A week in the UK with Thay Phap Nhan, Sr. Mai Nghiem, Sr. Ton Nhgiem and Phap Linh. We shared the practice with more than 200 young people, from schools to Cambridge University, with a weekend retreat for young people in between. Returning to the country of my birth for the second time since ordaining as a monk.
How did it begin?
Parachuted into Stansted Airport we made our way to the train, only to discover that our tickets had expired seven days ago. Ton Ton: ‘Well, the return ticket is still valid’. Mai: ‘Of course it is. That’s our practice – to return.’
This was after my complete failure to pass the Ryanair online check-in intelligence test. I tried to do it three days early but soon realised that I needed everyone’s passport numbers. OK. Little email to my sisters and brother, a few phone calls (Sister Mai is in Belgium, but no problem, she’s coming back tomorrow, breathe, smile, don’t worry). So departure day dawns, I go to the Ryanair site armed with passport numbers, names, nationalities etc. And what do I see? “Please enter passport expiry date”. Aha. And date of birth. Some more phone calls… Sr Ton Ton is in transit from New Hamlet to Lower Hamlet, Sr. Mai Nghiem can’t be found – wonderful, perfect. And I still haven’t packed.
But thirty minutes later I have everything ready and I can print out our boarding passes. Good. Press print… Printer gurgles a bit and… nothing. The seed of anxiety manifests. Press print again. More gurgling, sounds vaguely promising, and… nothing. No, no wait, it has printed one line of meaningless code onto an otherwise blank sheet. Excellent. Phap Linh is ready to abandon all hope and throw himself to the mercy of the Ryanair check-in desk at Bergerac.
But luckily Thay Pitaya is there, smiling a lot, and he says: ‘don’t worry, just try again’ and sure enough, for no reason discernible to man or beast, the printer decides to provide us with 4 beautiful boarding cards. We all get in the car and I proudly present everyone with their boarding card. ‘But brother, these are for the return flight.’
Fortunately people are nice to you when you wear brown robes and smile, so we got to London where Phap Linh’s crazy friends fed us curry and talked about the financial crisis. The next morning we were on the train to Winchester for our first school visit, having used two of our return tickets and two bus vouchers from the previous UK retreat to get to Waterloo station. Thay Phap Nhan asked me ‘Do we have the return tickets? Because if we don’t, then we can’t leave’. And so we went, having equipped ourselves with four, 100% vegan, egg and cheese baguettes.
Arriving in Winchester we asked the way to the school ‘Oh, that’s easy, just go back the way you came and you’ll find it…’ Very Zen, very Zen, and so we landed in the midst of a class of 17 year olds who had been studying Buddhism for a year: ‘How does the law of Karma relate to the doctrine of reincarnation in the Mahayana Tradition and do you remember any of your previous lives?’… ‘Well now, let’s see… by following the breath we can return to our bodies in the present moment and release the tension and anxiety…’
I felt a bit sorry for the teachers who would try from time to time to bring the discussion back to the difference between the Northern and Southern Schools and whether or not the concept of non-self was compatible with the Bodhisattva path, or something like that, perhaps hoping that the students would learn something they could use in an exam; but we just spoke about the basic practice of breathing and smiling and embracing our feelings. What I appreciated so much was the fact that when the teachers saw that we were not going talk about anything else, they really gave us space to offer the students practices that would help them as human beings – and not just as exam-takers. I saw that all the teachers genuinely wanted their pupils to be happy and actually gave up time in what must be a fairly pressured curriculum for their pupils to learn how to take care of themselves and be at peace.
In fact, in each school that we visited, as soon as we finished a session the teacher would ask ‘So, when can you come back?’ One of them even wanted to organize a group visit to Plum Village for her whole class and at least one other teacher wants to come and visit us in the next Summer Retreat.
The students were so open to what we had to say and asked so many questions. The youngest ones, who knew the least about Buddhism, asked the best and the deepest questions – such as ‘what can I do when I’m angry or depressed?’ or ‘do you feel that now you are monastics you have found fulfilment?’ and, ‘As you can see, in our school we rush around a lot – we have to hurry from one class to the next and everyone is always having to run. If you were in charge of the school what would you do differently?’.
One girl just thanked us for the way we were. It seemed that all the students were very sensitive to our energy and could sense right away that we had something different to offer from what they were used to. Another boy just thanked us for slowing everything down. He said how nice it was to see that we were never in a hurry and that we always took our time (though he didn’t see us running to get to the next school).
But I think what touched me the most, as a young novice, was that we really had something to offer. Our practice really works, and young people are hungry for it. As Sr. Mai Nghiem said, you feel that the ground is fertile: you just have to water a little bit and the flowers spring up. Young people can pick up the essence of the practice right away. In the space of an hour long class I saw faces begin to relax, eyes brightening and smiles blossoming. Some of the worry and anxiety and stress began to drop from their shoulders – especially after Sr Ton Ton’s totally amazing total relaxation session. I had the feeling the students recognized in these funny brown-robed people a quality of happiness and ease which perhaps they had never, or only rarely, encountered – and right away they trusted it. As though they were saying to themselves, ‘hey, these people are happy and free. I want to know how they do that.’
In one class the teachers asked us to share about why we had ordained as monastics. After we had each shared a little bit about our aspirations we invited the class to ask some questions. Almost before Sr. Mai Nghiem had finished speaking a hand shot up. A girl of about 17 asked with incredible intensity: ‘how old do you have to be to become a nun?’ I think we might see her again soon.
But again what I want to emphasize is this strong feeling that our teacher has transmitted to us a practice, tools that work and that young people desperately need. Not only that but that as students of Thay, we each have the ability to pass some of it on. I see clearly that this gives my life a meaning that it never had before. I have something to do.
The weekend retreat was also a wonderful experience. We were 20 young ones from all over the country, ranging from 5 months to 35 years old. Many had been to the retreat in Nottingham and were hungry for more – some of them had brought their friends along and there were a few who had found us on Facebook. Having the baby with us broke down a lot of boundaries and to see the love and tenderness of Greta and Lee with their little boy enabled everyone to open up their hearts. Many people shared how moved and impressed they were by seeing such a beautiful Dharma family
We decided to start the retreat with total relaxation, followed by Lee’s crazy icebreaker games, and very soon everyone was happy and smiling. The feeling that prevailed was of family: brothers and sisters happily playing together, and those that were new to the practice felt included and at ease very quickly. We sat together, we ate in silence, we practiced walking on the beach and we had deep Dharma Sharings. We were blessed by beautiful clear skies and we’d arranged the schedule so that our morning exercise period coincided exactly with the sunrise. Lee led us in sun salutes and Chi Kung in burgeoning pink and gold light with seagulls wheeling overhead.
Sarane from Ipswich had prepared delicious menus for us and even bought all the food and drove over with it at the beginning of the weekend. Among the very detailed and easy to follow recipes were the most baroque instructions for making porridge imaginable – but which I have to concede also resulted in the best and creamiest porridge that I have yet tasted.
We had a period of working meditation in the morning, during which we sent all the strapping young lads out to see if they could find firewood on the beach, whilst the rest of us chopped vegetables and cooked joyfully together under the benevolent and gentle supervision of Alan who was the kitchen master for the weekend. Next, five of our young friends shared beautifully about their practice of the Mindfulness Trainings, followed by questions and answers. In the afternoon we had total relaxation again (I think that was the theme of the whole week – wherever we went we offered total relaxation) followed by walking meditation on the beach. One friend later shared that the deepest experience of the weekend for him was the walking. I think the locals thought we were pretty funny until they saw Sr. Mai Nghiem teaching everyone Kung Fu – after that they probably thought we were Shaolin monks with cool super-powers. The irony is that we do have mysterious powers – notably the power to smile – and so do they.
After dinner we went out to light the fire and were transfixed by the almost full moon rising behind the giraffes of the shipping cranes on the other side of the estuary. The blaze was slow to start so the indefatigable Patrick: instigator, motivator and main organizer of the retreat (and candidate for the most energetic person in the UK) organized a riotous game of ‘do you love your neighbour?’, while a few of us sat and watched the flames. What is it about a fire that makes deep sharing so easy? After that we sang songs and told stories and got quite cold. Even the young locals couldn’t resist the joy that emanated from our circle and soon three of them joined us and found themselves singing Kum Ba Yah my Lord, Kum Ba Yah – which I think surprised them just as much as us.
All in all I felt so deeply nourished by the trip. To come back to England as a monk was to come back to a deeper England, and that is a gift from Thay that I will treasure always.
I know that we received a lot of Spiritual and material support from many quarters to make the trip possible, not least from the UK Community of Interbeing, who generously covered our transportation expenses. The trip was such a success that I am sure it will be the first of many such Wake Up Weeks. I also hope that we can make school visits a feature of every retreat from now on – whenever you invite us to come and share the practice, please help us to organize visits in local schools and colleges.