Answering the Call of the Heart

Now a lay Dharma teacher, Jem offers insights from his deep Earth-holding practice, surviving stage four cancer, and disrobing after eighteen years as a monk.

sitting in a forest on retreat; photo courtesy of Jem

From out of nowhere, the question arose in me: “If I look back at my life in ten or twenty years,

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Now a lay Dharma teacher, Jem offers insights from his deep Earth-holding practice, surviving stage four cancer, and disrobing after eighteen years as a monk.

sitting in a forest on retreat; photo courtesy of Jem

From out of nowhere, the question arose in me: “If I look back at my life in ten or twenty years, will I regret anything?” This was in 2013.

The question took me by surprise, as I was very happy with my life. I had even told some friends recently, “I love my life.”

Since 2006, I had lived at Deer Park Monastery where, among other things, I loved living in nature surrounded by much undeveloped space. I was nourished and inspired by Sangha life and our daily schedule. I had good communication and relationships with many monks, nuns, and friends. In 2010 I received the Dharma Lamp Transmission, which had given me an indescribable boost of energy and empowerment. As a Dharma teacher and acting abbot, I had plenty of opportunity to practice, grow, and offer my gifts. My engagement with the Wake Up community, including organizing and participating in Wake Up tours in 2011 and 2012, was especially nourishing. 

My question arose from consciousness, from my deep heart and volition: If I look back at my life in ten or twenty years, will I regret anything? The answer was clear and immediate: I want to find a way to bring our mindfulness practice to climate change.

… it became clear to me that our engagement must come from love, not fear, and from togetherness, not separation. We must be aimless and diligent.

Since childhood, I enjoyed taking refuge in nature; I always felt most content and connected while roaming in meadows, forests, and rocky hills or sitting by a creek. I heard Thầy’s teaching during his 2007 US tour (which resulted in his book The World We Have) and I had been touched by the energy and inspiration arising in the Sangha around a vegan diet, consuming less, car-free days, alternatively fueled cars, solar panels, and more. At that time, though, I had limited energy; I still needed to deepen my personal practice and take care of deep wounds and suffering. Nevertheless, I was profoundly affected by the way Thầy so openly, plainly, and strongly presented both the reports from the United Nations concerning pollution and the unsustainability of raising animals for food. He offered us all encouragement to consume less and to touch our interbeing nature with Mother Earth and life itself.

Through years of practice and community living, I had come to trust that when conditions are sufficient, manifestation happens. My question and answer had not arisen out of the blue; there were plenty of conditions.

When I shared with the Dharma teachers that I wanted to start a blog Earth Protection Here & Now,* there was full support. I set up a free Wordpress blog with much confidence and humility. I am not a biologist, climate expert, or activist. I am simply a human who sees the need for understanding our interconnectedness to all of life and to the Earth. I saw climate change as a catalyst for personal and collective healing and transformation.

When we start sharing, some will hear. Person by person, the lay Sanghas in the United States started to contact me. Of course, I was not the only one aspiring to apply mindfulness to climate change. When I started sharing in a blog, I had not planned for the theme weekend at Deer Park in 2014 or for the Earth Holder Retreats in 2016 at Deer Park, 2017 in New Mexico, 2018 in Minnesota, and 2020 at Deer Park. During the US tour of 2015, a real website emerged and an Earth Holder Care-Taking Council followed. The Sangha body made this happen. Aspiration sprouted and friendships were built and deepened.

Earth Holders Retreat, Deer Park Monastery, April 2014; photo courtesy of Jem

At the end of the theme weekend in 2014, I had tea and sharing with Nomi Green and Heather Lyn Mann, both of whom were involved and instrumental during the retreats to follow. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine also joined us. At one point in our sharing, it became clear to me that our engagement must come from love, not fear, and from togetherness, not separation. We must be aimless and diligent.

For me this is still so important. It is a compass for my life, practice, and service.

I have drawn much nourishment and support in my Earth Holder engagement from the writings of Joanna Macy and David Korten. Among many other insights they share are the possibilities of the Great Unraveling or the Great Turning. I have learned that it isn’t one or the other. My understanding of suffering/ill-being and happiness/well-being keeps deepening over the years. I left monastic life in part because of deep personal suffering that had not been able to be transformed. Since then, I have at times had support from healers and alternative therapists during the last three years. This support has helped me embrace that which I had unknowingly been ashamed of or not felt safe enough to meet head on. In the light of interbeing and personal experience, it is clearer to me now that for a Great Turning to happen, there have to be unravelings.

Many times, Thầy referred to the Sutra on the Diamond that Cuts Through Illusion as the earliest text on deep ecology. There are a couple of insights in this amazing teaching that always strike me in a pleasant and clarifying way. One aspect that is so helpful in all kinds of engagement is “Bodhisattvas practice generosity without relying on form.” This shows me how to be free from a separate self that gives and hopes for rewards or certain outcomes. It also draws me into the emptiness of transmission: the giver, the gift, and the receiver arise together; they cannot be separated. To stop and listen within, and to discern whether I am able to engage from this alignment of reality is often sobering and humbling, but also valuable and helpful.

walking at Mundekulla; photo courtesy of Jem

I remember becoming so happy the day I heard the term Earthlings, which refers to humans, animals, plants, and all organic living things on this planet. This term helped me see limited views and attachment to being a human being. There is so much collective baggage of superiority about being human—a beautiful manifestation and a wondrous possibility for spiritual growth for sure. The teaching in the Diamond Sutra asks us to consider if we are limited to or caught in views of a self, a person (human), a living being, or a life span. I like the guided meditation lines: “Aware of life inside and around me, Smiling to life inside and around me.” Life is not bound by birth and death, is not bound to matter. For me, Life is another word for the ultimate, for God, for Love.

My path of engagement has naturally changed over the years. One big shift was a diagnosis of stage four malignant melanoma cancer, which I received on the arrival day of the Earth Holder Retreat in Minnesota, US, August 2018. I chose to focus my energy, of which I had much less than usual, on the retreat. I shared about the diagnosis with only one brother, a day after I had heard. His long hug and whisper “You are strong, you’ll be okay,” helped me to let go, to feel supported, and to follow through with the retreat. In me I heard: Can I see myself in the leaves, in the wind? When the earth, water, and air are polluted, of course, so am I. I felt acceptance for this surprising and urgent unravelling.

A humbling insight from my time of sickness is that I had not found inner sustainability. Year by year my energy and capacity had grown, but so too had my responsibilities and engagements. I had confidence in my capacity to renew, to recharge, and to recuperate. But because I was not as generous with myself as I was with others and the Sangha, I did not have much energy in store, and this contributed to a dire health situation. Today, looking back, I see the gifts that have followed. So how can I say lucky or unlucky, right or wrong?

In my weakest moment during the cancer treatment, I asked myself, If this is it, am I ready to let go? I experienced light and clarity, knowing death is not the end and nothing is truly lost. There was a clear Yes, I can let go, but I knew it was not the time.

Several people around me at that time said it was a miracle I survived. When I sat and breathed hour after hour in a garden recliner chair in my room, deep suffering arose. I just noticed and promised myself to take this call seriously, if and when health would allow. What came up was shame of being weak and vulnerable as a child, and not accepting the way I had faced challenging situations. I was not free. A longing for a romantic relationship also made itself known. To live and serve in Sweden, my home country, was also a clear call in my deep, wise heart. Not to answer these calls could not lead to a happy, loving, and free life.

Jem and Emma's wedding, 2022; photo by Markus Palm

So in August 2020, I disrobed. This meant leaving eighteen years as a monk in the Plum Village Sangha, which I treasure and love dearly. My last resistance was loyalty toward my teacher. I know, though, that I am a continuation of Thầy and that my teacher wants me to rely on internal love and understanding, on the inner teacher. With this knowledge, I could answer the call of my heart yet again and take a step.

In June 2023, I will return to a Plum Village practice center for the first time since leaving Deer Park in March 2020. Thanks to the “Love Is Freedom” Earth Retreat, everything fell into place. Life changes and continues. Maybe our paths will cross again.

In love and gratitude, 

– Jem (Chân Pháp Hộ)

May 2023

* After the Bodhisattva Dharanimdhara, the one who holds and protects the Earth, that makes bridges, overcomes gaps, and brings about connection and communication.

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What is Mindfulness

Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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