Reconnecting My Family

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Monastic Sister Sinh Nghiem and her family

By Monastic Sister Sinh Nghiem

As monastics we are allowed periodically to have a home visit. I wanted to have a home visit to see my grandma with my parents because it might be the last time we saw each other for my grandma, who is 88 years old. I thought it was more important to spend time with my grandma now when she was still alive and clear-minded than to chant and perform a ceremony after her death. The first part of this sharing was written about my first home visit and before she died. The second was added after the second visit to do the funeral ceremony.

Love Begins at Home

When we step into a marriage, we normally hope to live together until our hair is grey and we are toothless. We hope that we can have a companion, like a soul mate to keep us company for those lonely days of “the empty nest,” and eventually to “death do us part.” However, my grandparents divorced when they were in their 60s, just when they began to need each other as old companions. My grandma could no longer tolerate my grandfather’s womanizing habits, but she continued to suffer greatly with loneliness and resentment, even after the separation and divorce. My grandpa remarried, and I think he must have been sad and isolated at times because the love connection to his children was damaged. Their divorce affected everyone in the family in different ways. Sometimes, there were conflicts between siblings about how to relate to an unwelcomed addition to the family, which was complicated by cultural tones and issues of loyalty.

Among the exodus of Vietnamese refugees who call a Western country their home, I was one of them. I grew up in Australia. In Vietnamese, we have the words “tình” which means “love” and “nghĩa” roughly translated is “the value and meaning of being in a relationship.” I had heard about “tình nghĩa” a lot, but have never really understood it. Thanks to this family visit, I had a chance to understand the meaning of “nghĩa”; it was when my grandpa unexpectedly agreed to visit my grandma after over twenty years of separation.

I felt so lucky; my family visit was like a mini Plum Village retreat at my aunt’s house. Her family is Catholic, but I am so glad that the mindfulness practices at Plum Village are so simple and relevant to one’s well being without using religious jargon that I felt I can share about them with my uncle and their family without much resistance. It was a very good opportunity to practice engaged Buddhism without the form and the commentaries, “walking the talk” as Thay would say. This is how my family retreat at home went.

 

“Clearing the Stream, Nourishing our Roots”

Growing up far away from my grandparents, I never got to know them except through stories, and more than often, bad stories stick longer than good ones. While visiting I decided to do some archeological work, digging into my grandparents’ past to try and find some hidden treasures. Sure enough, I discovered that my grandparents and Sister Thoai Nghiem’s parents were good friends since they were in Da Lat, Vietnam. Her father and my grandfather had cooperated to build a Red Cross Centre, where they invited their colleagues and supporters to provide free medical care for the highland people who had no access to sufficient medical aid. It was no coincidence that Sr. Thoai Nghiem came with me! My aunt rang my grandpa, who was in France at the time, initially to tell him that the daughter of his old colleague was here, and just to try her luck to invite him to come during our visit. We were totally surprised when he agreed on the spot, and the next day we bought his flight tickets over the Internet (Modern technology can be so useful in such situations!). Hearing these news, my aunts and uncles became worried because they feared that his visit would stir up past depression in my grandma, and my aunt would have to nurse her broken heart when he leaves again. That night, while I wondered a lot about how to generate more happiness and peace for everyone, my grandma was sleepless all night, contemplating how to welcome my grandpa after so many years of separation and now that his second wife had passed on.

The next morning, my grandma was just brightly beaming! She took me into her room and told me, “Even though your grandpa has the habit of going around and it hurt me a lot, he was still a great pillar in the family so that we can have each other today, all seven well raised children and many beautiful grandchildren. Without him, this family would have been shattered. Therefore, I will treat him well and with respect.” She thought about how to take care of him for the smallest things, like every morning she would remind us to give him a glass of orange juice because she knew he liked orange juice in the morning. Before he came she would put some finishing touches to his bedroom, like flowers on the bedside table, and provided a towel, soap, toothbrush and toothpaste at the end of his bed, all nicely arranged. Knowing that his second wife had died not so long ago, she empathized with his loneliness and loss. With a glorious smile she declared, “I had allowed her to borrow him all these years, and now he is returned to me again!”

That morning before my grandpa arrived, Sr. Thoai Nghiem and I prepared the grounds for their reunion by practicing watering the good seeds. I begged her to tell us about their old days when my grandpa fell in love with her. She told me back in those days when the Vietnam war was raging near her hometown, he risked his own life and rode on his bicycle many miles in the middle of the night just to see if she was okay! And when she moved to another house in town, every morning my grandpa would ride his bicycle past her house on his way to school, and she would sneak out to buy a croissant and put it in his bicycle basket and run back in before anyone saw.

A couple of days later he arrived on an e-ticket, his very first! After greeting everyone, he shouted, “Grandma, my dear! Where are you?” It was truly a touching moment when he went upstairs to greet my grandma. They hugged each other like old friends reunited after many years apart. We all smiled as if spring had just returned. Eyes brimming with tears, we were touched by their unfaded “tình” and “nghĩa.” She took a long and careful look at his face and said: “You became old and ugly!” I teased her, “Grandma, you are a one-tooth beauty yourself!” Everyone broke into laughter.

The following day, when my grandpa took the chance to go to the flea market with us, he bought a bouquet of pretty roses and was determined to hold it in his own hands in order to give it to my grandma later when we returned. He did not want to put it in a plastic bag because he was afraid that it would crush the flower petals. During meals, my grandma would serve food into his bowl and was very wholehearted in attending to his needs. There were times when we were all busy doing our things and I would catch them sitting side by side on the terrace, hunched over with age and looking at each other over the top of their glasses, chatting and listening attentively to each other like old friends who have many years to catch up with each other.… These images brought me a lot of happiness. They were restoring, piece by piece, their “tình” and “nghĩa”. Like Mother Theresa said, “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do … but how much love we put in that action.”

One day, I asked my grandpa about his hobby of oil painting. He told me that he had given my grandma his painting of Hanoi’s Old Quarters. My grandma looked for it on the shelf, and behind the painting my grandpa had written: “Hanoi’s Old Quarter – where we first met and built a whole family. To Cuc with love and affection. 2010.” He had painted this for my grandma when he was still with his second wife. This helped me to understand that divorce is only a matter on paper, a conventional definition we created, while love in terms of relationships is something real in our hearts. It continues, even if transformed and different to how it was initially, and how we perceive it to be.

 

Happiness in the Present Moment

My mum is a jolly person. Every time the whole family gathers for a meal, or when my dad plays the guitar, she will sing enthusiastically, even if it is out of tunes sometimes. Bless her heart! Mum has a knack of getting everyone to join in with her, and we sang Plum Village practice songs like Le bonheur c’est maintenant. She wrote down the lyrics on the reverse side of an old calendar and guided everyone to sing, generating a joyful and relaxed atmosphere in the family. After two weeks, everybody can sing by heart Le bonheur, and I even caught my uncle humming along to its melody while he went about his morning tasks!

One day, after hearing that my aunt’s family liked one of the yum cha food, Sr. Thoai Nghiem invented a new recipe to cook this dish with vegetarian ingredients. It was really tasty and for the whole week everyone enjoyed vegetarian meals together. Even my uncle, who is a devout Catholic and enjoyed meaty dishes, ate all the vegetarian meals with a hearty appetite and in silence, too! It was a great happiness as we spared the lives of a few chickens, bits of pig and a cow that week. My cousin, a twenty-something young man and still living at home, is actually the quietest person at home, but he picked up the practice of gratitude by joining his palms before every meal, even at breakfast when he ate alone in order to get to work in time.

My aunt was often overloaded with household chores, taking care of my grandmother, doing her work as a nurse as well as run errands for my uncle and his lotto shop. This has made her an anxious and easily irritable kind of person, further adding to the heaviness and lack of true and deep communication in the whole family. Sr. Thoai Nghiem with her joy and gentleness during cooking times became a mirror for my aunt, teaching her how to spend her days in peace and harmony while doing everyday tasks. With this spiritual support every day, my aunt gradually opened her heart and shared her suppressed troubles and worries, which stole her smiles and made family life a burden.

One day, feeling exhausted, I played a CD of total relaxation by Sister Chan Khong for everyone to practice. I was so grateful for all the skillful means Sr. Thoai Nghiem used to water the good and peaceful seeds within the family in a natural way. She would generate joy and warmth in the family home with her delicious meals for us. On days we had left over rice, we pan fried it the way Thay would do it for us full of love. This simple dish we now transmitted to my aunt’s family, and everyone loved it. It turned out to be a “plat du jour” for many days. Even my grandma, with only one front tooth left, enjoyed a few spoon-full with her gums. What she ate was the love and happiness in the atmosphere, and she was fulfilled by the true presence of everyone. I recognized that food at a five-star restaurant can be delicious, but the food made from love and eating with the true presence of your beloved has the most amount of nourishment and healing. The dinner meal was the only opportunity for all members to gather, so we didn’t eat in silence as we do in Plum Village so much, but we were able to plant seeds of mindful practices in their daily life in a way that was relevant to their context.

 

Beginning Anew

Every family retreat in the tradition of Plum Village has to have the practice of Beginning Anew. And this retreat at my aunt’s house also received the stamp of a true Plum Village family retreat.

My aunt loved my grandma so much, and for the past thirty years, she had tried her best to fulfill her filial duties as an Asian daughter should. She worked full-time as a nurse at a hospital, and she was a good wife taking care of the whole family, cooking and cleaning every day. She was a super woman who was always either running on empty or on a frenzied “busy” energy. She was really experiencing compassion fatigue and burn-out.

My grandma also loves her children and grandchildren very much. She did her best not to trouble or burden them, even if she had to endure and suppress much pain and suffering in silence so that they didn’t have to bear it. Over time, communication between my grandma and other people in the family, especially with my aunt, decreased more and more. My grandma was heart-broken after the separation, but she had to finally make the break because of too many accumulated sufferings that she didn’t know how to transform. She had to leave my grandfather in order to survive and take care of herself.

Though my grandma and my aunt loved each other, both did not understand one another and didn’t know how to renew their relationship. It came to a point where they could not look at each other in the face, nor be in the same space for longer than a few minutes. They lived together, but each one was in their own world. Both could not be present for each other because they had never known and practiced to re-establish communication and begin anew. They also did not know how to listen with compassion and use loving speech to resolve their frustration and misunderstandings. During our visit, every night, when we returned to our room, Sr. Thoai Nghiem and I would close the door, shared our feelings about what happened during the day, and discussed about our next skillful means to gradually transform the situation at home. I felt like we were two soldiers of compassion discussing the next tactical move to clear the battle of misunderstanding and suffering.

To prepare for a possible Beginning Anew practice, we had to take much time to water good seeds or recognize the goodness in both my grandma and my aunt, and ask skillfully about their difficulties. After almost two weeks of spending time to listen to my aunt and grandma, helping them to recognize the goodness in the other, we decided there must be a session of Beginning Anew between them before we left, but when would be the most suitable time? Days and days went by, sometimes we were tired or my aunt was busy with her daily chores. Closer to the departure date, we still could not find the time to do it. Right up to our departure day, two hours before we had to leave the house, all the conditions finally merged so that we could sit down together with my grandma and my aunt to practice Beginning Anew.

Since wrong perceptions about each other often went uncorrected, each had developed ingrained negative habitual ways of reacting to the other so that there was a perpetual automatic vicious cycle of negativity. Sr. Thoai Nghiem and I had to guide the beginning anew session very carefully and firmly so that they could keep listening without reacting, and each one could share what was really in their hearts without using critical words, without judgment. After they were able to share from their hearts and listened to each other, both were in tears as they hugged each other, perhaps it had been a very long time that they had done such a thing. The love stream flowed again with understanding, bringing freshness and peace for all involved. Before going to the airport, we had just enough time for lunch. Everyone ate heartily and it was such a happy moment!

The practice also triggered transformation between my grandpa and my dad. Both of them had also lost communication for a long time due to the suffering in the family. During the last days of our visit, I heard my father asking my grandfather about our ancestors. This was extraordinary! Many times before, when I asked him about his family, he would say “I can’t remember,” or he just didn’t know. And my dad showed my grandpa how to practice walking meditation, so that he would not drag his slippers loudly on floor like when he first came.

Before visiting my family, I thought this might be the last time for me to spend time with my grandma, and she requested me to do the funeral ceremony for her when she died. On the flight back to Plum Village, I thought, “Well, if death took my grandma any time now, I had nothing more to regret.” All the transformation that occurred during this trip in my family was far beyond my expectation and imagination. We waved each other good-bye with joyful smiles and awaited the next time we would meet again.

I felt so grateful to Sr. Thoai Nghiem for being such a wonderful second body for me during this visit. She was an important condition for this unexpected family reunion between my grandparents because her father and my grandfather had known each other. Without this visit, the wholesome seeds (their good qualities) that I discovered about my grandparents would have been buried deep under a huge block of suffering from the past. Being a nun, I was able to learn how to be a good gardener, remove the weeds and turn the soil, so that the flowers could be seen and good seeds could germinate again. I also felt happy because I could understand myself better through knowing about my grandparents. I could understand my grandparents more and feel so grateful for them. I am discovering my hidden potentials, good seeds that my grandparents have passed down to me, as well as their bad habits (infidelity) and their suffering (jealousy) that I have also inherited. I am practicing to be aware of them and transform them for myself, as well as for my grandparents.

 

Time Has Come

19th January 2015 – Plum Village, France

I heard the phone ringing several times that morning. Something in my heart urged me to answer the phone, but I did not do it. At breakfast, I went past the phone room and it rang again. No one was there, so I picked it up. It was news that Sr. Thao Nghiem’s grandmother died a few hours ago. After breakfast, I reminded the Sangha that we needed to have someone to answer the phones during meal times to avoid missing important phone calls, such as the one I received that morning. That day, I had to go to Bordeaux to get a residence permit. After returning, I was informed that my parents had called at lunch to say that my grandma had just died. It was interesting how communication can flow across space and time un-inhibited when our hearts are free and connected.

Grandma, when I heard that you had continued on your journey, I didn’t feel sad but rather peaceful. What I needed to do, I had done it, and I have no regrets. I think you are also at peace and satisfied that your biggest wish has been fulfilled. When our hearts are directed in the same wholesome path, we can create sufficient conditions to realize it. You and grandpa have reconciled, and you have been able to taste the sweetness of reunion of soul mates before the end of your life.

Grandpa has returned to our family so that one day, when he too leaves he will be among family members and not alone. Your offer of compassion, loyalty, patience and forgiveness to him really touches my heart. He is also deeply grateful to you, and acknowledges what you mean to him, though you both have made each other suffer because you did not know how to love, how to take care and protect your love for each other. In your last breaths, you asked me to return to do your funeral ceremony. You know, the Sangha has been so kind to let me and another Dharma teacher sister, Sr. Tung Nghiem to go this time. She was just the right “second body” as she can speak fluent French and we can give you a proper farewell.

This was the first time for Sr. Tung Nghiem and I to conduct a funeral ceremony ever in our lives! We sat down to arrange an appropriate ceremony for the deceased that would also benefit those still alive. My whole family and their friends were all French-speakers and mostly Christians, so we cut and pasted selected parts taken from both the Vietnamese and French ceremony books by Thay. We didn’t have to do much work as the texts in these books were so simple and they have the capacity to touch people’s hearts directly, awakening everyone to the fact that we are deeply connected, and that we continue in each other. We printed out the text for the Beginning Anew chant to inspire people to reflect on their family relationships, so that they can appreciate the presence of their loved one while they still can.

After the funeral ended, all participants asked to take away a copy of The Discourse on Love and Beginning Anew Chant that were read out during the ceremony. We also practiced walking meditation to the crematory, which was a short distance away, and created a lot of peace and compassion for the cremation process. Many people shared afterwards that the energy generated in the funeral was so peaceful and touching. A few, after joining the funeral, wanted to know more about Plum Village and its retreats. There was a lady who couldn’t stop crying because she recognized that her relationship with her mother was full of suffering. She asked Sr. Tung Nghiem for a consultation and shared that she has been searching for a spiritual path for a long time, and after attending the funeral, she felt that this might be what she was looking for. Fortunately, we found a Sangha in the local area where my aunt and she could go and support each other. The Dharma works in wonderful ways! All I needed to do was come back to myself, my breath and steps, and trust. Have faith, and let go of trying to control and influence outcomes. I practiced to entrust myself and my family to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.

As requested by my grandma, we gathered at a beautiful beach with frothy white waves under a deep blue sky to spread her ashes. We read together the Contemplation of no-coming and no-going.

This body is not me.

I am not limited by this body.

I am life without boundaries.

I have never been born,

And I have never died.

 

Look at the ocean and the sky filled with stars,

Manifestations from my wondrous True Mind.

 

Since before time, I have been free.

Birth and death are only doors through which we pass,

Sacred thresholds on our journey.

Birth and death are a game of hide-and-seek.

 

So laugh with me,

Hold my hand,

Let us say good-bye,

Say good-bye, to meet again soon.

We meet today.

We will meet again tomorrow.

We will meet at the source of every moment.

We meet each other in all forms of life.

I stood there in the water, knee deep. A handful of the ashes that was my grandma held tenderly. Mindful breaths resonated the beautiful words into my whole being. It felt so unreal, yet so real – the impermanent and non-self nature that we all are. I felt happy feeling her happiness as vivid as the experience of day. With peace and joy I could feel that she and I were one, that the wave was feeling itself – the water. My family was watching with tears of sorrow in their eyes as they, too, followed to spread her ashes into the water. But after seeing how joyful and peaceful I was, their sorrow seemed to ease as they continued to release my grandma, handful by handful into the ocean. At the last handful of ashes, a big wave splashed everyone wet! My mum exclaimed, “That is truly grandma! She likes to be quirky and poke fun of you!” We all smiled with recognition, and our tears turned to laughter. That was her way of saying gleefully, “I’m here! Smile with me!” The rest of that day we had a picnic and enjoyed simply being together under the warm sunshine.

Reflecting over the last two years, I acknowledge and feel so grateful to the Three Jewels that both trips to visit my grandma and my family could work out so wonderfully. My grandparents were able to enjoy for some time their reconciliation and reunion before my grandma passed away. I could not have done it on my own account or by myself. Conditions way beyond my reach seemed to come together, like a fruit ripening naturally, and I was so lucky to have tasted its sweetness. I see that my deep wish for my family members to reconcile, to forgive and cherish each other was just one of those conditions, and I let go of any expectations for outcomes. It was a lesson in entrusting myself to the practices, to my blood ancestors as well as my spiritual ancestors. My parents, my grandparents and ancestors really are within me. When I practice, my beloved ones practice and enjoy the benefits, too. I do not have to make effort for any extraordinary thing, but only nourish a deep desire to practice wholeheartedly in my daily life. I am so lucky, and I am deeply grateful to Thay and the Sangha for giving me this opportunity to transform myself and for my family.

The original version of this article was posted in Vietnamese on Lang Mai’s website

2 COMMENTS

  1. This is one of the most beautiful and moving love stories I have read in my life! I have met Sister Sinh Nghiem a few times and her compassionate heart and beautiful mind have been both palpable and consistent from the outset. But this piece has reflected her true Buddha nature and shows that Thay’s continuation is manifesting to perfection. With deep respect and gratitude. A lotus to you dear Sister Sinh Nghiem and the sangha.

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