Sister Chân Thệ Nghiêm
Dearest Thay, our hearts are full as we remember your Mind of Love. In gratitude, we are holding all of our memories of you lovingly and spaciously, with open palms.
I am so grateful to be a disciple of Thay, who bore all the hallmarks of a true spiritual teacher. He is one who has guided us on our spiritual path, has embodied understanding and compassion, and has inspired his disciples to do the same.
When I was 21, my father introduced me to Thay’s book, Being Peace. I remember the feeling of coming alive as a new world opened before me. Here was a wholesome and compassionate way of living. Here was a teacher who shared authentically, with peace, joy, and wisdom. Thay’s words breathed life into my heart, and directed my eyes towards a spiritual path. Like so many others, I awakened to my monastic life because of Thay.
Becoming Thay’s disciple was a chance to experience Thay’s understanding and compassion in person.
During my formative years in Plum Village, many of us were fortunate to have a chance to take turns to attend Thay. Thay created these conditions to get to know and guide all of his disciples, no matter their skill or capacity.
During those early years, I found it difficult to break out of my insular habits and adjust to community life. Therefore, whenever it was my turn to attend Thay, I often felt overwhelmed in his presence. He was always very present, and usually in the limelight of sangha activities. It was a doubly uncomfortable spotlight that, as a novice, I actively tried to avoid.
And yet Thay occupied these seemingly stressful circumstances with grace, ease, and spaciousness - without ego - and always sought to share this ease with those around him. These were especially the moments when I touched Thay’s compassion personally. For though he himself was not prone to complexes, or the ups and downs of afflictive emotions, he empathized with those who were. Thay was ever considerate of these sensitivities in others.
I remember driving Thay from New Hamlet to Lower Hamlet as his attendant one day. I had recently learned how to drive stick-shift in the French countryside, but had not yet fully mastered it. Our morning drive along the country road was going smoothly and peacefully… until we approached a crossroads. The car suddenly jerked to a hard, unceremonious stop as the engine shuddered and died. I looked down at the stick-shift, flush with embarrassment at my blunder.
In a calm and pleasant way, but quick as lightning, Thay suddenly pointed out the window and made a cheerful observation about some distant landmark - something Nature-y, I suspect. In his compassionate way, Thay was attempting to distract me from my embarrassment. Flustered by my mistake, and self-conscious of the fact that Thay was “changing pegs” to make me feel better, I remained silent. However, in my heart, I registered fully his kindness. Thank you for your kindness, dearest Thay.
Another memory surfaces of Thay’s understanding and kindness. One day, I was attending Thay in the Great Meditation Hall of Lower Hamlet. As Thay and all the monastics were sitting down and arranging their robes in preparation for formal lunch, I found myself stranded in the center aisle.
Searching for a path to my attendant’s seat, I spotted a clearing next to Thay’s sitting mat. Relieved, and wholly unaware of my impending faux pas, I approached the opening and took the fateful shortcut - directly over Thay’s alms bowl and food tray.
At that time, I was still quite green in my monastic training. I did not know how improper or impolite it was to step over your teacher’s belongings, let alone his alms bowl and food.
As I began to step over the tray, Thay’s quick, sharp upward glance caught me mid-step, and I froze. I saw Thay’s stern gaze quickly widen as he recognized who the errant disciple was: me in all my ignorance. Instantly his eyes softened, and with a kind, upward nod of affirmation, he said softly, “Ah, go ahead, my child.”
Once again, like so many other times, Thay met my gauche ignorance with understanding, and responded with kindness. That day, I certainly learned a lesson in Fine Manners. But the greater lesson by far was Thay’s graciousness, and the example of magnanimity born from understanding. This magnanimity of spirit is something that has always touched me about Thay, and is something I continue to aspire to develop in my own practice.
As a novice, making the transition from a small nuclear family to a large community like Lower Hamlet was quite challenging. So many questions and doubts arose about “taking refuge in Sangha,” especially because Thay emphasized this practice so much. I could not understand what it meant to take refuge in something so amorphous and so seemingly imperfect.
Thay’s skillful guidance at this time allayed my confusion and helped me find firmer footing.
One day at Lower Hamlet, my culminating angst bubbled up in the form of a question, almost bordering on a plea: “Dear Thay,” I asked with furrowed brow, “Thay teaches us about the importance of Sangha, but I really don’t understand what Sangha is. What is Sangha?”
Thay looked at me quietly for a moment, and then without fanfare, replied directly, “It’s as expressed in the song, my child: Sangha is my five skandhas… working in harmony.” Oh! I had heard and even sung these lines many times before. But this time was different: Thay’s words cut through my confusion like a shaft of light. I suddenly saw myself and the ground beneath my feet.
Reflecting on our exchange, I realize there could have been so many other ways for Thay to respond. Instead, he chose a way that would bypass my intellect and subdue my agitated mind. His response resonated with my past life’s experience, and it met me at my capacity to receive at the time.
Thus, Thay cleared the obstacle and opened up the door for me to mature through direct experience. In fact, Thay’s teaching has continued to be a precious koan for me over the years. From various vantage points of time and experience, I have often returned to this teaching to reflect on my understanding and practice.
Thay has often been likened to a master gardener. He skillfully cultivated the vast and varied nursery of our sangha with the nurturing and affirmative qualities of a loving teacher. Thay steadfastly tended to the shoots and leaves of our practice. Even more fundamentally, however, he gave careful attention to the sometimes dormant seed of faith in us, helping us awaken confidence in our own Buddha nature. Through his understanding and trust, Thay watered this seed of faith in me. Because of this, I was able to awaken to the goodness within and around me.
Once, at the Hermitage, in a space of quiet, Thay brought me to a flowering plant whose blossom had not yet open. Teacher and disciple observed the plant quietly. Then Thay said, “Everyone is like that flower, my child. It unfurls its petals in its own time, when it is ready.” In that moment, I felt Thay’s understanding and acceptance of my reserve and diffidence to him as his disciple. At the same time, I felt his skillful encouragement: allow yourself to bloom.
Thay’s nurturing and affirmative ways are such a breath of fresh air in our world. The public discourse and social climate of today are often filled with skepticism, cynicism, and hurtful speech. In this toxic milieu, the self-confidence of our youth, and their faith in others, can easily be wounded. Our young ones especially need heartfelt affirmation of their goodness, and a vision of a wholesome path. How else will their inner and outer faith take root? Early and steadfast nurturance like Thay’s can lead them away from despair, and even save their lives. It can give them the self-confidence to face and overcome their suffering, to transform hurt into understanding and compassion. This kind of nurturance was the gift that Thay gave us.
Open the Path Wider
True to the Bodhisattva Vow, Thay has always encouraged us to open the path wider. Sometimes, this calls for us to stretch beyond our present comforts, challenges, and concerns in order that our sangha may grow, our embrace widen. Many times, Thay has challenged our hearts to expand in order to merge with his larger vision.
In May 2007, our small sangha at Green Mountain Dharma Center and Maple Forest Monastery finally closed its doors in Vermont. That summer, after many months of preparation and packing, we made the decisive move to our new home in upstate New York: Blue Cliff Monastery. A group of ants re-coalescing after a disturbance to its nest, we began the slow, somewhat disorganized work of converting the former summer hotel-and-resort into a year-round monastery.
By the beginning of autumn, we had made some progress, but it didn’t seem like much. Our small sangha felt like a little choo-choo train chugging uphill. Trying to be realistic, we petitioned Thay to hold off on hosting our first big retreat in the coming season. Our reasons were many: it was too soon, we had not yet transformed into a monastery, we were not yet prepared to receive retreatants… Thay’s reply: “The sangha can do it.” We had more reasons: the main buildings were still in need of renovation. We hadn’t even built a meditation hall yet… Thay’s response, “Not an obstacle.” Thay called upon our sangha spirit, and told us to rent a huge tent in place of our non-existent hall.
We worried that the prospect of a semi-outdoor retreat in frigid New England weather would deter retreatants from coming. But despite this, registration quickly filled beyond capacity. Come mid-October, we were indeed able to open our doors to host our first retreat, to the great joy of many. Yes, it was memorably cold, and yes, the retreat turned out to be a timely and deeply rewarding experience for everyone, just as Thay had envisioned.
Over the years, Thay has steadfastly conveyed to us in equal measure the assurance, You are more than enough, and the admonishment, Open the path wider. These dual reminders stand as supportive bookends for our sangha. They are invaluable reminders to have faith in ourselves, and to remember to always grow our hearts and widen our embrace.
Watching Over Us
A number of years ago, during our biennial US Tour, the sangha was traveling by bus on our way to the next retreat. It was late at night, and most of the sangha was sleeping. I happened to be sitting in the front near Thay and the bus driver. Thay turned, smiled to me, and said in Vietnamese, “We need to help the bus driver stay awake.” Hearing this, I endeavored to keep my eyes on the bus driver. Eventually, though, my eyelids drooped, and soon I dozed off. When I awoke from my nap, I sheepishly looked over and was met with a familiar and comforting sight: Thay sitting upright, alert, with his eyes on the road before us. A feeling of gratitude arose, along with the thought, Thay is watching over us…
Under the watchful eye of our teacher, we’ve been given the conditions to blossom on this path. Thay has patiently guided us to awaken the teacher within. He has steadfastly admonished us to take responsibility for our practice and our happiness. How remarkable that throughout his life, Thay so carefully and lovingly laid the groundwork for us to continue on with assurance.
In fact, our sangha has grown into a bountiful forest of sustenance and support, of self-discovery and transformation. Today, our sangha is a vibrant and nurturing font of creativity and outreach. May we continue to lay down rich layers of sediment to nurture the awakening and well-being of many, many generations after us. So that countless generations from now, this greeting from the heart will continue to emanate: Hello, my teacher. Hello, Plum Village.