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The Toadskin Hut and Paths of Legend

Son Ha pine forest path 1Thay wrote this end-of-year letter addressed to all of his students about the Toadskin Hut, the hermit of Still Sitting Hut, walking meditation paths that have become legendary, and the new young Dharma Teachers in Plum Village.


Still Sitting Hut,
Plum Village Upper Hamlet,

December 5, 2008

There is sunshine in Upper Hamlet today. I went for walking meditation down to the Lower Mountain Temple, along the pathway of pines. From the Still Sitting Hut to the pathway of pines, I passed by fields of grass that were covered with oak leaves, especially around Thầy Giác Thanh’s Floating Cloud hut. The carpet of oak leaves was very thick. There were leaves that are still fresh, the color of the robes of the Theravada monks. The trees shed their leaves, making the earth richer; the earth and the tree nurture each other – I saw this very clearly. I walked very slowly, so that I could be in touch with the ultimate dimension with every step, which means to be in touch with time outside of time and space outside of space.

I was walking for myself, but I was also walking for my father and mother, for my teacher, my ancestors, the Buddha, and for you. I see no separation between myself and my parents, my ancestors, the Buddha, and you. Everything is present in each mindful step. The gatha “Let the Buddha breathe, let the Buddha walk” is very good. The more I practice, the more effective it is; that’s why I practice it very regularly. This gatha can also be practiced in other positions, like “let the Buddha breathe, let the Buddha sit;” “let the Buddha breathe, let the Buddha work;” or “let the Buddha breathe, let the Buddha brush these teeth.” This practice is just like the practice of recollecting the Buddha’s name. “Buddha” here is not a title; Buddha is a real human being that is breathing, walking, washing dishes, mopping the floor…..

I remembered how recently on the India tour, I practiced “Here is Ấn Độ (India), Ấn Độ (India) is here” instead of “here is Tịnh Độ (the Pure Land), Tịnh Độ (the Pure Land) is here.” When we did walking meditation on Rajpath Street in New Delhi, I practiced this gatha; and at the same time I practiced walking for my father, mother, spiritual ancestors, and for you. I practiced: “The Buddha is going for a walk; the Buddha is enjoying; the Buddha is happy; the Buddha is free. I am going for a walk; I am enjoying…” Then, “my father is going for a walk; my father is enjoying….” When I practiced for you, I invited you to walk with my feet: “I am going for a walk, I am enjoying….” Each and every one of you was present with me during the whole trip in India.

My children, you are monastics (xuất sĩ) and lay practitioners (cư sĩ). “Xuất” means to go forth or go out of; not to have a high social position, but to assimilate into the community of monastics. If the sangha needs you to go somewhere then you go; you don’t only have one dwelling place. “Cư” means to dwell; “cư sĩ” also means “xứ sĩ”, those who have not “gone forth” or ordained as monastics, who still have responsibilities towards their parents but also have the opportunity to take part in the practice and be part of the fourfold community. The monastic and lay communities rely on each other, support each other, practice transformation and help living beings. The sangha body is a beautiful community of four integral parts – monks, nuns, laymen, laywomen – “realizing harmony, awareness and liberation…” The civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had hoped to build a community like that: a community that has happiness, brotherhood, and also the capacity to fight for the good of society. He called it the “beloved community.” It’s a pity that he was assassinated in Memphis when he was 39 years old, and that particular beautiful dream of his was never realized. We are more fortunate: we are able to build sanghas everywhere, so that every place will become our homeland. (“The Sangha body is everywhere; my true home is right here.”) We have been able to continue, and to realize, the aspiration of Martin Luther King: cultivating brotherhood in our daily practice, living joyfully and helping others.

I remember the last time I met Dr. King, in Switzerland, at the “Pacem In Terris” conference organized by the World Council of Churches in 1968. Dr. King stayed with his assistant on the 11th floor in the big hotel where the conference was taking place. I stayed on the ground floor with just one lay assistant. Dr. King invited me to have breakfast with him so we could talk. Because I was busy with a press conference, I was half an hour late, but Dr. King had kept my breakfast warm. In that meeting, I had the opportunity to tell him: “The friends in Vietnam really support you, and they see you as a living bodhisattva.” He was very happy to hear that. Every time I think back on that meeting, I feel glad I was able to tell him that, because a few months later he was assassinated.

The pine pathway leading to Sơn Hạ temple is one of the most beautiful paths in Plum Village. Have you ever walked on that path with me? The pines were planted to become a forest, in rows, standing next to each other as a sangha body–fresh and green all through the year. There are about 8,000 pine trees in that forest. In the dry season, I usually stop in the middle of the path and sit down on the carpet of pine needles. If there is an attendant with me, then teacher and student have tea together before standing up and continuing the walk.

The hut at Sơn Hạ Temple, where I usually make a fire to receive venerable monks and nuns who come to participate in the Great Ordination Ceremony during the Winter Retreat, used to be a farmer’s family home. Outside it looks very ugly; but the inside has been remodeled in a lovely way and is quite comfortable, especially around the fireplace in the living room. On the mantel above the fireplace there is a calligraphy that says “bois ton thé” – which means, “drink your tea.” On cold and snowy days we have gathered, sometimes 20-30 of us, around that fireplace to drink tea and to tell stories from all over, because everybody has come from different places. “We are birds, flown here from four directions…”

I had to give that hut in Sơn Hạ a name. It’s ugly on the outside, but inside it is very beautiful. I called it “Toadskin Hut.” That’s right! The skin of a toad, peau de crapon in French. A toad’s skin is bumpy and not beautiful at all on the outside, but on the inside it can be very beautiful. When Dung, Brother Pháp Đôn’s father, first came inside the hut he said: “Outside it looks like toad skin, but inside it looks like yellow jewels.” Do you know that sentence? It’s the first line of a riddle. “Outside toad skin, inside yellow jewels. Even from a distance, you’ll smell my fragrance. What am I?” The answer is: a ripe jackfruit. On the outside, the skin of a jackfruit is bumpy like the skin of the toad; but inside, the ripe fruit is yellow and fragrant, and it looks like gold and jewels. And when you walk near a ripe jackfruit, you will smell its fragrance. That riddle may be from around Hue, because it has the three words “thơm lừng lựng” (fragrant from afar). So my hut in Sơn Hạ is toad skin on the outside, but if on the inside it looks like jewels and gold, that is thanks to the hard work of Hieu, the blood brother of Brother Pháp Quan. He has done a lot of work redecorating this place that used to be the home of a poor farmer. I’ve started to like the “Toadskin” name already – don’t you think it’s funny?

In one of the old myths, a young man was walking along some rice fields, saw a toad, and stepped over it. As he stepped down, he heard from behind him the sound of a young woman clearing her throat. Turning around to look, he was surprised to see a beautiful princess. Naturally this young man and the princess started to converse, and at the end he invited her home to introduce her to his parents. He didn’t forget to pick up the toadskin, take it home with him and tear it apart, so this stunningly beautiful princess couldn’t crawl back into her bumpy toad skin. I feel I am as fortunate as that young man. I have met many bumpy toads on my journey; but those toads, after shedding their skins, have become charming princes and drop-dead gorgeous princesses. Every time your bodhicitta manifests, you’ll be as beautiful as princes and princesses. And the image of the sangha climbing the hill of the century is truly a wonderful image.

There are familiar walking meditation paths that have appeared in my dreams. Paths at the root temple, Tu Hieu, that Thay had trodden when he was still a novice have become legendary paths, and occasionally they appear in my dreams of finding a true home. My children at Prajña have created similar paths, and the stones on those paths have become familiar through the mindful steps of each prince and princess. Fragrant Palm Leaves had paths like that. The Hermitage Among the Clouds also had paths like that. Deer Park has paths like that; and presently at Blue Cliff my spiritual children are using mindful steps to cultivate their own paths like that. The old walking meditation paths at Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery are no less beautiful. They made a song: “Together we shall go to visit Green Mountain, climb the immense sky, we shall go the tea house, walk around the pond…” For sure the Pure Land has paths like that, that always help us remember it when we go away. Do you remember the walking meditation path along the creek and through the bamboo forest at the hermitage?

This afternoon, sitting in Still Water Meditation Hall, I invited the Buddha to breathe with my lungs. I said: “These are my lungs, but they are also your lungs. Please breathe at your ease. My lungs are still healthy, don’t worry” – and the Buddha breathes happily; both of us breathe happily together.

Sơn Hạ temple is surrounded by forest, mostly pine trees. It has a stream and a pond. “Sơn Hạ hữu tuyền, trạc chi tắc dũ” is a verse taken from the Kinh Thủy Sám (Healing Water Discourse); it means, “at the foot of the mountain, there is a stream; take the water and wash yourself, and your wounds will heal.” Sơn Hạ temple is at the foot of a great hill. There is a bridge crossing over the stream, at the end of the bridge is a stone engraved with the words “Sơn Hạ hữu tuyền….” in classical Chinese. This great hill is the Thệ Nhật hill; on top of it is Dharma Cloud temple, the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village. Brother Nguyện Hải is the abbot of Dharma Cloud temple, but because he is teaching in Vietnam, Brother Pháp Đôn is presently serving in his place. Brother Pháp Sơn is the abbot of Sơn Hạ temple. He is from Spain and he also has English citizenship, and in addition to Spanish he also speaks English, German and French very well. The layfriends really like the setting of Sơn Hạ temple. This winter there are eighteen lay practitioners praticing there alongside the monks.

One time last year during the winter retreat, I played “tour guide” and brought some people up from Sơn Hạ to Dharma Cloud temple via the pine pathway. These “tourists” weren’t any strangers, though. They were professor Hoàng Khôi – Chân Đạo Hành and his wife Chân Tuệ Hương, both of whom are very good students of Thầy. Last winter the two of them came from Sydney to participate in the Winter Retreat in Plum Village, and they stayed in Upper Hamlet. These two lay friends are very good Dharma Teachers. They have transcribed and edited many of Thay’s books in Vietnamese, like Illusionary and Real Happiness, The Liveliness of Meditation Practice, etc.

After having them for tea at my Toadskin hut in Sơn Hạ, I led them along the pine pathway up to Upper Hamlet. I said to them: “Imagine you are going to Dharma Cloud for the first time. I am taking you to see a Zen master in a thatched hut, the Sitting Still Hut on the eastern side of the Thệ Nhật hill, close to Dharma Cloud Temple. If you know how to take each step up this hill with mindfulness, then you will have more opportunities to meet this teacher, because he usually pratices walking meditation by himself in the hills, sometimes picking wild greens, sometimes gathering medicine (Sư thê dược khứ). There are times when he spends the whole day in the forest and no one knows where he sits, not even his novice attendants.”

That day the rain had just stopped. The sun was shining beautifully on the leaves still glistening with raindrops, just like jewels catching the morning light. I stopped walking and put out my hand to catch a drop of water from a pine needle; the glistening water fell onto my finger in one round drop. I told Professor Chân Đạo Hành to put out his hand to recieve this jewel, and I put it on his palm. His hands had been in his pockets, so they were still dry and warm, and when the jewel was placed on his hand it was still a whole drop. I also “picked” a jewel like that for Chân Tuệ Hương. The Earth and sky are so wonderful. Every moment is a precious jewel containing sky, water, clouds, earth. With just one mindful breath, so many miracles manifest.

Walking meditation is like that. Each step is a realization; each step is joy; each step is nourishment and healing. When we started up the hill, I stopped, pointed up to a corner of the hill and told them, “A short distance from here, you shall see the Sitting Still Hut. Maybe the master is sitting there.” And when Sitting Still hut was visible, I stopped again, pointed to the hut so they could see it, and invited them to breathe and smile. In reality, both of them had seen Sitting Still hut many times already, and many times drank tea with me in that Hut; but this time they were using a new set of eyes to look and explore something new. The three of us were like people out of a legend, looking for a Zen master in the mountains, not knowing whether the conditions will be right for them to meet the master or not. (There are thousands of people who have been to Upper Hamlet, from so many countries; but how many were received as guests by the hermit at the Sitting Still Hut? Or how many have been received as the guests of the hermit at the Deep Listening Hut at our Từ Hiếu root temple?

Last year during winter retreat, Brother Pháp Tri was my attendant at Still Sitting hut, under the guidance of his elder Brother Mãn Tuệ. When Brother Pháp Tri came back from his mindful manners class, not seeing me, he prepared to go into the hills to search for me. Right at that moment, I arrived with my two tourists. I was still playing “tour guide” and I asked the novice: “Is the master in the hut?” The novice looked confused, and he didn’t know how to answer. I went on: “Or is the master not back from gathering herbal medicine on the mountain?” Now the novice understood. He answered: “Dear honored guest, my teacher is almost back from the mountain. I would like to invite everyone to come into the hut to drink tea while waiting for the master.” At Vietnam Temple in Los Angeles, there is a calligraphy I offered to Venerable Mãn Giác. It is a translation of a poem written by Giã Đảo from the Đương dynasty:

By the pine tree the novice said,
“The master just left to gather herbal medicine on this mountain but because of the thick fog you cannot see him.”

In fact, the attendant knew where his master was sitting and at which peak, but he answered in that way because he didn’t want his master to be disturbed by the visitor. He didn’t want to have to go search for the master, so the master could be left alone to sit in peace. Occasionally fog envelops Thệ Nhật mountain, but not as much as at Kim Sơn Monastery in Northern California.

My pine path has become a legend too, don’t you see? But what path that we tread hasn’t? Like the walking meditation path to the creek at Prajña. We have walked that path many times with such steps, do you remember, my children? The path leading the to Thousand Lotus Petal mountain in Deer Park – how many times have we climbed that mountain? How many times have we sat on those boulders at the top of the peak, looking down at the valley and at Escondido covered with fog? The walking meditation path starting from the Buddha Hall garden in Từ Hiếu down to the half-moon pond, around the morning star pond, accross the three-door gate up Dương Xuân Hill or towards the patriarch’s stupas – that path has become legendary, and appeared in my dreams over the forty years I was away from Vietnam. The walking meditation paths in Lower Hamlet and New Hamlet also carry two decades of our footprints, and every time we go far away, we always miss them.

We have printed our Buddha footsteps on walking meditation paths at Estes Park in the Rocky Mountains; on the walkways of Stonehill College; on the grounds of the University of California at Santa Barbara; at MacArthur Park in Los Angeles; on main roads of big cities like Frankfurt, Rome, Amsterdam, Paris, New York, New Delhi, Hanoi, etc. I remember when we did walking meditaion by Hoàn Kiếm Lake, as a sangha of monastic and lay practitioners of 41 nationalities. We made steps of peace and freedom by the lake, crossing Thê Húc Bidge into Ngọc Sơn Shrine. The locals were surprised to see a group of people walking with freedom, as business-less people amidst the bustle of Vietnam’s capital, where everyone seems to be preoccupied and in a hurry. Upon seeing such a group of people, some said they rediscovered the roots of their culture and their true home. We walked the same way in Trung Hậu, Đồng Đắc, Sóc Sơn, Bằng A, Văn Miếu, Hoa Lư, Tát Diệm, Diệu Đế, Thuyền Tôn, Linh Mụ, Linh Ứng, Tam Thai Chúc Thánh, Mỹ Sơn, Cam Ranh, Thập Tháp, Nguyên Thiều, Giác Viên, Giác Lâm, Ấn Quang, Hoằng Pháp, and Pháp Vân. Everywhere is the holy land to us. Any place can be our true home, when we know how to stop and live in awareness.

The year 2008 will end in a few weeks. Sitting here, writing this end-of-the-year letter for my spiritual children, I feel a lot of warmth, as if I am sitting with you all. New Hamlet will host Christmas this year, Lower Hamlet will host the New Year’s celebration, and Upper Hamlet will host the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, the Year of the Ox. In this winter’s New Lotus Season Great Ordination ceremony, about twenty-seven people will receive transmission of the Dharma lamp, and Brother Pháp Hữu will be one of them. Little Huỳnh Thế Nhiệm came to Plum Village for the first time when he was seven years old, and he came back many times after that. Nhiệm ordained at the age of twelve, in February 2002. Now Nhiệm will receive the lamp and become a Dharma Teacher. That is Brother Pháp Hữu. During this winter retreat, Pháp Hữu has seven lay mentees. They are very happy to have such a young mentor.

My baby monks and nuns are now all grown up! Other than Brother Pháp Hữu, there are Brother Pháp Chiếu and Sisters Mật Nghiem, Đàn Nghiêm and Mẫn Nghiêm also mentoring our lay friends. Sister Mẫn Nghiêm received the lamp transmission last year in the Earth Refreshing Great Ordination ceremony, becoming the youngest Dharma Teacher in Plum Village. Sister Mẫn Nghiêm met me for the first time when she was five years old. She came to Plum Village to ordain when she was twelve. Hạ Thoại Mỹ Quyên was her name. When she was sixteen she read my book Speaking to Twenty-Year-Olds and she promised herself that when I turned eighty she would write a book for me with the title, Speaking to Eighty-Year-Olds. Quyên did write that book when she turned twenty; it was 300 pages long, and I still have it in my Fragrant Source hermitage. I am the only one allowed to read it, Sister Mẫn Nghiêm has told me.

Pháp Hữu will become a young Dharma Teacher. In his ten years together with me, we have never been upset with each other. The connection between us is very good. Pháp Hữu has become one of the best attendants – most attentive, no less than Brother Pháp Niệm; very organized. He doesn’t wait for me to tell him what I need. One time I said to Pháp Hữu: “In the past when the Venerable Ananda was attending the Buddha, he was only as good as you are being my attendant now.” Nhiệm humbly answered, “But I don’t have good memory like the Venerable Ananda.” I chuckled and said, “You don’t need Venerable Ananda’s memory, because you already have an iPod in my shoulder bag.” Master and student looked at each other and giggled.

Suddenly I am thinking of snow. Snow is falling right now in Waldbröl, at the EIAB. Last week, Sister Sông Nghiêm called and told me that snow was falling and that it was ten inches deep on the ground. The scenery in Waldbröl is now wonderfully beautiful, and she invited me to come over there to play with them. But I am there right now, do you not see that, my children? I am also right now at Blue Cliff, Deer Park, Maple Village, Lotus Bud, Magnolia Village, Prajna, Từ Hiếu, Hohenau, Source of Compassion, and many other places! You have to be able to see me right there where you are sitting or standing. Do the younger ones still remember Brother Pháp Lâm’s riddle? I am not only in India. Have you heard the Zen master Vô Ngôn Thông say, “Here is India; India is here” (Tây Thiên thử độ, thử độ Tây Thiên) yet?

I remember the hammock that hangs among the trees behind the Insitute. Before going there, I had written a letter for my children in Germany. I asked anyone who has a hammock to bring it for me to borrow. I would hang the hammock in the apple orchard and sit on the hammock to play with my children, celebrating the new Insitute. I don’t know who passed on that letter, but when I arrived at the Institute, my attendants reported that a total of 149 hammocks that been brought. Next summer, we will have more than enough opportunities to practice hammock meditation over there.

Writing letters for my children, I don’t know how much is enough. I will stop here. I will see you again on the eve of the Lunar New Year, during the poetry sharing. I wish everyone much happiness and progress in building brotherhood and sisterhood.


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