It has been just over a year since Sister Lan Nghiem passed away in Lower Hamlet. We offer a sharing from one of her attendants, Sister Trang Loc Uyen, who was with her in her last days, as she reflects on Sister Lan Nghiem and the lessons they learned on their journey together.
It was an afternoon in July when I first arrived in Lower Hamlet. My sister from the same family tree led me to greet the elder sisters. There was one particularly friendly sister who asked me if I spoke English. That sister was Sister Lan Nghiem. I was thinking in my head: “Whoa, my goodness, how can there be such a tall person on this planet?”
Conditions were set that I had many chances to share a room with Sister Lan Nghiêm; we were part of the small minority of Lower Hamlet nuns who liked cool refreshing air and open windows in the winter.
The day she returned to the sangha after discovering that she had cancer, I was working in the office preparing for an online retreat. As much as I wanted to, there was just so much work piling up, and it was difficult to put time aside to be with her. I felt uneasy. I decided to be her attendant as the best means to express my love towards my beloved “young” friend for the past few years. The journey begins.
After her first chemotherapy session, Sister Lan Nghiem was well enough to tell me all sorts of stories. Stories of her childhood, boating with her father, from buying a house in Amsterdam and leaving everything and moving to France, to living in a community on a farm making cheese…
After so many years of living with her, I thought that my capacity to listen to her never-ending stories was quite solid. But after two weeks of attending to her, I became fearful. Fearful because I heard her voice all the time. When I was doing sitting meditation with my eyes closed, or before I went to sleep I only saw her gestures. I was afraid I carried within myself her energy and had the impression that I was no longer myself. I was the exact replica of Sister Lan Nghiem.
It wasn’t until a sitting meditation session that I saw clearly: that’s right, how can I not be a replica of Sister Lan Nghiem. Anyone, in an intimate relation more or less will influence one another.
Everything pours into our store consciousness whether we want it to or not. Then suddenly, when I recognized all of the negative energy one can take in from the person we are caring for, I immediately thought of all of the nurses and caregivers. I am taking care of Sister Lan Nghiem, but I get to live in the sangha, I am in a good environment, I get to do sitting meditation and walking meditation… and I am still met with this difficulty, what do the nurses and caregivers at the hospital do? This awareness helped give me more energy to look deeply into my practice and to take care of myself while being an attendant. One morning, I saw the intimate relationship between myself and everything around me. I saw that I was physically well and was the indirect recipient of the fear and discomfort of Sister Lan Nghiem. And Sister Lan Nghiem was the direct recipient of her physical pain every hour, as well as the fear and confusion of what was going to happen next. This insight gave me more motivation to practice. I thought to myself: Sister Lan Nghiem will endure her pain and I will practice for her. I accepted the truth of interbeing. Instead of fear and denying the energy present, I accepted it as the most precious mud to generate motivation to look deeply into the fear of death that lies deep in my store consciousness.
At every sitting meditation session, especially before going to sleep, I put myself in a dying person’s shoes and practiced with the gatha “This body is not me…
Whenever I was taking care of Sister Lan Nghiem, I reminded myself to be aware: I am of the same nature, eventually I will grow old, become ill, and be afraid of death, afraid of being lost and confused. Practicing like that, I felt gratitude overflowing within me. Sister Lan Nghiem is a Bodhisattva manifestation, accepting and embracing her physical pain so that I can awaken: Even when young, sickness and death can come at any moment and it doesn’t spare anyone. She reminded me that I need to be diligent in my practice and studies so that I can taste the insight of no birth and no death.
I directly thank Sister Lan Nghiem for agreeing to return to the sangha so that the sangha could care for her. This meant so much to the sangha: There is something reassuring to be ill in the community. There are many who become ill and do not stay in the community because of the fear of inconveniencing the community. Sister Lan Nghiem was the first non-Vietnamese sister to stay in the sangha while ill until her death. I know taking care of sister Lan Nghiem is also taking care of my and the sangha’s future. The manifestation of her cancer is like a bell of awakening for the community of Lower Hamlet to practice contemplating old age, sickness, death and treasuring each other.
In the forest of fear and confusion
After a period of time, Sister Lan Nghiem was admitted to the hospital for a blood transfusion and potassium infusion.
Returning to the hamlet, she became oddly difficult; she was short tempered, wanted to be independent but was always forgetful. We were at a loss. I was determined to experiment with a new method. I knew her personality and that is why I dared to experiment. She became irritated at me after I prepared her medication (it was the first time she was ever irritated with me), I was breathing deeply for a while and said: “Dear Sister, we love you very much and we volunteered to care for you with our whole heart. But I also have shortcomings and limitations, especially when it comes to understanding western medicine. If you see that we cannot be of any help, please tell sister Thuy Nghiem so she can change attendants. We don’t wish to make you any more tired.” After saying that to her, I was prepared to receive a reaction. But instead, she became very quiet, her voice became softer but a little more sad. I was worried. I asked if she needed anything else before I left. She said that she could do it with a sad voice. The next morning, a younger sister informed me that Sister Lan Nghiem was sweeter, and everything they did for her she always thanked them. My goodness! That meant my experiment was a success. From that moment on, she completely trusted us, that included Sister Dao Nghiem, the person that helped with her medications and contacting the doctor.
The cancer had begun to spread to her brain. Sister Lan Nghiem started to not understand a lot of things and not know where she was. Sometimes she would ask me questions and I couldn’t help but to half cry, and to half smile: “Why did people create the clock?”, “Why am I here?”, “How did they discover that I had cancer?”
Her body began to weaken, but her consciousness wasn’t yet able to accept the truth about her cancer, saying “What is this thing called death?” If she were to pass away like this it wouldn’t have been good. Everyone in the sangha knew this but we didn’t know exactly what to do to be really helpful. I remember that around that time, I would chant Avalokiteshvara’s name, hoping that the energy of loving kindness and compassion in me would awaken so that I could do something to help her.
Strength of the Sangha
After a while, the sangha eventually knew that she had stage four cancer. In the last two sessions of chemotherapy, they only put in enough medication so that she wouldn’t get any sores. It wasn’t the usual dosage of a normal chemotherapy session.
We couldn’t help sister Lan Nghiem recover. It was now the time to help her go through her depression and accept that she would die in a short period of time. The attendant team started to sing a lot of songs about no-birth and no-death. The sangha started to offer chanting sessions twice a week for her. One evening, as she turned over, she woke up and I asked her: “How is your body?” She replied: “Oh, I feel very happy and comfortable.”
I felt so happy hearing those words. I don’t know how long it had been since she had felt comfortable and peaceful in her body. I said: “Do you know why you feel happy? It is because the sangha sent the energy of peace to you.” When she heard that, she said: “Oh really, I thank the sangha.”
It seemed that she was trying to forget the reality of her situation. There was one day, after sitting, I realised that in order for her to accept the reality of her coming death, we needed to ask for help from Sister Chan Duc. That morning, when SisterChan Duc came to visit, I shared with her Sister Lan Nghiem’s present status. After singing one or two songs, SisterChan Duc took off her hat, and I knew that her Dharma talk was about to begin. She shared about the happiness of being Thay’s disciple, getting to know the practice of mindfulness, and getting to live in the embrace of her loving monastic siblings. Then she asked Sister Lan Nghiem if she knew which Dharma talk that Shariputra shared with Anapathindika before he passed away? Without waiting for an answer from Sister Lan Nghiem, she continued:
These eyes are not me, I am not caught in these eyes.
These ears are not me, I am not caught in these ears.
This body is not me, I am not caught in this body.
(Discourse on teachings to be given to the sick – Plum Village Chanting Book)
The deeper SisterChan Duc went into the sutra, the stronger became Sister Lan Nghiem’s concentrative energy. I remember it as if it were just yesterday, Sister Lan Nghiem was lying perfectly still listening to SisterChan Duc’s words, just as a child would listen to her parents teachings.
After offering the teachings, SisterChan Duc sang a few more songs and left. Sister Lan Nghiem started to feel a rush of pain. We massaged her for an hour to no avail. I knew that this was a strong pain. Because at this time, she was starting to wake up to reality, and to not avoid it.
The lotus blooms when the mud is accepted
Ten days before leaving her body, she was once more in excruciating pain. I said: “Dear Sister, you know that we love you and aren’t hesitant to care for you. I see that the cancer is spreading quickly. If at any moment you feel you cannot endure the discomfort any longer then you can let go of this body, ok? The sangha is always present to protect and send energy to you.”
She replied: “I am thinking of that. It has been more difficult.”
I was happy to hear that. Those words proved that she had accepted herself – and had accepted the truth.
With a little more confidence, I asked: “How much longer do you think you can continue like this?” She wasn’t ready to answer. Knowing her, I offered a few suggestions: “A few more months, few more weeks, a few days?” She answered: “I think that I can continue on for about two weeks.”
Not trusting what I had just heard, I asked her for confirmation: “You mean two more days or two more weeks?”
She replied: “I think I can continue on for about two weeks.”
“Do you want me to do anything for you? Is there anything that you are remorseful about or have any regrets about?” “No,” she answered.
I continued: “Do you want the monks and nuns to come and sing a few songs for you?” She nodded her head. From that day onwards, her room was filled with songs and sharings of beautiful memories of the brown robed angels.
Two days later it was my turn to take the night shift. Before going to sleep, I sang the song “I have arrived, I am home”. To my surprise, she was singing along with me. At this point her tongue was stiff and curled up so the words weren’t audible. But when we reached the line that says “the door of no birth and no death is open…” she sang with lots of determination. I felt that she was determined to see the insight of no birth and no death. I said: “I know that the highest purpose of a monk or a nun is to attain the insight of no birth and no death. Even though I am still young I also want to have this insight.” She replied, “Me too”.
Hearing those words, I felt so happy. After breathing a few breaths, I continued, “At present, you are experiencing old age, sickness and death ahead of me, therefore you will realize the insight of no birth and no death before me. If you realize it before me please share it with me.” At that time, Sister Lan Nghiem said in a stiff voice that I cannot forget to this day: “I will let you know before I go. I will let you know before I go.” After that I turned on the Dharma talk given by Thay on no birth and no death. A smile blossomed on her lips. That smile remained there until the next morning, until the moment in which she released her body.
Her two younger blood sisters informed us that two days after listening to the Dharma talk, while lying down she suddenly said twice: “I have understood it, I have understood it.”
I was so happy. From that moment on Sister Lan Nghiem’s energy was completely different. Going from a place of fear, worry and sleeping in order to forget the truth, she became more peaceful and rested deeply. The pain increased more and more everyday but her mind was lighter and lighter. From that day onwards, every time I did sitting meditation in her room I felt a wondrous sense of peace. At times, I felt as if I was sitting in the presence of Thay when I was his attendant.
On Monday November 30, her breathing became weaker, and lighter, we had to look at her abdomen to know whether she was breathing or not. On Monday evening, the three attendants, SisterDao Nghiem, and Sister Lan Nghiem’s two younger blood sisters spent the night in her room. At five in the morning, everyone had tea together. I made black tea, the kind that Sister Lan Nghiem likes, for everyone to drink. We shared so many beautiful memories of Sister Lan Nghiem. That morning was a legendary and spiritual moment for me.
Two hours later, I returned from washing the teapot, I saw SisterDao Nghiem sitting close to the bed, with her hand on Sister Lan Nghiem’s stomach. She had passed. I placed my hands on her stomach. The body was finally at rest. There was such a deep stillness of body and mind. Everything had become completely still.
I went to the Assembly of Stars meditation hall to announce her passing. At that time the sangha had just finished the morning ceremony. Sister Lan Nghiêm had waited for the sisters to finish the precepts recitation ceremony before passing. She passed away at 7:15 a.m. on December 1st, 2020.
You have left, what of those who remain?
Occasionally, the remark that she made when the brothers came to visit her still rings in my ears: “I think I’m smart but now it doesn’t work.”
That’s right, witnessing what had happened to her, I saw clearly that talents, skills, and intelligence cannot be of any use when you are on your sickbed nearing death. It is the love, the care of your loved ones surrounding you, and completely taking refuge in the sangha that helps us to overcome moments of difficulties. So how should we practice or be of service so that we are not pulled away by our work, pulled away by the desire to develop our skills, that we forget the value of sisterhood and brotherhood and the highest purpose of one who has gone forth?