Brother Ngo Khong (Brother Freedom) of Deer Park Monastery tells the story of how he met Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) and found his way to becoming a monk in the Plum Village tradition.
The Inner Voice
Monastic life is a miraculous path for me. It brings me close to myself and makes me trust myself. I had to go through a lot of suffering before becoming a monk, because I tended not to trust my inner voice. Once when I was twenty, I wanted to become a spiritual healer. I had a meditation teacher I went to with my Mom once a week. We practiced sitting meditation, but it was different from the style at Deer Park. Rather than following the breath, it was more imagination and visual journeys. I knew I wanted to work with healing energies and understand the mind, but my teacher and my mom told me that I had to finish school, then university, and only after that could I choose what I wanted to do. I did all of that, and after finishing medical school, that inner voice was not there anymore. I was busy doing other things.
The next time I heard this voice again was when I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. I’d already had a few relationships, and I doubted that I’d be able to live in a relationship. I had to take care of myself and find this soul partner I was looking for within me. I decided to become a Christian monk and went to Croatia, my ancestral country, to become a Franciscan. Many of my ancestors were Franciscan monks and priests. There I went to the monastery to live like the lay friends who live with us when they want to ordain. I found out that the Franciscan vocation didn’t suit me. It just didn’t fit my personality. I like profound teachings, but it just wasn’t a match, so I left.
Around the same time, I fell in love with my wife-to-be. I lost interest in monastic life, and I gained interest in her instead. We got into a relationship, we married, and my inner voice was silenced again. Then, after six challenging years, my wife and I decided that we wanted to look for happiness separately. We didn’t have children. It was a peaceful and amicable divorce. It was like a peace treaty, wishing everyone the best. We don’t really talk, but our families are still in touch, and I ask how she is when I call my parents, and she asks how I am. That’s good enough. She lives in Croatia, which is a small country, and everybody knows everyone. It is very important to me that there is harmony, and no guilt or blame.
When we divorced, I said, “You know, when we break up, I want to continue the path that I once intended to. I will become a monk.” We were living in Croatia at that time, and I moved back to Germany because it was right after the civil war in Croatia, and there wasn’t much work available. I got work as a chauffeur. I rejoined the rat race and my aspiration was gone again, my inner voice silent once more. I got into a few relationships again, and they were as unsuccessful as before, so I didn’t learn anything. My habit energies were just too strong. I was expecting so much from my soul mate that it just didn’t seem to work out.
One of these relationships ended, and it really broke my heart deeply, because I hoped so much that this time, I really got it and we are really the perfect match. I was so heartbroken that I couldn’t go to work, and the doctor told me to stay at home for two weeks. I had a lot of time to think about myself and to think about why is this always happening to me? I told myself, I’m so ignorant. I’m running after happiness and hitting a wall. I fall down, lose consciousness, then wake up and run back and hit the wall, over and over. It was painful to realize that this was what I was doing my whole life.
Each time my inner voice would ask me, “Are you happy?” Yes, I am happy: I have a good life, I have a good job, I have my family, I have my friends… I’m a happy person. My inner voice was not really convinced, pressing further, “Are you fulfilled? Is that all you want from me?” And I realized, I’m happy but I’m not fulfilled. It’s not that I need a partner or something else to be fulfilled. Then my inner voice asked me, “Do you want to be fulfilled?” Of course. This is what I’m living for. I really want to be whole and fulfilled; this is what I was searching for, and this is why I’m suffering. Real inner fulfillment is what I was always looking for. On the bright side, I knew that I was willing to suffer for this wholeness, because I had suffered for much less.
Then this realization dawned on me, “Well, if you want to be fulfilled, then you have to stop doing what you’re doing, because what you’re doing always brings you to the wall.” I said, “Yes, if I am honest with myself, I must change something. I must change everything!” It was a difficult time; I was heartbroken and devastated. I didn’t believe in myself. I thought, I’m just hurting the people I love most instead of loving them. I’m not able to be happy with someone or to live long with someone and keep that love nourished because I cannot feel love or be fulfilled in myself.
And then, Thay met me. Thay met me while I was walking—lost in my thoughts, passing by a bookshop. I looked into the window of that bookshop, and Thay’s eyes were looking into me. We locked eyes in that very moment. I didn’t know who he was, just a face on a book cover, but he looked right into me. The title of the book was, ‘Times of Awareness’. My inner voice whispered, “This is what you need right now!” I had this sudden moment of clarity in the midst of so much fog and clouds in my head. I went into the bookshop and said to the cashier, “I want to buy this book.” She said, “Well, the one in the window is the last copy we have.” I said, “Great. This is the one that was looking at me.” I bought that very book with Thay on its cover. I went home right away and started reading. I was spellbound.
It felt as if I was looking into a deep mirror. I could see my ancestors, I could see the suffering they transmitted through each generation, to my grandparents, to my parents, and to me. Besides their good qualities, I could also see the wall, and I could see why I kept running into it.
I could see my partners. I felt pain as I recalled the situations when I caused so much suffering to the people whom I loved with things I said or did out of ignorance, out of pride, or out of my own suffering. Everything became so clear. I finished reading the book a few hours later, and I was so excited that I just went back to the start and reread it the same day. That was also the day I started practicing. I had practiced meditation before but having these gathas (practice poems) was a blessing, a gift!
I started washing my dishes right away—and living as a bachelor, I had a lot of dishes! I had the best dishwashing practice day. I practiced walking meditation in my apartment. I was so happy! All these little gathas helped me become alive in the present moment—in these times of suffering and pain and loss and questioning myself —there were all the answers. They were right here, because I was right here.
Meeting Plum Village
After a couple of months and reading many more books, I went to Plum Village for a retreat. The seed of monastic life was watered again. I wanted to live simply knowing that having less can often be more. I wanted to live meaningfully, with intention and with freedom. I wanted to live together with others, in a community. These were my three aspirations. In Plum Village, I saw all of that. I saw a young, practicing community, playful and joyful. I saw a profound teacher, old and wise— the person from the book cover, who had asked me to stop and look deeply. Seeing all this, I fell in love with Plum Village. My monastic seeds had been watered again, and I wanted to be a part of this community.
Later in 2008, the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany opened. I went there for retreats and asked how to become a monastic. I was thirty-eight at the time. Then there was a chance for lights off again, silencing the inner voice. I got a promotion in my job. I got more money and more responsibility. Not long after, my inner voice would ask me again if I was fulfilled, and the resounding answering was, “No!” I felt torn once more. I struggled a couple of months on my own, then I asked my sister for advice. She told me to listen to my heart, and if ordaining was what my heart wanted then I shouldn’t doubt. She had a lot of trust in me, more than I had in myself at that time. I didn’t want to ask my parents’ opinion about this, and about quitting my job, because what I thought they wanted for me was safety and security, and I was afraid that they would talk me out of it.
The First Steps of Freedom
When I told my boss, he was understanding and supportive, letting me go the very next day and paying me for another three months without having to show up for work, so that I could prepare for this life changing endeavor. When I finally told my parents, they smiled with a lot of love. They supported me too, knowing that what I was looking for was only found by listening to the heart. I did it! I had broken free! I had ignored my inner voice for too long. The first time it was because I didn’t have a degree yet; the second time I preferred marriage over monastic life; the third time wealth and safety nearly prevented me from listening to my heart. I was so glad and relieved to have made this decision.
Sometimes it would scare me imagining that my inner voice would stop speaking to me, because I had never listened to it, and it would simply give up on me. But here I was, whole, inspired, excited! I started selling most of my belongings on flea markets, cancelling contracts, getting out of the system, and encountered more difficult moments and obstacles. I had to get out of paying healthcare insurance, which is mandatory in Germany, and of the employment register, etc. Only with great determination, escalating complaints and lots of patience was I able to detach from the system.
Then there were internal struggles too. When I came back from the flea markets, I had pockets full of money because I had sold my digital, 300ft long slot car racing track, including expensively pimped slot cars. I played ice hockey, so I sold that gear. I had a collection of soccer jerseys with original autographs of famous players. There were tons of books, CDs, more than 200 PlayStation games, electric guitars, and a lot of clothes, colognes and watches. All these things couldn’t make me happy anymore, and I knew that.
Yet, I came home one night after pawning off all my possessions, and my apartment was empty. My steps were echoing in my apartment. With all the carpets and curtains gone, I just broke down. All that I had identified myself with, what I believed to be me, was gone! There was nothing but a huge emptiness within and around me. I said to myself, “Are you serious? There’s nothing left. You are basically nothing. You sold everything that you are. You don’t have anything. Are you—are you crazy? Everybody’s warning you, saying don’t do it, keep the security in your life…”
I was devastated, utterly lost. How could I deliberately do this to myself, running my own bankruptcy? I sat in self-doubt for two or three days. I was not sure anymore if I had made the right decision. I cried a lot. I had not only sold everything I had, but everything I felt I was. I wasn’t even sure if the Plum Village community would allow me to stay, or if I would like to stay after spending some time there. All I could do was to be with my pain and breathe. I practiced walking and sitting meditation in my apartment. I started appreciating myself. I practiced deep relaxation, joyful dishwashing and taking care of myself.
After a couple of days, I felt better. I remembered why I was doing this, and I knew it was worth trying. I trusted my inner voice, my heart, my soul, and I was determined to keep that connection alive, to be a whole human being. I didn’t want to feel regret one day for not having listened to my heart.
I often share my story with my younger monastic brothers, who feel that they are missing out on something in life by being a monk—like being in a relationship, having a well-paid job and having the freedom to do whatever comes to their mind. In lay life, I thought freedom was about having more and doing more; but the things that I had did not fulfil me, and the things that I did brought suffering to me and to others.
Today, I know that freedom comes from within; that freedom loves simplicity, good intentions, and many people around it. Freedom comes from the art of cultivating what is wholesome, and no longer nourishing what is unwholesome. This is the daily, joyful practice of our community.
Living at Deer Park today, I can say that ordaining has been the best decision I have made in my life. I see that our Sangha still holds dear all those values which I saw on my first retreat in Plum Village. There’s simplicity, there’s playfulness, there’s joy, and there’s depth and wisdom. There is, and will always be, a wise and gentle Thay guiding us towards ourselves. We are a diverse community, in age, culture and personalities, and we are practicing together in harmony. This is so beautiful, and I am deeply grateful to be a part of it. Finally, I have found my perfect soul partner, the Sangha!