Thay Phap Huu was born in Vietnam. He moved to Canada with his family when he was three years old. Ordained in 2002 aged 14, he became vice abbot of Plum Village’s Upper Hamlet in 2008 and abbot in 2011. Throughout much of his monastic life he has served as Thay’s attendant whenever Thay travels. I spoke with Br. Phap Huu after he returned from SXSW film festival where he helped launch the world premiere of a new documentary about the Plum Village community, Walk With Me.
What is Walk With Me about?
The film is an invitation for people to experience what mindfulness is. It follows the seasons of the Plum Village community and portrays monks and nuns who devote their whole lives to the art of mindful living. The directors have shot the film in a way that while you’re watching it you connect with something inside of you, this peace, this calm. The atmosphere of the movie theatre is transformed into that of a meditation hall.
Why does Plum Village take part in these projects?
We know that not everybody has the intention to go to a retreat or a monastery to practise. Walk With Me can reach mainstream areas of society where most monastics and Dharma Teachers would not be able to go. It’s like planting seeds where we normally wouldn’t have that opportunity. I have a feeling its impact will go very far.
How do you feel about how you’re portrayed in Walk With Me? I believe in one scene the filmmakers provide some light relief by showing you yawning or looking a bit bored and distracted during a sitting meditation?
It was my first time watching Walk With Me at SXSW so I felt a bit nervous before but after watching it I’m happy with how I’m portrayed. I’m happy that they capture me at those moments because that is me. It’s as real as you can get, man! We’re monks, we’re humans, we’re gonna have those moments as we practice, we’re going to have those feelings. It’s not like we’re super human meditating all day. I always want people to know and see monastics as humans too, so that they can support us and also understand our journey.
That was me 5 or 6 years ago. I think the me now is different. But it was through those experiences that I am who I am today.
What’s it like to see you and Thay on tour again?
Watching the film brought up a lot of wonderful memories. I experienced a lot of gratitude. Firstly for my own journey with Thay and secondly that the filmmakers were able to capture on film that beautiful past that has helped contribute to this present moment of where the community is now. Our community has a very big role model in our teacher Thay. It’s important for the future generations to know who he is and where Plum Village teaching came from.
In the past you always attended Thay when he travelled so the SXSW festival was your first time out leading events as a Dharma Teacher. What was that like?
When I went to SXSW there was an acceptance in me that this is a new chapter in my monastic life. That’s important because it means there’s an acceptance inside of me, wanting to go forward, wanting to be a real continuation of Thay. I felt I grew up, that I matured. The success of the events gave me a lot of confidence. It helped to know that I actually have something to offer, that I can continue Thay and that was important to me.
It’s always scary to lead events when it’s not a practice environment. Leading a retreat in a monastery or practice centre is one thing, but it’s something different to lead events at a film festival where many people don’t have any idea who we are or what we’re doing. I ask myself how I can present the practice in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re imposing our religious views or offering something exotic or foreign.
You say it’s scary. I’m wondering what the fear is?
I think the fear comes from doubting if I am good enough to represent the community. I’ve seen many times the impact that Thay has on people when he shares, how much hope and aspiration he gave them. So I’m like, oh man, can I do that? Am I capable of presenting and expressing like that?
The fear comes from my own perception of who I am. You have to walk the talk, right? So maybe sometimes I feel I’m not walking my talk – I’m in a position where I teach the Dharma, even though I know I’m not 100%. But in my experience as a monk, mentor and teacher I see that learning and teaching goes hand in hand. I’m not just teaching the people in front of me or the monastics in my class, I’m sharing for myself also.
So how did you deal with your fear during the events?
I remember arriving with six other monastic brothers and sisters before leading the walking meditation in the festival hall. We had time to sit there together and I felt their presence, their support. Inside all of us we knew that we were there to support each other. Out of that understanding and aspiration we came together at every event and we did it not as a separate self but as a community. I really felt that when I led I’m doing this as one of the members of the community. I am representing them, they’re representing me, and I’m representing the community. When I had that feeling and understanding a lot of fear and anxiety disappeared.
I invited my teacher, the Thay inside of me, to help me. I remember saying “Dear Thay, I’m here on behalf of you and the community. Please support me”. I really didn’t feel that I am doing this by myself – I am a continuation.
How do you see yourself continuing Thay and realising his vision?
Thay’s an incredible man, a visionary. What he has done, his legacy. I don’t think any one person can continue him. Thay always has confidence in his sangha. One way I continue him is by having that same confidence in the community and the direction it is going. Plum Village is a spiritual refuge for me, for my monastic siblings and for everyone in the world.
It is also a community where you can connect with humans and touch your real aspiration. The Dharma has to be a living Dharma; the community has to be a living community; so you have to be a living practitioner. Thay is a living practitioner because he never gives up on the practice and his aspiration. It is because Thay is a living practitioner that we are able to connect with his aspiration and we make it our own. I feel that to continue Thay means to continue yourself in your aspiration, because your aspiration is connected to Thay’s aspiration. Whenever I make one mindful step and take one mindful breath; when I offer my mindful presence, I know that I am continuing Thay.
Why is it so meaningful for you to help build this refuge for yourself and others? How does it connect with your aspiration?
It’s meaningful for me because that’s what got me into the community. When I first met the sangha in 1996 I think the monastics had a bigger impact on me than Thay. I saw how fresh and happy and human they were. I saw how much energy they gave to people and to myself. I felt so happy around them. Although I ordained as a very happy kid, I never really had that connection outside of Plum Village, that positive energy. Right away I felt I can take refuge in this place. It was a gut feeling. It wasn’t the words they spoke – it was their presence, their way of being that attracted me. It touched something really deep inside of me, something I continue to experience since ordaining and seeing the growth of the community. Every year more people come to Plum Village. I think they also come because of that energy, that love, that understanding. The collective energy of mindfulness that we produce here touches people, and I know that’s not something you can buy in a supermarket. It’s important for me to see that – I know my practice is not just for me but also for my loved ones, my monastics brothers and sisters, and for all the people who come. As a member of a community I hope that everyone can see their part in the community.
OK so what’s the link between walking meditation, our aspiration and a phrase like Walk With Me?
Walking meditation is one of the key Plum Village practices. No matter where you go you have to walk. Every step you make bears your seal. As you kiss the earth with your feet you’re giving back. If you’re walking in a hurry, with anger, frustration, you’re producing that energy and that’s what you’re offering to the Earth and the people around you. If you can make peaceful, happy steps, that has a different impact. It doesn’t have any Buddhist or religious flavour – if you’re walking mindfully and peacefully, you’re just being a good human. That was what Thay was able to offer. When I attended him I saw he took refuge in his steps. Through moments of difficulty, whenever he felt overwhelmed or needed space, he always came back to mindful walking. He did it daily, either with the community or by himself. Don’t think that walking meditation is just for beginners. Even for Thay who has practised his whole life and as a master of meditation, you have to do it daily to maintain your spiritual life and that mindfulness energy inside of you.
We all have aspiration, it’s like a goal. You can dream about it or you can do it. Walking meditation is doing it. You have a will, but will alone doesn’t lead to the destination. The will leads to the action so that you can arrive at the destination. Walking meditation plays that part when it comes to nourishing your aspiration and your spiritual dimension.
Walk with me is a very clear invitation to walk this spiritual path together. Here in Plum Village there’s a lot of emphasis on community. We are cultivating peace and happiness inside ourselves but we don’t do it as a separate self. As part of a community we know that we’re not walking alone. The collective energy of the sangha can make a big impact on an individual. Our teacher knows this and that’s why he never went on tour as an individual – we go as a community. The teaching becomes so much more powerful. You don’t just hear it – you feel it and you see it.
Two weeks ago, Br. Phap Huu offered his first Dharma talk ever. You can watch it here.