Life As a Beginning Monastic: Notes from a Q&A Session With Barbara Newell
By Bill Menza
March 16, 2003 ó Barbara, now Sister Tung Nghiem, opened the meeting with telling us how happy and natural it was for her to be at the Buddhist Vihara in Washington, D.C., with other practitioners. And that she was very grateful to the Washington Mindfulness Community sangha for being here, and that she continues to feel that she is a part of this community. She said that sanghas like the WMC are very important, because they give "support and nourishment" to practitioners. Living in a lay or monastic community "helps you not to forget to practice," she said. A sangha also presents opportunities "to give, share, and cultivate the practice. And this sharing is what it is all about." She noted that, unfortunately, many who come to Plum Village do not have a sangha like the WMC to return to when they leave.
Barbara mentioned that by being at Plum Village, which is near Bordeaux, France, she was exposed to the great dislike by the French people for the U.S. Bush invasion of Iraq. And that she was happy to find, since her arrival back in the United States, that many people are against this violent war. She said being either in France, the U.S., or someplace else: "We practice with whatever we find in and around us."
One of the first major questions on her journey toward becoming a monastic was something like "What am I to do, since I want to live the practice fully like it is done at Plum Village by the monastic community and my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh? And I know that lay practitioners at Plum Village cannot be fully integrated into the monastic community, because they are not monastics, and ultimately return to the secular places they came from."
A second part of this initial inquiry was whether or not she "needed" to live with a partner. She was confronted with what might be called a koan: "What am I to do with the tendency in myself when I am in an intimate relationship to be Ďgrasping and controllingí of the other person, yet wanting them to be completely free?" She found that as a monastic the koan is solved, because she would be able to love every person equally, with non-discrimination. There would not be "grasping and controlling," but freedom.
Some of the first practical questions she had to answer were about her health care and the care of her elderly parents who have health problems. Her father was receiving chemotherapy for lung cancer and her mother had just suffered a heart attack. She found that the monastic Sangha would provide health care for her. And that she would be allowed to go home to care for her parents, if this became necessary.
When she called and told her mother that she had decided to become a monastic, her mother was concerned and cried. However, her father said: "Itís her life and she will have to decide what she wants to do with it." His words helped her mother to understand that the decision to become a monastic is a personal one each aspirant must answer for herself.
After making her decision to become a monastic, Barbara found that the constant demand "to make a living" that a lay practitioner has, was now gone. She also realized whereas lay practitioners all leave the Plum Village community at some time to return to the places they came from, she as a monastic would be living with this community for her lifetime.
Giving up her belongs, she said, "is a little bit surreal." Over the next few days she gave away her possessions to those who wanted them. She also commented that she had a good life and was letting it go for a better one. Monastics receive $45 a month to purchase personal items.
When asked what she missed most about her former life in the States, she said, that it was not being able to go to a store or post office or someother place whenever she wanted. "This autonomy was missed." She went on to say that actually there are no nearby stores, post offices, or what-have-you at Plum Village to visit, as well as, such visits not being part of monastic life.
She found that "living in community" at Plum Village, including her living with five other women in close quarters for the last six months, was not difficult. Part of community living means " you have to give up the desire to control," she said. "You have to let go. Itís very freeing."
Her practice over the years with the Washington Mindfulness Community, The Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, VA, the Stillwater Mindfulness Practice Center, the Order of Interbeing, as well as at Plum Village, especially over the past months made it very rich. It built a fruitful momentum that allowed her to be ordained as a monastic within a short period of time.
Her ordination began with Thay (or Teacher as Thich Nhat Hanh is called by his students) cutting a symbolic piece of her hair while she recited after him the vow, which went something like this: "Shedding my hair completely I make the great vow today to transform all my afflictions and live for the happiness of all being." She said that the loss of her hair was not a sad event at all, because as the vow says she is leaving behind worldly afflictions and entering a path to help all beings. Eighteen others were ordained along with her.
Each monastic has a mentor assigned to them. It is similar to the assignment of mentors to practitioners who come for the three-month winter retreat at Plum Village. Her mentor gives her assignments. There is also a second body practice among the monastics, where one monastic looks after another to make sure they are okay and attending to things as needed. Sort of like an older brother or sister looking after a younger one.
Each monastic is encouraged to write to Thay. She suggested that we write to Thay. To tell him about our Practice, our suffering, our transformation, our life. She knows he read her letters because she heard some material in his Dharma talks, which she believes, may have came from one of her letters. Thayís hermitage is near the New Hamlet, where Barbara was living during the time she contemplated becoming a monastic.
She said that her stay at Plum Village over the months leading up to her decision to join its monastic community revealed to her just how deeply the Village is a "practicing Village." She found that Thay, and the monastics and lay practitioners there are naturally practicing the Way of the Buddha. And that among them is a deep rich insightful understanding of the Buddhaís teachings. As a monastic you are able to be close to Thay, but he is here "for everyone," she said. He is trying to pass on his love and deep understandings to others. She saw this greatly demonstrated during the recent China retreat in which Thay put great energy into his teaching and practice while there.
This trip to China was particularly remarkable for her, because it made her feel a connection to the ancient Patriarchs. They seemed to speak to her as she traveled the ground they walked and visited the temples where some of the Ancestors had lived, taught, and died.
When she was asked if she would find a way to continue her animal rights works, she said that this work would not be ending for she now would be working to help others overcome the fear and ignorance that leads to violence against all beings, including animals. She said that she had discovered in animal rights work that fear and the lack of mindful awareness produce violence. And that the busyness and fastness of society are contributing factors to this mindlessness.