Life as a Novice Monk in Plum Village

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Brother Dao Tue in Plum Village

Last month, Brother Dao Tue shared about his path to become a monastic. In this part, he shares about life in the monastic residence and how it is different from living previously as a lay friend.

Ethan Pollock: How was your experience of the monastic aspirancy period?

Brother Dao Tue: It triggered some insecurity in me that I was being assessed or judged. I remember the brothers telling me, “It’s not like that. It’s a time for the aspirants and the community to get to know each other.” For some reason, I couldn’t shake off the fear of wanting to impress people and doing things well. Now that I’m ordained, I feel I have the acceptance of the community so it’s easier to be myself.

EP: How is life in the monastic residence?
DT: There’s a Dharma teacher in every bedroom, and you’re immersed in a practice environment. I’m roommates with the Abbott. I get to see how he deals with problems in the Sangha and how he brings his practice to resolve them. He thinks in terms of people instead of as an organisation, and he’s able to do things in a way that doesn’t stress him out. I like him because he’s very low key, and gives me time and space to figure things out on my own which I find very respectful.

EP: What are the rules and mindful manners you have to follow as a monk?
Brother Dao Tue looks slightly embarrassed

DT: (laughs) Well, I have to make my bed each morning that’s one. Err, I guess the only rule is to practice earnestly y’know, so attend the schedule in a meaningful way.

EP: How have you found practicing with the manners?
DT: Well, I’m having trouble naming them so… (laughs) It’s a kind of etiquette to help you get on with everyone, especially living in close quarters you don’t want to piss off your roommates by banging the door and stuff. Coming from many different cultures, it’s quite helpful to have that unifying code.

They’re a mirror for my mind so when I come in and want to chuck my bag down, I get to see that I’m just tired or frustrated. The solution is not throwing my bag across the room; it’s to come back to my breath and body. I think I find it challenging because I haven’t fully integrated the monastic identity yet.

EP: How are the manners enforced? Is it an authoritarian environment?
DT: Oh! No! I’ve never encountered it like that. I’ve almost exclusively been offered time and space to do these things myself. I’ve never felt forced into doing this stuff.

EP: Are there difficulties in monastic life?
DT: Not for me. It’s very easy somehow. I guess I don’t have money anymore, so if there’s something I want I often just do without it. And I don’t get to leave when I choose or have romantic relationships, but I also feel I’ve gained a lot of liberty. I feel empowered and legitimised to enjoy my life practicing mindfulness because that’s my job now and my number one priority is to practice.

EP: Another Brother walks up with a huge smile on his face and invites us to go swimming in the nearby lake. We thank him but turn down the offer. Brother Dao Tue sits quietly. I sense he’s taking a moment to settle after the interruption, so I come back to my breath and enjoy the sunlit garden. My mind quiets and I feel suddenly grateful to be sitting with a fellow practitioner. He smiles and we continue our interview.

What’s your experience of brotherhood and how’s it different from your experiences in the lay world?
DT: This is weird because it’s something I didn’t really get, but more recently I find it’s a true and meaningful brotherhood. It’s not exactly like the relationship with your blood brother because I don’t think anyone is going to give you a kidney if you’re stuck, but there’s a lot of acceptance. You see everyone’s doing their best. We have this shared aspiration which is wholesome in and of itself y’know. For me, brotherhood isn’t necessarily about always getting on. It’s being able to disagree and still love each other despite your differences.

EP: What have been some of the most meaningful relationships for you here?
DT: Mostly with my peers, both lay and monastic. I have a few close friends and there’s a level of profundity and closeness that I’ve never experienced before. I feel able to be myself and be completely open. I think people are more accepting here because they’re more aware of their own frailties and quirks. There’s something humbling about living in community because all your stuff comes out sooner or later. It also makes it quite difficult to idealise anyone here; everyone’s so human. The price to see their humanity is also they get to see you, but it’s quite freeing to know people still accept you despite all your crazy shit.

EP: How do you see the service part of monastic life?
DT: My capacity to offer feels really limited somehow, although not much is asked of you as a novice. I sometimes do more than is expected of me, but I see it comes more from a place of wanting to be accepted by the community. I think some people come and feel they have to do all this stuff to help people, but for me I feel I need to take care of myself first. Thay stresses this a lot – to find peace in yourself before you try to bring peace to others.

I think there’s a danger in trying to help other people if you are running away from yourself or trying to build self-worth. The role of a monk is supposed to be pastoral – looking after people and helping them with their difficulties. That’s only possible if you’ve got your own stuff together. People can project a lot on you as a monk and they want you to be a certain way, so it’s a tricky thing.

…I’m actually a really nice person…I’ll put that as a quote (laughs) I don’t worry too much about this stuff. Growing up as a Catholic, I thought of service as being Mother Teresa or something. When I compare myself to that, I just think, ”Oh God” and get a complex about it, but Thay says if you can just be with your breath and steps, then that’s already more than enough.

EP: Finally what have you learned so far?
DT: I’m happier, more relaxed and fulfilled. I have much better human relationships. I lack a sense of restlessness or “what the hell am I doing” type of thing. By living in community, I’ve learned to be more open to people and less judgmental of myself and other people.

Interview and editing credits to Karim Manji and Ethan Pollock

Click here for more information about the 5-year monastic program.

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