Brother Chân Trời Ruộng Đức shares about the support he receives from his mentors and the lessons from work in the vegetable garden.
Why I am here
Time passes by so quickly. Entering the third year of life as a novice, looking again at my bodhicitta, I ask myself, why am I here? Am I waking up a little more everyday? In the past I gave food, medicine, clothes, and provided accommodation to people who were in need. I thought they would feel happy and satisfied once they had received help, but the reality was not like that–what I offered only helped them in part. After they had received material support, they were still not happy and continued to wait for assistance, so we had to continue to look for ways to help them. At that time I didn’t know how to practice and so I created a burden for myself. When l saw that they were unhappy, I also became unhappy. I started to ask myself–why is it like this?
After practicing in Plum Village, I noticed that my joy and happiness are increasing a little more each day. I am learning to listen more to the voice in myself and learning to understand myself. I aspire to take care of my inner garden and discover more about my life.
This time last year, my father passed away. My mother and siblings needed my presence and support, so I went back to Malaysia to visit them. I am very grateful to the sangha for this opportunity. During my visit, I could feel that the outside environment was tempting me, but also that people’s lives were full of pressure and challenges. After a few weeks away from the monastery, I missed the sangha. Even though I practiced morning and evening sitting meditation and walking meditation everyday, it was still easy for me to be carried away by the energy surrounding me. Because of this, I had to keep reminding myself again and again to come back to myself.
Adjusting to community life in the monastery
A few months ago, l moved to Son Ha Temple (“Foot of the Mountain Temple” near the Upper Hamlet). In the beginning, living there was not easy for me, especially when I did not know how to take care of myself. But thanks to the guidance and support of my mentors Brother Nguyen Tinh and Brother Phap Ao, I have been learning ways to take care of my suffering. I don’t know where I would be without them. I realized that it is easier to practice together with the sangha than to practice alone and that it is crucial to be nourished by the sangha’s collective energy and to take refuge in the sangha. The sangha and its practice can help me purify my body and mind every day. No matter how difficult or challenging life may be, the sangha is there to support me.
Son Ha is quite damp and cold compared to the Upper Hamlet. When winter came, my room became very cold. My mentor never uses the heater and l wished to learn his way of living. Thanks to his example and way of training, my body slowly began to accept the environment. My mentor knows that l am afraid of the cold. He kindly suggested that I change to a thicker quilt and the problem of keeping warm when sleeping was solved. I can now sleep peacefully at night. Sometimes I would think to myself: Right this moment, there are many people, especially children, who are living in abject poverty, who do not have enough clothes for the winter. I am very lucky to have enough clothes to wear and to continue to practice.
Living in the sangha, I have many chances to practice–like inviting the great temple bell, chanting the morning chant, leading walking meditation, and offering guided sitting meditation. I am a shy person. But thanks to these opportunities, I am slowly overcoming my shyness. This brings me a lot of courage in the practice.
The Dharma garden
Working in the greenhouse has been a most wonderful gift for me during the last Rains’ Retreat. At first I thought working in the greenhouse is to offer vegetables to the sangha, but actually this is not the main purpose.
When we started working, my mentor Br. Phap Ao first cut the grass with a strimmer, and Br. Nguyen Tinh and I used tools to remove the weeds. We began to loosen the soil and create rectangular beds. We watered the soil and left it to be nourished by the water. Dry soil cannot absorb water easily, so it took a long time for the water to soak in. Br. Phap Ao just smiled and said to me, “Just keep watering it every day.” Oh! It sounded like he wanted to tell me something, but what?
After working in the greenhouse for just two days, I had already let go of much stress and tension in my body and mind. After a few days of watering, we used chicken manure to fertilize the soil and by now, the soil could absorb the water easily.
My mentors started sowing seeds and told me to keep watering them every day. A few days later, the seeds began to sprout. Then, seedlings started to grow. My mentors transferred some seedlings to another place where there was more space for them to grow.
The seedlings and the weeds
During one afternoon of mindful service, while I watered the seedlings wholeheartedly, I suddenly realized that the seedlings were smiling at me. Oh… how wonderful! It was the first time I could see this clearly. For me this was a very precious moment. I believe it is also what my mentors wanted to show me.
When the seedlings began to grow into vegetables, the weeds also gradually grew alongside them. I kept watering the vegetables but did not take care of the weeds. One morning while drinking tea with my mentor, he smiled and said to me, “You only know how to water the vegetables.” Then I realized that at the same time as I’m watering the vegetables, I have to also take care of the weeds.
One afternoon while weeding with Br. Nguyen Tinh, I found that I could not uproot all of the weeds because their roots were entangled with the roots of the vegetables, which were not yet strong. I could only trim the weeds above ground. Br. Nguyen Tinh looked at me, smiled, and said that maybe you need to wait for the vegetables to be strong enough before you can uproot the weeds. I listened and waited patiently for the vegetables to grow stronger.
Autumn was coming to an end. The arugula plants were about to die, so I uprooted them together with the weeds. I noticed that the stems of the vegetables and the roots of the weeds mingled in many places. I separated them all and replanted the arugula. After a few days, new leaves started to sprout. I was so happy! I asked myself, can I do the same thing with my suffering?
Mindfulness of slugs
One afternoon while harvesting vegetables, Br. Phap Ao told me that starting from that day, I would have to come here to catch slugs early every morning and evening. The holes in the vegetables were the traces left by slugs after they enjoyed the leaves. After hearing this, I felt very curious–is there any relationship between the slugs and my life? Starting from that day, almost every morning and evening, I stepped into the greenhouse to find the answer. After I caught more than one thousand slugs, I still did not have the answer.
During sitting meditation one night, while following my breathing, an image of the slugs appeared in front of me. I thought it may be the message my mentor wanted to convey to me, but I wanted to confirm whether it was true. That night I stayed in the greenhouse for two-and-a-half hours to catch the slugs. Not long after, I saw something I had not seen before. I felt great joy. Yes, this is it!
Work and practice are not two
Working in the greenhouse is not separate from my practice. Every time I take care of the greenhouse, I am also taking care of myself and others. Whatever happens in the greenhouse also happens to me and this is what my mentors wished for me to practice. I need to find my own way to cultivate joy and happiness in daily life, to water the wholesome seeds within me and to take care of the unwholesome seeds when they manifest. I can always come back to myself to listen to the voices in me and to understand a little more about them. They are my little friends within and have been with me for a long time. In the past I did not know they were there and I always neglected them. When they came, I had a tendency to reject them and to try to escape because the feeling was so unpleasant. Now I know that l have to recognize, identify, and spend time with them when they arise, to express my love and care for them. By doing this, I build a relationship with them. I am starting to understand a little more about myself and my parents — about why they suffered in the past. The suffering I have now is also their suffering. They have been carrying it for a long time, and it is up to me to practice and transform for them.
Looking into the roots
My suffering has a lot to do with the thoughts I produce every day. I tend to perceive things in a negative way and am not always open to the views of others. Sometimes I feel others have to follow my way; my speech becomes unmindful and those people may suffer. That is my habit energy. Once the distorted views in me are in contact with other negative mental formations, they bring about an unpleasant feeling. This affects a part of my body and makes me feel uncomfortable. If I am not aware, the distorted views and negative mental formations will keep feeding each other, and I suffer day and night. Once I recognize my perceptions and can stop, I have a chance to ask myself, Am I sure?
With appropriate attention, the negative energies are taken care of by mindfulness and compassion. When the positive energies are taking place, they bring me a pleasant feeling and my way of looking at things is also led in a positive way. I need to keep practicing in my daily life to discover more about myself. There is no end to the process. I see how important it is to take refuge in mentors because they know what nourishment and practice are most important for me now.
I am still young in the practice and I treasure the guidance and support of my mentors and the sangha. Every morning I offer happiness to my mentor while we enjoy a cup of tea and listen to the bird songs. This is also an opportunity for me to ask questions about the practice. To me, these are very precious moments in my life.
I used to think that happiness lies somewhere else and that I needed to pursue it away from home. But when I did that and was still unhappy, I continued to look for another kind of “happiness.”
One morning while drinking tea in silence with my mentor, I realized that happiness is in the here and now. Gratitude, joy, and peace are all in this moment. It is already happiness. What else could l wish for? How lucky I am to be a monk and to practice together with the sangha here. Thay and our elder brothers and sisters established Plum Village and went through many challenges. I cherish my life here and the conditions made possible by Thay and the sangha.
Continuing the journey
Recently I received two koans from my mentor. The first one is, “The lizard and the frog can help to eat some but not all of the slugs. Why is that?” The second one is, “Why do slugs only eat the vegetables and not the weeds?” These two koans are insights from my mentor. He has thrown them to me, but I am still cooking them and I hope to tell you more in the future.
The Plum Village Newsletter
This article originally appeared in the Plum Village Newsletter, if you would like to order a physical or pdf copy, they are available by donation on the Parallax Press website.