• I am continually amazed at how Thich Nhat Hanh is able to translate the Buddhist tradition into everyday life and make it relevant and helpful for so many people. Cultivating the Mind of Love might be my favorite book of his.—Natalie Goldberg

  • Chapter Two

    First Love

    She was twenty years old when I met her. We were at the Temple of Complete Awakening in the highlands of Vietnam. I had just given a course on basic Buddhism, and the abbot of the temple asked, “Thay, why don’t you take a break and stay with us here for a few days before returning to Saigon?” I said, “Sure, why not?”

    I had been in the village that day, helping a group of young people rehearse a play they were going to perform for Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. More than anything else, I wanted to help renew Buddhism in my country, to make it relevant to the needs of the young people. I was twenty-four, full of creative energy, an artist and a poet. It was a time of war with the French, and many people were dying. One Dharma brother of mine, Thay Tam Thuong, had just been killed. As I was walking up the steps to return to the temple, I saw a nun standing there, looking out onto the nearby hills. Seeing her standing like that was like a fresh breeze blowing across my face. I had seen many nuns before, but I had never had a feeling like that.
    For you to understand, I have to share some experiences I’d had many years earlier. When I was nine, I saw on the cover of a magazine an image of the Buddha sitting peacefully on the grass. Right away I knew that I wanted to be peaceful and happy like that. Two years later, when five of us were discussing what we wanted to be when we grew up, my brother Nho said, “I want to become a monk.” It was a novel idea, but I knew I also wanted to become a monk. At least in part, it was because I had seen the image of the Buddha on the magazine. Young people are very open and very impressionable. I hope film and TV producers will take this to heart.

    Six months after that, our class went on a field trip to Na Son Mountain. I had heard that a hermit lived there. I didn’t know what a hermit was, but I felt I wanted to see him. I had heard people say that a hermit is someone dedicated to becoming peaceful and happy like a Buddha. We walked six miles to the mountain and then climbed for another hour, but when we arrived, our teachers told us that the hermit wasn’t there. I was very disappointed. I didn’t understand that hermits do not want to see many people. So when the rest of the class stopped for lunch, I continued uphill, hoping to encounter him on my own. Suddenly, I heard the sound of water dripping, and I followed that sound until I found a beautiful well nestled among the stones. When I looked down into it, I could see every pebble and every leaf at the bottom. I knelt down and drank the sparkling, clear water, and felt completely fulfilled. It was as if I were meeting the hermit face to face! Then I lay down and fell asleep.

    When I woke up a few minutes later, I didn’t know where I was. Then I remembered my classmates, and as I headed down to join them, a sentence came to my mind, not in Vietnamese, but in French: “J’ai gouté l’eau la plus délicieuse du monde.” (“I have tasted the most delicious water in the world.”) My friends were relieved to see me, but I continued to think only about the hermit and the well. After they returned to playing, I ate my lunch in silence.

    My brother was the first to become a monk, and everyone in our family was worried that the life of a monk would be too difficult. So I didn’t tell them about my wish to follow the same path. But the seed within me continued to grow, and four years later my dream was realized. I became a novice monk at Tu Hieu Pagoda, near the Imperial City of Hue, in central Vietnam.