At Blue Cliff Monastery outside Pine Bush, NY, Sister Dang Nghiem tells me people call her Sister D. She is Vietnamese by birth The Vietnamese language is tonal, and there is an element of that tonality in the way in which she speaks English.
“My mother passed away by the time I was twelve, and my grandmother raised me. Grandma told me, ‘When you grow up, first, you should raise your brother. Have him raised well and educated. Then you get a high education yourself. Then you should become a nun, and that will be the best way you can serve society.’ My grandmother planted these seeds in me since I was seven or eight years old. I came to the US; I finished high school; I went to college in Tucson, Arizona; then I went to medical school. I finished medical school; I went to residency. I was able to realize my Grandmother’s first two requests, raising my brother into a wonderful young man and obtaining an education for myself, but becoming a nun was still a strange and haunting thought to me. I went to Thay’s retreat when I was a resident.” “Thay” is the term his disciples use to refer to Thich Nhat Hanh. “Even though I was raised as a Buddhist, I never really practiced it. My grandmother was a very deep practitioner, but I just went along with her. In the US, as a teenager, I never went to the temple because I lived with foster parents who were Christian. In college and in medical school, I had no time for a spiritual life.
“While I was doing residency, one of the doctors said to me, ‘You know, doctor, there is a Zen Master who’s Vietnamese, and he’s giving retreats all over the US. Maybe you’d like to attend one of his retreats.’”
She attended a retreat in Santa Barbara, and at it, she tells me, “I realized what we call the Four Noble Truths—the Buddha’s essential teaching—about this deep suffering in myself and in my family. I mean, I always knew I suffered, but to have suffering as a noble teaching was something enlightening to me. What also moved me was that all these years, growing up, I thought of myself as a victim, but, in the retreat, I realized that I was the one perpetuating the suffering. I had become a perpetrator. I was no longer a victim but a perpetrator. Then I also learned that there’s a way out. I saw that I could participate actively in the making of the suffering but also in the transformation of the suffering. This realization moved me so deeply. It also changed my views about religion, about Buddhism, because I had thought of religion as something like a superstition. However, in that retreat, I saw it was really a deep practice.”
Back at her residency program, she saw “even more clearly how my suffering continued because of the daily pressure and stress as well as because of my ingrained habit energies. I had so little time to care for myself. Therefore, when difficulties of the past arose, I couldn’t really take care of them. This awareness made me even more depressed than before. Then it happened that my partner died in an accident.”
He had gone swimming in the ocean and didn’t return. His body was never recovered. “His death woke me up. He lived a spiritual life, and, when he passed away, I didn’t regret it for him, because he had lived a deeply joyful and meaningful life. His death woke me up because even though I had all the conditions of happiness, I was unhappy and even desperate at times. If not by the stress and pressure of the present moment, I would be suffering from nightmares about the past. I realized that if I were to die suddenly like him, I would not have peace in my heart. I could not have said that I had lived my life peacefully. I could not have said that I had truly lived my life so that I could just die then like my partner. This realization made me want to change the direction of my life. I wanted to live in such a way that if I were to die anytime in the midst of the day, it would be okay. That was why I left medicine and went to Plum Village.” Plum Village is the community in France where Thich Nhat Hanh resides.
I ask if it met her expectations.
“To tell you the truth, I thought of Plum Village as only our teacher. I did not realize there was a whole community.” She pauses a moment before continuing. “I had so much suffering, that I didn’t have so many expectations about what it would be like. I just accepted it as it was, more or less, easily. What I needed was a teacher and a practice to help me take care of myself. It turned out that the sangha was there, and the sangha was crucial. My sisters were there, my brothers were there, our teacher was there, and they gave me that embracing environment like a cradle for me to care for my pain and suffering. So I discovered the sangha when I went to Plum Village.”
The Plum Village Tradition has more lay than monastic members, which—to Sister D’s mind—is the way it should be. The laity, she stresses, is essential. “We have to have lay people. In the past and even now in some countries, lay peoples’ main responsibility is to support the monastics. In our tradition, it is the opposite. Lay people’s main responsibility is to practice. We transmit the teaching to lay people, and we only ask that they practice in their daily life. We don’t even encourage them to convert to being Buddhists. Our teacher often says, ‘If you practice mindfulness, you will find the jewel in your own tradition, and you will be able to help revive your own tradition.’”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 439-63
Zen Conversations: 92-95