At the Foot of the Majestic Mountain

Sister Chân Thuần Khánh

I arrived in the Lower Hamlet on a late autumn day in 2000. The car stopped in front of a low stone house, which I later learned was the “Purple Cloud” residence. One petite sister dressed in brown, wearing a brown apron and a brown head scarf came to the door to welcome my younger brother and I. Brother Phap Do who drove us there said to her, “Dear elder sister, I have brought your new younger sister.” That sister was Sr. Bao Nghiem. She smiled, squinted her eyes, and cheerfully said to him, “Thank you dear brother.” I went into the house with her while my brother went to the Upper Hamlet with Br. Phap Do. I have stayed in Lower Hamlet since then. It has become my second home, a place of return.

Sr. Thuan Khanh (left), Sr. Tue Nghiem

“You are back, my dear!”

A week later, my older cousin, Sr. Tue Nghiem returned from the Green Mountain Dharma Center in the United States. During a Day of Mindfulness in the New Hamlet, she brought me to greet Thay. Thay was sitting on a stone slab by the bamboo grove in front of the Buddha Hall. How could a venerable monk sit on a bare stone, so close to the ground? That thought flitted through my mind, and was quickly replaced by a strange sense of familiarity and peace of mind. Before Sr. Tue Nghiem had a chance to say anything, Thay said, “You are back, my dear!”

For a moment, I thought Thay had spoken to Sr. Tue Nghiem. But something stirred in my mind and I had an inkling that Thay had spoken to me–someone he did not know yet. “You are back, my dear!” It was a warm, simple, and ordinary greeting, like one my grandfather, father, or mother would say to me when I came home from school or from playing somewhere.

I stood there with my palms joined, looking intently at Thay. I did not reply. Nor did I remember to ask for Thay’s permission to join the sangha (as a newly arrived monastic would). Every thought in my mind fell away, like the tall winter trees that stand bare without a single leaf around them. Suddenly, I bowed down at Thay’s feet, my head touching the grass. I caught the twinkle of a smile in Thay’s eyes.

Peaceful energy seemed to enfold the space around me. With his left hand still resting lightly on his lap, Thay reached out with his right hand to lift me up and patted me on the head. I wanted to cry so badly and my heart was filled with an indescribable emotion. I had no idea what it was or why I was so moved. Thay asked me some questions, and I replied; Sr. Tue Nghiem also sat down by my side and joined the conversation. But I still felt very vague, as if swimming in a beautiful dream that I found fascinating, joyful, and peaceful. I have dreamed this dream again and again–with the mystery of the tall trees that have strangely lost all their leaves, with low stone houses held in the heart of the earth, with round towers and steepled roofs where a witch or a fairy may appear at any moment…

The book maker

The afternoon after the Day of Mindfulness, Thay brought Br. Trung Hai (my younger brother) and me to visit the Hermitage. Thay said to us, “I will be your tour guide.” The long and narrow corridors, the ancient looking rooms, the bookshelves that reached the ceiling, and the chairs and bedside drawers seemed to have been brought out of a fairytale… I took delight in all these. I felt that I was standing at a certain junction point touching certain moments from the past.

Thay led us to a small room surrounded by stacks of pages from books. A few books were left open, many others were not yet bound. Thay pointed out the binding machine on the table and explained to us how he collated the books and bound the spines and covers. I love books and the smell of paper. Standing in that small room filled with both, and with the profound, generous, and engaging presence of the bookmaker, I felt something rise above the small and trivial things in my mind. I could not explain what it was. I felt a more elegant, more meaningful life around me. Everything lit up. The objects were speaking for themselves and smiling at me.

After the introduction, Thay handed us two books, Entry into Meditation and Collection of Poems, and said, “My child, this is a gift for you. I bound these books myself.” My eyes opened wide and my heart brimmed with joy. With both hands I received the books while my eyes remained fixed on Thay. Seeing me thus, Thay smiled. He turned, walked out the door and continued to lead us to explore the nooks and crannies of this old and strange building. Then he brought us outside to the Hermitage grounds to visit the bamboo forest and the creek he had named “Fragrant Creek” (“Phuong Khe” in Vietnamese).

Bringing home the children

The Fragrant Creek is a quiet, gentle creek that flows along the grounds of the Hermitage. Thay had planted a bamboo forest by it. I don’t know when he did that, but I do know that he called it the “bamboo forest.” I recall a passage in a letter that Thay had written to his students who were working at the School of Youths for Social Services. I felt that it was the most profound wish Thay had for building the community:

“Dear young ones, find a place with good soil, vibrant trees, rocks, and water. I love those things. Trees, rocks, and water are the most magnificent things, and they will heal our wounds. And please remember to give me a small plot of land in that village. I will build a house and around it, I will plant vegetables and many kinds of fragrant herbs: cilantro, shiso, marjoram, mint, fenugreek, dill and so on. When you come to visit, I will treat you to a bowl of hot soup sprinkled with fragrant herbs. Each year, we have at least one month of quiet practice in that village. We do not engage in any activities. All day, we will face the rocks, the trees, the water, and face ourselves. Planting vegetables, sorting beans, playing with the neighboring children–we will find ourselves again, heal the wounds, and equip ourselves with love so that we are ready to return to serve. Let’s look at each other so we know how to care for each other more.”Giving back to our motherland, letter written on the 18th July, 1974

From then on, the Hermitage and Fragrant Creek became a sacred place for me. Later, when I returned to Plum Village full of wounds from the forced closure of Prajna Monastery, I bowed down to the green grass in the heart of the Hermitage. I pressed my head to the ground to be sure that I was safe in that peaceful and sacred place, for it to embrace and heal me.

One morning, Thay led Sr. Tinh Hang and me on walking meditation around the Hermitage. Afterwards, we sat down on the low rocks in the bamboo forest by the creek. By that time I could begin to call my teacher “Thay,” after he told me many times that he wished for me to call him “Thay.” Teacher and students did not say much. The creek flowed by, tinkling with joy and peace as if to bring home her tired itinerant children. Sitting at Thay’s feet amidst the bamboo and by the creek, I saw myself sitting at the foot of an ancient, majestic mountain. Thay is that majestic mountain, calling back to me my own immense space.

Beings all over the Earth
are struggling to live.
I aspire to practice deeply
so all may have enough to eat.

Let us go together to climb that nameless mountain,
let us sit on the ageless blue-green stone,
quietly watching time weave the silken thread
that creates the dimension called space.Excerpt from Thay’s poem True Source

After that, every time I returned to the Hermitage, I could hear the call of the sweet and majestic creek in my heart. A few younger sisters have asked me, why is the creek given such a special name–“Fragrant Creek”? It seems rather tiny. I smiled, not knowing how to answer. What they said was true from the phenomenological perspective. But in those moments, the image of a mighty mountain touching the sky and clouds, and the image of Thay–the mighty mountain of my life, with his serene smile and leisurely steps walking along the creek always arise in my mind.

“Fragrant Creek” speaks of the fragrance and grace of a mind that has returned, a mind that is being protected. The creek is meandering at the foot of that mighty mountain. Do you see it? It is no less beautiful than the wide creeks that flow at the foot of the Alps.

My younger siblings often feel that they need to organize a Monastic Day at the Hermitage in a lively way for it to be a happy day. For me, I just need to step into the Hermitage, to experience that very first step into this sacred place. Standing at the gate, I join my palms to greet Thay–just like that day long ago when I placed my head on the sacred earth. This is enough to make me happy. I like to come to every corner of the Hermitage: the winding path through the bamboo forest where Thay did walking meditation every day, the small rock formations by the creek where Thay often stopped to lie in a hammock, the peach tree that Thay brought me to see just the other day.

Sr. Chan Duc and Sr. Thuan Khanh greeting the sangha in Vietnam on a Monastic Day

The Hermitage grounds are not as large as the other hamlets, but every time I enter it, I find it truly spacious and safe. I feel that the four sides of the Hermitage are sheltered by an energy that when I, or any monastic, can be in touch with it, will protect us on our spiritual path. I often mock myself because these ideas seem to be “up in the clouds.” But I have never entered the Hermitage without feeling and receiving that protective energy. I have never sat in a corner by the creek without feeling that I have returned to sit at the foot of that majestic mountain, and suddenly, all my woes have dissipated. After sitting in the heart of the Hermitage, I can return simply to a pristine self.

One year, I was in Hue, and I was sick. Br. Phap Nguyen was coming to Vietnam so Thay sent with him a piece of calligraphy with the words “Fragrant Creek.”

On the ageless green rock

That morning, sitting in the bamboo forest, Thay stretched out his arms on two sides to embrace us, as if to comfort us. The creek still murmured calmly. Suddenly Thay looked down at the hem of my robe and asked, “My child, do you have a newer robe that is in better condition than this one?” I was surprised, not understanding what Thay was trying to say. That day I was wearing an old robe that I liked. At the knees, because I had accidentally tripped at some point, it was torn and patched over with a star. Before I had a chance to reply, Thay said, “I would like my monastic children to dress gracefully. I have enough ability to take care of my students so you can wear neat robes, isn’t that so?” I bowed my head and quietly said “Yes,” and dared not say anything else. I was deeply moved by Thay’s love. My dear teacher, you have already given me a whole spiritual life, given me a rebirth in this wonderful monastic life and so much more!

Since then, I have never gone to the Hermitage wearing an old robe to meet Thay. I also take care to dress properly and neatly on the Days of Mindfulness. Because if we were to meet Thay, he would be happy to see his monastic children wearing neat robes.

One morning
waking up,
I stood at the foot of the mighty mountain.
My eyes rose to its peak,
languid clouds swirling together,
smiles blooming on the thousand year old moss.
Warm and inviting,
towards infinity,
fragrant is the sacred creek.

In me, Thay will forever be the majestic, ageless mountain that I can lean on and turn to. Whenever you listen to your heart, you will hear the deep roar of the rising tide. The majestic mountain is there for eons, mighty, protective, and heroic.

Being there with the Fragrant Creek, I will never need to grow up. At the Fragrant Creek, there is sunshine, rain, trees, stream, rocks, Thay, and the entire forest of brown robes. The Fragrant Creek is keeping alive so many memories of the love between teacher and student, the care, the laughter, and the heartfelt vows. The Fragrant Creek is also keeping alive the free steps and peaceful breaths of Thay, so this heritage can be given and entrusted to his monastic children. I know that wherever Thay is, the Fragrant Creek is there. Wherever I am, the Fragrant Creek is there. In the moments when I am far from the Fragrant Creek geographically, I have nourished it in my heart like this.