By Denise (Diem Trang) Nguyen
For those of us who fled Vietnam, treasured photographs of our lives in the homeland are hard to come by. My family and I are lucky to have one small box full of mementos. It was a delight to see vintage black and white pictures of my parents in their younger years: my mom, ever the social butterfly, with her school friends at the Lycee Marie Curie; my dad, handsome in his uniform, serving as an Army doctor; the two of them at their wedding looking so young and vibrant with a lifetime of possibilities ahead of them, before the dramatic end of a war changed everything.
Even though people tell me I look like my mother, when scanning these old photos I felt I was looking “at” a picture of her, never quite seeing myself reflected back in the gaze staring gently at me. About twelve years ago my uncle, who still lived in Vietnam, sent us an envelope of pictures. The photos were of my mother in a floral ao dai, the traditional and elegant Vietnamese dress, carrying a portfolio of papers. She’s smiling and happy, surrounded by monastics, being of service to the Sangha.
The photos were taken when my mom was part of the Buddhist Student Union, which Thay started in April 1960 at the Xa Loi Temple. As Sister Chan Khong writes in her book, Learning True Love, when Thay was a novice monk in the early 1940s, efforts had been made to renew Buddhism in central Vietnam. He wanted to continue this work in South Vietnam in the 1960s by training a number of young people to become “like strong cedars to help support the Buddha’s teachings.” My mom, along with her close friend, Sister Chan Khong, was one of the thirteen original “cedars,” Thay’s first students. They held weekly meetings to study Buddhism, discuss the Dharma, and plan projects for the poor.
When I saw the photos, my heart burst with love and connection to my mother. For the first time, instead of looking at her, I felt like I was seeing myself in her. Not because we looked alike, but because without conscious planning on my part, without my mother’s urging, I had followed in her footsteps. She is in her early twenties in these photos. As if in a parallel universe, I was twenty years old when I ordained into the Order of Interbeing in 1991. Thay called us “mini Tiep Hien,” a group of young adults encouraged through our own diligent practice to help bring mindfulness to the younger Vietnamese generation living in the West.
Like my mother, I am also joyfully surrounded by monastics, blessed to be working with them on organizing the US teaching tour and other mindfulness projects. The portfolio of papers is now replaced by a laptop. In my daily life, I touch and water the seeds of giving and service that live on in me from my mother.
A RICHNESS OF HAPPINESS
Giving or dana, in its many forms, is an essential Buddhist practice, one of the six paramitas. It is about generosity and openness, our capacity to embrace others with our compassion and love, recognizing our interbeing with all of life. With the practice of dana, as Thay says, “If you give and continue to give, you become richer and richer all the time, richer in terms of happiness and well-being.”
As a board member of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation, I often hear this from donors. “Thank you for creating opportunities for us to practice generosity so we can give back to our teacher, to the Sangha, to a way of life that has brought about our transformation,” people tell us. In the individuals volunteering in the Foundation office and joining the monthly giving program, my fellow board members and I witness how the sharing of a smile, energy, or material resources brings a richness of happiness to others.
And for myself, staring into the faces of my mother and Sister Chan Khong in these old photos, I know this volition of service flows in my veins, lovingly transmitted from them. Being of service to Thay, the monastics, and the Sangha brings me true happiness, as it did for my spiritual mothers. It is the deepest call of this cedar sprout’s heart.
When people ask me when I met Thay, I say that in the historical dimension, I met Thay in the summer of 1987 at Plum Village. But in the ultimate dimension, the cells in my body heard the calling of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha many moons ago.
Denise (Diem Trang) Nguyen, Chan Nguyet Dang, True Moon Lamp (shown with her mother), lives in Los Angeles where she feels grateful to serve as a board member of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation and a member of the 2015 US Miracle of Mindfulness Tour planning team. When not working on Sangha projects, she enjoys brush lettering, reading, hiking, and willing her garden plantings to grow despite her black thumb.