Living in ‘The Country of the Present Moment’: My life as a Zen Monk

At the end of 2017 I set an aspiration to explore how I might be of the most service to the world in my short lifetime. This aspiration led me to becoming a Novice Monk in the Plum Village tradition of Zen Master, peace activist, and poet Thich Nhat Hanh for 3 months in 2018.

I’ve since have been back to the ‘real world’ for ~2 months now, and it hasn’t been easy being back. I attempted to write about my experience immediately after leaving the monastery, but struggled to find the right words. Daily I am still processing, and frequently I am also sharing with dear friends and connections about my experience. Though no amount of words can truly capture my experience, this is an attempt from my heart to do so, to honour my commitment to share what I’ve learnt and in hopes that it may be of some benefit to someone.

The best way I can distill the entire experience: An inner adventure of self-discovery, challenge, and transformation. And boy, what a ride it was!

Aspirancy

With fellow aspirant Brother Chen in front of Thich Nhat Hanh’s hut

For the first 2 weeks in the monastery, I was an aspirant, someone with an aspiration to receive monastic ordination. The life of an aspiration prepared me for monastic life, and involved daily classes on the monastic vows that I would take, practising mindful manners i.e., ways living all of life in mindfulness, and a gradual integration into the monastic community. I wore the blue robes in the above picture, which in of itself had the effect of causing me to become more aware of my bodily actions- if I walked mindlessly with unnecessary speed- the ‘swish’ of my long robes would remind me to slow down; if I scooped food with a distracted mind, the sleeve of my robe would very easily be dipped in the thick sauce of that particular dish.

I took this very seriously, almost rigidly, and put my heart, soul, and spirit into preparing the best I could. But no amount of preparation could prepare me for the actual day of ordination.

Ordination

A few months prior to heading to the monastery, I had intentionally withheld informing my dear Mother that I was becoming a monk. Instead, I told her I was going for ‘mindfulness training’ for 3 months. This came from a place of fear- I was afraid I would cause her suffering- I am the eldest son, and my Mother had spent much of her life working to single-handedly support myself and my siblings. With the loving encouragement of friends and community, I decided to tell her the truth. I’m so glad I did. Prior to my ordination ceremony, there was a ceremony entitled “Paying gratitude to Parents ceremony”.

In front of the entire monastic community and loved ones who had travelled from near and far, we (the aspirants knelt) before our loved ones to ask for permission to be ordained as a monks/nuns. Kneeling before my Mum, I looked into her eyes and read a few sentences. I don’t remember the exact words, but the essence of it is captured in Ho’oponopono, a Hawaiian practice of reconciliation:

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.”

A few tears streamed down my Mother’s face, and in that moment I felt a deep sense of love and reconciliation. Growing up in a household where I rarely said those words, this was a healing and precious moment for us.

I learnt to let go of my fixed views of my Mum and how to love her through simple means: a hug, saying “I love you”. This is still very much a work-in-progress, but I now make it a point to hug her whenever I see her.

The ordination ceremony itself was a thing of beauty. In front of the entire community, 17 aspirants from 7 different geographies (China, Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand) dressed in our respective national costumes received the 10 Novice Precepts, vows that would provide that right conditions for us to transform our suffering and find true happiness, and to help others do the same- the is highest aspiration of a monastic. This is the deepest ‘why’ I decided to embark on this journey. In our lifetime, we only have approximately 80,000 hours in my career, and I really wanted to explore: How I might be of the most service to the world in my short lifetime? I had been a consultant, a coach, but what about a monk living a life of simplicity and service to others? As Mary Oliver so beautifully put:

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

This aspiration is captured in what unfolded next- the ceremonial shaving of our heads where we recited the lines shown below. This symbolised that as a monk, I would endeavour to transform all my afflictions, and to bring happiness to all beings by helping them to do the same.

“Shaving my hair completely,
I make the great vow today…
…to transform all my afflictions,
and bring happiness to all beings.”
-Gatha (Mindfulness Verse) for Shaving Hair
Ordination Ceremony

Monkhood

The Sanskrit word for Novice is shramanera (for monks) and shramenrika (for nuns). Shram means “to practise tirelessly”. Hence, my daily goal as a monk was to practise with utmost diligence to transform my suffering into happiness. Specifically, I was practising mindfulness, the capacity to be aware of what is going on in the present moment.

“Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed.”
Source: Thich Nhat Hanh

Through shining the light of mindfulness, or awareness, on oneself, bit by bit one’s unwholesome habit energies and difficult emotions e.g., judgment, anger, anxiety, etc., are transformed.

This is simple in theory, but in practice requires continuous and appropriate effort to bring to bear full awareness to each and every moment to evoke transformation. Such effort required training.

The training I received as a monk was 4-fold:

  1. Conscious Breathing
  2. Looking at Life as a Field of Mindfulness
  3. Watering Seeds of Joy
  4. Living in Community
With fellow Novice Monks in my ordination family. From left-right: Br. Rajagriha (me), Br. Great Forest from Taiwan, Br. Jetta Grove from Thailand, Br. Bodhi Tree from Thailand, Br. Deer Park from Thailand

1. Conscious Breathing

“Regardless of our internal weather- our thoughts, emotions and perceptions- our breathing is always with us like a faithful friend. Whenever we feel carried away, or sunken in a deep emotion, or scattered in worries and projects, we can return to our breathing to collect and anchor our mind.”
Source: Happiness by Thich Nhat Hanh

Even though we’re breathing in every moment, we’re often not aware of the fact that we’re breathing; we’re not aware that because we can breathe, we’re alive! The first step is thus to become conscious of our breathing- to bring full awareness to our in-breath, and to our out-breath. This is a foundational practice for all Novice Monks: to become aware of one’s breath without any intervention; simply observing the breath. The practice is simple — we recite silently with our breathing:

Breathing in, I’m aware that I’m breathing in. (with the in-breath)
Breathing out, I’m aware that I’m breathing out. (with the out-breath)

After a few breaths, we can shorten it to “In, Out”. Immediately, this has the effect of stopping our wandering mind. Often, our bodies are in one place but our minds are somewhere else- worrying about the past or planning for the future. Through conscious breathing, we unite and return our body and mind to the present moment. Try it out yourself!

Daily, I would do my utmost to bring awareness of my breathing to all that I was doing, be it walking, cooking, eating, and so on. The breath is essentially our ally, helping us to be fully present to all that is unfolding in our lives. We start to realise that every seemingly mundane moment is actually a wonderful moment. If we’re happy, we’re fully present to our happiness. If we’re suffering, we can be there for our suffering, which is already healing.

Most of our daily activities can be accomplished while following our breath… When our work demands special attentiveness to avoid confusion or an accident, we can unite Full Awareness of Breathing with the task itself… For example, when we are carrying a pot of boiling water…we can be aware of every movement of our hands, and we can nourish this awareness by means of our breath: “Breathing in, I am aware of my hands carrying a pot of boiling water.” …We must also combine Full Awareness of Breathing with every movement of our bodies: “Breathing in, I am sitting down.” …Stopping the random progression of thoughts and no longer living in forgetfulness are giant steps forward in our meditation practice.”
Source: Breathe, You are Alive! by Thich Nhat Hanh

As an older monastic brother explained to me through metaphor: when we turn off a ceiling fan… it still spins for a while before coming to a complete halt. Similarly, as we try to apply conscious breathing in our lives, it takes some time (and continuity of practice) for the random progression of thoughts to stop, and for the mind to become still. Each time I realised my mind was distracted was actually a wonderful moment- I had become aware that I was distracted and now had the opportunity to:

  1. Relax my body and mind
  2. Release the distraction
  3. Return to the present moment

This practice goes on, and I continue try to embrace my distractions as friends that help me bring my attention back to the present moment.

2. Looking at Life as Field of Mindfulness

Myself, Sister Trieu Nghiem (Sister Assembly), and Cee hanging out by a field

We were instructed to look a life as a field of mindfulness through poetry. Yes, poetry!

Enter Gathas, short mindfulness poetry verses. Upon waking, I would rub my bald head to remind myself of my aspiration, and before getting up I would silently recite the following Gatha:

“Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before of me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
and to look at beings with eyes of compassion.”
Source: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

Several more Gathas would follow, which helped bring full attention to whatever I was doing- folding the blanket, taking the first steps of the day, opening the door. Before walking to the toilet, I would recite a Gatha for walking, and bring my full attention to each and every step I was making.

“You are living in the poem.”
- Naomi Shihab Nye, Poet and Professor

Reciting a Gatha is an invitation to stop and become fully aware that we are actually living in a poem, which transforms seemingly banal activities like walking to the toilet into a rich experience. Through Gathas, life started to become living poetry. I started to look deeply at the mundane, and with practice the mundane became the sacred. For example, before drinking water I would recite the following Gatha:

“Water comes from high mountain sources,
water runs deep in the earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us and sustains all life.
My gratitude is filled to the brim.”
Source: Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living by Thich Nhat Hanh

In doing so, I would be reminded that to drink water is literally keep myself alive; to receive sustenance that has somehow flowed from the high and deep places of the Earth right into my hands. What a miracle and privilege! Very naturally, I would bring a much deeper awareness to the act of drinking, and was fully able to enjoy the cup of water in my hands.

This practice goes on, and helps to bring me back to what is unfolding in the present moment, with the added bonus of a sense of gratitude. If you’re curious to learn more about Gathas, pick up a copy of ‘Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living’ by Thich Nhat Hanh.

3. Watering Seeds of Joy

Just, enjoy!”- 2 words I heard time and again in my time as a Novice Monk regardless of what I was doing- sitting, sipping tea, looking at the sky, working in the garden. Why were these words repeatedly uttered?

For most of us, myself included, we spend much of our lives chasing after that next accolade, that next milestone, that next purchase- believing these pursuits would make us happy. Even though we know such pursuits will not provide lasting happiness, with research showing that even winning the lottery only results in a momentary boost in happiness, we continue to chase after things. We have been running a lot, and we continue running… and we don’t know know how long, how much more we have to run to look for what we are looking for. What are we to do? “Just, enjoy!” — life, and all the wonders of life are only available in the present moment.

What my monastic brothers and sisters were reminding me of was to truly live fully in each moment; to enjoy all that was unfolding in my life. The past is no longer there and the future has yet to come- it is only in the present moment that we can be truly happy and create conditions of happiness.

Even the practice of mindfulness itself is something to be enjoyed, as Thich Nhat Hanh describes below:

“Sitting is an enjoyment, not hard labor for enlightenment. Mindful walking is an enjoyment, and eating breakfast is an enjoyment. If we enjoy the practice, then the practice becomes pleasant, nourishing, and healing for us.”
Source: Breathe, You are Alive! by Thich Nhat Hanh

Initially, I had all sorts of lofty expectations for myself, seeking to be fully concentrated in all of my activities. Unsurprisingly, this led to a fair bit of unnecessary stress and disappointment. The big shift occurred when I started letting go of my expectations and enjoying every moment, be it sitting down or sweeping the floor. Every moment was a moment I could savour, and if there was sadness or suffering in me I could also be fully present to it. This is the practice of aimlessness. By letting go of our striving as Thich Nhat Hanh writes below, we are able to realise that we can be happy wherever we are.

In aimlessness, we see that we do not lack anything, that we already are what we want to become, and our striving just comes to a halt. We are at peace in the present moment, just seeing the sunlight streaming through our window or hearing the sound of the rain. We don’t have to run after anything. We can enjoy every moment… If we think we have twenty-four hours to achieve a certain purpose, today will become a means to attain an end. The moment of chopping wood and carrying water is the moment of happiness. We do not need to wait for these chores to be done to be happy. To have happiness in this moment is the spirit of aimlessness. Otherwise, we will run in circles for the rest of our life.”
Source: The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

But really, why does being joyful matter?

“Just as a surgeon may judge that a patient is too weak to undergo surgery, and recommends that the patient first get some rest and nourishment so she can bear the surgery, so we need to strengthen our foundation of joy and happiness before focusing on our suffering.”
Source: Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child by Thich Nhat Hanh

Facing our suffering, our shadows and pain- is no easy feat. It is only when we have enough ‘stock’ of happiness do we have sufficient capacity to truly be with our suffering,

4. Living in Community

In my room with my monastic brothers from Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam

The forth, and final key element of being a Novice Monk was living with Sangha, “a community of friends practising together in order to bring about and to maintain awareness”. Specifically, this meant living with over 200 monastics from over ~10 different nationalities. As many of us can attest to, living with 3–5 people i.e., our family is already a practice in of itself. Why was there such an arrangement?

“Without being in a sangha, without being supported by a group of friends who are motivated by the same ideal and practice, we cannot go far.
Source: Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities by Thich Nhat Hanh

I don’t know about you, but slowing down and being truly present is something that I found, and still find challenging; my habit energy is the energy of the bustling city- busyness, loneliness, and restlessness. What helped me greatly to cultivate mindfulness was living in the Sangha. All of the Sangha members were living in the ‘Country of the Present Moment’- they were practising in the same way: walking mindfully, sitting mindfully, eating mindfully, smiling, and enjoying each moment of life. Just through being around them, I felt supported, nourished, and was better able to bring more awareness to my life.

When I had difficulties, or when I suffering arose in me, I was not alone- I could take refuge in community. Prior to entering the monastery, I was in a shaky romantic relationship, one that my then-partner and I had agreed to review the after I was done with my novitiate programme. She visited me mid-way through monkhood. While it was nice to enjoy the familiar presence of a loved one (though constrained by the form of a monk), the difficulties we faced as a couple manifested in ways unexpected and unpleasant for us both in the monastery. I loved her deeply, but I knew this was neither healthy nor sustainable. After much reflection and deliberation, I decided to end the relationship. All of this occured while I was still a monk and much of it involved deep pain, and suffering- even though the decision was resonant. Through it all, I was still able to breathe and smile thanks to the loving support of my monastic brothers, who listened deeply, offered words of encouragement, and watered my good seeds. I was able to take refuge in them. On a side note- finding true love is something I would like to write about separately.

When we throw a rock into a river the rock will sink. But if we have a boat, the boat can carry hundreds of pounds of rocks and it will not sink. The same thing is true with our sorrow and pain. If we have a boat, we can carry our pain and sorrow, and we will not sink into the river of suffering. And what is that boat? That boat is, first of all, the energy of mindfulness that you generate by your practice. That boat is also the sangha — the community of practice consisting of brothers and sisters in the dharma.”
Source: Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities by Thich Nhat Hanh

As Thich Nhat Hanh writes above, the Sangha is like a boat that can help to support our pain and suffering. The same applies in real life. We don’t have to bear our pain alone- we can take refuge in community, in loved ones and dear friends. Being in community- we are supported and loved through the ups and downs of life.

But no community is perfect- in fact, perfect community is imperfect.

Every member of the sangha has his or her weaknesses and strengths, and you have to recognize them in order to make good use of the positive elements for the sake of the whole sangha. You also have to recognize the negative elements so that you and the whole sangha can help embrace them. You don’t leave that negative element to the person alone, because he may not be able to hold and transform it by himself.”
Source: Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities by Thich Nhat Hanh

But embracing the negative elements in others is no easy feat. In the monastery, it is customary and respectful to join our palms and bow to senior monastic brothers and sisters. In my case, this was essentially everyone. Beyond being customary, this was a practice I enjoyed! My experience of receiving a bow is an experience of someone honouring my presence with their whole being. I wanted to do the same for others in the monastery- to honour their presence with my whole being.

So I went about bowing with earnesty and enthusiasm. And while my bows were almost always returned (as was the custom), there was one particular monk who never returned my bow. Worse still, I felt like he didn’t even acknowledge my presence. Further, his interactions with me were always curt, and one time he even yelled at me to correct my not-so-mindful behaviour. My mind went into a negative spiral, and I thought to myself: “How could this guy be a monk??? Hasn’t he been a monk for years??? What went wrong???”

I stopped bowing to him, but even then I felt an uneasy tension whenever our paths crossed. Just to deal with the uneasiness, I decided to practice metta, loving-kindness, with him. Whenever I saw him, I would silently wish him: “May you be well. May you be happy.” I also tried to offer him help whenever the opportunity arose. My first two tries were met with a curt no, but the third was well-received. Eventually, the tension between us dissipated, and I felt I could feel a genuine sense of compassion and love for him.

He had become my practice, and through that practice my heart grew bigger, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes below:

It is thanks to the presence of weakness in you and weakness in a brother or a sister that you learn how to practice. To practice is to have an opportunity to transform…There are some people who think of leaving the sangha when they encounter difficulties with other sangha members. They cannot bear little injustices inflicted on them because their hearts are small. To help your heart grow bigger and bigger, understanding and love are necessary. Your heart can grow as big as the cosmos; the growth of your heart is infinite. If your heart is like a big river, you can receive any amount of dirt. It will not affect you, and you can transform the dirt very easily.”
Source: Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities by Thich Nhat Hanh

Beyond the Monastery

Offering the song “Happiness is here and now” with monastic brothers and sisters

The monastic path is not an easy one, but it is at the same time a joyful path- a path of generating peace in oneself, and helping others do the same. It is a path that is deeply meaningful and worthwhile. I seriously considered staying on as a monk, but after deeply looking at my aspiration I realised that I might be of greater service beyond the monastery- at least for now.

Now that I have returned back to the world beyond the monastery, my task is 3-fold:

  1. Integrate elements and lessons learnt as a monk into real life
  2. Deepen my self-awareness, and my commitment to build beloved communities
  3. Experiment with ways I can be of the greatest service and live out my purpose: 
    To help myself and others to awaken to their deepest potential, and to be truly happy.

A lotus for you, dear friend and reader. May we continue beautifully to wake up to our deepest potential, and to find true happiness.