Zen Blog

This blog collects various internet feeds aimed towards information, experience and technique exchange in support of our shared spiritual journey..... ”Namaste - may the light in me, honor the light in you…”

My True Home

“Your true home is in the here and the now.”— Thich Nhat Hanh

Home is a complicated, layered concept when you are a first-gen kid.

My parents immigrated to the United States in 1977 as Vietnam War refugees. Their love for one another helped them navigate an apocalyptic post-war Saigon while raising a newborn. Through unwavering love, resilience, and a series of miracles, my parents survived two years of separation under the totalitarian Viet Cong government and managed to sneak out of the country below deck in a fishing boat in the middle of the night. 

My family’s story is incredible but not necessarily singular. Millions of Vietnamese people immigrated and sought refuge in countries that provided a safe haven—my parents and the late Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh included. (Between 1975 and 1995, over three million people fled Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, with more than a million settling in the US.)

As a teenager, I was hungry to find someone with that same lived experience, but growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood outside of Houston in the late 90s made that challenging. The closest Vietnamese community was 45 minutes away—without traffic. In many ways, my upbringing in Texas was a microcosm of the Vietnamese diaspora; so many families were grateful where they were, but at the same time, they missed community, family, and home.

Continue reading
  40 Hits

Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard

About half an hour north of Boston, close to the New Hampshire border, lies an area of Massachusetts known as the Merrimack Valley. It’s a mix of rural areas and small cities, but what’s often overlooked is the region’s diverse, vibrant Buddhist community.

The Buddhist community has flourished here for decades, particularly after the arrival of thousands of refugees following the wars in Southeast Asia. Now, there are nearly a dozen Buddhist temples representing a variety of traditions and ethnicities—including Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Cambodian, Khmer, Chinese, and Japanese.

This spring, an innovative new course called “Listening to the Buddhists in Our Backyard” at Phillips Academy—a private boarding school in Andover, one of the towns in the Merrimack Valley—immersed high school seniors in these local Buddhist communities just miles from their own campus. Co-taught by author Chenxing Han and philosophy and religion instructor Andrew Housiaux, the class shows how embedded Buddhism is in the US, even in places where one might not expect.

“It invites anybody in the US to consider, ‘There’s Buddhism in my backyard,’” Han said.

The class looks at prayer wheels at the Kurukulla Center, the closest Tibetan temple in Medford, MA

The idea for the 10-week course came about last year when Housiaux read Han’s book, Be the Refuge: Raising the Voices of Asian American Buddhists, in which she profiled dozens of young Asian American Buddhists. At the time, he was teaching a class on Asian religions, so he invited Han to be a guest lecturer and was struck by her approach.

Continue reading
  33 Hits

New Exhibit Tells Life Story of Tibetan Contemporary Artist Rabkar Wangchuk

Consciousness (2021), watercolor and ink on canvas board. 12 x 16 inches. The clouds and colors dripping from the top of the painting to the bottom represent the Buddha’s teachings of kindness and compassion permeating the mind and heart.

During the lockdown days of the pandemic, when so many people felt aimless at home, Tibetan artist Rabkar Wangchuk was painting every day. The result is a new show called Mystery of Life at New York City’s Here Now gallery, curated by Paola Vanzo and on view through June 21. The show is dedicated to Wangchuk’s mother, who died during the pandemic, and includes sculptures from guest artist Michela Martello.

Wangchuk, who was born in India and lived in a monastery from age seven to twenty, has always been an artist. After learning the traditional Tibetan art forms of thangka painting, wood carving, butter sculpture, and sand mandalas at the monastery, he started exploring contemporary art when he left to study at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. His teacher encouraged him to explore other styles and he found inspiration in the painting of Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, and other artists whose work he felt represented a “freedom of spirit.”

“I can be hungry for two or three days, but I can’t stand one day without art,” Wangchuk told me when I visited the show. “Art nourishes my spirit.”

The Land of Opportunity (2020), pigment color on canvas board. 18 x 24 inches. The young monk represents the artist, looking out at the New York City skyline and holding his teddy bear for comfort. The dog represents his dharma protector, looking in the same direction.

Eventually Wangchuk came to the United States to teach, first at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and then in New York City, where he currently lives. Though his art has appeared in numerous group shows, Mystery of Life is the artist’s first solo exhibit. Departing from much of his previous work, Wangchuk used mineral pigments as opposed to acrylics in this collection of paintings, which allows him to be more precise. As a result, the paintings are brimming with detail. But they also have an unmistakably serene quality to them. The contradiction is one Wangchuk attributes to his daily meditation practice—his morning prayers and mantras that he calls “breakfast for the spirit.” The practice keeps him calm and imbues his art with positivity, he says, even as the intricate details sweep viewers up in the complexity and struggle of daily life.  

Continue reading
  39 Hits

Bad Buddhist: That Time I Sold Guns

It took me weeks after the Buffalo shooting, a week after Uvalde to make the connection—once upon a time, I sold guns. I am a part of all this, too. 

I’ve known for a while that my temporary occupation wasn’t right livelihood—the spoke of the eightfold path that instructs us not to make a living at the harm of others. But this realization that I was a complicit cog in a machine took my breath away. I usually experience the feeling of interconnection in positive ways—my neighbors in Leipzig, Germany mobilizing to send supplies to Ukraine in the early days of Russia’s invasion, teens marching in the street for Fridays for Future. A pay-it-forward chain at the interstate toll booth, or Starbucks drive-through, on Christmas, New Years Day, or just because. 

In the days since Buffalo I’ve wondered about the tipping point that led to an 18-year-old adopting extreme white supremacist views and intentionally opening fire at a supermarket in one of the Blackest zip codes in New York State. I look at my 3-year-old son’s sweet face and see the similar features in the 19 kids killed at school in Texas. I feel sad, and also relieved, that we are so far away, that the schools and grocery stores are safer here; guilty for having the option to live in a country where gun ownership is highly regulated and mass killings are few. Never once, until that moment of insight, did I think of my actions while working at a Florida pawn shop more than a decade ago as being part of the massive, totally fucked up system that allows Americans to quickly and easily purchase guns. 

I did all sorts of things at that shop in 2011—Windexed the glass case, issued short-term cash loans in exchange for some item of value. The shop also sold guns and handled transfers, serving as a middleman between a seller and buyer. I am a pretty terrible salesperson, and no one seemed to take me seriously when agreeing on the price of the pawn transaction, so I spent a lot of time on the phone in the back, making background check calls to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. I’d call the hotline, and give the dispatcher the gun buyer’s name, address, social security number. They’d put me on hold, music was played, and a decision was made. Sometimes the hold was extra long, the screechy hold music on a loop—which usually meant there was either an error in the person’s information or some kind of problem, like a conviction, that would prohibit us from selling them a gun. Rejected buyers could expect a written decision in the mail; if approved, you waited three business days, and came back to pick up your gun. (There is no waiting period if you have a concealed carry permit.) I also got the guns ready to ship, covering them in bubble wrap, taping the box shut, and driving them to the post office.

My pawn shop stint made for a good cocktail party story. I was in grad school, I reasoned. I needed to make money to live so I could take out less in student loans. I worked for a business run by a family of good people. Around this time, I was assisting a professor teaching a media ethics class, which usually included a nod to Immanuel Kant, whose take on morality I always remember as “do your duty.” Do the job you were hired to do. Call the background check line. Pick up Greek salads from that place on Park Boulevard, get a round of coffee and sweet teas at the McDonalds around the corner. 

Continue reading
  45 Hits

Tulku Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, Noted Tibetan Buddhist Scholar, Ex-monk, and Founder of The Tibet Center in New York City, Died at 98

In 2003, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, a reincarnate master, noted Geluk scholar, and founder of The Tibet Center in New York City, returned to his birthplace in eastern Tibet after 44 years in exile. Though his movements were heavily monitored by the Chinese authorities and he was forbidden to teach, news of his arrival leaked to his home village, where the residents eagerly awaited a blessing from the great lama. But when Khyongla Rato and his party arrived on horseback and dismounted, the villagers failed to recognize the tulku and ran right past him, so unassuming was his appearance. 

It was not the first—or last—time Khyongla Rato flew beneath the radar, and his death, on May 24, 2022, near Dharamsala, India, went largely unheralded in the United States, where the 98-year-old lama had lived since 1968. Although regarded as one of the great Tibetan Buddhist scholars and tantric masters of his era, by the time he settled in New York City and founded The Tibet Center in 1973, Khyongla Rato had disrobed and become a quiet, largely anonymous presence in his midtown Manhattan neighborhood, often dressed casually in baggy sweaters and castoffs purchased, he said, at the local Salvation Army. 

As a teacher, however, he was sublime. His warmth, humor, and erudition attracted devoted students like the actor Richard Gere, Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, the great mythology scholar Joseph Campbell, and Khyongla Rato’s dharma heir and “heart son,” Rato Khen Rinpoche Nicholas Vreeland. (A gifted photographer and socially-prominent New Yorker, Vreeland became a monk in India and earned a Geshe degree—equivalent to a PhD—before becoming spiritual director of The Tibet Center and teaching alongside Khyongla Rato. In 2012, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama named Khen Rinpoche abbot of Rato Monastery in southern India. He is the first Westerner to head a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in India.) 

While Rinpoche Prays (December 2021) | Photo by Nicholas Vreeland

Khyongla Rato was a teacher’s teacher and well into his 90s gave oral transmissions to other noted Tibetan Buddhists, among them Lama Zopa Rinpoche, head of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT). Highly esteemed even as a newly minted Geshe, Khyongla Rato was the youngest of the lamas charged with debating the Dalai Lama during His Holiness’s examinations for the Geshe degree in 1960. “Few people have known the Dalai Lama longer than Khyongla Rato,” a Time contributor wrote. “He was there the first day His Holiness arrived in Lhasa as a toddler.” He remained a confidante of the Dalai Lama throughout his life. “I asked him in the nineteen-sixties to go to teach in Western countries such as America,” His Holiness said, “and during the time he was living there I had him carry out in various ways my vision. For those and other reasons, he became a trusted person with whom I could discuss inner matters.” 

In 1991, under the aegis of The Tibet Center, Khyongla Rato and Richard Gere sponsored the first Kalachakra initiation by His Holiness in New York City, followed by teachings and public talks on the Dalai Lama’s visits in the years thereafter.   

Continue reading
  30 Hits