Meet the Monastics: Sister Hoa Nghiem

Offering the Dharma is the Best Offering

Sister Hoa Nghiem

Sister Hoa Nghiem

My family was not Buddhist.  My father was Chinese and my mother was Vietnamese.  I first came to Buddhism when my father had cancer.  My eldest sisters came to the temple to pray to help my father overcome his illness.  I was about 10 years old and I was living in Saigon.  I became vegetarian to support my father.  I was 15 when he passed away.

When the communists came into power in 1975 and my sisters went to England as Boat People, I stayed with my mother working as an accountant and I became vegetarian again.  My mother became a Buddhist and went to the temple.  I took the five mindfulness trainings but I really didn’t know what it meant.  A monk gave me many books to read by Thay but I didn’t know who he was.  I just liked the books.  Then in 1983, my sisters in England sent me a photo from France.  On the back of the photo she wrote, “This is Thay Thich Nhat Hanh.”  I was so surprised!  He was so young!  In my mind I thought that he was very old with a long beard but Thay was only 60 years old.

In 1985 I went to England with my mother under the Family Reunification program.  The next year Thay came to England.  I lived in London but I went up to my sister’s house in Birmingham for the retreat, where Thay and Sister Chan Khong stayed.  I was so excited to meet the monk who wrote all the books I had read in Vietnam.  Thay was so special.  He gave such different Dharma talks from what I’d heard in Vietnam.  In Vietnam the monks use Sino-Vietnamese and I couldn’t understand.  But Thay was so simple and I could understand.

In 1987 I had just passed my first year in computer engineering and Thay came to England again.  I went to Plum Village in 1988 and in 1991 I became a nun because I saw that the monastic life is so beautiful.  At the beginning, I saw the Way of freedom – no worries, no anxiety.  I just saw the joy of the monastic life.  But when I touched the reality of a nun’s life I saw things differently.  I saw that the monastics are humans too with all the mental formations.  I had to accept that.  I have learnt how to transform my habit energy to have freedom in my monastic life.

One day at Green Mountain Dharma Center I had the chance to be Thay’s attendant for the day; when he came on retreat.  Early one morning, I knocked on Thay’s door.  He invited me to come and drink tea with him.  We looked out the window at the crescent moon.  Thay told me, “You know, my child, we are so happy and lucky.  Outside, many people suffer a lot.”  But during that time I still didn’t realize Thay’s meaning.  Inside of me there was still some suffering.

I had the chance to go to Vietnam for two years from 2007-2009.  There was so much suffering around me.  I worked a lot doing things I hadn’t done before.  I went to the places of the poor people, the handicapped people, the people who were exposed to agent orange, the people in the mountains.  I visited so many of the Plum Village charity projects.  I represented Sr Chan Khong and she was so happy.  Thay wanted to renew Buddhism in Vietnam.  There was so much work but I didn’t care.  I worked to build the nunnery, Dieu Tram, and continued with the charity work.  I felt that my life was valuable.

But after coming back to Plum Village and now to Blue Cliff Monastery, I can see my monastic life very clearly.  Offering the Dharma is the best offering.  When you give a teaching and people understand their suffering, they transform.  It’s the best offering.  The path of what Thay would like us to do is the path of transmitting the Dharma to the people who suffer in the world.  This is very important for me now.  My path is to become Thay’s continuation to transmit the Dharma in life.  I think that Thay is very happy if we understand this ideal.

Now, I feel more understanding for people on the monastic path.  If something happens, if there is craving or attachment or competition, I know that we are still human.  People need time to transform.  When I started out I also had a lot of suffering and weaknesses.   That’s why I practice to look with the eyes of understanding now.  Sometimes now there might be still a person who irritates me but I hope that it’s just one side of the person.  They may transform.  I practice more compassion, more understanding.  I can realize my path now.  I am so happy.

Join Sr. Hoa Nghiem on the USA Miracle of Mindfulness Tour in New York, Mississippi, and California in Fall 2015.

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6 thoughts on “Meet the Monastics: Sister Hoa Nghiem

  1. Thank you sister for sharing your lovely story. So often this path seems impossible. Your sharing make me feel like I, too, might one day diminish my habit energy in the way that you have.

  2. Norma Bradley, True Blue Gem says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your path with such openness and beauty. My parents were boat people from Russia to the United States in the early nineteen hundreds. They chose not to share their suffering and to bring joy into their lives. I have such compassion for your suffering and appreciate the joy you have created in your life. Thank you again for all you do to help other people. You are an inspiration.
    I look forward to seeing you at Magnolia Monastery in the fall.

  3. David Viafora says:

    So wonderful to hear your story sister, as I feel that I know you so much better, especially the deep aspiration that connects us all.

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