Thay’s Disciples in Vietnam
Dearly Beloved Thay,
This morning the weather is so beautiful–very cool, with the sunlight bright and the air pleasant. Purple flowers carpet the hillside running from the nuns’ quarters in Dieu Tram to the Root Temple. Each time we set foot on this path, we feel so happy, content with each breath and each step that we make. We walk just to walk; we don’t need to arrive anywhere, knowing Thay is still there, and that we are about to see him. We walk very slowly, very peacefully as we apply what Thay has taught us. We have the impression that we are walking hand in hand with Thay, even though we have never experienced this the way our elder brothers and sisters have.
We are your baby disciples. We have only come to know you through your books or your Dharma talks. We knew only that you lived far away and we never dared to dream of one day being able to meet you in person. Nevertheless, we made the vow to follow you on this beautiful path. Then, beyond our wildest imaginings, we had the good fortune to be in your presence and to help attend you for more than three years. We remember the day we heard news of your return to the Root Temple, we were bursting with excitement. It was such a great joy to come to the Root Temple to prepare for your arrival.
We will always remember the first days upon your return to the Root Temple; never before had the Root Temple been so joyous with so many people. It was only then did we realise that we had so many elder brothers and sisters. They came from all around the world to visit you. There were days when we had to cook continuously, yet we were always running out of food–there were so many close friends and disciples who came to pay their respects. And although we were busy, there was so much joy. Since you’ve been back, Dieu Tram has become even more welcoming. Every morning and every evening we could hear the morning and evening chants from the Full Moon Meditation Hall. Once, while doing walking meditation towards the Deep Listening hut, you appeared before us. We were able to join you and placing our steps very mindfully, we were aware that we were walking on sacred ground–walking in the footsteps of our spiritual ancestors, of Great-Grand Teacher, and of you. All of our spiritual ancestors and you have imprinted your steps on this land, have you not? You led us around the Half-Moon pond where the aspirant Sung had once sat to peel jackfruit for Auntie Tu, the temple cook when you were a novice. It was also where you sat to listen to the powerful chanting rising from the main hall. In the poem "The Little Buffalo in Pursuit of the Sun," you said that one day should you return, you would take your disciples on a tour around the temple, visiting every nook and cranny to show us how you had lived as a novice. And you kept your word. Walking alongside you, we had the conviction that even in twenty, thirty, a hundred, or more years from now, you will still keep to your word and accompany our younger siblings as they visit every nook and cranny of the Root Temple.
There were days when the weather was nice, and we were able to take walks with you around your hut, pushing your wheelchair along, singing songs and sitting close to you. Whenever your health permitted, you would pay a visit to Great-Grand Teacher’s hut, and we were able to accompany you. Every time, with your eyes bright and your face exuding joy, you would bring your hand up to bow to Great-Grand Teacher with the utmost respect. We had the impression that in Great-Grand Teacher’s hut you became once more the novice known as Phung Xuan. The Phung Xuan attending his teacher during meals, plucking osmanthus flowers to make tea for his teacher, or picking fruit from the ancient starfruit tree to offer the venerable Trong An when he paid his visits. In Great-Grand Teacher’s hut you would admire the silk embroidered portrait of Great-Grand Teacher you had commissioned in Saigon. How joyful the whole Temple must have been when they saw this offering. You would then take your time gazing over the items in the hut, as carefully and respectfully as you had upon the first day of your return. In your silent and natural way, you have given us a direct transmission of your love and respect for Great-Grand Teacher and for our spiritual ancestors.
Once in a while you would also visit the nun’s quarters in Dieu Tram, turning the nunnery into a joyful festival. We took turns to push your wheelchair, to hold your hand or to sit next to you. You slowly made your rounds, visiting every part of the nunnery . Your care warms our hearts and we feel nourished each time we remember it. Your return has allowed us to taste the sweetness of the love between teacher and disciple.
There were many monastics and lay members who came from all over Vietnam and the world. Whether young or old, they came with a wish to see Thay at least once in their lifetime, even if it was just from afar. They practiced walking meditation on the grounds of the temple and turned toward the direction of wherever you are to prostrate. At times when you happened to be outside on the temple ground, they felt so fortunate that tears of happiness flowed. You would hold the hands of the children or pat their heads as their parents looked on with elation and tears. You met everyone with love and inclusiveness.
One time, we witnessed you holding the hand of a former student. The fourteen-year-old student of yesteryears was now silver-haired. Former students from the An Quang Buddhist Institute and the School of Youth for Social Services and former colleagues from the Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute also came. We know that you are also teaching us to treasure, nurture, and strengthen the bonds we have with our brothers, our sisters, and our teachers.
With Thay here, every day we looked forward to coming to your hut, even to do little things like sweeping or tidying up. No words can describe our happiness each time we could share a meal with you. You sat in your chair with your meal before you, and we sat in front of you. You would always look at our bowls to see whether we had something to eat before holding your palm up to practice the contemplations. If you saw that we didn’t have anything, with your eyes and gesture, you would ask, “Where is your food?” Then we would scramble to find something–a piece of fruit or a box of soy milk–so that you wouldn’t have to wait for us to join you in your meal. You always refused to start your meal if we did not have something to eat. Picking up your spoon, taking some food, you looked at it carefully before pointing it in our direction as if to say, “Bon appétit, my dear.” Then bringing the spoon forward, you ate and chewed the food very mindfully. Each movement, each spoonful was filled with awareness. Every so often you would look out the window to admire the greenery, or to smile at us. You were communicating so many things to us through your eyes. After the meal, you would have a cup of macca milk, and you would chew each mouthful eighteen times before swallowing. In one Dharma talk you had shared about how you had practiced chewing water or milk before swallowing. We didn’t understand how this could be possible until we witnessed it for ourselves, seeing you chew the liquid slowly and with ease. Whenever we happen to finish our meal before you, you always share your meal by putting more food into our bowls. Sometimes, your cooking attendants would be alarmed, saying, “Dear Thay, our younger siblings are already full. Please have more of your food.” Still, you continued to share your food. We could never have imagined being able to eat with you, to sit this close to you and to be given food by you. Thay’s food is always both nourishing and delicious. Sitting near you, all our sorrows evaporated like mist. What remained was only peace and joy. Coming back to our quarters, we felt full, both from the food and from the love. We felt grateful to Thay for having taught us what mindful eating is all about.
There were days when you didn’t have an appetite. You would look at the tray of food and after a while, you invite us to have our meal and then pass the entire tray to us. Or sometimes, looking out the window and seeing your students out there cheering you on, you would take at least one bite of food, or drink one box of milk. We are so grateful that you have done this out of your love and care for us.
Sometimes, we were so moved to see an attendant hold a conversation with you for long minutes while you listened attentively, with your eyes full of compassion. Later, we heard the attending brother recount that Thay had pointed to his abdomen many times. He understood that Thay was encouraging him to practice belly breathing so that he won’t be carried away by his thinking. He was going through a rough patch in his monastic life, and by practicing deep belly breathing, he was able to overcome his difficulty. We are so grateful to Thay for teaching us how to practice deep listening.
Dear Thay, ever since the start of the pandemic, we were no longer able to enter your hut. We were still able to come tidy up on the outside and occasionally look at you through the window. The way you rest is so beautiful and peaceful. We were able to sing to you or to join you for meals, just outside the window. During the meals, sometimes you would stop chewing to look at each one of us. We are so grateful that you have taught us how to be present one hundred percent for those we love.
Dear Thay, one time there was a doctor who flew in to see Thay. You were able to pronounce some words very clearly, which was very encouraging for her, but after, you smiled at her, touched her head in gratitude, and refused to continue with speech therapy. We and the doctor understood right away that you were aware of your limitations, and also of what you wanted to prioritize. You wanted to conserve your energy, to save your energy to be present for the young monks and nuns, especially for those who have not had the opportunity to spend much time with you to receive a direct transmission. Sometimes, we don’t want to mature in the practice so that you can remain with us for a long time, but we know that three years and three months is already a lot. All of the doctors have been amazed at your resilience. The past three years and three months have been legendary, not only for us young ones, but also for everyone near and far. You have taught us about eternity in the present moment. The light in your eyes, the moments of holding your hand, of attending you, of accompanying you on walking meditations around the Root Temple, of gazing at you from afar, so many opportunities we have received from you. We vow to nurture these memories so that these brief moments become eternal in us.
We know that we will miss you very much. We promise that when we miss you, we will remember to come back to our mindful breaths and mindful steps so that right away, you can be present with us. Coming home to our mindful breathing and mindful walking, we can see right away that you are present in each one of our siblings, and in each of our lay friends. We promise to nurture our brotherhood and sisterhood so that we can be worthy of your love. We will carry you with all of us into the future, and we know that you have faith in us.
We humbly prostrate before you—on the grounds of the Root Temple Tu Hieu—with our deepest gratitude.
Your “baby” disciples,
the young nuns of Dieu Tram Nunnery