My Life is My Message


The Order of Interbeing (OI) is the core community of monastics and lay people who have have dedicated themselves to a life of mindfulness practice, building community, and following the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. These trainings offer clear guidance for living simply, compassionately, and joyfully in our modern world, and anyone who wishes to can live his or her life in accord with these fourteen trainings.

In celebration of this year's theme, "My life is my message," we hope you enjoy a wonderful talk the Foundation had with Dharma teacher Anh-Huong Nguyen, one of the earliest ordained members of the Order of Interbeing, as she describes how her own life is her message.

My Life is My Message

TNHF: What is your earliest memory of the Order of Interbeing?  

Anh-Huong: In a letter Thay wrote to me in 1980, Thay told me about the School of Youth for Social Services in Vietnam and the Order of Interbeing (Tiep Hien Order). A year later, my brother and I came to France to visit Thay and Sister Chan Khong. During our stay at Thay’s hermitage, I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing. On the morning of my ordination, Thay had cut fresh roses from the garden and put it on the altar, and then Thay did a very beautiful ceremony. It was the simplest ordination ceremony I had ever seen.

After I received the 14 Mindfulness Trainings, I went back to the states. During my time in college, I kept writing to Thay, and Thay kept writing to me. I shared this story in one of the issues of the Mindfulness Bell that Thay saw I was lonely and depressed. So, as an assignment, Thay asked me to write down all the conditions of happiness that I had.  I wrote them down, one by one, and I sent my homework back to Thay. Since then, I became happier and happier.

If you asked me what the Order of Interbeing looks like, I think of Plum Village. When I came to Plum Village in 1983, it was like coming home to a family – a family that I had been away for so long that I did not have a memory of it until I came back to it. So, I have been building Sangha from that sense of being in a family at Plum Village. With that intention, it’s very easy for me to see members of our Sangha as brothers and sisters.

As time goes by, it has become so clear to me that we have always been sisters and brothers, but we have lost one another. When we come to Sangha, we are found.

At the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax in Virginia, we don’t have many OI members. We don’t have a formal and vigorous mentoring process for OI aspirants and apprentice Dharma Teachers. Our Sangha has become the key mentor in our OI mentoring process. Our practice center is behind in terms of structure and guidelines. But we are content and satisfied. We have brotherhood and sisterhood. We can see the flaws, weaknesses, and rough edges in each one of us, but because of our practice, we are deeply in love with our Sangha.

How Do You Build Sangha?

The role of an OI member is to build Sangha. But you don’t have to be an OI member to start building a Sangha.  How do we build Sangha? The manuals for Sangha building say that we need a bell, a vase of flowers, cushions and chairs, the Five Mindfulness Trainings, and some of Thay’s books. We learn how to give simple instructions on mindful breathing, sitting and walking meditation. But when we get caught in form, structure and guidelines, the practice can’t be as fresh, gentle and alive. We are unable to create safe space for nurturing brotherhood and sisterhood, which is the essence of a true Sangha. When we build Sangha, we build a new culture – the culture of mindfulness and love.

Since Thay had a stroke, Thay’s monastic and lay students have done their best as a Four-Fold Sangha to continue Thay. Even now while Thay is in a wheelchair, Thay’s still building Sangha. Wherever Thay is, there is sisterhood and brotherhood. Thay is always with us building Sangha together. When we move away from Sangha, we move further away from Thay.

When we look within the lay Order of Interbeing, we often see the “you” and “I”. “My” practice and “your” practice, “my practice is not good enough”, “your practice is better than mine”. “This Dharma teacher gives very good Dharma talks”. “That Dharma teacher doesn’t give any Dharma talk”. These complexes can drive the Order of Interbeing in the direction of Separate Selves, causing inflammation within the OI Body.

You know how sometimes we say, “I share deeply from my heart”? Though this is a nice sentiment, we must be cautious because our feelings have their roots in our past experiences and views. Because of this, the stories behind our feelings may be far from the truth. We can continue to share from the “heart” yet still continue to suffer because of our wrong perceptions. We can stay stuck in the mud of suffering because there is a lack of right view – the Insight of Interbeing.

Surrendering to the Sangha

If Sangha builders are not responsible for their feelings, a Sangha can become a community of suffering.  I may fall into despair because I do not have the practice at hand. I automatically see “my” pain is only “mine” and I refuse to let Sangha hold me at a time when I need Sangha the most. But if I can remember that my joy and pain are contained inside the Sangha Body, then I can surrender myself to the Sangha, the Dharma, and the Buddha. Otherwise, old fears can sever the umbilical cord that connects us and our Sangha. And when we turn away from Sangha, it’s like the “honeymoon period” is over. That’s why Thay said, “You have the right to suffer, but you do not have the right to not practice”.  

The OI mentoring process can be as organic as fruit ripening. It requires time as well as steady and favorable conditions. If we rush to ordination, we can miss the opportunity to savor the sweet and delicious fruit as an organic Sangha. And this can affect the well-being of the OI Sangha Body.

We’ve seen a strong tendency to believe that if we can get some recognition or wear the brown jacket, we will be happy or even happier. It’s sad to see there are OI members who are quite unhappy. The brown jacket is a reminder that we are not walking this OI path alone. Thay and elder Dharma brothers and sisters are walking right in front of us. Our practice is to keep this path unobstructed for our younger Dharma siblings who are walking behind us. When we are willing to embrace suffering as a Sangha, every step on the OI path can be filled with ease, joy, compassion, and freedom.

Our Life is the Sangha Life

Going back to the theme of the Foundation: “My life is my message”. For those who received Lamp Transmission from Thay, we still can hear Thay’s voice echoing, “as a Dharma teacher, your life is your teaching.” At other times, Thay said, “Your life is a Dharma talk”, “Each step you take is a Dharma talk”.  It’s not how many Dharma talks we can give or how eloquent we can be, but it is how we live our life. And our life is the Sangha life. Our life cannot be separate from that of our Sangha. Sangha is Thay. Sangha is our mother. Sangha is our father. In that light, Dharma teachers do not need to give any teaching. All the teachings are given by Thay and the Sangha.

Thay transmitted to us Thay’s life and Thay’s practice. As long as our life is our practice and teaching, Thay is always alive in the Sangha and in us. We have nothing to worry about, even worry about how we can continue Thay.

A Sangha is very much like a family room. Outside it might be cold, but inside it is warm and comfortable. As soon as we come back to our breathing and our steps, generating the energy of mindfulness and concentration, we light the fire in the fireplace. There is warmth, peace, and joy.

When we come to our weekly evening Sangha, do you know what we do? We lie down for guided meditation. Everyone is invited to lie down. It’s very helpful for the new people to take a lying position when they first come. When you look at our meditation room, you’ll think that it is a kindergarten classroom during naptime. It is such a safe place. People can think less, relax, and feel at home in their bodies and hearts.

When Thay was living in exile, Thay knew that as a drop of water, Thay would quickly dry up. But as a river, Thay will arrive at the ocean. So, the first thing Thay did when Thay went to the West was to build Sangha.

The Goodness of Suffering

We can easily get caught up in the big waves that manifest in the ocean of the Mahasangha. There are times when we just need to be still and live each moment to the fullest we can. We need to remember that our ancestral teachers and Thay are always there protecting and supporting us. We practice deeply and do our best to protect our Beloved Practice and Beloved Community, but not to the degree that can compromise our brotherhood and sisterhood. There are those who are active in Sangha building, but there are also those who build Sangha through their non-verbal teaching and humble, quiet presence.

Even though Thay encourages us to see the goodness of suffering, many of us still have an aversion to suffering. Thay teaches that the art of cultivating happiness and the art of handling suffering go together. By taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we can face suffering without being consumed by fear. When our aspiration is to always be a cell in the Sangha Body, we will be able to practice the art of embracing suffering much more easily. We need to have a sense of fearlessness, of being ready and present for whatever kind of suffering that may arise.

That sense of fearlessness is rooted in the practice of taking refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. It comes from keeping the practice alive and remembering that our life is our message. And when we can do that, Thay will be happy. Thay will always continue in us and Thay will never die.

Anh Huong Nguyen

Anh-Huong Nguyen has been practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for more than thirty years. She has led mindfulness retreats in the United States since 1988, and in 1992 was among the first students to be ordained as a Dharma Teacher by Thich Nhat Hanh. She and her husband, Thu Nguyen, founded the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia, in 1998. The center offers sessions of mindfulness training and practice in a nonsectarian way.