Monastic Life / Interview: Going to the Other Shore

We interviewed Plum Village nuns and monks who have just received their full Bhikshuni/Bhikshu ordination in the recent transmission ceremony.

Opening ceremony of the Go to the Other Shore Great Ordination

We have recently completed a very powerful “Go To The Other Shore Great Precepts Transmission Ceremony,” with over 120 monastic ordainees. These ceremonies for novice monks and nuns to receive the Revised Pratimoksha and become fully ordained Bhikshus and Bhikshunis take place only once every two years. 

This year was the first time a  Great Precepts Transmission Ceremony (October 2-3) took place simultaneously, online, in six Plum Village monasteries across three continents (the US, Europe and Asia). The primary transmission was broadcast live from Deer Park Monastery in Southern California, where senior Venerables of Vietnamese Buddhism gathered from across North America to transmit the precepts. Each center had screens and sound to receive the precepts transmission from Deer Park, supported by the presence of elders in their own center, which amplified the collective energy.

We spent in Thay’s hut in Upper Hamlet drinking tea and listening to how the nuns and monks felt after the ceremony:

What was a significant moment for you during the ceremony?

Sister Trang Mai Phuong: I prepared myself two weeks in advance, and I think I was quite peaceful and calm during the ceremony. I invited my family and my ancestors, both spiritual and genetic, to walk with me. I knew that I would cry during the ceremony and I even prepared tissues in my pocket. I don’t know why but I cried many times during the ceremony. When the venerables and the brothers and sisters began to chant and remind us about how our parents had raised us, it really moved me and I just couldn’t hold back my tears. Also, thinking about Thay was a moment that really touched me deeply. I thought of my parents, and many past lifetimes, and about this lifetime and Thay. Not only Thay, our teacher now, but many generations of teachers. I felt like it was not the first time I was receiving the great ordination, that I was coming home again. 

Brother Troi Duc Pho

Brother Troi Duc Pho: I was trying to be very concentrated and I was very determined to maintain my mindfulness throughout the whole ceremony. Many siblings shared with me that we need to be very calm and concentrated during the ceremony. Maybe I put some pressure on myself because I was afraid to miss something. I thought this chance will not come again in my life and I want to be fully there. That was really wonderful, but I was also kind of inside myself. When we were asked to leave the hall during the sanghakarman procedureThe sanghakarman procedure is a formal way for the Sangha to make a decision based on consensus, I realized I was very concentrated, but had not yet fully opened myself up to the brothers and sisters in the hall. So, when we re-entered the hall I had the feeling that everything was ready, they’ve done sanghakarman for us to ordain and they’re fully accepting us. Everything was ready to receive the precepts, I felt very touched and felt a lot of love. That feeling was the strongest when I received the first precept, in the moment of touching the earth. It’s quite hard to describe. I could really lay myself on the ground and open myself completely to receive it and it was also the biggest change from my life before. So that moment was very strong.

How was ordaining as a bhikshu/ni for you different from ordaining as a novice monk/nun?

Sister Trang Tinh Mac: I wanted to become a nun in Indonesia. But actually, there are not so many bhikshunis over there, which is why I needed to find another community. The first time I came to Plum Village, I felt that I really arrived. I really felt at home. In other traditions, you go through Buddhist studies and need to pass many degrees to become a bhikshuni. But in Plum Village, it is more about applying the practice in daily life.

 I really prepared myself for the [last] great ordination. I was really clear about myself and my aspiration. I felt very hurt when I was rejected because it was not the first time in my life that I was rejected. So I asked  myself, do you really want to stay or not? If you stay, just stay, don’t think about being rejected or not. Even if everyone rejects you, can you accept yourself? The answer was “yes”. I still had hope for myself. My parents really supported me. As long as I am a nun, my parents are very happy already. They said, as long as you’re a nun, we know you are safe and that you don’t make trouble outside, we are happy. For them, as long as I’m happy, they’re happy for me.

Sr Trang Tinh Mac (right) received the great precepts at the same time as with her blood sister Sr Trang Giac Minh (left). A very special occasion!

Sister Trang Giac An: We have many more precepts. But I wasn’t really sure how it would change my daily life. I know from my parents’ perspective, they are happy for me that I’m a nun. It’s a milestone in a monastic’s life. For me, becoming a bhikshuni was a new insight that I wanted to stay on the monastic path. It felt like the right time for it. The emphasis is on  receiving the precepts’ body, which I realized I had no idea what that meant, and I’m still exploring that. Sister Chan Duc told us in the preparatory class that we have to empty ourselves of all ideas, to properly receive the precepts’ body. It’s what I really tried to do in the ceremony. It’s like receiving something I need to get to know. 

Sr Trang Giac an

I am not sure what it is. But I had the idea that in becoming a bhikshuni, I would somehow be more grown-up; I would not be a baby nun anymore, I would be kind of more like an adult. And yesterday, an incident happened, and it made me feel like a little child again and I realized that maybe that’s not quite it. So I was in a kind of skin that was not comfortable and I had this idea that I could be more mature. Then we were practicing touching of the Earth yesterday, and I also have Catholic roots, and suddenly I had this thought, you’re not more independent now, you are more a servant of God. I like this idea. You mature into doing the will of God rather than having your independent will and spirit. And that really resonated with me, I felt that was something I could understand.

When we become a bhikshu/ni, we take part in the meetings and decision-making of the community. Do you have some deep wishes for the Plum Village community or is there some direction that you would like the Sangha to go and do?

Brother Troi Thien Duc: Within the last year or so, I’ve felt this really alive in me that whereas before I was maybe outside of the community, expecting something from the community, I now feel much more like a branch of a tree. I could give maybe a little bit for the tree’s health or if the tree is aching in another spot, then I also feel the pain in a way. My journey is to make things really concrete for myself. This is the vision I have because I see the need in many Western people, especially in my home country of Germany, where you really need concrete instructions. So, one wish is for me to understand the essence of Thay’s teachings deeply and bring it together with this need to make things as concrete as possible. My feeling tells me it will help more people engage in the practice and engage in exploring their own mind. 

I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 16 and had quite a special journey. I had to adapt the practice to my needs and to my mind, because it’s a condition where people don’t necessarily see it. If you are missing an arm, nobody asks you to lift the box. But if it’s in the mind, people just expect things from you and you might not be able to carry out their expectations. So, in the future to really figure out how to adapt the practice to that and then to help people with ADHD. There is often a lot of hurt and misunderstanding around ADHD. I felt misunderstood often as a child, and my parents didn’t know how to deal with me.  There is so much suffering that can be alleviated by having a constructive path to go on. So one dream I have is to have a retreat for ADHD people and children especially. In order to do this, I know I need to practice really well to really understand Thay’s way. 

Br Troi Thien Duc (leftmost monastic) with his parents after the ceremony

Sister Trang Tinh Mac: In my experience, it is difficult to ordain in Indonesia. But actually, many Indonesians want to ordain as a monastic. After I received the bhiksuni precepts, I realized that it’s not easy to make this great ceremony happen because we need many [senior] bhiksunis for the ceremony to be possible. That’s why I have the aspiration that one day we can have a center in Indonesia, and we can have Plum Village monastics. In our centers we have so many senior monks and nuns who will be able to transmit the precept to many people to help them. 

My aspiration is to stay long as a monastic so I can also help to transmit the precepts. My deep aspiration is that I will always stay on this path. I really see that the Buddha’s teachings lasted until today because of the precepts and because we still have the monastic Sangha that learns and practices these precepts. I know I have many weaknesses but I just tell myself, OK, you can do it as long as you protect yourself with all the precepts. 

Interviewees (from bottom left) Sisters Trang Mai Phuong, Trang Tinh Mac, Trang Giac An and
(from upper left) Brothers Troi Thein Duc and Troi Duc Pho

We jump from 10 novice precepts to 250/348 precepts. What is your relationship to the precepts? Do you feel the precepts help you to practice more diligently?

Brother Troi Duc Pho: When I first saw the traditional precepts, I found them quite intimidating. When I came to Plum Village and saw the revised precepts for the first time, I was very happy about the spirit of the revision and also quite inspired because it is how to practice mindfulness in many different situations in our lives. But it still seemed like a lot and quite intimidating. I see I react to them differently now because so many of the mindful manners and precepts are already there as novices. I also have more experience in practicing in that way and more understanding about why it is like that. I feel relieved to recognize that when I now read the precepts this actually feels like something I can do.

I did not  put pressure on myself to know and understand them perfectly before the transmission ceremony because I know I will continue to study them my whole life. It’s really a good moment to look at myself. What actually will my practice gain if I would apply it more for myself? There are some things that are a personal habit, but others that are collective habits in the sangha. Sometimes it looks like it’s not so important, but to really look at it like how would my life change if I actually start trying to apply this now? My main relationship to the precepts is it helps to train my mind and reminds me to recognize my habits, inform my practice and to grow compassion. 

Sister Trang Mai Phuong

Sister Trang Mai Phuong: I don’t feel that there are too many precepts. At first, I felt a little bit of discrimination between brothers and sisters but my precepts teacher helped us to see that it’s not about discrimination, and why the nuns received a lot more precepts than the brothers. I am grateful to her explanations helped with my feeling of discrimination. When I touched the Earth, I saw why I had that feeling. In my family, there was discrimination between men and women. I grew up with it, and I had a lot of suffering. Before receiving the precepts, I could touch a part of that suffering and see that now practicing as a bhiksuni, I would be free. I don’t need to think about being a man or woman. If I can be free, I can continue my parents and ancestors in the most beautiful way that I can. I don’t need to be a son and to have an altar and offer incense and do things to remember my ancestors. As a bhiksuni, I can do that every day through my breath and in every moment that I remember to come back to myself. This is really healing for me. 

Also, during the touching of the Earth, I also reminded myself that Thay is not here and cannot teach and remind me directly, so I received the precepts like a teacher. They can really remind me how to practice every day. 

How does your blood family feel about your full ordination? 

Brother Troi Thien Duc: I’m fortunate that my parents are supporting me, and I feel excited because they have this quality of open-mindedness because it wasn’t like that at the beginning. My mom was really scared and she didn’t know what I was doing and I don’t come from a Buddhist background. But being open minded, they said, OK, we will come and check it out. We will come and visit you. 

Then I didn’t have to say much to them because they are here and they can feel it. They’re with the brothers and sisters, and they come to the activities to see what we do. They see that it’s a beautiful thing that moves something within me. They realize, “Ah this is why”. Now they support me a lot. When they were asked after the ordination, “How do you feel about this?” My mom said, “I feel very good.” I should never take for granted my parents supporting me the way they do. It really gives me a lot of strength. They enjoy being here and the community takes care of them. If I know they have a connection with the community, then I feel very light and it’s not a big responsibility for me.

Sister Trang Giac An:  I had both my parents in Singapore, my brother in Japan, a few of my cousins, and my Honolulu Sangha in Hawaii on Zoom. I think the sincerity, the concentration and the discipline really came through the screen. Even though it was on Zoom, it was very powerful for them. My mom is Catholic, but she got the spirit of the whole ceremony. My dad is very skeptical but was also very impressed with the discipline and the concentration. It moved them a lot to see this kind of commitment being made in such a big Sangha and that so many people are making the same commitment. 

It was very surprising as I also have friends that are not spiritual at all and they were all deeply touched by the ceremony. I think in many ways it actually brought them closer to me. They now  understand better why I choose to live this way and I also feel their support. It’s not really me as an individual ordaining. It is because of the support of everyone that I can be here. I have my whole tribe behind me that allows me to do it. So, I was very grateful to have this online and it reached a lot of people that really mattered in my life.

Fourteen new ordained bhikshus and thirteen bhikshunis of the Go to the Other Shore Great Ordination with the elders of Plum Village

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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