Meet the Monastics: Brother Pháp De

Phap De at Deer Park

Meet Brother Pháp De

I was brought up in an Irish-German traditional Catholic family.  I became an altar boy at 13 and the local priest was my hero.  I used to do daily mass with him and go out to do sick calls. I became an enthusiastic participant in my Catholic religion so much so that I went off at age 15 to Catholic seminary and became a priest at age 26.  Through the years as a priest I began to find difficulties – disagreements with Rome and the Vatican, and not experiencing the brotherhood that I was looking for.  I resigned in 1970.  Part of that was meeting Dan Berrigan and he woke me up to what was going on in Vietnam.  I left the priesthood and went out into the world to work with criminals, to continue what I saw as the work of Jesus.

In 1993 I was a stockbroker and in chemotherapy for stage IV lymphoma.  On the bed-stand of my partner was a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness.  That was my first taste of  Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) and it had a good influence on me.  For instance, I stopped watching TV while eating dinner, I drove the car without listening to the radio and I ran along the Mississippi River without my walkman, just listening to nature.  Those were the early influences of Thay on me.  Then in 1997, with a new partner who became my fiance, we went to Plum Village and we were very moved by it.  We returned to Minnesota to begin Sangha building.  In 2000 we moved to Santa Barbara and helped form a residential lay practice community there.

During this time I had the good opportunity to sit in the orchard at Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont with Thay and talk about many things including Dan Berrigan and my experience of the Peace Movement.  I also had the good experience of going to China with Thay in 1999.  In that trip I had just finished reading Thay’s new book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. I said, “Thay, I think you understand Jesus better than all the great theology teachers I had in the 50’s and the 60’s.”  And I had good ones.  He simply said, “That’s because I have Jesus in my heart.”  Since then, he has been for me the best example of a Living Christ in my life and he’s the reason why I’m here as a monk.

In 2002, October, recovering from the separation from my fiance and reading the life of St Francis of Assisi, I thought, “He’s just like Thay!”  Then I thought, “Why not me?” I had a sense then that I didn’t need another romance, I didn’t need any more money (I had just retired).  I said, “There’s more and Thay is the man that’s got it.”  I think we call that spiritual greed.

On July 3, I ordained and Thay said my name, “Chan Phap De.”  Everybody laughed and I learned that it meant “Young Brother.”  I was 68.  Years later, I heard Thay say, “The reason I made you ‘Young Brother’ is because they used to call you Father.”  He’s got a sense of humor.  I felt fully embraced by Thay and understood by him.  I feel very lucky.

The experience of the community has been a very powerful training ground for me.  Living in the world, my tendency is to get things done and to do things my way.  If people didn’t cooperate and go along with me, I’d write them off and move on and get stuff done.  I’m learning in the practice to recognize my compulsion, or addiction, to be busy and to get results my way.  Being a monk has taught me about letting go.  I’m experiencing more peace, more joy, and better health.  For me, it’s still a challenge to really embrace our interbeing-ness and to really be there for my brother or sister without being critical.

My biggest challenge has been in the last three or four years.  Thay has asked me to help Westerners to get in touch with their own spiritual roots.  I said, “Thay, everybody I know is so happy with the mindfulness practice.  They don’t miss their old religion.”  He said, “I don’t buy that.  It’s in their blood.”  I’m realizing more and more that most of us don’t really realize that.

I’m having to get back in touch with those Catholic roots, with Thay’s insistence.  I’m discovering what sabotaged my priesthood and early life.  It was dualistic thinking.  I was a very good salesman and I was a very popular teacher in the sixties but I was caught up in the notions rather than the real lived insights.  I was caught up in good theology and the best of the latest thinking but not really experiencing an intimate connection with God and with Jesus.  This practice and Thay’s teaching has helped me to discover what happened back there that I didn’t understand.  Now it’s providing me also with the challenge to dig in and help others to go back and connect.  Recently in Hong Kong, I said, “Thay, I don’t think that I’m up for this effort to help Westerners get back in touch with the Church.”  And Thay just looked at me and he said, “You’ve got to be a revolutionary.  We need a new Christianity.”  I’m still in the process of stepping up to that.

Another important teaching for me is on Earth Holding.  Thay is teaching us how to love and understand who our Mother Earth is.  For me, again as an old Christian Catholic, I learned that earth is a place of exile because our ancestors committed sins.  The earth is a place that we are being tested. Which is bad theology, not recognizing that we’re here are a blessing.  And God is not some being looking at us saying that we’d better get baptized or else – that he’s somehow upset with us.  or she’s upset with us.  The earth our Mother, and Thay says it so well, gave birth to Jesus and to Buddha and to us.  Our practice is to really learn on a daily basis how to cherish Holy Mother Earth, in the flowers and in each other.

Join Brother Pháp De on the USA Miracle of Mindfulness Tour in New York, Mississippi, and California in Fall 2015.

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9 thoughts on “Meet the Monastics: Brother Pháp De

  1. S Harlow Sharp says:

    This brief yet enlightning article could not have come at a better time in my life. I have been struggling to find balance between my original Christian faith and desire to fully embrace Buddhism. My love and devotion to be a proper steward of our Great Earth Mother sometimes causes me great anguish when I see, hear and feel all of the destruction & devastation caused by ignorance of the human species.
    Humans should not possess dominion over the earth as the Bible states, but should respect and cherish all life she harbors and tread lightly over her with humbleness and a steadfast respect for her gifts to us all.

  2. Connie Barrett says:

    The Friends Meeting I have recently begun to attend has just begun a monthly discussion about the connections between Quakerism and Buddhism. What perfect synchronicity this is with Thay’s call for a new Christianity. Brother Phap De, I realize that you have deep roots in Catholicism, but consider reaching out to the Friends, too.

  3. Vickie MacArthur says:

    Dear Brother Phap Di. Thank you so much for sharing your story. As a minister in the Community of Christ, I have never lost touch with my Christian roots, yet I always felt something was missing until I met Thay and truly looked into the eyes of the Living Buddha/Living Christ. I have been blessed to learn and apply the practices of Plum Village in my life and feel a deep calling to share them with my Christian community (which isn’t always easy!) Your words remind me that Thay is encouraging all of us to return to our roots, and just like he did with Buddhism, to now renew Christianity with practices that will enliven and connect us with the true essence that Christ taught and transmitted. With gratitude, Divine Oneness of the Heart

  4. Thank you for this lovely heart warming article. I appreciate your comments about “going back to our roots” in my case this would be Christianity. This would not be an easy thing for me to do yet I am not dismissing it. I like the idea of going back to one’s own religious community and becoming a conduit for change, in my case this would be becoming a facilitator allowing a new Christianity to emerge. My life has been so richly rewarded and so changed by many like Eckhart Tolle, Richard Rohr and of course Thich Nhat Hanh. I have always struggled to connect or identify with Jesus yet this article presents Jesus in a whole new light…thank you

  5. Thank you for this introduction to Brother Pháp De. I have always appreciated his dharma talks, which I listen to as part of the Deer Park Dharmacasts. Especially appreciated are his observations that we should honor our past traditions and family, as Thay has said many times and has shared in his many books. Truly, it is a big help to hear this younger brother talk about his past experiences and especially about his experiences in the Christian tradition. There is a belief among many that Buddhism is inconsistent with Christianity, and, as Thay has said, these can and should co-exist beautifully. As the brother has noted here. It also reminds me of a beautiful Deer Park sister’s sharing (approximately 18 months ago) about her father’s being a protestant minister and also a lay dharma teacher. beautiful. I’m afraid that I cannot recall her name at this moment , but she has a beautiful kind voice and way about her, and she is a treasure.

  6. Steven Larmore says:

    Dear Chan Phap De,

    I understand when you say, “I was caught up in the notions rather than the real lived insights. I was caught up in good theology and the best of the latest thinking.”

    I remember approaching Buddhism from an academic/philosophical/intellectual perspective. Ordering academic journals on Eastern thought from the University of Hawaii and the latest pop-Buddhism (which has a place, too).

    But I am now learning these insights are best which are experienced through those types of practical, extra-ordinary life and living not just from the head, but from the heart and remaining grounded in it. Sometimes the answer is meant to be lived rather than received from someone else’s lips.


  7. “Young Brother” was so generous and wise and helpful to me during our consultation at Blue Cliff Monastery in Fall of 2015. He helped me during a particularly difficult time. I’m deeply saddened to hear of his passing. I’ll speak to him in my heart.

  8. Booker Harrap says:

    I met Brother Phap De in 2011 I think. I haven’t returned to Deer Park since, but my heart wanders there often. I May never have been struck so deeply by such a brief presence of someone in my life. He shared some of his time with me. He took me on a hike. He listened. He talked. I still hear him and feel his presence regularly. I’m very sad to hear he’s passed, and very grateful to have met him.

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