The Ancestors Calling Me Home
Sister Chân Trăng Hiền Nhân
Dear Respected Thay, dear Sangha,
In France, it is autumn. The golden light of the sun is piercing through great clouds in the vast sky, the deep pink of the dawn, the dazzling beauty of the dancing leaves vibrant with life, display a Dharma festival for us to rejoice in every day. New Hamlet has recently become the home to tens of chrysanthemum flowers adorning our practice center with a spiritual and ancestral energy always ready to manifest.
A few days ago, as a group of us were about to sit down for a sharing session, a bright yellow chrysanthemum caught my eye and I brought her to the center of our circle. I felt that she had something to tell me. After I sat down, my grandmother became very present in me. My grandmother comes from Mexico, a country where paying respect to our ancestors is a core element of the culture, especially at this time of the year.
Abuelita, as I lovingly addressed my grandma as a child, passed away last year during the Rains Retreat. It was then that I realized how similar the Mexican and Vietnamese cultures are in respect to relating to our ancestors. What I had seen my Vietnamese sisters do so often on memorial days such as cooking special dishes, preparing an altar, devising a ceremony, I suddenly found myself doing for my grandmother. It felt so natural and so familiar. During nap time, when the kitchen was empty, I cooked Frijoles refritos (refried beans), a traditional dish that Abuelita had prepared so many times for me. I didn’t have a recipe. I just remembered the scenes of my grandmother cooking as I sat nearby at the kitchen table, learning to draw, snacking, chatting with her, or writing a poem.
The ceremony for Abuelita took place one evening, in the Red Candle Hall. The altar with her picture was there, as well as a letter I had written for her in Spanish. As the ceremony was to take place in French, the other language that I spoke with Abuelita besides Spanish, I invited the sisters who also understood that language to take part in the ceremony. They were all very supportive and kind. I devised a simple ceremony and we gathered. It turned out to be a rare and moving moment for all of us, the western sisters of Lower Hamlet, to gather like that for a ceremony. I felt happy and grateful that Abuelita had given rise to such a joyous and rare occasion.
As Abuelita passed away during the time of Covid, I couldn’t join my mother in Paris to be with her in hospital or attend Abuelita’s funeral. Actually, my mother couldn’t organize any proper ceremony due to the pandemic. And so, I invited her to join us by zoom. She was so moved during the ceremony that she cried. She cried as I read the letter I had written to Abuelita and she cried when she saw the altar that brought up in her so many memories and the fragrance of Mexico. She also cried when she saw the presence of my sisters, who had so naturally offered their time to be with us. Her heart softened and she opened to look differently at the path I had chosen. This was also coming from the very deep, immense love that Abuelita always had for me.
This year, gently rocking in a sea of colorful chrysanthemums that were waving at me every day, something opened in my heart. One evening, in the Buddha Hall, after having touched the earth in front of the Buddha, Avalokita, Thay and the spiritual ancestors, I felt driven to also prostrate before the altar of the blood ancestors. I turned to them, raised my joined palms before my forehead, and rested my four limbs on the floor, my forehead sinking into the earth.
As I was opening my heart to my blood ancestors, a feeling of release and joy started to gently arise in me. The energy I was getting in touch with was not an energy of suffering. It was on the contrary a positive energy that brought me closer to myself and to life. Connecting to my father, my mother, both my maternal and paternal grandparents, for a moment, I got in touch with an unstoppable life force that manifested as passion, strength, unshakable determination, infinite talents, deep sensitivity, and immense love. Standing up, I felt more whole, more rooted, more at peace and freer.
Gratitude for the monastic path, for Thay, and for the Sangha, arose in my heart. I was very aware that without the Three Jewels, without the daily practice, without the love of my sisters, without countless conditions coming from so far, I wouldn’t be able to experience what I was experiencing right in that moment. I saw that my blood ancestors and spiritual ancestors were not opposites; the seeds I had received from both these streams of life were making my life in the sangha possible today. Being a monastic was accepting to become a field for all these seeds to gently emerge from the depth of the earth and sprout.
Practicing as a monastic in my country of birth, I also have opportunities to get in touch with my land ancestors. Around twenty minutes walk from the New Hamlet, there is a village called Dieulivol with a beautiful church looking out over the fields. When I am there and able to come back to a space of peace inside of me, I can connect with the presence of many generations of French ancestors.
I also have a similar feeling when I sit in the Telephone Room in New Hamlet. The aesthetics of the room remind me of the novels written by Balzac, a very famous writer of 19th century France. In the early mornings and evenings when it is quiet, I like to just sit there from time to time and let myself be impregnated by the atmosphere. I get in touch with a stream of life flowing through many generations and warm scenes of family life flow through my mind. I don’t know why, but something of the French pride, the French culture with its richness and beauty, some highlights from the French rhetoric and glorious scenes from history of France come up in my mind, and I enjoy sitting with them. They mingle with childhood memories of the hours spent in school learning about these subjects, and the hours spent alone immersing myself in a book. I feel a sense of belonging and rootedness, of intimacy.
For me, having the opportunity to connect to my blood, spiritual, and land ancestors is one of the most precious gifts of monastic life. My blood ancestors come from many different countries on my mother’s and father’s side: France, Canada, Mexico, and Germany. As a child and young adult, I also lived in many places as my father was a diplomat. On top of that, his hobby was traveling with my brother and I. Therefore, I inherited a great diversity of experiences, openness to many cultures, but also a sense of being constantly uprooted and not knowing where I belonged. Therefore, coming back to myself to get in touch with my roots and experience some level of belonging is deeply healing.
I was ordained in the Beech Tree family on the 25th of October, 2018. It was the day Thay flew back from Thailand to Vietnam; a few days earlier, our ceremony to request ordination had taken place on the Memorial Day of Master Tang Hoi. Therefore, the energy of the spiritual ancestors was strong. Even though I was born in the West, I feel very close to Asia. Sometimes, my sisters tease me, saying that I must have been Asian in a past life. During the Lunar New Year, I always pick an oracle from Kieu, trusting that the spiritual ancestors will offer their guidance to me for the year to come. This year, when I came to live in New Hamlet, I also felt that it was the spiritual ancestors that were bringing me here.
Just recently, I learned that a group of us will go to Thailand to receive the Great Precepts. This news filled my heart with joy and faith. On the day my teacher flew from Thailand back to his homeland, I received the 10 novice precepts. Now, it is my turn to visit Asia, the home of my spiritual ancestors, at this very special moment on my monastic path. A full circle will then be completed. The ancestors are calling me home.