Was there any religion in your household as you grew up?
Not so much, other than the basic, “Be good.” My parents told me that we were Methodist but I didn’t know what that meant.
How did you find Thay and the Dharma?
I has studied Comparative Religions in the 80’s in school where I was introduced to Buddhism. It was pretty much an interest at first. I became a practitioner in the late 90s. Somewhere along the way I began to practice meditation, reading books and practicing at home. After I was sitting for a while I decided to go to a temple or practice centre. The nearest was a Chinese Centre. They had a Western group that met every Sunday.
At what point did you meet Thay’s teachings?
When I was reading meditation books, I came across Transformation and Healing. I didn’t know who Thay was at the time. On a US Tour in 1999, Thay came to San Diego for a Day of Mindfulness at a park and I went. That’s how it all began.
What were your first impressions of Thay?
Very gentle and very peaceful. At that time I wanted to become a monastic so I was already looking at teachers and Thay impressed me. I practiced for a year at Deer Park when it just opened. They sent me to Plum Village in 2002 and I ordained in 2003.
What had you been doing before you ordained?
I had gone back to college in humanities and fine arts – sculpture. For me, sculpture is quite a contemplative process. “How do I take an idea and put it into form? What do I want to say if I want to say anything at all?”
When you look back at your novice years what stands out for you?
It was a very interesting time. I was a different person, and the same. It was very challenging. I was in a very large community which I’m not comfortable with. But I also felt very supported by the older brothers. For me it’s always been about the practice – how to overcome difficulties and challenges. All difficulties are venues into our freedom. I never lived a privileged life and I’ve always had to deal with some kind of difficulties. When things get tough, I’m not one to scamper off. Of course there were also a lot of fun and happy memories.
I only spent about 2 years at Plum Village. I was still a novice when I was asked to go to Deer Park, but then I ended up at Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont where I stayed until we moved here to Blue Cliff. I drove the moving van.
Looking back at your path in the community, what have you seen change in your path and your practice?
I certainly have a lot more patience, believe it or not. I think that my rough edges have been sanded down a bit. It’s part of the spiritual journey where we just keep working on what’s going on inside and inevitably something will change.
I practice differently now. I’m letting things reveal themselves rather than trying to figure it out or looking for something. I’ve gone back to my original Zen practice of just being. I don’t do a lot of contemplative meditation these days. Usually it’s just sitting, just being. It feels like that’s what I’m supposed to do to develop my spiritual nature.
Monastic robes and monastic life’s not the most important thing. The monastery is not the most important thing. It’s our spiritual life, our Bodhi nature, that’s the most important thing. I’ve always kept that as my shining aspiration. If you don’t like something in the community, just wait until it changes. The question is if we have patience, being one of the perfections. Do we have patience with one’s own suffering, individually and within a community setting.
My understanding of the dharma has deepened in the sense of how to apply it. The only way to understand these deep things is just to practice with them.
How has your relationship with Thay changed over the years?
I never spent very much time with Thay. On one level I don’t know very much about Thay. But on another level, I feel I understand what he’s trying to do. That’s the real connection.
Once you practice and take Thay on as a teacher (or any teacher-student relationship) eventually you get the essence. The teachings are Thay’s embodiment.
This next US Tour is a defining moment for our community. We’re going solo without Thay. People read Thay’s books but they don’t know very much about our monastic community very well. This will be a bit of a challenge.
At the recent White House conference with Buddhist Leaders on Climate Change, the big question was, from the administration and the organizers was, “Why have the Buddhists been so silent?” The administration hears from so many different religious groups. Why haven’t the Buddhists been speaking up? It’s fine that as an individual one makes changes on a personal level, driving a Prius and I become a vegetarian, for example. We need to do these individual things. But they were asking why aren’t we stepping up to the realm of politics? It was more of a contemplative question that wasn’t answered. It was given for us to take home.
When we talk about Buddhism in America, no one really knows what that’s going to look like. There has to be some Christian flavor because we are primarily, culturally Juedo-Christian. For example, we call ourselves “Brothers” and “Sisters.’ Who does that? Christian monastics. So it’s natural for us. Will Buddhism in America also involve more activism or is it just sitting on the cushion and building Sangha? It is good but there’s more to life than that. We don’t know yet.
I’m very interested in the western expression of monastic life, whether it’s our tradition or other traditions. One of the reasons I became a monastic is to have the Dharma in the West. How that happens, I don’t know.
I just read Zen in America. All these Zen Master and their first disciples, they didn’t have it figured out. But they took a step and then they responded to what happened. We try to take steps and we see what happens. No one has it figured out. I thought that was a very comforting book.
Join Chan Phap Vu on the USA Miracle of Mindfulness Tour in New York, Mississippi, and California in Fall 2015.
More information at http://miracleofmindfulness.org