Welcome to episode 33 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
This time, the presenters – Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino – are joined by Zen Buddhist nun Sister Dinh Nghiem; together, they discuss Thich Nhat Hanh’s years following his stroke in 2014, its impact on the community of monastics, and the Zen master’s powerful presence beyond words.
In this intimate and moving episode, the two monastics – both former attendants of Thich Nhat Hanh – recollect stories from the period of Thay’s illness: from overcoming his coma to the lessons the Zen master continued to share with the sangha from his hospital bed, and later, from the ‘root temple’ Tu Hieu in Hue, Vietnam, where he continued to be a great teacher even without the ability to speak. They also address the way the sangha became Thay’s continuation, both before and after his passing in 2022; the power of presence in challenging circumstances; transmission without words; clarity; acceptance; death; and support.
Sister Dinh Nghiem (Sister Concentration) was ordained in 1993, when she was 24 years old. In 2000, she became the first abbess of the New Hamlet in Plum Village (and remains the youngest ordained to date). She was also one of the monastics who attended Thich Nhat Hanh during the five and a half years after his stroke and until his passing.
In this episode, she talks about her decision to become a nun, and spending her life with the practice; dealing with her father’s death and the deep teachings of ‘no birth, no death’; the guidance Thich Nhat Hanh gave her during his illness; and the Zen master’s final days.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha
Sister Chan Khong
‘Thich Nhat Hanh Returns Home’
Plum Village Thailand
The Way Out Is In: ‘“Arrived, Home”: The First Plum Village Dharma Seal (40 Years Retreat #2)’
‘Parallel Verses – Continuing Thay in the Lunar New Year (Tet)’
“You may have [achieved] some awakening, but you need to maintain this concentration in your daily life so that this insight sinks deep into the body, your deep consciousness.”
“When there is chaos, we have to be centered so that we all have clarity.”
“We recognized that his [Thay’s] breathing was incredible. It’s like the stored consciousness of 80-something years of practicing went into autopilot and Thay’s mindfulness was a continuing stream of practice.”
“I need to continue to invest in this dharma because in the most critical moment, ‘What is your best friend?’ – it’s your breathing.”
“I was told that one of the doctors or nurses came to see about Thay’s oxygen level in his blood and was looking at the machine and kept on tapping it. And eventually one of the monastics said, ‘What’s the problem?’ They replied, ‘Well, this must be wrong because it’s showing 95%’ – or whatever – ‘oxygen level. And someone in this condition, it normally goes down to 70 or 75.’ And you’re just thinking, ‘Well, that’s obvious, because Thay’s one of the best breathers in the world.’”
“Thay made them practice mindfulness and concentration being 100% present. Thay didn’t need to say anything. It was transmission from heart to heart, not through words.”
“When we don’t use the words, we use energy and we are more sensitive with energy – the other person’s as well as our own.”
“Thay has finessed and deepened and focused and taken the time and energy to show what’s possible for us. So what I’m hearing is an invitation to us all – not to be like Thay, but to show that if we are able to be attentive, to be mindful, to be ourselves, to come back to ourselves in the present moment, then we can taste that aspect of Thay.”
“The joy of meditation is daily food.”
Welcome back, dear listeners, to the latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In. I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, the student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition in France.
And we are very fortunate today, aren’t we, brother?
Yes, we are.
So we have a special guest, Sister Dinh Nghiem, who has just returned from Vietnam, where she’s been looking after Thay during the last years of his life.
The way out is in.
Dear listeners, I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And Sister Dinh Nghiem, welcome to our podcast series.
Good afternoon, everyone.
So, Brother Phap Huu, do you want to give us a brief introduction? Because Sister Dinh Nghiem is a bit of a legend, isn’t she?
She is today sitting with us in the Sitting Still hut in Plum Village, Upper Hamlet. I am with my elder sister. Sister, that name, which translates into Sister Concentration. She was ordained in 1993 when she was only 24 years old. And she is a legend because she was the first young abbess of the New Hamlet, in Plum Village, in the year 2000. And actually I go way back with Sister Dinh Nghiem, my first year in 1996, I was just a child and she took care of me in Middle Hamlet and Lower Hamlet. And so I’ve known her since 1996. And when I became an abbott, I was very young, so I also took Sister Dinh Nghiem as a role model in how to become a good abbot.
Yeah, sister, welcome. And it’d be lovely to know a little bit about your history, because I think you started coming here as a child. So tell us about your journey to become a monastic of Plum Village.
I follow my parents to come to Plum Village during the summer retreat, and at that time I didn’t care about the practice. I came and had fun with other teens, other kids, and the only thing I did was to read Thay’s books. I came for fun, I didn’t practice at all. But somehow, one day I wrote Thay, I don’t know why I love the Buddha. And I remember I still have the letter that Thay wrote me back. Thay wrote me back, Oh, I think that after you read Old Path White Cloud, you will love the Buddha even more. And it was true. After reading it, I really fell in love with the Buddha. So I continued to read Thay’s books. I went to Thay’s Dharma Talks. I went to Thay’s public talks from time to time when Thay went to Paris. I was not a practitioner, still, until one day, my father suddenly passed away. And I was deeply in pain. My mother, my oldest sisters, my older brother and I, we all suffered. But at that time, I was very confident. Right away I thought of Thay. And I was confident that the practice can help me. The practice could help me. So I wrote another letter to Thay telling Thay that how come my father passed away and I did what you told me to do. I looked at my hand to see my father in my hand. But still, I suffer. I continue to suffer. And the next summer I went back to Plum Village. I enjoyed the summer retreat for a week. The next winter I went back again. And then a few months later, I went back and I decided to become a nun.
And what was it, sister, about your decision to really spend your life with the practice?
At that time, I thought that, Wow, I am the second youngest in the family. I will have to bear the grief one, two, three, four, five, six times more. Six more times. How can I? How can I bear? And after reading Old Path, White Cloud, I also thought of becoming a nun, but maybe when I would be 50 years old, after enjoying life, and at that time I thought that, Oh, I didn’t want to wait until I get 50 years old. So I decided to follow that path, this path.
And, sister, you talk about the pain of your father’s death and this idea that you’ll have to carry more pain in your life. And I’m just wondering, over the period you’ve been a nun, what is your understanding of that pain? So if someone were to come to you with the same question, now, someone had lost their father, and you say, as Thay said, can you see your father’s hand in your hand? And they said, I can still feel the pain. What has changed in you? What has matured in you since then?
Later Thay taught me, and Thay also shared the practice with other people that you need to look at your hand several times. This is something that you need to practice and cultivate every day. You may have some awakening, but you need to maintain this concentration in your daily life so that this insight really sinks deep into the body, your deep consciousness. And then you don’t suffer. Otherwise is still up in your head, in your mental, and then you forget this truth. And then you continue to suffer. So to… The Zen word to transcend birth and death, this is something you cultivate every day. This concentration, this insight becomes your life, become your way of thinking. And it’s not just analyzing or thinking from time to time.
And Brother Phap Huu, I mean, I think what Sister Dinh Nghiem raised is something so important about the importance of the monastics and Plum Village. Because for most people, they don’t, even if you’re practicing, you often lead a busy life having to work, having a family, having to buy a house, all the things that come with that. And, brother, what I think Sister Dinh Nghiem really spoke of so beautifully was the importance of being able to people who hold this space deeply, who are able to spend years really deepening the practice in order to offer this to others. Can you just say a bit about that?
You know, another word for mindfulness in Sanskrit, probably Chinese, is to recollect mindfulness, is to, we have to recollect, we have to remember what we are meditating on, what we are looking deeply into. So sometimes we just taste a moment of mindfulness, a moment of awareness, and then we think we got it. We think like, Yes, I’ve done it. I’m good for the day. But the practice of our way of living is to bring it into every minute. So, like the insight, like we are the continuation of our father, our mother, our teacher, our sister, our brother, our loved ones, even while they are alive, we can already practice this. And most of the time, a lot of us, we come to a spiritual dimension, a spiritual practice when suffering comes, which is like we lose someone so dear to us. But what we want people to cultivate is already the mindfulness, the awareness, remembering of all of the good conditions that are already here, such as my own parents. I know they are of the nature to pass away one day, get old. But now that they are still alive, am I doing everything in my capacity as their son to offer joy to them one time a day or one time a week or one time a month? And am I able to ask them, How is your heart? How are you, dad? How are you, mom? Can I support you? How can I support you? What is your biggest dream that you haven’t been able to do that I can do for you? And so a place like Plum Village, a practice center, and to have a teacher is to help us remember what we have in the present moment. And so what Sister Dinh Nghiem shared, I think a lot of us we will face is like a kind of grief. And we may try it, we may practice it at the beginning, and then we may not see the fruit of it yet. But because the insight or the practice it takes time to mature, you have to sow that insight into your consciousness, which I believe Thay saw that insight into Sister Dinh Nghiem when she was young. And I do believe that as she practiced, you know, she started to see herself as her father. So, you know, a practice center or a space or spirituality is not just a form, but is also something to continue, you have to continuingly develop through the day to day practices. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Yeah, it makes sense. And, sister, just when, now, you think about your father, I saw you, as soon as you spoke, you felt the emotion, but what have you, what’s the difference between how you felt at that time when you were first felt that deep pain and how you’re able to see your father now. What’s changed over this time?
Yes, I now I see that whatever I do, my father does it. And I was very moved when I talk about that moment of pain, when I think back, 30 years ago, exactly 30 years ago. It was in 1992. And I remember that moment of pain for my mom, for my older sisters and brother and myself. I was very moved. But talking about my father now, I’m very happy that whatever I do, I do it for my father. My father does it. My father in me does it. And I have been training in meditation, contemplation in my daily life to see my father in me. And at the same time, Thay has prepared for us all to do the same thing for Thay. And I remember before, when we talk about no birth and no death, I was shy and I didn’t dare to say anything about my practice, with Thay, concerning Thay, and how we see that we are Thay’s continuation. And I often thought that, okay, let’s wait until that moment when Thay will pass away and then we will see how our practice is. Because it’s easy to say, but only when it happens, and then we’ll see. And I was so happy during Thay’s funerals because we all worry for Sister Chan Khong. All our friends, many many people know how Sister Chan Khong is close to Thay. She has been six or more than sixty years, being working with Thay, helping Thay in everything. And my brothers and sisters in Vietnam or also in other practice centers, they also worried for me because the last few years I was always next to Thay. Every one worry for Sister Chan Khong, for me, for each other. And I was so happy to see that we were so solid. We cried, yes. But after crying, we were firm, solid, holding hands, each other’s hands. And we continue to take care of the funerals, to organize everything. We continued with lots of inner strength. And at that time, I was so grateful that Thay prepared everything for us, especially in terms of the practice of no birth and no death. And we were so surprised to see Sister Chan Khong that strong, that solid, that fresh. And we all flowed as a river, as continuations of Thay. And now I don’t worry. I’m not shy anymore, but I can say that I’m proud of my brothers and sisters, especially of Sister Chan Khong. And I’m proud at the same time, I’m so grateful because I know that Thay went through the grief of loss so many times in his life. Many of his students and disciples passed away before him, and they were very close, not only as teachers and students, but as coworkers. Together, they were trying to realize their dream, their aspiration. Thay relied on them. Thay counted on them especially when Thay was in exile. And when they learned that Thay passed away and some, in a terrible way, like they were kidnapped, they were murdered. So I could, I can imagine how Thay suffered and Thay went through all these pains, those pains, those griefs, and that’s why Thay prepared for us. Thay knew that we will have to go through all this, this kind of grief. Thay prepared for us many years. And the moment came. We went through beautifully, thanks to Thay.
Wow. It’s a wonderful example of him as a great teacher because what I hear you saying is he recognized the pain of loss. And by doing these deep teachings about, no birth, no death, the fact that we continue that, as you described, with your father, that is not just his in your hand, but actually your actions and what you do in the world is representing your father. And now as a community, the way you represent yourself now is Thay’s in you. I just want to talk really about the time for both of you, about when Thay became ill and had his stroke, because for many people in the world, they were used to seeing Thay and hearing his teachings. And then when Thay fell ill, had the stroke, in a sense, he retired from obviously his active teaching life. But actually, there are many people who say that his teachings actually deepened when he was no longer able to talk and to represent his work through his words. And it’d be lovely to ask you both about that. Maybe to start with you, Phap Huu, because you cared for Thay during his illness when he was in France and also at a time where it was, there was a real concern that he was going to pass at that time, because at one point he was just given a few hours to live and you had to prepare yourself. And then, Sister Dinh Nghiem, you’ve been looking after him and working with him for the five and a half years since he left and went back to Thailand and Vietnam. So, Brother Phap Huu, maybe to come to you first about what did you learn about Thay and about the ability to still be a great teacher even when you can no longer speak and act in a normal, independent way.
I think the whole journey of Thay getting sick is… It’s difficult to share about it in a way, but at the same time, it’s good to speak about it, to process everything. Actually, Sister Dinh Nghiem and a whole team of us, I think about nine of us, were all in Bordeaux Airport. And the night that Thay had the stroke, I remember calling the whole team, and we all arrived. And we were all embracing Thay, and I was holding Thay after Brother […] one of our other attendants. And at that moment, I think on the level of students, we were just trying to remain as calm as possible. The teaching of Thay says, like, when there is chaos, we have to be center so that we all have clarity. And, in that particular moment, I think because most of us, we were quite seasoned practitioners, I would say, we were all like 16 years of monastichood and above. So all of our practices was in automatic, like I was just following my breathing as I was embracing Thay and sending him my attention. You know, we can say sending him energy, hsending him a compassion, sending him whatever vitality from me that I can give him. I was offering just my full attention and just to also recognize what is happening. And I think, like Sister Dinh Nghiem shared, like you can’t really prepare yourself for it because everything is just intellectually like, you know, even the notion of impermanence. But when it comes, thank you to the practice for being present and thank you for having a team. But we were a body together and then Sister Dinh Nghiem was talking to the doctors. I was still embracing Thay, others were managing other elements of the situation. And then there was a moment the doctors came in and they said, Everybody get out. And I was like, What? We have to leave our teacher? Because they needed to do an MRI scan of to see what is going on. And this was really early in the morning. I still remember everything very vividly. It was 6 a.m.. I just remember how early because we were the only ones in the hospital. It was also a holiday. It was a holiday. And when the doctors took Thay, Sister Dinh Nghiem remained with Sister […]. And a group of us, the brothers, we went for a walking meditation outside because we just needed to refresh ourselves, and like take refuge in Mother Earth. So we found the park nearest to the hospital and just to walk. And, you know, when we came back, when we came back to the hospital, the first image I saw was Sister Dinh Nghiem and Sister […] hugging and crying. And the only perception I had was Thay has passed. And this is in 2014. I remember sprinting as fast as I can from the end of the hallway all the way to where Thay’s room was. And we arrived, I asked him what just happened. Explain to us. And she shared that the doctor said Thay just had a stroke, a very big hemorrhage. And according to them, they calculate Thay only has 46 hours left. So it was important for us to prepare ourselves as well as inform our community. And I went into community gear, so just informing everyone. And I think at that moment, you know, what was really interesting is that we just became so human. We were all the attendants we were around Thay, because at this moment, Thay entered into a coma. And Thay was breathing because you can hear his breathing as he was in a coma. And we just put our trust in Thay as a teacher. And that’s what I was doing, because it’s almost like it’s out of my control in a way. And what I was doing for myself is, number one, taking care of myself. Because taking care of myself is also taking care of Thay, and taking care of the community. I couldn’t cry at that time. I couldn’t cry specifically because I felt I was one of the head attendants with many others, but I just didn’t feel like I could cry for the team and I had to keep my head on my shoulders and in a way just to be that that mountain for myself and then for the community. But what I know how to do is I know how to tap into others energies, that meaning I know how to flow with the feelings of my brothers and sisters. So I did embrace brothers that were crying, putting my hand on the shoulders of my sisters, that were very emotional. And just to know that we are here for each other in this moment. And so for me, like at that moment, I was taking care of myself so that I can take care of others. And then by doing that, I could channel my energy to have clarity, or else I think I would have been quite lost. And then I would have maybe drown in sorrow or drown in confusion or drown in events. Like I was a little bit angry. Not at Thay, of course, but, like, why? Why does this have to happen to my teacher? And I even, I remember walking in the hospital, I remember walking in the hospital and saying, Why? Out of all the people to have a stroke, why my teacher? Why someone as valuable to the world as Thay, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh who still had so much to offer, so much to give, is such a source of inspiration and such a source of compassion and as such a refuge for humanity. And I did go down that rabbit hole of, like, criticizing. I don’t know. I was asking God, I was asking the trees. I was asking the Buddha, I was asking everything. And of course, no answers came. The only answer is this is life. Life is to find remembrance, right? We are of the nature to get sick. We are of the nature to die. We are of the nature to let go of those who are so dear to us. The only thing that remains is our true belonging. And that stayed with me, because I started to just change my mind from blaming to honoring to gratitude. I said, Wow, how lucky I was to be with someone so beautiful, so precious last time. How lucky I am to know how to walk mindfully in this very moment, as I am upset and angry. How wonderful I am to have a community to breathe together, to embrace the situation together. And then so I started to change like, Thay’s language, as you change this CD, you changed the peg. So in my mind I knew I was becoming toxic, like my energy was becoming toxic. So that kicked in. The whole gratitude started to become one of my compasses at the early stage of Thay’s illness. And every minute that I had with Thay. I would say, Thay is still here. I’m just going to offer my presence. I’m just going to offer my presence. And we were so lucky to have the support of the doctors and the nurses. They gave us 24 access to Thay and Thay survive the first scare. Right? Which he was supposed to pass away. And I do believe in collective energy. I do believe, as the whole world channeled all of our attention and admiration, gratitude, love, care, light towards Thay. That must have been such a source of energy, because we know that mind consciousness also has stored consciousness which can receive. So I do believe that when the community collectively were chanting for Thay we would, every every day of mindfulness, I believe the Sangha would chant after a formal meal to send our love and energy to our teacher. Many people around the world were dedicating their walks, their sit, their meal, a moment of peace towards Thay. And even just as an attendant, I felt like so much love and support. So as someone who all of this energy is directing towards, I do believe that Thay received it. And I also do know that Thay has so much more to offer because in like 2014, like in the retreat site, because me and Sister Dinh Nghiem are quite close to Thay. So I knew Thay was gearing up for Thay’s 2015 US tour, which he was going to be a keynote speaker at a very big conference. He was going to talk about mindful leadership because mindfulness at that stage was definitely entering into the mainstream of companies. And so it was a big company that invited Thay as a keynote speaker at one of their very big conferences. And Thay has accepted that request. And so Thay and the community from we did programs of mindfulness into education, mindfulness into healthcare. And so I think the next was mindfulness, right mindfulness into, into team building, compassionate leaders, collective awakening of companies, etc., etc.. So I know that Thay too has so much to give and my own interpretation, and this is my own selfish interpretation, which is like I think Thay is very compassionate, meaning I feel Thay thinks the Sanga wasn’t ready for Thay’s passing in 2014 if conditions were to be like that. And Thay wanted to give us more time to stand on our two feet. That’s my own interpretation. We don’t want to be a burden to his freedom also. We didn’t want that. So all of us, as attenants, because we would every night we would come together and we would have Dharma sharing, we would have grief session together on how we are processing this moment. And all of us were saying, like, if we have the chance, we will share with Thay that, Thay, you are our teacher, you have loved us so dearly. You have given us 120% of your life to your student because you really see us as your continuation. So the best we can do for you is to give you freedom. Thay, if you want to become a cloud, we will embrace that transition. I remember saying this to Thay because I felt that was also my own responsibility. But if Thay, if you want to be here, we shall also do everything in our power, in our capacity to support you, to make sure that you are comfortable, to make sure that you can regain as much as you can. And what was important is to have clarity as students and teacher. And I think we were very lucky to have sessions that we can talk about it and not to be selfish also. We understood our own grief, our own loss, but then we would ask, how can we support our teacher? And that was really important.
What I hear you say, brother, which I completely recognize myself, is that because Thay said he didn’t want there to be one person taking over from him and he had created the sense of how a community can live together, make decisions together, that actually giving the community the time to recognize the truth that Thay would one day pass and that actually there was no one person would take over. And so he needed time for the community to recognize they needed to step up and to recognize how that could happen in a way that would support everyone as opposed to it becoming a competition or… So actually that I think that there’s a deeply held sense that by Thay staying for these years, he did give the community the chance. Thay was still there, still a teacher, but everyone had to step up. But and brother, just one other thing. I know that, you know, at one point you asked Thay about death. And it might be nice to share that with our listeners.
Yes. Before I get to that, there was a story. We were in the ICU, intensive care unit in the hospital in Bordeaux. And the next morning our main doctor came and said, Brothers and sisters, last night, did you see one of the doctors come and stay in your room? And we said, Yes, yes, many we saw many doctors, but we noticed one doctor that was present. And for us us, an attendant, whenever we see doctors and nurses come, we were very happy because we knew they were taking care of our teacher. But he said, Yes, yes, yes, but there was a particular doctor that stayed in your room and do you know why? And we said No. And he said, You know, she came into the room to take refuge in his presence because one of her patients in the ICU just passed. And we have to remember that doctors have such an intimate relationship with their patients as they care for them. And the moment when one of their patients cannot make it, it’s also their loss. And that doctor needed a place of refuge. And she came and she stayed in the room where Thay was in a coma. And I remember him saying, See, even in this state, Thay is still a teacher. And I think that was for me, that was a reminder. Yes, Thay is present and he is still teaching us. And what we did, we recognized was his breathing was incredible. It’s like, stored consciousness of 80 something years of practicing just went into autopilot and Thay’s mindfulness was just a continuing stream of practice. And I even felt sometimes I was emotional when, when the situation was becoming unclear if, if Thay will make it or not. I relied on his breathing. So I still was taking refuge in him and that gave me a lot of faith in the practice. And I said to myself, I need to continue to invest in this Dharma because in the most critical moment. What is your best friend? Is your breathing.
And I know, brother, that I was told that one of the doctors or nurses came to see about Thay’s oxygen level in his blood and was looking at the machine and kept on tapping it. And eventually one of the monastics said, you know, What’s the problem? They said, Well, this must be wrong because it’s showing 95% or whatever oxygen level. And someone in this condition, it normally goes down to 70 or 75. And you’re just looking well, that’s obvious because Thay’s one of the best breathers in the world.
Exactly. That became our slogan: Thay is the best breather in the world. So we I did write this calligraphy saying Best breather in the world. And I said, that’s my guy, that’s my teacher. But fast forward a little bit because it’s a long story. But Thay did overcome the coma and Thay got back, opened his eyes. And what was very interesting, though, even though Thay was in a coma and I think, sister, you felt it too, Thay was very present. He was very present even though Thay was in a coma. And there were days and nights that he was still open his eyes to look at us. And I remember the first evening when in the ICU, after coming to the ICU, so this is like by day, day four or they three after the stroke. And because we saw so much movement in Thay’s eyes and we had a perception that Thay’s gonna open his eyes, like Thay’s gonaa…. And that evening it was my shift, Thay opened his eyes and he looked at us with such tender, such tender. And he put his hand on my head. And was just feeling my head gently and then to my face. And as he acknowledged his students are here for him. And then Thay just closed his eyes and went back into a rest. And wow, I just remember the teacher and student relationship it’s so powerful. So he knew that we were there and we know that he is there. So that is like the first condition is like where communication is possible when two sides are fully present. And much later on after Thay came out of the coma and Thay regained capacity to sit, capacity to drink tea, capacity to eat. And even some capacity of movement. So we were able to walk with Thay, but we had this brace. But there was one day, I was just, I was young and I was just a curious student. And because we’re always in pairs, in shifts, so there was one day I was alone with Thay just for a few minutes and I’ve been having a burning question and I think I know the answer, but I just wanted to ask my teacher. And I was too ashamed and too shy to sit with another attendant beside me. And that day we were in San Francisco, and I knelt down. And I said, Thay, please allow me to ask a question. And Thay nodded. Thay said, Yes. And I just said, Thay, are you afraid of dying? And he gave me this smirk and he put his hand on my face and patting my face like, and his facial expression was like me, afraid of dying? Are you kidding? And it was just and like a confirmation that I wanted for myself that Thay is free already. So in a way, Thay was free. So I feel free and I’m just going to be there and support it. I’m not going to strive in order to try to keep him alive longer than is necessary in a way, because then that that’s my own attachment to him. But when I got that confirmation from Thay, for some reason I just felt so free and I knew Thay was already free. But I guess this is my processing of like, how do I embrace this situation?
Thank you, brother, thank you for that deep sharing. Sister Dinh Nghiem, you looked after Thay for five and a half years. Once he moved to Thailand as well, and then Vietnam. And I think one of the things that Brother Phap Huu is sharing is about how you can be a teacher without words and about presence. Most people think the teaching is the words, but it’s what’s behind the words. And it would be lovely to share what you experienced when Thay was in his root temple in Hue, in Vietnam. How did you experience Thay and his teaching?
I would like to tell you this story. When I try to dissuade Thay to go back to Vietnam. We went to Thailand, we settled down. Everything was okay. Everything was perfect in terms of the doctor team, Thay’s hut in Thai Plum Village is beautiful with a nice view. Thay could see the mountain Khao Yai right in front of Thay. Everything was perfect. We were in a community, in a big community. The attendants could attend the activities. We were very nourished by the energy of a big sangha. The weather was nice, with lots of sunshine. Everything was comfortable. Thay’s doctors were also Thay’s students, they receivedm they were OI members. So they took care of Thay like they took care of their fathers. Everything was going very well. And then when Thay decided to go back to Vietnam, we all panicked because it was not easy at all to move to another place where you didn’t know anything, you didn’t know any doctor, any nurse, any hospital and then, like Brother Phap Huu, I waited when there was no one around.
So all is coming out today.
… aks this very, very intimate questions. And I wanted to just between Thay and I, I wanted to dissuade Thay. And I told Thay, Thay do you remember your hermitage? You remember Plum Village in France, the Upper Hamlet? I showed Thay the pictures. Wow. It’s so beautiful. This is a place where Thay feels most comfortable. Thay spend most of his life in France. Most of Thay’s fruits in the practice happened here, Thay. Why don’t we go back there? And Thay stopped for a few seconds and thought, and then very firmly Thay pointed up to the sky. Let’s go back to Vietnam. But Thay spent a few seconds to think. Before that, before those questions, before I talked to Thay continuously Thay made us understand that, Let’s go to Vietnam, no second thought. But Thay thought of the hermitage of the Upper Hamlet, of Thay’s happy time in France. But still Thay decided to go. And I still hope that Thay would change his mind. So when we got to Hue, I didn’t unpack everything, hoping that Thay would change his mind. And, sorry, before that, it was during the rainy season. It rained and rain, never stopped. People say that in Hue, it rains only twice during the season because it stops only after a month and a half or two months. And I remember during the night I slept and I heard the rain early in the morning rain, and things around my head got moldy, green moldy, you know, a piece of […] glued to the washer to massage. I was so shocked. It’s green with mold. And so on the third day I told Phap […] should I talk to Thay so that we go back to Thailand? And Thay Phap Hun […] looked at me, Don’t do that. Poor Thay. Whatever Thay wants, we need, we are here to support Thay. He just said one sentence and suddenly I dropped. I dropped everything. He’s right. We are here to support Thay, whatever Thay wants. And then I unpacked everything. And I was surprised on the fourth day, I was very happy in my raincoat, walking from the nunnery to Thay’s hut. Wow. Everything is from the mind. When you accept it, you can adapt very quickly. But if there’s some resistance, I have continued to resist and resist and would never be happy in Hue. And just one sentence from Thay Phap Hun […] that sentence went straight to my heart and I dropped, I felt so light, I dropped everything. And Thay’s presence in Hue brought so much happiness to many people in Vietnam. People came and stood during the day. They just stood around Thay’s hut, behind the fence, and just waited, waited to see Thay, when Thay went out of his hut so they could just see Thay. And then the monastics, the young monastics, the venerable monks and nuns, his old friends, his old students, and the young novices in Hue, they had the chance to take turn to come and spend the day at Thay’s hut, to help with taking care of Thay’s place, neat and clean. And every day they could have meals with Thay. And Thay didn’t say a word, and the novices who every day they spent the day with Thay and because Thay didn’t say a word, they were very attentive, fully present being around and observe Thay’s face, Thay’s smile, each of Thay’s gestures, and every time they went back to the nunnery, they had many stories to tell the other sisters. Oh, today during meal, Thay talked a lot to me with his eyes, he smiles. And Thay shared his food with the novices and they… And when Thay didn’t have appetite, how Thay shared the food with them and watched them and enjoyed looking at them eating. And every single detail the sisters saw and shared with the other sisters in the nunnery. I felt that Thay made them practice mindfulness and concentration being present 100%. Thay didn’t need to say anything. It was transmission from heart to heart, not through words. And they, the novices, and Thay were like that, without words. And they had so much to receive, to feel, to share with the other novices. Day after day, the novices, they built their love, a relationship between teacher and disciple and love between teachers and disciples. And they feel so connected with Thay. It was amazing how they feel deeply connected with Thay. And before Thay came back to Vietnam, they knew Thay through books, through through Dharma talks, in CDs and DVDs and on YouTube. Thay was someone very far away. They followed Thay’s teachings, but they had no idea about a real relationship between teacher and disciple. And during the COVID time, they couldn’t come in Thay’s room, so they still stay at the window enjoying meals with Thay. And they sang at the window and they were so happy. They were so happy. And Thay was also happy. Happiness without words. So three years and a half spent in Hue, I saw a generation of young novices in Hue, they got transmission, direct transmission and deep transmission from Thay. They will be Thay’s continuation. And of course, others who didn’t have this direct transmission, they are also continuation of Thay. But I could feel that those, this generation, it’s the connection is so deep that they get to be, like Thay Phap Huu, or me, or Sister […] Nghiem who were, who had the chance to be Thay’s attendants, who were close to Thay. I see the connection is as deep as ours. And Thay always wanted to invest in the young generation. They will be our future, the world’s future, Thay’s future. And those years Thay did it. And all Thay’s doctors were very surprised to see how Thay could handle his illness. Like, doctor […] from San Francisco, he loved Thay, he flew all the way to Hue, and he told us he could never do like Thay, Thay’s endurance is limitless. And the team of Thay’s doctors they only followed Thay to support Thay. They kept saying Thay is the one who decides. Thay decides everything. And they just follow, they followed Thay’s decision, offer their support. If Thay wanted it to stop, he could stop any time. There were moments we saw that Thay was very near, close to passing. In Hue, when we arrive to Hue, we had a meeting, we saw that Thay won’t go to the hospital. The team of doctors in Thailand will continue to take care of Thay by distance. It was not COVID time yet, and we already start to receive treatment and consultation through conference call, through internet. And there were moments when Thay was very near to passing and the doctors and we all just waited. Now is up to Thay to decide. And a few times Thay went through, got better, and we know that when Thay was still in good shape, he was very independent in terms of and Thay did everything by himself, washing clothes, cooking, we wanted to help a lot, to do a lot, but we knew that Thay could do everything by himself in his hermitage. Thay didn’t like to rely on the attendants for, you know, for daily tasks. So being dependent on his attendants is not something easy for Thay. We understood it. And still Thay continued for seven years and a half being dependent on others. We understood that it was very difficult and out of compassion Thay continued until the end.
And sister, a couple of things. You talk about this deep connection between Thay and his students, this heart to heart connection, no words but deep recognition. Having gone through that and been a witness and to be present to that, what has it taught you about life and about how you want to practice into the future?
Now what I want to do is to continue continue to practice for myself and also to take care of my younger sisters. Because I want to continue what Thay did. And I also see that it’s so important to share with them, to transmit with them what they have directly received from Thay because they will continue. I’m already 53 years old now and they will continue. Plum Village’s future, Thay’s future, they will continue it.
I would like to share with you another kind of relationship that deeply touched me. When I, during the funerals, I was in Thay’s room and next to Thay’s room we put an altar with Thay’s picture. And many people came to look at Thay’s bed and touched the earth before Thay’s picture. And many people talked to Thay. And one monk, I see this money everywhere on YouTube. Now he’s quite well known, a Vietnamese man. He gives lots of teachings, lots of Dharma talks. And he didn’t see me. I was in Thay’s bedroom. And then I heard his gentle voice like he talked to Thay in person. He said something like, I never saw Thay in person, but since I was a novice, I’ve been reading Thay’s books, I listen Thay’s Dharma talks, and Thay, you don’t know how much you have given me, how much impact you are on my life, in my life. I’ve never seen… I’m your, I am your disciple. What I am saying, the teachings I’m giving, it’s your teachings. It’s your words. You have changed my life and everything I have now is from you. I’m your disciple. And after a few sentences, I stepped out to look at that monk, who is he? And then I found out that, Oh, I saw him on YouTube everywhere. And listening to him, I cried. And it touched me so deep that just through the teachings many people can also build a relationship, a deep relationship like that. The young novices may be the young, the novices in Hue who were lucky to, who saw Thay every day, they were lucky. And I think that Thay’s presence, Thay helped those who don’t have strong practice. And thanks to the presence, direct contact, concrete contacts, it helped them to build that relationship. But there are those who don’t need the direct contact and they still can view such a deep relationship if they can make good use of Thay’s teachings and practice, and they can feel the practice and Thay’s presence in their bones, in their body, and they still can feel that deep relationship. And that monk I stood behind him, he didn’t know that I was listening to him. He gave me a very deep teaching, very moving teaching.
And sister, and Brother Phap Huu, I want to just to stay with this for one moment, because in the West, there’s so much emphasis on words and you’re talking about presence. And it would be really lovely for our listeners, sister, what is presence? How would you describe Thay’s presence? And then maybe, Phap Huu, you… Because it’s such a critical difference because it’s about the embodiment, isn’t it? It’s not about the words. It’s not about the image. There’s something that’s so deep in what it is to unify oneself. But I’d love to hear from you, sister, and then Brother Phap Huu, what… When you say Thay’s presence… What do you mean?
When you are full in your mind with worries, with plans, with projects, you cannot be totally present. The sisters, when they came to Thay’s hut, right away, right away they felt an energy, an energy of calmness, of peace. They dropped everything behind. Sometimes they had some conflict with other sisters in the nunnery. They dropped everything behind. They knew that today is their day to spend with Thay, it’s a special day. So they dropped everything behind, and when they went to Thay’s hut they are empty, their minds were empty, they dropped everything behind. Their minds were empty and they just focused on Thay, on themselves. And because their minds were empty, they could receive a lot. They were in the present moment. They didn’t think of what happened in the nunnery, the conflict that just happened. And they were aware that this is a special moment. And when the minds were empty, they just relax, they would just relax and observe Thay with mindfulness. They are present for Thay. And because they are present for Thay, they saw what’s going on on Thay’s face. When Thay changes a little bit of expression right away, they were aware of it, did a gesture, they were aware of it. They were aware of everything what was going on in Thay and at Thay’s attendance around and that’s why they could receive the energy, the transmission.
So it’s like almost a perfect communication because there’s no barrier to the exchange.
The energy is very important. I remember, like Thay Phap Huu said, I always look back of myself and check my energy. Like Thay Phap Huu said, what we wanted to offer to Thay was our energy, our energy of peace, the freshness. When we don’t use the words, we use energy and we are more sensitive with energy, the other person’s energy as well as our energy.
Brother Phap Huu is there anything you want to add to that, because, and again, in the Plum Village tradition, the word often uses Thay’s transmission. It’s not just Thay’s speaks or Thay tells, but there’s a transmission which is happening at a deep level. So is there anything you want to add to what sister was just saying?
You know, just listening to Sister Dinh Nghiem retell all the stories, like a lot of images and experiences with Thay also came up in my consciousness and I just want to emphasize a little bit on Thay’s presence because I helped train a lot of attendants to become Thay’s attendant. And one of the things I always tell all of my young brothers and sisters, who is up to their turn to be his attendant, is I tell them that Thay is going to be very present. What you have to do is be present. That’s the first and the most important step in order to be Thay’s attendant. To be his attendant, you have to be attentive because his energy is just presence and you got to match that. And if you don’t, you don’t have to, like, fully match it, but you have to have some certain level of mindfulness or else, like the two waves don’t match in harmony and order, and then the experience will become very different. Because I’ve had brothers who are an attendant for the day and they can’t wait until the day ends. Because they cannot match Thay’s wavelength or Thay’s energy, and they’re in their minds so much. They’re just so tense. They’re so tight. They’re so afraid of doing things wrong. They’re so in their mind that I need to be perfect. I needed to do that. And you, you’re creating all of this story. But if you let go, and you just practice the Dharma that Thay gives, thay he has offered us, which is the first Dharma Seal of Plum Village, I have arrived, I’m at home. Just be in the present moment, and things will unfold. And that is one of the most important ingredient to receive anything from Thay. Like, of course, like let’s say we’re listening to a Dharma talk, we’re listening to a YouTube video, we’re listening to a recording. It’s going to be very different if we’re all very present rather than we’re just jogging. I know a lot of us are listening to this as we’re jogging, but this is not a criticism, but it’s just it’s just saying that when you listen to a teaching specifically from someone such as Thay and you sit upright, you are present, the transmission and your understanding becomes much deeper because you’re so there, you’re so present. So that’s one of the things that Thay’s always offering to us when we are around him, especially when Thay is not speaking. For us, when we were with him, like I, every time before coming into the room and wherever Thay was staying, whether it was in the Hermitage in France or it was at the hospital or it was in Thailand or it was in Vietnam, before seeing Thay, I always take a few moments to arrive, because if I don’t, I feel like it’s almost like I’m rude. It’s like a little bit like it’s disrespectful in a way. It’s kind of like when you encounter somebody so peaceful and present and gentle and loving, and you see them on your path, you just want to slow down in order to take that essence in you. And you would lose so much if you are unmindful when you sit and you just pass them. Or I would feel like, well, it is such a dishonor to the conditions that I have right in front of me. And one of the one of the things that that I recognize in Thay is he is limitless in offering. So like whenever he would see his students like what Sister Dinh Nghiem shared, he’s so attentive that he has students even though he doesn’t have an appetite, he’s going to still sit there because he knows that moment that he is with them he is transmitting his energy of mindfulness, his energy of peace, his energy of compassion. Everything that he has cultivated is there. The only question is on the other end, if we are present in receiving that. And when I was taking care of Thay, especially after we came back from the hospital, when Thay was regaining all of his movement, his right side though was paralyzed. And one of the most tender moments, and the most beautiful moments that I witnessed was Thay taking care of his right hand, because his right hand was now paralyzed, which he didn’t have control of. And everything Thay had to shift to his left side. Eating, drinking a cup of tea, pointing, directing. And there was one day, because we we did have a hope that Thay would regain capacity in his right side, because we believed that Thay’s mind consciousness is so strong, and Thay’s will is so powerful, and Thay was putting a lot of energy in regaining his right side. And, of course, we try, we push, we strive, but there is always going to be a moment when we have to be tender to ourselves. And there was one day with his left hand, he took his right hand and he put his right hand on his cheek. So his left cheek can feel his right hand, and with his left hand he was patting his right hand down with such tender, with such love, and with such care. And then he took his right hand down, he put it on his lap and just gently, like a scan, a mindful scan and a transmission of tender and love, and he was just feeling from his shoulders, to his bicep, to his arm, his wrist, his hands, his fingers. And it was such a tender moment of loving oneself and accepting the situation. And I was standing from behind just witnessing this moment. Because a part of me, there’s a part of me that was really pushing and striving so that Thay can regain and thinking that happiness is when Thay gets back his right hand. But in that moment, when Thay was so tender and so loving to his hand I felt this is awareness of body, accepting body and embracing it with the present moment.
And there was, I felt like this gentleness in Thay, and like this freedom in Thay, as well as freedom that he was transmitting to us, which were his support. Because if we’re going to keep striving for it, then we’re also pushing this energy towards Thay. But like I Sister Ding Nghiem shared, like Thay is also very mindful of his capacity and he was always reflecting on his body every day. What more can I do in order to care and to regain? And then there were such tender moments when we were like, Thay, let’s do some exercise. And then Thay would point at the teapots, like, Let’s drink some tea. Such a Zen master still is our teacher. And for me, it was so important because as his attendant, our idea was like Thay just needs to regain everything and that is quote unquote, happiness. And I started to change my own role of being his assistant. Do the best I can to support him, but also understanding the beauty of the present moment. And that gives Thay freedom and that gives myself freedom because the more we have expectation, the more we have desire, and it’s all in our mind that we are creating what is happiness. But when we let go and like Thay said, let’s just drink a cup of tea. This is still a beautiful moment. I am with you and I will never, I’ll never forget, even after Thay was paralyzed on his right side, knowing that now we were at the Hermitage and normally Thay would sit with a host, so he would like to make the tea, invite us. Even though we’ve been his students for 16,17 years, Thay would still treat us as a very treasured guests. And that morning we came to Thay’s living room at the Hermitage, and Thay pointed to the tea to instruct me to make the tea, but Thay with his left hand invited me as the host and put the cup of tea in front of me. And pointed to the tea like, Enjoy it. And it was such a beautiful moment where I felt like Thay is always free because his capacity of dwelling happily in the present moment. The simple teaching of the Buddha, this teaching that Thay has offered thousands of time to us. In any moment if you have that key, that present moment is the most beautiful and wondrous moment you can enjoy. And that presence was ingrained in every moment with Thay, even after the stroke, and even though Thay couldn’t to speak, Thay was still in control of his happiness. And what I was very attentive to is also Thay’s awareness of his own energy, especially when he was sick. He would know when to rest, know when to practice and then when to go for walks. Cause he would point to us, Thay wants to go on a walk, meaning we put Thay on Thay’s wheelchair and we would go for a walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet, Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet, Thailand, at the root temple Tu Hieu Pagoda, etc.. So this energy of practice Thay kept alive. And what I will never forget, when we were in San Francisco, we were, we had a routine to take care of Thay. We were in S.F., San Francisco, USA, because Thay was getting a lot of medical support there and the team was very generous in offering Thay the support he needs in order to regain speech, regain movement. So this is 2015, so right after the stroke. And as the body of attendants, we were probably like almost 15 of us. So we were a Sangha. We were like a little Sangha in San Francisco and we needed to maintain our practice also. So we established sitting meditation every morning and Thay would join us every morning. But there was one morning that Thay missed the meditation because Thay, he didn’t miss it, but because we wanted Thay to sleep a little, a little longer, because during that time, like Thay’s sleep was very inconsistent. And we know sleep is an element of healing. So we all told each other, when Thay can sleep, let’s let Tay sleep. But we’re in this really community kind of house that was offered to us for the conditions for caring for Thay. So you can hear the bells, you can hear the morning chant of the monks and nuns, which we all rotated in doing. And that morning Thay woke up and Thay saw the clock and Thay knew he was late and he pointed to his robe telling to put on my robe and Thay was very proper. So it’s our tradition as monastics that whenever we go to formal practice we have to wear our long robe because that’s the energy we want to enter into, that we’re very present from our form and inside our mind. But then when we were almost arriving into the meditation hall, the bell was invited and the chat begins. […] right? And then the rule in the monastery is once the bell starts, you can’t enter, you’re late. Because you don’t want to disturb the others that have already enter in meditation. So Thay, with his left hand, he made a stopping signal and he pointed back to his room. And so then he just sat on his wheelchair in the window of his room. But after that, every morning, Thay would make sure he’s never late for a sitting meditation. And there was one day he kept waking up, but it was only 3 a.m., and then 4 a.m.. And I was like, Thay, I promise you, when it’s 5:00, I’ll wake you up and we’re all going to go to meditation. And Thay looked at me with, like eyes saying remember, like, remember to wake me up. And I will never forget that moment because something as valuable and simple as his sitting with the community was so important to Thay. And we’re sitting in Thay’s hut, and there’s a phrase in his room that says, The joy of meditation is daily food. And I really felt that every minute that Thay had with the community was his daily food. So he was still able to deeply connect to the practice body and the Sangha body and the spiritual stream of practice. He never, ever let it stop. And this was a transition of like from sickness, a stroke coming out not in one moment that he stopped practicing. And for me, it’s like I want to invest, I have so much faith in the practice, and I see so much beauty in the simple practice that we sometimes take for granted where we think, okay, this is too basic or this is just fundamental. But what I realize in the most dire situation, what you can always come back to is the fundamental, which is recognizing the present moment. How do I take care of the present moment? How do I change my view of the situation? I can’t use my right hand, which I’ve written so many poems, so many calligraphies, all of the books. But this is a moment not to hate my right hand, but to love it.
So it’s, as I’m listening to you both, what I am feeling is that, you know, Thay is not superhuman, but Thay has finessed and deepened and focused and taken the time and energy to show what’s possible for us. So what I’m hearing is an invitation to us all not to be like Thay, but to show that if we are able to be attentive, to be mindful, to be ourselves, to come back to ourselves in the present moment, then we can taste that aspect of Thay. And so in a sense, Thay is that sense of the true bodhisattva. He’s holding the door open for us all should we choose to step through. Sister Dinh Nghiem, I’m just wondering if you could share a little about Thay’s last days, because what you’ve spoken of is, you know, that there are many times where Thay could have passed. And in a sense then came back and there were times where he didn’t eat for a long time or drink, but then he would come back and his energy would return. And then, of course, one day it didn’t. And I’m just wondering what your sense of Thay was in those last days about what you either sensed in him about the letting go and what your experience was of him passing and of the energy of that moment.
We noticed that the last few months Thay’s strength slowly went down more and more. But the last week Thay was very present. Sister Chan Khong was there and talking to Thay, telling Thay that Oh, we know that Thay wants to be with this to encourage us to practice brotherhood and sisterhood more and more. Maybe we didn’t practice well enough. That’s why Thay continued to be there in Hue, but do you know Thay, now, is much better. We can embrace. We can love everyone here in Hue. Now we accept all the brothers and all the sisters in Hue. I can feel that there’s really sisterhood and brotherhood. And Sister Chan Khong continued to talk about the fruits of our practice. Thay listened very carefully. Sister […] also told Thay stories and Thay listened. It was close to Lunar New Year and the weather suddenly turned beautiful with sunshine and we prepared for Lunar New Year. We wanted to do deep cleaning in Thay’s hut. We even, Thay allowed us to move his bed to the next room to clean his room. Every corner, every corner is super clean and neat. And then Sister […] made a beautiful painting right at Thay’s view. The picture, a beautiful painting of one of Thay’s dreams. One night Thay dreamed that Thay went up the […] with the Buddha, and in the dream Thay was the Buddha’s attendant and they had walking meditation with a little boy who was here in Plum Village during the first years. It was a happy time in the mountain with the Buddha. The Buddha also wore a robe like Thay, not the traditional robe of the Buddha’s time. So Sister […] made this beautiful painting and Thay enjoyed the painting. Thay enjoy the chrysanthemums, yellow golden chrysanthemums outside the window. People knew that Thay loved those flowers, so they offer and Thay really enjoyed Lunar New Year. It was not Lunar New Year, but we felt that Thay was celebrating Lunar New Year. It was very peaceful and joyful atmosphere. It was one day before Thay passed away. And then, that day, that particular day, around 4 p.m. I was very surprised to see the vital signs, Thay’s vital signs were upside down. The level of oxygen went down and then the heart beat, everything was upside down. Right away I let Sister […] know to contact the doctors right away. And then we tried to massage Thay, like usual. And then it was a little bit better. And then it continued until midnight, 1:00. And we understood until 11, around 11 p.m. and then I understood that this time Thay won’t go through.
How was Thay during his passing and after that, in terms of your sensing of his energy and presence and…
Thay was very peaceful and we felt that Thay was very compassionate. He waited for everyone to be there. Sister […] who is the contact person with the doctors, usually she didn’t come in the afternoon, late afternoon she didn’t come, but that day, because I reported to her that the vital signs were upside down. So she came and she realized that it was serious. And she, as soon as she were there with Thay, she was deeply moved. She felt that Thay could pass away before she came. But she could feel that Thay allowed and Thay waited for her. Thay made it happen that she was there to be with Thay. Those moments were very peaceful, was very peaceful moment. And Thay was with his attendants, with Sister Chan Khong. The others, they later on are the monks in the temple. They said, Oh, you should right away invite the venerable monks and nuns who come and accompany Thay. But we know that, as always, Thay has been very shy. And Thay likes to be in a small circle with his students and they never wanted to bother anyone. And later on, a few hours, a few hours later, the venerable monks and nuns came to pay respect to Thay. But yes, some people said that we should have invited them. But we felt that that’s what Thay wanted. Just a small circle, like a simple person.
Because Thay was until the end, a simple monk.
So, sister, is there anything else you want to share about this Thay, about teaching without words.
I already shared with you Thay taught his students, especially his young novices, in way how to be fully present, how to live in the present moment without words. They just put into practice when they were with Thay, right away they practice it. I remember that at the beginning, like Thay Phap Huu said, we all tried to support Thay to regain speech, to regain everything. Thay sang a lot. We sang with Thay. We invited speech therapist from the United States to come and train Thay to speak. But with time, Thay’s strength, Thay got weaker and weaker. And then Thay also lost his singing, his speech. But in the year 2019, Thay still had some energy and we invited the same speech therapist from the United States to come there. The first two days, the first two days, she was so excited because Thay improved a lot and Thay could say very clearly [Speaks Vietnamese] Drink your tea. And the speech therapist was very excited. And then she came back the next day, but on the third day, Thay just smiled at her. Smiled to her. Thay didn’t want to practice anymore. And then Thay put his hand on her head to show his love and gratitude to her and refused to continue to practice. And she, because of her etiquette, she still continued hoping that the next day Thay will practice again until her departure. But we understood that for Thay at that time, Thay didn’t need speech and Thay felt the presence was very important and Thay wanted to preserve his energy so that he could be present as long as he could for his students. And I remember when Thay Phap Huu told stories, I remember one story I was called at by Thay and we were in the Hermitage. At that time Thay got sick, but Thay didn’t have the stroke yet. We were, I was withThay Phap Huu, with Sister […] , Sister […] and I wanted Thay’s place to be perfect, perfectly clean and neat. So I clean up, clean up silently, I clean up. And I didn’t stop until Thay said, Dinh Nghiem, stop. Thay wanted my presence. Thay wanted to remind me that the presence is very important. And I kept cleaning, cleaning, and I was not present for Thay. Brother Phap Huu still remembers.
I’ve witnessed many for myself, too.
Yes. And we want to do a lot for Thay, but many times Thay reminded us that the presence is, our presence is very important. Thay needed our presence. Thay didn’t want to see us working, working, working all the time.
Sister, think we’re probably coming thin, but I just want to go back to one thing about Thay’s passing, just to return to that moment. Sister Dinh Nghiem, I just wanted to ask, at the moment of Thay’s passing, when you were present with him, what was your experience? What was it that you went through at that moment? How did the teachings for you? What is it that was going through your sensing right at that moment and in the minutes afterwards?
The second when I realized that, Oh, Thay won’t go through, I panicked. It lasted for 2 seconds. Oh, no, I can’t believe it. Because Thay went through moments like that many times. So that evening I still believe that Thay would go through and when the doctor in a conference call, the doctor and the nurse said No, he doesn’t get better. And I panicked for 2 seconds. And right away I accepted because I’ve been preparing, I prepared for that moment, like Brother Phap Huu said, in the year 2014 we were not ready. But after Thay went through that moment, we all practiced to prepare because we knew that the moment would come. So after those 2 seconds of panic, right away I came back to myself and be ready. Yes, I’m ready. And right away the desire to, the desire to continue to take care of Thay continued. So we still had many things to do, the funerals, to communicate with other centers in Plum Village, so right away I turn to the other brothers and sisters and organized to clean up everything and be ready because many people would come to pay respect to Thay. So right away we prepared the place. I texted Sister Hien Nghiem, Brother Phap Huu. And during seven days I always kept my phone with me whatedever happen over there, right away, I sent news to Brother Phap Huu. I was aware that everyone far away, all Thay students far away were waiting for news. I didn’t sleep. And sometimes I slept with the phone next to me. And we prepare everything. And we let Thay’s body on a kind of bed for people to come and pay respects. And for one day Thay’s body was there. After one day we had the ceremony to invite Thay’s body into the coffin. But those 24 minutes, according to the tradition, we should have covered his face. But I told the brothers and sisters, No, we don’t cover. Let Thay students far away to see Thay’s face for the last time. And then I remember the old monk, the senior monk in the temple who is now like acting abbot of our root temple. He came and he right away he said, Why should you leave Thay’s face uncovered? Please. And right away he covered. And he waited. He left, and we uncovered it. We thought of all our brothers and sisters, our friends in France, in the United States. We knew that they all turned towards Thay and wanted to see you Thay for the last time. So there were so many things to do for Thay. And then we continued to stay in Thay’s room to make sure that no one came in and…
And take Thay’s stuff.
Yeah. Thank you. Because everyone wanted to keep something as a souvenir as…
His pillow, his blanket, scarf, slipper. There was that kind of grasping.
And sister, how were you feeling inside? Because you said you were busy, but what was going on inside you at that moment?
At that moment, I felt like I continued to be the Thay’s attendant. Now I have other things to do. I got it. We got it, Thay’s body. We got it, Thay’s energy. Thay’s plays to keep it like that for other people to come and feel and enjoy. We wanted to… I felt like, yes, we continue to be Thay’s attendant. And now I see that we continue to maintain Plum Village, to keep Thay’s energy. So we continue.
And sister, my final question is, after five and a half years, you’re now back in Plum Village. We’re sitting in Thay’s hut, in Upper Hamlet. And you have returned and is it the same Sister Dinh Nghiem that is returned, that left? And also, what is your wish now? I mean, you said obviously you want to continue Thay’s teachings, but what does it feel like to be back? How have you changed? And what is it that you would like to contribute?
When I stepped back to the New Hamlet, I was in tears. And now, here and there, everywhere, I saw Thay’s traces, Thay’s footsteps. I saw souvenirs from time to time. And tears came out. But I see that now I’m much stronger. Before, I was shy, but now I’m like a warrior. I feel that I have much more courage to do whatever I need to do. Like when Brother Phap Huu asked me to come here for this, seven years ago, I could say no. And before I came back, Sister Hien Nghiem and Sister […] Nghiem asked me for interviews, my questions are always yes. Now, whenever my brother and sisters ask me to do, I always say yes. I just do my best, but I don’t want to say no. I want to to continue Thay, to share whatever I have received from Thay. I feel the responsibility to share to others, I don’t keep for myself. And I feel the responsibility to maintain and to continue to develop what Thay has built during his whole life. So on one hand, tears come up to me several times a day. But on the other hand, I feel much stronger.
Thank you, sister, for sharing. And just to say that there are many listeners of this podcast who would call themselves students of Thay. There are others who may be just learning about Buddhism. But, sister, on a personal note, just to show mine and I’m sure our listeners appreciation of your care. I mean, I think what we haven’t, you haven’t shared is just the extraordinary dedication, commitment, time, resources, effort, patience, love, tenderness, warmth, determination. It’s such an honor to sit with two warriors because, you know, I see that in both of you. It’s a, you know, the courage, determination to stand up and be counted and to represent this extraordinary practice, 2600 years, and to bring it into this moment fully alive, fully vibrant, and to share it in such a beautiful way that gives permission for other people to step up and be present. It’s an enormous gift. So Sister Dinh Nghiem, Brother Phap Huu, what a pleasure to have spent this intimate time with you. Thank you.
Thank you, Jo. Thank you, Brother Phap Huu. When Thay Phap Huu flew to Hue and Thay hugged him, Thay held him, Thay showed his love for him. Thay and we all knew we were aware of his responsibility. And he had to go back to the Upper Hamlet to take care of the Sangha.
At a critical moment.
Yes. I’m full of gratitude for Brother Phap Huu. And over there we were always very proud, especially during the pandemic, Plum Village was the first Buddhist center that organized…
Yes. We were very proud. And then slowly other centers they copied, they followed.
How successful and how beautifully they were done.
Dear friends, thank you so much for joining us for this very intimate and moving podcast. If you enjoyed it, then there are plenty more to listen to and you can find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, on other platforms that carry podcasts, and also on our very own Plum Village App.
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support future episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.tnhf.org/donate Doughnut.
Let’s keep that on. We’re not editing that out, brother.
I prefer doughnut actually.
Thank you very much and we’ll see you next time.
The way out is in.
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