Safe Harbour

In this touching letter, Sister Chân Tuệ Nghiêm shares about her first visits to Plum Village, how she decided to become a nun, walking the monastic path, and putting the practice into action when her mother died.

My dear younger siblings,

The day I came to Plum Village thirty years ago, you had just turned one. You cannot imagine what Plum Village was like, or what I was like as a twenty-two-year-old young woman, can you? You would ask, Why did you come to Plum Village when there were so few people here and the living conditions so simple? What made you choose Plum Village as a safe harbor in which to live the life of a monastic? Thirty years is a long time, but it also passes by swiftly.

I came to Plum Village during the Summer Retreat of 1992. Plum Village was celebrating its tenth anniversary and it still went by the name of “Persimmon Village.” My first impression was–I had returned to my homeland of Vietnam. Though I had grown up in the U.S. since I was ten, I felt that I had never truly integrated into the environment and society there. I was not recognized as American because of my black hair and yellow skin.

A sense of belonging

Coming to Plum Village that year, I became acquainted with many young Vietnamese people who had also grown up in the West. Perhaps everyone felt the same way as I did, and therefore when we came together we could completely accept one another. Everyone opened their hearts to help, support, and love each other. The atmosphere in Plum Village, Thay’s Dharma talks, and the presence of the brothers and sisters had created a truly wholesome and pure environment filled with serenity and love. In just a week, our group of young people had become close friends. I have been nourished by that love and friendship throughout these 30 years. Here is my true home because it is here that I have found love, humanity, acceptance, joy, safety, and teachings to help me embrace difficulties and live in kindness.

Thay liked to see young people, whether young men or young women, wearing the traditional Vietnamese long robe. We had many opportunities to wear the long robe during the week–while listening to Thay’s Dharma talk, during tea meditation, or various ceremonies. You know what my dear? It was the first time in my life to wear the long robe regularly like that. After lunch and dinner, the young friends gathered around under the two oak trees of Lower Hamlet by the bamboo grove. Every day I was nourished and grew a little through the songs, zen music, sparkling laughter, and friendship. After one month I went back to the U.S. with joy and warmth in my heart. I knew I had a beautiful and wholesome path and what’s more, there were such lovely and kind friends from Europe and America walking along it with me.

I decided to come back to Plum Village to live for one year. I had just graduated from university and it was a time for me to explore the world before pursuing further studies. I returned just before the Winter Retreat. There was a stark difference between the summer and winter. This time there were only about 15 brothers and sisters here and a few lay friends. I was the only young person in Lower Hamlet. The air was cold, the rain wet, and the mud muddy. My friends were not there, there was no TV, no movies, no internet, and no being busy in order to avoid facing myself. I had a very hard time getting through this period. There was sufficient space and conditions for some deeply embedded pain and suffering from the past to manifest. I had no choice but to find ways to alleviate my pain and suffering. Fortunately, Thay’s teachings, the love of the sisters and of my blood brother, Brother Phap Dang, enabled me to have the courage to come back to myself, embrace and look into my mind.

One element that helped me greatly was nature, Mother Earth. Apart from mealtimes, resting, sleeping, and sitting meditation, I spent all day in nature to be with the trees, the sky and the earth. Nature became a dear friend that helped me to have the joy and strength needed to face my inner pain.

Plum Village was still very poor then. The houses were simple and shabby. I slept in a building that was used for drying tobacco in the past. The building had red brick walls and a cement floor. Our beds were just a plank of wood on four bricks. If you wanted to use the toilet in the middle of a cold night, you had to go outside. There was no hot water in the bathroom. A hot shower was deemed a miracle and a great happiness! Can you imagine that the one thing I always cherished and was grateful for was the central heating in this building? There were other houses that only had a small wood-fired stove in the room for heating. When the firewood ran out in the night, those rooms were as cold as the outdoors.

Although there were only a dozen or so brothers and sisters, the atmosphere was warm and cozy, like a family. We sang before walking meditation and after the meals, we often gathered to drink a fragrant cup of tea, to sing, recite poetry, laugh and share stories. Whatever the sangha activity was, everyone was present. Despite being poor, Plum Village was rich with love, brotherhood and sisterhood and friendship. My heart continued to open. I treasured each day, treasured the opportunity to go back to a simple, wholesome life where we had the time to renew ourselves. This way of life made me feel fulfilled, as if I was realizing a long-awaited dream.

From left: Sr. Dinh Nghiem, Sr. Tue Nghiem, Sr. Giai Nghiem

The eyes of the practice

After spending one year in Plum Village, I went back to the United States. It felt as if I had lived on top of a high mountain, away from the world for a year. Going home was like descending the mountain to enter a life full of woe and trouble. But this time, my eyes were bright to see the things I had not seen before or took for granted as the norm.

The first thing I saw was that everyone was working to amass money. That seemed to be everyone’s mode of seeking happiness. Consumption created so much waste for Mother Earth and few noticed it. The second thing I saw was that everyone had difficulties and suffering but they did not know how to handle them. They only looked for ways to escape and forget, causing so much pain for themselves and their loved ones. I also saw the difficulties my blood sisters and brothers encountered in their relationships with their spouses and children. Meanwhile, my elder brother who had become a monk lived joyfully and was helping many people to touch happiness. The simple and profound life of a monastic in Plum Village was my path, my direction. That was why I decided to return to Plum Village and ask to become a nun.

Walking the monastic path

Thirty years is a long journey. Looking back, I have gone through many stages of change both in myself and within the Plum Village community. I remember that before embarking on the spiritual life, I also had fears and worries. Will I be happy and walk this path fully for life? I looked at my brother and at Thay–two people who were walking solidly, happy, and helping to alleviate the suffering of many others. That gave me the firm conviction to enter a new life as a young monastic.

There were certainly ups and downs in my monastic life. But those times also helped me to realize that my purpose of becoming a nun was exactly to handle my inner difficulties, to understand their roots and transform them. There were moments when I saw that I was still weak in the face of emotional relationships. I struggled with my mind, but I made the clear determination that I had ordained to be free from emotional entanglements, so that I could cultivate a Buddha’s love in my heart. Gradually I saw that the noble purpose of monastic life is to transform suffering, to come into the light of happiness and freedom, and to become a Dharma instrument capable of helping others see a beautiful and wholesome path. Looking back, I see that the difficulties were the food that strengthened and nurtured my beginner’s mind. They helped me touch a spaciousness within and a deeper understanding of myself.

The difficulties were there, but at the same time, joy, happiness, and peace were also always present. Every day I grew as a nun amidst the nourishing and wholesome songs, poems, gathas, nature, laughter, and brotherhood and sisterhood. What more does one need? I already had what I dreamt of for my life. I no longer needed to wander here and there to search for happiness. Happiness and peace are tangible qualities I can touch and savor each day. Slowly, my age-old difficulties were transformed without my knowing.

The longer I live in the sangha, the more I see how I metamorphose. The more I practice, the more I see wonders manifesting around and within me. The more I practice, the more I understand things that were mere theories to me before.

Touching grief, touching interbeing

The death of my mother was the event that shook me the most in my life. Mom had already been ill for six years. Her body grew weaker and weaker and lost the ability to function normally. When mom was passing away, I felt it was time for her to let go of that aged and diseased body. I knew she was being continued by her children and grandchildren. However, when mom left, I still felt a void in my heart–I will never see her form, hear her voice, or be able to hug her and touch her physically again.

Suddenly, I felt a great loss and an intense grief. I had already been trained, since first coming to Plum Village, that only by embracing the feeling of loss and grief could I understand, calm, and transform it. Those trainings had become a bell of mindfulness, helping me to come back to ease and transform my loss and grief. When I returned to myself with the energy of mindfulness in each breath, I recognized the truth that my mother was present in me. I could be in touch with her. Mom is here. Mom is always here. We are the continuation of our mother through our virtues and habits. We just need to return to the breath, to the body, and to the present moment to see our mother in us. This is a truth, the truth of interbeing. Mother and child are one. Child is a continuation of mother.

When I touched this truth, the grief and sense of loss gradually transformed. Whenever I felt uneasy, I came back to the body and the breath, silently calling, “Mom, oh dear mom,” and my mother was there right away to love and help me face the mind of uneasiness. I realized that I am practicing for myself and at the same time practicing for my mom. Seeing the interbeing between mother and child is the gateway for me to arrive at the insight of my interbeing with everyone, with the cosmos.

My dear younger one, if we can taste the insight of non-self and interbeing through our own body and mind, then we can taste happiness and great freedom right here and right now. That is the true path of a monastic.

The Plum Village Newsletter

This article originally appeared in the Plum Village Newsletter, if you would like to order a physical or pdf copy, they are available by donation on the Parallax Press website.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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