Brother Phap Khoi is one of the senior monks at the Blue Cliff Monastery. He was ordained in 2002 as part of the Sugar Palm ordination family and lived at Plum Village and Deer Park before coming to Blue Cliff. Thay Phap Khoi will be part of our 2015 Fall Tour of the United States.
Were you raised with Buddhism or another religion in your home?
PK – I was raised in a single-parent family by my mom and I was raised Buddhist. My mom used to take us to the temple every two weeks on Sunday to a Pure Land [a branch of Mahayana Buddhism widely practiced in Asia] temple to practice chanting. My earliest memory concerning temple visits would be cool evenings, either the full moon or new moon, and lots of older folks with a few children. There would be a small pond with koi fish and a small statue of Avalokiteshvara with water pouring out of her vase. We were told that if you wash your face with that water, you would be very smart and so the children, me included, would try our best to wash our face at least once every time we came. There was a lot of calmness at the temple. It was very different from outside the temple gates and this was even back in the early 1980’s.
Were you born in Vietnam?
PK – I was born and raised in Vietnam until I was 15 when I came to the United States, to Portland.
Did you go to temple there and did you notice a difference from how you’d been involved before?
PK – I was more involved as I grew older. I started to go on my own to temple because I found that it was a lot of fun. I went to training camps and I became a counselor for the youth group.
Is that where you became connected to Thay or did you find Thay on your own?
PK – There were some friends who also went to that temple but at the same time they had a Sangha [a mindfulness practice community] and they asked, “Do you have time to go to this other group?” And I said, “Sure” and checked it out. It was something totally different from the temple life that I knew. Then I started to read Thay’s books in English. I didn’t realize that I’d read some of the books written by him in Vietnamese but under pen names. I didn’t make that connection until much later. “My Master’s Robe” was one book. I’d read that before but I didn’t know it was written by Thay. “Being Peace” opened up my interest in Buddhism to actually practicing instead of just studying.
I met Thay at a retreat in Kent, Washington. Then I made my way to Plum Village in 1996 for a winter retreat for just 2 weeks. That made a big impression.I wanted to stay but I had student loans I had to pay off. I worked as a pharmacist for five years. I decided to come for good in 2001 after I paid off my loans. I ordained as a monk in 2002.
What were some of your first impressions?
PK – I stepped onto the grounds at Upper Hamlet at Plum Village and I was like, “Ahhh, wow! I never knew there was such a place.” I fell in love with it right away.
What have you seen grow in yourself in your years living in the Sangha?
PK – When I was a novice monk, I complained a lot. I enjoy being in the Sangha but my tendency was to be pessimistic. I complained a lot to the brothers and I respect the brothers for enduring me. But I knew that I wouldn’t go anywhere else. This is the community that I want to be with because I’ve learned so many things. Not only skills like cooking, landscaping and doing office work but also the practice of looking at yourself and finding ways to improve yourself and being reminded by others and seeing examples. So I was complaining but I wasn’t in despair. It was just that I like to complain. Over the years I’ve learned to turn it down.
Are there any stories that you can share?
PK – I never thought I had a big seed of anger in me. I remember when I was helping with the youth group, I never had any anger. Or maybe I was so busy I wasn’t aware that I was angry. Then I blew up in my second novice year at an older brother. I was in the kitchen cooking at Deer Park and I raised my voice which I’ve never done in my whole life. He came in and said something and I said something and all of the sudden we were shouting. A couple of hours later I came out and apologized to him and practiced Beginning Anew [a practice of looking deeply and honestly at ourselves–our past actions, speech, and thoughts–and to create a fresh beginning within ourselves and in our relationships with others]. I realized, “I’m not what I thought I was. I thought I was a calm person but the seed of anger is quite huge.” That was astonishing to discover about myself. So from then on I learned to not water that seed anymore. That was one discovery about myself.
How have you seen your teacher-student relationship change and develop over the years?
PK – I have grown to love Thay more and more and respect him more and more. When I moved away from Plum Village and came back to the States, every tour year when Thay came, I would try my best to be as close to him as possible whether attending or driving, etc. Especially at Blue Cliff, I would try to sneak in and have meals with him. I don’t worship Thay but I revere him as a teacher, as a father.
I remember when I ordained we had the first monastic retreat at the hermitage in 2002. In one of the first Dharma talks Thay shared about being multi-cultural. I remember I sat right in front of him and I thought, “Wow, he’s talking to me!” Growing up I had a complex about being bi-racial and not feeling that I belonged to either culture. Many of us had this feeling like, “Thay’s just talking to me!” He said, “It’s okay to be multi-cultural. I am multi-cultural.” I felt instantly a big burden was put down and I felt right at home. From then on I never had that complex anymore. Every time that seed gets watered, I remember that Dharma talk. And I looked around at the brothers and sisters and I saw that we are multi-cultural. You don’t have to be bi-racial to be multi-cultural. Just by the place that you live you learn another person’s culture, you can be multi-cultural. The way that Thay explained it was so beautiful and so touching.
Are there any other specific teachings of Thay’s that you’ve come back to over the years, that have a special resonance for you?
PK – It’s about getting in touch with nirvana in the present moment. By nature, I think a lot. That teaching helps to me to be grounded. To just come back, experiencing the moment as nirvana and not waiting until I’m happier in order to feel at peace. Peace can be right now. I might be cranky or something and just to really keep that in mind, “Nirvana is now.” If I come back to my breathing, this is it. I have no wish to achieve anything later on. But of course, that’s difficult to sustain (laughing.) But I try my best.
Please enjoy this dharma talk from Thay Phap Khoi given earlier in 2015.