strong enough, I hear him speak to me. With a warm and encouraging smile, he reminds me, “My dear one, you can do it.”
Happy Continuation dear Thay!