Soon after their ordination ceremony, the Plum Village website team interviewed our new “baby” brothers and sisters of the Chestnut Ordination Family.
The Chestnut Ordination Family’s presence in the sangha was a beautiful gift for Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) as they were ordained a week before his continuation day (birthday). It was really moving to see our elder brothers and sisters continue to do what Thay used to do in the ceremony. Below are some of the questions asked.
Why did you choose Plum Village to ordain? What about this community that made you decide you want to give your life, your time, your energy and your skills to?
Br. Troi Niem Luu: Actually, I wanted to become a Buddhist monk before coming to Plum Village. I started to feel the value of the Buddha and the Dharma, but for the Sangha, it was absolutely dark. I couldn’t see the point of having a sangha. However, after spending only one week in Plum Village, I started to connect. I often struggle to express what I feel and how to put words to it. I remember clearly seeing brothers and sisters during the working meditation, and saw how they connect without words. It’s what we can see in some blood families. So when I could sit with people from different countries or completely different blood families, I thought, OK, I see the full value of it. There is something that I could feel in the community at that point. It was clear in my heart that I hope to contribute in some way to this feeling, to this kind of connection, even without words. I also began to feel some pain and realize that I can transform it. It was very clear that I’ve got a very good and beautiful place here. Why should I need to go somewhere else? I can simply enjoy it and enjoy the brothers and sisters.
Before coming to Plum Village, I did practice with a sangha in a different tradition but I never did a retreat. To be honest, I didn’t feel the need to do it. I think at some point it’s an illusion to think there is something better elsewhere. If you feel OK or even good, and if you can touch something, then it’s enough for me.
Sr. Trang Hieu Thuan: When I decided to make spiritual practice the center of my life, I was living in Australia, close to Melbourne. I knew about mindfulness through a business workshop, and they talked about it as a tool to deal with stress. We had a list of recommended reading with John Kabbat-Zin among others, and Thay was one of them. I got completely caught by Thay’s message, and since then I’ve always wanted to go to Plum Village. But before going there I visited several temples and some quite strong lay sanghas around Melbourne. In my opinion there seemed to be a strong sense of devotion in these temples with many statues and ceremonies. I was a little bit surprised because I had read some texts about Buddhism and it really touched me. But when I visited these temples, I didn’t feel connected. I can recognise how skilful Thay has been to connect Buddhism with the Western culture.
I fell in love with the Plum Village tradition and decided to leave Australia. I brought a trip to go to India and Thailand to continue exploring other traditions and to do a vipassana retreat. I felt there was some part in me that didn’t want to stay here, and one day reading the book Stepping into Freedom, I saw the sentence from Thay, “If you are on top of a very beautiful mountain. Don’t look for another beautiful mountain.” So I bought a ticket to go to Plum Village. When I first came here what really surprised me was that I felt totally connected to my Christian roots in a way that I haven’t felt for 30 years. And this happened only after one week. There was no conflict. It was just coming back to my my faith, my values, and my path that had always been there. I read Thay’s book Living Buddha, Living Christ, and it was such an awakening. Then I decided to stay for the rains retreat last year. It became completely clear for me that this is such a beautiful community. I thought I had to study a lot of sutras and Sanskrit or Pali to really understand the teachings. But when I’m here and doing the basic practices I see the simplicity of Thay’s teachings. Already on the second day of the retreat I could feel calmer when I return to my breathing. I realised I can do this for my whole life. And that’s it. The practice is so simple and I can see the fruit so quickly for myself. That’s that’s how I decided to stay here.
What changes or transformations have you experienced due to your practice that has given you the boost of confidence or faith to give up everything you have known before and embark on this monastic journey?
Br. Troi Niem Thuan: One of the reasons why I really want to commit and leave everything behind is because it feels good to practice. Before ordaining I did not know the teachings of living in the present moment. I lived as though there is always something in the future to attain in order to be happy. And yet when I attained what I wanted I felt good for some time. But then it was like, what’s next? I remember the first time I read one of Thay’s poems to enjoy the present moment I was able to see the trees and the blue sky for the first time in the middle of the city! So it was quite an experience for me because these were the things I just ignored in my daily life. I could see that there was something very, very interesting there. At that time, I had a lot of thoughts in my head. And so for some time I felt like I was out of my head and more connected with life for at least a brief moment. This gave me a lot of hope and confidence in the practice. And then I started to try to practice more and more, and I could see that, “Yeah, I have a life to enjoy happening right here, right now!” I like that a lot.
Another thing that inspires me about the practice is that I feel my relationship with my parents have improved a lot after I knew the practice. I used to argue with them a lot and give them a hard time. And now I listen to them more and react less. I can see how they are also changing at the same time and that’s very, very nice to feel. In the monastery, every time we have Dharma sharing I see that slowly I get to understand my brothers and sisters around me. Sometimes we have a situation of friction but then we talk about it, and I get less caught in my thoughts and wrong perceptions. This helps me to understand others more. I like how that feels, and it gives me a lot of hope in this practice.
Sr. Trang Hieu Khai: I’ve been living in Lower Hamlet for almost two years. And so there is a lot of transformation I’ve seen in me. So it’s very difficult to name all the different things, because there is quite a lot in three years. Where I get the most confidence in the practice is in dealing with very difficult emotions that I have had during my whole life. I have a lot of sadness that has been stored up in my body, and there is a very strong fear that the past will come out and overwhelm me, and that I will be lost for a long time. In the last two years these emotions happen less, but I also can stay and breathe with it. The last time this strong emotion was triggered by a situation that was happening I went to do walking meditation, and it really calmed me down. Then I could go back to the situation. In the past I would never go back to a situation that triggered this emotion. This is one of the significant thing I can see that gives me a lot of confidence in the practice.
The practice of PV really helps me get in touch with my ancestors inside me. Over the last year this has been developing inside of me, that I can see my father, my mother, my grandparents and also friends in me. I feel more connected to all these people in my life from before, even if they are not here with me. Before I was more self-centred, more ego-centred, but now I can see this interbeing between us. This is something precious to me. I guess it’s a transformation because I am a little less proud of some qualities that I thought were “mine” because I see they come from my parents.
Br. Troi Niem Hoa: I was a scientist working in academic research for six or seven years. And I did two Masters degrees in biomedical diagnostics – making devices for testing disease. I guess I was there because it was somewhere where I could express the creative side of myself while doing something that I felt was good. I didn’t want to work solely for money in industries that I wasn’t sure of. And so I went down to academia to find a way to live that was true to myself. When I was in academic research, I found that was a lot less fulfilling than I would have imagined. There was a lot of stress and a disregard to a certain degree in my own perception for mental health, and I ended up in a very confused situation and it came to a point where I was in a very low state and pushed a lot of people away. I had to look again for way to be true to all aspects of myself.
So I began the transition from identifying myself and my life through work to that of getting to know myself. This led me to mindfulness, and Thay’s teachings, to sanghas in Dublin and to a Wake Up group there. From the end of 2017 I was helping out in these sanghas. I ended up finding a way that I could be true to myself. I could find a way to be happy with myself and to live a life that felt more real even though I was only getting glimpses of it every now and again, but those glimpses were enough to keep me going. I was getting far more from just giving as much as I could to myself, to others and to the Sangha. So I decided to come here last year for the rains retreat and ended up doing the aspirant program. And I’m here now because I love what the community brings to me, and what I can bring to the community as well. For somebody who struggled to find his place in life, it’s quite easy to be content with that. I don’t know my place in life yet but I can see so much goodness in the world and in myself.
We usually think that we need a teacher to guide us on our spiritual path. Thay is a great teacher for many, but due to his health he cannot be present to teach and guide us like he used to. What do you think about that, and what or who do you take refuge in, and how do you practice with this?
Br. Troi Niem Tan: Yeah, this was a point of suffering for me. The first time I came to the community I felt like I missed out on not being able to meet Thay directly. I thought, if I only I came here five years earlier, maybe I would have gotten to meet him physically. I suffered because I thought it would be so much better. There were some brothers who recognized this in me and they helped me to direct my attention to see how much the community keeps Thay alive in the daily practices, and how much the community embodies his teachings.
When I first read Thay’s book or saw him on YouTube I felt a lot of trust and support – a feeling that I hadn’t felt for some time. Now I see that the biggest source of that comes from the community so I don’t feel as much anymore a feeling of missing out, even though it would be lovely to meet Thay in person. Now I feel more supported, more connected and less lonely than I did a year ago for sure. Yeah, the community is very much Thay’s legacy.
Sr. Trang Hieu Duc: I’m lucky enough to receive direct teachings from Thay since I was a child because I grew up going to the Summer Retreat almost every year. But I didn’t understand his talks and often fell asleep, or thought when will the talk end and when can we go out? Then as I grew up I learnt to appreciate Thay as a teacher, but I think what really kept me coming back since the very beginning is the Sangha itself. I’m not saying that Thay is not important, but it is because of Thay’s teaching, that he emphasized so much about the Sangha, that’s why Thay is so present in the Sangha to me now.
Growing up close to the sangha I have had moments being physically present with Thay, but I don’t perceive a difference between listening to a talk from Thay or the other elder brothers and sisters, like Sr Chan Duc. I still feel nourished when I listen to Thay’s Dharma talk, but I also see how beautiful Thay’s teaching could be shared in other aspects from all the other brothers sisters. For me, since I was small, it’s the brothers sisters that I’m close to, and they are the people that I really play with. I couldn’t just hang out and play with Thay like I do with the brothers and sisters.
I could share my heart with the brothers and sisters. That’s why when I was younger I would think, why do I need to go to Thay? It’s more fun here, playing with the brothers and sisters. I am a person who relies on my experience and don’t feel so connected to things like praying to a Buddha statue. I’ve learnt to take refuge in the brothers and sisters. Concretely, I can feel love from the sisters, I can receive guidance from the brothers and sisters, and I see that they are the continuation of Thay, they are Thay’s teachings. I feel lucky that I have experienced some moments with Thay in person, and now that he’s in Vietnam I really don’t feel there is such a difference. I love Thay and love the Sangha all the same, whether he is here in Plum Village or not.
For those of you in the five year program do you have a plan for what you want to do in this five years?
Br. Troi Niem Tan: Before I ordained, I thought, “OK, I’m full of suffering, and I’d like to have a family, but I don’t want to drag all this suffering into my child’s life. So I saw Plum Village is like a box where I go in full of suffering and come out all good. I think the five-year program felt very much like that. My mom even mentioned it, she said it’s like getting a degree in being a good person.
Initially, it felt like that, but now I think whether I have a family or not, whether I am in the community five years or 50 years I still need to generate peace otherwise I’m just going to suffer and make other people suffer. So I don’t have so much of a plan anymore, except to just practice.