By Thien Kim Truong
During a trip to visit to one of Thay’s monasteries, Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, I became really good friends with a soon-to-be long-term resident called Tram from Wake Up Little Saigon. We roomed together during my stay, and I got to know her better. I found her story extremely inspiring, especially how her first Viet Wake Up retreat and encounter with the monastics had changed her life drastically. I asked if I could interview her about her experience at the Viet Wake Up retreat to share with friends around the world. Here it is below.
TK: When did you first hear about Viet Wake Up?
Tram: Through my counsellor; he emailed me the website. He’s very involved in the Vietnamese community by teaching young adults to meditate instead of giving them medication for their mental illness. I had a mental illness: depression. I told him that when I meditated, my legs started to hurt and ache. So I joked around with him and told him my best meditation position is horizontal, which is basically lying down when I sleep (laughing).
He told me there was this retreat coming up. But the whole time, I was very hesitant. I kept making up excuses like “It looks like it’s going to rain” and “I don’t know anyone.” The main thing was that I didn’t know anyone, so you’re afraid to go. You feel like what if you don’t get along with people there and you’re just going to be like a loner. But going through depression, it pushed me to want to go out on my own because I felt there was no loss in it. I felt like no one really understood what I was going through, so I figured this was some time alone for myself to learn something new.
TK: What was it about the retreat that got you “hooked”?
Tram: I came late to the retreat but when I came, they were doing the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We were reading the text, and my group was doing the Third Mindfulness Training: True Love. Out of all the trainings, this was like stabbing a knife into your chest like “Here have some more pain” (laughing). When Sister D was facilitating and saying that this a space where you can open up your heart and speak freely, I felt I was at a point where I had nothing to hold back. The training says you should be in a relationship where your family and friends should know about it and stuff like that. Nobody knew about my relationship I was in at the time. Also with the Fifth Mindfulness Training, I was drinking a lot because I was so depressed about my relationship that ended. I consumed so much alcohol because I didn’t want to be with the reality.
How would you describe your overall experience at the retreat?
Tram: I felt light. I felt very heavy driving to the retreat. It was very dark, foggy, cold, and rainy. But when I was done with the retreat and drove home, I felt very light, rejuvenated, and happy with the anticipation to tell my family about the experience that I went through. I was very excited about what I learned.
What was your impression of the monastics when you first met them?
Tram: I thought they were very peaceful and….. intimidating (both laughing) because you’re always told or taught that they are a certain way. Even when they walk or talk, they’re so proper. When you’re near them, you feel you have to always know what’s going on. It’s like being the A+ student (laughing). After a while, you see that the practice is what’s making them strong.
TK: Was there a particular moment from the retreat that stayed in your heart when you think about the retreat?
Tram: Yes, watching the brothers and sisters singing. Since I did not know the lyrics, I saw myself smile when I sung them.
TK: How did the retreat help you reconnect with your roots, ancestors and culture?
Tram: My parents never pushed us to be traditional. They expect us to be respectful to our elders and such. But when it comes to knowing about the history and the culture, I never cared for it. Now I’m more interested in learning how to speak Vietnamese better or how to sing Vietnamese songs. There’s so much that I didn’t care for, and now I feel so interested in them.
I think what makes gives me pride in being Vietnamese and what’s common in our sharings when I attend Viet Wake Up is that we care so much about our family. Every single time I sit-in somewhere, it’s like “I want to make my parents proud,” “I don’t want to disappoint them,” and “I want to change myself so that my parents don’t suffer.” Not every culture has that, but for us we know that our country and our people have gone through so much; our parents have gone through so much and sacrificed so much to give us what we have today; we have gratitude for it, and I’m slowly coming back to that as I’m finding my roots.
TK: One last question: what would you say to people who are considering going to the retreat, who have never been and are feeling hesitant?
Tram: Just go. Just do it. You have nothing to lose. You have everything to gain. It’s not even gaining things like material things, but it’s just gaining yourself again. Learning who you are. I think a lot of people lose sight of that and of who they are, because they’re just being what society is telling them to be. Or they’re just walking around like sleepwalking. They’re doing things, but what’s the reason to do what they’re doing.
I think what all the brothers and sisters have said in their talks: you’re the most precious thing that you have. At the end, it’s just you. You’re the only one with your thoughts so why not take care of that—to nourish it so you can have the best life for yourself. If you have that, anything’s possible. You can have anything in the world, because everything will look more beautiful. It’s all in your head and your thoughts.