Welcome to episode 30 of The Way Out Is In: The Zen Art of Living, a podcast series mirroring Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s deep teachings of Buddhist philosophy: a simple yet profound methodology for dealing with our suffering, and for creating more happiness and joy in our lives.
This installment is a continuation of episode 26, ‘Meditating on Death’. Here, the presenters, Zen Buddhist monk Brother Phap Huu and journalist Jo Confino, meditate on grief in light of Thay’s passing earlier this year, and on collective and personal traumas.
The episode was recorded soon after Brother Phap Huu’s return from a six-week retreat tour of South America – part of the first global tour by Plum Village monastics after a two-year hiatus.
Brother Phap Huu shares stories from the tour and his return to Upper Hamlet. And: what is it like to be back on the road (or path)?
He further delves into the importance of being in the practice, and of sharing the practice by taking its teachings into the world; the significance of continuing Thay’s teaching tours; the power of reconnecting with the sangha through live retreats; the responsibility and joys of serving; keeping Buddhism relevant; the power of grief and the practice of recognizing sadness; how to be both part of the world and a spiritual person; the beauty of impermanence; and the safest place: the island of mindful breathing.
Jo talks about grief ceremonies; facing old family traumas; healing through grieving; letting go; the energy of activism; sharing the practice of mindfulness with the world; seeing the beauty of the world beyond “bedraggled plants”; and community as essential support for the individual.
The episode ends with a short meditation – entwined with a poem by Thay – which is guided by Brother Phap Huu.
Co-produced by the Plum Village App:
And Global Optimism:
With support from the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation:
List of resources
Plum Village Community
Plum Village on Tour
Gross National Happiness
A Cloud Never Dies
The Way Out Is In: ‘The Three Doors of Liberation’
Vietnamese boat people
The Other Shore
Wake Up network (young adults)
OI (Order of Interbeing)
“You think that to give, you lose something – but, actually, to give you’re receiving more.”
“The importance is not just being the practice, but sharing the practice.”
“The dharma, the practice, is deep and lovely.”
“We plough the fields of our mind, of our consciousness, and we identify the roots of our suffering, and we transform it, and through our transformation, we have ingredients to offer to the world: these practices. And this is what the Buddha did; this is what his sangha did.”
“Even though our loved ones may not still be here, through the eye of meditation, we can see them through the new form, by the way they have impacted us – and the experience that they have offered us is now them, in another form, through us.”
“Peace is every step.”
“Thay always said that once you’ve tasted the dharma, if you take care of the seed, it will become a root for you that you can always rely on. It’s like it’s your island, that you can always take refuge on. And sometimes we forget that we have that refuge, until we’re in a different setting.”
“The only way to keep Buddhism updated and the teaching relevant is to be connected to the suffering and happiness of society.”
“No matter how much you stress about it, it’s not going to change the situation.”
“The safest place is the island of mindful breathing.”
“If we’re not able to touch our grief around the destruction we’re creating in the world, then we can’t save it – because it’s only by going into our grief, it’s only by going into the pain and the suffering, that we can touch the tenderness at our center.”
“I went for a walk with Paz today, and we were passing this field of corn and I was looking down at the edge of the field next to where I was walking, and, normally, at the edge of the field, the plants are very small, they’re not fulsome. And they were looking quite bedraggled. And that fills my mind, saying, ‘Oh, look at these plants, they’re not doing very well.’ And then I lifted my eyes and I saw there was this huge field. And then I lifted my eyes and saw there was all this forest behind it. And then I lifted my eyes and saw there was this beautiful blue sky. And I realized that my whole concentration had been on the bedraggled plants. But actually, when I opened up my eyes to see the whole scene, there was extraordinary beauty. And also there were these plants that were suffering at the edge.”
“I am neither the same, nor am I different.”
“You never enter the same river twice.”
Welcome back, dear friends, to this latest episode of the podcast, The Way Out Is In. I’m Jo Cofino, working at the intersection of personal transformation and systems change.
And I am Brother Phap Huu, a Zen Buddhist monk, a student of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in the Plum Village tradition.
And today we are welcoming back Phap Huu to Plum Village, because he’s been halfway around the world. He’s been to Colombia, and Ecuador, and Costa Rica on the first retreat tour since Thay passed, but also since the pandemic ended. So we’re going to look at what it’s like to be back on the road or on the path, maybe.
The way out is in.
Welcome. I am Jo Confino.
And I am Brother Phap Huu.
Phap Huu, welcome back! I’ve missed you.
Thank you. It’s so lovely to sit in the company of Jo, of Cata, of Paz, of Brother Niem Thung and in the presence of Thay, because we are sitting in our legendary sound booth now, which is Thay’s kitchen in the Sitting Still Hut. And I have to say, Upper Hamlet is so beautiful and fresh right now. Just to come back and hear the birds singing as well as to see all of the young leaves in the trees. It’s a new, new spring.
And, brother, it’s not only the birds that are singing, it’s Phap Huu that we’re hearing singing again, because you were missed and, of course, we don’t want to sort of start injecting egoic matter into your head.
But you are missed, Brother Phap Huu when you’re not here, your lack of presence is felt. So, welcome home.
Thank you. I feel very at home here.
So, brother, we are going to explore what it’s like to be back on tour. I think that rhymed almost.
So, brother, tell us a little bit first where have you been? Because you’ve been away six weeks now.
Yeah. So we were invited to go to Ecuador and to hold two retreats, one retreat in a very special place, the Galapagos Island, right? It’s an island.
That’s watering my seeds of jealousy.
Yes. Breathing in, I’m aware of my seed of jealousy. Breathing out, I experience it through Brother Phap Huu.
Not quite the same.
And I had a chance to practice slow walking meditation with the turtles. And then we had the chance to also go to Colombia, where our sangha in Bogota, is very strong in Bogota. South has a four local sanghas, and they were very organized in hosting public talks, days of mindfulness, workshops, as well as two retreats and one retreat with children, which was a beautiful experience to re-engage again with children. Because for myself, on a personal note, I came to Plum Village as a child. So it’s always… For me it fits whenever we have children in the retreat, it touches my heart. And then we had time to explore and to have a resting retreat in Costa Rica with our dear friend Christiana Figueres.
Okay. So brother, let’s just step back for a moment and be reminded of why do you go on retreats? I mean, you sit in Plum Village, couldn’t you? And just let the world come to you. But Thay created a real tradition of taking these teachings out into the world. So can you just tell us a little bit about why you do that?
Really, it’s not… it wasn’t just created by Thay, but it’s a continuation of the original time of the Buddha. And the Buddha and his community, part of their path is not just to practice for themselves, but it is very important to share the practice with the ones who support you and the ones who are also seeking spirituality. So it is easy to just sit in Plum Village and allow people to come here and enjoy the retreat center. And I would say we have the best conditions because we have nature, we have an energy that has been developed for 40 years now, as this year we celebrate 40 years of Plum Village. But we know that everyone needs conditions to meet their Dharma and a way of us walking the path and to really identify why I am a monk is to have a heart of service, is to know that I am a part of this world and I want to be a part of it in my sharing of my discovery in the practice, even though it is a transmission I have received from Thay and from the Buddha, and I have transformed on my own suffering and created my own joy, my own happiness. But it’s too selfish to just keep that for oneself. And as a monk, the word bhikkhu, it means beggar. So a part of our life is we go for alms to receive, to be supported on a spiritual path. Because where people may ask, ‘Yeah, but you don’t work, so why should I give?’ But we say, actually, we work internally. We plough the fields of our mind, of our consciousness, and we identify the roots of our suffering, and we transform it, and through our transformation, we have ingredients to offer to the world, these practices. And this is what the Buddha did, this is what his sangha did. And when Thay was a young monk — Thay is our teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He was growing up during a time of war. And the question is, how can I still be a part of the world, but still be a spiritual person? And my contribution will have to be the side of nonviolence, the side of compassion, the side of peace, the side of understanding, the side of looking at death, looking at suffering, looking at sorrow. So that is our internal work that we would like to devote our whole life to so that we can share it to friends who will meet suffering in the world, and they may need a few elements so that they can look deeply into their own personal journey. And so this is really a part and a tradition of the Plum Village monastic order. And in this way, there’s so many layers to what it can do for us on an individual level. Number one, I think I shared it, it reminds us of why we are practicing, because we can become very dull in our own Dharma, in our own practice or every day. I’m just going to sit, I’m just going to smile, I’m going to breathe. And this sounds amazing to do, it’s a privilege, but then because the mind is always seeking for something else. So if we don’t have a purpose, then we may lose our path. And so, by serving, by offering retreats, is a way of offering, but also receiving, by receiving the nutriment of being able to contribute something to someone. And the other element is by engaging with people, I am reminded to practice more, better. So I notice when I was on tour I would walk more mindfully. I would eat with more moderation. I would speak more gently. Because you want to walk your talk, because if I’m going to give this Dharma, I have to practice it so it becomes a mirror for you. To serve is also a kind of mirror. And I think for myself it was also a crucial moment because Thay just passed, and Plum Village was in the state of mourning and of grieving, and there’s many layers to that. And I myself also ask myself, should I go? Should I go on this tour? Because I was feeling very vulnerable and I had fear of not being able to represent solidity, freshness, stillness and space because I felt I wanted those… I wanted time to cultivate that. But one evening, I was sitting in my room and having tea with Brother Phap Trien who was my roommate. And we were recounting the stories that we’ve had with Thay. And, you know, it was always Thay’s joy to be able to serve. That was kind of the nutriment that he had that kept him going. And you think that to give you lose something but actually to give you’re receiving more. And I will never forget, ten years ago we were in Nottingham and preparing for 30 years of Plum Village, ‘Standing on Our Two Feet’ — that was the theme of 30 years. We are now solid and we stand on our two feet and we have no more fear. And I wanted to invite Thay, ‘Thay, let’s take a break. Let’s take a year to rest.’ And it doesn’t mean we’re not offering retreats, but it means ‘Thay stop touring for one year, but stay in Plum Village we’ll create all the events here for people to come and celebrate with us.’ And I think it was tempting because Thay did think about it, but then Thay had a pause and then he looked at me and he said ‘But Thay is like a doctor and Thay have medicine, and there are people who are sick outside. And as a doctor, his responsibility is to offer the care.’ And so Thay said ‘And that gives Thay joy.’ And I just joined my palms and then bow, and I understood. And in that particular moment when I was sitting with Brother Phap Trien, my younger brother, when we were recounting the stories and I was reminded of that story and I said, ‘I can sit here and cry all day, drink tea, look at the trees, look at the clouds, and contemplate no birth, no death, and have space for my sorrow. But I can also drown in my sorrow. I can drown in my grief.’ And so I would say the Thay in me, the teacher in me said, ‘Go on the tour and see Thay through your action, see Thay through the teachings that now you have a responsibility to offer. See Thay through the service of the four members who would be on tour with you. That is your Sangha, that is the living Thay, and have space for that.’ And that was when I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m going to go.’
And I remember, brother, when Paz and I arrived in Plum Village during the pandemic, and we went for a walk with you soon after we arrived. And already… And that was only, that was probably eight or nine months into the pandemic. And you already concerned a bit at that point about, you know, that the essence of the Plum Village tradition is about the service and that if you’re just a traditional close monastery, that that energy of activism of Engage Buddhism will actually be lost. And I remember when I was in Bhutan once, many years ago, and I was speaking to the people who ran the Gross National Happiness project, and they were saying how they had been bringing in Thay’s monastics from Hong Kong to work with the disaffected youth in Bhutan. Now we all think of Bhutan as being the perfect nirvana, the sort of Shangri-La, but they had lots of their own problems, and they were saying that it was impossible to get the Bhutanese monks to come down from their mountain monasteries because they wanted to stay there and be in their contemplative mood, which is fair enough. But actually, there were all these young people who were suffering, who needed support, and there was no one who would be prepared to come. So they would bring in actually Thay’s monastics to come and bring that sort of balm. So I think that’s a great example of the importance of not just being the practice, but actually sharing the practice.
Yeah. And it’s also, it’s a way for us, monastics, especially in the Plum Village tradition, to still feel a part of the world because there is a concept, an idea that when you become a monastic, you leave the world, and we and the world are two separate things. And for me, it’s a very opposite experience, because I’m a monk, I can say this. It’s actually we are very a part of the world, but we do it in the light of mindfulness, how we take care of our day-to-day chores, how we take care of relationship, how we have time to contemplate and to go inwards. And actually, we, because we have experienced this, we can share this to, quote, unquote, ‘the normal people’, which is like you, Jo, and you, Cata, and Paz.
That is a great compliment. I’m normal!
But to still know that, as a layperson, the Dharma still works in the setting of a household, in the setting in a company, on an individual level, in schools, on relationship. And there are so many layers to the teachings of the Buddha. And for us to keep Buddhism relevant and alive is to offer, because then we are connected to the suffering of the world. And the only way to keep Buddhism updated and the teaching relevant is to be connected to the suffering and happiness of society. So on these teaching tours that Thay has created as a model for us, we still feel connected to everyone, to the world, we nourish our aspiration. And when going to countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, where it’s more difficult for our friends to come all the way to France — visa work, the prices, etc.. So this is saying we are bringing the Dharma to places that maybe will never have a chance to arrive to Plum Village. But we have the conditions to bring the seeds of mindfulness to these lands, and so we call them the planting the seeds of mindfulness.
And brother, tell us what was, you know, this is your first trip out and, of course, post-pandemic, and how did you find… What was… Was there a general mood among the retreatants? I mean, what did you pick up about how people are feeling and what they needed from the practice?
The Dharma, the practice, is deep and lovely. I would like to start off with that. And when you come and you see it for yourself and you taste it for yourself, everybody touch a kind of stillness that is felt within the realm of being with people. I think we’ve missed that. Being able to feel safe around each other, feeling, and the conditions to connect not through the screen, but to see each other’s flesh and bones and to hear each other. And that energy, you cannot replace that through a screen. So just to be together and to sit in silence all and to enjoy breathing, I think that was something already very profound that was deeply touched by many. And on a deeper level, we touched grief very deeply in the last two years. Everyone has been practicing with grieving on many different layers. Even a child who was nine years old who joined our retreat, and she joined the Dharma sharing. And through the Dharma talks I talked about emptiness, about seeing the continuation in the non form, and I talked about formlessness, about… Even though our loved ones may not still be here, but through the eye of meditation, we can see them through the new form, by the way they have impacted us, and experience that they have offered us is now them in another form through us. And so this young girl who was only nine years old, first of all, I just have to water her flower. She was my inspiration for the Dharma talks because she would sit upright on the cushion, look at me with glowing eyes, and even though she had to listen through simultaneous translation through Spanish with Brother Duc Tri, and as I was given a Dharma talk, normally at nine years old, you would think like they would just get bored and fall asleep or get very antsy. But she was sitting there solid as a mountain, looking at me with like wonders in her eyes. And I’m like, she’s going to be my focus for that Dharma talk. And I was reported because she was in the Wake Up group, even though she was just nine years old, the limit is to 35. So she is in the Wake Up group. But she expressed about this is an opportunity for her to share her grief of witnessing and going through the passing of her grandmother, and just to have space for grief. I think was very important. And we did it not on an individual level, but we did it on a collective level. So through our retreats, we establish Dharma sharing families or sharing circles where we all come together, there’s a facilitator inviting everyone to breathe at the beginning, so we create this feeling of oneness. And then we always have an icebreaker. We all ask everyone to introduce themselves, maybe share what is their aspiration for this retreat, or any way to get them to open up a little bit. And then what I saw in every retreat when we were in South America, as they once you allow that that door of the heart to open, what comes out is for many, I wouldn’t say for everyone, but for many is that they have been practicing or they have been dealing with grief, with grieving, and then to do it in a collective level of oneness and just sharing it openly and allowing others to listen, and you feel heard, and having the space to grieve. And so in one of my Dharma sharing, we all just cried. I’m like, ‘We’re going to take time to just cry together.’ And it was very healing, very, very healing. And we did a podcast on the meditation on death, and that was more like looking at how do we look at death, which is a destination that we were all at, as humans, we were all arrive at. But I think what I touch is that our practice is to identify the emotions, identify the feelings that we go through. And we normally we talk about happiness, joy, or suffering, pain. And here, on a collective level, it was like we are all identifying, we are grieving together. So having a space for that was very powerful, and on the collective, and then on individual, for myself personally also.
So let’s come to that in a moment, brother. And you know, as you’re talking, it reminds me that I was at a very well-known sort of spiritual community in Scotland and there were many, many indigenous leaders there. And we held a grief ceremony for all the… Well, there were two aspects, for all the destruction we are creating to nature, but for all the suffering that indigenous people have felt and experienced over many centuries. And it was, as you describe it, just to be in a circle and just to experience that grief together… And I wrote an article for The Guardian as a result of that, which was basically saying that actually, if we’re not able to touch our grief around the destruction we’re creating in the world, then actually we can’t save it because it’s only by going into our grief, it’s only by going into the pain, and the suffering that we can touch the tenderness at our center. And when we touch the tenderness at our center, then it’s like a call to do something about it. Whereas if we try and bypass the grief, and I think we should both in a minute share our experiences of personal grief, but if we try to bypass it, then actually we’re blocking that tenderness, we’re like protecting that center. And by then, and because of that, then we just stay in our heads and we just we actually are in denial. So I think the power of grief is actually super important. But brother, tell us about… Because, you know, let’s not forget that, you know, we only recently in Plum Village here, while you were away, there was a 100-day marking of Thay’s passing. It’s not very long. And obviously he was not only teacher, but he was a deep friend and like a father to you. So, what came up for you around grief while you were away?
Recognizing it, recognizing the sadness is a practice that I’m still doing today. But to do it in the light of seeing that that the teacher is not, I am practicing being free from the experience of having him right beside me. And because, on one end, I am so privileged that I’ve been his personal attendant for so long, meaning that my cells, my flesh, my experience, I can experience him. And there is always an attachment to coming back to the past, which is like, ‘Oh, wow, it would have been, it would have been so cool if Thay can be here.’ And I’m saying this not as is a negative thing to also have those thoughts but it’s more like I’m aware of the trap of attachment also, of an experience. And I think recognizing that I want to see Thay right beside me in the physical form and then saying, I still have those feelings, I still have those longings for a physical teacher right beside me, and not have shame about that was important. Um, because there is an idea that I create for myself is like, Phap Huu, you are the abbot. You are elder brother of many, many siblings in the community. You should be solid as a mountain. You should, you know, push that away. And this is not just a monastic, but I think any humans we go through this thought, especially when we experience grieving, we’re like, ‘No, I’m stronger than that. I’m a man. I’m a woman. I am, you know, I am better than this.’ And this view, right, tells us to block this energy. And we were at the airport and I loved the experience of the airport with Thay. And what Thay usually do is, you know, Thay would ask me to do check in for him. And then after he does the check in, we would enter right into the security in order to… It’s, in a way, it’s like now we’re entering into the touring mode. And I would walk behind Thay in the airport and this was my experience of like this is walking meditation in the world where, you know, people are rushing to their gates, people are on their phones, people on their laptops, working away, like punching, like everyone is… There’s so many energies around the airport, right? But every time I walk with Thay is like peace is every step. And I was at the airport and that feeling came up. I said, ‘Oh, I can see Thay in front of me.’ And then now I channel that Thay in front of me. And I invite Thay. I would say it in my heart and I would say it in my mind: Thay, walk with me in this airport. And my energy would switch and I would walk as if Thay was present. And there were moments I was very successful and there were moments I would totally forget that I’m a practitioner in the airport. But the teaching is alive in me, and that’s one thing that I was so confident about. And one of the questions that I had was, ‘Am I solid now to go and to teach?’ Thay always said that once you’ve tasted the Dharma, if you take care of the seed, it will become a root for you that you can always rely on. It’s like it’s your island that you can always take refuge in. And sometimes we forget that we have that refuge until we’re in a different setting. So the airport was a different setting. And because I forgot to say this, but on the first day of flying, the four of us were at the airport, and for some reason, because of the names, my first name and my last name were switched. And we tried to work with the airline to re-correct my name, my lay name. And accidentally, they canceled my flight. And that’s why I was stuck in Bordeaux for one day without my three brothers and sisters. And it was the first time I was stuck at an airport, helpless, fully helpless. The guy at the counter wasn’t much of a help. He said, ‘I can’t do anything about this. I’m so sorry. The ticket says it’s canceled. Please contact your airline. I cannot check you in.’ So here I was with a situation. My three monastics were worried that I wouldn’t be coming because I’m the eldest in the delegation, which was going to offer a lot of the teachings. Sister Trai Nghiem, who was a young Dharma teacher, just became Dharma teacher a few months ago. I’m like, ‘Sister, it’s your time to step up if I won’t make it.’ But, you know, actually, deep down in my heart, I knew I would arrive because the sangha will find a way. And in those moments when we were sitting, there was anxiety, there was feelings of worry, there was stress and then we’re grieving. And all of this emotions were coming through. And, you know, the safest place is the island of mindful breathing. No matter how much you stress about it, it’s not going to change the situation. What you can do is contact the airline, have some understanding, try to understand, not yell at them. I did say I’m a little bit upset that you cancelled my flight. You know, there’s more of a… There’s a better way of communicating because the way you communicate will also affect you. If I become more angry with it, then I become angry. Even though I’m angry at the airline, that doesn’t help anything because that’s just going to water to seed of anger in me. And then I had nothing to do. Suddenly I had to spend one night in Bordeaux and I said, ‘Okay, this is a chance to practice and to see how I can invite Thay to be present outside of the monastery.’ And so there were many moments through the tours that I was able to invoke my teacher inside of me, and not on an intellectual level, but on a heartfelt level, and on the level of true continuation. And Thay has never been to South America, if I recall correctly. I know Thay has never been to Ecuador, Thay has never been to Colombia. And I don’t think Thay’s been to Costa Rica. So every country that I was in, we always had walking meditation sessions. I would always dedicate the first 20 steps for Thay, and I would really invite Thay to walk with me through these sessions of practice. And it’s easier to do it in the setting of a sangha, because the sangha is one of Thay’s gem, is one of the creations of Thay, and he emphasizes on for us to continue to develop and to build. And so what other better place to honor Thay than with the sangha? So every walking meditation, I would take 20 steps and dedicate it to Thay. And then I started, naturally, the insight that Thay is in you, from the intellectual level was becoming more and more present with my steps, with my breath. And one thing that I realize is that grieving is not a one day thing. It’s not like you cry for one-day and then you can, like, move on. It’s not as simple as that. And I recognize that I would probably be grieving for years to come. And it’s totally okay, because an expression of love is grief, especially when with someone that you have lived with, has impacted you, have changed your way of being, have given you freedom, have given you such insight, you can’t remove that person outside of you. There’s no way that that person is not in you now. And so because of that insight, there is a place of sadness when suddenly now that person doesn’t exist in the realm of a form of a human, but thanks to meditation and thanks to the insight of the teachings of the Buddha and of Thay, is that we can see Thay through different forms now. But on the individual level, on the tour, for me it was a grieving tour through the Dharma. And through my actions of offering, I was able to see and continue Thay. So, you know, the insight, we are a continuation. And for me, like this is now, it’s not a calligraphy, it is not a slogan through the tour, like this was the continuation in action. And so I think what I have learned is that grieving is also an energy. But how do you channel your grieving? And so I was channeling it through my Dharma, through my way of presence, recognizing other people grieving so I can be there and to listen to them. And just, for some, you know, just to have the space to cry, you know. A hug in South America, there’s a lot of hugging. That was very, very deep experience and practice for us and for one of our siblings who grew up in Southeast Asia — hugging is not such a culture — but she totally embraced it. And in a lot of the huggings, like, people were able to just cry. So, in a way, like the grieving can come through many layers. And for me is how do we channel our grief? And so I was able to channel it through my sharing. And I was able to share in some of the Dharma talks and some of my Dharma sharing very openly about my sadness, about my deep looking, of how I am processing the journey. And that opens different channels for other people. So I started to honor the grieving, honor the grief, and then to breathe with it, to walk with it, and moments to dedicate to the sadness, but then not to drown in the sadness. And what was beautiful was that I was able to touch the joy and the smile and the laughter and the liberation in a way of coming together. And for me, that’s also a continuation of Thay. And so it was a very healthy tour for myself on a personal level and then on the level of the sangha outside, because we had a feedback session at the end of the tour with the lay community, and many of them shared like we thought that you would cancel the trip because it’s not so long after the passing of our teacher, and they would have totally understood if we needed to cancel. But they were so happy that we didn’t, because I also recognized that Thay doesn’t just belong to me, and that so many people are grieving with the passing and the continuation of Thay. And so to also honor that collective sadness but then shine light on the continuation. So I did workshops on sangha building and really emphasizing like why the sangha is where we can touch Thay through our practice, because Thay has said that on so many different occasions through the teachings. I cried two times publicly. Did not expect that to happen. One time when we watched ‘A Coud Never Dies’ together as it is now released for everyone to watch. It’s only 27 minutes, but it’s a very powerful 27 minutes of watching it. But we watched it as a sangha and that was even more powerful. And, you know, I was sitting at the bell, and once the film started, like, I started hearing people cry and I was like, ‘Phap Huu, do not turn around. If I turn around, I’m going to cry too. It’s going to be a domino effect.’ But then, after the film, so, because it’s so powerful, people just needed a point of focus. So everybody turned towards me and I’m like, I guess I have to say a few words. And it was the wrap-up, it was the Be In then we ended the Be In with the film. And I said, okay, let’s just express gratitude to everyone for coming. But as I was starting to share, my tears just started to come. And then I couldn’t speak for a little bit because the emotions were so powerful. And then, once again, to allow yourself to be human and then to honor the tears. And I think that was very powerful for many of the retreatants to see a monk cry like that. And many joined me in crying. And then the last one was the last day of our last retreat, and I was sharing on The Three Doors of Liberation, which we have got a podcast…
… episode on.
And is emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness. And I read a poem of Thay in it. And, once again, I got really emotional. And then just allowing yourself to have the space and not to feel shameful about it.
Yeah. Brother, thank you so much for sharing so openly about that because I think, you know, particularly in the West, it’s… People often don’t know how to grieve or don’t feel there’s the space to grieve. And that sort of is something that that I experienced in my life very strongly. And I was talking to my brothers just the other week because we were just sharing collectively that within our family we were not taught how to grieve. And then there are good reasons for that, that — and I’ve talked about it in previous episodes. But my mother escaped the Nazi regime and her family was killed in the camps. And my father was forced to flee from Bulgaria with his family. And, in a sense, when they came to England, they, in a sense, tried to put the past behind them. It’s like it was sealed, a sealed door, because they, you know, in their minds, it’s like we’re starting a new life. So let’s start it clean and let’s make sure that that us, as their children, have, are able to start this new life free from all this trauma and suffering. And while that is a very noble way to see the world, what it did was it meant that all that grief that was locked up and unexpressed came in to us because, and that’s one of Thay’s great teachings about, you know, trauma. Everything gets passed through our ancestors into the current generation because it was never talked about. It was there like this big sort of big, heavy weight. But none of us really understood that we were grieving because it was just not a muscle that we had built. And I remember after my father’s death, it actually took me ten years to recognize I hadn’t grieved. And I always remember the moment that I recognize that was. I was on a personal development workshop and I had a very deep sort of moment of realization. And I had felt this tightness around my stomach, and I closed my eyes and it just felt stronger and stronger. And then suddenly it was like a dam that burst. And all this energy just came through me, up through my body, above my head. And then everyone that I knew and love floated towards me, one by one. And to each one I would say, you know, I, I see you, I bless you, and I let you go. And they would float off. And then finally my father came before me and I said, I see you, I bless you, and I now know I need to let you go. And then I just collapsed into tears. And what I realized as I… Because I hadn’t grieved for him, I was holding desperately onto him. And I remember after that, I met my mum a few months later and we were going for a walk. It was wintertime. We were going for a walk in a park in South Londo. And we were walking through this avenue of trees were all the leaves had fallen off, and there was one leaf still remaining on one of the trees. And my mum turned to me and said, ‘It’s so important for that leaf to let go of the tree.’ Because if that… If you hold on, not only are you holding them, but you’re not releasing the other person to be free. You’re actually energetically holding back their energy as well as holding back yours. And that’s because she had learned in her later life to really face into her grief about what had happened in Germany and to be open and to heal that part of her. As she healed that part of her, she opened up and blossomed into this beautiful being that was able to represent grief and represent healing so deeply. So, you know, I think the process of grieving is very difficult for some people to even find that space. But when we are able to find that space, it is a great healing.
It is. And I think only by embracing it does it have a chance to heal. And I had an experience with my father, because my father left Vietnam as a boat person after the Vietnam War, after 75. And he left as a boat person the first time, and then he got caught. And by getting caught you’re in prison. And it was very harsh during that time. And everybody was viewed as a traitor if you leave the country like that. And my father was put into prison for two years with… because of the intention of fleeing as a refugee. And he never gave up. After two years, he went again. And he succeeded this time, but he spent four days in the great ocean and not knowing birth and death. It’s just a flick away that you can just die very easily if there’s a huge storm or if you are attacked by pirates or just fear also of not being rescued, running out of food, water, and fuel for the boat, etc.. And then another two years in refugee camp in Hong Kong. And then making it to Canada, a new country, a new culture, don’t speak the language, have to adapt yourself. And so all of this experience was like piled up. But then he was on flight and fight mode. So you have this energy of like the aspiration was I need to get my family to Canada. So I never met my father until I was three years old because when I was born, my father was already as a boat person. And so he went through such a crazy journey which led him to Plum Village after he made it possible for the whole family to arrive. And his spiritual seed awoke in, is like, I need some healing, I need some space to, to embrace this whole journey. And Plum Village became a refuge for him to just let the dust settle. And then there’s a sutra where the Buddha sees a farmer, a meditator opens a bag of beans, that has multiple, different kinds of beans and open it and then take time to identify each separate beans as it is. The […], name it, work with it, plant it. And so, for my father, I think like the retreats were a place to have space to look at one suffering at a time. You have to know your limits so you don’t open the whole bag at once, but you open just a little bit, let a few beans out. It’s been an ongoing journey, even today, you know, and my father later on became a monk also, and not in the Plum Village tradition, in a different tradition in Vietnam, but practices to Plum Village Dharma. He also was OI and etc.. But then what I realize is also suffering is also a practice that we will continue to do, to transform because the suffering we experience of this lifetime, of whatever experience we take in through our life, whatever path we walk on, and then the ancestors suffering, and then the society suffering and then the future suffering. Now we have anxiety of the future of our climate, the anxiety of where this war will take Europe and the world into. And there’s just so many levels of suffering, but the island of oneself that we can come back, and to be centered, and still smile in the face of suffering, it’s very important.
So, brother, so interesting you mention that because this is what I was feeling yesterday and this morning, was this sense of overwhelm of, you know, in my work and coaching people, running workshops, reading the news, just the last few days, I’ve really felt that sense of overwhelm. And watching how I respond to overwhelm, which is losing my patience, getting ratty about things, losing my patience, just not being able to respond in a way I would like. And I went for a walk with Paz today, and we were passing this field of corn and I was looking down at the edge of the field next to where I was walking and normally at the edge of the field, the plants are very small, they’re not fulsome. And they were looking quite bedraggled. And that fills my mind, saying, ‘Oh, look at these plants, they’re not doing very well.’ And then I lifted my eyes and I saw there was this huge field. And then I lifted my eyes and saw there was all this forest behind it. And then I lifted my eyes and saw there was this beautiful blue sky. And I realized that actually my whole concentration had been on the bedraggled plants. But actually, when I opened up my eyes to see the whole scene, there was extraordinary beauty. And also there were these plants that were suffering at the edge. And so I think that there’s a real art, isn’t there? Because I think a lot of people have this terrible fear that if they open up to their suffering, if they open up to their grief, that they won’t be able to contain it, that it will literally be like a nuclear bomb, it will just wipe out everything. And so I think I love what you said then, and I think that’s, in a sense, why I want to come back to it and repeat it, is that sense of, you know, go beyond the fear that if you open the door to your grief of suffering, that you won’t be able to handle it, but also do it in community, do it so that people are there to support you, and that you don’t feel alone. And that… Because actually when you share your suffering, it allows other people to share their suffering, and then it becomes something that is co-felt and experienced together. Whereas if you feel you’re on your own trying to work with your suffering, then the worry is that you’ll be carried away, no one will be able to save you. But, brother, I’m just wondering, so one of the Thay’s teachings is that you never enter the same river twice.
So the river may look the same, but it isn’t the same. Well, it is the same, it isn’t the same. So I’m just wondering, Phap Huu, you’re sitting opposite me on Thay’s hut. But you look the same, you sound the same, are you the same as when you left Plum Village six weeks ago?
I am neither the same, nor am I different.
I have to say, I’m more free. I’m much more free, Jo. I’m not, I’m not close to enlightenment, just to be clear on the podcast. But I am more free in the sadness of the passing of Thay. And I feel him as me in the sense of like, it’s not two things anymore. It’s present. And I say this because I don’t want to sound like I’m idolizing Thay, and like he is, like I want to be exactly like him. No, but it’s like every Dharma talk that I’ve been offering in the tour and I gave 20 Dharma talks in the span of six weeks. And every time that I offer a teaching, I would save a moment after the Dharma talk and I would just share the merit and honor: ‘Thank you, Thay. Thank you for giving me these teachings that I have put into practice. And through your insight of your journey, now I have tools, I have a way that I can offer to others.’ And I feel so whole. And I think that’s why I feel more free. So I’m not attached by an older experience. But those experiences are now ingredients for me to continue to offer. And I have to say, this time, when I came back to Upper Hamlet — there is no place like Upper Hamlet, I have to say — like just the energy that I was able to enter into was that presence of stillness. And when I came, we just received guests. Like we have like, I think, 80 people here right now and with the monastic were like 100 something, it’s a lot of people, but the energy is so profound in a way. And I would start to see Thay everywhere and not attach in an image, and then through that insight, the way I’m walking in Upper Hamlet is different than six weeks ago. When I enter into the room, I feel more free in Thay’s hut. I feel there’s not a longing for anything is just like ‘Wow, thank you, Thay.’ So I think the gratitude is continue to expand and the gratitude is not a form of an attachment, but is in a form of continuation now. So I don’t know if that was clear enough, but that’s how I feel. And one year later, when you asked me, I will also feel different.
Yes. And if I asked you the same question in 5 minutes, it would get a different answer.
The beauty of impermanence.
The beauty of never being the same person in the same river. Is that how you said it?
You never enter the river… You never enter the same river twice.
Dear listeners, I hope you have enjoyed listening to Phap Huu’s journey across the world as much as I have. If you have enjoyed this episode, there are many, many more. And you can find other episodes of The Way Out Is In on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, on other platforms that carry podcasts. And also with thanks, these episodes are possible thanks to the co-production of Global Optimism, of the Plum Village App, and brother, who else?
And this podcast was brought to you by the generous donors of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation. If you would like to support future episodes of the podcast and the work of the international Plum Village community, please visit www.TNHF.org/donate.
Great. And, brother, we normally end episodes with a short guided meditation, but we’re going to do something a little bit different today because you mentioned about this very emotional moment of reading Thay’s poem about The Leaf, and I think it ties in very nicely with what I was sharing also about my mum and saying that one leaf hanging on to the winter tree. So tell us what we’re going to be doing.
So, dear friends, I would love to end the podcast with this reading of a poem by Thay, and it’s a passage that Thay wrote, but to enjoy it as a meditation. So I would like to invite all of you, dear listeners, wherever you may be sitting, on a train, on a bus, in a car, or you are going for a jog, going for a walk, or you are cleaning your home, just to have a moment to pause. You can stand relaxingly, or you can find a seat on a bench or on your couch, and just start to connect to yourself, feeling your body, feeling alive, know that you have a wonderful smile on your lip. You can relax your shoulders, relax your arms, your hands, wiggle your fingers, release the tension, and then bring awareness to your chest, your back, your abdomen rising and falling as you breathe in and out. Your two legs, your feet, and just feel your body, be present for your body. And then become aware of inbreath and outbreath. Let’s give us a few moments to just breathe mindfully together. Breathing in, I’m one with my breath. Breathing out, I am one with my outbreath. This is inbreath, and this is outbreath.
I asked the leaf whether it was afraid to fall since it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not think that I am just this form, because this leaf form is only a tiny part of me. I am the whole tree. I know that I am already inside the tree. And when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. That is why I do not worry. As I drop from the branch and float down to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.'”.
As I breathe in, I feel one with myself. One with my loved ones. As I breathe out, I continue them in every action, every breath, every step. In, I am a continuation. Out, I smile to continuation.
Thank you, dear friends, for joining us in this episode, and we wish you a wonderful day.
The way out is in.
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