Tu Hieu Monastery and Finding Our True Home

Mitchell Ratner at the entrance gate to Tu Hieu Monastery, photo by Wouter Verhoeven

Tu Hieu Monastery and Finding Our True Home

Discussion date: Thu, Mar 09, 2023 at our weekly Thursday evening practice

Dear Still Water Friends,

Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) lived at the Tu Hieu Monastery for five years as a novice and returned there for the final four years of his life. I’ve made three trips to practice at Tu Hieu, because of its connection to Thay, because of the openness and kindness of the monks and nuns there, and because its aged elegance aesthetically nourishes me. This Thursday evening, after our meditation, I would like to share stories about Tu Hieu and Thay’s time there. I would also like to raise a question about what we mean when we say we are “at home.”

In the mid 1800s, Venerable Master Nhat Dinh (One Concentration) was the abbot of Bao Quoc temple in Hue and was recognized as the national teacher and advisor to the Nguyen Dynasty court. At the age of fifty-nine he retired from those positions and moved with several students to a straw hut in the pine woods outside Hue. When his elderly mother, whom he cared for at his hermitage, became ill, the doctors recommended that she eat fish soup to regain her strength. Although as a Buddhist monk Nhat Dinh was a committed vegetarian, he dutifully walked to the market in Hue to buy fish each morning. When people began to spread rumors about his dietary laxness, Nhat Dinh did not respond to the accusations.

In time the story reached the court of Emperor Tu Duc, a learned and kind leader and a strong follower of Confucian ethics. He investigated the situation and realized Nhat Dinh’s actions were prompted by his love for his mother. In 1848, the year after Nhat Dinh died, the emperor ordered that a major temple be built to honor the faithful monk. He named the temple Tu Hieu, “Merciful Filial Piety.”

I imagine Tu Hieu Monastery was exquisite and well maintained in its early years. I also imagine that the appearance and finances of the the temple were much reduced ninety-five years later, when Thay came to Tu Hieu to become a novice monk. It was the middle of World War Two. Resources throughout the country were scarce. Vietnam was occupied by the Japanese and administered by collaborationist Vichy France officials. However, even though the physical conditions were difficult, Thay remembers it fondly in his memoir My Teacher’s Robe:

Of course you did not practice sitting meditation all day when you entered the temple. For months and sometimes years you had to take care of the cows, collect dry twigs and leaves, carry water, pound rice, and collect wood for the fire. Every time my mother came to visit from our village, which was far away, she would regard these things as being the challenges of the first stage of practice. At first my mother was concerned for my health, but as I grew healthier, she stopped worrying about me. As for me, I knew that these were not challenges — they were themselves the practice. If you enter this life you will see for yourself. If there was no taking care of the cows, no collecting of twigs and leaves, no carrying water no growing potatoes, then there would no means for the practice of meditation.

Brother Man saw it in the same way as I did, and later in life the two of us would look back on our novice years with deep affection, joy, and gratitude.

Thay was sixteen when he arrived at Tu Hieu Monastery and he lived there for five years in a close-knit community of about thirty members, including aspirants. In My Teacher’s Robe,Thay expresses special appreciation for his abbot and primary teacher, Zen Master Thich Chan That.

In 1947, after Thay received novice precepts, his abbot sent him to further his studies at the Institute of Buddhist Studies at the Bao Quoc Buddhist Institute. It was about two miles away and Thay usually walked back to Tu Hieu for a visit every two weeks. In 1949, wanting a more inclusive and modern monastic education than the conservative Bao Quoc could provide, Thay took the unusual step of leaving the Bao Quoc Institute and moving to Saigon to study at the university and complete his monastic education.

Over the next two decades Thay and his teacher had few opportunities to be physically together, though their relationship remained close and supportive. Thay returned to Tu Hieu in 1955 for a special visit and brought with him a fabric portrait of his teacher that he had commissioned. The other notable visit was in May of 1966, just before Thay traveled to the U.S. to call for peace. Thay received Lamp Transmission during the visit, becoming one of many Dharma heirs of Master Thich Chan That.

When the abbot died two years later, he left instructions for Thay to be appointed the abbot of Tu Hieu. Thay, however, was not able to return to Tu Hieu until 2005, thirty-nine years later. One of the pleasures of his return was seeing that the portrait he had given his teacher fifty years earlier was still in his teacher’s room.

When I reflect on Thay and Tu Hieu Monastery, I think about how much he loved his time there and how deeply he loved the language, people, and spiritual energy of Vietnam. Then I think about how painful it was for him to be separated from them. In At Home in the World Thay writes about his first two years of exile:

I had a recurring dream of being at home in my root temple in central Vietnam. I would be climbing a green hill covered with beautiful trees when, halfway to the top, I would wake up and realize that I was in exile. The dream came to me over and over again.

Over time he learned to embrace his exile and learn the profound insights it made available to him:

I was very active, learning how to play with children from many countries: German children, French children, American children, and English children. I was making friends with Anglican priests, Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, rabbis, imams, and others. My practice was the practice of mindfulness. I tried to live in the here and now and touch the wonders of life every day. It was thanks to this practice that I survived. The trees in Europe were so different from the trees in Vietnam. The fruits, the flowers, the people, they were all completely different. The practice brought me back to my true home in the here and now. Eventually I stopped suffering, and the dream did not come back anymore. …

The expression, “I have arrived, I am home,” is the embodiment of my practice. It is one of the main Dharma seals of Plum Village. It expresses my understanding of the teaching of the Buddha and is the essence of my practice. Since finding my true home, I no longer suffer. The past is no longer a prison for me. The future is not a prison either. I am able to live in the here and now and to touch my true home. I am able to arrive home with every breath and with every step. I don’t have to buy a ticket; I don’t have to go through a security check. Within a few seconds, I can arrive home.

When we are deeply in touch with the present moment, we can touch both the past and the future; and if we know how to handle the present moment properly, we can heal the past. It was precisely because I did not have a country of my own that I had the opportunity to find my true home.

During our Dharma sharing this Thursday we will talk about Tu Hieu Monastery and Thay, and, also, about where and when we feel at home.

  • Do we experience our “at homeness” sometimes, or perhaps often, in the historical dimension, in a particular house, home town, language and culture, or among family and friends?
  • Do we experience the same, or perhaps a more ethereal, “at homeness” when we deeply touch the present moment? Perhaps it arrives unexpectedly, during special moments or under certain conditions. Perhaps it grows quietly in us, as we calm down and wise up.

I look forward to being with you.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner


in: Dharma Topics
Discussion Date: Thu, Mar 09, 2023


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