The work coordinator at Blue Cliff monastery at the time of my visit in 2014 was introduced to me both as Brother Phap Man and as Brother Fulfillment, the English translation of his name.I ask how he is normally addressed, and he tells me he is trying to retrain people to call him Brother Fulfillment. His birth name is Aaron Solomon. His father was Jewish, and his mother was Methodist, which was the primary religious influence in the household. “My Mom’s father was a preacher.”
When I ask what led him to the monastery, he says, “That question is always a question of looking back in time to see what the elements were. You know? But it’s nice. It’s good. I like looking back.” He has a tendency to speak in brief, staccato phrases. “One thing was I went to a pre-school run by Catholic nuns. So that might have had something to do with it.” He also laughs easily and often. “You never know. In fact, I was seriously considering becoming a Catholic monk until I found out how hard it was to enter the Catholic order.”
He had been a monastic for seven years when I met him. I asked if he still felt it was what he should be doing. He doesn’t answer immediately.
“It’s still very much what I want to do in my heart, but I gotta temper that with the fact that it’s quite difficult at times. Which is probably why I like it. I really want to continue. That’s my aspiration. I love so many things about this life. But it’s very challenging. It’s not that I’m questioning my aspiration. It’s still very strong. What’s different between now and when I was first in the monastery is that I’m not as naïve about what it means. I know that it’s not like you become a monk and then everything’s roses. That’s not how it works. It’s a path of transformation and practice. And, to be honest, you can do that as a monk or as a lay person. It’s about taking the time in your life to do that. What it takes is the self commitment to do that. So, I’m very much still there. And I’d love to say, ‘They’re going bury me in this tradition.’ That’s really what I want.”
He tells me that Blue Cliff is a happy place to be.
“But it’s a happy place not in a totally naïve sense. Which means it also has its suffering. But we recognize that. We try to practice in such a way that we can see there’s no happiness without suffering. And we have the tools transmitted to us to know what to do with suffering so that we can create peace. That sounds like advertising, but that’s our aspiration. That’s what we’re working with. For me, it’s embodying that in my daily life so it’s transmittable. If it’s not embodied, if it’s not alive in me, if it’s just a bunch of ideas, it’s useless. What really counts is that people come here, and they get in touch with it as I did when I showed up and said, ‘Wow! This is it. Okay. There’s something alive here.’
“But I have a more worldly view now because you gotta run a practice center. You’ve gotta deal with differences of opinion, conflict. You become an adult. You gotta grow up. You have responsibilities and stuff. So for me, the edge now is balancing the responsibility with the freedom of monastic life and the vows and the Zen tradition of nowhere to go, nothing to do. So, yeah, running this practice center, there’s challenges and difficulties. But I’ve found it to be extremely rewarding. And having the time and the people to learn about things with, things that are not every day things. I think that’s what I was always looking for in my life. Didn’t want to learn about math, although I love the idea of how things are put together. I wanted to know the ‘whys?’ So where do you go to school to learn about how to just live? How to deal with your emotions or relationships with people? Then I discovered, ‘Oh! There’s a career for that!’ And in the big sense too, like really waking up. Really getting to the bottom of it all. It’s a long path, and that’s plenty for a lifetime. Many lifetimes.
“So I think that my conviction was very strong when I entered the order. And I hold onto that as a vow. So it doesn’t really matter what happens between here and someday I have to pass away. There’s a thread here, or a rope, that I hold onto, and it can guide me through. This is just a journey. I don’t really consider changing course, but I made a commitment to myself that if I have clear insight and peace and calm, then I can make a decision. I learned that partly from our teacher [Thich Nhat Hanh], because he said at one point he had to leave the monastery because of the war. He had to do something to help. He couldn’t just stay hiding in the monastery, meditating. He had to go out and reach out and that brought him here, to the United States. But he said he didn’t think about it. It wasn’t an analytical decision. It was insight. And it was so clear. No question. So I’m not limiting myself. I just promised to do the decision making from clarity and insight. So I don’t know what will happen in the future.”
When I speak with Brother Phap Vu six years later, he tells me that Brother Fulfillment is still a monastic. Not all the people I met during that visit, however, remained there.
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 439-63