Meeting My Master – an Interview with Sr Giac Nghiem

Sister Giac Nghiêm, is a much loved elder sister in Plum Village. Sister Giac Nghiêm is a French nun, she took her monastic vows at the age of 56 after having been married and working as a physiotherapist. In 1999, she joined the community of Plum Village as a monastic. She is currently the abbess of Maison de l’Inspir, a small monastic establishment of the Plum Village tradition, located near Paris at Villeneuve sur Bellot.

The following is a translation of an extract of an interview conducted in French and published in the magazine “Sources” n°50- December 2020. The interview was conducted by Nathalie Calmé.

Sr Giac Nghiem (center), enjoying the company of her young sisters

How did the presence of Thich Nhat Hanh come into your life?

In 1985, I was going through a period of deep spiritual questioning. I was close to Jesus in my heart, but I needed a living master to guide me in life. So I started looking for a spiritual master. One day, a friend of mine, an acupuncturist, was going to receive Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh) at his home. Thay was coming to give his first teaching in French in Lyon. My friend invited me to come and meet him and gave me the opportunity to read Thay’s book: Marcher sur terre est un miracle (The Miracle is to Walk on Earth)…. After listening to Thay’s teachings for two days, and living in mindfulness, I knew that he was the master I was waiting for. He embodied all that I knew to be wonderful in Saint Francis of Assisi….. I was forty three years old. It was the beginning of a great spiritual adventure that has transformed my life.

How did meeting Thich Nhat Hanh change your life?

The biggest change was the embodiment of spirituality in myself. Thay taught me to breathe, walk, sit, eat, drink……in mindfulness…. At that time I was working in a hospital, in the geriatric ward. On a daily basis I lived with people who were suffering…..I then asked Thay: “I want to find a way out of fear. I live with people who are afraid. And I know that deep inside me, there are fears I want to get rid of.” ……..

When did you decide to take your monastic vows?

Sr Giac Nghiem as a novice

As a little girl I dreamed of being a nun. Inside me, two people lived happily together. The one who aspired to a religious life and the one who wanted to live in the world. When I was nine years old, after hearing the singing of the Poor Clare sisters in a convent, I said to my mother: “I would like to live like them and dance for God”. But she discouraged me.

One day my ex-husband chose to go and live with another woman……. I was very sad and I thought of only one thing: to go to Thay to heal myself. My religious aspiration, which I still held tenderly, this longing for God, longing to experience love as beauty and charity, caught up with me. It was not out of distress that I made this choice, but because I was finally able to say “yes” to this part of me. That was in 1997……..

How did Thay transmit his teaching? What kind of Zen master is he?

Thay is a great master, but above all, a “spiritual friend”. He is a monk of extreme kindness and gentleness, of immense spiritual presence and power…..His heart and spirit are filled with caring attention towards his disciples. He was able to perceive what we needed spiritually. He nourished us, and continues to do so……. Twice a week Thay would give teachings to our sangha, and it was through these group teachings that he would provide the answers to our personal questions raised during an individual sharing or a letter…….. His wisdom was also transmitted to us by his simple presence at a meal that we shared in silence. When it rained, we would sit in his veranda and drink tea while listening to the rain fall. We didn’t need to share much……

Our teacher Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh, left) visiting Maison de l’inspir in September 2012

Can you tell us an anecdote illustrating a lesson of wisdom you received from Thich Nhat Hanh?

One day I was looking after the small altar in his dining room. I had undertaken to remove some of the candle glued to the candleholder holder. At that time I was a young novice……I started to apply some force to remove the candle stains. Twice Thay walked by me to get my attention, but I was too interested in what I was doing. The third time he said, “You can drop everything, Sister Giac Nghiêm, I will soak the candleholder in hot water and in a few seconds it will be cleaned! With these words he was setting me back in the right direction. He was telling me: “Let go. Until now you have used a certain amount of force to get what you want in life, but it can be done differently…..”

Thich Nhat Hanh has not been living in France for a few years now. After his stroke, he chose to reside in a temple in Vietnam where he lived as a novice. How do you relate to your master now?

Thay is there all the time because he taught me everything……… In 2014, shortly before his stroke, we went with the sisters of the Maison de l’Inspir to greet him in his hermitage. He greeted us, offered us tea and looked at us one after the other with great intensity, then he said: “You are my legacy”. Thay didn’t say, “You are my heirs”, but “my legacy”. He said, “I have transmitted myself to each of you. You are what I leave on this earth.” We are all bearers of Thay. Thay is within us in his teachings which traverses all our sufferings, transforming them in a marvelous way into something lighter, beautiful and complete. Our metamorphosis is the work of the Dharma, transmitted to us by Thay who is within us, and the work continues………

Enjoying the view along the River Marne (September, 2012)

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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