When Sister Dang Nghiem was about to leave for the United States from Vietnam, her grandmother shared three deep wishes for her: that she raise her younger brother properly, that she get a higher education, and that she become a nun. In the years since then, Sister D, as she calls herself, has faithfully carried out all three, spinning a life out of the threads of a difficult upbringing.
Born as Huynh Thi Ngoc Huong in 1968 in Central Vietnam during the height of the Vietnam War to a Vietnamese mother and an American GI, Sister D was raised by her grandmother while her mother worked in Saigon to support the family.
“As Amerasian children growing up in Vietnam, my brother and I felt that we did not belong there,” she said. “We did not receive much acceptance outside of our home. Instead, we received rejection and abuse. It was painful.”
In 1980, Sister D’s mother disappeared without a trace. Surmising that she’d been killed, Sister D’s grandmother realized that she had to ensure her grandchildren’s future. Their mother had put in an application for immigration to the United States, but when it was accepted, her grandmother felt that Sister D and her brother were too young to go to America alone without their mother. When Sister D turned 16, her grandmother insisted that they go, saying she wouldn’t be able to protect the two of them if she passed away. In 1985, the two children traveled to the US and were placed in foster homes in Arizona. Despite all the challenges, Sister D studied hard and graduated from college with two degrees: one in psychology and another in creative writing. Soon after, she was accepted by the University of California, San Francisco Medical School, where she worked even harder, and she seemed well on her way to making a place for herself. But when John, her partner, died during a tragic swimming accident, her world caved in on itself.
Three weeks earlier, Sister D had attended a retreat with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. She learned about the four noble truths and realized that although for years she’d been a victim of abuse, she was also the perpetrator.
“I felt that even though the trauma of my childhood wasn’t there anymore, I was actively nourishing it with my negative thinking. When my partner died, I couldn’t go on as I had.”
Within three months, she’d moved to Plum Village, where she immersed herself in monastic training. She was ordained, first as a novice, then as a fully ordained nun by Thich Nhat Hanh. She’s now been ordained for twenty-two years.
Whatever I can transform, I can transmit—and the opposite is also true.
When I asked Sister D what she saw as the focus of her practice, she replied without hesitation: “To transform myself for my own sake, for my parents’ sake, and for the sake of everyone, because whatever I can transform, I can transmit—and the opposite is also true. I am keenly aware of that responsibility, both as an individual and as a spiritual practitioner.”
Sister D trains with fifty or so other monastics at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, where she’s lived since 2004. As one of the resident teachers, she offers dharma talks, leads retreats, and helps run the monastery according to the six harmonies taught by the Buddha: harmony in living as a community, sharing all the benefits, practicing the precepts, speaking kindly, sharing insights, and making decisions together.
As for the focus of her teaching, Sister D’s message is both pointed and relevant. She teaches people to “be their own soul mates.” In Vietnamese, the word for “soul mate,” tri ky, means “one who remembers, knows, takes care of, or masters oneself.”
“I teach that to children, teenagers, and adults, and they love it because it’s concrete and empowering. It shows that we don’t have to look to others to give us happiness. We can trust ourselves. We can be there for ourselves.”
Sister Dang Nghiem is the author of three books: Healing: A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun; Mindfulness as Medicine: A Story of Healing and Spirit; and Flowers in the Dark: Reclaiming Your Power to Heal with Mindfulness. You can find her many talks on the websites of Deer Park Monastery and Plum Village, as well as on YouTube.
Q: Can we use Buddhist practice to heal from illness or trauma?
Healing and the Buddhist path are one. The Buddha didn’t call what he was doing “Buddhism.” He described a path, an art, and a way of life in which we cultivate our innate capacity to be awake and aware.
I trained as a doctor, and when someone has a concussion, for example, we ask them three questions: What’s your name?, Do you know where you are?, and Do you know what day it is?. We’re essentially asking whether they’re oriented to person, place, and time. The truth is, whether we’re ill or have an injury or not, we live in a fog most of the time. We react out of habits formed from the coping mechanisms employed for survival earlier in life. So, to practice means to be aware of who we are, what we are thinking, and what we are doing. It means to be awake and oriented, so that we can see what’s arising inside and around us in the present moment and take care of it with clarity and effectiveness. This is how we bring about healing.
We know that we can’t go back to change our past. We can’t see the future. Yet both past and future exist in the present moment. If we take care of the present, we can transform and heal the past, and we can create a good foundation for the future. Healing takes place in the present moment, and it takes place when body and mind are unified.
Sexual trauma is a tremendous wound for many of us. It’s prevalent and heartbreaking. When I work with young people, I help them to recognize the difference between sex, intimacy, and love. Many of them are seeking acceptance and acknowledgment in sexual relationships, and it ends up causing them deeper suffering. One way to heal this wound is to cultivate self-love and acceptance—to have deep respect for ourselves. Then we have an inner well of love and compassion to share with others. We’ll also attract people who have the same kind of reverence for themselves, who are soul mates to themselves.
Another wound is our addiction to electronics. We’ve learned to self-regulate by using images and media to numb ourselves, to escape, or to avoid confronting problems. Unfortunately, it only creates all sorts of medical and psychological problems, especially for children. Mindfulness practice can help them to recognize and become more comfortable with their bodies and their feelings, so they don’t have to shut them out or avoid them.
Finally, there’s the whole issue of meaninglessness. We may have so much material comfort readily available to us that we lose track of the meaning of life. We lose our purpose. An antidote to that is to cultivate joy and gratitude for the simple things in life—for the fact that we’re alive, that we have food and a roof over our heads, that we can practice.
The Buddhist path helps us transform and heal suffering for ourselves, for our children, and for society at large. We have concrete daily mindfulness practices as well as the monastic and lay communities for guidance and support. The Buddha himself is often likened to a physician because he gave us a way to treat the ills of the world. Buddhist practice is empowering, proactive, and scientific.
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