My Master’s Freedom

Brother Chân Pháp Xả

The first time I saw Thay was in December 2000. I was in Plum Village for the first time after I had heard about Thay and Plum Village through books and my practice of Japanese Zen meditation. It was my first time in a monastic practice center. I especially enjoyed the clock chimes in the dining hall, when everybody would just breathe and relax and silently listen to the clock. It made me feel very at home.

At that time I remember fast walking around the linden tree in Upper Hamlet before sitting meditation. Thay came to the tree and invited us all to go to the big hall for sitting meditation. I very much looked up to Thay as a great Zen master and had quite a romantic idea about Asian culture with martial arts and deep meditation practices.

Two years later, in 2002, I became an aspirant. When Thay gave me the name Phap Xa at my novice ordination, I think he mainly knew me by my letter of aspiration. Before my ordination we had never talked. Xa means equanimity and is one of the Four Immeasurable Minds of Love. In my ordination family two other Minds of Love were given to two of my brothers: Phap Bi (compassion) and Phap Hy (joy). When Thay gave me my name, I was very happy to have a name that was easy and wouldn’t be easily confused with other names. It may sound silly, but it had been my main concern: to have a name that was mixed up with another similar sounding name. It was not uncommon for non-Vietnamese speakers to be confused about the pronunciation and the differences in pronunciation of similar sounding names.

Thay told me right at the ceremony that this name means to love everyone equally. Thay told me once, I could call myself Brother Equanimity, just like one of the sisters who called herself, and was mostly known as, Sister Steadiness. However, I was quite happy with Phap Xa and wasn’t planning to change it. In later Dharma Talks Thay preferred to use the word inclusiveness instead of equanimity as a translation for Xa. This word puts the emphasis on loving in a way that doesn’t exclude anyone, rather than to love everyone equally. I personally also like inclusiveness. Why did Thay give me my name? I can only guess. After 20 years, I cannot remember my aspiration letter, but I think I mentioned I came to Plum Village for Thay and not so much for the Sangha and that during my stay I had discovered the Sangha Jewel. My best guess is that this has been the reason for my name—to have a love that includes the whole Sangha.

The three month Rain Retreat usually started in November, but in 2004 it was different. The Rains Retreat 2003-04 started in January 2004 and the Rains Retreat 2004-05 was in autumn 2004, so that Thay could travel in January 2005 to Vietnam after 39 years of exile. In September and October 2004, Thay therefore stayed in Upper Hamlet and I was his attendant with Brother Phap Hien.

I have very warm memories of this time. We used to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to prepare ourselves. The official wake up time was at five, and at that time we entered Thay’s hut to prepare tea for Thay. The mornings were cold and quiet and the sound of the great temple bell united us in mindfulness. During those pleasant sunny autumn days, I treasured the time lying in the hammock outside of Thay’s hut. I was in standby mode in case Thay needed something, but that was rarely the case.

Being in Thay’s presence in the hut was very peaceful if I could allow myself to relax and not to think about what to do next. I remember sitting with Thay in the hut with hot tea and fragrant incense in the early cool morning before sitting meditation. A natural and peaceful shared presence in silence. Being in Thay’s presence I mostly did not say much. Partly because I did not know what to say, but mostly because I treasured the peaceful and silent atmosphere.

I had the fortune to travel with Thay for retreats in Europe, America and Asia. I really treasured these times. It was precious to travel with Thay and witness the transformation and healing of so many people. In 2006 and 2009 I was in the Netherlands with Thay. The sangha there had expressed an interest in having a monastic center in the Netherlands and I asked Thay about it a few times. First Thay said I could go to the Netherlands regularly for retreats and we did not need to have a monastic center there. In 2009 Thay wanted the Dutch people to come to the EIAB and in the year 2010, we had the first retreat for Dutch-speaking retreatants with Thay in the EIAB.

Whenever Thay came to the EIAB, the whole monastic sangha of Plum Village came along. We always rented a big tent in our parking lot for up to 1000 people, as we didn’t have a big meditation hall yet. These yearly retreats in summer for German and Dutch speakers has been a tradition ever since.

Out of all my memories of Thay at the EIAB, one image stands out the most: In 2012 the ground floor had just been renovated and Thay led the whole sangha—around 1000 people—to the main entrance. Up until then this area had been a dark and desolate area. On that sunny day with the whole sangha entering the building, I saw the sangha as a stream of bodhisattvas bringing light and warmth into the building. It made a deep impression on me.

When I think of the retreat schedule of Thay, I see it was really tough with a lot of traveling and back to back retreats. He really did not choose the path of comfort or a leisurely retirement. Until almost 90 years of age, he gave everything he had. That is a great inspiration for me, as I many times would have liked to follow the easy way. Thay was really living a fulfilled life and his retreats and books have helped so many people. I have a tendency to think I already know the Plum Village teachings and practices and would like to look for something “new.” But every time I am pleasantly surprised to rediscover the richness and depth of our own tradition. One lifetime may not be enough to realise it.

There are many simple, yet profound moments I have shared with Thay. I have found it challenging to share these moments with you in written form, as it is not so much what was being said and done, but just the way of being present for the moment.

Walking with Thay one evening in Deer Park Monastery, Thay looked up at the full moon and did not say anything. I felt it was a moment of great freedom. There was just the moment of looking at the moon, as if nothing else mattered. Then Thay said, “The moon is so free. Free of projects and worries.” To be able to recognise that, Thay must have been just that: free.

After Thay’s passing, we all got the text “Coming and going in freedom,” I still carry it with me wherever I go. The wonders of life are beyond grasping and letting go. If I have to name one quality I treasure the most about Thay, it is this one—authenticity. I have always seen the oneness of his life and teachings. He was really free to be fully present for the wonders of life. Thay is freedom. Freedom is Thay.