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 eighth in that series excerpted from “Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-66“
The Pines of Tu Hieu
—by Thich Nhat Hanh, 20th January 1963, New York City
“In Vietnam, it is now springtime. Here it is still freezing cold, and winter will drag on for at least two more months. The pine trees covering the hills around Tu Hieu Pagoda are glistening with needle buds. Pines there always look tall and straight at New Year’s. Many friends must be strolling among those pines, breaking branches to bring home, a New Year’s gift from the Three Jewels. The pines suffer a lot at this time of year. The beautiful temple grounds look bare and ragged after people have gathered armfuls of branches. One year I heard that Xa Loi Temple planted a grove of pines just for people to gather branches, in order to protect the other trees. I don’t know if their plan worked or not. I suspect people considered the cultivated branches less “authentic” and not as capable of emitting “Buddha-spirit” as the other trees. The practice of breaking branches to bring home ceases to be a lovely custom when trees are being damaged.
Dharma talks and ceremonies attended by large crowds at the New Year serve a purpose, but I hope serene temple settings will also be preserved. It is good when a person has the opportunity to enter a small, quiet space in order to have a personal contact with the Buddha. Small, quiet spaces are more conducive for spiritual experiences. In such a space, meeting the Buddha becomes an encounter with your own true self. Nowadays, people build large temples to hold prayer services. Although that is valuable, I also long to preserve individual meetings between teacher and student in which the student enjoys the teacher’s complete attention, the kind of attention that calls forth the student’s mindfulness. The teacher also benefits from a student who is completely present. When the Buddha lifted a flower at Vulture Peak, only Mahakashyapa smiled. Vulture Peak itself and the entire assembly sitting there disappeared, and only two people were truly present, the Buddha and Mahakashyapa. That was a true encounter.
One afternoon while strolling back to my temple, I passed a group of young Buddhists returning from the pine-covered hills of Tu Hieu. Some were on foot, others on bicycle. Each of them carried a pine branch, and I could feel the tree’s pain. I am sure this Têt will be no different. I hope my friends will do their best to protect the pine trees.”
From the series Memories from the Root Temple: