Q: We are halfway through the business retreat you are helping to organize. How easy is it for you, in the midst of organizing, unplanned changes and responsibilities, to find stillness?
Sister Nang Nghiem: When I am in a team with brothers and sisters, many different ideas come together. I see clearly that I have some challenges in my practice with this. Someone told me that when the Earth’s tectonic plates collapse together, a mountain is formed. This is a beautiful mountain we have so far. The schedule runs smoothly. This year, the Lower Hamlet and the Upper Hamlet had to work together and create a schedule for the two hamlets for the business retreat.
During this busy time, I sometimes need a moment for myself, but it is not easy to find it. I am not only on the organizing team but also in the bookshop. This is the first time I have become aware of how much energy I have and how much help I have to reach out to others. I ask myself, “How are my home, my mind, and my body feeling right now? Am I happy enough to offer people happiness? Do I have enough energy to take care of my mind and my body? From this source of peaceful energy, do I have enough energy to offer to people who come here for the retreat?” This is my practice at the moment when a lot of things come to me.
Returning home to myself is the key I use in this retreat. I can feel my breathing coming alive when I walk from my room to the bookshop and from the place where I am to the place where the meeting with the other brothers and sisters takes place. I am aware that when I organize a retreat, it is not that I am organizing it but it’s also for other people. I’m also organizing a retreat for myself and what I need is what people also need.
I come back to my breathing, because I cannot organize the retreat based on worry, irritation and frustration. This foundation cannot help to build a retreat. In the bookshop, there is a calligraphy “Peace in Oneself, Peace in the World.” I chose that calligraphy and put it in a frame on the shelf just a few days before the retreat started. This calligraphy helps me a lot, when I work at the bookshop, to pay attend to the people who come in.
We start with the individual. From the individual energy, we become a collective energy and build the Sangha and the retreat. One mindful breath helps one person. If each person breathes mindfully, it will have a larger effect.
Q: When did you ordain as a monastic? How has the monastic path transformed you?
Sister Nang Nghiem: I met Thay when I was twelve years old in 2005. Two years later, I ordained in 2007. It has been twelve years since I ordained with Thay. I remember the monastery when I was twelve years old. Being a young monastic and a teenager at the same time was interesting for me. Reflecting on your question, I see that while I am still myself, I am also different from who I was fourteen years ago. Not only do I see this, but my family also sees this.
One time when I called my father, we had a conversation and he told me, “You have changed a lot in the way you talk to me.” He joked that it is helpful for me to stay in the monastery. Otherwise, he said that I would have kept my old ways. I recognized how much I had grown in the Sangha and at the monastery, and how much the practice helped me transform my habit energy. I see things differently now thanks to the practice.
When we study to become a monk or a nun, the first sutra on mindful breathing and the gatha to be aware of what we are doing with our body and our mind are very helpful. I see my mind has been transformed a lot from not knowing how to be aware of my body and my mind, and how to get to know myself more and more deeply.
I know myself a little more. When I get angry, I have strong emotions, or when my body feels tense or relaxed and at ease, it may be easy to be aware of these things. But maybe it is also not easy to be aware of these things. I just feel happy that when I have strong emotions, I know how I can deal with them. When I get angry, I can be aware of my anger and take care of it. With this practice, I don’t control myself, but I take care of myself.
For me, the biggest change is related to my awareness of my body and mind, and how I can take care of my body and mind at this moment. Otherwise, I will suffer and my beloved sisters and family will suffer also. To transform anger, fear, anxiety, sorry, or tiredness from the body, I need to train myself. This is a training just like mindful breathing is a training. It helps me to get to know more about myself. This training has become a habit so it needs training and practice everyday. I am still training myself. If I stop training, I see how different I am.
Interviewed by Annica on June 4, 2019 and transcribed by Joyce Bailey.