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Thich An Giao: In Memoriam Thich Thien An

In 2009 we ended the meditation period, during the Sunday service, and I began my dharma talk for the morning.  Sitting in front of me was a smiling face from the past.  Kirk was visiting his brother in nearby Apple Valley and stopped by for a visit.  Over tea, following the service, we talked of our teacher.  Kirk remarked that he was the highest-ranking Vietnamese monk in America and we smiled.  He talked of the refuges at Camp Pendleton in 1974 and how our teacher, and patriarch to the refuges, set up temples all across the USA.  During our visit Kirk told me he had written down some of the lessons he had learned from our mutual teacher.  I encouraged him to give me a copy so I could have them published.  What you are reading is Kirks notebook of remembrances. 

The Most Venerable Thich Thien An was the first Vietnamese monk and Zen Master to emigrate this country.  He did not come to minister to an ethnic population of Vietnamese refuges, there were none, the year was 1966.  He came as a guest lecturer at UCLA, for he was a world renown Buddhist scholar who help found Van Han Buddhist University in Saigon, Vietnam.  At the urging of his American students he stayed to teach the Vietnamese form of the Buddhist meditation school known to Americans as Zen. 

In the Zen school three types of literature are used for guidance, and inspiration in our practice: Sutra’s, Viniya and Transmission of the Lamp Literature (the sayings and doings of enlightened masters).  This small volume is of the third type and is the first, to my knowledge, to contain the doings and sayings of Great Master Thich Thien An.

Note:  Sentence structure and punctuation have been retained as Kirk wrote.  This is a work of the heart, not the mind, and should not be tampered with.

Roshi Thich An Giao, Thien An Temple, Lucerne Valley, California
September 5, 2009

When I was a young man I went to Los Angeles, to study Buddhism with a Zen Teacher.  It was at the IBMC, the International Buddhist Meditation center.

I had been living in Las Vegas when I came down for a three-day retreat.  This is when I met the Teacher, Dr. Thich Thien-An, a very exceptional man.  I liked him right away and decided to move into the Center.  I stayed there for the greater part of six years, from 1974 until his death in 1980.

He always had a lot of good things to say, and thru the years he would repeat some of his sayings over and over. Here I will try to relate some of those, and other stories that I remember.

When I first came to stay at the Center, I asked Dr. Thien-An what I should call him.  He said, “call me Suto” so I will refer to him as such in these pages.

“Every Day is a Good Day”

A lot of Suto’s stories were based on events in the daily life at the center.

One such story began at Samu (working meditation).  Every Saturday morning we would have Samu at the Center.  This is when all the members would get together and do some kind of work for the Center, usually outside on the grounds.  On this particular day, one of the tasks was to paint the rear fence.  One of our members, John, was part of the crew. Well, part way through, John spilled a whole bucket of paint, and he said, ”Oh man this is going to be a bad day!”

After samu, John left in his car and had a minor traffic accident.  When he returned, he told everyone that this was a bad day.

The following day, at Sunday Service, Suto gave a lecture.  The title was “Every day is a good day.

I do not remember exactly what he said.  In general it was that how we think about things, influence our behavior.  But I will always remember that every day is a good day.

“Butterfly of Happiness”

One of my favorite stories was the butterfly of happiness story.  He told this one many times in the zendo.  Goes like this.

You are in a pleasant garden on a nice day, and a beautiful butterfly comes in and begins to fly happily around.  Everything is wonderful and you are really enjoying the moment.  But then the butterfly starts to leave.  You do not want it to go.  But you have to let it go, because if you grab it and try to hold onto it, you only have a dead insect in you hand.

The lesson here is that things in life come and go.  When they come into your life, enjoy them.  When they leave, let them go, do not cling to them.

For me, it was like my girl friend, the more I tried to hold on to her, the worse our relationship got.  I finally had to let her go.

“The Camera”

One of Suto’s favorite stories was about a trip to the San Diego Zoo, with his friend.

They started driving down to San Diego early in the morning.  They were about half way there, when his friend realized that he had left his camera in Los Angeles.  Suto asked if he wanted to go back and get it.  He said, no, it would take too much time.  So they continued driving to the zoo.  When they got to the zoo and started to look at all the animals, his friend kept saying, “Oh I wish I had my camera”.  He kept saying this over and over, every time they saw some interesting animals.

Finally Suto told him, “You have to let go of the camera”.  He would always laugh when telling this story.  His Friend could not fully enjoy the zoo, because he was thinking about the camera.

It is like the classic story of two young monks, who meet a young woman at a stream crossing.  One of the monks carries her across the stream so she would not get her things wet.

The monks then continue their journey back to the temple.  When they arrived, one monk turned to the other, and said, “You should not have touch that woman, it is against the rules”.  “Yes” the other monk replied ”but I left her at the stream, you have carried her all the way back to the temple.”

In this case Suto’s friend was carrying his camera in his mind.

The story has to do with thoughts occupying your mind so that you cannot enjoy, or live fully in the moment.

“Moment to Moment”

One of Suto’s favorite tricks, in his nighttime meditation lecture class, was to swirl an incense stick (big Chinese kind) so that it made a circle.  He would then talk about our life being like the circle.  It appears to be continuous, but that is illusion, in reality it is moment to moment.  The incense sparks actually come out one at a time, and our lives last for one “thought moment”.

Suto would say:

The past is gone, the future not come yet.  The only time w can do anything is now.  It is important to be aware of the moment, because what  we do now determines our future.

Also,

It is good to have a plan for the future, and work toward your goals.  At the same time, you should enjoy your daily life.

“Hungry Ghosts”

Once I asked him, “What are these realms of hungry ghosts, heaven and hell worlds, that you can be reborn into?”? according to some scriptures.

He said, “because life is moment to moment, living and dying, you can think of these worlds as state of mind.  If I am happy, I am in a heaven world, if I am angry, I am in a hell world.”

Made sense to me.

“Cup of Desire”

Suto’s teachings were not always in the zendo. On one occasion, we were having celebration, and there were a lot of visitors.  We were in a large lecture hall, and there were not enough pillows (zafus’) to go around.  Suto got on the microphone and said, “if we have a pillow to sit on, we can be happy, and if we don’t have a pillow to sit on, we can still be happy.

One of his constant themes in the zendo was putting a bottom on our cup of desire.  He would say, “Our desires are endless, like putting them into a bottomless cup.  We have to learn to put a bottom on our cup of desire.  So that it fills up, and we can be happy with what we have.”

“Any Direction is a Good Direction”

In Suto’s weekly class, we would first meditate, he would give a short talk, and then people could ask questions.  They would ask all kinds of things.

One I remember was,  “Should I quit my job?”

He said, “If you can afford it go ahead, if not try to find another job before you quit.  He always urged people to progress and move forward in life.

Another of his sayings was, “Any direction is a good direction, even if a direction does not work out, you can learn from it and move forward.”  In all my years at the center I never heard him say the word bad.  He would use the term, “not good”.

“If Another Man Can Do It”

Many of Suto’s teachings were always in the back of my mind, and sometimes I would remember them when I needed to.

One such occasion occurred when I was at a job interview to become a technician.  The interviewer asked me if I could make a certain kind of wire connection in five minutes.  Well, I did not think I could do it that fast, but I did not want to tell him so.  So I leaned over that table, looked him in the eye, and said, “if another man can do it, I can do it.”

Suto used to say, ‘If another man can do it, why not you?”  Of course, he was talking about enlightenment.

And I did get the job.

”As For Enlightenment”

Suto used to say, “Americans have instant tea, instant coffee, instant rice, and they want instant enlightenment, I have to slow them down.”

Once I asked Suto what I could do to please him.  He said, ”when the student does better than the teacher, the teacher is pleased.”  Which did not help me too much, as I saw that as an insurmountable task.

“One Step at a Time”

Another of Suto’s teachings came to mind one day, when I was talking to my neighbor.  She had a business caring for people’s pets, when they were on vacation, or out of town for some reason.  She was saying that she felt stressed out.  I asked her what made her feel stress, and she said, “when I look at my work load in the morning, I feel stress”.

So I told her this story: once upon a time I was on a meditation retreat in the mountains.  Our camp was near the top, and a few of us, including Suto, had hiked down the mountain that morning. On our way back up, I asked Suto if he would like to rest for a moment.  He said, “No”, and then he looked at me and said, “if I think the camp is all the way to the top of the mountain, already I am tired, but if I think to take just one step at a time, then is no problem”.

So I told my neighbor, you can do the same thing with your work, step one, you feed the dog, step two, you change the paper in the bird cage, each step is easy and something you do all the time.  Just take it one step at a time.

She liked that story.

“Hatred”

One duty of a Buddhist monk is to pass down the teachings of the Buddha.  Suto did that very well.  A couple of his repeated themes came straight from the Dhammapada.  One such was, “Hatred does not cease by hatred, hatred only ceases by love.”

I remember him using this many times when talking about the Vietnam War, but he would use it whenever it would apply.

One day Suto said:

It is easy to find fault in others, hard to find fault with ourselves.  Why,  because we forgive ourselves.  We have to learn to forgive others.

“Mind”

Another such theme was:  “everything stems from the mind, we think before we act.”  Number one of the Dhammapada.  He would talk about the importance of keeping the mind calm and quiet,  so that we could think more clearly, and make better decisions.

He would use the analogy of a glass of dirty water being like the mind.  When it is stirred up it is hard to see, but when it is at rest the dirt settles, and the water becomes clear.

“An Example”

Most of all, Suto set an example for us all.  He lived what he taught, was able to live in the moment, and he smiled a lot.

This following story is an example of that.  At the time I lived in the yellow house, the kitchen of which was close to the driveway that ran to the back yard.  In the back yard was a small building where lived Harry, who helped with the maintenance of all our buildings.

One day I was in the kitchen, and I heard Harry yelling.  I looked out the window and saw Harry and Suto walking up the driveway to the street.  Well, Harry was yelling at Suto, complaining that Suto worked him too hard, and did not give him enough money.

He was using foul language and calling Suto names.  And Harry was a lot bigger that Suto, so I started walking to the front door of the house.  When I reached it and opened the door,  Harry and Suto had reached the end of the driveway.  Harry continued walking across the street and Suto was on the sidewalk, walking in my direction.

I thought to cheer him up, after taking a tongue lashing from Harry, but when I met him there on the sidewalk and looked into his eyes, I realized that his mind was still calm and quiet.  All that yelling and verbal abuse from Harry had not disturbed him at all.  He greeted me with a smile, as if nothing had happened.

I felt kind of silly.

“At Ease”

Suto had a knack for putting people at ease. I saw him handle many stressful situations, here are a couple.

One hot summer evening we were having a class with Suto on the back porch of one of the buildings.  About half way through the class, a lady burst in from outside, she was hysterical, crying and sobbing in Spanish.  She would not calm down, so Suto told me to take her to the Vietnamese Temple, and have the monks chant for her.

I spoke a little Spanish and got her to come with me to the Chua Vietnam, which was only a block away.

I told the monks what Suto had said, and got her to sit on a zafu on the side of the alter.  When the two monks started hitting the mokugyo and chanting, the lady immediately stopped crying and calmed down.  It was the perfect remedy.

Another such incident happened one night, when we were working late at the office.  Just as Suto and I were leaving, a young man came up the steps.  He appeared very distraught and mentally unbalanced.  He began crying and talking to Suto.  He said that he had just come back from India, and his girl friend had taken all of his things and vacated their apartment, he had no money and no place to stay.  Suto told him he could sleep on the back porch of one of our houses, for now, and that they could talk about things in the morning.  The man calmed down, and began acting more normally.

Dr. Thich Thien-An was my first Zen teacher, so I thought that all Buddhist teachers were like him.  But after traveling around the world for some 35 years, and knowing many Buddhist teachers, I now realize how great this man was.

Some notes:

When Suto came to America Japanese Zen was taking root here.  Americans were familiar with Japanese terms used in Zen practice.  Suto was fluent in Japanese and a published author in Japan.  He used the terms his students were familiar with.  Some of those terms are used in Kirks notebook they are:

Mokugyo: Wood fish drum used during Buddhist chanting.
Zafu: Meditation cushion.
Zendo: Meditation hall.

John, mentioned in Everyday is a Good Day, was given novice monk precepts and ended up in Hawaii for over thirty years.  Jodo Shu Bishop Nakamura gave him a small temple to run there and in May of 1997 John was given full ordination at IBMC.

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