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26 June 1962
Medford, New Jersey
I am in a cabin called "Pomona" in the woods of northern New Jersey. It was so dark the night I arrived that I was startled my first morning by the beauty and peacefulness here. Mornings here remind me of Phuong Boi, the monastery we built in the highlands of central Vietnam. Phuong Boi was a place for us to heal our wounds and look deeply at what happened to us and to our situation. Bird songs there filled the forest, while sunlight collected in great pools.
When I arrived in New York City earlier this year, I couldn't sleep at all. There is so much noise there, even at three in the morning. A friend gave me earplugs, but I found them too uncomfortable. After a few days, I began to sleep a little. It's a matter of familiarity. I know some people who can't sleep without a clock ticking loudly. When Cuong, the novelist, came to spend the night at Phuong Boi, he was so used to the sounds of Saigon traffic that the deep silence of Dai Lao Forest kept him awake.
I awoke to that same deep silence here in Pomona. Bird songs aren't "noise." They only deepen the sense of silence. I put on my monk's robe, walked outside, and I knew I was in paradise. Pomona is on the shore of a lake that is larger than Lake Ho Xuan Huong, in Dalat. Its clear water sparkles in the morning light, and the tree-lined shore reveals leaves of every shape and color, announcing the waning of summer into autumn. I came here to escape the city's heat and to live in the forest for a few weeks before beginning the fall semester at Columbia.
That first morning, the faint sound of laughter teased my ears. I followed the sound even while I was buttoning my robe, and after a short while the path from my cabin opened onto a wide clearing dotted with cabins. There, I saw dozens of children brushing their teeth and washing their faces at an outdoor lavatory. It was Cherokee Village, an overnight camp for seven-to-ten-year-olds, one of the "villages" that make up Camp Ockanickon. That whole first day I played with the boys at Cherokee Village. They had found a golden-colored fawn with white spots named Datino, and were feeding her oatmeal mixed with fresh milk and tender cabbage leaves.
I only brought a few books with me, and I haven't had time to read any of them. How can I read when the forest is so calm, the lake so blue, the bird songs so clear? Some mornings I stay in the woods all day, strolling leisurely beneath the trees and lying down on the carpet of soft moss, my arms folded, my eyes looking up to the sky. In those moments, I'm a different person; it would probably be accurate to say that I am "my true self." My perceptions, feelings, and thoughts aren't the same as when I am in New York. Everything here appears brighter, I daresay miraculous! Yesterday I paddled a canoe more than a mile to the north end of the lake. I tarried among the water lilies and only turned back as dusk began to stain the sky violet. Then it grew dark quickly. If I had delayed a moment longer, I would not have found my way back to Pomona's landing.
The forest here doesn't have sim fruit like Phuong Boi, but it does have berries that are just as purple and sweet, called blueberries. Today I went with two eight-year-old boys to pick some, and we stuffed our mouths until they turned blue! The boys talked the whole time. One said he saw a bogeyman last night, a horned devil who thrust his hand into the tent and grabbed the sleeping boys. He said it with conviction, but it must have been one of the camp counselors checking in on them at night. I half-smiled and continued to pick blueberries when the boy stepped back and asked me loudly, "You don't believe me, do you?"
"I do, but only a little," I answered.
"Because what you say is hard to believe. It requires great effort to believe even a little."
He looked crushed. That evening the two boys came to Pomona and both claimed that they'd seen the bogeyman. They spoke convincingly, and I was forced to concede.
"Okay, I believe you both."
Satisfied, they returned to Cherokee Village.
On days like this, I long for Phuong Boi. Dai Lao Forest is much more dense and wild. We even encountered tigers! I dream about Phuong Boi many nights, but in these dreams, an obstacle always prevents me from entering. The more I long for Phuong Boi, the sadder I feel. Phuong Boi was our homeland. As Brother Nguyen Hung used to say, "Phuong Boi doesn't belong to us. We belong to Phuong Boi." Our roots are there, deep in the earth. People say that only sad memories stay with you, but it isn't true. Those were the happiest days of our lives, and now, because of our memories, each of us, wherever we are, turns toward Phuong Boi like a sunflower toward the sun.
When we first arrived at Phuong Boi, Nguyen Hung still lived in Dalat. Our group had suffered so many disappointments in our efforts to engage the ideals of Buddhism in the lives of the people of Vietnam. Hung was ten years younger than I but had already experienced as many disappointments. We all suffered because of the situation of our country and because of the state of Buddhism. We tried to create a grassroots Buddhism that would draw on the aspirations of the people, but we weren't successful. I wrote articles, published books, and edited magazines, including the journal of the Buddhist General Association, to promote the idea of a humanistic, unified Buddhism, but within two years the journal's publication was suspended. The Association said it was due to the lack of funds, but it was really because the Buddhist leaders didn't approve of my articles. At one meeting, they declared, "No one has ever used our magazine to preach to us about unifying the Buddhist community!"
We felt lost. Our opportunity to influence the direction of Buddhism had slipped away. The hierarchy was so conservative. What chance did we - young people without position or a center of our own - have to realize our dreams? I became so sick I almost died, so I left the city to live in a small temple in Blao district. Our other friends also scattered to the winds. It felt like the end.
But I couldn't find peace in Blao either. The temple there was also part of the Buddhist hierarchy. From time to time, Sister Dieu Am came from Djiring to visit, bringing medicine and a few oranges. Thanks to her, we were able to muster the courage to make Phuong Boi a reality. Now she lies peacefully in the heart of the earth.
I've been thinking a lot about Phuong Boi's beginnings. In Autumn 1957, I confided to Sister Dieu Am, "We've lost our last anchor. Perhaps our practice isn't strong enough. We need a hermitage where we can devote ourselves to practice. Can you help us?"
She said that she would happily give us Plum Forest and return to Thien Minh Temple in Hue, but that she didn't have the authority. How dear and precious her heart was. I smiled and said, "To ask you to return to Hue would be worse than us not having a place!" Sister Dieu Am dwelled at Djiring in the tranquility of Plum Forest. That is why we named the bridge at the entrance to Phuong Boi, "Plum Bridge." How beautiful that bridge was, although it now lies broken and decayed.
The many setbacks had taken their toll on our faith. We knew we needed a place to heal our wounds, nourish ourselves, and prepare for new initiatives. Conversations like that one gave birth to our resolve to build a hermitage, and we chose Dai Lao Forest, a remote and quiet place with plenty of space, mountains to contemplate, clear streams, gardens, and paths for walking, as the place to do it. The thought of such a hermitage appealed to us like cool water to a desert traveler, like a gift to a young child. We envisioned a place where we could cultivate the practices that were needed for the people of our time. Dai Lao Forest is about four miles north of Blao, where the highest mountains rise up. At that time, the forest belonged to the Montagnards, the hill tribespeople, and was being sold by them quite cheaply. Plots along both sides of the highway were being cleared for cultivation or preserved as virgin forest.
The first time we drove up the dirt road into the deep and mysterious Dai Lao Forest, Sister Dieu Am, Dieu, and I knew that we were seeing the future. The name "Phuong Boi" expressed our ideal to serve the roots of our precious Buddhist culture. Phuong means "fragrant," "rare," or "precious." Boi is the kind of palm leaf on which the teachings of the Buddha were written down in ancient times.
This part of the forest was under the jurisdiction of a village named B'su Danglu. After several weeks, Sister Dieu Am, Dieu, and I managed to map out the sixty-acre parcel we wanted, and we offered 6,500 piasters (approximately $90) for it. We weren't trying to take advantage of the easy-going Montagnards. That was the going price for land there, and in fact we offered them an additional 3,500 piasters ($50). We completed the transaction with two friendly men named K'Briu and K'Broi, neither of whom could read or write. But the regional chief of Blao, named K'Bres, and his district chief, named K'Dinh, could.
On a sunny day in August 1957, Tue and I arrived at the chief's office to sign the papers. I signed it "Nhat Hanh," the first time I'd signed a deed. At the bottom of the contract were the fingerprints of K'Briu, K'Broi, and the deputy prefect of B'su Danglu; the signatures of K'Bres and K'Dinh; and my own signature. Thus, I became a property owner, a fact that the communists would later use to denounce me.
Reprinted from Fragrant Palm Leaves by Thigh Nhat Hanh by permission of Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright (c) 2000 by Thigh Nhat Hanh. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.