Dear Friends, in celebration of our teacher’s return to Tu Hieu Temple, Vietnam, where he practiced as a novice monk, we would like to offer you a series of stories Thay has told of his time there. This is the sixth in that series, excerpted from “At Home in the World: Stories and Essential Teachings from a Monk’s Life
My Master’s Robe
— by Thich Nhat Hanh
My monastic ordination at Tu Hieu temple was scheduled for four o’clock in the morning. The night before, after chanting practice, I saw my teacher sitting in his room on a cushion beside the light of a flickering candle; there was a stack of old scriptures piled high on a table next to him. He was carefully mending a tear in an old brown robe. Despite his old age, he still had clear vision and a straight posture. Brother Man and I stopped at the entrance and watched. As he slowly pulled the needle through the cloth, my teacher looked like a bodhisattva in deep meditation.
After a moment we entered the room and my teacher looked up. Seeing us, he nodded and then lowered his head to continue sewing a half-sewn stitch. Brother Tam Man spoke: “Respected teacher, please go and rest, it is already very late.”
My teacher did not look up. “Let me finish sewing this robe so that Quan can wear it tomorrow morning.”
Then I understood why my teacher had been sorting through his pile of old robes all afternoon; he was looking for the least worn robe to fix and make presentable for me. Tomorrow for the first time I would wear a brown robe. During the past three years as aspirant we were only allowed to wear the gray robe. Once ordained as a novice, I would be allowed to put on the precious robe that the sutras call the robe of liberation, the uniform of freedom.
In a wavering voice I said, “Respected teacher, let us ask Auntie Tu to finish the sewing.”
“No, I want to sew it for you with my own hands,” he replied softly.
There was silence.
With our arms folded in an obedient manner, we stood to one side not daring to say another word. A little
later, without raising his eyes from the needle, my teacher spoke.
“Have you heard the story in the sutra about a great disciple during the time of the Buddha who attained enlightenment just from sewing robes?
“Let me tell it to you,” he continued. “This disciple often found joy and peace in mending torn robes; he mended his own and also those of his Dharma brothers. Each time he passed the needle through the fabric, he gave rise to a wholesome goodness that had the power to liberate. One day, when the needle was passing through the fabric, he gained insight about a most deep and wonderful teaching, and in six consecutive stitches he attained the six miraculous powers.”
I turned my head and looked at my teacher with deep affection and respect. My teacher might not have attained the six miraculous powers, but he had reached a profound stage of understanding and insight.
At last the robe was mended. My teacher signaled for me to come closer. He asked me to try it on. The robe was a little too large for me, but that did not prevent me from feeling so happy that I was moved to tears. I had received the most sacred kind of love—a pure love that was gentle and spacious, which nourished and infused my aspiration through my many years of training and practice.
My teacher handed me the robe. I received it knowing it was tremendous encouragement and that it was given with a tender and discreet love. My teacher’s voice at that moment was probably the gentlest and sweetest I had ever heard:
“I mended this myself so that tomorrow you will have it to wear, my child.”
It was so simple. But I was deeply moved when I heard these words. Although it wasn’t yet time for the ordination ceremony and I was not yet kneeling before the Buddha, uttering the great vow to save all beings, my heart made the vast and deep vow with all sincerity to live a life of service. Brother Tam Man looked at me with wholehearted affection and respect. In that moment the universe for us was truly a universe of fragrant flowers.
Since that day, I have had many new robes. The new brown robes are given attention for some time but later on they are forgotten. But the old torn brown robe from my past will always remain holy. Today, the robe is too torn to be worn, but I still hold on to it so that in moments of reflection I can look back on the beautiful memories of the past.
Memories from the Root Temple: