Thay’s Hand in My Pocket

Sister Chân Tuyết Nghiêm

Dear Respected Thay,

I still write to Thay because I feel deeply that Thay is still here at this moment. With just one peaceful breath, I can invite Thay to be by my side. When you were not hidden, I had already learned to be in touch with you like this. So whenever I write to you, I can feel that you are very close, always present to listen in order to deeply understand the minds of your students.

Small Game of Life and Death

Dear Thay,

Once again I am setting foot on a new land. Every time I move to another center, I notice that I am engaging in a small game of life and death. I experience letting go of the familiar and accepting the new. Tram Tich nunnery is a place that has given me so many conditions of happiness, a place I have lived in for nearly six years. I love everything that is part of this place - the energy of practice, the aspiration to serve, the sisterhood, the love of the sangha, the serene forest and all the blessings.

The day I left Tram Tich I felt as if I was only going for a long retreat, so I did not have any feelings of parting. Looking back, I see that the game I had experienced on the land of Tram Tich was beautiful enough. I had lived, practiced, and served with all my heart and when I left, I felt fulfilled and happy.

I once again reflected deeply on my ideal for life: Live fully, live wholeheartedly, so that when I leave, I am at peace. Live beautifully and I will die beautifully. I have deposited a little capital into my spiritual bank account for my career of liberation from birth and death. Dear Thay, do you think it is all right for me to think like this? Though small, this insight always allows me to feel light and happy in the face of changes.

The Great Hidden Mountain - Deer Park Monastery, a name I have long heard of, and its associated vastness and majesty. But today, when I placed my first steps on this patch of Earth, I truly felt the stability and excitement. True to its name, the monastery is situated in the heart of a mountain and surrounded by rocky desert hills. As soon as I arrived, I felt happy because of the chance to return to nature, to be under the close protection of Mother Earth and Father Sky. My heart also opens vastly as I look upon the wide open sky.

My first dawn on this new land, I answered a call inside me to reach the top of the mountain. With a younger sister of mine, we sat on the top to look out at the mountains and clouds, feeling at peace. We stayed quiet to feel the sacred heaven and earth in this precious moment.

The sound of the Morning Chant echoed:

The Dharma body shines brightly as the day dawns.
We sit in stillness, our hearts are at peace.
A half smile is born upon our lips…

How wonderful, this present moment! I am grateful for the innumerable conditions that have brought me here. It is clear that there is a ceaseless continuation; one condition ends for another to begin. Life is a continuous chain of miracles upon miracles.

Thay’s Hand in My Pocket

This morning, it was quite cold. I put on socks, a jacket and gloves, but my hands were still cold. I walked with my hands in my pockets. A sweet memory with Thay in the winter of 2010 surfaced. That year I turned 24 - a turbulent year with many changes on my spiritual journey. The changing of centers came upon me like an unprepared destiny; causes and conditions weaved into each other in a rush.

At the age of 24, I was still very playful and still needed a lot of siblinghood. Therefore, having to move from Lower Hamlet to Maison de L’inspir in Paris was like a loss, a sacrifice of youth. From a large sangha of three hamlets with hundreds of monastics, I was encouraged to experience living in a small center with just eight sisters, among which four were young Vietnamese.

That morning, Sister Noi Nghiem and I went to greet Thay before leaving. I was weighed down by sadness. As if understanding that feeling, Thay was waiting for us at the Hermitage gate. As soon as we got out of the car, Thay came over, patted our heads, then held our hands to go for walking meditation inside the Hermitage. Walking quietly by Thay, I deeply felt a teacher’s warm love even though Thay did not say anything. Thay was always like that - showing his love discreetly, but in a way that made us remember each moment.

My hands were cold, and even more so when I held Thay’s warm hand. I was afraid that the coldness would seep through to Thay’s hand. I cared very much for Thay. Suddenly Thay stopped and looked at me. Before I had the time to understand, Thay said, “Your hands are too cold!” Then he smiled and gently placed both our hands in his pocket. I was surprised and felt so happy and touched by this love of a teacher. My hand became warmer, and every cell, every crevice of my soul was infused with the warmth of love.

After one round of walking meditation, Thay took out our hands, squeezed mine and said, “My child, you see? Your hand is now warmer. When you are up there, whenever you feel sad, lonely, and you miss Thay and the sangha, put your hand in your pocket - you have Thay’s hand there.” That moment of connection settled deeply into me and became a legend. Every word of Thay’s was a seal, a heritage, a piece of luggage for a young student to embark with on a long journey, and I carry it with me until this day.

The sadness was soothed by the warmth of a teacher’s love. I wanted to grow stronger with the trust of Thay and the sangha. Indeed while in Maison de L’inspir, there were moments when I felt weak, sad, and weary. There were also moments full of loneliness and regret. I remembered Thay, and many times I put my hand in my pocket to be in touch with Thay’s hand - the hand of love and trust.

That strength helped me overcome the small difficulties and I gradually matured. Perhaps in the ensuing journey, I was far from Thay physically, but I always felt Thay very closely in my heart. Thay’s words were like a mantra for me, “Thay’s hand is in your pocket.” This morning, walking up the hill with my two hands in my pockets, I also held Thay’s hand in those moments of returning to happiness, peace, and the warmth of love.

Sing With Your Own Style

Dear respected Thay,

The mountains and hills of Deer Park are truly beautiful. Sitting on a cliff and looking down on the vast mountain landscape, my heart naturally opens. There is nothing for me to worry about, or regret at this moment. Thanks to the lessons you have taught me while I was by your side, no matter which corner of the world I am in, I can find a few things that turn my thinking towards the positive. My mind always chooses to go in the direction of freedom so that whatever I choose to do in my monastic life has meaning in its own right.

I still remember when I returned to Plum Village after a year in Maison de L’inspir, I received a lot of love from the sangha there, especially from the young Vietnamese students who frequently came. When I left Paris, I practiced to let go of all the connections with the people, the scenes, as my perspective on life was very clear - live wholeheartedly and leave with no strings attached. I thought this to be true of the monastic ideal of freedom.

So, I was quite surprised when I returned to Plum Village and Thay again taught me, “I heard that the young friends in Paris love and cherish you very much, right? Remember to write to them and nurture them.” I was very surprised, but I thought, “Thay is encouraging me after my year of living in Maison de L’inspir and building the sangha there.” So I let Thay’s teaching pass by like a breeze.

But when Thay asked me again a few days later, “My child, have you written a letter to the young friends yet?” I paid more attention and asked myself, “What is Thay teaching me here? Why is it that I want to let go, but Thay is teaching to me hold on?” I wanted to understand well so I could carry out Thay’s teachings naturally, but I did not understand the lesson yet. So I chose to be silent and did nothing. Then a few more days passed and Thay gave me an even more concrete practice, “Tuyet Nghiem, please write and invite the young friends to come and celebrate TetVietnamese lunar new year in Plum Village. They will enjoy it very much!” This time I understood Thay’s teaching for me.

The more I looked into Thay’s teaching, the more I saw a new value for my way of service: “When we still have the conditions to nourish someone, somewhere, we should continue to do so because that is a beautiful condition.” Having thought it through, I sat down to write to the young friends in Paris just like Thay taught. It was very heart-warming for them to receive the letters. I told them about Thay’s care for them and how it was expressed through his guidance for me to write to them. It was indeed a joyous occasion when the young friends, for the first time, called out to each other to come celebrate Tet in Plum Village even though it was only for two short days.

That same year during the Oracle ReadingsTranslator’s note: A Plum Village tradition during the Tet celebrations whereby a few lay friends or monastics come before the sangha to select an unseen verse from “The Tale of Kieu” (or from Shakespeare or Victor Hugo), ask a question from their heart, and receive a response from Thay or senior monastics based on the chosen verse. in front of the whole sangha, Thay also gave priority to the young people. I felt so happy to hear their questions and see how they were embraced, loved, and supported by the big sangha. While enjoying that happiness, I suddenly heard Thay call out my name, “Tuyet Nghiem, please sing this verse from the Tale of Kieu.” I sat behind Thay, so Thay turned around to look at me as he spoke. I felt confused, because my “level” of singing in Vietnamese folk style was rather low while around me were many elder brothers and sisters who were superb singers. I whispered to Thay for help, “Yes, dear Thay. Just now the elder brothers and sisters sang so wonderfully. Some sang in the Northern style, some in the Central style and some the Southern style. I don’t even know which style I should sing in?” Thay smiled compassionately, “You should sing with your own style.”

Thay’s words startled me. I knew that I could only sing naturally how I have always sung. After singing, though my voice was not very good, I was satisfied with the koan Thay had given me - “You should sing with your own style.” That is the mark of freedom, of ease, of readiness.

As I breathed a sigh of relief after passing through one challenge, Thay suddenly gave me the second challenge, “Tuyet Nghiem, please interpret the Oracle for the young friend.” I was even more shocked, because it seemed that only Thay and the elders ever interpreted the Oracles in front of the sangha. I felt so confused and tried to find a way out, to refuse lightly, “Yes, dear Thay, but I don’t know how to interpret Oracles at all.” My eyes were speaking SOS to Thay, but Thay laughed and resolutely said, “How can that be? You are my continuation, right?” There was nothing I could do except to accept my current predicament - to interpret the oracle for our young friend. Perhaps I knew enough about her so I went straight to her issue, and it made everyone laugh because it was too much to the point.

Dear respected Thay,

Throughout these past years, I have put all my heart into understanding the practices you have taught me. The mantra “You should sing with your own style” has helped me to overcome feelings of inferiority so that I can be natural and free in whatever I do. Whenever I do something wholeheartedly and with freedom, I can feel Thay right by me. At times when I feel so afraid, and hesitant of my own ability that I want to stop, withdraw, and quit, I find confidence again with the mantra “How can that be? You are my continuation, right?”

There are times I wish to end a connection even though I can still offer something to nourish someone. Your teaching “You should continue to nourish them…” will motivate me to keep on offering the most beautiful while I still can, so that each connection can be complete, until the conditions are no longer sufficient and then I can let go with a smile.

Dearest Thay, I am growing day by day on the path you have led. The path of Engaged Buddhism is not an easy one at all. You have prepared us so much for this journey through all the love and trust you have shown your students.

This morning, your teachings continue to illuminate the path I walk with the beautiful aspiration of a monastic. I walked up the hill with leisurely steps - each step in freedom, each step untangled, each step a promise to return to peace. At the top of the mountain, I sat down to enjoy my peaceful breathing together with the wind and the clouds. Putting my hand in my pocket, I see that your warm hand continues to encourage me to trust and love.

Look again, you will see me in you
and in every leaf and flower bud.
If you call my name, you will see me right away.

You and I have never really been apart.

A Teacher Looking for His Disciple - Thay’s poem

I am deeply grateful to Thay because Thay is always beautiful in my heart and still alive in the continuous wonders of life. I will hold the sangha’s hand, so that together we can bring you into the future.

With deep respect and gratitude,
Your student: Chan Tuyet Nghiem