This extraordinary story takes the reader from Saigon to the California coast to a monastery in southwest France. Huong Huynh was born to a Vietnamese mother and a U.S. soldier in the midst of war. She dedicated her life to healing and transforming the suffering of other people, first as a medical doctor and then as a nun. Ordained by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who gave her the name Dang Nghiem, she eventually began to experience true healing practices. With humor, insight, and an irrepressible sense of joy, Sister Dang Nghiem’s remarkable story offers clarity and guidance for anyone who has dealt with suffering and loss.
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Sister Dang Nghiem’s life story gives us the courage and inspiration to do what she strives to do everyday: to be the peace we long to see in our lives and in the world. —Elizabeth Lesser, Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
While our pain, and Sister Dang Nghim’s may seem insurmountable, this engaging book offers us tangible reasons and means to transform our suffering and benefit other. —Grace Jill Schireson, Zen Women
Sister Dang Nghiem’s story is an inspiring example of how to move towards joy. —Thich Nhat Hanh, Being Peace
I earned two college degrees. I graduated from a prestigious medical school. I traveled to recite my own poetry. I had loving and supportive partners. I had everything I had ever wished for. Yet the undercurrent of melancholy and depression continued to affect my moods, behaviors, and outlooks on life. Nightmares of incest continued to haunt me. The rare fights I ever had with my partners were always over movies that contained violence, physical abuse, and sexual abuse. I was unreasonable and righteous when it came to these issues, and no matter how sensitive and tireless my partners were, I would lash out at them in anger. I blamed them for not understanding my pain. I crawled into my own darkness. I would crawl back out eventually, but the wounds and the chasms, which I had created between us, continued to deepen. Of the two partners I had, I loved them both sincerely. Still, I sided more intimately with my own views and habit energies. I was unable to stop the continual damage and suffering generated by my own thoughts, actions, and speech.
When my last partner died, I saw emptiness in everything that my life was about. Discriminated against as a product of the war. Abused by my mother. Molested by my uncle. My only source of stability was my grandmother, and she had already passed away. I had worked so hard to become somebody. I had thought that love from my partner would compensate for all that I had lost. I saw my own delusions and follies. Suddenly, everything lost its color and lure.
It is not the love story that I want to hold on to, however. It is not the man’s body or his feelings that I want to idealize either. I was ordained seven months after he died, and I have been a nun for one year now. When I miss the physical body of my partner, I meditate on its parts, tossed by the waves, torn, dispersed, and deteriorated. When memories of our lives together become acute and intense, I breathe. I breathe through each wave of yearning, of regret, of guilt, of what could have been. Every time I ask him, where are you? A quiet voice immediately responds: “I am here. I have never left you.” I did not lose a partner only. I lost all over again my childhood. I lost my soul mate. I lost the accepting father and the gentle mother that he was to me. I lost the dream of a “normal life,” which I had tried so hard to achieve. Now I face my own mind. With the practice of mindfulness, I see clearer the working of my mind, and I have a new respect for it. I realize that if I were to remain out there in the world, my mind would drive me to a chronic depression, if not to a mental institute by now. If I’d remained functional, I would be a doctor, but not a healer to my patients, because I was too broken inside. I might be with another man, because I do not doubt my own ability to love someone. Unfortunately, the relationship would take form, not out of love, but out of confusion, loneliness, and despair. Habit energies, in my way of thinking and behaving, would wreck me, thus everyone who loved me, at full force. As a result, each day, I am thankful that I am here at Plum Village. I still cry often. At times, I cannot breathe. I go to the meditation hall to invite the bell and to chant. I find a discreet place to open up my throat and let out the sounds of crows in my chest.
Thay has given me the name “Dang Nghiem,” which means adornment with nondiscrimination. “No discrimination between men and women, between rich and poor….” Thay taught me. I practice my name diligently, because I see that nondiscrimination is the path to my liberation each day. Living with my sisters allows me the ample opportunity to practice it. I learn that my mind makes judgments throughout the day, and they arise quickly, at least at the speed of sound. I hear depressive, cynical, perverse, and ruminating thoughts played in my head. I also hear my own bizarre and disorienting logic as I drift in and out of sleep. They amaze me! This mode of mind-operation must have been going on all my life. Perhaps I never truly listened to my thoughts before. Perhaps I underestimated the effects they could have on me. Perhaps I did not realize that my perceptions could be so askew. A warehouse with no inventory. With the practice of mindfulness, I am learning to listen more closely to my mind. I listen. I no longer wish to be webbed in by its designs. I no longer wish to prove myself right. I no longer want to compare to others. The tendencies are intact, but I am not charmed by them anymore. I continue to cause suffering, through my thoughts, actions, and speech, but I am not proud of it. Diligently, I practice mindfulness, so that I may recognize my unskillful thought and behavior and begin anew as promptly as possible. I am no longer a doctor. I am not known for my poetry. I am not someone’s partner. My black hair, down to the waist for so many years, is now shaven each week; many white stumps are seen. Yet, here I am, facing the stone wall and the individual stones of various sizes, asking myself each day, how have I built this wall in me?