The Forest Sangha is
a world-wide Buddhist community
in the Thai Forest tradition of Ajahn
From Conflict to Cure
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.
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?”
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
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
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
“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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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