Brother Chân Nguyên Tịnh

Brother Nguyên Tịnh was ordained in 2000 in Vietnam. In 2014, he decided to join the Plum Village sangha in Upper Hamlet. He is one of our senior Dharma teachers and is much loved for his gentle, humble bearing and for his love of poetry. In recent years he has spent much of his time as an attendant to Thay.

Excerpts from a practice journal

Nov 3, 2015
Let me also be present

Today is a Monastic Day. I went quite early to the Hermitage so I could walk on the grounds. A few brown robes were already there, each enjoying the serenity. Thay was away for health treatment in the U.S. and had yet to return. Three more days and it would be a full year since I first arrived in Plum Village.

The sun was rising. I sat by a tree next to Phuong Khe–the Fragrant Creek. It was the rainy season so the creek was in full flow, and sitting there, I could listen to its murmur. I closed my eyes and followed my breathing. The morning sun embraced me.

In recent days my mind has been filled with desolation, as if I had just set foot on a cold, deserted island in order to face myself alone and find the answers for my life. Somewhere in me was a flicker of guilt as I seemed indifferent to all I had. Did I really need to choose my own path and leave behind all the hope and trust that so many had bestowed on me and had wished for me to fulfill? Images of Kim Son Temple, where I ordained and studied for fourteen years, kept coming back like howling waves tormenting my five skandhas. Phrases I had heard before and thought had nothing to do with me were now arising: Have I left behind my teacher and ancestral teachers? Did I turn my back on my roots? Have I taken for granted the relationships in my life before this? Should I go back to my old life?

During sitting meditation, these thoughts continued to emerge, rocking me and confining me in an invisible room. I called on Thay, placing my attention on his solid, peaceful, and courageous energy that was protecting me.

In that same moment, the image of a carp leaping the dragon gate, majestic yet unmistakably lonely, suddenly appeared in my mind. The carp leaps with all its might in order to transform into a dragon. That leap can give it a sense of loss as it leaves behind the lake, the rocks, the moss, and all the things that are familiar to the life of a carp. This loss is also a turning point. If it can leap to the other side and become a dragon, the carp of old would see that it really has lost nothing. Although there is no longer the need for moss or rock holes to make a home or for old familiar things, the carp of old does not look down on them. It still occasionally visits the old places and finds them even more beautiful, seen through the eyes of a dragon.

That moment passed as fast as lightning. I held fast to the breath and nourished the image deeply in my mind. I saw that I could bring along both my land ancestors and spiritual ancestors from Kim Son Temple. The answer came without a doubt: I am not letting others down, I am not betraying them, I am not running away; I am just doing what I need to do. I do so for myself, for the aspiration to strengthen my old relationships with the Buddhist Association, with my teacher and the ancestral teachers, and with the temple that gave me spiritual birth. If I do it well, then my return will be beautiful. That’s when I realized that I no longer felt smothered by the old customs that had once confined and overpowered me. I am establishing sovereignty over my spiritual path, unlimited by existing conventions. I know what I lack and I am on my way to making a beautiful foundation which is what I hunger for.

I opened my eyes. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The sun was already high. I smiled, my heart filled with gratitude. In the heart of the Fragrant Creek, I saw myself more clearly. I was so delighted to find that I had touched an inner freedom and no longer clung to the usual material and emotional comforts. I did not look down upon them, nor feel averse towards them. It is just that I found I no longer fit that way of life. I joined my palms, bowed, and got up to walk to the old cedars. Encountering my elder Brother Phap Ung, I smiled, bowed to him, and felt deeply grateful for the energy of the sangha.

All afternoon, I sat in meditation in a corner of the old wooden barn to deepen that insight. By the time I stepped outside, the sangha had just finished playing games and were exchanging gifts. If I had not had the opportunity to sit, walk, work, drink tea, or eat, right in the midst of the sangha every day for the past year, I know it would have been very difficult to encounter a miraculous moment like this.

Mar 10, 2016
The day of return

I received the surprising news that I would soon have an opportunity to be Thay’s attendant. Having the great fortune to be near Thay, I learned from the lessons he transmitted. At each meal, Thay brought each spoonful of food to his mouth with utter attention, care, and enjoyment. Mindfulness had become his life. Thay enjoyed each sip of tea with tranquility. Observing and enjoying nature, Thay had become a free person, with nothing to do, and nowhere to go. One bud of white champaca blooms and for Thay, it is a miracle. I loved so much every time I saw Thay taking his left hand to care for and wake up his right hand. Thay sat at his desk and with his left hand held a calligraphy brush to draw circle after circle, smiling. A flower bloomed on the page, it bloomed in Thay’s heart, and in the hearts of each of us.

Mar 25, 2016
Sixteenth day attending Thay

Like the ancestral teachers of the past, Thay is also transmitting the living Dharma day and night: you support my feet, for you I walk; you offer medicine, for you I drink it; you bring me rice, for you I eat it; you are disrespectful, I reprimand you for your sake; you make me tea, for you I reach out to receive it; you want to learn, for you I teach; you bring me the chamber pot, for you I urinate; you want to learn impermanence, for you I am ill. Try asking me if I have transmitted the Mind Seal to you. Has anyone let anyone down?

I could feel this during my time as an attendant. Thay is also ill for the sangha, for Plum Village, so that his monastic children have a chance to grow. Thay bears bodily pain each day, and he has the time to watch life springing up. If that is not a miracle, if that is not a living teaching, then what is? If we are not able to receive these concrete lessons from Thay, how can we continue to ask for more? Thay’s strength is still emanating from his eyes.

I remember the second morning of the “Gratitude” Great Precepts Transmission Ceremony, Thay was staying at the Sitting Still Hut and woke early to drink tea. Thay indicated to us, his two attendants, to put on our long robes and push him in his wheelchair to view the moon. I pushed the wheelchair along a path near the Upper Hamlet bell tower. The morning moon was full and bright. Thay sat still, enjoying the moon, and often raised his hand to show us the way to be in deeper contact with the moon. Entering the Still Water Meditation Hall, Thay looked around a little at the decorations, then continued to view the moon and show it to us. After that, Thay agreed to visit the Transformation Hall.

The venerable monks were at breakfast and Thay joined them. Thay ate very mindfully, carefully and decisively bringing each spoonful of food to his mouth. His eyes were as bright as the eyes I had met in Thailand in 2013. Thay’s eyes and bearing led Venerable Giac Quang to tears. After breakfast Thay returned to the Sitting Still Hut. The sun was just appearing. Thay saw it and pointed it out to everyone, then invited the venerables to watch the sun rise in his hut. The scene was glorious.

Apr 5, 2016
Twenty-seventh day attending Thay

Asleep in the heart of the Hermitage, I dreamt of a young boy of ten who was poor and sick. The boy knew he had to take a special train to go somewhere and then he would find the life he was meant to live. He had to go, but he did not have any money. Carrying a bag containing a few items, he chose his moment to hide in a dark, cramped cargo hold. The train started and meandered through the plains, hills, and wild ancient forests.

The train passed through a dark tunnel and suddenly the boy heard words in his mind like torrential rain pouring down and he felt so sad. In the rear view mirror, he saw that he was truly a lone walker with no friends, no family, without a word of solace or sympathy from anyone. Prior to this for some unknown reason, all his friends had scattered in different directions. Perhaps some were also alone on an express train headed for another destination, surely just as lonely. The boy was sad, but he did not cry.

The majesty of the sky, the forest, and the trees called the boy back to their beauty. He could not sit still in the dark. A voice from the depths of his heart was calling out to him, moving him. He looked out the door, and even put his head outside to see the view as the train passed through forests and valleys. He completely forgot that he might be discovered, and was happy just looking.

The train slowed down without stopping and the wind no longer whistled. The train driver’s side window opened and the boy could clearly see the gentle and cheerful face of the driver. Through the rear view mirror, the driver’s eyes turned in the direction of the boy. He was paralyzed with fear that he would be found and kicked off the train! But in that moment, the driver smiled an all too familiar smile which echoed in the boy’s subconscious. The boy knew that he was safe and that he would arrive where he needed to go. The driver even winked and nodded at the boy and he suddenly spoke a sentence, or a line from a poem: “We always love and care for urchins like you.”

I woke up with tears in my eyes, and cried deeply and like a child. The tears were like drops of water from the fragrant well at Kim Son Temple, once drunk by a young novice monk. Thay’s image had replaced that of the train driver. My heart called out, “O Thay, my dear teacher.”

Something about the dream shook my five skandhas fiercely. I felt like the poor, ragged child who was searching for the most precious thing in his life, and I had been allowed to board the train home. The one driving the train had accepted me with a noble and virtuous smile. I was no longer a stranger, no longer the one who carried so much guilt on the journey home. For a thousand lifetimes, I have been that poor, sick child. For a thousand lifetimes, Thay has been that driver, bringing me back to a safe and peaceful place where I can find all that I have ever sought, so that I could truly be me. A dream is not just a dream. For me, the dream contained my entire heritage and path.

The call to enter the stream

One afternoon I was walking from Son Ha to Upper Hamlet. The horizon was ablaze with the changing colours and falling leaves of the forest, and golden leaves carpeted the path. I saw a small tuft of grass and some new leaves that I had not noticed before, though I have trodden this path countless times. Suddenly, I understood why Thay taught us again and again about breathing and walking, about the beauty of the legendary path, or sang praises of the purple bamboo and the blue sky, or showed us the miracle of a single leaf.

When I used to listen to his Dharma talks or read his books or hear stories about Thay from my brothers, I often wondered, What is it about those things that Thay never tires of reminding his disciples? That day, seeing the grass and new leaves on a well-trodden path, I smiled. I realized that I had found with my own eyes the beauty and mystery of these seemingly ordinary things. Having seen it once, I can offer myself once again that way of looking. These simple discoveries have nurtured my joy of practicing, nurtured my gratitude for Thay’s insights, which have been adapted to the times, and nurtured my faith in the sangha’s ability to receive and transmit the ceaseless flow of the spiritual river.

A thousand autumns pave
the leaf strewn path.
One plum branch blossoms,
the fragrance of sandalwood incense
infuses each ancient brush stroke.