Thay Smiled Happily

Sister Chân Định Nghiêm

Going to watch “Journey to the West”

Dear Thay,

I remember how the teaching tours around China in the years 1995, 1999, 2000, and 2002 brought great happiness to Thay. You had told us that in the past, the spiritual ancestors from China came to Vietnam to share the teachings, and most of the Buddhist scriptures and books in Vietnam were written in classical Chinese. You returned to China to teach so that you could repay the debt of gratitude to the ancestral teachers. Your offerings to the ancestors were many of your books that had been translated into Chinese.

Every tour had a full program filled with retreats and mindfulness days for monastics and lay people. During the 2002 tour, I remember one day, we were all on the return bus after a day of activities. Br. Phap Niem and I were attendants to Thay, so Br. Phap Niem sat beside Thay and I sat behind. Br. Phap Hai was behind me. He is fluent in Mandarin, so he always had many funny stories to tell the rest of us–stories about the temples and about the world outside. That afternoon, Br. Phap Hai invited us to go and watch the opera Journey to the West that was being shown at the Beijing Opera House.

We were whispering and discussing this excitedly when suddenly, Thay turned around and asked in a loud voice, “Dinh Nghiem, why don’t you invite Thay to come watch the opera with you all?” I was stunned, and thought to myself: Wow, Thay, you will also come to the theater with us? Before I had a chance to stop being stunned and reply, Thay repeated the question. I quickly joined my palms and said: “Dear Thay, we would like to cordially invite Thay to come and watch Journey to the West with us.”

Thay smiled happily.

Br. Phap Hai and I were overjoyed. Not only were we not scolded for daring to discuss about going to the theater, Thay even responded and agreed to go with us. What could be greater than having our teacher join in the fun with us? In the end, we all went back to rest and prepare for the upcoming long day. How could we have gone to the theater? Yet, both teacher and disciples were filled with happiness and satisfaction as if we had just returned from a theater show.

Opening a nursery

Dear Thay, it was rare for you to be in Plum Village, France during autumn because that was the season of long tours in North America or Southeast Asia. But that one autumn, you stayed home with us and it was the most special, most enjoyable autumn for all of us.

You took a lot of time to lead us on walking meditations in the Lower Hamlet under the alleys of poplar trees with their golden leaves. You often stopped by the New Hamlet to lead us to walk up the plum hill, where the air was infused with the scent of ripe plums. Usually we did not pick the plums but let them ripen and fall naturally to the ground. At that time, the plums were becoming really sweet and juicy. But some sisters preferred to eat the crunchy, unripened plums, so Thay cut open a plastic bottle, tied it to a stick of bamboo and used this homemade tool to harvest the crunchy plums–very effective and convenient.

In Upper Hamlet, Thay loved the most to go for walking meditation in the forest of red oaks. From afar, I always thought it was a forest of flame red flowers. In the Hermitage, every pot of flower, every tree was happy because they received Thay’s care each day. Late autumn in France is the season of chrysanthemums. Thay waited for pots of large, round, crimson chrysanthemums to bloom, as well as the elegant ones with petals that curled inwards and outwards like bodhisattvas hands performing mantras.

That morning in the Hermitage garden, Thay went around to gather all the wilted chrysanthemums from the previous year while I brought together all the old plastic pots. Under Thay’s guidance, I prepared the pots with soil for you to replant the chrysanthemums. Sitting on a white iron chair under the linden tree, Thay worked leisurely with utter peace and enjoyment. When one pot was done, you passed it to me so I could add another layer of fertilizer to it. In the end, the two of us turned on the hose to water all the pots at once.

It was just like being a little kid long time ago in my garden at home. I only noticed my two hands happily playing with the soil. Sometimes I looked up to see what Thay’s hands were doing. The year’s last rays of sunlight were trying to peek through the leaves to gently touch your two hands. They also wanted to give a hand to Thay! Occasionally a few ripened leaves fell lightly onto your shoulders, as if to draw your attention: “Dear Thay, we are here, let us play with you!” Those leaves slowly hopped to your feet, then to the earth, to form a pale golden carpet. In a few days or a week, the golden carpet would be thicker and softer for Thay to place your mindful steps upon.

On the other side of the Hermitage, the pines that Thay had planted in the past were now tall and strong. They were retaining their green robes for the season. The Hermitage in the autumn is full of colors and forms and that year, Thay was home. The earth, sky, and trees were all excited and competed to show off their most beautiful paintings for you to enjoy.

There were not enough pots for Thay to continue repotting. I had to go to New Hamlet to find more pots. In the end, that afternoon, pots upon pots surrounded the teacher and disciple–more than a hundred of them. Suddenly I had the image that in just two months, these stems of chrysanthemums will grow strong and healthy and produce many big, round flowers. Excitedly, I said to you, “Dear Thay, if the two of us are successful, we could open a plant nursery!”

Thay smiled happily.

I felt so happy right in that moment, as if we just opened a plant nursery!

I will lead the retreat, Thay, please come just for fun!

That was in the year 2006. After the Summer Retreat, the sisters of both Lower and New Hamlet organized a trip to the Pyrénées. During the day, we hiked in the mountains and enjoyed being in nature. At night, I pitched a tent with Sr. Anh Nghiem right by a stream that originated from a waterfall. On the day of return, we still hadn’t had our fill of mountains and forests, so we stopped at a small village called “Gavarnie.” We walked towards the mountain for a few kilometers and at first, we only heard the whistling of the wind and the birds singing. But the more we walked, the more clearly we could hear the echo of water from afar.

Then all of a sudden, we stopped in amazement in front of a vertical mountain range that arced around us. No one in the group said anything. We all stood still to admire the view in front of us. On the side of the mountain, hundreds of waterfalls were rushing down. Some were high and large, splashing water as they gushed down. Others were thin and ethereal, like long silk strands suspended in air and halfway down, were blown aside by the wind. Wow! There were even waterfalls that seemed to fall from the clouds! It turned out that the mountaintop was so high that mist and clouds shrouded it. If anyone wished to count how many waterfalls were in front of them, it would not have been possible. Hundreds of waterfalls, each was its own painting, no two were alike. Yet, all of them were continuously flowing in the same direction, synchronizing with each other to create a grand symphony without repetition.

After standing in silence and taking in this scene for a long time, we called each other to return. But even though we were only at arm’s length from each other, and even though we called out with all our strength, no one could hear the others; we could not even hear our own calls. Oh, never have we felt so small, in space and in the world of sound.

After returning to Plum Village, as soon as I met Thay, I told you about this most rare and majestic beauty in the world. You have to see it! I wanted to bring you there. I thought about how I could bring you there. But I was certain that Thay would not go anywhere just for sightseeing. Thay’s Pure Land was the Hermitage, the Sitting Still Hut, Lower Hamlet, New Hamlet. If Thay went anywhere, it was only for retreats. And Thay often said that you did not have much time left, which is why you only accepted invitations to lead large retreats for thousands of people. If we held a retreat in a small village like Gavarnie in France, there would only be room for 100 people at the most. Suddenly I had a great idea, “Dear Thay, I will go and lead a retreat at Gavarnie. I would like to invite Thay to come with me. You just need to come and have fun; there’s nothing for you to do. I will do it all for Thay and you simply need to visit those amazing waterfalls.”

Thay smiled happily.

As for me, I felt satisfied that I have found a way to bring Thay to see the beautiful scenery.