Welcome to episode 58 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, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and leadership coach and journalist Jo Confino talk about healing the body. Brother Phap Huu is back in Plum Village, five weeks after undergoing surgery on one of his knees, ready to discuss dealing with ill health after 21 years as a practitioner of mindfulness. How can we accept what is going on in our bodies but also heal and be present?
The conversation touches upon many relevant topics, such as deep endurance of pain and suffering; being mindful of your body and coming home to it; recognizing ‘the fear’; Thich Nhat Hanh’s journey of being in hospital and dealing with health issues (as recalled by his attendants); accepting the present moment; learning to be teachers; impermanence; and more.
Thank you for listening. Enjoy!
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
‘How to Dwell Happily in the Present Moment’
Stepping Into Freedom
‘The Five Earth Touchings’
Sister True Dedication
Brother Phap Linh
‘The Four Dharma Seals of Plum Village’ https://plumvillage.org/articles/the-four-dharma-seals-of-plum-village
“In Buddhism, dying is not just the moment when we breathe our last breath. Because dying – the ‘no birth, no death’ – is the insight that there’s always birth and there’s always death in every moment. And that’s why we are ever changing and recognizing that we have to learn to let go of everything we hold dear – even our health. Our true belongings are our actions of body, speech, and mind.”
“It’s the cultivation of the practice that allows you – in this difficult time [ill health], when there’s so much energy in the opposite direction – to pull back and rest in that place.”
“The only moment we have in life is the present moment. The past will become a memory, will become lessons, will become a legacy. And the future is not yet here. So all we have is the present moment.”
“The present moment always teaches us to accept, let go, and embrace and dance with what we have.”
Dear listeners, welcome back to this latest episode of the podcast series The Way Out Is In.
I am Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems evolution.
And I’m Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.
And I have to say, dear listeners, that I have been sitting here with a big smile on my face. And the reason is that Brother Phap Huu is back in Plum Village, so he’s been away for five weeks having surgery. And so we thought this was a really good moment to talk about what it’s like to have ill health, what it’s like to deal with that, how do we accept what is going on in our bodies and also do our best to heal and be present.
The way out is in.
Hello everyone, I’m Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
Brother Phap Huu, I was so excited. Welcome back to Plum Village. Did they put rose petals before you as you arrived?
Thank you Jo. I was welcomed by rain, which was a blessing because we have had such a dry summer.
So brother, tell us what has been going on for our listeners who haven’t a clue. I think we mentioned in our last episode that there was something you were dealing with, but tell us what has been going on in your life.
What has been going on is ill being in the body has manifested and it was important to listen to the body and to take care of the body. So I ruptured my ACL, which I had no idea that I ruptured it. And during the summer I had a fall and there was a twist that was very strange and consulting with some of the doctors, they said, let’s get an MRI just to make sure that your ligaments are fine. And the results showed that it wasn’t fine and it also showed that the rupture was before the fall. So I was just enduring the pain, which is something that I know I have this characteristic in myself of deep endurance of pain and suffering, and it comes from my heritage of the Vietnamese culture. And we speak about this a lot in our discovering of our own roots, of, you know, my heritage from Vietnam is we’ve been at war for a long time through many centuries. So endurance is a very big characteristic of our people, in a way. And when it actually happened, it was very interesting because there’s always options like, do you want to take care of yourself now or do you want to delay it? And the first thing I thought of was, I still want to serve the community. And because it happened right in the middle of our busiest season, which is our summer retreats and many retreats in the summer, so from the family to the Wake Up to the educator, and we’ve had thousands of people. And there was even a guilty feeling of like, I shouldn’t be sick, I shouldn’t be ill. In those moments, the answer is always mindfulness. But how to be mindful and to surrender to not your own story of what you think it’s good and what you think you should be doing, but also to be mindful of the love that is around you, to listen to the wisdom of your brothers, your sisters, your friends who are also part of your support. And I think coming back to like six weeks ago, I was very judgmental of myself and I was debating and I was trying to actually find excuse to delay my own care. And just recognizing that this is also a sense of selfishness. And our practice is learning to interbe with your family, your loved ones, your community, and to open up yourself and trust the community. So there was a big moment of letting go of the ego and accepting the care and the love that was there. So I was trying to prepare myself for surgery, I had a lot of consultations with doctors and every moment of talking about the suffering, of the pain and so on, your mind creates such stories of all the wrong things that can happen. And I think it’s never pleasant to, you know, to go under the… to be opened by the knife and to take care of the pain and the injury, but very, very insightful. So the first thing was many of my closest friends were saying that this is a sign of slowing down, dear Brother Phap Huu, that you have been at gear five for the longest time. And sometimes it is the conditions of ill being is a teacher for you to learn to listen to your body. And that is the first establishment of mindfulness, in the fourth establishment of mindfulness is learning to be mindful of the body, listening to your body, caring for your body, recognizing where there is pain where there is tension and coming home to it and embracing and accepting it. And I remember, 12 years ago, I was born with hepatitis B, and when we realized I had it, I was over the age of getting the vaccine to care for it. And I didn’t know. And 12 years ago learning to be an abbot in the community, I was very intense in my training, and I got really sick. And that’s when I discovered that all of this fever and all of this weakness in my body, how fragile I have become was because I wasn’t listening to my own body. And also tells us that the mind is very powerful. Because I got sick once, all the retreat stopped. So my mind was like, I need to be there. I need to do service for my teacher, my community. And so the body can follow the rhythm of the mind. But once you stop, your body tells you you need to take care of yourself. You need to stop. And 12 years later, once again, and I recognized that there was a lot of tension in myself and in my own projection of myself also. And it was a real moment of coming home to the body and then coming home to the feelings, which is the second establishment of mindfulness. And then the mind. And the mind is like the stories that we have of ourselves, the stories we have of our community, the stories we have of our aspiration. Have I been too ambitious? Have I been neglecting my own well-being? And the journey that I really want to tell today was the journey of being in the hospital, preparing for being operated, and recognizing, first of all, the fear. And it’s only natural to have fear. And not trying to push it away and not trying to deny it. And I think a lot of judgment came up like, why am I so afraid when I’ve been practicing for, you know, 21 years? I should have no fear, no birth, no death. Right? Like I’ve been talking about this, I’ve been meditating about this for a long time. And suddenly, when it is your turn to be cared for intensively, just recognizing that as a human we’re limited and the truth is we are all of the nature to get sick. We are all out in nature to get old, we’re all of the nature to die. And the dying in Buddhism is not just the moment of when we breathe our last breath, but the dying is in every moment because the dying, the no birth, no death is the insight that there’s always birth and there’s always death in every moment. And that’s why we are ever changing and then recognizing that we have to learn to let go of everything we hold dear to us, even our good health. We have to learn to let go of that. And our truest belonging is our actions of body, speech and mind. And when I was changed into the hospital gown, a lot of the doctors and nurses don’t know that I am a Buddhist monk, right? Because I just look like a teenage boy, actually. And we are being prepared. And there was a lot of things going on. Luckily, it was at the meditation time, so I had to show up at the hospital at 5:30 in the morning. And I was like, right on schedule, you know, like this is normally where we start to be active in our day, waking up and being present. And very interesting, they allow you to be on your phone for the first 30 to 45 minute. And I’m going to confess like I also said, okay, there’s a lot of things going on. I’m just going to take refuge in my screen right now. But my refuge was just sending like text messages to all of my loved ones, my sangha, my support, my friends who are like, is happening, please send me some healing energy and so on. And just to know that there are those that are there for you. So I was seeking a refuge outside of myself. And then there’s a moment that, okay, we need to take your device because we were about to, you know, administer some medication and so on. And I can hear also other patients. And it was such a moment that I was so grateful for the practice because if there is one thing that I know how to take refuge in is my own breathing and my own island of self. And what I started to do was I started to communicate to my leg of what’s going to happen, and I started to talk to it as though it is me. And it’s not just an instrument, right? It’s not just like you’re injured and this, but I was like giving it so much gratitude for so many of the months that it has endured the pain. And then what’s going to happen. And speaking out of respect to the legs and asking it for its own insight of healing, because our body has insight of healing, it knows how to heal if we allow ourselves to heal. And I started to just speak to it and bring ease to my whole body as I am communicating. And the first thing that they needed to do was to numb my whole leg. And there’s two nerves that they would have to target and to neutralize and to allow my leg to totally be numb. And they asked me if I wanted an anxiety shot because, yeah, you’re going to feel this. And I knew that I was already going to be under a lot of medication. If there’s one less one, I would choose that. And I told the nurse, I’m actually quite calm. I would like not to have the anti-anxiety shot. And the nurse looked at me and she said, You are really calm. And so in the discussion, I did tell her, like, I’ve been a monk for 21 years. And she’s like, No wonder, no wonder you’re so present. And when they started to enter into the body, into the nerve, my whole body started to tense up. And the stories, the fear that are coming starts to be very loud. The safest place, coming back to mindfulness of, first of all, my breath, and then recognizing the fear and the tension in the body. And I started to just with the mindfulness of breathing, just to ease the different body parts. Like my shoulders were so tense, my jaw line was so tense, part of my hands were shaking. And it is just a sensation of fear and just calming with each breath, you know, the body. And it played such an important part of letting go and also being healed. And that was a very impactful and insightful moment I had with myself in that moment of just being very real and applying the practice very concretely. And then after that there was like moments of just waiting for the next thing. And before entering to the operating room, I had a very big gap of waiting. And in that moment, just gratitude was very present in me. And I was just grateful for all the support that I was having, grateful to all the conditions and just meditating on the wellbeing that is present in your life. And that was my practice in order to bring peace to that present moment for myself. And I would like to say that that was so supportive and that was very real for me. And it wasn’t like spiritual bypassing or anything like that, but that was a present moment, healing moment. And what your mind can also… You can channel your thinking and your cultivation of that mind in that moment to moments of gratitude, moments of relaxation and moments of accepting.
Thank you, brother. Wow, my body was tensing up just as you were telling me the story of you tensing up. And thank you for that, particularly because I think for your deep honesty, brother. Because actually, you know, so many people face fears or face problems, whether it’s ill health or others. And just to hear you go through that process is just so helpful because it just shows that this practice is not about being in the meditation hall or being on the cushion. It’s about bringing these teachings into our lives. Especially… And I love the way Thay said, you know, that the reason we need to practice is for when the difficult times are. That if this was the first time you said, Oh, I’ve read a Zen book yesterday, I’m going to put it into practice. Of course, it couldn’t work, but it’s the cultivation of the practice that allowed you to then in this difficult time where there’s so much energy in the opposite direction, to be able to pull it back and to rest in that place. And brother, you know, a lot of our listeners will not know that, that you cared deeply for Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh when he was ill in hospital, especially in the difficult times where he had had his stroke, he was in hospital, he wasn’t sure if he was going to make it. And where he also then had to go into MRI scans and all this sort of stuff. And I’m just wondering whether what you went through with Thay helped you in a sense. What did you learn about Thay that you were able to then also recognize you were bringing into your support in those key moments?
Looking back, eight years ago, when Thay’s health was declining, it was, first of all, very hard to believe that my teacher was getting ill because our wish and our mind only wants to see our loved one as healthy as ever. And even though I have recited many times, you know, the gatha when the day ends, like the day has passed, I need to look back on what I have done, you know, and truest belonging is our body, speech and mind, and to be grateful of our well-being and also meditate on the nature of impermanence, of life. Like I’ve meditated on my own body, getting old, returning to the earth and so on. But when it actually happens, like when Thay actually had the stroke, first of all, like my reaction was like, I don’t know what to do. And there’s almost like there’s no magic pill for that moment. I wish there was. I wish I can be solid as a mountain and, you know, just have immense space. But the reality was like my heart was like, in pain. And the fear of like, what now was like banging on my door as also as a member of a community that relied so much on Thay. And I went down also a rabbit hole of like blaming a lot. Like I was… When you’re suffering so much and there’s so much unknown, like you look for something to blame the situation. And I was really angry at God, at the universe, at all the conditions, and I was like, I don’t believe in a particular God, but like in those moments, like, I was like, if you’re out there, what the heck? Like, why out of all the people to have a stroke, why can’t it be a drug lord? Like, why can’t it be like a criminal? And my mind was getting very dark. And I was like, Why somebody like Thay, who has only worked for peace and has only devoted his life to help people, has to suffer such a fate. And so my own way of thinking was just looking for an outlet in order to answer the unknown. And of course, as I was going down this rabbit hole of like just negative thinking and blaming and challenging like the universe, walking meditation taught me, because walking meditation was Thay’s favorite practice. And as I was walking through my anger, my walking was just telling me, this is a part of life. This is the journey of life where we have to learn to accept. And when I just started to accept that this is the present moment, my teacher is in a coma. I couldn’t cry at that moment and I was very jealous of a lot of my brothers and sisters who were crying because it was grief that I wanted to express, but inside of me, as I was one of the key attendants and a leader of the attendants team, my shoulders were like others can cry, but I’m just going to be present and solid, whatever that meant. But that was my story that I created for myself. And when we hear this phrase, dwelling happily in the present moment, we may become caught in the word happiness because we all have an idea of what happiness is. Happiness is good health. Happiness is success. Happiness is fame. It is power. Happiness is having a great house, having all of the wonderful conditions. But in deep Buddhism, the teachings of the Buddha teaches us that even in the ill being, there is still happiness. And I was able to witness Thay’s healing journey of accepting his ill being. How powerful that was of a direct transmission of the teachings. And when Thay had the stroke and Thay was in a coma, even in the coma, Thay’s breathing was consistent. His breathing were never interrupted. That’s how it felt, like the mindfulness was never interrupted, even his awareness of when people were present. Many of the students who came to visit Thay were saying, Wow, Thay is really here. And that’s why it was so hard to even understand that Thay was in a coma. But, yes, he was in a coma. But there was one moment, it was, if I can remember correctly, I would say it’s like after the fourth night, and there was a lot of activities in Thay’s eyes, so there’s a lot of movement. And I told my team, we were in teams of three to care for Thay, and gracefully the hospital allowed us to be with Thay 24 hours a day. And Thay was in the ICU, intensive care unit. And because we all felt Thay has taken care of us and the world in a way, so now the minimum thing we can do is care for Thay in the most crucial moment of the unknown, of birth and death. And I remember telling my team, it was Sister True Dedication and Brother Phap […], those were my two attendants, brothers and sister. And I told them, I think Thay’s gonna open his eyes tonight. And it was exactly around like 2 a.m. in France, in Bordeaux, Thay opened his eyes. He was leaning on his… lying on his right side. So his right side was paralyzed but his left side was able to move. And when Thay opened his eyes, I got so excited and I squatted down to meet Thay’s eye level, at the bed. And like a child, I was like, Thay, do you see me? Even in that moment, I was so selfish. I was like, Thay, do you see me? You know, not being able to say it like, it’s so funny, like how selfish we can become even in that moment how much I want to care for Thay. And I was like, Thay, do you see me? And then, Brother Phap […] and Sister True Dedication was right beside. We were all huddling. And we’re like just wanted to tell Thay that we are there. And Thay put his left hand out and he put his hand on our heads and our face. And the touch was so tender and so gentle. And my definition of that moment was like, Thay knows that we are there for him. And he was reaching out just as a teacher and a student like I was saying like, Thank you for being there. And for us, we’re like, We are here for you. Like his mantra, you know, like, I know you are there and I’m so happy. And for us, Thay, we know you are there. And the journey of healing was also, is on two parts, the caretakers and also the one that is taking in the healing journey. And what I learned from my own practice of being with Thay was that we all have an idea of what we want our loved one to become. Right? Like, my deepest wish was, yes, I wanted Thay to speak again, I wanted Thay to be able to walk again, I wanted Thay to be a teacher as he was again. I was very attached to that image because I took refuge in that image. I took… I cherished that as that has mold me who I am. And I maybe wasn’t ready to let go of that persona that Thay had, which was a global teacher, a mindfulness father and so on. And I had to learn to let go of that view that I wanted. We had a lot of real talk among his students, and one of it was we said, if Thay wants to let go, we have to support that. If Thay wants to become a cloud, we don’t have the right to hold on to that because our deepest practice is freedom, stepping into freedom. And in this moment of dire situation, are we being selfish? Are we wanting Thay to be there for us? Or are we allowing them to be exactly who they need to be in that moment? And yes, it is, I am sick. I am limited. And maybe we can still find beauty in that. And the miracle of Thay’s healing was Thay overcame the hemorrhage, which in principle the doctors told us Thay had 6 hours left. And I looked at the image of the hemorrhage and it wasn’t looking good. And we were all preparing, and miraculously, I would say that the international community, the world, was sending Thay so much love. And I also felt, this is a Brother Phap Huu take, okay? So this is, I hold responsibility for this, which is I really feel that Thay felt the sangha wasn’t ready for Thay’s letting go and Thay’s returning back to Mother Earth. And as a teacher, he was still being a teacher. He was still being very responsible. So that’s my take. And when Thay came out of the coma and Thay started to be trained through physiotherapy. I was able to witness the mindfulness of the body, like Thay looking at his left side, which is active, and his right side that is paralyzed. And how he was so tender and so caring for it. And there were moments of pain, like agony, there are moans that that was like… I wanted to take that pain for Thay, but I can’t. There were restless nights of the body of just aching and a lot of movement. And in those moments, and I’m sure many of us have these questions when we are with our loved ones and we see our parents or our partner, even our children in such pain, and we want to take on that pain for them. How do we practice? And in those moments, the mantra that I recited was, I am here for you and I’m witnessing your journey and the best I can offer is just my true self, my full presence with no expectation. And I feel, because if I’m coming with such an energy of expectation that the others will feel that, my teacher will feel that, and that will add another layer of expectation and of judgment and of my own story that I’m placing on my teacher, of what I want. And I feel that’s not fair. But if I just show, if I’m just there, and I’m just breathing, and I’m also feeling the pain because we have experience, when you’re with somebody who is so happy, you’re infused by their happiness, and you experience that. But when we are with somebody who’s suffering deeply, you also become that suffering, but you can channel that suffering together. And there are moments when I would just, if I can do anything that’s as minimal as like massaging where there’s pain or just, you know, communicating to Thay, like, Thay is there pain? And he would nod. Is there… Let’s try this. Let’s try that. You know, be very gentle. And there are moments we just accept it. And Thay just accepts it, too. So also having my brothers and sisters to also just talk about it together was very helpful and not finding in an answer. There’s no answer. Just being able to communicate and just to share. Well, that was a really tough shift. And that was, you know, my heart dropped when I saw Thay in pain, you know, just to share that pain together. And then relying, I did a lot of touching the earth. I did exercise just to nourish myself. And also talking about the practices, finding also joy in those moments and just seeing how wonderful, wow, we can be together, and grief together in this moment. And so there are ways of being in the pain and the suffering, the ill being, but still able to find the deepest practice. I think this is fundamental of listening to the situation and then being very mindful of our views that we are bringing into this situation.
I’m sitting here feeling the depth of your love and care and deep experience of that time. So I’m feeling that there, the weight of it, not in a heavy, not weight in a heavy sense, but the weight of, the weight of the presence of it. And I’m just wondering, given you went through all that and now you’ve gone through, you know, at the tender age of 35, I think you’re 35, and having gone into hospital for the first time for quite a serious operation. And what did you take from all that experience of being with Thay, of the sangha, of the feelings? How did that help you to be present and to be in the hospital in the way you were? Can you see a direct line of those two things?
I remember, before the stroke, we were in the hospitals in Bordeaux, and Thay had to do a lot of scans, MRI, do X-rays. And there’s like a moment when, like, I’m walking along Thay’s bed as he’s being transported to the X-ray room or the MRI room, and then there’s a moment you can’t enter anymore. And it’s literally physical letting go. And I think, for myself, there was a moment of like, I want to be there. Like, I just want to protect you, Thay. And the next few hours after Thay’s X-rays and MRI, Thay shared with two of us, and I was one of the attendants that was present. And he was being very vulnerable with us. He shared with me that even Thay, when Thay goes into these rooms, there are some fears that come up. Like, what if it shows up that I am not well. Just that fear of the unknown. And it was, number one, it was like, wow, even Thay has fear, so it’s okay if I have fears. Totally normal. You know, like, it’s that the permission, is the permission to feel. And the second thing Thay said, which was the practice, he said that those moments, you can feel very much alone. You can feel so lonely, you can feel so cut off because it’s just you in a room with machines. And Thay said, in those moments, he channels the community. We all have a safe island where we can take refuge in. And for him, his greatest happiness is the sangha, sangha meaning community. And he would visualize as he is being transported into these rooms, that he’s not alone and that the whole sagha is journeying with him through this healing process. And he would even say, he can even feel the whole ancestral lineage with him, genetic, spiritual and even land. And so when you have this insight, suddenly gratitude becomes very strong in you and it gives you a foundation of acceptance. Because even if I am not well, but there are members of my sangha that are well, I can take refuge in that. So you’re channeling the interbeing of reality in you, in that moment. And it is true. We’re all separate because you are Jo, I am Brother Phap Huu, you are Brother Niem Thung, you are Paz, but we have lived and journeyed together. So there are elements of you in me. And that’s exactly every time I was feeling lonely, every time I was having doubt about myself, every time I was scared, I would channel my community, I would channel… I would borrow the strength of my brothers, my sisters, my friends. And this is not like, this is not like a practice of like forgetting yourself, but it is a practice of seeing yourself beyond yourself also. Because it’s true, I’m not just this body, I’m also the wellness of my brothers and my sisters. So that was a very deep practice for me through this journey, through the healing process. And also to let go of like your own ambition of healing, like I suddenly realized I’m going to have, like, five weeks of not doing anything. And I was like, Yes. I couldn’t wait for it because, like, I’d just been so busy. Right? Mindfully busy, mindfully happy with all the service. And I was like, okay, I’m going to put effort in the book that I want to, you know, invest in and so on. And after the surgery, like, the only attention that I had to give was my body. And I can neglect my body and I let go of so many things that I thought I should have done, could have done, would have done, and just take refuge in those moments of healing. And I remember Thay teaching all of us, learn from the animals, learn from nature. When the animal is injured, it stops everything that is doing and it just rest. And resting is such an art and resting is so hard when you have been in gear five for so long. And just like a fan, you know, when you press stop, you can’t stop right away. And you also have to give yourself permission to stop, to rest, and to ease into the sensation that is so present. Once all of the anesthesia was off, like I was like breathing in, I am in pain. Breathing out, I am accepting this pain because I can’t push it away. It’s so real. And just learning of the body, I’m learning to listen to my body in that moment, I was nauseous for a good week and a half to almost two after all of the drugs, the painkillers, and so on, that I was on. And using, you know, the practice to not push it away, but the practice was to accept it. And the acceptance was what I learned from Thay. The more you fight it, it doesn’t really help, because the more you fight it then you’re going to look for… you’re looking for a distraction outside. And fortunately, in our training, we don’t take refuge in movies and so on. Even though I had access to like YouTube and so on, like, I just couldn’t go there. It felt like what Paz told me, it felt like dirt. It was like, it’s just like, this ain’t nourishing, you know? And I just wanted to just give myself permission to be. There was a real, real refuge of being in the body, being mindful of my perceptions, being mindful of the object of mind that I’m leaning towards, and also the object of mind where I should, my object of mind was healing and resting. And luckily I have some, still, I was able to keep some ritual of my day, which was every morning, me and my beloved, a shout out to Chris who was my caretaker, sangha member, and later […] who was also present to be there and to care for me. Every morning we would drink tea together and just enjoy the simplicity of each other’s presence, the simplicity of the early morning’s silence. And then having a moment just to check in with each other. And that became like my schedule. And then the physiotherapy and the exercises became my meditation. You know, I let go, yeah, I can’t cross my leg now. I’m not sitting on a cushion for probably the next seven months or so and just accepting all of these limitations. The good news is I’m walking really slow right now. So we have, we have a slow walking meditation and the art of walking meditation, so I have to walk slow.
You’re going to have a monk jam behind you, because no one will want to overtake the abbot.
Well, I’m going to put like, a signal, like, please, please, please walk behind me.
Please pass. Exactly. Yeah. You know, looking like one of… I had a moment with Thay in 2016. And Thay was doing a lot of physiotherapy as Thay was trying to also get back some of his mobility. And it was very intensive and Thay was so determined. Number one, I learned his determination. And number two, trusting the body. And giving it permission. And then when Thay needed to rest, he knew how to rest. And there was a moment Thay got quite sick and we had to go to the E.R. and so on. So it was another scary moment for those of us who were with him. And he overcame it again. And I just had a dying question in my heart. And the question that I had, the question that I had was, are you afraid of death? For whatever reason, I don’t know why, but that question was just banging in my heart. And I was really nervous about this question because I didn’t want… It looks like I’m challenging my teacher, but it was like I just wanted to know so I can support you. Because I think that we all have a fear of death. I think no matter how much we practice, because that’s a fact. That’s the nature that we have to let go of. And it’s scary to let go of everything that we hold so dear to us, even though that’s our meditation. So there was a moment, it was just me and Thay.
Go for it, go for it.
I went for it and I knelt down and I joined my palms like, Thay, can I ask you a question? And Thay nodded his head and I asked, Thay, are you afraid of dying? Thay looked at me with such kind eyes. And he had a smirk on his face. Like a smile, like a smirk is like hmm. It was almost like, me, afraid of death? And he put his hand on my cheeks like, Thay couldn’t speak, but I heard everything through my mind. Was like, my child, no, I am not afraid of death. I’m here, you’re here, let’s enjoy this moment. And it was such a relief in my heart because Thay was so confident in his look at me and his smile and his palm that was on my face and was like, it was like, hmm, it’s okay for you to have this question, you’re young, you’re curious. But for Thay, no, I’m not afraid. And Thay was 88 when he had the stroke, so, like, 89 was like, post the stroke, after the coma and everything. And one day Thay decided that he has to enjoy life with the community, with his limitation. And he called all of us attendants. We were in San Francisco. Thay was getting medical care there. And Thay looked at all of us, and Thay looked at Brother Phap Linh, Brother Spirit, because Brother Phap Linh was in charge of all the liaison, liaising with all of the doctors. And Thay looked up and pointed at Brother Phap Linh, and Brother Phap Linh asked Thay, Thay, would you like to stop all of the physiotherapy, speech therapy and so on? And Thay nodded. And Thay was so happy because we understood him. And in that moment, though, there was also a lot of fear. And there was also, dare I say, some disappointment, because we wanted Thay to get better. We wanted Thay to be able to speak again. We want Thay to be able to be more mobile. And it was really tough for some of this decision. And… but Thay was so clear. And what I learned from it was that Thay recognized that he’s done his best in the last six months to get as much back as possible. Thay was very diligent and we established our own practice while we were in S.F.. We had established sitting meditation schedule in the mornings, even precepts recitation with all the attendants. And Thay would join all of these sessions. And when Thay decided that he wanted to stop, it wasn’t him giving up, but it was him smiling through life and saying, Even in this state, Thay can still be with all of you. Thay don’t need to be able to speak again. Thay don’t need to be able to walk again. Thay don’t need to be able to move by himself. Thay has accepted all the care. Thay has accepted the condition that he’s in. And like every time I think of this moment is the real art of accepting the present moment. Because the only moments we’re going to have in life is the present moment. The past will become a memory, will become lessons, will become a legacy. And the future is not yet there. So all we have is the present moment. And Thay was able to accept the present moment and live deeply this present moment. And he gave us seven years of living so deeply with the community. Imagine if those seven years were just in the hospital or just activities of physiotherapy and so on, like, then we couldn’t have been with Thay. Thay couldn’t have been fully with the sangha. And Thay also surrendered to the community. And in 2016 January, we celebrated New Year’s and Christmas in S.F. and it was so joyful when Thay decided that he was going back to Plum Village, Thay was so happy. He celebrated, he stayed up to welcome the New Year with all of us. We sang so many songs. And Thay can sing because there’s a neural pathway that Thay was able to sing and verbalize words that were so clear, like [speaks Vietnamese], which is I have arrived, I’m home. [speaks Vietnamese] Breathing in, breathing out. And we’ve learned that there are neural pathways in us that we can still sing, but speaking is different. And I remember when we returned back to Plum Village, the first thing Thay wanted to do was to visit all the hamlets and to be with the community and not to waste a single moment. And we had a monastic retreat every morning. Thay was there to do sitting with us. And the most dreadful moment came was he came to listen to our Dharma talks because now all of the Dharma teachers have to learn to get the teachings which he was the primary teacher. And I remember that we were learning to be teachers. So like looking back at our teachings, like in 2016, like, I think like we would be embarrassed to listen to it…
Please delete it, you know? But Thay was always there just giving his presence to supporting us. And the most heartwarming moments, I mean, there are so many, but one of it was like during the summer retreats, and Thay would come out for walking meditation and all the children would crowd around him and Thay would hold a child’s hand for the walk, even though he was in a wheelchair. And we would stop at the Buddha Hill in Upper Hamlet, exactly where he would stop. We even carried Thay’s wheelchair up the New Hamlet Plum Hill, where we would look at the landscape and the community would sit around Thay and nothing was lost. You know, it’s just our perception of what we have lost. But maybe we have gained such miraculous moments with a wonderful human being that knows how to be in the suffering of the body. And I think one thing that I am still learning is to accept everything that comes at us and not to be hard on ourself, even our ill being, our health when it goes down or if… I have meditated like if one day, you know, I have to announce to my community that I have cancer and so on and just to accept it and still be able to live fully. And I asked a lot of the brothers and sisters on the last days before Thay’s passing in 2022, how was the last 48 hours, you know, that Thay was with the community? And one of the attendants told me that looking back, he can see that the way Thay was looking at all of us like he was just savoring each moment and also was also a goodbye. So, knowing how to be in the present moment it’s a masterful class of Zen, and it’s a cultivation that no matter how much we practice, it always teaches us new things. The present moment always teaches us accepting, letting go, embracing and dancing with what we have. And just one more thing that I’ve learned from Thay was I’ve done a lot of like I put my hand on my left leg, especially when it couldn’t, I couldn’t move it for the first week or so just to be tender with yourself. And I saw Thay be so tender with his right hand, which was paralyzed through his caring for his body because his right hand if we’ve listened to a lot of his teachings, he always speak about it when he talks about, you know, nondiscrimination, because a lot of, almost 99% of Thay’s poems were written by his right hand, except for one was by a typewriter. So it was a collaboration of two hands, but he shares of the non self is not proud and the left hand is not jealous. And if the right hand is injured, the left hand will take care of it. And that’s exactly what happened. And when Thay was paralyzed, yeah, I was able to witness like Thay holding his hand with such tenderness and acceptance. And because when you accept you also you ease and you liberate yourself from your own judgment and your own critical mind of body shaming and so on. So coming home to the body, that’s why the first establishment of mindfulness that the Buddha teaches us is coming home to the body.
So, brother, you have returned. And they say that you never enter the same river twice. And so the Phap Huu that returns is the same and also different. And you talked a little bit about what you’ve learned, but I just wondered if you were to, you know, you’ve come back now, you’re the abbot of the community and you’ve gone into a deep experience about yourself, about what the teachings mean in practice, about where you have your strengths and also where you have your fragilities, which you’ve shared very openly and honestly and generously, actually. And I’m just wondering, beyond what you’ve said, is there something you come back with around your own practice and around is there anything that you would like to be or do differently, having had this experience of… And also this forced rest, where you just recognize you need to just stop completely, which is probably the first time you’ve done that in a very, very long while. And also for your place in the community and the community. I’m just wondering if, you know, you’ve gone through something and now you’ve returned, and I’m just wondering if anything is showing up for you.
What is new is old, but what is old is new. I think what I want is more support, that’s one thing I’ve learned, to not shoulder everything by myself. Just as when I was healing, I couldn’t do it by myself. If it wasn’t for my friends, if it wasn’t for the sangha, I wouldn’t have been able to heal. And I also am very grateful to all the doctors and other nurses and the […] that have been caring for me, that I can’t do things alone. And I have very strong aspirations still. And one of it is speaking to a very good friend who is also a business man. And he listen to this podcast, too, so I think it’s a shout out to him also as he was speaking with me and during my healing process and caring for me also… About communication. I thought I was a good communicator, but the only thing I wanted to communicate about was the good things, with the flowers. And we still have a lot of things to figure out as a community in Plum Village, as a monastic community, as a global community, as a multifold sangha, which is Thay’s biggest legacy that he’s given to us. And one thing that I recognize is there’s not enough communication between the leaders of the communities, like the monasteries. And I feel like Thay was such a good bridge maker and bridge builder through the different students that he’d had around the world. And not to be attached to how Thay did it, because Thay was Thay, but to be creative and find ways and this is a priority just to check in on how every monastery is doing and to have also mutual respect for all of us in different parts of the world and to honor the differences that we also have. Like all of the monasteries, we have the same foundation, but we also have to adapt to the different cultures and so on, where we are established. And then on a personal side is also not being carried away by, okay, this sounds so funny, but success. Not to be carried away by success. I recognize that I was… I like the feeling of being able to accomplish things, even though it was within the image of a big community. But I’m not going to stop doing it, but it’s just like, need to care for myself. Right? In order to continue to serve and not to be guilty, not to feel guilt about stopping. And it’s easier said than done. And I feel this is going to be my continuous practice for years to years to come. Yeah.
Thank you, brother. And it’s, you know, for me personally, the great beauty of Plum Village is the humility, is the fact that that you are the abbot, you could very easily be on a high platform in terms of, not necessarily physically, but in terms of this is what you need to do, and if you only do this… And I think the heart of this podcast and what gives so many people hope and sustenance is that it’s this level of honesty and this level of there’s the aspiration, and there’s our reality, there’s our stories, and there’s our mindfulness, there’s our judgments and our openness, there’s our hanging on, and there’s our letting go, that that is the human experience. And I think, you know, my own experience of sitting here with you is that you represent that so beautifully. And what it gives everyone who’s listening is permission to recognize that there’s no such thing as perfection, that there’s no such thing as only one thing. But actually it’s always many things. And the sense of tenderness to self as well, generosity to self about recognizing the stories we tell and how they hold us back or how they narrow our vision and that there’s always an opportunity to come back to the center and say what is true, what is meaningful, what is helpful, what is supportive, what is holding me back, what is holding others back. So I just want to, at this moment, honor you, Brother Phap Huu for what you give to people through your open heartedness and the way you’re able to communicate, because you are a beautiful communicator. And while we can be better at anything, I would say that you already hold this space so beautifully and will continue to do so and ripen it and deepen it. So one last question, brother, the Dharma seal of Plum Village is I have arrived, I am home. You have arrived and you are home. And how does that feel?
It feels like every bee has returned its beehive for its buzz and its vibe. And how fortunate I am to have a home to return to. And the home was embracing me with two arms and a lot of tea with my brothers and also just celebrating the last five months of retreat offering. And as we are witnessing the slow change of our leaves around our forest as autumn is arriving, it feels so fresh to be back home. And home physically is such a wonderful condition to have. And I don’t want to take it for granted, both physically, like my well-being, my ill being, but also my community, which in this state, I would say we’re in a good state of well-being. And just to honor that. And then when ill being comes, we will take care of it also. Yeah.
And to recognize how happy everyone is for you to be back home.
Thank you, brother.
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Yeah, thank you. And see you next time.
The way out is in.