The Way Out Is In / High Fashion to a Higher Purpose: A Zen Nun’s Journey (Episode #11)

Br Pháp Hữu, Jo Confino, Sr Hien Tam


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Welcome to episode eleven 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, presenters Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and lay Buddhist practitioner and journalist Jo Confino are joined by special guest novice Zen Buddhist nun Sister Hien Tam of the New Hamlet in Plum Village. This time, they explore monastic life: why do people want to become monastics? What happens between aspiring to be a monastic and actually becoming one? And what’s it like to live in a monastery? 

The two monastics talk about: their own journeys; engaging in society as nuns and monks; the secret to a long-lived community like Plum Village (40 years old next year!); individualism; transformation; conflict; practices that support the community. 

Sister Hien Tam tells the story of her pre-monastic life as a busy, restless, consumerist TV writer in Korea, and the unplanned visit to Plum Village which led to her becoming an aspirant and then a nun in less than three years. She candidly shares about saying goodbye to “external expressions”; her family’s reaction; ditching her “fancy”, colourful clothes for the brown robe; following clear guidelines; sharing a room with many sisters after having lived her life alone; dealing with habit energies; inner beauty; the “Buddha company”.

In addition, Brother Phap Huu discusses moderation; aspirations; inferiority complexes; loving clothes as a monk; learning to live a simpler and happy life; growing up in a monastic community; the practices of Shining Light and Beginning Anew; observing and training new aspirants; community work days.

Jo shares his own formula for a ‘mini’ Shining Light in individual relationships, and having to face his own suffering when the distractions of the outside world fade away.

Finally, Brother Phap Huu ends the episode with a guided meditation on generating peace.


Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
https://plumvillage.app/

And Global Optimism:
https://globaloptimism.com/

With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
https://thichnhathanhfoundation.org/


List of resources 

Plum Village Community
https://plumvillage.org/

‘Becoming a Monastic’
https://plumvillage.org/about/becoming-a-monastic/ 

Beginning Anew: Four Steps to Restoring Communication
https://plumvillage.org/books/beginning-anew/ 

How To: ‘Begin Anew’
https://plumvillage.org/articles/begin-anew/ 

Bodhicitta
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bodhicitta

‘Slow Down, Rest, and Heal: The Spirit of the Rains Retreat’
https://plumvillage.org/podcast/slow-down-rest-and-heal-the-spirit-of-the-rains-retreat/ 

Sangha
https://plumvillage.org/about/international-sangha-directory/ 

‘Deciding to Become a Monastic in Plum Village’
https://wkup.org/become-monastic-plum-village/ 

‘Life as Monastic Aspirants in Plum Village’
https://wkup.org/monastic-aspirants-plum-village/


Quotes

“Be beautiful, be yourself.”

“Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in their daily life to help them maintain their balance. And within ourselves, we have this seed. We call it bodhicitta. Everyone has this. It’s called the mind of love or the mind of awakening.” 

“As I became a monk, I learned that that is a way of engagement that we practice – not just to be peaceful and happy for ourself, but that our practice is a way of contributing to society, to those around us.”

“I always remember Thich Nhat Hanh saying that relationships never break up out of the blue, from something major happening. It’s from the very minor drip. He talked about it like a stalagmite or a stalactite in a cave: the small drip of problems which, at the time, are very often not addressed.”

“We share our joy and we share our success. That’s really important because in our time, where individualism is prioritized, growin up, we’re all taught to be successful by ourselves. And now, in a community, we have many talents and many types of leaders. I think a community needs a leader, but we don’t need one leader. We can have many types of leaders and when we offer a retreat, we have people leading dharma sharing, people leading Dharma Talks, people leading walking or even cooking. And for me, that’s leading like a team.”

“The simple life makes me very creative […] I feel I have more energy to take care of my inner beauty.”

“Sometimes the answers are the most obvious ones, but we don’t immediately think of them, we don’t realize that the reason I’m not fully happy is because I’ve stopped and I’m having to face myself. I’m feeling this tension in myself because I’m in Plum Village, not in spite of being in Plum Village. So this idea of how we stop means we have to look at ourselves as if we really stop and take away all the extraneous stuff: cinemas, Netflix, restaurants, and everything. All we’re left with is ourselves, and that’s quite a challenge.” 

“The practice teaches us to see ourselves like a mirror. Everything you do is you. You can’t put that blame on anyone else and you cannot hide away from it.”

“We are all cells of one body, so if I shine a light on you, I am also shining a light on myself.”

“I remember Thich Nhat Hanh would say about couples that you can share the same bed, but if you don’t have the same dream, then actually it can never work out.”

“Thich Nhat Hanh always says that love is understanding. And I think what you’re saying is that, unless we start to more deeply understand each other, then actually you don’t really generate love.”

“Thanks to the practice, we learn about moderation. And when you have one thing that is beautiful and it does what it needs to, you don’t have to search for anything else. And so I apply that to everything, even to happiness or my community. Even though we’re not the best and we have shortcomings, that’s good enough. I don’t need to keep searching or else I’m just going to be going round and round looking for something.”

“Letting go of the extraneous stuff, letting go of things outside and just saying, ‘Actually, I’m good enough as I am and actually I want to be myself.’ I don’t want to be this egoic mask of myself that’s seeking to feel better about myself by proving anything. I can just be truly who I am and be at peace. And it makes life so much more enjoyable, not wanting to grasp things or think that something outside of us is going to make us happy.”

00:00:00

Welcome to the latest episode of the podcast The Way Out Is In.

00:00:20

I’m Jo Confino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.

00:00:26

And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village community.

00:00:33

And today we have a special guest.

00:00:35

Sister Chan Hien Tam. She will be joining us from the New Hamlet.

00:00:39

Hello, I’m Sister Hien Tam from Korea.

00:00:47

The way out is in.

00:01:02

So, Brother Phap Huu, do you want to just introduce us… Why do people want to become monks and nuns? What’s that like?

00:01:12

Oh, that’s a big question, and I think you will hear different answers from everyone, every monastic that you encounter when you ask this question. But I’d like to see it as a way of following our hearts. So, our teacher, Thay, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, he shares that everyone needs a spiritual dimension in their daily life to help us maintain our balance. And within our self, we have this seed, we call it bodhicitta. And everyone has this. It’s called the mind of love or the mind of awakening. And when you are in touch with a spiritual practice, and for us in this Buddhist tradition, in this tradition of Plum Village, we get to see the wonders of life in the present moment. That’s what we’re training every day. And for some of us, when we encounter on this path, we see that this seed wants to grow even further, wants to go even more in depth. And therefore there is this other way of life and we call it the monastic life, and we learn to let go of our worldly possession, worldly careers, worldly desire, and learn to live a more simple and happy life. And because we see that as a monk or a nun, we can also offer something to society and the world. And that’s what we call aspiration.

00:02:50

Yeah. And tell us a little bit about that, because one of the things Thich Nhat Hanh is known best for is engaged Buddhism or active Buddhism, which is about saying, actually, it’s not about having monastics living in a monastery high up in the mountains that actually it’s about, you know, the history of Thay is actually that he engaged in society.

00:03:10

Yes. So I think this is why I was very attracted to Plum Village because of this aspect of engagement. And when I came for my first retreat in 1996, it was during the summer and there were so many people, so many different children, and it was very international. And that was super cool for someone coming from Canada to be in touch with so many different cultures. And what I recognized was the monastics that were guiding us through this retreat, they weren’t like statues. They weren’t like a Buddha statue that is smiling and looking down on us. But they were right beside us. They were practicing with us, and they were showing us how to practice by their way of living. And that, for me, is engagement. That was also a way for some of us who live a ‘normal life’ to see that we can be very close to those who are also on the spiritual path. And there’s no… there’s this feeling of like no distinction, in a way. And that for me was what helped me enter into this community. And when I was observing the monks and nuns during the retreat, it was very busy. They had to take care of like hundreds of people. But I recognized that they had so much ease and joy and that was very alive, and that somehow really impressed me, even though I was very young, that really impressed me. And I believe that they were able to do what they are doing because they have what we call mindfulness, this awareness, as well as this sense of contribution to the joy and the happiness of everyone around them. And later on, as I became a monk, I learned that that is a way of engagement that we practice not just to be peaceful for ourself and to be happy for ourself, but our practice is a way of contribution to society, to the ones around us. And for me, that was very inspiring and that’s why I wanted to become a monk. It helped me see that there is a way of life that can offer happiness, and it’s very cheap to shave your head, wear brown robe and learn to be more kind and more slow and more present.

00:05:45

Right. Sister, it would be lovely for our audience to get to know you a bit. So tell us a little bit about what your life was like before you decided to become a monastic.

00:05:57

And so I worked for TV. I worked as a TV writer in the Post TV station. And, yeah, I lived a very busy life like other normal people. And I was really a workaholic and I really worked like seven days per week. Yeah, I was always in the office and I was just ordinary people, I don’t know.

00:06:28

And what was your attraction to Plum Village?

00:06:32

For me, I didn’t know about the Plum Village. Not much. And the first time I visited Plum Village was 2017. And at the time I joined the retreat accidentally. Because at the time I just finished one TV show and I had like a three-month gap between starting a new program. So I decided to go to the Philippines for having a nice vacation. But I shared my plan to my dad, and my dad say, Oh, if you have such a long time off, break, you should go to Plum Village and you should meet the Thay. And I said where is Plum Village? And my father said it’s in France. So you should go and meet Thay and you should join the retreat and so. But I already like booked every airplane ticket and every resort and everything. I was already fully-booked, and so I think I need to pay the cancelation fee, yeah. So why should I do this? My father said, no, don’t worry, if you go to Plum Village, I will pay everything. And because my father really wanted me to go to the Plum Village, France, that’s why I came here for the first time in my life. Yeah, like a representative for my family.

00:08:04

Hmm. And what was your experience? What was it from leading this really busy life, really hectic to coming here? What was the moment where you suddenly thought, actually, there’s something here I want to explore?

00:08:18

It was very interesting for me because I mean, first of all, I didn’t know much about what things will happen in the Plum Village retreat. And it was spring and it was very quiet in Lower Hamlet. And I just arrived there and I opened the big meditation hall and I was at first very shocked because normally big meditation hall, you should have very big golden Buddha statues and the Buddha will look down on you and like, you know, something like that. And there’s like nothing there, very beautiful stained glass. And there was like a written the gratitude, how can I say…

00:08:57

The calligraphy.

00:08:59

Yeah, calligraphy was there. And at the time, my English was even worse than now. And I couldn’t understand the word’s meaning of the gratitude. So I search on dictionary and I said, Oh, gratitude means gratitude. And I was shocked when… Why they put these calligraphy on the wall instead of the Buddha statue? And I don’t know, that was a very strong impression for me. And everything was very amazing for me. Everything was very surprising for me because I used to always hold the phone and I am really connected with the internet all day and I should be really awake for the news trend. So I always like searched and I… something like that. But like in here, when you come here for the retreat, you’re really practiced to be stopping and we really try to like, be there fully, like with myself, not with internet. And everything was very new for me and… Yeah, I think it was very, how can I say it, like touched my curiosity? Yeah, and it makes me want to stay more and more. So like my plan was just staying in the Lower Hamlet for one week. But I extended one more week and after that I extended two more weeks and I went on in New Hamlet and I stayed one more month. And I came back here as a summer volunteer one more month.

00:10:29

Wow.

00:10:31

And what was your father’s reaction when you told him that you actually decided to become a nun?

00:10:38

Yeah, because, you know, like, it was my first trip to Plum Village, 2017, and that year I also decided to become a nun. It was same… It was very quick. It was in three months. I just came here and I think I should become a nun in here. And my father was surprised, but also not surprised because just before he brought me to the airport, he said, You know, I think Plum Village is a really great place, so I think if you want to stay there very long time as a nun, or something like that. And he’d also like a little bit joking… Like half joking and maybe half truth in his mind. And he said, like, if you want to stay there is very good. I think nun is very good, very stable job in this modern society.

00:11:29

Stable job.

00:11:30

Yeah, it’s a very good Buddha company. You should be hired to work. Yeah, and so, like, that’s why when I made a phone call to my dad and I tell him, like, do you remember you made the joke? What about if I become a nun? How do you feel? And so maybe… I think I’m considering about that job or something like that and my father don’t speak anything. Oh, my dear, maybe it’s better you come back to Korea and we discuss it, okay?

00:12:02

And did you go back?

00:12:03

Yeah, I go back for making a visa. And yeah, I already decided. Yeah.

00:12:21

Brother Phap Huu, you know a lot of obviously, as the Abbot of Upper Hamlet, you see lots of new monastics or people coming in and making a commitment to become a monastic. Can you just tell us a little bit about what that journey is like from people who say, actually, like sister here, I want to, I want to have that aspiration, I want to become a monastic. What is that journey like? And then, sister, it would be great to hear your specific story.

00:12:50

So I will speak about for others, yeah? Because I’ve been observing more now and help training the new aspirant groups. So when somebody comes to Plum Village and they are inspired by this life and they want to make a commitment, they will, first of all, find a monastic to talk to and just to double-check if their decision is correct and their idea of monastic life is accurate. And right now in Plum Village, on the monks site in Upper Hamlet, we have established a window to come in for those who would like to become monastic and become for the three-month Rains Retreat. And it’s very important that before anybody makes a decision, they come and to really just experience the life of a practitioner because we might have this idea that, oh, as a monastic, we’re going to do this, this, this, this or it’s going to be like this or like that. And our idea may be influenced by what we’ve read, what we’ve seen, a movie or a picture. But it’s so important to come and to see for yourself. And when somebody has that aspiration and they come in to share with us, we always would like to support them. But we don’t want to be too enthusiastic because it has to be a choice from them. It has to be like a heart commitment in a way. And then they would write a letter to us to explain why they would like to become an aspirant. And that’s kind of like internship in a company and you kind of like live your life as a monastic already. So then that person may be with other members, usually a group is formed and we call them family. So what is really big in our community is developing understanding of each other. That’s why we have to know how to create joy and happiness together, how to live in harmony together, how to work together, and because that’s the strength of the Plum Village community, that we all are walking on this path together. And so that family of aspirants will live together in a dorm and then they will be assigned a mentor, maybe one or two. And they will have class at least twice or three times a week, as well as join in with all of the other activities of the community. And they get one year of aspirant-ship. So they get to see the whole cycle of the community from winter to spring to summer and then autumn again. And through that journey, they get to really see if this is the life that they want to enter into. So it’s a chance for them to already taste it without making any commitment. And if anyone at any moment feels like they want to step out because they see that it is not for them, they just need to tell us and we’re very supportive of them.

00:16:10

So sister, tell us your experience. So you’ve been a monastic for I think three years, you said? What has it been like from leading this very busy life, up late to now being up very early? So going to bed late and then getting up very early and leading this completely different life. Tell us a bit about it.

00:16:36

For me, I mean, I decided to become a nun because I mean, first, I think I need to explain about that why I wanted to become a nun. And for me, the summer retreat was very, very good for me. I really enjoyed the summer retreat and I worked as a volunteer, lay friends volunteer. And I see a lot of children and a lot of families or teenagers or like, like from many different countries. And they really come here and practice together, and it makes me feel something, I don’t know, something touchy deep inside of me. And I feel like I really want to be a part of it, to contribute something, because I can feel like, I can feel transformation in myself a little day by day, and I feel like, oh, it would be very great to help others. And that was my feeling, because there are so many things… Like I was shocked when I entered the Plum Village, I mean, as a lay person, because I feel like whatever the Thay or whatever Buddha teached me, I feel like, Oh, I totally lived opposite side of those kind of things. And that’s why I also a little bit struggled. And OK, so at the beginning, I was thinking, Oh, maybe I should make something like TV program or like… Or about my profession, I should make something, wholesome things… OK, maybe I go back to Korea and I will try something else. But like just day by day, I stayed in the Plum Village and I see people, I think, Oh, I think it’s more quick if I want to make something change in the world, maybe it’s better to help the people, especially young people, like children or young people. So if I can help them to change their mind, I think they will go out and each spread in the world and they can really change the world. Maybe it’s more quick than I just do by myself, and I think that’s why I decided to become a nun, at the beginning. And yeah, but after I entered the monastery, yeah, of course, everything it’s not easy. It’s not easy. Yeah, it was very great, but it was also very, very challenging for me because… I mean, I lived very freely. I when I also work, I’m not the like nine to six person, I could manage my time by myself. But once you enter the monastery, I mean, there is some schedule and you need to really follow the schedule. Like, we need to wake up 5 a.m. and we go to the 5:30, we go to sitting meditation. And like, I mean, if it’s in the schedule, like Rains Retreat, it’s even more earlier like. Yeah, 4:30, we wake up and then 5, we start our sitting meditation. Yeah, it’s like that in New Hamlet. Yeah.

00:19:45

Tough schedule.

00:19:46

Yeah, I mean, because each hamlet is different. So it was not easy for me to adapt and get used with that schedule, because normally I sleep 5 a.m. and and I will wake up maybe 10 or 11 a.m. and I go to work or something like that. But now I need to really not sleep 5 a.m., I need to wake up at 5 a.m. and I need to start my day. And also sleep with so many people. It was also a very big challenge for me because I’m only child and I never shared my room with anyone. Yeah. And it was a very big change.

00:20:27

How many people were in your room?

00:20:29

You mean?

00:20:30

When you were an aspirant.

00:20:31

When I was aspirant, I was also like the only child in New Hamlet.

00:20:37

So by yourself?

00:20:37

Yeah, I was by myself and I ordained, yeah, only one.

00:20:41

But then when you became a nun…

00:20:43

OK, that’s… I stayed in one of the biggest rooms in the New Hamlet. And I stay with six sisters and it’s a very small room and really packed. Our bed is next to each other, I think maybe one meter. And yeah, it’s many, many things I need to learn to like live harmoniously with other people. But actually, for me, I was really concerned about the community life, to live with others for me before I entered the monastery, that one was one of my big concerns. Oh, can I do it? Like, can I leave with others? It was very difficult… very big concern for me, but after I entered the monastery, those difficulties is nothing. I mean it’s not really important difficulties. I have to really face with myself and that I think that one was more difficult moment for me.

00:21:45

And, sister, just briefly tell us… When you say you had to face the difficulties with yourself, give us a flavor, what do you mean by that?

00:21:55

So for example, like when I lived as a lay, I didn’t know I have suffering. For me, there were so many ways to not be concentrated, I don’t know, disturbed? Because as I tell you, because of my job and also maybe it’s my personality or like deep in me, I don’t want to really look at my problem. And I always try to find my way to run away. Like there was… It has come to me with many different forms. I had many problems actually. I had like eating disorder and I had the like shopping problem or… I had many problems and also like when I was outside, there’s many ways to run away from myself. But after I entered the monastery, I don’t know in Upper Hamlet, but the New Hamlet it’s very difficult to have internet. I mean, we have our very clear guidelines for the novices and whenever we do something we also need to ask permission and it’s a very different way of life. So actually 24 hours I really need to focus on myself and that’s very different. I don’t know how to say it. Like, before I had the same 24 hours, but I feel like I always I don’t have enough time for myself and because, you know, work and, I don’t know, meet with people, and SNS, and Netflix and like, yeah, there are so many things to cover up, and I just spent my time. But after becoming a nun, I really just… There’s only one thing I can do is just to really focus on myself. And so I could really realize many sufferings in me and transform those sufferings. It has taken very long time.

00:23:59

It’s funny you mention that, sister, because just this morning I was talking with one of the brothers about the fact that I and my wife moved to Plum Village to live next to Plum Village just over a year ago. And you know, like you, I was living a very busy life, but in New York, as a journalist for the Huff Post, and suddenly… And we had this wish to come and live next to Plum Village. And I’ve been really thinking that while we have a lovely home and it’s lovely to be next to the monastics, I can’t say I’m fully happy. And why is that? Has been needling me. And then I realized two or three days ago the most… Sometimes the answers are the most obvious, but we don’t immediately think of them, realizing that actually, the reason I’m not fully happy is because I’ve stopped and I’m having to face myself. So actually, I’m not… I’m feeling this sort of this, this tension in myself because I’m in Plum Village, not in spite of being in Plum Village. So in a sense, this idea of how we stop. It means, as you say, we have to look at ourselves and actually when we really stop and take away all the extraneous stuff, all the things that can… cinemas, you say Netflix, and restaurants and everything. Actually, all we’re left with is ourselves, and that’s quite a challenge.

00:25:25

That’s a real training right there. Like I got a lot of what our sister shared because I saw some of that in myself when I was also training in my training period as an aspirant. Because I joined when I was much younger, so I was 13. And what I realize is that, yes, now we don’t have electronic games, we don’t have TV to indulge yourself in. Suddenly, all you have is actually just people around you. But I was… I think I was a little bit more lucky because I grew up in a more crowded household when I was young. So coming to Plum Village was much more easier for me and being around so many different people. But what we get to see is that the practice teaches us to see ourself like a mirror. Everything you do is you. You can’t put that blame on anyone else and you cannot hide away from it, right? And what we are trained in our practice is that your happiness is not when you become a monk or a nun. That even as an aspirant or a lay practitioner, just practicing as a normal person, when they can have moments of peace within themselves that already is happiness, that you arrive right here right now, that mindful step that you are making, that is happiness. And then that moment when you’re able to do something together with the community, let’s say gardening… We have these community work days is one of my favorite work days in the week, where everybody offer themselves to that one project of the community. And we all do it together, others on the farm, or is planting trees. And at that very moment, like you really get to experience a community, like you are one with many. And I think this was one of the greatest gifts for me as a young person, like growing up in this community and learning to see my habits and see my shortcomings also. But you get to see it in other people too. And then you don’t feel alone. And what is also really great is that we are reminded that the practice is not to be perfect.

00:28:21

So I remember once when I interviewed Thich Nhat Hanh and I said to him, I said, Thay, you know, I trust you. And the reason I trust you is because you’re a great zen master. You’ve been through wars, you’ve been exiled, you’ve traveled the world…. And so when you speak, I feel that you’ve been forged in the fire of life. And I said, but these young monastics, why would I listen to them? You know, a lot of them, some of them, you know, some of them lived a full life outside, but some of them have come here very young. Why would I listen to them? And he said, Jo, you have to understand that whatever happens outside the monastery also happens inside the monastery. And that when you’re speaking to people, you know, when you speak to these young monastics, they are going through all the trials and tribulations of everyone else. But I have a question which is that a lot of people hear about communities forming, and often there’s a lot of competition and strife, and when you hear about communities full of conflict and closing down after a few months because they’re unable to sustain that, getting all these individuals together and people aren’t able to make decisions together and they have different ideas and they get stuck. Now, Plum Village next year celebrates its 40th anniversary. That’s a long time. So I want to ask both of you, and maybe starting with you, Phap Huu, what is it about Plum Village and about the life and about the form of life here that has allowed this monastery and others around the world that are in the Plum Village tradition, to prosper and to sustain themselves?

00:30:05

That’s another big question. Jo’s throwing big question after big question. Wow, that’s a real meditation. I’ve actually meditated on that question a lot because our community is still growing. But one of the things I can share that I feel confident in is that because of a certain aspiration that all of us have been able to touch and have been able to manifest and been able to nourish together, and that aspiration is very simple but is very deep. Number one is we all want to learn to transform our suffering. And the second is we all also want to help other people transform their suffering. Like those two ingredients are very important ingredients of monastics. And I think a community to be sustainable, you have to have also a certain amount of harmonies. And in our Buddhist tradition, we have the six harmonies as our principal and some of the harmonies that are very important in our community that that we touch each day is that we practice the same Dharma, meaning the Dharma, the way of meditation we all do it together. We practice sitting together. We practice walking meditation. The kind of meditation classes are very in line with our principle and then our direction we share and the same direction. And in each individual, we also have our own aspiration. But a community should be sustainable enough and solid enough to offer enough space so that also each individual can express their talent within this community. And as an abbot, what I’ve learned is that if everyone feels heard and feels welcomed and feels a part of then they will want to be a part of it and they will want to grow in it. And I think where maybe other communities it’s very difficult is because you’re going to meet a lot of different people, but they might not share the same interests and the same aspiration. And that’s very hard to maintain because if we don’t share the same aspiration, then there’s going to be so much energy that we have to kind of like filter out and try to put together. But one of the filters that we have in our communities, all the monastics when they want to become monastic, is that they share these two aspirations: one is understanding their suffering, transforming it, and the other is to help others. And that’s what really brings us together. And then the other elements that we have into harmonies, it’s like we learn to share our space together. We share our joy and we share our success. That’s really important because in our time where individualism is very prioritized, I guess, like we’re all taught to be successful by ourself growing up and now, in a community, we have many talents and we have many types of leaders. I think a community needs leader, but we don’t need one leader. We can have many types of leaders and when we offer a retreat, we have like people leading Dharma sharing, people leading Dharma Talks, people leading walking or even cooking. And for me, that’s leading like a team. You have leaders to prepare a meal mindfully. And it really offered joys to people. Let them have good vegetarian food. Like that is a success too, you know? But at the end of a retreat, what we all sense in Plum Village is when we were able to finish a retreat and we see people’s transformation in the retreat. We all feel that that is a success and that success is shared by all of us. So even though you are a young novice and you still taste that same success as an elder Dharma teacher in the community. So this kind of community development that we put in our Sangha, Sangha means community, it’s not just a one time a year we come together and we talk about it, but it’s every day, every minute. And I think that’s the difference.

00:34:53

And also, I mean, in a sense, what you say about the community is also true of relation, of individual relationships. So I remember Thich Nhat Hanh would say, you know, about couples that you can share the same bed, but if you don’t have the same dream, then actually it can never work out.

00:35:10

Right.

00:35:11

So, sister, coming back to what Brother Phap Huu was saying about, you know, the life of, you know, in western society, and it sounds also in Korea to some extent, there’s this whole idea of individualism. It’s sort of I have my space, I own my things, I am free because my commitment is only to myself. So you said you’ve come into the monastery and become a monastic and then having to share a room with six people and having to follow very, very clear guidelines. What was that like? And also, do you miss it? Do you do you actually… Is that part of you that sometimes says, Oh, I would love my own apartment, I’d love to wake up late, I’d love just to go off on holiday to the Bahamas. I would love not to have to talk to anyone or be with anyone.

00:36:00

Well, yes, sometimes. I mean, it’s really, really a realistic question. And for me, like, live in the big community, I really need to deal with my own habit energy and also I need to deal with others, their own habit energy. And when we lived together, of course, like, at the beginning, it was very difficult because for me, before I entered the ordained community as a monastic and I felt each, every monk and nun, I think they are very already enlightened. They are very perfect. But when I became a nun, yeah, I also live it together and I can see like, each, individually, I feel like maybe we are not perfect, but I feel like as a Sangha, as a community, I feel we are, I cannot say perfect, but like we are very harmoniously can live together.

00:37:03

So one of the things that I know about the community is that that obviously there’s always conflict and you have certain practices that support the community. And one of the ones I want you just to talk about a bit about is shining light, which is, well, I don’t need to explain, you can. But Brother Phap Huu, just give a sense of the shining light practice and how that supports the community and sort of dealing with it, the difficult things that often go unsaid but actually need to be said.

00:37:37

So I think we have two Dharma doors to practices that that will take care of the conflicts in the Sangha. So the first one is Beginning Anew, which is… would be a day-to-day difficulties that we have with each other throughout the year. And then what you mentioned, Jo, is the practice of Shining Light. That is like at the end of the year that we would do it all together. And the nuns would do it with the nuns, and the monks would do it with the monks. And we can only do this because we live with each other, like throughout the year, like 365 days. And Shining Light is a practice that helps oneself see themself more clearly. And the community will also have a chance to share what they have observed about you in your daily life through one year. And we look at your flowers, like what are the wonderful qualities that you have? And everyone has amazing qualities. And it’s very lovely. Like shining light sessions are one of the most wholehearted and cozy and warm atmospheres that that I get to be in touch because it comes from love, because we want to share with that person who they are and what we see. So we share about their wonderful qualities in their way of being, what they contribute. Sometimes somebody whose just a way of smiling brightens up the community, and that needs to be shared because that person might not know. And so we let them know. And then we go into another category. We see some, some habits maybe that they might not be aware of that we want to point out that they can transform. For example, like this is on my own shining light that I’ve received in previous years is like… Because I do a lot of meetings and I facilitate them, so whenever I’m listening and I don’t like something that is being shared, I would have a particular facial expression and then everyone sees it. But I’m not aware that I’m doing it because it’s my habit. So the community shares that with me, that I… Dear brother, you know, in meetings, whenever you don’t like something everyone knows and you might not know it. And this is very true. And so the community has a safe space to share this and they share it very lovingly. So there’s a beautiful text that we read before Shining Light. And it goes something like, you know, we are all cells of one body, so if I shine a light on you is also I am shining a light on myself. And if you transform, I transform. And if you have beautiful qualities, that means the community has all of these beautiful qualities. So is this insight of teaching of interbeing, means everything inter- are, everything’s interconnected. And then the third category that we would have a chance to share is suggestions of the practice, suggestions for them to grow. And we have a few themes that we would look at like we’re not there to criticize everything about you because nobody’s perfect. But we would look at elements of their practice, elements of their mindful manners, meaning how they behave as a monastic, how they conduct themselves as a monastic. And then their studies, their service, their way of serving the community. And serving has so many layers, like through working together, building a deck together, from cooking together, washing up, cleaning the toilet together. These are all services and that we can share. Like a lot of times, a lot of brothers, they get the shining light like they’re so responsible, like the work co-ordinator doesn’t need to tell them anything and they’re like right there on time. And they will always, always go the distant mile just because of their love for the community. And then their joy. How much joy do they have? But our practice has evolved through the years. So, before, like the Sangha was shining a light on someone. But then at one stage, I don’t know if the sisters do it, but on the brothers side, we do it. Is that before the community shine lights on you, the community asks you to shine a light on yourself first. So how about you? Like, what do you see in the last year? What have you done for you? What have you been able to transform for yourself? What have you recognized in yourself? And etc.. And at the end of the year, we get a letter of our shining light. It’s like our report card. And it’s very beautiful because we get to there’s… Because our community, like on the monks side right now, we have like 60 brothers and I’m not close to every brother. So there’s some brothers, I joined a session and I don’t say anything, but I get to hear the other brothers share about that brother, and I get to understand that brother so much more.

00:42:52

And you mentioned about beginning anew, brother, and that’s something that’s not just relevant for monastics, but actually is very relevant for anybody. And in fact, my wife and I, you know, we’ve been together for nearly 15 years and every week, pretty much every week, there’s a few we’ve missed over the years, but we practice that and it’s actually been, I think, one of the core foundations of our healthy relationship. And just for our listeners just to explain a bit because it’s just a formal practice that we do once a week where it’s an opportunity to, in a sense, do a sort of very mini shining light. So we have a process where, first of all, if I start, I will say what I’ve really appreciated about my wife in that last week and very specific things, not just I love you, but it was so amazing when I came home late and you had made a meal for me or thank you so much for supporting me when I was feeling really low yesterday. And then it’s a chance to show regret. So if I, let’s say, got angry or frustrated with her during the week, I can just say, Look, you know, I recognize I got frustrated with you. And this is the reason, and I’m sorry. And then it’s a chance what we call it development just to say, was there something that upset us or frustrated us about each other’s behavior? And then we finish with us sort of, as you call it, flower watching where we just talk about, you know, our love for each other. And the reason I sort of was, in a sense, minded to start that because I always remember Thich Nhat Hanh saying, you know, that that relationships never break up from out of the blue, something major happening. It’s from the very minor drip. He talked about it like a stalagmite or a stalactite in a cave where it’s just the small drip of problems that at the time are very often not addressed because there’s no formal space that’s accepted. And it’s difficult sometimes to raise a small issue. But over time, those become calcified and come one day, just blow out of nowhere. So just to say that that practice has been fantastically helpful for us. And it’s a bit like what you’re saying, it creates a formal space in which you’re welcome to express that. It’s not about an argument. It’s not saying, Well, I think this is just a chance to deeply listen to each other. And Thich Nhat Hanh always says, you know, that love is understanding. And I think what you’re saying is that unless we start to more deeply understand each other, then actually you don’t really generate love.

00:45:33

Right. And just one more aspect of the Beginning Anew is that we also have a chance to also ask for help. Sometimes we live together, and maybe if we don’t create that, that space, we’ll never be able to share some of our difficulties. And I think this has helped our community a lot because the dynamic of having so many people is wonderful, but sometimes there’s so many people also makes us distant from each other. But if we create the space where everyone feels connected, then they can share like, Dear brothers, you know, in the last few months like this suffering has manifested and I’m taking care of it. I just want everyone to know and please support me. And it’s something so simple like that when you can say, please support me and just everyone understands you. And if I have a judgment about someone, I think, Oh, he’s going through that? I have compassion for him, and that helps me transform also. So that aspect of that step in Beginning Anew is also very, very, very powerful.

00:46:44

So you talk about transformation. So sister, give me an example of something, an issue that you… A problem, a challenge you had in your life before you became a monastic when you were living in Korea and how the monastic practice and living here for the last three years has helped you to come more to peace with it.

00:47:05

For me, I feel personally, I feel there is so many transformations and like, this is not only I feel, especially my parents really feel from me. Like they really are… At the beginning they really were against me to become a nun. I mean, my father was kind of OK, but my mom was kind of shocked and she really doesn’t want me becoming monastic until the day I ordained. Yeah. But now she really accepts because she said she sees me more happier. Because before I was very easy to upset and I will make you cry very quickly. In certain situations, especially when we work together, I will become very perfectionist. And if something is wrong, like out of my control or out of my plan, I will upset and I will be angry and I will make people cry, you know, something like that. And those kind of things, my anger issues, it’s really changed. Yeah, it’s really changed. And I don’t know, it’s not like change… At one time, just yesterday, I got angry and today I don’t feel any more angry. It’s not like that. I think it was like year by year I slowly really changed. And so after I become a nun, there are so many situations that I can be angry. Yeah. And maybe, at the beginning, I was also angry and I talked back to my elder sisters and I may create many problems. But I think now, when there is a similar situation happening, I can see myself, I really stop and I really try to come back to my breathing. And I know there is some method that will help me and it also really works. It’s not really suppress my feeling, I just really try to be there with my emotion and I can see the situation more clearly and there is like no need to express anger in that way. And I think that one was also one of my biggest transformations. Like, I really want to free from my emotions, you know, like, I really want to be free from that desiring that I want to be like alone or want to be everything, should be in my plan or many things that there are so many things that make me not free. And I think that year by year the practicing, I think I really… I cannot say totally I’m free from it, but I feel like I feel more freer than before. And that for me it’s very big transformation.

00:49:59

And, sister, there’s a lot of pressure all over the world, actually, not in every country, but in many Western countries and Asian countries, for a woman to look a particular way. To have your hair in a particular way, to wear makeup, perfume to, you know, choose your own clothes. And it’s a strong way of women to express themselves, but also there’s an expectation of women to be in a certain way. So you, as a monastic, have shaved your head and you have two or three brown robes. You don’t wear make up, you don’t wear perfume. What does that feel like? Does that feel like freedom or do you miss it?

00:50:41

It’s wonderful. Yeah. I highly recommend many women to become a nun. You can be really free from all those obstacles. And that makes you really stop, you know? Like, you know, I’m from Korea, and because of my career, I also need to be very… take care of my outlook. And I always wear the makeup and my hair. I spend a lot of money for my hair and my clothes and buy fancy bags, many things, something like that. But like now, I don’t have to worry at all about those kind of things. Like I opened the drawer and there’s only… I have… Every color same, brown. Every color same, brown, and I don’t… And it’s very interesting because it’s really the feeling of freedom. Like from that live simple… simplicity. Like simple life it really makes me very creative, like not in create the, how can I put effort to make beauty of outer form, but I feel like I have more energy to take care of my inner beauty, and that’s really, really different, you know, like and it’s very, I guess, it’s a really cool.

00:52:06

Satisfying.

00:52:07

It’s satisfying. You know, I was like one person who really think about my… the clothes and the makeup and the hair. And, as I shared, I also spent a lot of money, a lot of money for those kind of things. And like, before I sleep, I normally choose the clothes and all the color of lipstick, everything, before I sleep. So after morning, I can be just wear those things and I could go to work. Something like that. But yeah, it’s really…

00:52:36

And is a no outfit or bag that you miss at all.

00:52:40

But actually, yeah, I mean, that’s a little bit different point because before becoming a nun, I mean, as a layperson, I think I already started to practice minimalism. So already, like there was two years of the transition to… I want to make my lifestyle more smaller, smaller, smaller…

00:53:03

More simpler.

00:53:03

Simpler. Because I feel I was a little bit sick of those kind of things like consume so many things. I mean, as I shared, I had the shopping problem. I had so many issues. I had so many bags and clothes. You cannot imagine. I lived alone, but like, it’s fully packed of many fancy things, and I spend a lot of money for those kind of things. And I think at some point in time, I really wanted to change my life.

00:53:28

Where’s all that stuff now, sister, that you’re a nun? Did you donate it up?

00:53:34

So, like, I mean, because I shared like there were transition years, like two or three years, I really donated a lot. And I also maybe generated a lot of trash, maybe, at the time. And I also give away to my friends a lot. And just before becoming monastic when I went back to Korea, I really need to clean up and like, really sell my apartment and everything. And it was very easy. Already my room was quite empty, so it was very easy to like, move out. But there were still many fancy things that I kept because I didn’t know I would become a nun. Yeah, yeah. And I give away all those things to my friends and my friends were super happy and they asked me, like many times, Are you sure? I think you will come back in two months.

00:54:37

Brother, the same question for you. I mean, a moment of transformation that comes to mind and also, you know, you also I have the sense of your… you have a deep sense of beauty and appreciation of lovely things. I’m just wondering, you know, how it feels also for a man to just live with no formal external expression of who they are?

00:55:05

I think for myself, one of the transformation that I recognize is overcoming my inferiority complex. And I think, because I’m small, I’m a small person, my figure is quite small, so growing up and going to school, I was always the smallest in the classroom and I was always like the kid that needed protection. Like all of my friends would always like protect me from bullies and things like that. And then growing up as a Vietnamese son of a refugee in Canada, also, I had some complexes about… Like, Who am I? What am I? What is my ethnicity? What is my race? Like, I had a lot of questions and coming to the community in Plum Village and becoming a monk was learning to let all of that go away. And then being in touch with yourself, like what our sister has been sharing. And I see that true beauty and true stability, it comes from inwards. And I think when I was able to see that inside of me, I was so happy, Jo. I was… I felt like I didn’t have to run after something. And that was… that insight was something that gave me motivation to continue this practice and continue to grow as a monk. So it was an insight that I gained, that I was able to touch by the simplicity of the life. But nevertheless, like, you know, becoming a teenager and then growing as a young adult, like, I still had all of these temptations from the world, all of these trends you see outside. And you’re like, Oh, what would fit in the monk’s life, you know? And one thing that I can share is like, I do love also clothes. I do. I have this like thing for like simple clothes, but very beautiful, very neat and tidy. But thanks to the practice, we learn about moderation. And when you have one thing that is beautiful and it does what it needs, you don’t have to search for anything else. And so, for myself, I apply that to everything, even happiness or my community. Even though we’re not the best and we have shortcomings, but that’s good enough. I don’t need to keep searching or else I’m just going to be going round and round looking for something. So this complex of inferiority that I’ve had has always been something that I work with through my monastic journey. And one of the greatest help was all the friends who come. By being with them and then hearing them share and water my flower just saying, Oh, dear brother, your practice helps me become more mindful. Just something as simple as that, that helped me gain confidence, and that helped me also touch my own stability. So, yeah, the monastic community, of course, is very supportive, but also all of the lay community, all the lay friends, all of the people who come to our monastery, they are also my great support.

00:58:46

Yeah. And I know, I mean, for myself, you know, I think the greatest transformation of coming to Plum Village every year and then coming to live is… Is the opportunities, which I think we’re all saying in different ways was to come back to myself was to feel that I actually I could just be happy with myself. Thich Nhat Hanh has that calligraphy: Be beautiful, be yourself. Just letting go of the extraneous stuff, letting go of things outside and just saying, actually, I’m good enough as I am and actually I want to be myself. I don’t want to be this egoic mask of myself that’s seeking to feel better about myself by proving anything. But actually, I can just be truly who I am and be at peace. And it makes life so much more enjoyable not to be wanting to grasp things or think that something outside of us is going to make us happy.

00:59:39

Yeah.

00:59:40

So I’m aware of time.

00:59:44

Yes.

00:59:44

So I just wanted to, sister, thank you. It’s a joy having you. You’re an amazing presence every time I see you, I feel your vibrant energy and your beautiful sort of sense of humor and I always look forward to seeing you. So I’m glad we were able to draw you into our podcast. And dear listeners, if you’ve enjoyed this episode, please find us on Apple Podcasts, on Spotify, on other platforms that carry podcasts and particularly our very own Plum Village App. And to finish, Brother Phap Huu, in time-honored tradition, and we do this on nearly every episode, and I wonder if you would give us a guided meditation.

01:00:40

Hello, friends, whether you are sitting on the bus, sitting on a train, going for a walk, going for a run, or cleaning your house and enjoying this podcast. If you can allow yourself to be still whether standing or sitting, I would like to share and to offer you a guided meditation. In this very moment, become aware of the body. What senses do you have? Is there any pain? And then now let us bring our attention to our breath. Breathing in, I am aware of my inbreath. Breathing out, I’m aware of my outbreath. Any tension that you have, just bring it to your inbreath and outbreath. Let the breathing soothe the body. Inbreath. Outbreath. And as I breathe in and become aware that I have a body. And as I breathe out, I relax my body. Breathing in, aware of my body. Breathing out, I relax my body. If our mind is running to the future or running to the past, it’s OK. But just be gentle and call it by his name, running to the future or running to the past. And let it guide and guide that mind to the present with the breathing. Just inbreath, outbreath. Let us develop our concentration as I breathe in, I follow my inbreath from the beginning to the end. And as I breathe out, I follow my outbreath from the beginning to the end. So, deep inbreath from the beginning to the end. And a slow outbreath from the beginning to the end. As I breathe in, I feel there is a peace, a stillness inside of me. And as I breathe out, I enjoy this peace, this stillness. In, peace. Out, stillness. As I breathe in, I connect to all the wonders of life. As I breathe out, I see how precious life is. In, wonders of life. Out, how precious life is inside of me and all around me. The trees. The birds. The sunshine. The sound of a child. All of this are wonders of life. Breathing in, I connect to my inbreath. Mindfulness is present. As I breathe out, I enjoy my outbreath. So simple, but so deep. In, enjoying my inbreath. Out, I am here in the present moment.

01:05:23

Thank you, dear friends, dear listeners, for joining us in today’s podcast as well as practicing with us this mindful breath. And we look forward to seeing you again in our next episode.

01:06:27

The way out is in.


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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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