Before she became a nun Sister Dang Nghiêm was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple near Bao Loc in southern Vietnam since September 2005.
I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.
I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The Dharma is truly deep and lovely!”
The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sister’s Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.
How Many Share a Room?
After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.
When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.
Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels
Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.
A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.
Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.
Stories About Food
We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for 170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.
In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.
Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.
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