Interviewed in June 2016 in Plum Village
EP: Ethan Pollock (interviewer)
DT: Brother Dao Tue (monastic)
EP: It’s a beautiful summer day. Brother Dao Tue and I are sitting in the bamboo grove of the Buddha Garden in Upper Hamlet, surrounded by singing birds and the chirping sounds of crickets.
“You’d better make me sound good!” He laughs; his scalp is still a little paler than his face – this is his first summer with a shaved head. I’ve known him since my first retreat here in Plum Village in 2011 and much of our time here has overlapped. Initially he raised a few eyebrows when he announced his decision to join the 5-year monastic program.
He didn’t seem to be the most likely candidate for monastic life; he loved meat, wine, luxury goods and had a noticeably irreverent way of talking. But his transformation and dedication to the practice are undeniable. Since his return to Plum Village two years ago, he has noticeably relaxed and softened. I’m surprised several times in our interview at the sincerity of his answers. I asked him what he wanted to get across in our interview.
DT: I think I want to let people know that no matter how many hang ups or quirks you think you have, you can do this and find it fulfilling. It’s the people who are turned off by monasteries or think it would be really pious whom I want to speak to because that’s how I see myself y’know.
EP: What were you like when you first arrived?
DT: I felt pretty closed and introverted – one of these troubled young men type of things. (laughs) I only went to Dharma talks and Dharma sharing. All my defenses were in place. I wanted to seem cool and act like I either had already friends or didn’t need them… while I desperately wanted friends.
I initially planned to stay for two weeks. I decided to stay longer because a lot of anxiety left me straight away once I started practicing and stopping for the bell. What Thay spoke about also touched my concerns about the meaning of life and how to be happy.
Something in me changed irrevocably after those first two weeks… that’s what kept me coming back; I couldn’t pretend anymore that pursuing wealth and continuing with the same job would really make me happy. I ended up staying for nearly two years.
EP: Any special memories from these first few months?
DT: Sitting around the bonfire one night. It was so beautiful with the cicadas singing and the moon in the sky. There was a really warm sense of connection and ego dissolution that I had only experienced before at raves, but here it was without drugs and it felt more real.
EP: When did you start thinking about monastic life?
DT: I don’t remember exactly… seeing myself as a monastic was pretty challenging for my identity. I had learned to embrace strong emotions and transform in the practice, and I knew I wanted to spend more time here. So I thought, why not do the 5-year monastic program they are offering?
EP: But you decided to go home for a year first?
DT: Yeah, I wanted to see what I was giving up. I’m quite cautious, so I did things slowly. I never really had money before so I wanted to know what it was like to have a salary and nice things. I also wanted to experience lay Sangha and its benefits. I wanted to have a relationship, too; I wanted money and sex and the practice. (laughs)
I also participated in a Wake Up tour in the UK and Ireland in 2012 with the monastic brothers and sisters to see what it felt like to travel because they travel for about six months of the year.
EP: You kind of set your life up in a Plum Village way at home. You worked part-time, lived in a nice house by the seaside, had time to meditate each day, lived close to work, had yoga clubs nearby and a Sangha. You were kind of living the lay dream?
DT: I definitely got to live my dream actually. Yeah, it’s true. There’s nothing I could have added to or changed; maybe a more fulfilling job or something, but life was pretty good…
Brother Dao Tue looks thoughtful for a moment.
… but actually I was happier in college and school just because I got to see my friends each day, that’s one of the reasons I’m here.
EP: What were the difficulties of lay life?
Brother Dao Tue puts his head in his hands and laughs.
DT: Oh God, this isn’t going to sound good… having Spotify and Netflix accounts and being completely glued to my phone… being so restless I could hardly sit with myself… loneliness maybe…
EP: When did you decide you wanted to ordain?
DT: I think I was finally able to separate what I thought I was meant to do from what I wanted to do. Just comparing my sense of happiness and fulfillment in my year at home versus Plum Village, and stretching that out into the future. It was so clear the practice had made such an appreciable difference. It was just obvious my life was better here. It feels better, and I chose that. I didn’t need to complicate or think about it anymore.
EP: What’s your aspiration for the five-year monastic program?
DT: My hope is that I’ll be able to experience much less anxiety in my life. I feel like I’m really uptight about things needing to be a certain way. I’d like to feel comfortable and at ease in myself and in the world. Just to be able to do the basic practice of taking a step or a breath and come back to myself, even when I’m upset. Also to better spot my blind spots or neuroses and just recognise, accept and embrace them. I can already see I am much more proficient at that and it seems like a door to more freedom in life.
Part II: Click here to read about Brother Dao Tue’s experience as a novice monk in Plum Village