Sister True Virtue or Chân Đức, in Vietnamese, was born in England. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, and in 1988 in India, she became the first Western European woman to be ordained as a nun by Thich Nhat Hanh. She is a much-loved senior Dharma Teacher and travels widely, leading meditation retreats and inspiring many with her unique teaching style throughout the world. In 2000, she became the first Western/European nun to teach Buddhist Dharma in Thailand, and is currently Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany. She was kind enough to answer some of our questions.
It’s been 30 years since you ordained with Thay. What has helped you to stay on the monastic path? Do you have any more general advice advice about how to stay with a long-term commitment?
Sr.True Virtue: The first thing is, I have a good teacher: Thay. That is really very important. Thay has enough compassion to be able to embrace you when you make mistakes, and he has the fierce side of compassion to push you on, and to help you not to make mistakes again. I think I am very lucky to have ordained with Thay. The second thing is the sangha. The embrace of the sangha is wonderful. It’s just as wonderful in a way, as the embrace of Thay, and I see the sangha is also very compassionate when you make mistakes. I think these are the two main factors: Thay and the sangha, which have helped me to stay.
I am also lucky that my father and mother lived together until they died; probably they transmitted to me a strong seed of commitment. I don’t think I have actually ever thought of leaving the sangha, but sometimes I think of staying in solitary retreat for three months or so, because I should like to have more time to write and to translate the sutras. I know for me the most important thing is the Dharma and the sangha, and the sangha is the best container for me to be able to learn the Dharma. I am still on the path of a learner therefore I need the sangha. I have a lot of devotion to the Dharma, so I would also say that is another factor: my devotion to the Dharma. For me the Dharma is lovely in the beginning, lovely in the middle, and lovely in the end.
You mentioned Thay’s fierce compassion, could you please give us an example?
Sr.True Virtue: One day some sisters and brothers asked me if I could write a letter to Thay to ask for Thay’s support for those in the sangha who wanted to eat organic food. So, I did that. At the beginning of one Dharma talk Thay read the letter in front of the sangha. After he read it he put it down and said something like, this is not the correct way to address Thay, and not the correct way to write a letter to Thay. If you would like to do things in the sangha you have to sit down and meet in the sangha, and then agree to do it together. Thay isn’t the one who tells the sangha they have to eat organic food or not organic food. Thay hopes that Thay won’t receive this kind of letter again. After the talk I did Beginning Anew with Thay, and Thay said that it was not only to teach me but to teach the others in the sangha also.*
Do you have any advice for our lay friends about how to stay with a long-term commitment?
Sr.True Virtue: When you make a commitment it means in good times and bad times, through ups and downs, you will keep to it. It’s not because the commitment becomes unpleasant that you don’t keep to it, and then you look for some pleasure in some other commitment. Manas, an aspect of our consciousness, always likes pleasure and always runs away from suffering. Normally when we don’t keep our commitment it's because we don’t like suffering, we want to have more pleasant feelings. So you have to learn how to take care of your suffering, your unpleasant feelings, in order to stay with the commitment and grow with it. Suffering can help us to grow, we need suffering. Thay talks about the goodness of suffering and how it can help us to mature. If your marriage becomes unpleasant knowing how to take care of your suffering, and doing beginning anew is very important. Always keep communication open.
What do you most wish to transmit to your younger brothers and sisters?
Sr.True Virtue: As monks and nuns we do not have children of our own. Nevertheless we want to continue, and we have to continue through our younger brothers and sisters. This means we have to practise the content and not the outer form and transmit the content; the love and the understanding. If we can really arrive in every step and feel happiness in every step, that is a wonderful thing to transmit, and it does not need words to do so.
Is there a story about Thay that you would like to share with our younger brothers, sisters and readers, which might help them in their practice?
Sr.True Virtue: When I first came to Plum Village Thay would, from time to time, allow me to come to the hermitage. One time Thay asked me to come and help Thay print the La thu Lang Mai (our annual Vietnamese newsletter). When I arrived, Thay said that he had only just lit the wooden stove in the printing room, so it wasn’t warm enough for the printer to work properly (we didn’t have the central heating in the hermitage then). So Thay told us that we should go for a walk, and so we practiced walking meditation together up this hill. When we came back Thay said that now we’ll have a cup of tea. Thay very kindly always made the tea, and he gave me a glass of tea. We enjoyed the tea, and then Thay said it was probably warm enough now for the printer to work.
I knew we needed to print the newsletter in one day, so I had come expecting that when we came to the hermitage, we’d start working straight away. That was my habit energy. It was already getting quite late and we had to print it by the end of the day. Thay showed me how the printer worked and said that the printer is like a buffalo: every buffalo is different, and every buffalo has its own characteristics. You have to get to know the buffalo’s characteristics when you work with it. Thay looked at the printer as his buffalo! Then Thay said that this printer has three speeds: fast, medium and slow. Thay said that he had never tried the fast. He tried the medium speed once but then he'd found the paper coming out too fast, and when something started going wrong it couldn't be stopped in time before paper and ink were wasted. So, there is only one speed that Thay uses and that is slow. I learned how to help Thay, and at the end of the day Thay told me that it was just two or three pages that hadn’t been printed yet, that I could go home and Thay would do the rest the next morning.
So the whole attitude of Thay towards doing work is slow and a little bit like playing and enjoying. I think that it was a really good lesson for me, because it has stayed with me all this time, and I can always remember this when I am doing things in a different kind of way, perhaps in a more worldly kind of way. Remembering that experience of watching Thay, very often I’ll say to myself when I have a lot of things to do, No! I’ll go for a walk first or have a cup of tea first before I do it, because I know that when my attitude of mind is relaxed and compassionate, then I will do things in a much better way, rather than when my attitude is oh yes, ok, this work has to be done. I think the work would not be so successful in that case. The fruit of the work would not be the same as when you did it in Thay’s way. So I understood a little bit the meaning of Thay’s name, Nhat Hanh, one action, because all of Thay’s actions are flavoured by the same kind of practice, the same kind of enlightenment.
* We are happy to say that now we do our best to buy local, organic produce and even have Happy Farms where we grow organic vegetables for the community.