• In Pursuit of the Ultimate Happiness: the Story of a Việt-American in India

    The Story of Vơ Marie - Công Hạnh Pháp Đăng

    Marie Vơ was born in Vietnam at the height of the Vietnam War, then immigrated to the United States during the Boat People exodus. Fast forward to the late 1980's, Marie attended UC Davis which offered over one hundred different majors, but she found nothing fitting her interest. She tried Computer Science but experimented with Chinese language, art and religion. Finally, she pursued accounting and went to work for big financial companies. Her main goal in life was not to climb the corporate ladder, but to pursue her childhood dream of traveling all over the world. And she did.

    Despite her extensive freedom, Marie felt her world as small and unfulfilled. After the New York World Trade Centers were destroyed in the terrorist attack and wiped out most of her business connections, she discovered Northern India and Nepal on a chance visit. In this materially impoverished corner of the world, Marie found a spiritually vibrant Tibetan Buddhist community that called to her spirit. In the center of Kathmandu, the main temple's eyes were looking at her. And Marie was looking back.

    At the end of her first trip to the South Asian subcontinent, Marie found herself at the crossroads of her life. Standing in Indira Gandi International Airport in New Dehli, she looked at the boxy plane waiting to take her back to a dead-end office job, but her heart pondered about the dirt path of Kathmandu that promised greater spiritual freedom. Her heart won. She bid good-bye to her tour-group, skipped the flight home and stayed to study Buddhism and Tibetan language for one year in Dharamsala.

    The main Buddhist Temple in Kathmandu
    source: the-journeys.com

    When Marie returned to the U.S., she continued her study with Master Dhakpa Trulku Rinpoche at the Gyuto Vajrayana Center in San Jose California. There, Marie received her Buddhist name Thinley Choedron, (Công Hạnh Pháp Đăng), which meant Generous Virtues Dharma Light. Dharma refers to the teaching of the Buddha. The one-year of Chinese study at UC Davis a decade ago paid off handsomely. Choedron Pháp Đăng used that germinal knowledge to develop a working ability to decipher Han-Chinese language, by which all Vietnamese Buddhist texts were based.

    The distance between Northern India, the birth place of Buddhism, and Vietnam is separated by 2000 miles in distance and 2000 years of independent development. As Buddhism had traveled through Tibet to China and then into Vietnam, the original Buddhist scripture has gone through many linguistic reincarnations. The practical minded, non-scholarly trained Choedron Pháp Đăng, now with access to Tibetan, Chinese and Vietnamese languages, suddenly found herself to be an unwitting pioneer of a new field that could be called "spiritual linguistics." She is in the unique position to synchronize the scriptural understanding of two Buddhist cultures long separated by space and time.

    Buddhism is a religion built on a simple foundation of universal compassion, but scaffolded by complex metaphysical theories about human consciousness. The formal study of Buddhist philosophy in a Tibetan Buddhist university normally takes nineteen years to complete. Since 2007, Choedron Pháp Đăng has finished four of those years at the Geden Choeling Tibetan Nunnery. Her school is located in Dharamsala, India, the home of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, to whom she served at least once as a translator of Tibetan and Vietnamese languages. Her next step is to become an ordained Buddhist nun. That fate is to be decided by His Holiness’s Sangha Council in spring of 2012.

    Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India
    photo: Pháp Đăng

    To most ordinary people, the Buddhist nunhood, or the clergy of any faith for that matter, may seem like a form of escapism from real life or even a mild form of madness. In the Vietnamese community, there is a veil of prejudice that nuns are those disappointed with life or broken-hearted in love. Choedron Pháp Đăng seems quite unlike such ill-conceived notion. Still with her flowing long hair, she looks and acts like any ordinary Viet-American woman. She is vivacious, down-to-earth and thrives on humor. Like the rest of us, she is very determined to find happiness. But this is where our similarity ends.

    For most of us, finding happiness means pursuing material wealth, physical comfort, social pleasantries and emotional relationships, which often involve unpleasant repercussions, painful compromises, and even terrible long-term consequences. Choedron Pháp Đăng, on the other hand, strives for purer type of happiness, one that is unfettered by fear and temptation, and humble to all of life's wonders and magic. When one is truly happy, the Buddhists believe, it is easy to be truly compassionate, because one would take little interest in imposing one's will on others' existence. Reaching that state of mind is the first step of true service for mankind.

    But reaching that ultimate state of happiness in the Buddhist style requires a difficult process of de-conditioning one's ego from greed, anger and close-mindedness. One can say that the Buddhist life is not natural, because it goes against Mother Nature. After all, changing "human nature" into "humane nature" is not a natural thing, but people of all faiths have long recognized that this is choice given by God to free-willing human beings. But meddling with "human nature" is not a walk in a park. Mother Nature does fight back and resist change. Therefore, all novice spiritualists need to find a spiritual guide to keep them safe and steady on their path.

    Her mentor, the Most Venerable The Eighth Khangser Rinpoche
    Photo: Pháp Đăng

    Choedron Pháp Đăng is most grateful to her spiritual mentor, the Eighth Khangser Rinpoche, for being her guiding light. Rinpoche is not any ordinary last name; it is reserved for relatively few and means "the precious one." Notice his name is not "Khangser Rinpoche, the eighth." "The Eighth" comes first, because he is believed to be the eighth reincarnation of himself, Khangser Rinpoche, the First, who lived many generations ago. Tibetans believe that certain highly spiritually evolved individuals can make conscious decision at their moment of death to reincarnate back into a particular human being. It is like knowing how to swim and instead of being caught drifting in the sea one can swim back toward a particular spot on the shore. These human beings are said to have some control on their own rebirthing process and come back to earth as a certain person in a certain place and at certain time.

    Other living spiritual masters search for these rebirthed beings when they were babies, confirm their "identity" in a special divine process and educate them back into teachers again. These babies do not remember anything of their past lives. Their special knowledge is stored in the subconscious mind in the form of innate wisdom (huệ). The formal education re-arms their conscious minds the linguistic and cultural skills to access their own wisdom so they can continue to practice, teach and move closer toward complete enlightenment. If you are interested in this subject, the book Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche would be of your interest.

    For those of us in the West, the idea of reincarnation is simply outlandish. But to the Tibetans and large numbers of people in South and East Asia, it is just like our version of the Law of Conservation of Energy and the Theory of Evolution combined and applied to the human soul. It offers a compelling explanation for the wide range of intellectual and spiritual diversity in the human race. For example, in the case of Albert Einstein who figured out on his own the Theory of Relativity in one lifetime, the Theory of Reincarnation would purport that he innately knew the connection of space and time, matter and energy, from his past lives' contemplation, and through his conscious learning of mathematics was able to convince others of his idea. The main difference between Einstein and the rest of us is therefore not his brain, but the learning he did in his past life. The idea of permanence of cumulative wisdom also offers tremendous hope for mankind. It underlies the Buddhist belief that all sentient beings are learning creatures and underscores the Buddhist optimism that, some time in the future, all sentient beings will become enlightened and be liberated from suffering. That's the Buddhist way of saying all creatures will be coming home to God.

    For Choedron Pháp Đăng, she's beyond convincing that the ultimate happiness exists and attainable. She has made a big down payment for that goal and has been ready to go all-in for that elusive prize. She funds her Buddhist education with her dwindling savings and lives on a meager a budget, partially supported by her friends. This October, she returned to San Jose to take care of some vital business. Two members of CQF crossed her path and we sat down with her to learn about her extraordinary journey. To us, her story is a portrait of bravery and self-determination that shatters any conceivable stereotype of a Viet-American woman.

    The personal and spiritual life of a nun-in-training is often tumultuous, sometimes perilous and usually private. But Choedron Pháp Đăng is willing to share a glimpse of her journey through a letter that she wrote to her friends in Vietnamese. We are pleased to have her permission to share the letter with you.

    At the time this article was published, we got word that she had returned safely to India. We wish her nothing but success on her continuing journey.

    Choedron Pháp Đăng (far left) and her classmates at Geden Choeling Nunnery
    Photo: Pháp Đăng

    Read Pháp Đăng's letter to friends
    Text boxes inserted by editor

    Download it to read Letter from Phap Dang.pdf

    The English translation of Choedron Pháp Đăng's letter to friends
    (subtitled inserted by editor)

    A Few Thoughts To Share

    The love of travel

    I am not sure how to begin this message, as my experiences are really nothing special. But to me they embodied very important lessons that changed my entire worldview. Since young, I loved travelling and dreamed of traveling all over the world. I remember being mesmerized by airplanes taking off and disappearing into the white clouds - leaving me a sense of wonder to where they headed. When I grew up, I realized my dream. I took cruises to the Carribbean -- got seasick in stormy seas in the Arctic circle -- sailed in the placid Gulf of Mexico -- climbed the Great Wall of China until my feet ached -- floated on a lake in Hanzhou -- got sick in Xian’s dry desert -- knocked out by a cold in GuiLin -- took an elevator to the top of the Eiffel Tower with panicky thought “why am I so dumb to trust my life to this contraption…if it’s overloaded we'd all be dead” -- visited the Coliseum in Rome with a heavy heart for the animals once sacrificed-- zipped around on the European railway -- survived on French baguettes and water for three weeks straight to save money -- stayed in a hotel in Sydney and captivated by the toilet water flowing counterclockwise -- took a boat trip toward the Antarctic sea -- got lost in Hongkong to run into a burned out high-rise that claimed over one hundred lives the night before -- in awe of Michael Angelo's art work in the Sistine Chapel -- sobbed in a dark hall in the Chinese National Museum in Taipei, etc...

    Dream and disappointment

    A professor once asked the students about our favorite travel destinations. The answers rang out: Tokyo, Paris, Hongkong, etc... I said Kathmandu. The class was stunned. My teacher asked me, "Why do you want to go where there is no bar, no nightlife, no neon lights? I said calmly, “Because I like it.” A few years later, I made good on my answer. I returned to that region to search for a fuller answer to why I liked it.

    So I returned to India with a suitcase and back to the poor and filthy neighborhood that a French coworker of mine once called "a place not on my list." I applied to study Tibetan language at College of Sarah surrounded by wild forest in the shadow of the majestic Himalayas. Extreme enthusiasm was soon replaced by deep discouragement. On the first day, I dragged my suitcase into a drab dormroom filled with cobwebs. Standing on the cold cement floor and looking at the broken glass windows with the winds gusting by, I saw nothing like what I had imagined.

    At meal times, the deafening bells roared. I cradled an empty bowl to the cafeteria, only to walk back to my room with the same empty bowl and an empty stomach. For a whole month, I could barely eat any food because I couldn't stomach Indian food. I never craved for Vietnamese food so much in my life. I got sick and became bed-ridden due to malnourishment. Finally, I bought a mini-refrigerator and a gas stove to cook for myself. All was well again.

    Learning from the toilet

    Every week, a special bell chimed to call the students to our weekly ritual. All students had to take turn to clean the bathroom. For my part, I had three toilets and three shower stalls to clean every week. The toilets in India were the squatting type. Dorm bathrooms were never clean, especially female bathrooms. Human waste scattered all over the place. A glance would make you nauseous.

    The walls of the bathroom were green with mold. The floor was slippery and blackened with dirt. Walking on it was a hazard. Ever time the toilet clogged up, I mustered all my will to jab it with a stick. The cleaning task was torturous. I kept thinking of my life in America - it was never like this. I complained non-stop to my teacher. My teacher retorted, "Who do you think you are? How many renown Buddhist scholars have been through these halls and cleaned these same toilets? What make you think you are so different and have the right to complain so much?"

    I think to myself, "Oh, yeah, they have a point. Who do I think I am? If others can do it, why can't I?" From then on, every time I cleaned the toilet or emptied the trash, I came up with my own special mind-trick to stop the vomitus from jetting out: "All of these gross stuffs are natural products of a chemical process, just like the process inside my own body that will soon be eliminated." It worked. I pleasantly thought of that idea and ceased to complain any more.

    Close to the earth, literally

    Nine months later, my Teacher urged me to attend a different school. I moved outside the campus to a room big enough for a simple bed and a table. Again, the restroom was on the outside. Another public restroom. In the Himalayan region, water was very scarce. Most of the time, water was available only once a week. The liquid was yellowish and had lots of infiltrates. I had to filter the water before drinking. Most of the people living here suffered from kidney stones. There was no such thing as bathing daily, and I had to follow suit. Sometimes, I didn't touch any water for a week or more, but I got used to that.

    A while later, I returned to America and my friend told me that she had to use mineral water to clean her feet on a camping trip. My heart ached over the wasted resource. My ancestors said, "An inch of soil is an inch of gold." I think differently, "A pound of water is a pound of gold." In the Himalayas, you could have a pocketful of cash, but still wound up with a headful of oily hair because you couldn't bathe for days.

    If water was scarce, then any bathroom would be most horrible. Human waste was all over the place. Any time I had to void or relieve myself, I had a scale an uphill trail to get a bucket of water to flush the toilet. I had a neighbor who never flushed even when water was available. Yet, anytime I had the urge to go, my neighbor scurried into the bathroom and got the job done first. I was upset and thought, "I must be indebted to my neighbor from my past life to find myself in this position of servitude!"

    Discovering tolerance

    In one afternoon, I stood on the balcony to admire the majestic snowy mountain shading the heaven and found my neighbor enjoying the same view. We talked. I learned that my neighbor came here to get treatment for an incurable illness, a disease common in the highland region. People with this disease felt chills in the lower back, and suffered frequent urination and constant aching all over the body. I noticed tremendous inner peace in my neighbor's eyes. All of my resentment from having to clean the toilet for two over the past months disappeared. I said to myself, "My neighbor is ill. If I need to clean the bathroom for both of us, that is not a problem."

    Time flew by and four years in India have passed. All of the irritating inconveniences that would bother a Westerner no longer affected me. All the feces of cows, dogs, humans and scattering urine were no longer stuff of horror. I became so acclimated to them, that when I returned to San Jose and stepped into my aunt's house, I blurted out, "Heavens, why is this bathroom cleaner and better smelling than the bedroom?" I made everyone laugh.

    Re-discovering heavenly America

    When I took the bus in San Jose, I couldn't help to notice that these vehicles were incredibly clean, comfortable and accompanied with great service. There was designated seating area for the disabled, with moveable steps at the door for the elderly to get on board. Buses in India had very high steps at the door. To get on, one had to grab the two metal bars on the side and fling oneself onto the platform. Consequently, buses were off limit to the elderly, pregnant women and children. Inside, people, packed like sardines, pushed and shoved each other. Body odor filled the air, stink to death. For thirty years in America, homes and neighborhood have always been orderly and sanitary. The streets remained wide and safe. Yet I did not really notice any of these things until now.

    Despite the fact that I now appreciate American comfort so much, I am still focused on returning to India to achieve the one thing that I have realized. It is a thing that humans need so much - love and compassion for one another. This is a ridiculously simple idea, one that I have heard a thousand times before but I never realized its significance. A friend of mine once lamented, "My Buddhist teacher doesn't teach any anything, except tossing around the concept Bodhisattva's heart all the time." I realize that Bodhisatva's heart, a heart of compassion, is the most precious thing.

    School for compassionate people

    I am in agreement with my Teacher, who said:

    "When people plan to move into a new neighborhood, they want to find out if their neighbors are good people. They don't care about the religions of their neighbors. [That means] people can co-exist without religion, but people cannot co-exist without compassion.

    An ancient sage once said, "Compassionate citizens are the wealth of a nation." Modern education produces technically skilled citizens. What institution produce compassionate and ethical citizens? To have a compassionate society, we need a compassionate population. To have a compassionate population, each person needs to be compassionate. To be compassionate, one needs an education that teaches compassionate living. Where does one find that education? Buddhism is that essential education. Buddhism is not a religious system, but a way of life that is practical, tangible and based on empirical experiences.

    A heart of forgiveness and compassion is itself a universal religion. A true universal religion does not concern itself with the need of mankind alone, but of all sentient beings."
    Buddhism has instilled me with these ideas, so I must return to India to complete my study. Unfortunately, it is not easy for a foreigner to stay in India even to study. To attend a Tibetan Buddhist School, a student has to possess a permit issued by the Indian government. The permit has to be renewed every six months or one year. Whenever the permit expires, the student cannot reside within the school. The process of getting a permit can take 3 to 4 months, and the outcome is uncertain. Furthermore, the cost of room and board can be prohibitive causing additional barriers to students.

    Walk dirty street, scrub dirty soul

    Due to these difficulties, the Himalayan Buddhist Heritage Foundation has embarked on a plan to build a Buddhist Institute in the Kingdom of Nepal to accommodate international and regional students. The Visa process in Nepal is much simpler than that of India.

    My goal to be in India is nothing more than ultimately to preserve the Buddhist philosophy. To help preserve it, I need to continue my education. Let me re-iterate my belief: Compassionate citizens are the foundation of a nation; public schools train technically skilled people for the society, Buddhism teaches compassion to people and Buddhist institutions produce compassionate people for the society.

    But entering nunhood or monkhood is not the only way to preserve a precious philosophy. If you are interested in supporting this goal, you can lend to the support Himalayan Buddhist Heritage Foundation to expand educational opportunities for others. Please go to www.dipkar.com for more information.

    For now, I shall return to India and walk upon the filthy streets, which are only the reflection of my soul… filthy…which I am still trying to scrub it everyday.

    Thinley Choedron Pháp Đăng (in her own Tibetan handwriting)


    Tenzin Palyon

    On March 11, 2012, we were pleased to learn that Công Hạnh Pháp Đăng was ordained into nunhood by His Holiness the Dalai Lama's Sangha Council in Dharamsala India. She was given the name Tenzin Palyon. Tenzin refers to the last name of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. His name is Tenzin Gyatzo. Palyon means Cát Hạnh (abundant virtues) in Vietnamese.

    Finding her true home

    In traditional Vietnamese culture where family ties reign supreme, to have a family member becoming a nun is a sad event for many families. Seeing loved ones without hair and in nun robes triggers powerful sense of loss. Only years later, may these families come to term that it's a very good thing. It is said that only those with the most auspicious virtues can join the monk-hood or nun-hood because only they possess the inner strength to move beyond family ties. We don't know how her family feels about her ordainment, but we do know that Marie is no longer a world traveler, but has settled in her true home.

    Choices in personal "re-incarnation"

    In a little more than half a lifetime, Marie has gone through four cultural re-incarnations. She started out as a Vơ, became a Boat Person and an American as Marie, entered Buddhism as Thinley Choedron, and finally settled as Tenzin Palyon of of a very distinctive community.

    Before her ordainment, she visited her birthplace place, Vietnam, where found her people to be very spiritual. She enjoyed sharing her Buddhist knowledge with the young people and investing in their growth in the dimension of wisdom and kindness.

    Perhaps she is right that society does need more kind people, not just more skilled technicians. Perhaps, it's also true that while society can only produce and make use a limited number of skilled technicians, but the number of kind people a society can use and need is limitless. Marie's journey helps to remind us that the choice of who we want to become is ours to make and that whatever we want is possible - perhaps even world peace.

    Sư Cô Tenzin Palyon Cát Hạnh sits on the immediate right of
    His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the day of her ordainment into his Buddhist order.

    photo: Tenzin Palyon

    Comments 2 Comments
    1. cqf-article-team's Avatar
      cqf-article-team -
      From Sandra Jewett, PhD,

      "Absolutely, beautiful!"
    1. cqf-article-team's Avatar
      cqf-article-team -
      From Diệu-Hằng, San Jose

      Bài viết của Pháp Đăng rất thật và cảm động , làm cho ḿnh phải tự suy nghĩ lại chính ḿnh, cám ơn bạn đă chia xẻ, I like it , và tôi luôn hy vọng và mơ ước 1 ngày không xa tôi sẽ được đến nơi mà cô ta đang sống và học tập,
  • Recent Articles