Sangha-Building with Brother Phap Ho

Phap Ho whale watching with other monastics and lay friends in 2011

Dear Thay, dear Sangha, dear Siblings,

My name is Phap Ho, Protector of the Dharma or Brother Protection. I come from Stockholm, Sweden and I currently live in Deer Park Monastery, Escondido, California.

I became a monk because I like to practice meditation. I like to live in community, and I like to live a simple life close to nature. I like to help transforming others’ sufferings into happiness and peace. I started practicing meditation as a young adult.

There are a lot of young people coming to Plum Village, and there are a lot of young brothers and sisters living there. When I came there, I felt like I was at home because I felt I could belong to a like-minded community, where we have similar experiences in life. In the centers I’ve been, there’s the spirit of wanting to reach people and having young people ordained and practice together. I think those conditions also helped me to decide to be ordained.

Q: How did you get involved in Wake Up?

A: Before Wake Up was there, I helped with young adults retreats and teen programs in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village. Just by being with young people, it feels very meaningful and with the most fun activities. We can also do creative things. When I went to Deer Park, we already had a young adults retreat every year. Two weeks a year with college students in addition to teen camps. Generally, a lot of the people we spend time with, we were already organizing retreats for young adults.

Then in 2008, when some of us went to the retreat Thay was leading in Vietnam, before we went back to Deer Park, I was amazed. Thay shared with us, “Please find ways to reach the younger people in the US.” And later that summer we introduced Wake Up, the launch of the website and the whole movement. Since then we’ve had Wake Up retreats.

Personally, I feel a lot of life-energy practicing with a lot of young people. I’m not as young anymore, but I still feel like as if I started practicing as a young person and I like to create conditions for young adults to practice. It’s very life-giving, so it’s also because I like it. I feel young people when they come to the practice. They are very grateful, open, and easy to build togetherness and sanghahood.

Q: When Thay officially introduced Wake Up in the summer of 2008, what were some of the activities you got involved at first?

A: First, I logged into the website (laughs) and created a couple of groups for Swedish people. I think it was an idea, but I think some of the social components on that first website didn’t take off. So there wasn’t a lot of activity on the website. Like with any movement, we have to find ways to make it work. Now we’re in the incarnation of the third or fourth website, and it’s now reaching more and more people. It’s more alive and there’s more content now. So it’s great happiness.

The clearest expression of Wake Up wasn’t until 2011 when we had our first Wake Up tour in the US. We continued with our Wake Up retreats and sanghas in southern California, but the way we did them weren’t different from the past. Then in the autumn of 2011, when we had our tour in the Northeast, I was part of it for a few weeks with a lot of monks, nuns, and lay friends. We traveled to different colleges, public places, and detention centers.

For us, it was more of a concrete expression of Wake Up spirit and that continued into 2012.

Q: Did you feel that the Wake Up tour in 2011 really helped to launch the Wake Up movement in a big way?

A: It helped to bring a lot of energy into it. Showing a way of how we could work together. In 2012, together with some good friends, we took the initiative to tour the West Coast. One in California and one in the Pacific Northwest. There was also an opportunity for young lay people, who had been practicing for a while, to help organize retreats and a tour with different events. And also travel together with monks and nuns to participate and lead the events.

We also had some events in detention centres, high schools, flash mob meditations and city centres to make it available and in order to engage our society. I think that tour empowered a lot of young people. Some Wake Up sanghas came out of both tours, in 2011 and 2012.

One thing I’m happy to see is that some of the young practitioners keep coming back to the retreats. When they return to the monastery, I make more of an effort to support them and encourage them to sign up for staff to help during retreats and so on.

We practice more in a community and learn how to work together in harmony. Commit more time and energy to the practice for ourselves first. And also make it possible for us to inspire other young people and feel solid enough to start sanghas.

Q: Describe one fun moment where you really tasted “true” brotherhood and sisterhood, either in a Wake Up retreat or sangha you were involved in?

A: (laughs) One specific moment that’s coming up is during the Pacific Northwest tour in 2012. We were having a weekend retreat in Seattle at the Mindfulness Centre. There were a couple of local friends who came up with a theme for the retreat. They came up with, “EN….GAGED BUDDHISM!”

Everyone raised their arms together and brought a very mindful and engaged spirit to their activities. Creativity like that and a couple of practice songs. Some of the tour member teams organized dances into circles. It was a lot of fun! It was spontaneous, creative thinking which happens when we’re having fun and practicing together.

Q: What motivates you to keep being involved with Wake Up?

A: Because I like it (laughs). And because it makes sense. When I practice with young people, I feel there’s less of an imprint of ideas of who we are and habit energies of working in the world. There’s a sense of openness. We’re still forming, so we can get access to the practice of self-transformation and community building in that part of our life. It’s so precious and I feel still grateful that these good conditions were available for me when I was a young man.

I also want to continue to empower young people, create those opportunities to come together, to practice and to build a community.

Q: What’s your biggest dream for Wake Up?

A: One of my dreams is to continue finding creative ways to be together for young people and that can be spread to different parts of the world. To have more sanghas for young people to take refuge in. And also to live in communities to have Wake Up houses like in San Diego, where there are 4-5 people who live together and practice meditation a couple of times a week. And have group sharings, like a space to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings together.

So it’s not just like a group, but places where young people can live and work in society. A wholesome place of refuge for like-minded people. It’s also important to keep the connection with other local sanghas and practitioners. We can also get their support and experience, the aunts and uncles in our communities. Another vision is that Wake Up sanghas don’t cut themselves off from them.

Thay teaches us about interbeing, so we don’t become too confident and become independent as young people. As young people, we can learn a lot from the elders, the people who have practiced for a couple of decades. As we continue, we can have more friends and allies in different age ranges. So it’s good for a young adult to be connected with everyone else.

Q: There are some Wake Up sanghas whose members are so busy with their lives that they are trying to keep their sanghas going. They don’t have time to organize Days of Mindfulness with all-ages sanghas, even though there’s a desire to do that. Do you have any insights about this?

A: I think there’s a real need for young people to practice together in order to open the door for mindfulness practice. When I was young practicing meditation in Sweden, I was around 21 or 22. I was the only one practicing meditation among all my friends and it was difficult. I didn’t feel a sense of belonging, peer support or understanding.

When I first encountered other young people whom I really felt were sharing our world view, the direction in our life, and their desire to practice together,  it brought a huge inspiration to my practice. I didn’t feel like I was a stranger.

It felt normal with a lot of energy behind it. For sure it’s important to create conditions for young people. There’s a different way of talking and relating. In most of the all-ages sanghas, they are middle-aged or are much older. But I’ve seen the young adults whom I’ve been practicing with. They are now Order of Interbeing members and they have helped to organize Wake Up tours. Most of them practice with the all-ages sanghas, have a mentor in their all-ages sanghas, or have at least some interaction with them.

Even if it’s only an aspiration and time and energy to do it right now, the aspiration is enough for a Wake Up sangha to work together with an all-age sangha. We don’t have to have the feeling to do both. At least, have some communication and some openness. For people who want to practice more often and are more committed, maybe they can go to the all-ages sanghas.

Because for the all-ages sanghas, or older people, it helps a lot with their transformation when they have the youthfulness and enthusiasm of the young people. In that sense, we can be Boddhisatvas for all-ages sanghas if we’re strong enough to help infuse some of our youthfulness into their sanghas. Some of the all-ages sangha members forgot what it is to be more spontaneous, youthful, and have so many ideas about themselves. So we can help in that way, too.

Q: We’re almost in the 6th year since Wake Up was created and the age guideline is still 18-35. In some sanghas, the core members have been involved for more than 2-3 years and are now between 36 and 40 years old. Without them, the sanghas most likely won’t be able to continue. They are the ones who are usually facilitating. How can we deal with those who are beyond 35 years old, especially those who’ve founded the sanghas? 

A: (laughs) I think the spirit of Wake Up is not to create some sort of a clique group that is exclusive. The age range offers a direction. In order for all of us to come together and practice, we have to have a similar situation in life. This will change a lot if you’re in a committed relationship or have children. You become a different age range. Your life experiences change.

I also think it’s not the age, but if you’re in college or a young professional, you’re still trying to find a way in your life. You’re not settled yet, and that’s kinda the Wake Up age range. The direction of your life is still taking shape.

And that seems to continue longer and longer for a lot of people. That’s part of like, not judging that 36 is good or not, but there always seems to be an inclusiveness of the monastics. A couple of years ago, I would have said, “Oh maybe I should take a sabbatical from Wake Up. I’m turning 40.”

One young brother shared with me, “It’s ok. You can have an honorary membership or something like that.” (laughs) I don’t know if that goes for everyone. So we don’t get caught in the age range, but we also come back and see the purpose of the sangha.

There could be another young adult sangha. We need sanghas for all types of people. We also need more sanghas so that we don’t get stuck in the sense of wanting to hold on, “Oh I’ve been practicing with this sangha for a long time.”  We can also ask facilitators, like the elders in the all-ages sanghas, to have to find a way to train the younger ones so they are able to take over.

If we’ve been facilitating for a couple of years, we should find the core members who keep showing up, who are happy enough, and they have contributed enough energy to the Wake Up sangha so they can learn, feel comfortable to invite the bell, introduce some of the practices, and lead sharing sessions. So that this can be passed on. We’re not doing this for ourselves, but we’re doing this for the sangha.

Q: Some Wake Up sanghas are trying to find new people. What happens in many cases is that they don’t feel comfortable or there is a lack of confidence. In one sangha, a core sangha member was tired of facilitating alone, so this core sangha member tried to inspire another core sangha member to facilitate, but this person wasn’t ready. It can be hard to find new people because there’s usually a small number of people who is committed to facilitate, while many only want to attend the sangha meeting. That’s why those in the older age range, like 36-40, they are still around until new people show up and are hopefully motivated to facilitate. But it takes a while to find them.

A: I think this is also recognizing and learning the reality of building a community. Young people can be enthusiastic and inspired, but we also have to have the maturity of being able to commit to something and keep it up for a long time. Because practicing can have instantaneous benefit. We can feel some happiness right away, but it’s also a process of maturity of becoming more familiar. So if we don’t practice on a regular basis with a Wake Up sangha, we’ll never be able to facilitate because it’s not part of our life yet.

So the Wake Up sangha is a way to encourage us in our practice, not just the only place where we just practice, but it is a support to practice in our daily lives and do it ourselves.

And to create a daily meditation practice that’s engaged in our lives. And make a commitment to see that our life is changing when we practice. We want to practice and actually commit to show up for the sangha. And commit to learn. No one feels completely comfortable when facilitating for the first time. With anything, we learn as we go along.

But it also takes some kind of commitment and regularity, not just for fun. It is for fun, but also for real (laughs).

Building a sangha is showing up. Keep showing up. We cannot show up whenever we feel like it or count on someone else to keep it going. This is not a spiritual community yet.

That is just an entertainment or a group of friends. In a spiritual community, we show up. We are creating a space not just for ourselves, but for other people too. We know that we have to do it on a regular basis to keep it going, and make ourselves happier and freer as we go along.

Q: It’s interesting you share this. In another Wake Up sangha, one member said, “If it comes to a point where it’s detrimental for a core member to always shows up for the sangha meeting because there’s no one facilitating, how about we cancel a sangha meeting for one week and see the response.” What are your thoughts about that?

A:  I think whatever we do, we try to inspire people and not to have it as a punishment, a threat, or something. Just share with the group one day and say, “The three of us have been talking and facilitating a lot. We’re enjoying it, but it’s also an inspiration for us to wanting to help others. If you think you have some time and energy, maybe we can set up a facilitators’ training half an hour early or something to train you a few times.”

This can be a sense of building an older brother or sister relationship. We see as siblings in one family. It doesn’t become like a business approach, but it’s more like how we can continue together to take care of our sangha we’re creating.

Maybe we can organize a special gathering like tea meditation. We share our joys and how we have transformed as a Wake Up sangha individually and together, and what we’re able to do together.

And at the end, when everyone’s gratitude has been watered and everyone’s joy and practice have been nourished or watered, we can say, “We really need help. We’ve been facilitating, but we want to know your thoughts about how we can move forward with our sangha. We want to make sure that it continues and that it doesn’t depend on us.” And to offer to train other people to facilitate and so on.

Sometimes, the transmission to someone else initially takes more time and energy, so there’s an investment of time and energy for those who’ve invested the most. But that is also necessary for continuation and for people to be able to feel comfortable facilitating. For the ones who might be ready, they can go to retreats or practice centres, or meet with a lay Dharma teacher to learn how to facilitate. Feel more energy and embody how it’s like, so we understand the practice better. And also make the practice a part of our life. Even with good conditions, it takes a while.

It’s difficult to do this as part of our life. Some can be committed right away, but for most of us, it takes several years to start working on ourselves and then forget about it. Then we realise that we’re suffering so much more and life isn’t as interesting or as wonderful. So we re-start our practice and we re-commit a bit more. Something happens and we graduate from college. Then we go to another town. We also kinda shouldn’t have too many expectations. We can have hope and ambition for the future, how we can build a community and create conditions for us to transform together, but if we have too many expectations, we might get disappointed so we’re not happy with what we have.

Q: How would you describe Wake Up to someone who has never practiced mindfulness before?

A: A community that wants to come together, and young people who want to live in a beautiful and meaningful way. The practice of mindful meditation is a way for us to develop those skills. Develop the clarity, the stability to go through our lives and following our hearts and aspirations. Live whole-heartedly so it’s free from dogma and religious connotations. It’s a way of living, building a community so we can offer back to society and live our life in a way that we really aspire.

That we’re not going somewhere, but Wake Up is about living in a present moment. It’s about stopping, kindness, togetherness and is about being real.

Q: For those who want to create together but can’t find people, or for those in the process of sangha-building, what’s your message for them?

A: We can be creative if we don’t have a sangha yet. We can be creative in how we can find the support in our daily life. It can be through being aware of what’s happening on various Plum Village websites to get information and current talks. See photos of other people practicing and get the inspiration of that feeling, even if we don’t have a community yet to practice together.

We can be connected, so we don’t forget. Maybe this kinda goes together whether you have a sangha or not. In our homes, we can invite some good friends whom we think who could be open. We just invite them for a tea meditation. We sit and we can introduce a little bit about how we can enjoy a cup of tea or something. Bake a cake or do a session of eating meditation together that we like. Really give them the opportunity to taste what it is to eat in mindfulness silently for a couple of minutes.

Then have a sharing about what’s the most important thing in our lives and what makes us happy. What makes us feel really good as friends. Just a light and happy sharing like that without putting any labels on it. Whether we’d like to continue our practices and sharings together or our breathing and so on. We can actually start a sangha with people who are somewhat open but might not have any exposure to mindfulness.

If we’re already building a sangha, it’s finding ways to bring our world. Our lives together with that sangha so we can find a way to see whether we have friends who are interested, whether we go to school with or work with. So it doesn’t become a sangha with this group of friends we have in our corner in our lives that we meet on Fridays for a couple of hours and that’s it.

To merge our life with our Wake Up sangha together. So that is community we build based on friendships we spend time together. It’s not just coming together to sit and practice meditation and walking and dharma sharing. Deep relaxation and maybe read some teachings, which are important for a Wake Up sangha.

You have to have that as a foundation. But it can consist of our family and friends who want to live ethical and have guidance in their lives. Those who don’t want to lose their lives in consumption and things that don’t deepen their happiness and freedom in their lives.

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