My Journey With Thay

Sister Chân Đào Nghiêm

What did I learn from Thay? To stop, to simply be, listening to the rain, drinking a cup of tea, touching life deeply, not doing but being, not trying to be something other than I am, to be truly present for life.

How did Thay’s teachings transform my life? Thay used very simple words and his own examples. He lived what he taught and this touched me very deeply.

When I came to Plum Village for the first time in February 2002, I had the wish to meet the person who gave such a powerful teaching in September 2001 after the terrorist attacks in the USA. I started reading some of his books like Old Paths, White Clouds where Thay speaks about the Buddha not as a god but as a human being. I felt very inspired and put into practice his suggestions, like for example, smiling. At this time I had been practicing sitting meditation for more than twenty years; I never thought that a simple smile on my lips could change my practice so much. By doing this simple practice I felt more ease, more joy, more simplicity in my way of practicing, bringing gentleness and softness into my body and mind.

I had—as well—the deep desire to understand death, why the people that I loved suffer, and what could I do to relieve suffering, to be at peace. I wanted to liberate my heart and be able to love more.

During my very first retreat, Thay told us the story of a group of nuns who had come for a retreat. After five days the mother superior had said to Thay, “You have taught about everything but why have you not talked about God?” Thay said that he did not answer right way, he breathed a few times, then told the nun, “Dear Sister, is there anything I talked about in the last five days that was not about God?” And Thay added, “It was a moment of enlightenment in the room, a realization! We are so caught in words and notions. We can always talk to God.”

I really enjoyed this story and hearing Thay—a Buddhist teacher—speaking about God so freely and so beautifully!

Just after this first retreat I went to see my aunt, who had been in a coma for a couple of months. She died the night after my arrival and I felt deeply how the teachings I had just received while in Plum Village gave me the peace to embrace my own pain and the pain of her children and grandchildren. The words of Thay resonated in my mind. My aunt is still alive, she is everywhere. I feel her presence and can help my cousins to recognize within them the beautiful qualities of my aunt. She will continue within us.

I learned from Thay how to connect with my father, with my mindful steps. Feel that you are holding the hand of your dad, then feel his feet walking in your feet.

My dad passed away so long ago, but I trusted Thay and put into practice his teachings. At the beginning it was simply imagination but as we walked, I felt my father walking with me. It was a very powerful experience as my father had passed away when I was only 19 years old and I thought that was it.

This practice of walking meditation brought back memories of my childhood when I used to stand on my father’s feet and we danced together. Dad was still alive in me! From then on, a path of healing opened up, a beautiful path of transforming the relationship with my father by gaining understanding about what he has transmitted to me. From then on, I could reestablish a connection with my dad, write to him and tell him things that I never had the chance to say to him.

The practice of walking meditation is one of the greatest gifts that I received from Thay, to nourish my joy and also to soothe my pain. For example at the loss of someone dear to me, or when I feel anger or sadness or when I feel anxious etc., I take a few mindful steps, fully aware of each one of my steps, fully present with my steps, my breath, my feet touching the ground, my legs, my whole body walking. It is such a miracle to be able to walk. I walk for my beloved ones who cannot walk any more. I walk for the simple joy of walking. In 2020 I had the fortune of visiting Thay for a week in Tu Hieu Root Temple in Vietnam and was invited to push his wheelchair around the temple. Thay spoke to me with his hand showing me different places of the temple. There I walked for Thay; his feet were my feet.

So many times I walked behind Thay, on different paths, in many big cities surrounded by thousands of people or with only a few people on small paths. All these years walking with Thay, I could see the joy, the lightness in Thay’s way of walking, his freedom, his peace. During walking meditation Thay always enjoyed sitting for some time with the community, sometimes thousands of people, sometimes just a small group. We just sat and enjoyed doing nothing, simply enjoying being together in nature, even on the pavement in big cities. I remember at the beginning of my practice in Plum Village, when we sat with Thay during walking meditation, I was expecting Thay to say something, to do something special. But nothing happened. We simply sat, enjoying the present moment, offering to all of us a moment of deep connection and peace. I learned to enjoy each moment deeply.

The suffering that I felt at my mother’s death in 1995 was buried deep within me. It was too painful to look at it and I preferred not to. Thay’s teachings on Mother Earth and his deep love allowed me to open myself to my suffering and to feel the love of my mother through the love of Mother Earth. Looking at the incredible beauty of Mother Nature and being truly present for her gifts, her beauty, her love, I was able to embrace my pain, bring relief and understand that my mom is still alive within me. I can offer to her my joy, my way of living and not only to my mom but to all of my ancestors. I am their continuation.

Arriving in Lower Hamlet in February 2002, I was moved by the simplicity of the place and the calligraphy on the wall of the dining hall, The piece of bread in your hand is the body of the cosmos.

In 2005, one day after a U.S. tour, Thay was resting with us in Pine and Crane, a nunnery we had in Vermont at that time. Just a few of us had dinner with Thay and Thay asked me, “You have nothing to eat, why don’t you eat?” “Oh Thay, I prefer not to eat in the evening, I feel better this way,” I answered. Thay looked at me with a smile and he took a piece of bread that he had on his plate and handed it to me. How could I refuse this piece of bread? I took it with a smile and gently ate it. This simple gesture from my teacher touched me and I learned how to look deeply at a piece of bread, to see the presence of the whole cosmos in the piece of bread, the interbeing nature of the bread, to feel the immense gratitude for everything that surrounds us.

Drinking tea in Thay’s company was one of my dreams when I first came to Plum Village and I wrote about it to Thay. On the first anniversary of our novice ordination, Thay before his Dharma talk called our little ordination family of four sisters and asked us to share about our practice during the past year. I shared that I practiced letting go of my expectations. Thay asked me if I was expecting Thay to become a Buddha quickly and I replied that for me Thay was already the Buddha. Then Thay said, “Were you expecting to drink many cups of tea with Thay?”, and I said, “Touché”, and Thay laughed a lot—a beautiful moment of complicity. Since then I have enjoyed many cups of tea with Thay. Such a simple gesture that can bring great happiness.

The first year after my ordination Thay often played with my name, calling me DaoLakshmi or LakshmiDao, smiling as he looked at me. Before I ordained I lived in an ashram for twenty years and I identified a lot with who I was. There I was called “Lakshmi.” Thay helped me to see this identification and the suffering that this was bringing, as it did not allow me to open myself to what the present moment was offering.

The last spoken Dharma talk that Thay offered was at the beginning of the French Educator’s Retreat. Sr Jina and myself were sitting on each side of Thay. Thay turned to me and said, “Sœur Dao Nghiem, êtes-vous confortable?” (English: “Sister Dao Nghiem, do you feel at ease?”) Gently, Thay brought me back to the present moment, the wonderful moment of sitting with Thay, alive next to me. Thay was sitting in a wheelchair and was already very sick and in my mind anxiety was present there. The question that Thay asked was a big bell of mindfulness. Come back my child, where are you?

Thay taught me to see how life is incredibly beautiful. Thay helped me to touch, to see the miracle of life in very ordinary things, to experience the interdependent nature of all that is, and to understand how all of my actions of body, speech and mind have an effect on the whole world.

The first couple of years of being a novice I had some very difficult moments. Sometimes I did not know what to do. I was asking myself, Why did I ordain, why did I choose to join this community, why did I leave my other community? And I was calling in my heart to Thay to come and help me to see clearly. And so many times, Thay appeared. Physically appeared. During this period I was staying in the New Hamlet and Thay would suddenly appear for sitting meditation with us early in the morning, or for precepts recitation or from behind a door or in his car or maybe coming out of a bathroom, giving me a smile or a gentle gesture from his hands, a few words, a simple presence, all showing me that he was there present for me. He still is even though he is not physically present anymore.

In 2012 Thay and the sangha came to Paris for a few days. At this time I was living in Maison de l’Inspir and with another sister we were very much involved in the organization of this big event. We had an argument in the garden and Thay was sitting not too far from us. I went to Thay and shared with him the feeling I had at that moment, sharing about how we hurt each other with our perceptions, and how painful it was. Thay listened and then shared with me that many people had perceptions about Thay but Thay just continued with determination, not letting himself be discouraged by the perceptions that people had of Thay. We have wrong perceptions about others, others have wrong perceptions about us and we have wrong perceptions about ourselves. We need to continue, to keep going. Everything that Thay shared stayed with me and helped me to go through many difficult times in my monastic life.

From Thay I learned to touch life very deeply in simple moments in my daily life. To touch the depth of every ordinary action: brushing my teeth, washing dishes, playing in the snow, to love Mother Earth, to enjoy the miracle of life.

Thay helped me to stop, to smile, to see that every moment is a happy moment, a legendary moment.