Welcome to episode five 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, hosts Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino talk about connecting to our roots, and the three lineages in Buddhism: spiritual, blood, and land ancestry.
They further share about what it means to be a continuation of blood ancestors; transforming the suffering of our ancestors for ourselves and our descendants by healing the past in the present moment; honoring land ancestors and creating harmony with the land we live on; dealing with estranged parents; reconnecting to past wisdom to help a society in crisis; transcending the individual frame of mind.
You’ll also discover what the red and white roses mean in the Rose Ceremony which celebrates parents; and why a former Gestapo building was turned into a monastery.
Brother Phap Huu recollects growing up in a Buddhist family and its daily ways of honoring ancestors, and what it was like to move from East to West as a child. He also expands on spiritual ancestors; transforming land and memories; the power of collective energy; trees as ancestry.
Jo recalls his mother’s suffering during the Nazi regime, her subsequent journey of forgiveness, and considers the power to heal our parents’ suffering in the present moment. He also comments on the consequences of the lack of connection to ancestors for Western consumerist societies; reports on a feng shui story in Hong Kong; and considers why it’s best to be responsible stewards rather than owners.
Finally, Brother Phap Huu ends the episode with a guided meditation connecting us to our parents and ancestors.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
The Rose Ceremony
Old Path White Clouds
“We are a stream, a lineage, and we have roots and that give us grounding.”
“When I meet somebody, I never meet that person as an individual, I meet their entire lineage.”
“I am a representation not of just myself, but of an entire history of a group of people.”
“With our ancestors, we can do the things that they were not able to do.”
“If we see that we are our parents’ continuation, we can have more understanding for them and more love for them.”
“Having compassion for our ancestors means having compassion for ourselves, because we are their continuation, and because we will become an ancestor.”
“The practice of mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha tell us that we can transform for our parents, for our ancestors. And if we have that chance, then our descendants can be free from suffering.”
“If we heal something in the present, we heal the past, because our ancestors are not just gone and buried. They are in us, so we’re healing both ourselves and our ancestors within us. And by doing this healing, we’re changing our future because we’re not passing that [negativity] on.”
“Whenever you listen to the Buddha’s teachings, ask yourself, ‘How can I apply this to my daily life?’ The teachings have to continue to be renewed because they have to be relevant.”
“What have we got? Well, we can shop. We can amass things. But when Thich Nhat Hanh talks about a stream or a river, when we understand that we’re not separate, then that changes the very nature of how we see life. And this idea that we’re coming from somewhere and going somewhere actually creates an ethical responsibility.”
“People are talking about the importance of bringing Indigenous wisdom, bringing feminine wisdom. A lot of the wisdom which we have lost is coming back, because the challenges that humanity is facing means that people are recognizing that the past has a lot of the answers that modern society doesn’t.”
“Our spiritual ancestors are those who have taught us how to love and understand in our life.”
“This idea that we’re a separate self, that we’re born alone, is actually very painful.”
“The wisdom from our ancestors is our inheritance, and we have to recognize that they have been there and their past actions are there for us to learn from.”
“If I look after this house, if I look after this garden, if I look after these grounds, then they’ll be passed on and then the next person will take it on. And that changes the nature of how I perceive the house, because there’s part of me that wants to put pictures on Instagram saying, ‘Look at my house, look at my garden’. As though by having paid money for it, I am able to feel better about myself because it’s mine. But actually that’s a false idea of ownership.”
“My mother, despite being the only remaining member of her family after the Second World War, and despite suffering enormous traumas as a result of the Nazi rise to power, she chose to go back as she got older, to heal those wounds. And not just her wounds; she visited old classmates who had excluded her at school and treated her very badly, she went and gave talks at schools about her experience.”
“The great original suffering is to be born.”
“If we don’t know anything about our blood ancestry, there can still be lots of data in how we respond to things, which can give us clues about our past. But beyond that, we can find refuge in many other parts, not just about blood family; each of those rivers can offer us a chance to understand ourselves better.”
“We all have our traumas. We all have our sufferings. But we can all take responsibility for doing our bit. And that actually does change the world.”
Dear listeners, welcome to the latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino
and I am Brother Phap Huu.
And today we’re going to be looking at ancestors. In the East, ancestors are very important because they give us a sense of where we’ve come from and also where we’re going. And it’s not just our blood ancestors. We’ll be also looking at our spiritual ancestors and also our land ancestors. And the most important thing to learn is that we are not alone.
The way out is in.
Brother Phap Huu, you wanted to talk about ancestors today.
And so I… A couple of years ago, I did run these DNA tests and it said that I was two percent Neanderthal.
Is that what we’re talking about today? Is that the ancestors we’re talking about or is it something different?
We’re going to be talking about our roots. And in spirituality and in Buddhism, we talk about two lineages: our spiritual ancestor and our blood ancestors.
Right. So can you tell us the difference and why is that important?
So let us begin by looking at our blood ancestors, because as a human being, we have the tendency to think that we are an individual and there’s nothing connected to us. But actually for us to manifest, we rely on so many different conditions and our ancestors are one of our core conditions because they are there, they were there, therefore we are here. So having the insight that we are part of a lineage gives us roots. And I think for some people, that can be an important awareness. It allows us to see that we are a stream, a lineage and we have a roots and that gives us grounding.
So, you know, we are doing this recording from the Plum Village Monastery of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. And I remember once that when I interviewed him, just reflecting on what you said, he said, when I meet somebody, I never meet that person as an individual, I meet their entire lineage.
And I remember at the moment that was just like… that blew me away, because it’s like when he meets someone, he’s not just meeting me. He recognizes that actually there’s this entire all through history, that I have had these ancestors that come to this moment and that I am a representation not of just myself, but as you say, of an entire history of a group of people.
Right. Yeah. It’s really powerful when you start to understand this and suddenly you see that you have a lot of responsibility because we are connected to our ancestors and some of them have already passed away and some of our ancestors are still present. Our closest ancestors on the blood family side is our parents, right? For some of us. And to recognize that we are their continuation gives us a chance to also bring them into the future. So some of us are lucky. We have very loving parents who who were very kind in our upbringing, gave us a lot of love, showed us the way. And we can see that we are the continuation and we want to represent them as we move forward. And there are some of us who don’t have that wonderful conditions. We may come from a broken family where there was a lot of violence, there was a lot of discrimination, a lot of pain and hurt. And that thinking about our parents can be very painful. But with the practice of mindfulness and the teachings of the Buddha, it tells us that we can transform for our parents, for our ancestors. And if we have that chance, then our descendants can be free from the suffering. That was a really big realization for me when I heard this teaching.
When you said it was a big realization, what do you mean? How did that… what difference does it make to your life?
So I grew up in a Buddhist family and part of our tradition and history is worshiping our ancestors. And every day before going to school, I was instructed by my parents before you go out of the house to go to a bus stop for school, light an incense and put it on the altar. And I never knew why. And I just did it because I was an obedient child. And finally, one day I got fed up with this tradition and I’m like, I don’t want to light no incense because I didn’t know what it meant. And then I went to Plum Village for the first time. And in Plum Village we have ceremonies and festivals that we celebrate life. And there’s one particular celebration ceremony is called the Rose Ceremony, which honors our mom and our dad. And in that ceremony, we light up the gratitude towards our parents. And if our parents are still alive, we receive a rose, a red rose. And if one of our parents has passed away, we would receive a white rose and then we would pin that on our jacket, our shirts. And in that ceremony, just reflecting on my mom and my dad, seeing how much they have sacrificed for me to be here. I come from… I was born in Vietnam and my parents grew up during the Vietnam War and after the Vietnam War. And at that time, my father made the decision to leave Vietnam to find a better future for his family. And he was a boat refugee and he survived. And the journey wasn’t simple. And just thinking about that and seeing all the suffering and the struggles that he went through, just for me to have a future that could be free, that I could live in a society, in a country where there is more freedom. So I grew up in Canada from 1990. That’s when me and my mom and my sister made it over after my dad’s journey. I didn’t grow up with that gratitude. But then suddenly when I was in the ceremony, talking about remembering our parents’ sacrifices for us, suddenly that became very alive in me. And so suddenly I just have this… my heart is more full of gratitude. And I can see, like all the mistakes that I think of my suffering with my family, with my parents, suddenly they become very small. And then you can see the bigger picture of what they have offered us.
And I think there’s something also around… is not just gratitude for the past, because that is obviously really important, but also we can do healing of the past in the present moment. And one example of that is my mother was a victim of the rise of Hitler during the Second World War and was forced out of Germany after Kristallnacht when the Nazis sort of smashed up her apartment and she was 14 year old girl. And she was… got out on a train to England. And her brother was in France and was betrayed to the Nazis and killed in a concentration camp. But she did not know what had happened to her brother. And after the war, she got word from the Red Cross that that they had found her brother and she got this sort of thing of oh my, maybe my brother’s alive. And what it turned out was that it was a distant cousin of the family who had known of my brother. And he was in the… he was a Nazi, and after the war he escaped to Latin America by saying he was my uncle and creating papers for himself and escaping. And then the Red Cross found out and told my mother about it. And when my mother was in hospital, very, very sick, she told me, she said, I’ve forgiven a lot about what happened to my family and myself as a result of the Nazis. But the one place I have not been able to forgive is for this cousin who stole my brother’s identity. And one of the things I practice that I’ve been doing in Plum Village quite recently is to do that piece of healing for her. Is to recognize that actually she was unable to forgive him, but I can forgive him and by forgiving him, I can also release her. And so I had this really strong sense that that with our ancestors, we can we can do the things that they were not able to do.
Yes, that’s very powerful, Jo, thank you for sharing.
Honoring this insight, it also gives us a lot of courage, I think, because if we see that we are our parents’ continuation, we can have more understanding for them and more love for them. And of course, there is always love, but there is also a lot of expectation. And even for myself, when I became a monastic, I chose to leave my family and I’m sure there must have been some pain for my mom and my sister and my dad. And I was the only boy in the family and I think in a lot of Asian families and in Vietnam, like the boy kind of carries the lineage, especially when they get married. My descendant would carry my name, my last name and etc. And we would take it forward. And so I think for my parents to allow me to become a monk was also a sacrifice in a way. And from time to time, especially when I’m feeling a little bit down, I remember the sacrifice and just knowing that they have allowed me to walk this path, it gives me courage, it gives me strength, and I continue. I want to continue for them. And I know that when I look back inside of myself, I can definitely see my mom in me, all of her wonderful seeds. She’s a very good cook. She’s a very neat person and that has all that quality. I have seen it in me as I lived my life. And my father, he is very outgoing, he loves singing, he loves being on stage. He has this charisma about speaking and being around people. And so I can also recognize that in me as I am living my life and at the same time I can also see their struggles, their suffering, and I could transform that for them. And before I would be like like I would say, oh, as a child, I remember seeing something of my father that I did not like and I was like when I grow up, I’m never going to be like that. But then suddenly one day you realize you’re acting exactly like your dad. And then I, I would recognize, OK, Phap Huu, if you want to transform that for your dad, don’t expect that from him. First transform that in yourself because you never know, your parents may not have the chance to transform it in this lifetime because they don’t have all the right conditions, they don’t have the opportunity like you. So actually do this for them.
So, brother Phap Huu, what would you say though… So, you know, I completely get that. And then, you know,… You know, we all have our sufferings growing up, but there’s some people who feel completely estranged from their ancestors who want nothing to do from there, with their family, who feel they may have been they may have been abused, they may have suffered deeply. What is… How do we start to work with that?
First of all, is having compassion for our ancestors. And that really… that has to come from a place of wanting to understand. If we see that that suffering is so immense and we want to be free from it, we have to transform it. If we don’t do that, it’s going to stay that way or it can even become much worse. So in our practice, we talk about coming back to the present moment, to look at the past, to heal the past, even though our ancestors have a bad history. It is something that is a mark that they have left behind and we are their descendants and we are moving forward. We have to transform for them so that you share that you are helping your mother heal by forgiving one of your uncles because she cannot do it. But you can do it because you have the understanding, because your mother is in you also, Jo. So therefore that will be transformed in this lifetime. So for our friends who are in a situation like this, we encourage our friends to practice understanding and to have compassion for our ancestor. And to have compassion for our ancestors means to have compassion for us because we are their continuation, because we will become an ancestor. One day we will have… we will become an uncle, we will become a grandfather, a father, a mother or grandfather, a grandmother or of somebody in our lineage that would look up to us, and so therefore we will become an ancestor. So if we have that understanding and we want to transform that and heal that, then our descendants won’t have to be transmitted this suffering and they won’t have to work with it. We can transmit to them something more beautiful.
And so there’s that sense of if we heal something in the present, we, by its nature, healing the past because the ancestors are not just gone and buried. Actually, as you say, they’re in us so we’re actually healing ourselves and our ancestors within us. And by the fact that we’re doing this healing, we’re, by its nature, changing our future because we’re not passing that on.
Exactly. Exactly. And then the way we are living our life today is now a new transmission.
So one of the… I really love the work of Joanna Macy, who’s very steeped in Buddhist philosophy. And she does this work where she gets people to be, let’s say, 100, 200 years in the future and gets them to look back to the present moment to say, you know what.. and she does that around things like the ecological crisis, and she’s… So from that, people looking in the future back to the present moment, what did this person do differently that allowed a transformation to happen? And I think that’s a beautiful way of representing that, because we tend to be so stuck in the way things are. But actually, if we change something now, then actually people are benefiting. The eons into the future… So every decision we make or every decision our ancestors make has had an influence on how we live, where we live, the conditions for our living. And so everything we do, by its nature, will reverberate through history going forward.
Right. I mean, I think that’s why in school we have history classes, right? To learn from our ancestors.
Yeah. So those are our sort of blood ancestors.
What about our spiritual ancestors? What do you mean by that?
Our spiritual ancestors are those who have taught us how to love and understand in our life. And we can go for every… I think for each person would be different. Some of us were born into a religion and all of our religions have teachers who have been there thousands of years before who have taught how to love, how to understand, how to transform and make life more beautiful. And for me, my root ancestor would be the Buddha, right? Because I am part of the lineage of Buddhism, of the Buddha, 2600 years and beyond. And as a monastic especially, I can still touch the Buddha in the present moment. And the one thing that I really value in Thay’s teaching is the way he taught us how to see the Buddha in the present moment. In a lot of traditions, they… I think they would worship the Buddha as some point to like a God, and we feel quite distant from the Buddha. But in Plum Village, one of my favorite books from Thay is Old Path White Clouds and it’s one of his big work that he was able to do in his work of renewing Buddhism. And he wanted to tell the story of the Buddha to help people see the Buddha, just like a human being, that he came from also a father, a mother. He had his upbringing. He had his suffering that showed him the way and told… and gave him the aspiration to find spirituality and to find enlightenment, to discover enlightenment. It’s not just from… he dropped out from the sky and then suddenly he has this amazing wisdom that we are just worshiping today. And even when we read the Buddhist scripture, his Sutras, the teachings of the Buddha, he always says that whenever you listen to my teachings, you always have to ask yourself, how can I apply this into my daily life? So that also tells us that the teachings have to continue to be renewed because they have to be relevant. So when we talk about our spiritual ancestors, knowing that we have a root, that it comes from so many generations of people before us, that they have looked at the teachings, worked with it.. Try it out, see if it works and then explore new ways to to make the teachings more relevant. And then suddenly now we have these teachings that are for us that we are applying today, I am applying today. And if I want to be the continuation of the Buddha, and then my closer spiritual ancestor is my own teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who is still alive today. I still want to already continue them. I don’t have to wait until my teacher passes away to continue him. But just by honoring his practice that he has given to me, by doing it myself, finding the peace, the joy, the transformation in me, that is also continuing my teacher.
Yeah, that’s so interesting because recognition of the power of ancestors is very much an Eastern tradition rather than a Western tradition. And when I look in the West now at the feelings of depression, of separation, the destruction we’re creating on the world is actually because people do not feel a deep connection. It’s because people feel that they’re separate, is because people feel they’re alone, is because actually there’s there’s this there’s there’s been rejection of traditional religion because it hasn’t been brought up to date. For most people, it isn’t relevant. And by people jettisoning that, they’ve got nothing. And so that allows us to get stuck in a consumerist frame of mind, because in a sense, that’s… What have we got? Well, we can shop. We can amass things. But actually, what I think you’re saying is that the, you know, Thich Nhat Hanh talks about, you know, a stream or a river, that when we understand that we’re not separate, then actually that changes the very nature of how we see life. And this idea that we’re coming from somewhere and going somewhere actually creates a sort of ethical responsibility because we’re being… It’s like a race where, you know, where you’re given a baton and you run around and you have to pass the baton on. It’s like we have this little segment
Of time and space where the baton has been handed to us and we’re running with it. And then the purpose is to hand the baton on to someone else, not to try and do everything we can just for our own needs. And this idea that we’re a separate self, we’re born alone is actually very painful.
Yeah, it makes us feel very lonely. And so suddenly when we have this insight of continuation, it suddenly gives us this feeling of a whole, like you are a part of something. And we’ve only spoken about what? Blood ancestor, ancestral and spiritual ancestor. But we also have land ancestors that we honor too. And this was really new for me when I first came to Plum Village. I grew up in Canada, so quite… I was educated in the West. And what you just mentioned, I also experienced that a lot. And when I became a monk, we… Plum Village was still growing, was still developing. And suddenly we had so many new young people that wanted to be joining the monastic path, we had to develop a new residence. And it is all the way at the end of the Upper Hamlet. At that time, it was still very wild. And our teacher, Thay, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, he selected a day and he invited the whole community to come together to hold a ceremony and to honor the land ancestor. And we asked permission of the land ancestors to develop this building. And it was very new for me at that time. And now that I’ve been a monk much longer and I understand more deeply, I see how beautiful that that practice is because, you know, like like we said, we as humans, sometimes we feel like we’re the boss of everything. Like this land that we own is ours. But actually the trees, the grass, the rocks, the earth, the minerals, they were here before us and we actually gave a label to it saying that you now belong to me. And sometimes because of this thinking, we don’t have harmony with nature and we don’t have harmony even with the land that we are on. And we don’t respect it. And because we think it’s ours, we can do whatever we want. But suddenly when I was in that ceremony, we asked permission from the land ancestors for us to mow the land, flatten the earth, remove the rocks, cut some of the trees in order for us to build this new monks’ residence to support them, the new monks and nuns in the community allowing them to continue their life. And we ask you land ancestors to support us in doing this work. And so suddenly we are also creating this harmony with the earth that we are living in. And I felt that was really beautiful. And we still carry this practice today.
And it’s about great humility, isn’t it? So I remember, God, when I was at The Guardian and I did a job in Hong Kong and they were building one of the the huge new skyscrapers, I think might have been even for HSBC or something. And they were saying that when they brought in the feng shui experts and they’re the experts on, in a sense, land ancestors. They recognized that this building would block the route of the dragon down to drink at the water, and so they had to redesign the whole building to to have this huge raised glass area, at the front and the back, so that the the being could come down and easily drink the water. And I always remember just feeling, well that that’s such a different way of thinking from a Western, which would be a Western idea, which would be oh, that would add cost, there’s no way we would do that. Whereas in Hong Kong it was, well, for the dragon to come and drink, you know, it will cost an extra five million whatever dollars. But actually by doing that, we are honoring that and actually we are giving good faith towards the future. What’s your sense of where we go to in terms of land ancestors, the way you think we are developing our consciousness? Because one of the things I’m very aware of is that we’re coming back to a place of looking at where wisdom is. So so in a lot of the work I’m doing, people are talking about the importance of bringing indigenous wisdom, bringing feminine wisdom, that actually a lot of the wisdom that was there in the world in which in a sense we lost is coming back because actually we are… the challenges that humanity are facing means that people are actually recognizing that the past has a lot of the answers in a way that modern society doesn’t. I mean, do you… How do you feel about that movement of wisdom coming back into life?
I think the wisdom from our ancestors are our inheritance, and we have to recognize that they have been there and they are there for us to learn from all of their past doings. Some of the wisdom comes from their suffering and they tell us, don’t do this, don’t behave this way, because we have done that and we suffered a lot. Please learn from us. But a lot of the times we don’t know how to learn from the past. And a part of it is also because we have to experience a little bit of suffering, experience some of that suffering in order for us to open our eyes and to see that, OK, the people that have been here before me have already experienced this… What can I learn from them so I don’t make that mistake so I can take the next leap for my generation and a future generation? And by doing that, you are also carrying the past into the future. So I think that we, as a human species, we have a lot of wisdom that has… is present, but we have to come back and recognize our inheritance.
And that, in a sense, is, you know, rather than this recent history in Western society of taking, that we are becoming stewards of that, and that gives us responsibility. And I know that when my wife and I arrived in France and bought this house, you know, there’s this real tendency to say, my house, my garden, my this and it’s really interesting because I’ve been very sensitive to that, because actually what I’ve realized is I’m going to be here, you know, however many years, and then I will either move on or I will die. And the house and the garden will not be mine anymore. They’ll be someone else’s. But actually, you know, this house we bought, as we’ve seen it’s, you know, document from 1688, from the 17th century, saying there were two families living here. And this house has been in occupation since 1688. And we are one tiny aspect of that history. But knowing that, it makes me recognize, actually, I’m just… I’m here this moment in one moment I’ll be gone. But actually, if I look after this house, if I look after this garden, if I look after these grounds, then they’ll be passed on and then the next person will take it on. And it’s… It just changes the nature of how I perceive the house, because there’s part of me that wants to put pictures on Instagram saying look at my house, look at my garden, look at that. You know, as though by the fact that I’ve paid money for it, that I am able to feel better about myself because I, you know, it’s mine. But actually it’s such a false idea of ownership.
And I think Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings are very much around sort of understanding our place in the river.
Right. And also honoring what has been there before us. But we can also help this place become more alive and give it a new energy. And the land ancestor, it also… Because we become a part of it so we are also that energy. And I think this is also very important, how we want our environment to manifest. We are part of it and if we don’t become in harmony with it, then I think sometimes the two won’t match and it becomes a very awkward situation. And so we, you know, we do a lot of ceremonies in Plum Village to honor the past. Like we have we have ceremonies like ghost ceremonies. It sounds like we believe in ghosts or whatnot. But actually, we know that life is a stream of birth and death. People come, people go. And so when I first came to Plum Village and became a monk, when I decided to stay to become a monk was in 2001. And in Upper Hamlet, like what you experienced today was very different back then. I would say that the energy was somehow much heavier because World War Two happened and France was a big part of that and there was a lot of suffering. And when I first came, I remember walking at night, I would even feel chills. And there’s a particular wall in Upper Hamlet that is broken, but we have kept it as an honor of that history. And we have learned that somebody was killed there because of the history of the war. And so as monks, we used to do chanting there. And in the chanting, there would be words that would say, dear those who have passed away, you may have died because of an accident, because of murder, because of whatever misfortune. And I know you are still here today, but let us who are living now, carry you in this moment and into the future and let us transform this for you so you can be free. And it’s not about them only, but it’s about us because we are now their continuation. We come here, we’re living in this new place. And so how can I honor them? By continuing them, by practicing mindfulness, being aware of myself the way I am carrying myself today. I know I’m doing it for them also. And Plum Village has now… Next year, 2022, will be celebrating our 40th anniversary. And I can see that this work that we have done together as a community has transformed this whole, this whole village, this whole plot of land. And now there is… Every time I come back from a trip afar, whenever I enter into the zone of Upper Hamlet, I do feel peace. I don’t know if you feel it, Jo, but if I go away for like three months or like three weeks on a retreat, I would come back, and they said there’s no place like home, right? But it’s not just feeling comfort. But I do feel like I’m entering into a zone of practice.
Yeah, well. And I think, you know, it’s funny because often we’re ignoring a deeper understanding of place, so, you know… we all have that experience of walking into a room or a building and thinking, oh, that feels really heavy or that feels very joyful. But actually behind that, what, you know… one of the things Thich Nhat Hanh talks about is collective energy, which is actually collective energy does manifest in the world. And I know that it would be good to hear a bit more from you, Phap Huu, that one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s decisions was to buy this huge old building in Germany to turn into a monastery that was previously a sort of Gestapo headquarters during the Second World War, and that he did that specifically. That no one else wanted this building because of its past. But he actually took over this this building with all its heaviness and heavy energy in order to transform it. And I remember when I interviewed Christiana Figueres, who was the architect of the Paris climate talks, and she raised this is one example of Thay’s works. And she said that Thay asked people from all around to send in handmade hearts, I think it was.
To bring in… to help bring in a different energy. And she used this as an example of his extraordinary compassion. To take on a building that that was… that had the smell of death around it and specifically in order to transform it. But I don’t know much more about it than than that. But I imagine you probably do.
Yeah. You know, our teacher, he wanted to bring healing to Europe. And Germany, like I shared, was a major factor in the war, World War Two. And when our teacher decided to create a new practice center as a new branch of Plum Village, he could have picked any country in Europe. Italy, Spain, England, Ireland, but somehow he chose Germany because he knew that this was such a source of suffering. And so to now bring in a community of practice and let and plant the seed of understanding and love, and his hope as this seed will help transform this past. And so new trees, new hearts can grow with compassion, with love, with healing. And this is the work that we still need to do today, in 2021. There’s still so much discrimination. There’s still so much suffering, there’s so much despair that is still present. So one time I did hear Thay say it’s like the body and you have to identify where one of the source of the pain was and this was one of it. And we got to bring in the vaccine right at that place and give it that shot. And I think there’s many factors that came together. But somehow at that moment, Thay said let us bring our community to Germany.
And it’s interesting, Phap Huu, because it doesn’t need a Zen Master to follow that path. And and, you know, my mother, despite the fact that she was the only remaining member of her family after the Second World War and that she suffered enormous traumas as a result of of the Nazi rise to power, that she chose to go back, as she got older, to heal the wounds and not just to heal her wounds, but she went and visited old classmates who had excluded her at school and treated her very badly. That she went and gave talks at schools about her experience. And that was a real journey of forgiveness from her side, because she, you know, she didn’t need to do that. But she felt it was important to heal herself, but also to support those around her who had suffered. So the truth is that we can all play that role. We all have our traumas. We all have our sufferings. And actually, we can all take responsibility for doing our bit. And that actually does change the world.
Yeah. And it changes you. I think, like, part of our life is to also learn where we’re from and how can we understand where we’re from in order to continue it. You know, I grew up in Canada and I grew up with complexes also because my parents were from Vietnam and I’m probably second generation in the West, in my family. And so, you know, there were many moments that I didn’t want to connect to my own roots. I didn’t want to see myself as a Vietnamese person. And we call that the banana complex, you know, we are yellow on the outside, but deep down inside we want to be like a Westerner and whatever that means. But that’s what we wanted to be. And you can grow up with this complex and definitely not figure out where do I fit in. And so actually, knowing where you’re from, knowing your roots can be very liberating. You can then suddenly realize, wow, I’m so rich. I have such an amazing culture that my ancestors have created. I want to benefit from this. And then… Now I want to bring it to the West. I want it also to manifest in the West, but it would take new forms. And it’s OK because now with our globalization, I think this is the beauty of our world today where there is information passed on through the Internet and our traveling is much easier. And I can see like coming back to the roots always helped me expand my horizon. It’s not like you’re going back into time and becoming like an ancient, an ancient person or anything like that. But if anything, it helps you become more free. And I think that a lot of young Vietnamese who grew up in the West will have to go through this. And to know that to to come back to the roots is to see how rich you are and how magnificent this heritage you have. It just gives you so much more power and so much more love and understanding.
And brother, finally, you know, from my perspective, what I think this conversation is helping me to realize, because what was on my… what popped into my mind is for those people who don’t know anything about their history, you know, who might be orphans, who were, you know… And they don’t know who their mom and dad was. And that can be a very lonely place because in a sense, it’s our roots that… Without our roots, it’s like a tree without its roots, it can’t nourish itself. But listening to you and that broader aspect of the sort of the blood ancestors, the spiritual ancestors and the land ancestors is that actually we all have spiritual ancestors.
And we all can connect to land ancestors. So even if we don’t… So firstly, if we don’t know anything about our blood ancestry, we can still have we still have lots of data in ourselves about how we are responding to things that give us clues about our past. But beyond that, we can find refuge in many other parts, it’s not just about blood family, but actually each of those, in a sense, rivers can offer us a chance to understand ourselves better.
Yeah. Like, you know, our mentors are our ancestors. They can be spiritual ancestors, our teachers, you know, some friends on your path are also part of your lineage. They help you in the most difficult times. And then the earth. Coming back and just connecting to the earth, knowing that Mother Earth is our mother. Thanks to her we are here. And if you can connect to that, you almost… you’re connected to the whole cosmos.
Yeah. And that means that we are not alone. And I think Thay does talk about this, doesn’t he? About the fact that the the great original suffering is to be born.
That we have this feeling of being alone and separate. But actually, if we take, as you say, if take Mother Earth and sort of all these other ancestors, then actually we are not alone and we could never have been alone.
Exactly. Exactly. You know, the air that we breathe is thanks to these trees that are all around us. There are ancestors. Some of them have seen civilization transform for hundreds of years. And sometimes, you know, we practice hugging meditation, we hug a tree. And to to come back to this awareness that I’m just a small human being and I’m part of this cosmos and I can still connect to this lifeline of energy for thousands of years thanks to these amazing trees, right? And then look at the rivers. Look at the mountains. Look at the landscape that’s around us. They have been here for thousands of years. And so we connect to also all living beings, Mother Nature, that can also give us a lot of energy and also be a refuge for us.
Brother, that’s beautiful. And I wonder whether… because we end every episode with meditation, whether actually you can incorporate this into our final meditation.
Wonderful. Thank you so much. Has been beautiful.
So dear friends, this is that moment when we will invite all of us to come back to our breathing. Give ourselves a chance to experience meditation, whether we are sitting on the bus, on the train, on a commute, going for a walk, going for a run, cleaning our house, cooking. Wherever we are, if we can allow ourselves to be still for a few minutes, that would be great. If you need to continue what you are doing, please continue to do so and just let these words penetrate into your soul. Now, let us come back to our awareness of breath. As we breathe in, we know we are breathing in. As we breathe out, we know we are breathing out. Connect to that inbreath. Connect to that outbreath. Let that breath bridge your mind home to your body. Just by that awareness of breath. Inbreath. Outbreath. As I breathe in I can see and hear and feel life all around me. As I breathe out, I can feel life inside of me in every cell in my body. There is life all around me. And there is also life within me. In, life. Around me, out. Life inside of me. Breathing in, I invite my mother to breathe in with my lungs. Breathing out, I invite my mother to breathe out with my lungs. In, mother, are you breathing with me? Out, mother, I am breathing for you. Breathing in, mommy, you are here inside of me. Breathing out, mother, you are breathing out with me and I will continue you in this very moment and into the future. Breathing in. Father, I invite you to breathe in with me, with my lungs. Breathing out. Father, I invite you to breathe out with me. In, father and child breathing in together. How wonderful. Out, father and child breathing out together. What a miracle. Because I am alive, you are alive in me. Breathing in, dear mother, dear father, let me hold your suffering, your pain, your despair. And let me transform them in my lifetime for you to be free and for me to be free. Breathing in mindfully with my mother and my father. Breathing out mindfully, with my mother and my father. Mother and father, the peace, the love, the understanding in my heart are also the peace, the love and understanding I offer to you. Breathing in, I invite my spiritual ancestors, my teachers in life to breathe in with me. Breathing out, I let my ancestors, my teachers to breathe out with my lungs. Nice and relaxed. Let me continue to inherit their wisdom, make it alive in my daily life through the way I think, through the way I speak and the way I act. Let me carry my ancestors spiritually, my teachers into the future, and let the teachings continue to flow. Breathing in, my spiritual ancestor, breathe in with me. Breathing out, my teachers in life, breathe out with me. With breathing in I honor all my friends on this path of life. Breathe in with me as one. Breathing out, I am grateful for all your support. They’re the most difficult time. You were the one I came to to share my suffering, my pain. Thank you for listening. Thank you for embracing and for accepting me as who I am. Breathing in, let us celebrate life together, my dear friends. Breathing out, how wonderful it is to be alive. I’m breathing in, I connect to this planet, to the cosmos. The winds, the sound of the birds, the people walking by, all living beings. They are all miracles of life. Breathing in. And breathing out. Connecting to all different beings. Let us learn to love and protect all this wonder of life. Breathing in simply, this is an inbreath. Breathing out, this is an outbreath. In the here, in the now there is peace, there is love always present. Thank you, dear friends, for practicing with us. I am Brother Phap Huu
and I am Jo Confino.
Thank you for being a part of this podcast, for listening and thank you for all your openness.
And if you’d like to hear other episodes, then you can find us on Spotify, Apple podcasts, all other podcast platforms and perhaps most importantly, on the Plum Village App.
And this podcast is only possible thanks to Plum Village and the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, TNH Foundation.
Be at peace and go well.
The way out is in.
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