We Are With You at the Top of the Hill

Sister Chân Thao Nghiêm

I don’t know when we will stop missing Thay. It will probably be a long time, or perhaps never. It’s ok to miss Thay, and to cry, because all my brothers and sisters and everyone are like that.

Whenever the brothers and sisters gather, we share many stories about Thay. We always laugh with such joy and our hearts are filled with love and respect towards Thay. Late autumn is the season when Thay would return to Plum Village, after having taught the Dharma abroad. The brothers and sisters at home were often eager to clean up and prepare to welcome Thay back, in order for the sangha to enjoy a warm Rains Retreat together. We did not forget to buy a few pots of chrysanthemums, Thay’s favorite flowers, and placed them in the greenhouse for Thay to enjoy on his return. Thay often made surprise visits to each hamlet to catch a glimpse of the ordinary and natural life of his monastic children.

In the autumn of 2014, Thay was recuperating in Upper Hamlet and the attending brothers and sisters stayed there with him. One morning at four o’clock, Thay rang a small bell to call us. Myself and another sister went over to Thay’s hut to see if he needed any help. Brother Phap Ao—who slept in the same room with Thay—let us know that Thay wanted to go and visit the monks’ residence. I was a bit surprised, and asked again:

“Now, dear Thay? But the wake-up bell hasn’t been invited yet. The sangha is surely still sleeping.”

Thay said:

“Just get ready, my child. We are going to surprise the brothers. Call the other (attending) brothers and sisters to come also. We have to be quick to be on time. It’s only fun if we arrive before the brothers have risen.”

Promptly, our group of brothers and sisters followed Thay into the monks’ residence before everyone had time to wake up. Thay told the sisters to bring two pots of chrysanthemums as gifts for the brothers. The attending brothers pushed Thay’s wheelchair, while the sisters carried the flowers behind, up all the steps of the Sitting Still Hut, out of the woods. The path from the bell tower to the monks’ residence was still pitch-dark before five in the morning. Above us was the vast starlit sky. Thay cried out in amazement, “Oh my, so beautiful, so wonderful! Thank you Buddha and ancestral teachers for giving me this opportunity. It has been a long time since I’ve had the chance to see this again.” All of us were touched and cherished this chance to enjoy the mystery of the early morning earth and sky.

When we arrived at the monks’ residence, indeed the brothers were not awake yet. Thay enjoyed entering a few rooms to wake up the brothers and give them a surprise. Then we went to the library to drink tea and spend time with the brothers. Thay asked after them, told stories and even sang a song. He also did not forget to offer the two pots of chrysanthemums to the monks’ residence. It was truly a happy and cozy moment. All those close to Thay knew that this required more energy than Thay’s health allowed, but nevertheless he was happy. Thay is very much nourished by the love between teacher and disciples, and always wanted to bring peace of mind to his monastic children.

I remember the feeling of having Thay in the sangha. Thay was someone who was always proactive, a master of any situation, one who created an open atmosphere that made everyone feel at ease. I remember the times when Thay attended the activities of the monastic sangha and joined Dharma sharing with all of us. With love and lightness, Thay always guided the sangha to share and created a joyful and warm atmosphere. Thay also clearly showed his whole-hearted presence.

Thay was a very humorous and lively storyteller. He remembered all the essential details and recounted them in a complete, memorable and mild-mannered way, without any need for flattery.

In Thay’s hermitage there is a flight of stairs that leads to Thay’s room. It is old, narrow, and dark. Thay often told us that there are 18 steps and whenever Thay walked on them, he always walked in mindfulness and happiness. Every time I was about to walk up those stairs with Thay, I rushed because I was behind him and had to gently close the corridor door, turn on the light, straighten the slippers … so I always made Thay wait. Thay always stood there to wait and I hurried to keep up so he didn’t have to wait long.

Thay was always like that–he waited for me to come before starting to walk, and we both walked up the stairs one step at a time in mindfulness and happiness. It took a few steps for me to calm down again and be happy, because Thay had guided and reminded me to walk in mindfulness. I didn’t have to do anything, only to walk in Thay’s footsteps. Thay often smiled and said, “The teacher and student are climbing the hill of the century!” Thay had trained me to walk mindfully and today I always remember to do as Thay.

Back then Thay kept saying: “We have already climbed the hill of the century for many years. When we reach the top, how old will I be?” and laughed. I imagined that when I reach the top of the hill, Thay would be sitting there, in flesh and blood. By then I will be an old nun whose heart is filled with happiness, knowing that Thay is still sitting with us, surrounded by a beloved sangha. I will be wise enough and grown up enough after having leaned on Thay for so long.

Dear respected Thay, we are with you at the top of the hill, sitting peacefully together, breathing with the same rhythm, smiling and looking at the wonder of earth and sky. With Thay in my heart, I see that I have enough, I am strong, rich, and warm.

Whenever I am immersed in the heart of the sangha, I remember Thay’s old dream–to build a kind sangha that has brotherhood and sisterhood, and the substance of the practice. Dearest Thay, perhaps your dream from long ago has been realized? That dream has become our present and will be so for our younger siblings and for everyone in the future.