Brother Thiện Chí recounts three moments of insight he has experienced so far in his monastic journey.
Very soon after I received my aspirant robe, I realized that I needed to find ways to nourish myself other than the ones I knew as a lay person. The path I chose leads us to transformation and healing, and the medicine to achieve these are the practices of mindfulness, concentration and insight. Insight is a real source of strength, giving us confidence and energy and leading us to understanding and self-acceptance. Herewith, I would like to share with you three insights important to me and some key elements of my journey in exploring insight.
Conversation With Pain
It was a cold, rainy evening at the monastery, and I was on my way to the cooler – ten minutes from my room. I had not taken my raincoat with me and was walking fast so as not to get wet. It was very dark and I could see almost nothing. At some point I felt that I was walking over grass and mud that was not supposed to be there, and I realized that I had lost the way. At that moment, I took a step to the side and hit a large rock hard with my lower leg. Immediately I put my hand on the injured area and felt a warm, sticky liquid and a sharp, burning pain. I had to stop and slowly walk back to the residence. Later, a brother helped me clean and bandage the wound on my leg.
That night I could not fall asleep. My mind was very restless and the pain was severe. I decided to breathe with a small mantra that manifested in my mind, “Breathing in, the whole universe is healing me, breathing out, I relax.” After breathing with the pain for some time, I slowly began to feel the warmth under the blanket and the stillness of the night. I began to feel the bandage covering the wound, filled with my brother’s care. I realized that tomorrow there will be a warm breakfast for me from the sangha, a brother who will drive me to the doctor, and another brother who will help me with my responsibilities, so that I can rest and heal. At that moment I could feel that all these conditions were the healing response of the universe. I felt love and care like a mother’s embrace. The pain continued to be strong, but I could feel the warm presence of the universe in every moment, and I fell asleep relieved and grateful.
A few years ago, I went to the beach with some monastic brothers. I love the sea very much, so I felt happy and fresh – my smile reached up to my ears.
One morning I woke up and had breakfast with my brothers. Already excited by the thought of going to the beach and having a coffee while listening to the sound of the waves, I enthusiastically went to brush my teeth and put on my swimsuit. As I entered one of the campsite’s changing rooms, I noticed a large mirror on the wall. Somehow, I started reacting to seeing my reflection. The old, bitter feeling of not liking myself and my body began to permeate me from the top of my head to my ears, neck and back. I stopped changing and looked at myself in the mirror. “Why do I dislike my body so much?” I began to look at my long thin arms, my big hands, my skin and my narrow chest. And at that moment I realized—I don’t like my body because my body is the same as my father’s. When I see my body, I see my father. “Oh, no…” I whispered.
This was a very long and silent moment. How could I have lived for so long without seeing how much my father is present everywhere in my body?
As a child, I was a little afraid of my father. His loud and deep voice, his beard and hairy chest, his heavy energy and sometimes aggressive way of walking and talking, the unpleasant smell in his bedroom after drinking alcohol were things I never liked and never wanted to be associated with. I realized that I was trying to create a person who had nothing in common with my father – including my way of speaking, my sense of humour, my style of dress, my friends, my livelihood, etc. It was as if there was a mechanism inside me that kept checking to see if my actions were protecting me from becoming like my father. In that moment, in the changing room, I realized that trying to run away from my father is trying to run away from myself.
Lunch With Brother Dao Quang
I remember during the last Rains Retreat there was a moment when I had to take care of many things and felt stressed because of it. When I am under pressure, I don’t say what I mean but something else, my ability to listen decreases and I ask illogical questions. At such times, the feelings of fear, anxiety and worry find wonderful conditions to blossom and bear fruit.
One morning, I went by my friend Br. Dao Quang. After my grumpy greeting, he looked at me and asked what was wrong. Before I could answer, the lunch bell rang. Then we served our food and a few minutes later we were already talking in the teahouse. I said,
“It seems like I’m always looking for opportunities to feel stressed. Whether I’m in the monastery or out, the way I organize my life always involves a lot of stress.”
“Oh, that’s a good observation. Go further, go deeper. Go to the place that is painful,” Br. Dao Quang said.
“No matter what responsibility I take on, I always get into doing more and more things until I’m exhausted. It’s always the same story. It’s like a race against myself. It’s like I’m trying to convince myself that I’m good, that I’m good enough. That I’m just as good as the others… It looks like deep down I believe that everyone is better than me. It’s as if the basis of my doing is just to prove to myself that I’m not so bad… Obviously, there is such a huge trauma of not feeling good enough, or such a deep inferiority complex that it creates a huge amount of life energy. Enough energy to work under stress and pressure for years without giving up.”
Insight = Practice?
In my very limited experience, insights like to stay hidden under a few layers of unpleasant wrapping paper. They are like fruits covered with a thick, prickly and smelly skin. To get to the soft pulp, I may have to relax and accept the painful covering and make it a part of me. Asking a question, like “Why don’t I like my body?” or “Why am I always stressed?” helps me gently direct my focus. When I’m on the verge of insight, I usually give up fighting the pain and open myself up to becoming more and more vulnerable.
It has not been the greatest happiness to understand that my father, with all his good and not so good qualities, is already inside me. This realization has not made me happier, but humbler, more grounded and less special. I am not someone who is better than everyone else. A few years ago, I would not have been able to bear the weight of this realization. It would have smashed me.
But now I have already begun to open my heart to my father. Every day I allow myself to be my father and to love my father within me. I don’t fight it anymore. Sometimes I still feel a little bit like a victim, but I don’t fight with that feeling anymore either.
After talking with Br. Dao Quang, I felt a big hole inside me, almost in a third of my body. How uninspiring is it to understand that a huge generator of my life energy is the desire to be as good as others, isn’t it? If you ask me how this realization tasted, I would say ten times as bitter as a bitter melon. I don’t know how to handle it yet. Since the realization is fresh, I am still very emotional about it. I just know that I need to be more present for this feeling inside me. Whether it will change or not doesn’t matter right now.
In the book The Art of Living, Thay says in reference to the insight of impermanence “We can make the insight of impermanence into a living insight that is with us in every moment.” Regarding the wonderful insight I had about the healing presence of the universe, I ask myself, “Can I live this insight in every moment of my daily life?”
This article originally appeared in the 2023 Plum Village Newsletter. You can read the newsletter here.