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forest sangha newsletter

July      2007                  2550                      Number 80
The Forest Sangha is a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn Chah

From Conflict to Cure

Sister Bodhipala



Sister Bodhipala, formerly known as Renée Pan; came to Amaravati
shortly after offering her life to the Buddha as a nun-giving up political and social work in her native Cambodia, having already left the children she'd raised to adulthood and a successful career in America. For the past decade she has been a member of the nuns' community at Amaravati. The following has been condensed from several conversations Sr. Bodhipala had with the FSN.

Actually born in Vietnam to a Vietnamese mother and Cambodian–French father in the border-less interior of French “Indochina”, twelve-year-old Renée made the heart-wrenching decision to ask to leave her mother in Vietnam to join her paternal relatives for a new life in Cambodia.

“Can I go to Cambodia?”

Why did you ask to move? I failed the entrance exam for high school. At that time my aunt and her husband from Cambodia visited our family for the first time since I was born, and I asked to go back with her. I wanted a new start. I wanted higher education. I wanted to have hair curls – with them I would have the chance of a new life.

    My family was poor compared to our relatives in Cambodia. My father was self-employed: he’d had a bicycle shop, then became a taxi driver. His parents had died when he was a child and he’d been sent to relatives in Vietnam, where he met my mother. My father was the bread winner, and my mother was in charge of making sure we were healthy, adequately fed, well behaved and well educated. Every day he asked Mom: “How much do you need today?” She would say, for example, “I need fifteen dollars”, and that day he would run the taxi to earn only that amount, no more, no less. If he wanted something extra for himself, maybe he did one more trip.

    My father's Cambodian–French sister Emily had no children, and had asked my parents for permission to adopt my older sister when she was little. But somehow Aunt Emily didn’t come until my sister was 17; when she went to Cambodia she was soon married. So I was the one. Having just failed my exam, despairing, with no way out except leaving Vietnam, it was a perfect opportunity for me to ask to leave, as well as for my aunt to adopt me. I asked my mother if I could go. She was so hesitant. She had a really hard time making that decision. Finally her own mother helped her: “Let her go, so the two can help each other.” And Mom agreed to let me go. She was my hero: she was very strong to let me go for a bright future.

    The night before I left, I slept next to her. We both cried. The next morning my father drove us to the bus station. I said goodbye, and watched him from the window until he disappeared. I felt so sad.


    Sister Bodhipala (front left), aged 8, with maternal relatives in Vietnam

   In Cambodia I had to go back to 1st grade, but within three years I’d passed the entrance exam for junior high school with honours. My adopted father was a captain in the army, and we moved quite often. Because of that, and since I was a bright student, my grandmother's sister suggested I continue school in Phnom Penh, and live with her daughter, my Aunt Sounareth.

    I felt that Cambodians were my group, and I was so happy. It took me about two years to speak the language, which is entirely different from Vietnamese.

    In Phnom Penh I was introduced to the aristocratic life, since Aunt Sounareth’s family was connected through marriage to the royal family. I kept my lifestyle simple; I wasn’t interested in joining the high class social scene. Deep in my heart, I felt only education could change me into a worthy and wealthy woman. I studied hard, and graduated with honours.

Was your family Buddhist? What was your relationship to religion? In Cambodia everyone assumed they were Buddhist because Cambodia is a Buddhist country – about 98% before 1975. Although my father’s side of the family were French and therefore Christian, I went to the Buddhist temples more than I went to church. Christians, Buddhists and Muslims lived in harmony.

Your husband played an important role in your life. How did you meet? We met in Battambang, during summer vacation. He was preparing for his baccalaureate and I was preparing for my entrance exam to the junior high school. There were so many exams that students had to pass! Only the cream of the crop remained, the others had to leave school at an early age if they couldn’t make it. He taught me mathematics. I was 14 years old and he was 21, an excellent student with a sweet voice. His father was a well-known monk. From that summer on, Sothi was my sweetheart.

    He passed, and got a scholarship to study in Japan; I passed and finished junior high. He left me with love and an encouragement to continue school. We exchanged many letters during that time. 

    We married soon after he returned – seven years since we’d met. He worked as an engineer and taught at the vocational school before receiving a scholarship to work on his PhD in the United States. I followed a year later, in 1963, after the birth of our first son. We were in Athens, Ohio. While he was at school I took care of the boy and when I was at school he took care. We returned home in 1969 with two sons, another child on the way, and two degrees: a Doctorate in Education and a Bachelor’s in Mathematics.

    In 1970 there was a coup d’état and Cambodia was declared a Republic. My husband was appointed roving ambassador to the African Continent, and later became minister of education. I worked as director of external relations at the Ministry of Culture. My life was fully occupied, in social work and in politics – it was not as simple as I’d wished. With Sothi, my role was being not only his wife, but also his friend and mother. As his friend, I accompanied him to political meetings and he often invited my feedback. In the evenings, before I came home I read the newspapers and made a report for him, made dinner for friends, and entertained visiting diplomats.

“Honey, you must leave.”

Then things became very difficult in Cambodia? Yes – rockets fell in all the time as the Khmer Rouge got closer to taking the country. By then Sothi was deputy prime minister, in charge of three ministries. I took the opportunity that provided to help underprivileged children, women, and refugees who came to the city. Phnom Penh was overcrowded during that period.

    When the Khmer Rouge were taking over, a letter of invitation from the US ambassador was distributed to members of the Cabinet, to evacuate with him in two days. But we were not included: the ambassador knew my husband would probably choose to stay if he was given much time to think about it. So we received an invitation by telephone only two hours before the evacuation. In a hurry, Sothi prepared our travel documents and I prepared the suitcases and children. On the way to the US Embassy, he asked us to drop him off at the Prime Minister’s house first, and send the driver back to pick him up.

    I was surprised when I got to the US embassy, to see so many people there trying to get in – it was chaos. We waited in the Embassy for a while, then boarded a huge helicopter. My driver came back with a small note saying: “Honey, you must leave. I will stay. When Cambodia is at peace we will see each other again.”

You never saw him again, you just had that note? 
I had that note: “Honey, you must leave.” He chose to stay, and I could not bear to discourage him. Let it be. He could not leave. I am proud of him. I left on the 12th of April, 1975.

    There were hundreds of people in the submarine where they took us, and there I met the Minister of Education and the President. We were taken to Thailand, and those of us in politics went to the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok to wait for something to happen and see the news. I tried to call my husband from there. Many people urged me: “Why don’t you convince your husband there’s no way he can stay?”

    I stayed in Thailand a couple of months. Then they took us to Camp Pendleton, in California. I had left Cambodia in April and by August I decided to stay in the US, for the children’s schooling. My second son was born when we were in Ohio so he was already a citizen. That would enable us to get out of the camp. I called a close friend from that time to find me my son’s birth certificate and as soon as I got that we got out. Some friends from the Summer Institute of Linguistics who my husband had helped to establish an English school in Cambodia came to know I was out, so they hurried there and asked, “What do you need?” I wanted to go back to school. They said, “OK, we will help you do that.” I went to Baltimore to stay with a close friend’s family. Then the Summer Institute friends and another from the US embassy each gave me offers.  I had to choose which one – both of them came at the same time. One was, “I have a scholarship for you in North Dakota”, and one, “I have a job for you in Washington DC to teach the children of ambassadors. Only five or six to a class, so you can have your own children in there too.” I chose education. I went to North Dakota for the scholarship.

A big change from Cambodia. Oh, a big change. When people hear that they say “How in the world did you go there? Too cold!” But my suffering – it was too deep. I needed to have something challenging. Go back to school and try to find the hardest subject! I worked so hard because I did not want to have any space in my mind. If I had space I would go crazy with the suffering of losing him.  “He's gone. He's gone.” I tried to let go. But when I worked at an easy job, I could not handle it. I had to ask for a hard one – to keep thinking all the time. I tried to substitute the suffering by working hard to fill the gap.

    I came to realize it cannot be done that way. That’s where the meditation came in. You have to see the suffering: the meditation allows it to emerge and you can solve it right there. But at first I was afraid to try meditation. I thought, “If I get into meditation and don’t have a good teacher and I get disoriented, who is going to take care of my children?” So I had to be very careful. I just kept following the Buddhist philosophy of doing good things for other people, trusting that good will return to oneself. I could speak a few languages so I volunteered to help other refugees.

I saw him eating carrots

After earning an MA in Applied Mathematics from the University of North Dakota while raising her children on welfare, Renée/Bodhipala worked as a computer programmer, eventually becoming a senior economic forecaster for a pool of power companies. She divided her spare time between her children and helping the various refugee communities in North Dakota and Minneapolis, where she later moved after requesting a transfer to a place where she could help more people. When Cambodian refugees started pouring into camps in Thailand after Vietnam invaded and overthrew the Khmer Rouge, she spent her vacations going to help. She was introduced to the idea of doing meditation while on the way to Thailand in 1983, through a chance meeting at Seoul Airport with Ven. Maha Ghosananda, an accomplished senior Cambodian monk also on his way to help at the camps.

    I saw him sitting down eating carrots. He had them in his bag. I approached him: “Bhante, are you Cambodian?” After some conversation I asked him, “Bhante, how do you drop thought? Because whenever I have some issue I need to deal with, I think so much I cannot sleep.” He said, ”Meditation!” So since then I’ve had meditation in mind. Then he went to the camps, I went to the camps, and we happened to be in the same hotel at Aranyaprathet. So we went in together.

    The first Cambodians to come over the border had big stomachs and yellow hair from starvation. We walked together. He cried and I cried and we thought, how can we help? From that time on we worked together almost every year. Some years I went to the camp and some years I went to the United Nations in New York, to work with the Cambodian president in exile. I was involved so much in politics then; I even considered putting the children in boarding school so I could join the freedom fighters in the camps.

    At that time I was suffering so much from the loss of my husband, from not knowing if he’s alive or dead, and because I could not stop hating the Khmer Rouge. I had in my mind that I needed to help, and I always did something for the Cambodians in the camps. But I could not do more, because my emotional obstruction was the Khmer Rouge. When I wanted to do something it was as if they were in front of me so I could not go further. I could see the children of the Khmer Rouge in the Khmer Rouge refugee camp. They were so pure, so clean – not murderers. Not my enemy. Their parents were my enemy. I could not forgive them. It’s poison. You cannot think any more.

    Because of the suffering I had, some friends in Minnesota who worked for an organization called Moral Rearmament, which was created after the Second World War to reconcile European countries, invited me to attend a gathering. They had many films, and one of them was Love for Tomorrow, the story of Irène Laure, a well-known French Socialist who was part of the Resistance during the Second World War, and her son was tortured by the Germans. Moral Rearmament had invited her to their place in Caux, Switzerland to talk with German women. She refused: “How can I make friends with them? They are the ones who hurt my family.” Then, after some reflection she changed her mind. She got the chance to meet those people, and she was able to forgive them. Later on the wound was healed, so she started to build a bridge between France and Germany for the younger generation.

    I saw that film. Then it struck me: “She can forgive the Germans. I think I can forgive the Khmer Rouge.” It was the first perception of forgiveness. But it came and it went. A friend there saw me. He said, “Would you like to meet that lady?” I said, “Oh, I'd like to meet her.” So they made it possible for me to go to Caux. They paid for extra vacation time for me and gave me a ticket. I went there for
2 weeks.

Quiet is the key

    Irène Laure was there. She was 84 years old. One day at 3 o'clock in the afternoon they took me to have tea with her in the living room. After some time I said, “Madame Irène Laure, what is the key for you to be able to forgive the Germans?” She said, “The key for me is having Quiet Time.” I asked myself: “What is Quiet Time?” I had a cup of tea with her, and then we finished.

    Afterwards I asked David Channer, who became my good friend at Moral Rearmament, “David, what is Quiet Time?” And he said, “Are you Buddhist?” “Yes.” “That's meditation.”

    That night I asked my friend who took me there to teach me what Quiet Time was. I knew they were Christian so I’d brought some Buddhist chanting texts, and she told me, “Take a passage from there and memorize or retain the thought from that. Then stay quiet, and when a thought about the issue comes, you write it down.” The difference between that and our meditation is they have a topic to work on. We do not, we just clear the mind by observing its activity.

    I did that for a couple of days; I learned to do Quiet Time, learned to listen to an inner voice. Then I took part in a workshop called From Conflict to Cure, and the forgiveness came in. I saw the forgiveness there and forgave the Khmer Rouge.


    Ven. Hem Hom, Sister Bodhipala's first meditation teacher  

They asked if I would make a small presentation to everybody, about forgiveness. I accepted. The night before, I poured over and over it again: “Khmer Rouge, I forgive you.” I wrote it down – I couldn't sleep the whole night because it bothered me so much. I just wrote, “Khmer Rouge, I forgive you for what you have done.” Then I’d crumple and throw it away, many times. Until the end of the night came and I wrote, “Time's run out.” And I hurt, my heart hurt so much. And then, from doing that, I saw that the Khmer Rouge – they were not hurting; I'm the one who cannot sleep, I'm the one with a prisoner inside me. If I can let that out I can do many things, and I needed to help my country.

    That day I had to speak to the audience. My mind accepted, “I have to forgive them. There’s no other solution.” And up from my heart it came: “Khmer Rouge, I'm going to forgive you for what you have done. And in turn, I ask you to forgive me too for my hatred of you.” Both ways.

    My turn to speak came. I was up in front of many people but my voice was not shaking, my heart beat normally. I said: “I am here in front of you, my friends.  I would like you all to know today that I am freeing the prisoner from my heart. I will forgive the Khmer Rouge for what they have done to my country. And I will ask them to forgive me for my hatred.”

    Wow! Very powerful. People cried. I did not cry. Then … it was so quiet. You could hear a pin drop. I asked the MC, “Please allow me one more minute to express my feeling right now.” I said, “I thank you so much for taking away my burden.” I felt so warm and so light I could fly.

“If you ask me, I would kill them.”

    When I came home my son challenged me. He was about 20. “What did you do at Caux, Mom?” “Well, Mom decided to forgive the Khmer Rouge.” Wah!! He jumped! He said, “What in the world – I'm sorry to say this Mom: are you crazy? Are you going to tell those people – the fathers, the mothers of children they killed in front of their eyes, tossing them up to catch with the bayonet? And you tell them to forgive? No way.”

    I was calm. “Son, what is your solution? Mom tried to solve it that way. You don't need to solve it but what is your solution?” “If you ask me, I would kill them.” “You’d kill who?” “Them.” “Who?” “Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader.” “But he's not alone.” “Next to him, next to him, next to him …” So many “next, next …” And I said, “Right now you are a good person. You haven't done anything yet. Only in your thoughts: how many people have you killed just now?” He started counting, then he said, “I don't know what you're doing, Mom.” But he changed. A few years later he came back from the Peace Corps where he served in Central Africa for three years, and he adored his Mom. He said, “Mom, you are right. You are right.”

    Through that, when you can forgive people for the big things, then any conflict you have with others drops by itself. Even my children, I asked them to forgive me. We used that like a message for the whole family. It helped so much. And with old friends – I had felt I could cut people off sometimes. Even the president of the freedom fighters and others in politics I had fallen out with. I asked them all for forgiveness.

I will be your ambassador

    In 1987, I was selected by Moral Rearmament to go to Sri Lanka to do reconciliation work with the Sinhalese and Tamils. Until then I had known my Buddhist roots, but not been so connected to them. This was the moment my faith came back to me. We went to Kandy and they took us inside the Temple of the Tooth. I made a vow in front of Lord Buddha. “Lord Buddha, your daughter’s here. Please let her know that you are here.” And the minute I said that I got goose bumps. And piti (rapture) started. I cried. “Lord Buddha, come now and I will be your ambassador. Please empty from me everything that stands for bad things, bad thoughts, ill will – anything – please take it out and substitute it with the Dhamma.”

    When I arrived back, a meditation teacher was right there in Minneapolis. A friend called and said, “We have a very good meditation teacher here. Would you like to see him?” His name was Venerable Hem Hom; he was very popular in Cambodia. I did a retreat. It was so powerful. It took me five days to see the phenomena happening in me. I recognized right away that the only way I could really help Cambodian people is through meditation – it’s so powerful that you can use it to lighten the suffering. Through that I knew it does not depend at all on the outside – it’s you who can do it by yourself, you don’t need anything. Simple as that.

What kind of meditation did he teach? I did not know until I came here that the method he taught was the Mahasi technique.

    Between the time I met him and when I joined the UN in 1991, I made a big transition: to completely forgive the Khmer Rouge. That freed me from the load I had been carrying – I felt my energy come up like it removed a heavy block. It took me two years from the point I declared to the whole assembly in Caux, to be completely healed. I created a project called the Cambodian Children's Education Fund, with the intention to take that forgiveness message to all the camps, to help the Khmer Rouge refugees as well as the other factions. I wanted to bring reconciliation to Cambodia and to reconcile the teachers first, so the teachers can teach the children. I got funding from the US and some other governments. The idea was to prepare the ground for the people before they went back to Cambodia when Vietnam pulled out. While they were in the camps they could all be brought to one place. I reconciled the Khmer Rouge and the non-Khmer Rouge together. My wound was healed when I was with them.

    Before I went in the first time, nobody could go to the Khmer Rouge camp. I had a connection with a Senator in Minnesota, Senator Boschwitz, and through US support we went there with the permission of the Thai Government. We were even allowed to take the refugees we worked with out of the camps, to meet each other in our workshops – with my life as collateral: if they run away, I go
to prison.

Together we will rebuild

    I went from camp to camp. We rented cars to transport them out. I was scared. I had to ride with the Khmer Rouge, when the other members of my group rode with the non-Khmer Rouge. I didn't think they would dare to do anything; at least I had a friend in the driver. The workshop was in a government hotel in Bangkok.


    With American officers in Cambodia, 1996, doing translation work after her    ordination

How did it go? Could they trust each other? The workshop went well. There were about seventy people, including four Cambodian factions. At our first meeting there were about forty teachers sitting in a horseshoe. The leader of the Khmer Rouge group opened by saying, “Today is the first time for ten years anybody has come to help our people in regards to education. So we welcome you, Cambodian Children Education Fund, for bringing this kind of help, which is what we need most. I would like you to help us design a curriculum for our children. The Cambodian children have to be prepared to fight until the end, to have our country free from foreigners. Especially our neighbour.”

    He continued like that, and I cut him off. I raised my hand. I said, “Brother, I'm sorry to cut you right there, but I cannot continue to listen. Those children are very clean. We are teaching you so you can teach the children. Don't give our pain to them. It’s too much. And I would like you to hear my message. You have done so much bad to our country as Khmer Rouge. I hated you, I really hated you, and I know now that hatred is wrong. How do I know? It harmed my body. My intelligence was bogged down. The hatred was so strong I wanted to cut you into pieces. It threw me for 10 years. I realize that. Now I ask you to forgive me for my hatred of you. To let me clean myself.”

    After I asked them that, I said, “And in turn – I also forgive you for what you have done. To my family: my husband, whom I loved so much, is gone. And to my relatives. And for making the whole country upside-down, inside-out. I forgive you. The past is past. From now on we start together. Pure.”

    We stopped there. When I was speaking I had eye contact with each one of them. Some of them cried, and some of them were just cold. And afterwards some ladies came and hugged me. They said, “I hope the Cambodians from now on can forgive us, like you, so we can live together.” I said, “Yes. You do your part. I will do my part. Together we will rebuild Cambodia.”

    Through that, then we could move on and ask them what they needed to help with education. And they all said they needed leadership, that that’s why the country was in a mess. So we built a leadership programme for them. Every year we went to the camp to help set it up, because I didn't believe you could write a curriculum in the United States and try to implement that in Cambodia. You have to do it at the place.


    Ordination as a siladhara 1999. With brown robes in the Amaravati temple.

With open ears and eyes

When the 1991 ‘Paris Agreement’ laid the framework for Vietnamese withdrawal and Cambodia to become a multi-party democracy under a constitutional monarch, Renée/Bodhipala was invited to join the UN mission, UNTAC, charged with overseeing the transition. She resigned from her job in Minnesota and worked as an elections officer, translator, computer technician and administrator – as well as a radio broadcaster, hoping that if her husband was still alive he might hear her voice.

Did you ever hear anything about your husband? No. It was so hard to look because he was so famous. You don’t know where your questions will land, with an enemy or a friend. I didn’t dare give his name to the Red Cross, who searched for missing people. But deep in my heart I was searching for him, with open ears and eyes.

    During the preparation for the elections I volunteered to be a translator for operations all over the country, hoping I might get news of him. I went with the UN staff and worked with the KGB, CIA, most of the intelligence groups, translating the interviews of the Khmer Rouge people. Sometimes it was accounts of terrible murders. At the end of the day they debriefed us: we were not to think any more about that. “You will be in danger if you remember that.”

    We would also make surprise inspections of the polling stations looking for fraud. It was dangerous; sometimes they killed the political workers two or three hours before we arrived, or just burned the evidence. We would come in by air, water and land, with no warning. I did many things for the country. I set up a computer system to manage the military and government payrolls in order to prevent corruption. It was so rewarding, that I could do something to help my country during that time.

    Now, being a nun, this is the best period of my life. I never thought I would become a nun when the country fell apart. Even when my teacher, Hem Hom, was sick in 1994 and he asked me in the hospital, “I want you to be ordained. What percentage prevents you from doing that?” I told him I still had responsibilities, that maybe the obstacle was at 15%. My mind already was 85% wanting to become a nun.

    I remained in Cambodia after UNTAC left, to work without salary in various areas. I joined my friend, Nat Nary, a senior nun at a monastery in Battambang where the abbot was an excellent meditation teacher, and implemented a project called Mental Health Counselling from there, because I knew the substance of meditation. At that time Cambodia did not have any mental health hospitals; they were destroyed during the war. The idea was to integrate psychological care with meditation in a place where a good teacher was there to help. Many people with mental problems came to the monastery to get help from the abbot and Nat Nary. A system of handling the patients was created, and about twelve monks and nuns were trained as counsellors to help the Abbot take more patients.

    In 1996, I was invited by Ven. Maha Ghosananda on a pilgrimage to India. Two or three weeks before our departure I thought, “Now, I’m going to see the Lord Buddha. What is the best thing that I can offer him?” I decided to offer my hair: to become a nun, to submit the whole thing to the Lord Buddha. So when I came to Amaravati I was already in white.

flower, flower, flower,

That was in ’97, after there had been a coup d’état in Cambodia. I was so disappointed. I got an invitation from the United States to have a meeting with the Moral Rearmament group. On the way back to Cambodia I stopped at Caux, and David Channer invited me to visit Amaravati. After two months, there was a thought to invite Luang Por Sumedho to Cambodia. Luang Por accepted the invitation without any doubt but I had doubts about security; I was scared they might arrest me at the airport because I was so involved in politics. I listened to the Voice of America news for information, but after some time my fear was replaced by a feeling of Dhamma protection from Luang Por’s presence. So I dared to go to Cambodia on my own, ahead of the others, to prepare the ground for his visit.

What was it like coming to live at Amaravati? I felt so comfortable here. Right away I met Ajahn Thaniya and said I wanted to be in brown robes. But you cannot do it like that. Yes, it was sometimes difficult. I was used to a different culture, different social status; suddenly I was in the kitchen and cleaning the bathrooms and everything. But my faith was so strong that I could do anything. And any problems living with different people could be easily forgotten, because my suffering from losing the loved one had been so deep that anything else was just on the surface, and I could bear it. If you see in front of your eyes that he’s dead you can move on, but when you don’t know, how do you handle that? It’s a tough one. But now – it’s all gone. Living with others here, the more you practise the more you become sensitive, and if I see somebody does not have a good mood towards me, I ask. “Did I hurt your feelings?” I correct it right there, as soon as it happens: “I didn’t mean that.”

    I had to adjust, also. I was assigned at first to do the flower arrangements. It was very hard to do what the nuns wanted me to do according to the time given, only in the morning work period. – I used more time because I was not used to it. They told me you’re not supposed to do that, the afternoon is your time to meditate. It bothered my meditation. When I sat, the flowers kept coming into my head. What colour flowers and leaves … where will I put them … and so on. Finally, I used “flower” as my mantra. Rather than Buddho, just flower, flower, flower – and it worked! My mind became quiet. So I used that when I had anything to do: I kept changing my mantra according to the business of the mind. The mind hooks onto something, and to stop it I just put that thing in as a mantra and the mind has no time for distraction.

Did you use the mantra with your attention on the body or breath at the same time, or just the word? I had been trained to use a word in connection with the in and out breath, and also notice anything happening through the six sense doors. I kept creating my own mantra, dealing with the problems that happen in the mind, until there were no more thoughts. Then after a couple of months of practising here, the sound of silence became my meditation object. So beautiful. At first it was hard to understand, but then I saw it goes very deep.

And you’ve been using the sound of silence ever since? Since then I’ve known it’s a very powerful tool. I use it unless I get distracted; when problems happen, I switch back to using a mantra.

    I taught my mother to use the sound of silence, too. Before she died, a couple of problems between us were resolved. The first was that I had stopped communication with my mother and the rest of the family in Vietnam for a long time. They lived with the suffering of not knowing where I was, alive or dead. The second was to let my mother assume that she was not a good mother by giving me away when I was so young.

    Before I made contact with my mother and father in Vietnam in 1993, I had not tried to, because I hated the communists and I was also afraid that writing to them from America would bring them danger. But my mother thought I did not contact her because I hated her for giving me away as a child. She did not know she was my hero. I told her, “Mom, you did not give me away – I'm the one who asked you. You should not feel bad, because I turned out to be a successful woman. I thank you for accepting my request to leave.” So before she died I asked her forgiveness.

    The first time I went back I saw they had a hut. At that age, after spending so many years raising nine children, they still lived in a hut where the sky was the roof. I felt so sad. I built a house for her. A brick mansion. It was the biggest thing I ever did in my life. I didn’t own a house myself, but I spent my money to build one for them. My parents were so proud. Everyone in the village said, “A daughter did that? How do you raise a daughter that she can do that for you?”

    My meditation got better and better. I was free from the regret of not doing things. You do what you can do. During my father's funeral everybody stayed in that big house. They never had such a place before.

“You have to be conscious, you know.”

Your mother passed away just a few months ago. You taught her meditation? Yes. I had rejected my Vietnamese side, and the Dhamma really helped me see through that. I wanted to share it with my mother. I thought, “I owe Mom. Because she's my first teacher. What can I do to help her?” Two years before her death I taught her meditation. She was so pleased talking about food, about my presence there, listening to old stories. I decided: “I better do something now. I'm not coming here to talk about food.”

    So I went into her bed in the early morning. “Mom, I'd like to share something with you. Since I’ve been ordained, this is what I study. And this is how I prepare my life for death. Do you want to be with the Lord Buddha?”“Yes! I want to be.” I said, “Momma, can you hear any sound?” I did not explain much. She said, “Yes, I hear the dog barking, insect noise …” I kept saying, “No, no, no.” There was one last sound that she heard. “Is this the sound of crickets? It has a continuous flow.”

    I said, “That's it Mom. That is it. Listen again.” She listened. “Wow – it’s continuous. It’s so sad, though. It’s monotonous.” “I think at the beginning it’s sad, Mom, but the longer you stay with that, the better you are. It’s much better for you than listening to soap operas.”

    The next day she was excited – she even taught my sister: “Oh, I want to tell you. You know, to listen to that sound you have to be conscious. Otherwise you cannot hear it. Listen! You have to be conscious, you know.” I taught her to keep the five precepts, and later on to use the mantra Sugato.

    When she passed away, all her family were there. It was very quiet. She just closed her eyes, and that was it. I had everyone chant the mantra she had been using: “Sugato, Sugato, Sugato”, the whole room filled with Sugato. Everyone was alert, and that’s the way she died.

    It was good being back – also in Cambodia last year. I spent the vassa at the meditation monastery where I started. Before I came here, my goal was to share meditation with the Cambodian people to help them lighten their suffering. So I went back to check how it’s going there now. It was the first time in nine years I was away from Amaravati for so long, almost four months. I felt so comfortable here, but I knew that this was something I must do.

    Going back to see my friends still working there, I can help them more now than when I was a lay person. Then I didn’t have any new ideas to offer, but through this practice I can offer something new. They may think I am selfish, but if I am not at peace right here, how can I give peace to another person? I have to make peace in myself first. And in my case, this way I am also safer than if I did anything else. I’m a nun, so people can see I don’t want anything from anybody. My name was famous because my husband was very popular, so people can think I could play an important role in government. They’re afraid I could take that piece of pie from them – which I don’t want. So this is the best way.

So your way of working to help the Cambodian people now is purely through practising Dhamma? Purely Dhamma. And not only Cambodian people. Anybody that comes into my path, I just help them.

    It’s good for me now, as a nun at Amaravati. This is a very good place, conducive to the practice. I have so much joy living here.



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