Interview with Sister Ha Nghiem (Sr. Fern)
Why did you become a nun?
Sister Ha Nghiem: There are times in life when you touch life really deeply and you touch yourself really deeply. You can see how beautiful life is and there's a deeper connection between everything than you can usually see with worldly eyes. When I saw that deeper connection between things, their suchness, it made me want to love everything and take care of everything. You never want to see harm come to anything and you have a desire to help others touch the deep beauty of life. For me, it was only something I could touch sometimes. But I was very inspired by reading about people who understood themselves deeply, and I saw that it was only then that they could help others. That's why I ordained.
There have been two elements always in my life since I was little. The first is that we lived in the mountains in a cabin without electricity and it was so peaceful and so simple. Because it was so quiet and peaceful you could touch everything and see beauty in everything. You could touch the life of the forest and even the house itself. And when I came to Plum Village, it had a similar kind of simplicity like my childhood that I loved. Sometimes when material conditions are less, there's more room for people and life.
The second element, also since I was quite young, was that I learned about environmental and political issues. By age sixteen, I was so concerned about the state of the world and I cared so much that I knew I had to give my whole life to try to improve the situation. When I came to Plum Village, I loved it because the lifestyle was so simple. Thay's teaching was very deep, but very much about being engaged. For me it felt perfect—I felt so at home. I loved whenever I saw a monk or nun, even before coming to Plum Village—the image of their simplicity, lightness and how they gave up everything except what's most important to them: the path of practice and to be there for everything that needs them.
Was being Western difficult?
Sister Ha Nghiem: At first it was hard being a westerner because I had lived in a lot of other communities and I had my own ideas about how things should be. Of course other sisters had their own ideas and not much openness or communication. There were only three other western sisters before me and they were already much older in the practice. So I felt quite alone a lot of the time. People were always talking around me but I didn't understand. It was hard in that sense. But there was always the teaching and practice that helped to nourish me.
But all that changed. Now it's so different. There is much more understanding between the sisters. We all practice a lot of patience and try to listen and look deeply in order to understand each other, with all our cultural differences. Some time after I ordained, Thay said, "We need to get you some younger western sisters." I would pray "I know you are out there in the world somewhere, please come." Now there are so many of them!
How have you changed because of the practice?
Sister Ha Nghiem: I can take care of my feelings and my mind now, whereas before I knew the practice, they were so strong and would carry me away. Now, no matter how strong they are, I always have the practice, so I don't feel afraid. Before I used to cry pretty often, or feel sad sometimes about things in the world. But it seems I hardly cry anymore. Sometimes six months pass and I realize I haven't cried once! Because I can touch something deeper in life, things don't make me so sad anymore. When I am troubled I know how to look deeply, using the teachings of the Buddha as my guide, in order to gain understanding and peace.
You ordained with your partner of seven years. How have you practiced to transform your romantic love and attachment?
Sister Ha Nghiem: For me it took a long time. I'm still working with it. It wasn't hard to become a monastic, but I still had feelings for him that would bother me. I didn't accept them, because I thought as a nun, I shouldn't have these feelings. A few times I talked to Thay about it. He always told me it's normal, it's fine, and l just need to keep watering my happiness, to find out how to be happy in the Sangha and see that as a nun, we don't want to love just one person but many. He encouraged me to keep trying to open my heart wider.
But I found we went through difficult times when we stopped showing our love for each other in any way. We were kind of cold. We would pay lots of attention to other people, but not to each other. It was at that time that I saw the weakness in my love, I saw that if my love for him was dependent on him loving me, then I wasn't loving him deeply. I spent time in meditation looking at that, trying not to see him as my partner, as mine, as someone who cares for me, loves me, spends his time on me. And I was able to touch and see him as a person with many beautiful things inside as well as difficulties. I cultivated, I practiced to touch a feeling of love for him without wanting anything in return. I practiced to care most about his path. So even when there were times I wanted to go talk to him, if I felt it wouldn't be supportive of him , then I wouldn't talk or have fun with him. And also not give him things. This is really deep caring, the kind no one can see, when you just want what is good for the other.
Often I had the impulse to give him something or do something for him, and then I would say no because it wouldn't help him become more free in himself, nor me either. It wouldn't help us. We have known each other since we were teenagers. When we were together, we were very close, we spent all of our time together and lived together for many years. Our minds moved together from being almost children to being adults, from being teenagers, to finding a direction. Before we were monastic, we already had chosen a very simple life, learning about things that watered our deep aspirations. In many ways, we found the spiritual path together, supporting each other. We were so much a part of each other before ordination.
I think I'll always fee l very close to him, because part of our root is one. Just like one would feel for a mother or a sibling because we really grew up together. But I know that the most important thing deep in his heart is the same in mine - it is our aspiration on the path . So that's what's most alive between us now, whereas before there were many other things.
How do you practice to build sisterhood?
Sister Ha Nghiem: For me it is the most important thing we can do. I had a lot of aspirations coming to Plum Village, but I learned that the best way for me to realize them is for our whole Sangha to grow really strong. I saw that helping the environment, helping children, or anything that I want to do can be done best if the whole Sangha can become really strong. We can do so much together when we have the stability and clarity to look deeply into the situation in the world. The more we practice, the more our minds can see things clearly and the more joy we will have to offer.
I can see that most people in the world are so agitated inside, always reacting to things. If you have people who know how to practice, being there, they can be calm and find a harmonious solution, by stopping, not reacting. I realized that the most important thing I could do to help the environment and the whole world was to help my sangha. At first this was a conflict within me. I wanted to keep doing other things, but building the Sangha was working towards those other things also.
In my meditation, I like to contemplate my sisters—to see their potential. I take time to look into them and into myself. I see in my daily interactions I can be quite unskillful. I'm very shy and not always really present for others. So when I look back I see, oh, I just walked by that sister, or maybe during the whole month I haven't acknowledged her. I may be doing something with a sister and I realize I am only concentrating on what I'm doing, like cutting wood. But I could use that time for us to get to know each other more and to show my love, to show that I'm here for her. So when I realize that, sometimes I practice it right away. If I have even a very little thing to give to a sister, I do it with my whole heart; I know I'm alive and she 's alive. It's wonderful, it can mean so much and bring a lot of joy.
I try to find little opportunities to connect with my sisters. But I think one of the most important things is my own practice. If I'm really practicing walking, and during sitting, I water my bodhicitta and cultivate insight while we do chanting, then I'm offering a very deep energy to the Sangha. That's what we're all trying to do together. That's the best thing I can offer. Whenever I see other sisters doing that it nourishes me so much. I feel so happy that they are just there and practicing.
I know there are times when I'm not practicing deeply, I'm not offering the right energy to the Sangha. And I know I have to be careful to practice equanimity. I know I am not always able to have complete equanimity but at least I'm going in that direction. I do take care to try and not water the seed of jealousy in one sister or another—to see who needs support, not just being there for one, two or three sisters. I practice to keep opening my heart to have friendships with many different sisters.
Of course, there are some sisters you feel really nourished by, sisters I can talk to deeply about the practice, my difficulties, and touch the seed of joy with very easily. This is very important. But I use the energy and openness I get from these moments and I try to share it with the next brother or sister. I never think I have one, three or five good friends and I can stop here. I'm so happy I have a sister I fee l close to on the path because when we talk we help each other grow. But I always feel inspired to have that with other brothers and sisters, so that this kind of bond and support can grow throughout the Sangha.
Sister Ha Nghiem, True Adornment with a Lotus, grew up in New York State. She ordained in 1996 and received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.