A conversation with the “Mimosa” family of novices on their aspirations to become a monastic, and the joys and pains of life in a monastery.
How do I love myself and truly connect heart to heart with others?
When I turn 80, can I look back and say I’ve lived deeply?
What is the purpose of my life?
Where do I belong?
These universal questions led a group of young people to the spiritual path, where they are choosing to live as monastics in a multicultural Buddhist community.
On the 25th of January 2022 in France and 27th of January in Vietnam, just days after our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh’s (“Thay”) passing, the Sangha ordained these 35 young people as the “Mimosa” family of novice monks and nuns – the last direct disciples of Thay.
We spoke to six of them in France to learn of their journeys, transformations, challenges, and aspirations.
Why Become a Monastic?
Brother Troi Dinh Tuc (Brother “Concentrated Contentment”), a former naval officer from Italy knew he wanted to be a monk 11 years ago.
“I didn’t know what to do with my life. I studied, tried my best, went travelling, and tried to learn what happiness was. The usual ways to happiness turned out to cause a lot of suffering, and it was the same wherever I travelled in the world.
My mind felt like a strong car that I could not control. When I came across the spiritual practice taught by the Buddha, it made sense – Learn to master your mind. Slow down and bit-by-bit learn to love and live in harmony with life. Learn to master your mind. It seemed very natural to me that after middle school and university came monastic training (laughter).
Learn to master your mind. Slow down and bit-by-bit learn to love and live in harmony with life.
I shared this very seriously with my parents who come from three generations of military engineers! They have a lot of trust and love for me and could see how the practice affected my life. I felt respected. Of course they had doubts, especially for the status that I left behind, out of nothing for them! But they are touching the value in this way of life, with the awareness of death, awareness that time is not limitless, and that cultivating virtues is something meaningful.”
Sister Trang Lam Hy (Sister “Forest of Joy”) from Germany had worked as an adult educator and then a community gardener. She came to the Lower Hamlet in 2016 and started the Happy Farm there with a group of sisters and friends.
“I lived a very full and fulfilling life before and I could have continued that way. But when I turn 80 and look back, did I really connect with life? My main aspiration is to touch life deeply, to realize the path and understand myself, my mind. When I reflect on the teachings and see things in myself and have insights about myself, it gives me great energy to continue and to connect with life.
My main aspiration is to touch life deeply, to realize the path and understand myself, my mind.
I reached out to four of my closest friends to hear their honest opinion, like a council, because I did not want to make this decision all by myself. They felt so honored to be included, and I felt empowered by including them, knowing that I am not alone on this path.”
Brother Troi Dinh Tin (Brother “Concentrated Faith”) is a young seeker from Belgium. “Before I came to Plum Village, I was looking for my place in the world. By chance I discovered Plum Village and when I saw the brothers and the people living here, I just felt that I belonged more to these people than anywhere else. It was just a strong sense of belonging even though I did not know anything about Buddhism. So I was not really joking when I said that I wanted to be a monk when I first saw Brother Dao Son (laughter).”
Sr. Trang Tam Duc (Sister “Virtuous Heart”) was born and raised in Hue, the same city in Vietnam where Thay ordained as a novice monk. Yet she never encountered Thay’s teachings until eight years ago.
“That was the very first time I heard a talk by Thay (in Vietnamese) on YouTube. The title was ‘The Purpose of Our Life’. I was really struck by it and asked myself, what is the purpose of my life? Do I want money, power, to have someone always beside me and love me? I read and listened to more of Thay’s teachings and sharings from many monastics on the Plum Village website. I knew then that I wanted to live life as a free person.
As Thay said, only a free person can be a happy person and if I am happy, I can help myself and help others. Two months later I wrote a letter to Thay and the sangha asking to become a nun. Unfortunately I had just received a scholarship to study dentistry in Japan and I could not cancel it. But I kept that great aspiration for eight years. I feel very fortunate to have found a spiritual way.”
Cultivating True Love – the Joys and the Pains
Is it possible to live a happy, fulfilled life without a partner and a physical relationship? Is it worth the challenge?
Br. Troi Dinh Tuc – “I grew up in (Italy), in a culture where there is a lot of familiarity and physical intimacy and it’s easy to explore sex. It was a kind of refuge for me, a safe place where my inner judgements and difficulties could momentarily be at peace.
Living in the monastery, it’s very interesting for me to explore celibacy. It helps me to be more aware of my sexual energy and how it influences my ways of perceiving and interacting with people. In the beginning it was very challenging; I felt a big lack. But I developed curiosity – why is there a strong need? Step-by-step, I started to see how entangled it was, how unaware I was and how difficult it was for me to truly have heart to heart connections. With the clear boundaries of the monastic vow, I can be more honest in dealing with my fears, shames, and inner struggles, which then allows them to come up and flow within my body. I am learning to touch the vulnerable inner child that is looking for attention, for appreciation, for acceptance, and learning to offer that to these vulnerable parts within me. This is a deep process that is helping me to be compassionate toward myself and behaviors that do not fully respect the beauty and holiness of the human body. It is a very precious and transformative journey.”
Sr. Trang Lam Hy – “I had long-term relationships before I knew the practice and there was often the feeling that the other person has the responsibility to make me happy. Becoming a monastic feels like I am taking back my responsibility and at the same time, not taking on too much responsibility for someone else’s happiness. It is a kind of sovereignty – I completely own myself. It feels strong and powerful to have this complete freedom.
It is a kind of sovereignty – I completely own myself.
Living in a community, it helps already that there are moments of being together and sharing about the day, just like living with friends outside without having to be in a relationship. The sense of intimacy is there. I am just starting to make friends in the community and sometimes it feels like I am married to the whole community. I am discovering what it means. It’s so rich. Sometimes I also think, ‘Oh, I don’t know what I signed up for, to never have a romantic relationship again!’ We are all programmed to have a partner and I do not fully know yet what it means to let go of this and to live with a community. It is quite interesting.”
101 Days as a Young Monastic
Brother Troi Dinh Thuong (Brother “Concentrated Steadiness”), a musician from Germany, had a wonderful first night in the monastic residence. “Then on the second night I could not sleep because of the loud snoring and I nearly had a panic attack, thinking I needed to disrobe immediately! The moment I first entered the residence, I asked myself – how does it feel to go through this gate? It felt in harmony. It does not mean 100 percent, but a certain percentage that we need to feel to be in harmony. My ‘inner abbot’ needs to feel that there is harmony in my system. When the answer is ‘yes’, I can continue. If not, I stop everything and take care of what is causing disharmony.
The ceremonial aspect (of monastic life) is something I’m really not used to. It’s something I don’t feel roots for yet. It’s healthy for me to be honest with these aspects of my monastic life, to see where I feel it fits and where it does not. This honesty is very important in my journey. Taking on this robe makes a difference. I see that it stands for stability, for Thay and the community and people really take refuge in it and value it. I feel humbled by that.”
Sr. Trang Lam Hy was a little nervous moving into the monastic residence. “There was almost a fear – can we live comfortably with each other? But then I realized we were just normal people living together. Life here is at the same time so ordinary and so extraordinary. I am still arriving. When I look back in half a year, I will probably feel even more relaxed.”
Life here is at the same time so ordinary and so extraordinary.
Ordaining as Thay’s Last Disciples
When Thay passed away on January 22, many in the sangha asked, “Should we go ahead with the planned novice ordination of January 25?”
“I felt very happy that the sangha decided to keep the novice ordination because it felt a meaningful symbol of continuation, of unfolding”, said Brother Troi Dinh Thanh (Brother “Concentrated Accomplishment”).
“The moment when I heard news of Thay’s passing, my mother and I were admiring the sunset in Upper Hamlet. The morning after, I felt drawn to Thay’s hut to witness the sunrise. The wind chimes were ringing and it was so beautiful, like a message from Thay saying, ‘I am here. I am like the sun, coming and going in freedom. Don’t look for me in a body. See me everywhere, in you, around you, and especially in the sangha.'”
Br. Troi Dinh Tin had been waiting to ordain for a long time and was counting the days. “The moment I heard of Thay’s passing was exactly the moment my family arrived. It was quite a shock. I thought only two things could delay the ordination – Covid or the passing of Thay, and both happened! I settled in my family and then went straight to the ancestral hall and lit up an incense for Thay. I have never met Thay, but somehow I could feel him. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination or a feeling I had inside. I feel a great honor to ordain during this time, and having all the brothers and sisters coming from the other centers [for Thay’s memorial services] made it very powerful.”
Sr. Trang Tam Duc was in Vietnam preparing to travel to France to be an aspirant in the New Hamlet. “Four days before Thay’s passing, I was called in to check his oral health. I told Sr. Dinh Nghiem, Thay’s attendant, that I would be leaving for France soon. Though Thay’s eyes were closed, they were blinking and he was listening to our conversation. Actually his oral health was not so bad. I thought that perhaps he wished to meet me before his passing. Knowing it might be the last time I saw Thay, I was very aware and really valued that moment with him.
Knowing it might be the last time I saw Thay, I was very aware and really valued that moment with him.
I still did not think I had a chance to ordain yet. But the afternoon of Thay’s passing, Sr. Dinh Nghiem called and said, ‘Are you ready to ordain? Pack everything and come immediately to the Root Temple if you are.’ I feel so fortunate to be one of Thay’s youngest disciples.”
Peace Begins Within
Life in a monastery can seem like an escape from the sufferings of the world. How does your life choice contribute to your family, society, and to the world?
Br. Troi Dinh Thuong – “One of the most beautiful things about Plum Village is that I can always say to people, ‘Hey, if you need a place to rest, you can come here.’ I see that people do touch some moment of clarity about their life questions here. Nobody knows what you do or cares what you do. It is a place of refuge where you can rest from all that.
I was in contact with artists who have all the prestige but decided to end their life. It hits me every time – What if that person had known Plum Village and had the chance to come here for three months? I want to contribute to this organism (called Plum Village) to exist a little further into the future as a place of refuge.
Whether what we do is meaningful or not is not about being monastic or not, but how much we want to involve ourselves. Plum Village is a cell of the world body. I feel proud to be here.
I want to contribute to this organism (called Plum Village) to exist a little further into the future as a place of refuge.
Br. Troi Dinh Thanh – “I feel that practicing here in this community is beneficial for me, for society and for the world at large. When I first embarked on the spiritual path, I did ask myself – How am I contributing peace and joy to the world? I didn’t know then. But now it is clear that the best I can do is to be at peace, to be joyful. I wouldn’t feel right if I was doing that alone, but just the fact that we are a community living in harmony is an example for the world. When there is war in the world, people can see that there is a way to live in harmony, even though it is not always easy to live in harmony with very different people coming from very different backgrounds and cultures. Yet, we can understand each other and love each other. That is a concrete example and it is not up in the air. This is definitely a revolutionary act in a world where often, human relationships are not valued.
I live in a monastery, but I am deeply connected to what is happening in society and in the world. I choose my sources of information with care because it is a kind of food that has the power to build our worldview and therefore orient our actions. I cultivate loving thoughts, speech and actions by coming back to the breath and body to be aware when seeds of anger and despair manifest in me. I may not be able to put an end to the current wars but I am actively contributing to prevent future wars by cultivating peace in me and around me.”
Sr. Trang Tam Duc – “I really love my family and even though I am far from them, with the practice, I don’t feel I am really far. I feel that I am bringing my whole family with me. If I am happy, I can send that happiness to my family in Vietnam. Practicing mindfulness in our daily life and generating love and compassion help me and help my family. After my blood sister and I became nuns, my family started to practice together. I am very happy about that! We can start little. If we have peace in ourselves, the people around us can feel that and they can be more at peace by seeing our smiles. I am sure that day by day, we can help more and more people.”
Br. Troi Dinh Tin – “My deepest aspiration is to realize the way shown by the Buddha and to continue Thay in translating the teachings for today’s world. Plum Village is a Buddhist monastery in the 21st Century, so I am here to understand and to walk the path taught by the Buddha. To play a small part in keeping the Dharma alive and to share it with people is a source of great joy. At the center of my monastic life is to realize the path leading to the greatest happiness. It sounds very religious, but it’s very concrete. There are clear instructions and practices to support me. I wish to keep an open mind to see what really contributes to happiness and letting go of attachment and identification. Voila.”
My deepest aspiration is to realize the way shown by the Buddha and to continue Thay in translating the teachings for today’s world.
Find out more
- Read more about becoming a monastic (Brs. Troi Dinh Thuong and Troi Dinh Tuc ordained under the “5 Year Program” while the other “Mimosa” novices ordained for life.)
- Photos from the “Mimosa” ordination ceremony in January 2022
- Interview with the “Chestnut” novices who ordained in November 2020