Welcome to episode fifteen 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.
In this episode, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino, talk about the art of community living, and take a closer look at the Plum Village community’s four decades of existence.
The conversation touches upon key friendships – like that between Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh; ‘the beloved community’; collective energy; the spirit of togetherness; sustaining a community; deep listening; the importance of the sangha (a community of practitioners) for individuals’ practice of mindfulness. And: can two people form a community?
As abbot of Upper Hamlet and former attendant to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother Phap Huu shares inspiring inside stories from the Plum Village community, including unexpected turns of events; the impact on the community of practitioners of Thay’s withdrawal from public life; the secrets to a resilient and harmonious community; sharing opinions versus voting. What is it like to lead a community as a young abbot or abbess? And can you guess Thay’s true ‘masterpiece’?
Jo muses on the importance of vulnerability and of a conscious community; dharma sharing; and how sanghas he joined in different countries impacted his own practice.
The episode ends with a short meditation on community and friendship, guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Loving Speech & Deep Listening
International Sangha Directory
Martin Luther King Jr.
Dharma Talks: ‘Beloved Community’
Brothers in the Beloved Community
Letter from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. nominating Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967
“Community living is complex, difficult, and needs a lot of openness, deep listening, and negotiation.”
“In the Buddhist language, there’s a teaching on letting go. So we have to really learn to let go of our own ideas of what happiness is, what success is, and to see that our individual happiness is not an individual matter, but that happiness is actually a collective matter. Like, when I’m happy, I think you’ll be happy. And when you suffer, I will also suffer. Maybe not directly, but I can feel it from you. I can also find a way to support you, though. And so, community living is a practice in itself.”
“Our spirit is that everyone shares their opinion and we sit in a circle. So whenever we share an opinion, it’s not about ‘me’; we’re sharing it for the collective community.”
“When Thay says, ‘We don’t need one Buddha, we need many Buddhas’, that is the heart of what is now known as distributed leadership. The world is very complex, so you cannot have one leader who knows everything. What you need to do is give people in each area the responsibility and the accountability that goes with it, rather than having one person at the top of the pyramid. And Plum Village has been doing that for 40 years now.”
“Thay said, ‘We’re all allowed to suffer. Suffering is a noble truth that is taught in Buddhism, it’s a gem that the Buddha gave to us to have insight. But our responsibility is also to practice with our suffering.’ So, I can suffer, but I’m not just going to go and vent everywhere about it and complain; that’s not the spirit. We all suffer, we all have difficulties, but our practice is to acknowledge it, take care of it, embrace it, and find ways to transform it. And that is very key in our community.”
“We often complain that if we’re to avoid climate change or to deal with social injustice, we are reliant on our leaders to change everything. Yes, of course we need leaders to change things, of course we need policy, of course we need people to change – but, actually, we need to change too. And if everyone takes responsibility for their own contribution, then the world will start to change.”
“Everyone, especially men, we hear a problem and want to solve it. But often people don’t need it to be solved. They need it to be shared, and so it is called dharma sharing for that very reason.”
“In a group setting, each person who shares will at some point share an aspect of themselves – because the whole purpose of Thay’s teaching is about interbeing, that I’m not by myself alone. If you’re suffering but I’m quite happy, it doesn’t mean I have to take on your suffering. But it does mean that, at some level, I recognize your suffering and feel for you in the same way as if I was experiencing it myself.”
“When we want to walk the path that offers us strength, compassion, love, understanding, it’s much easier to do so with friends around you that support it. We call that conditions. And that’s why we say that in spirituality it is so important to have friends. It’s like eating rice with soup. Sometimes the rice can be so dry – but soup helps you swallow. So sometimes friendships are like that sweet, gentle support, that soup that helps you slide through the difficulties more easily.”
Hello and welcome to another episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today we’re going to be focusing on the art of community living. There are many people who recognize that living a life of individualism is no longer attractive and want to be part of a community. But community living is complex, difficult and needs a lot of openness, deep listening and negotiation. And we’re going to look at how does Plum Village, which has been here for nearly 40 years, do exactly that?
The way out is in.
Brother Phap Huu, so next year, Plum Village is going to celebrate its 40th anniversary, and that is a big thing because we know that there are lots of people who want to live in community. There are lots of people who can come together with a common idea, a common wish of how they want to live. But often these communities do not last very long. They get riven by people’s complaints or people wanting it to be this way or that way. And often they fail and people go their separate ways. Plum Village is a rare example where that’s not the case. So let’s talk about community living. Tell us a bit about what it’s like to be part of a community in Plum Village. And how have you survived this long?
Thank you, Jo. Next year is our anniversary: 40 years. And reflecting on it, I also asked the same question, like, how are we still here? And how can we still preserve our community so that it can continue for generations, many years to come? And looking into the sangha, there’s so many layers and there’s so many aspects of it, but what I recognize is that having core members are so important; people who understand the vision of the community and understand the life that the community wants to offer, and a lot of practice of what we call learning to go as a river, learning to be one with everyone that is here. And in the Buddhist language, there’s a teaching on letting go. So we have to really learn to let go of our own ideas, of what happiness is, what success is, and to see that our individual happiness is not an individual matter, but happiness is actually a collective matter. Like, when I’m happy, I think you’ll be happy, Jo. And when you suffer, I will also suffer. Maybe not directly, because that is your experience, but I can feel it from you and I can find a way to support you, though. And so, community living is a practice in itself. And for our spiritual community one of the reason why it still lasts is that we didn’t start this tradition too, it has come from the time of the Buddha through all of the different spiritual teachers down the line. And we come from a Zen tradition and in our sangha, in our community, the core community are the monastics. So they are what glue the community together and becomes a refuge. And I think that is very important.
So there are many nationalities here. So there are people from South America, from Europe, from the US, et cetera, et cetera. And each comes and becomes a monastic, but they come with their family traditions, their own particular educational systems, their own cultural traditions. And then on top of that, you’ve got this complexity that you’ve got this Western tradition, and then a lot of the monastics also come from Vietnam because Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese, and he has brought that tradition to the West. That’s a lot of different – so you talk about one river – but that’s a lot of streams entering the river. How do you start to work? Because you’re the abbot. You have a meeting and you’re going to get all this complexity coming into one place. Give give me a sense of how do you start to work with all those differences coming into one place? So it’s a completely get common vision, common practices, common aspiration, wish to help suffering in the world, and therefore obviously that’s internalized as well to endure and suffering. But even with all that, it’s difficult.
Yes, it’s difficult, but at the same time is very rich. And that’s why I always joke around and I always tell my friends who ask me, like, ‘How’s life in Plum Village?’ And I always say, ‘There’s never a boring day’, because we are so diverse and there’s so many different layers in this colorful community. I would go directly to the core teaching of the Buddha to help me navigate in relationship with the differences in the community, and that is to understand our members. When you start to have a lens and an ear to listen and to see them from not what they are just saying or their energy that they give out through the way of being, but you have time to get to know them. You get to see who they are, what are their difficulties, what is their happiness? You start to see that, ‘Oh, they have some suffering’ and somehow that really soften these perceptions that we create for one another, because we all have an idea that we are perfect and we want others to be perfect. But we know that perfection is just a concept. In reality, no one is perfect and to be able to pass that threshold there’s a practice in our tradition. We call it ‘deep listening’ as well as ‘learning to communicate’. We say ‘loving speech’. But communication, as an abbot, I’ve learned that it’s not through just words, it’s also by action, is by caring, is by just being present. Sometimes just a hand on the shoulder of someone that you love can make a whole difference. So I, as an abbot, many people ask me, ‘What do you do as an abbot?’ And, you know, what was really difficult for me was also I was discovering what it meant to be an abbot because I am the third abbot of Upper Hamlet, and we’re only forty years. So it’s still young. I still think our community is still very young compared to other tradition that have like hundreds of years of history. And our teacher started to ordain monastic students at a later age in his career, so a lot of us coming in were young, fresh, energetic, but also innocent and naive sometimes, I would say. And therefore, like, our structures were still in the making. So when I came in, I didn’t have like a manual of how to be abbot, but I had to be very attentive how Thay was guiding our community. Thay is our teacher. And I would also see what is in my capacity that I can do to guide the community. And I did ask Thay, what does it mean to be an abbot or an abbess for the sisters’ community? And Thay has shared with me directly, as well as he later on shared in dharma talks, in Thay’s vision, an abbot or an abbess is like a father and a mother of the community that has enough space in them that they can generate loving kindness and compassion to see and to hear the community. And we’re talking about hundreds of people in our community and different layers – from monastic members to those who are aspiring to become monastic and in those who want to live with us long term for one year, two years, and then our day weekly guests and daily guests. So if you put all that into the picture of a day or a week, it looks like I don’t have that much time. But I started to understand more and more the role of an abbot is to listen, to be present is very key. And being present is not as easy as you think because when you are truly present with someone, you’re not on your phone while someone’s talking to you, you’re not looking at the nature, then that person won’t feel like you’re there with them. You are actually looking at them, you are listening to them with your full attention. And if you don’t have the capacity to be still and have some sort of solidity in you, then you can be very reactive. And then once you start to react, then you close the door of communication on the other side. So of course, I love hearing wonderful stories from my brothers and sisters. I love hearing about their success. I love hearing about their joy in the day or their insight in the practice. But part of our practice is learning to look at suffering also. And that is difficult, I admit, because once you hear somebody suffers, your mind starts to create a story, say, ‘What did we do wrong?’, ‘Is the practice not working for him or her?’, ‘Is he or she misunderstanding the practice?’, ‘Is he or she misunderstanding the way of the sangha, the way of the community?’, ‘Does he or she not yet see this community as family?’ So you start to create all of these perceptions, which normally is like, ‘What is wrong?’, and then you start to listen to your own judgment. And I’ve caught myself so many times through listening to members of my community that just listen, don’t jump to any conclusion. And that’s a real practice, that’s a practice of presence, and a practice of openness. And if you can listen like that, I think the other person already feel supported because they’re able to truly open their heart, show what they are afraid of showing. And that is healing in itself. And maybe you don’t need to do or say anything, but sometimes in the sharing, that person have insight as they are reviewing themselves the suffering, why they share or the difficulty. So, you know, deep listening and presence is so crucial. And the other aspect is learning to be friends. And, you know, my name Phap Huu means Dharma Friend, True Dharma Friend. And I see that to be an abbot is also learning to be friends with everyone. And being a friend there’s so many layers to it also, and it doesn’t mean like you have to love everyone equally, because truthfully we all have energies and vibes. Some people will connect to much more, some people we like, but we don’t yet vibe with them. And then some people, you know… I’ve met people who I don’t know them at all and somehow my mind just says, ‘I don’t like them’. And, you know, this is just the truth. But the practice of a friend or an openness is like, have space for them, allow them to be who they are and see them for who they are. Because in the practice, we learn that we all have many seeds in us, seeds of qualities of happiness, qualities of beauties, of peace, of mind, mindfulness, of understanding. And everyone also has seeds of greed, jealousy, fear, anger. But that’s also in me. And if I know that that person also has all these other qualities and they are more than just what I am perceiving of them. And sometimes we don’t allow ourselves to see the people in front of us. So, you know, as an abbot, I also learn to be a friend, and that is a practice that will take me from day to years. And there’s some members in my community that many years ago I didn’t get along with but today I can work shoulder by shoulder with them and we are totally in harmony.
And brother, sort of that idea of deep listening, I mean, part of the time I’m a coach, and it’s very, very similar that sense of deep listening, which is to create a space that is a almost a crucible, a vessel in which it’s completely safe. So when people speak, they know that they are held, and as you say, that often for a lot of people, they don’t get that opportunity. The people around are busy, as you say, they’re judgmental. As soon as they hear a story, they want to tell their story in response or they want to give their interpretation. But actually, what people most want is just to be recognized, just to be heard, just to be able to open up without fear or favor, without a sense that they will be held to account for it. And the other thing is, as you say about a friend, when I coach people, I personally do not like sort of this approach of some psychotherapists where they’re almost like an empty vessel, they almost just ask questions, but they don’t respond. I think people do want friends. They do want to actually feel that there’s someone who’s on their side, someone who’s actually engaged with them, someone who’s feeling into them, someone who’s offering them their own experience. Is this valid for you? Is this fair? And I always remember when I was working at The Guardian, we set up some sort of employee feedback questionnaires and we had a company that came in and there was something like we asked about like 70 – 80 questions. And there was one question which said, ‘Do you have a friend, a best friend at work or do you have a friend at work?’ And it was sort of No. 45 or whatever. And I also remember that the company we worked with said that is the most important question in the whole lot. That if people have a real friend and they’re going, they’re suffering or they’re finding it difficult, the fact that they’ve got a friend will just make all the difference. Where they don’t have a friend at work and they suffer, then it can easily spiral down. So I sort of really get that sense of deep listening. But with love, as you say, is loving kindness. It’s not just an empty space. You say, ‘Oh, I’m listening, but I’m not there for you’. It’s actually listening with a deep sense of being and of location to.. ‘I’m here, I’m here for you’.
Yeah. And you know, when I joined the monastic community, I always heard Thay talk about brotherhood and sisterhood. And later on, Thay has shared that brotherhood and sisterhood is the essence of our community. That is one of the things that we have to practice every day. And that is another way of talking about friendship because in brotherhood and sisterhood, you don’t only accept or be with those who are joyful, bubbly, because that’s too easy. But brotherhood and sisterhood is also having a space for us to be vulnerable, but being contained. And there’s this teaching of Thay that he tells all of us – because a lot of times, even as a monk or a nun, and I think for you as practitioners, lay practitioners who live in the world – we also have an idea of what it means to be spiritual, and we want to be so at peace, we want to be so solid. And so we start to create a concept and then an idea for ourselves. And sometimes we also don’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable or true to what is happening inside of us in this very moment. And sometimes we feel like we have to mask a little bit, ‘Oh, because I’m a monk, I need to be solid. I need to not suffer’. And this teaching of Thay really helped me, and Thay said, ‘We’re all allowed to suffer. Suffering is a noble truth that is taught in Buddhism, it’s a gem that the Buddha gave to us to have insight. But our responsibility is also to practice with our suffering’. So it’s like, I can suffer, but I’m not just going to go and vent everywhere about it and complain, and that’s not the spirit. We all suffer, we all have difficulties, but our practice is to acknowledge it, take care of it, embrace it and find ways to transform it. And that is very key in our community. And in our community we have a lot of sessions that we create to help communication be possible also, because not everyone – our people, people, people – not everyone is open to speaking in big groups. And I know in the monks communities, brothers have shared with me when the group is over 17 people, it starts to become a little bit difficult to truly express oneself. But they also see it’s a practice because the practice is also learning to see these other 15 monks and nuns that are in this circle as my family. But that needs to take time. And so then we would create in our structure of our community, we have so many different layers, or we say councils as well as groups. For example, the bhikshu and bhikshuni, or like the fully ordained monks and nuns usually after three years of novicehood. Then they have a chance to become a fully ordained monk or nun, and they become the core members of the community, help making decisions, help looking at directions of the community, et cetera. I’m sure you’ll be interested to to know how we decide all these projects and topics in the community, but that’s a long one. But we also have like different groups for mentor mentees. And smaller group, it can be one mentor or one mentor and acore mentor with a group of seven or eight or six mentees. And we meet once a week to have a space to truly share and look how we’re doing in the week. And then once a week or twice a week, we have days of mindfulness where the monks and nuns and laymen, laywomen will come together. So we create also other opportunities for listening and sharing. And so we, in Plum Village, and one of the dharma doors of Plum Village, which I truly feel is where a lot of the magic that happens is when the sharing happened. But the sharing is facilitated and the sharing is contained in a spirit of togetherness with real brotherhood and sisterhood. So for example, Jo, if you are in the sharing and you share your suffering, I’m listening to you. I’m not trying to figure out a solution to give you, and that’s a big difference right there. And that I feel it’s so, it’s so human this quality, but I feel like we need to retrain in it and we need to be guided in and having compassion and love for one another again.
So, brother, there was a lot in that, and I just want to just unpack a bit. Just go back over that a bit because I had a few things. One is the importance of vulnerability. So I have attended in my time many different workshops in different settings. And what I have noticed in almost every single one is that when the moment someone is prepared to be courageous and to open themselves up, to take off the armor, to reveal and almost to rip open and show their heart, then actually the atmosphere and the whole direction of that meeting will completely change. Because actually what people, what that person who’s being vulnerable is actually… what they’re actually doing is giving permission for other people to show up. And I’ve sort of seen a lot in life that actually that one of the key principles in life that we can support other people is to give people permission. It’s like in a corporate setting, if everyone feels they have to behave in a certain way, then everyone behave in a certain way. But if something, especially a leader is prepared to break out of that and show there’s another way, then actually what it does is give everyone permission to change. So that’s one thing I noticed on what you said. And the other is about conscious community, that these things do not happen by accident, that what you described is there are many layers, but each of those layers is, in a sense, going in the same direction. It’s only when we bring mindfulness, because this is a mindfulness community, mindfulness to what we’re doing and what we’re saying that we’re able to understand ourselves and understand the other person. And then finally, what I notice here is that the importance of when you’re in a community is to recognize that actually is not just you on your own and everyone else is separate, but actually everyone is showing you aspects of yourself. Then in a group setting, each person who shares actually at some point is an aspect of yourself because the whole purpose of Thay’s teaching is about interbeing, that I’m not by myself alone. If you’re, as you said, if you’re suffering, but I’m quite happy, it doesn’t mean I have to take on your suffering. But it does mean that actually, at some level, I recognize your suffering and I can sort of feel for you in the same way as if I was experiencing myself. So thank you for all that sharing.
Brother Phap Huu, because this is a podcast, people won’t be able to see how youthful you are and you’re talking as though you’re an ancient wizard. But I think you’re 32 years old, aren’t you?
Going on 34.
Oh, going on 34. So you’re 33 and you have been abbot of Plum Village for 10 years. So that means you became abbot when you were 23, about 23 years old. And you just celebrated 10 years as abbot. Brother, what was it like in your first year, a 23-year-old as abbot of a community with all these elders, some people who have been in the practice for 30, 40 years. And you’re there, you’re not the boss, but you are there to hold that space. Just describe… I want to find out what you’ve learned in the 10 years, but just describe that first year because that must have been a bit nerve-racking.
Yes, Jo, it was. There’s so many memories that are having flashback… that I’m having flashback right now, but I actually want to begin in 2008 when I became vice abbot. So our sangha was growing and elder brothers were being sent to new monasteries. So suddenly our class, our generation, we felt we had to step up and help our community in Plum Village with Thay that was present, still teaching every Thursday and Sunday, and big retreats once every two months. And we had a new abbot and that was very exciting for our monk community. And we selected a brother. And this is interesting. So we don’t really have like grading in our system or our way of looking at each other, but when it comes to roles in a community, we do what we call a collective eye, we call it the sangha eye. And we do put out some criteria what that person should be capable of in order to take on that responsibility. So an abbot role is, like you said, it’s not like the boss – that was Thay’s guidance very clearly. There’s no boss in this community. Even Thay says, ‘I’m not the boss of this community’. I see him as a teacher as also the founder of our tradition, but I also see him as a member of this community, and that’s very rare to feel in a spiritual teacher at that level. So it was very clear for us that, you know, as an abbot, you’re not the boss, but you’re someone who is like a bridge. You start to connect the different links in the community. And we had a brother who was now like 11, 12 years in the community. He was loved by everyone and we felt this is the new abbot and we collectively nominated, and our brother warmly accepted the invitation. And he said ‘I would try my best. I want to do it for the spirit of the growth of the community’, and that’s the best we can ask for. And right after he was abbot, one year later, our first abbot from the new monastery came back and said, ‘Oh, he needs a support’. So the first abbot and our teacher were talking, and that day Thay – our teacher usually eat lunch with us every day during the winter retreat – and that particular day, Thay and the first abbot were looking at me like attentively. And I really thought I was in trouble, like I thought I’d done something wrong and I’ve been told on and Thay’s probably telling the first abbot, you know, you need to sit, call him aside and sit with him and instruct him in order for him to advance in his practice or whatever it is. So my mind was was creating a lot of stories. And so the night came, and after sitting meditation, our brother – elder brother, first abbot – calls me into his room. And I was ready to just begin anew, apologize for whatever I did, and I think there were some things, you know, I was young and naughty sometimes, so I’m sure there’s something I did that must have caught their eye that wasn’t maybe monk behavior. But it wasn’t the case and our first abbot was sharing like, he’s going to be away more, and the new abbot really needs support: ‘And you are young, you get along with him very well. Can you support him?’ Like that was the main theme: can you support him? And I am someone who was very close to this brother, this new abbot, and we’ve been on so many journeys together, on retreats as well as Thay’s attending. He was actually one of the brothers who taught me how to be Thay’s attendant. So I was very close to him and I was like, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I’m there, 100 percent’. Next day of mindfulness, Thay announced to the whole community…
I can see it was coming.
That Thay and the first abbot have spoken and Brother Phap Huu has agreed to become the vice abbot. And you should have seen and felt the energy of the community, this excitement, this joy. And I was in total shock because our first abbot – he is Vietnamese – and one of the thing in Vietnamese culture is you don’t talk directly about something, you kind of go around the bushes, but you point it all to that direction. And I guess I’m supposed to know what I’m agreeing about of agreeing to. And I was so shocked. And my elder brother, who was sitting right beside me, he was so happy and he started like looking at me and clapping, saying ‘Congratulation!’. And I was… I had no idea what to say or do, and I honestly, Jo, at that very moment, I just took a breath and I said, ‘If this is the wish of my teacher and my community, I would do my best’. And that was my journey. That’s how I started. And that year Thay went on a Vietnam trip, 2008, he was a keynote speaker for the International Vesak in Hanoi. And the second abbot went as an attendant, so I was at home after just a few months as now acting abbot and I had a lot of fear and I was afraid I was going to do something wrong and everything was a learning curve for me. And the first meeting that I had to hold and facilitate, there was some decisions that we needed to look at, and there was a lot of sharing, but we couldn’t come to a consensus. And in the spirit of our community, we don’t vote, because voting, then you kind of split two sides, even though is democratic, because everyone has a voice. But then you have a winner and a loser. So our spirit is actually everyone shared their opinion and we sit in a circle. So whenever we share an opinion, it’s not about me, we’re sharing it for the collective of the community. And if 70 percent or 80 percent of the voice of community is to go in one direction, that 20 or 10 percent learns to let go, to bring harmony. And we can only come to a consensus when there’s a question that asked, ‘This is this decision. If you agree, please remain silent. If not, please speak up’. And in my experience, like, let’s say, 70 percent of the time is enough shared and we have a consensus. And there are those few times when there’s not enough. And that particular one, there wasn’t enough consensus and we couldn’t come to a decision and that felt in the energy of a community like this feeling of unease is like, ‘Oh, man, we’ve met so long we couldn’t come to a decision’. And I heard one brother said, ‘Oh, man, Phap Huu is too young to handle this. He’s not good enough’. And it really hit me and, yeah, I can say it hurt my pride, it hurt my ego. But at the same time, I just felt like ‘I’m so new, what do you expect?’ and I started crying, Jo. I cried in front of the whole community, the bhikshu community. But thank you to the brotherhood in the sangha. And one brother who was very close to me, but also older in the community, he said, ‘I think Phap Huu is doing a great job. We have to give him time’. And just that, Jo, just him saying that, I felt at ease and I felt understood and I felt supported. And after that meeting, I made a vow that I need to learn more how to be a better facilitator. I started to do my homework, look up materials to read on how to facilitate, what are the things to look for, and then actually look at how Thay does it as a teacher. And then I started to see, ‘Ah, I need to have relationships in the community in order for me to guide these meetings, I need to know my brothers and sisters’. That was a journey of deep listening, of connecting. And a lot of times some rooms I normally would never go into because I just don’t see that we have much to talk about, but I’m just going to come in and ask for a cup of tea. And if it’s an awkward silence, I have to find ways to break the ice. So you are putting yourself in the spirit of getting to know someone. This is you saying that ‘I’m ready to be open’. And that was really when I started to see what it meant to be a connector. That’s how I see an abbot, as a connector.
Thank you, brother. And I’m just going back to something you said earlier, which I think is core to Thay’s teachings, as he says, ‘What we don’t need is another Buddha. We need many Buddhas’. And that’s something I really value about this community that there’s no one… it’s not like, because obviously Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh he’s been very ill the last few years and he’s now in Vietnam, but he’s not an active part of the Plum Village community. And what you see often in communities, whether they’re religious or non-religious, is that when there’s a vacuum that someone makes a power grab, there’s this sort of sense of saying, actually, the master’s gone or the boss is gone or the prime minister’s gone, whatever, and there’s a big fight, and people are trying to take control. And what’s been remarkable for me the last six years is to see that no one’s tried to take control. No one’s tried to push someone else out. No one’s tried to take the reins of power. And it speaks to me of the power of this practice because the power of the practice is the result, is the action. And the action has been… there’s been none of that. And I think this idea of Thay, which is sort of very much embedded in his way, is to say… When he says ‘We don’t need one Buddha, we need many Buddhas’ is actually the heart of what is now known as distributed leadership, which is actually the world is very complex, and in business to say you cannot have one leader who knows everything because actually we’re dealing with very complex environment. What you need to do is give people in each area the sort of responsibility and the accountability that goes with it, rather than one person at the top of the pyramid. And that seems to be very much… Plum Village has been doing that for 40 years now.
Yes. And I think that’s the strength of the community because, Jo, you know our teacher, Thay, his energy, his charisma and his also virtue. You can’t expect somebody to now just step up and and be that. And I don’t think that person exists and we shouldn’t look for that person to replace. And being close to Thay, I’ve heard him share on many occasion that when Thay is not here anymore, the community will continue Thay. And that has always been his message, and that’s very empowering because we all have to see ourselves as his continuation. And this challenges everyone because now, as a practitioner, as a monk, a nun, a layperson, if you see yourself as a student of Thay, you have a responsibility to honor his practice in your daily life, and that’s how you continue him. It’s very easy for us to just look for someone else and say, let’s follow or let’s say you are responsible, and if we succeed or fail, it’s your fault, it has nothing to do with me. And that is also not the spirit of a true sangha. Sangha comes from the time of the Buddha, you know, it’s a collective body of practice, and the body of a true sangha is more powerful than one individual. Even Thay has shared with me on occasions, like, the success of the community is not Thay. And sometimes I’m like, ‘Thay, you’re being humble’. And Thay said ‘No’, because yes, Thay can go and lead a retreat, and Thay can give an amazing dharma talk. And people can fail. They can understand more of the teachings or they can see more clearly they’re suffering. But it’s the collective energy of all other practitioners, all of his students that come with him, grace these dharma sharing families for people to truly have a safe space to share. And then when we walk together, when we sit together, when we eat together, when we play together, these are also the dharma. This is also the teaching of the Buddha, as sometimes this is more powerful than words. And I honor that spirit and I see that that is the direction of our community. And I see that as abbot, like my first years, especially when Thay was still very active in our community, I felt like I was still in training. Like, honestly, I always felt like I can go to Thay and like ‘Thay, what do you think?’ And maybe I was so lucky to have that connection, and that ease to just knock on Thay’s door and share with Thay about a situation and ask for Thay’s input. But later, when Thay was not… When after the stroke, and he’s not capable of sharing and leading like he did before, I started to feel that all of us, we have to learn to step up and we also have to see Thay in us. We also have to see the leadership that we have to contribute to this team, this community. And I love basketball, so I always use like basketball analogy. Is that the word?
Like, you know, it’s great to have one superstar, like our teacher I can say he was like our superstar. But now, without the superstar, we can still dribble. We can still breathe. We can still score – meaning we can still offer retreats. We can still move as a unit, we can still do things together and we can accept our weaknesses too. And that was very important. And I remember, like in 2015, 2016, that was the first big retreats that we started to lead without Thay. And Thay gave all the dharma talks and we helped with facilitating many other activities – touching the Earth, sitting meditation, presentations on the five mindfulness trainings, beginning anew, et cetera – but the main meal, which is like the dharma talk was always cooked and served by Thay. And this was a real learning curve for all of Thay’s dharma teacher students. And we accepted that we’re not going to be Thay and we’re going to accept also our limits. That was very important, because if we recognize our limits, but we also understands where we can grow and how we can grow, and we have to let that also organically happen. We can’t just expect each other to just be superstars in a way or to play like at superstar level. We got now to learn to be the lead now. And what is beautiful in our community, we’ve set up many councils. Like, for teaching, we have a teaching party council to look at so make sure that we’re not repeating too much in one retreat. Or looking at the theme together, so we do it very much in a spirit of collectiveness. And we give feedbacks together, and that’s very humbling. So it’s also a practice because you have to hear what they say they didn’t like about what you shared or how you presented it. But if you are in the spirit of learning, this is the best place to grow and to do gives you a chance to grow.
And brother, I, you know, I was coming to Plum Village at that time and I remember, you know, the first dharma talk of the… Thay was not here. I thought, Oh my, oh…
That was not Thay. And it was, you know, there was that fear, I know, and, or feeling, whatever you would call it, in my mind and many others, which was, you know, if Thay was not here anymore, that the community would implode, that it would sort of… people would stop coming. That, as you say, if the superstar is not here, people would stop coming. And actually, what’s been so powerful for me to see is that more people came.
And, as you say, everybody stepped up. And I think it’s a good metaphor for also the world outside, which is that we’re often complaining that if we’re to avoid climate change or to deal with social injustice, you know, we are reliant on our leaders to change everything rather than recognize actually, yes, of course, we need leaders to change things. Of course we need policy, of course, we need people to change, but actually we need to change too. And if everyone takes responsibility for their own contribution, then actually, the world will start to change. But brother, one of the things I think you told me once is that so… If you look at the life of Thich Nhat Hanh, you could say, ‘Well, what’s the most important thing in his life?’ And you could say, ‘Well, God, he’s written 120 books’, or ‘he has sort of monasteries all over the world, or he has hundreds of thousands and millions of people who sort of have seen his dharma talks’. But actually, I remember you sharing that, he said to you, I think, that the most important thing he’s done is to create a healthy community. Can you can you share a bit about that?
Yes, I would say, like Thay’s masterpiece is the community. And I saw it during his career while teaching. Wherever he went he carries the community with him, not physically only, but in the heart, in the spirit. And this comes from his youth. When he was a young monk, his deepest aspiration was to create a community where people with the same interests can come together and in his life the interest would be to practice meditation, to understand more the Buddhist teaching and understand the world more and to find a way to contribute to the suffering of the world. And we have to know that this was also during the time of war in Vietnam. So that was Thay’s condition and he saw that because there were so many divisions and so much hatred and so much violence, so his dream was so simple, just to have a space where people can come together and not look at each other as enemy and look at each other as companions on the path. And Thay said that in 1954, when the war in Vietnam was raging and there was a lot of division and a lot of the young monks and nuns were being lost, and Thay was a young dharma teacher, so he had the ability to gather and to lead. And Thay started to lead these young monks and nuns to having a vision that Buddhism doesn’t only belong in the temple, but we can help the suffering that is around us, which is villages being burned, bombs being dropped and then helping rebuild communities. So this was the whole movement. And of course, in our teacher’s history, at one point, our teacher was exiled. And so what we are lucky and what I am forever grateful for, and every time we do touching of the Earth we would prostrate and we would remember last sentence would be ‘in gratitude to all my teachers who have taught me how to love and understand, I touched the Earth deeply’. And every time we do that line, I remember Thay sharing about being exiled, but he never gave up this dream of creating a community, and that’s why Plum Village exists till today. And so this is the masterpiece, and I am so grateful that I am a part of this community and I’m a part of this masterpiece. And I’ve also seen my contribution in it, and I’ve seen so many contributions in it from people that are still coming each year. And that was my fear too when Thay got sick, I was like, ‘Oh man, like, are we going to be able to survive without our teacher being at the front?’, ‘And will people… Would they have trust in us young monks and nuns? Will they really see that we are practitioners?’ you know. Because Thay was so powerful. I remember just seeing Thay from a distance. I am mindful… Walk mindfully or breathe mindfully. Is just like, that’s the aura, and that’s the virtue of someone who has cultivated this practice for so long. And I also question, does the community have enough virtue and merit to hold this, this masterpiece? And I was surprised like you, Jo. 2015, so many people came. And first, honestly, I was like, ‘Wow, they must feel sorry for us. They must know Plum Village is changing and Thay is not here’. And then the next year people came more. And it was 2016, that New Year’s talk and we had many people come. Some people came just for the day, and our big meditation hall in Upper Hamlet was so full that the monks and nuns, we had to leave the hall after our chanting so that people have enough space to sit. And I and a group of brothers and sisters, and we said, ‘Wow’.
And that hall can hold several hundred people. It’s not a small hall.
It was a thousand people. It was a thousand people. And it was more than when our teacher was teaching. And of course, later on… you can hear the chestnut. We’re in Thay’s hut and those are chestnut trees with chestnuts falling on the roof. And you can… I start to ask the people like, just out of curiosity, ‘What made you come?’ And they’re like, ‘For the practice and for the community’. And so there was this new shift and this new understanding in the community. It was like, ‘Guys, we don’t have to be Thay. People are coming to take refuge in the teaching of Thay, who he has transmitted to us and in the practice that they have learned through books, talks, interviews from our teacher. And we are his continuation, we can do that. It’s our responsibility to continue this beautiful legacy’. And I had a realization – it’s not that difficult, we just have to breathe and smile and be present.
Yes, which… Most people are looking for things that are most simple, not for something complex. People are living complexity, what they are craving for is simplicity.
One of the influences on Thay was Martin Luther King, because Martin Luther King and his beloved community, I mean, his feelings and recognition of the power community were very similar to Thay, and they became friends during the Vietnam War. And Martin Luther King as a result of Thay’s intervention and being friends, he helped Martin Luther King to speak up publicly against the Vietnam War and to call for peace. And in fact, Martin Luther King put forward Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying that if we were to follow his teachings, then basically the world would be a much better place. Can you talk a little bit about Thay’s connection to Martin Luther King and how that influenced him? And vice versa.
Yeah, I have to say like these are the stories that I’ve heard from Thay, so it’s not my direct experience. Whenever Thay mentioned about Martin Luther King, you know that he was someone so dear to Thay. And I try to put myself in Thay’s position at that time, in Thay’s shoes at a time, so he was coming from Vietnam to America to call for peace, to bring insight that this is actually what is happening in Vietnam – just a lot of suffering. And you can feel so alone in that position, you are going to a country that is literally fighting your homeland and you can feel so alone and feel so scared, and Thay had the courage and was so brave in speaking the truth. And when Thay met Martin Luther King and Thay had the chance to share his vision, like you just mentioned, and they had some exchanges, you can see that these two people had a great mind and heart of love and community. And I think that’s what connected them so quickly. They realized that they’re friends. They’re someone who’s living on the opposite continents, side of the continents of the world, but they share the same aspiration. And when you have a friend that share the same aspiration, we can call that a soulmate. And Thay has always spoken about Martin Luther King in that spirit, like that was my soulmate, my friend that I connected so deeply to, and I think it was on both sides. And that’s why Martin Luther King spoke out about the war, and he even went on a peace walk or a march and he had a banner, and it was a line from Thay’s poem, which is ‘Man is not our enemy’. And I saw that picture, so it is true, you know, I saw that picture with that banner. And Thay mentioned about one of his last encounters with Martin Luther King. I’m sorry, I don’t remember exactly where it was, but Martin Luther King invited Thay for breakfast, and Thay was on his way up, but Thay was being swamped by press and asking questions, and Thay had to do that. And when Thay arrived at the room, and Thay knew he came late. Thay knocked on the door and Thay was greeted and warmly welcomed, and Thay noticed that Martin Luther King kept Thay’s food warm. That gesture Thay remember to today, and that gesture was a gesture of brotherhood, of saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to be late. Let me make sure your food is still warm’. And Thay shared with us that that was the last interaction that Thay had face to face with Martin Luther King. And in that meeting, Thay was very happy that he had the chance to share that the people in Vietnam called Martin Luther King like a bodhisattva – a great being – someone with a mind of love and who is willing to act for justice. And Thay said like, ‘I was able to share that as a token of gratitude to what Martin Luther King has done for Thay in such a short time of their encounter’. And Thay shared that later on when Thay heard the news that Martin Luther King got assassinated. Thay was so sad and he was in so much despair to hear that news of a dear friend with such an aspiration and such a heart would be assassinated, would be killed. And Thay said, ‘Why? Why was somebody with such a heart, someone would hate them?’. And in that moment, Thay, I’m sure Thay had to practice mindful breathing, mindful walking, to grieve, to take care of the sadness, to take care of everything manifesting. But at the same time, Thay heard Martin Luther King shared about a community and he called it ‘the beloved community’. And Thay made a vow that as long as Thay is still breathing and alive and doing the work that he’s doing, he will help that community also manifest through his work. So Thay also took on his friend’s aspiration and helped it energize his path, his aspiration also. So I can also see that the sangha – which is, I say, Thay’s masterpiece – is also the manifestation of the aspiration of Martin Luther King Jr.
And brother, just finally, it’s… A lot of people do not have the opportunity to be in community. And a lot of people are living very individualistic lives, living often on their own. We’ve seen the scourge of loneliness grow exponentially amongst young people. People don’t feel connected. They don’t feel… They don’t feel that sort of love and connection. And we see the amount of addiction in society, and the number of people who commit suicide. You know, when there’s not that community, it can feel very lonely. And it’s different from alone. Sometimes you want to be alone.
But when we’re lonely, it can be devastating. We’re social animals. So one of the things, just finally, is to talk about the community, Thay’s community all over the world. So we know there are the monasteries, but actually one of Thay’s legacies is actually there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of sanghas, communities, all over the world that meet weekly around the world. I mean, when I moved from… I mean, in the UK, I lived in Brighton, and every Sunday I attended the local sangha. And it was a group of people who were able to come together and share the practice and to do dharma sharing. And how important that was to be able to come and feel part of something. And also, my personal meditation practice is not very good at all, but when I’m in community, I feel that energy and I feel it’s much easier because I’m welcomed. And then we moved to New York and we founded a sangha with others in the center of Manhattan. And people will come and it was every week. It was a place of refuge, it was a place where people could come and feel that connection, feeling, sharing the practice. And, as you say, this dharma sharing is where you can just say, talk about your suffering and you don’t want a solution, as you say, you don’t want people… There’s very strict guidelines, which is actually when you shared, do not give advice, do not crosstalk. And at the end, if you want to say something to that person, you need to seek permission because the whole purpose is not to, as you say, solve. Everyone, especially us men, we hear a problem, we want to solve it. But often people don’t need it to be solved. They need it to be shared, and so that is called dharma sharing for that very reason. So can you talk a little bit just finally about why that was important to Thay to set up these communities that meet all over the world. And, in fact, in most cities in the world or most places in the world, when you arrive in a city, there’s normally a sangha that you can go to.
Yeah. It’s because as a community there will be a legacy in a way that a true community will have continuations. And now, being a part of Plum Village, I feel a part of something. And I think that’s really important. When we talk about loneliness and the despair in it is feeling not belonging anywhere. I’ve, you know, I’m saying this also is still my practice to continue to take root in my community because there are moments when also, like you said, I just want to be alone. But this is very different. And the power of community, a true community with love and understanding, there is a lot of space. And in the space it allows people to have connection. And because humans, we manifested not as an individual. That’s really important. There was a condition which was our parents that came together for us to manifest. So we are not alone by nature, but the way society is there’s a lot of individualism. And Thay sees that as when we want to walk the path that offers us strength, compassion, love, understanding, it’s much easier to do it with friends around you that support that. We call that conditions. And that’s why we say that in spirituality is so important to have friends. It’s like eating rice with soup. Sometimes the rice can be so dry, but if you have soup, it helps you swallow. So sometimes friendships are like that sweet, gentle support, that soup that helps you just slide through the difficulties more easily. And community offers that essence of friendship, brotherhood and sisterhood, because even today, as I speak to you now, I know I still have so much more to grow into. I still have a lot of craving and a lot of judgment, and I know my weaknesses. And living in community it also lets me know how to continue to be humble and to be open to growth, because also in my role as the abbot there comes a kind of responsibility. And sometimes you can feel as a power, you also might be blinded by your own, your own idea that you’re the best and you are perfect and everyone else just needs to follow you. And if I’m caught in that, then I know I have no openness and I have no connection. And so therefore, I see that the community is also the mirror that we always need. We need to continue to see ourselves, and sometimes the other person will show us the direction we should head into. We have role models. It’s kind of like I say, like if you want to swim and you don’t know how to swim, you want to be with people who know how to swim. So if you don’t know how to practice, if you don’t know how to be at peace, you want to be with people who know how to practice and be at peace for them to guide you. And you look for a community with that kind of spirit and environment to support you in, and that will help you grow faster in the dharma. That’s my own personal experience, and I cannot say it’s for everyone, but a lot of people who have experience coming to our retreat have shared that collectively it helps them practice much better because alone is too easy to give up. It’s too easy to slack off, and just to be, ‘No, I’m going to give myself a little bit more sleep today, so I don’t go to meditation’ or ‘Now I’m just going to take some time to just look at the sky’. Where in community there’s a spirit of togetherness. It’s like, it’s time to go sit as all sit together, enjoy that collective energy and there’s a power of community.
And also it’s important to recognize a community can be two people.
So a relationship is a community and everything you have described, just thinking back to everything you said, would be applicable in a relationship.
About deep listening. It’s about having a shared dream. I mean, Thay has said, you know, you can share the same bed with someone, but if you’re not sharing the same dream, then what’s the point if you’re pointing in opposite directions all the time? So actually the idea of, as I say, deep listening, deep sharing, not trying to solve each other’s problems, not trying to change people, being responsible, being accountable for your behavior, being mindful. Actually all these doesn’t have to be 60 monastics, 60 monks in Plum Village doing this, actually. Each of us can do that.
Yes, Jo, and you have more experience than me in that.
Oh, so the next one we’ll have to do about relationships then.
Yeah, I think so, totally. And just, yeah, just the last thing I want to do just close off with… As part of my journey also, one of the last times that I was close to Thay, and I asked, ‘Hey, Thay, what can I do to be a better abbot?’ It was in 2014 and we were at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany. And I asked that question, and he looked at me and I was really nervous because like, yeah, by then I’ve been an abbot for not too long, but I had really high expectations for myself. But for me to just say, like, ‘Thay, please guide me because I still feel like I’m not doing the best’. And Thay just said, ‘Phap Huu, learned to trust more. And learn to delegate’. And I had this moment, I’m like, ‘Don’t I do that already?’ But then Thay explained a little more. And Thay said, ‘Thay thinks that you are very responsible. You’re very capable of doing many things, but as an abbot, you have to learn to trust your community more, know that the community has the capacity’. And then Thay says, ‘And maybe sometimes because you’re so responsible, you feel that everything has to fall on your shoulders, and because you are part of it, then it will be done. But if you never give the chance for others to do it, then you will also not let them grow and not let them feel a part of the community’. And that really hit me. And Thay said, Thay gave me a really simple example. And Thay said, ‘You know, Phap Huu, every time Thay asks you to do something, how do you feel?’ And I said, ‘I feel honored. I feel like I can support the community and I can support you, Thay’. And Thay said, ‘Exactly, and most of the things I asked you to do, Thay can do it. But it’s because I entrust you, I know that you’re capable, and that’s my way of saying I know your capacity, I recognize you, and I support you, and I love you, and I know you can do it’. That really helped me. And till today, I’m still learning to delegate and to trust. And sometimes I think I trust, but I’m not yet fully trusting. There’s always a little bit of like, ‘Are they capable?’ And you let your judgment, you know, your perception, take over. So that has stayed with me to today. And that also I see that as a guiding compass in my relationship with the community. It’s true. And if my brothers, my younger brother, who’s here recording with us, Brother Niem Thung, I feel just looking at him and I know that if I trust him, then he will feel a part of this team. He will feel that his contribution is welcomed and he doesn’t have any fear. And that comes from inside. It’s just my way of being with him, approaching him. I’m not giving him an eye of suspicion or anything like that. And that’s a real practice. And I see this as a a beautiful quality that we all can continue to nourish inside of ourself, and I believe it will also contribute to our friendship.
Brother Phap Huu, thank you for your sharing. So, dear listeners, we hope you have enjoyed this as much as we have. It’s a joy to be able to sit here in Thay’s hut and just and just share the practice with each other. So brother, thank you. And just as a reminder to everyone, if you enjoyed this, you can hear all the other episodes on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify and also finally on the 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 the website www.tnhf.org/donate. Thank you so much.
Now, brother, as is tradition now, we end with a short guided meditation. And the feedback from all our episodes is the people look forward to this so much. So are you able to offer one today?
Of course, my joy. Hello, listeners, dear friends, wherever you may be. If you are sitting on your sofa, sitting on a chair, or if are going for a walk or a jog, or if you are cleaning your house or cooking. If you just allow yourself a few minutes of stillness, stop what you are doing. You can either stand or sit, but if you are sitting, just allow yourself to sit a little bit more upright, but relax, because this will allow us to come back to our posture more stably. Now we’re going to use the breath to connect our mind home to the body. So gently, just be aware of your inbreath and outbreath. Just identify it. Say inbreath, outbreath. As I breathe in, I’m in touch with my inbreath. As I breathe out, I am in touch with my outbreath. Just recognize the breath. If it is long, let it be long. If it is short, allow it to be short. The breathing is always happening, just be present for it, and it will be present for you. And as we breathe in with the next breath, let us stay with the breath, taking refuge in it. In, I follow my inbreath. And as I breathe out, let us take refuge in our outbreath. I follow my outbreath all the way through. Breathing in, a deep breath. Breathing out, a long breath. As I breathe in, just aware of my body. My face, my shoulders, my arms, my hands, my back, my hips, my legs, my foot. Just be aware of the wonderful condition of the body, feeling alive with the body. As I breathe in, I nourish my whole body with my inbreath. As I breathe out, I take care of my whole body. Becoming aware of the body, I smile to the body. If there’s any tension, just relax it with that inbreath and ourbreath. As I breathe in, I’m in touch with the energy of life, the sounds around me, the wind, the sun, the air. As I breathe out, I am grateful for this condition. In, life. Out, so grateful. As I breathe in, I’m in touch with the friends on the path in my life. Allowing myself to give thanks to this wonderful gem, friendship. Breathing out, I nourish my gratitude to friendship in my life. Breathing in, in touch with the friends that support me. Breathing out, I am grateful. I don’t take for granted, I want to continue to nourish my friendship. Breathing in, I’m in touch with myself. I am also a friend of someone, I may not be perfect, but I have also seeds of love, care and openness. Breathing out, I trust my ability to support someone. In, aware that I am also a friend of someone. Out, I trust my understanding, my love, and I nourish my openness. Breathing in, in touch with the friends inside of me and that are there in my life. Breathing out, I want to continue to nourish my relationship with openness, with true love, and true understanding. In, present moment, alive. Out, wonderful moment.
Thank you, friends, for listening, for practicing. We wish you a wonderful day.
The way out is in.