EVERYBODY’S A TEACHER
Everybody is a teacher in my book. How can we walk and navigate our path of encountering suffering? We can't avoid suffering, because it's unavoidable. But when we encounter it, how do we respond, not react, in such a way that we hopefully can find teaching and healing and ultimately that transformation?
Well, I go by many names, but the one I think that applies here would be Sister Peace. I am a Zen Buddhist nun and I have been for 15 years. And Peace is the English translation of the Vietnamese. So in fact, my name is [inaudible 00:01:00]. [Vietnamese 00:01:00] meaning peace and [Vietnamese 00:01:01] meaning adornment of adornment with. But Sister Peace seems to be the moniker that everybody remembers because it's quite easy. So I am Sister Peace.
GOOD MAMA ENERGY
I've had many teachers in this life, and I know I will continue to have many more. Sometimes the teachers are human beings, sometimes they're animals, sometimes they're smaller entities I can barely see. Even the ones that I can't see. When we were children, maybe we had one teacher. When we were adolescents, young adults, we had another. Middle-aged, another, and so on and so forth.
The very strong women in my families of blood and non-blood have been extraordinary teachers for me. All the grandmamas and aunties. Not just my own mama, but everybody else's looking out for me. I have learned so many lessons on strength, endurance, joy, and love from them.
On the spiritual side, there is one I would want to note, my beloved teacher sister Chan Kong. Her name means true emptiness. We like to say we have been in spiritual warriorship ever since I showed up at Plum Village. She is an extraordinary being. She was my teacher's first and longest disciple. She met Kai when she was 21, 22. She's been his student for 60, 65 years now. And boy is she a force. I’m grateful she's played a prominent role both in and out of my spiritual life. I had the chance to see her last month for the first time in five years. Just being in her space for 30 minutes was utterly life changing yet again. I saw where she was, and how she landed after our Kai recently passed, and how her hip feels after a recent injury.
I’m lucky to have lots of good mama energy around me. The men are there too, but the women are just simply more prominent.
My mission is in constant flux. We know that in Buddhism, we practice the awareness of impermanence as much as we can in our daily lives. It’s not just a scholarly topic of discussion. We ask, what does impermanence look like? What does letting go look like? And so my mission, I suppose, has evolved especially based upon my own experience: to be aware of the constancy of change being the only thing that's permanent in the universe—until it no longer is.
Letting go helps me bring to light the good news of practices and strategies that help us be our best, and to transform our own personal suffering and the suffering of those who are closest to us. If we could just do that, oh, what a difference the world would make. So I'm grateful to be aware of the practice of letting go. Just recently was part of a retreat called The Alchemy of Release. You can see my Dharma talk by the way, if you want. Or I can send you the link if you want.
There's a 13th century Japanese zen master who had a teaching, which nowadays is summed up as “Body and mind fall away.” When I gave a talk, I reduced it to BMFA. Body and mind, fall away. Sometimes these scholarly or "esoteric" concepts get lost. How do we root them and bring them into our consciousness and daily life? And so I said, "Folks, body and mind fall away. It's every day. It's called letting go. It's called release. Body and mind fall away."
THE FIVE REMEMBRANCES
I think if you asked somebody that question every 12 years, their answer would change. Now that I'm in the seventh cycle, or that I’m more than 60 years old, it’s a very interesting question. I remember something in Buddhism that we call the Five Remembrances. They are, in a way, the deepest challenges. The first is: one day I cannot avoid aging. I will grow old. I'm subject to aging and hey, that's it—despite what Hollywood and the rest of the world may tell us.
The second is I am of the nature to get ill, to be sick. That's part of human nature. That's a global nature. The nature of all beings, just Mother Nature. And in that we also have the means to heal ourselves. Third, I am of the nature to die. I cannot avoid death. And as I am in this cycle, oh, boy do I see it even more. I'm not saying I've accepted it by all means. I'm deeply aware of it. And as I travel through health challenges, albeit small but yet appropriate for my age, then I see that even more.
I see that even more. Fourth, all that is dear to me, and everyone that I love, are of the nature to change. There's no way of escaping being separated from them. This one is really riveting for me right now. Just last year, I lost my baby brother to lung cancer. My baby sister is also having a challenging time, to the point that I have become her health advocate and travel to Washington, DC every month to put my eyes on her and help her transition from where she is to assisted living. So this is front and center.
This fourth Remembrance is not only about people changing for illness, but also when the nature of the people you thought you knew changes. It really deeply affects your sense of trust. We often feel wounded as a result.
The fifth Remembrance is understanding that we inherit the results of our actions in body, speech, and mind. The good news is that my actions are my continuation. And I say good news, because guess what? I have every moment of every day to keep that in the fore. If I wanted to leave a legacy, whether I want to or not, what would I want to leave?
My legacy is my continuation—how I might be remembered when I'm gone. Some people will certainly remember. And we do. We have these ideas of legacy and lessons learned from those of us that we've loved and who have walked on. Having that awareness helps you avoid the mindset of, "Oh, after I'm gone, it doesn't matter." Guess what? It really does.
THE PATH BETWEEN HERE AND THE VEIL
Well, I feel like I've had a couple of blows, if I just say from the time of my baby brother's death, seeing my sister's health fail, and another personal challenge that I'm trying to work through. When I was with my brother, it was beautiful. It was hard. I was with him and his husband. It was hard. My brother said, "Yeah, my sister is coming. And she's going to be driving the bus." In other words, I was going to be in charge, right? When he said that, I said to him, "Yeah. Just as soon as I pick myself up off the tarmac from the bus that just hit me." It was a tough realization that he wasn't going to be around in just a few months.
But I soon realized what a privilege it was, and continues to be, to have been with him and his husband during this time of real transition. I feel lucky to have been able to walk with him step-by-step and breath-by-breath to the veil of the other side. The last thing he said to me as we were laying him in the bed, the last time he went to the hospital. He says, "You know I'm not going to leave the hospital alive." And so these are hard lessons, but magnificently wonderful and beautiful.
I'm lucky to have those that I love still with me. We think the path between here and the veil is long or short depending on our age in life. But to be honest, we never know when it's going to come. The best thing to do is to be there for yourself and others not knowing what the next moment may hold. It’s one form of impermanence.
I don't have the expectation that things are going to be the same or go back to what they were. I know now how impossible that is. And that is not a bad thing. Things change whether we perceive something to be good or bad.
If some great thing happens in someone's life, such as graduating with a degree, marriage, having a baby, and many more wonderful things. Whether we judge these milestones to be good or bad, or healthy or hurtful, they change us. They let us look and ask, “What did that fertilizer do to the roots? Let me take a peek. And if I need help, I’ll call in my ancestors.”
EVERYTIME I LOOK AT MY HAND
For the longest time, I was beseeching and calling upon the ancestors to talk with me, walk with me, but heard nothing. And then one day I guess I was open enough and I heard a response. I said, "Oh, my God. You all are there. Thank you." And they said, "Girl, we've been here all along. You just didn't hear us."
I hear them all the time now. I call upon them for help in exuberance and in exasperation. I remember when I was in the monastery and wanted to write a story for one of our magazines. I had this story, and I was all ready to go, and I picked up a pen—and literally the pen wouldn't work. I couldn't get it on the paper. And I was like, "What's happening?" And at that point I said, "Why can't I write this?" Someone answered—little did I know who—and said, "Look, our tradition is an oral one. You can't pick up a pen and just write. You got to tell the story orally. Then it goes from your heart to the pen instead of your head to the pen."
Now, every time I look in my hand, I see my ancestors. Every time. I look at my hand, my fingers, and ask, “Is that mama in that?” Is that daddy? Is that grandma? My fingernails look like my grandmother's on one side, and my six fingers come from the grandma on the other side. They're in our DNA. Science has already proven that.
I’m thankful that I have gratitude not only for them but also for your ancestors and everybody's. I truly believe that our ancestors work together whether we are aware of it or not. I mean, the other day I was supposed to speak to a friend of mine—and she called at exactly the moment I could have used her most that day. I thought, "Wow, how did you know?" And she said, "I guess our ancestors." I said, "Yeah, you’re right."
I beseech them to take care or to look out for others and connect with others' ancestors. Of course, not that I need to ask them to do it, but being aware of it is meaningful to me
Erin Yoshi is a journalist out in California who recently invited me to be part of this project called Gardeners of Belonging. It entailed having an interview and working with an artist who did this huge portrait among other things. I had to ponder the idea of belonging and othering.
WE ARE US OVER HERE AND THEY ARE THEM OVER THERE
For the project, I wanted the world to embody the sense of both belonging and not othering. The simplest thing would be to embody the sense that everybody belongs. I think this urge to other someone comes from feeling like we don’t belong. We are us and over here, and they are them and over there.
COMMUNITY OF BELONGING
I ultimately submitted a 10 minute clip of nature. It was a lake perfectly reflecting the trees and the sky. And that was it. To me, that's a community of belonging.
Sister Chan Khong’s name means true emptiness. When we last met, we discussed deep true love. And I had the insight that God, true love of all the fetters of what's grown around it, having fallen away, is true emptiness. And true emptiness is true love. Love is empty, or the emptiness of love.
It's the infinite expanse that we often think of outside of ourselves, but in reality is the one inside of us. It's the multiverse.
We forget about forgiveness. We are so busy that we can get angry at ourselves and others, but do we forgive? Does it even occur to us? Remembering our capacity to forgive anything or anyone is utterly related to our capacity to forgive ourselves.
One thing I wish I had the power to singularly change is homelessness. Whenever I walk by or see it myself in the news or whatever, I just... I don't know why. I resonate with it. And our lack of gumption as a larger community. There are those who are doing God's work to help, but yet there it is.
Why haven't we been able to get to the root issue? We know what the root issues are, but we are not willing to deal with them in ourselves. How are we possibly going to be able to help others deal with them? I resonate and I do what little I can.
I have a crazy dream to get the billionaires together, have them put their lunch money in a pot that could actually help build the new arm of society to house the homeless, because it takes resources to pull together all of the people and entities that have the expertise to handle this and finance it in such a way that will actually help people. Instead of considering it a tax, we could consider it a gift or demonstration of what we can do. It would demonstrate that it can be done, because that's what we’re doing with our work. That's what we are all doing with our work. We're demonstrating that, "Hey, what was thought not possible or probable, guess what? It can be done.”
There's a relationship here between caring for the Earth and caring for the homeless. Because if we can't care for ourselves and each other, then of course the Earth can’t either. It's direct correlation.
THE BREATH OF LIFE
Oh, my gosh. To me, the most transcendental experience we have that we take utterly for granted is the breath of life. Just the act of breathing in and breathing out and knowing that I'm breathing in what my sibling’s trees and plants have exuded into the air—the consumption of my life and all other life on the planet.
In a symbiotic relationship of breath, I am adding to the nutrients around me. It's astounding. I went to the Pacific Northwest where there's big nature, big sky, big trees, big water, you name it. In that space you have the sense of, yes, you might think, "Oh, I'm small compared to X..." But more important to me is how deep the relationship is.
I was on a Native American reservation this year too. Talk about transcendence. We walk in sacred space every day—we just don't know it. That transcendent experience happens every time I breathe in and breathe out. I'm beginning to understand what that really represents. The beauty, the tenuous nature, and the gift of life.