Staying at Truc Lam Monastery – My Pilgrimage

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Staying at Truc Lam Monastery – My Pilgrimage

In October 2019, I set out for my pilgrimage to Truc Lam Monastery in Da Lat, Vietnam to experience the nun life. I lived as a nun and side by side with them during my stay, abiding to their rules and way of life. This experience is honestly so difficult for me to sum up in any sort of words as it changed my life from the inside and it was so special that I will remember it for the rest of my life. I hope to share it with you in my limited words below. This blog is written for anyone who is interested to learn about my visit, what staying at Truc Lam is like or how you can go on this pilgrimage yourself. Thank you to everyone who submitted questions for me to answer. I will answer them all in this blog for you. For the purpose of this blog, I will be talking about staying at the monastery, not just a day trip. You can also watch the video above.

About Truc Lam Monastery

Founded in 1994 by Zen Master (and Buddhist monk) Thich Thanh Tu, Truc Lam (translates directly to bamboo forest) is a Zen Buddhist monastery that lies within 24 hectares of protected forest. There are hundreds of monks and nuns who come and go. When I stayed, there were 70 monks and 130 nuns onsite.

Everyday here I practiced Zen Buddhism – a way of life that teaches us to be fully present, silence our ego and thoughts to achieve ever lasting peace, happiness and enlightenment. However, to describe what Zen really is in this small space would be unjust and not possible. Zen is a practical experience and is not something that can be understood in theory. It is practiced and experienced every minute by Zen practitioners and is the intention of every action – talking, thinking, working, breathing, walking etc. I love the way that Zen Buddhism is described here.

Spending my days here in this oriental architecture styled monastery surrounded by the quiet gardens, hills and mountains, disconnected me from all my everyday worries and allowed me to enter a state of true peace and calm.

Staying at Truc Lam Monastery

You can either take a day trip to the monastery or do a period of time there. If you do day trip, you can simply drive there and walk around for a short few hours (there is not much to see as a visitor) or for me, I stayed for a period of time doing 14 hour days, arriving before 6 am every day and leaving at 7 pm with my own transport as the government does not allow foreigners to stay overnight anymore.

I want to highlight that this visit is not something that would fall into the traditional meaning of a retreat or a relaxed holiday. If you are looking for a place to be taught Buddhism daily, relax and do nothing, be pampered with daily classes and activities like yoga and tai chi – this is not it.

In fact, this visit is busy and requires a lot of physical and mental work – in all good ways possible. Nuns and monks have a very strict 19-hour day timetable that they have to follow almost 365 days a year.

Once I arrived, I headed straight to the nuns living area. Nuns and monks live in completely different areas of the monastery and they are not allowed in each other’s area unless accompanied. I was given my nun robe and my bed in a communal room with an elderly nun who took me in under her wings – she constantly saved me food and taught me Vietnamese.

I was then introduced to my nun teacher who knew a bit of English and then for everyone else, there was a lot of hand gesturing since everyone spoke Vietnamese and I DON’T – yes it was VERY difficult. Everyday, I would repeat similar tasks and activities as per the timetable.

There are also plenty of rules to learn and follow.

How and why I arranged a visit to Truc Lam Monastery

So there is no official program or dates to do this. Because I have been studying Mahayana Buddhism (similar to Zen Buddhism) for many years, I have been wanting to go to a monastery/pilgrimage for a while to work on myself and the teachings.

When I quit my job in October 2019 and before starting my new job, I decided the time was right. I went onto Google and found NOTHING suitable. However, I did come across this lady’s blog who said that she accidentally discovered that she could stay at Truc Lam. So I asked my cousins in Vietnam to call the monastery based on their Google number. It took a whole week and a lot of going back and forth for them to vet me asking for my name, my intentions, my prior meditation experience and what I knew about Buddhism etc. They finally agreed and I gave them my dates for visiting. I was ECSTATIC!!

Pre-requisites for staying at Truc Lam Monastery

There aren’t any prerequisites of staying at Truc Lam, there are people who just go for one day or two. However it is going to be extremely difficult to get the most out of your visit on such a short trip or if you don’t know anything about Buddhism, especially if you don’t know Vietnamese (nonetheless it is still VERY worthwhile).

I just want to clarify that you do not need to be religious to stay at a monastery. Whilst I have been studying Buddhism and its theory, I practice the way of life but I do not call myself a Buddhist as there is a clear distinction.

Going to any monastery requires preparation, they do not ‘teach’ you much during your visit given nuns have a very strict timetable. You are expected to do a lot of self-learning. I will explain this further below in the upcoming sections. Things that would be very beneficial for you to know prior are things like:

Your teacher will give you about 1 hour upon your first day to sit down with you to teach you the steps to meditation then give you heaps of books to read for the rest of your stay. They might check in on you daily for a few minutes. You will follow the timetable for all other times.

What happens daily as a nun?

A nun said to me, a lot of people have this impression that nuns and monks “don’t do much” when in fact, they have 19 hour long days waking from 3 am and sleeping at 10 pm. They follow the same daily timetable for almost 365 days a year. Here is what my nun life looked like.

3:00: Nuns wake up to meditate for 2 hours.

5:00: They do chores. The nun manager divides responsibilities between all the nuns and has it written on a board on who has to do what. Running a monastery is no easy task and is very busy.

6:30: Breakfast. Most of the food at the monastery is grown in their big greenhouses. Eating is a formal ceremony and requires chanting before the meal. This chant is about being grateful for our food and where it comes from. We then eat for 25 minutes in total silence to contemplate this gratitude before we chant again to end the formalities. I mean TOTAL silence, I got told off for accidentally making a noise with my metal spoon against my ceramic bowl! There are a lot of rules for this session which I will describe later in this blog.

7:00: Chores for the next 3 hours. Mine was sweeping and mopping the dining hall, gardening and sewing everyday. See what I mean by it’s not exactly a place you go to relax, my back was certainly sore every day but all this felt so worth it! My nun friend told me:

“Cleaning the house is cleaning the mind” – my nun friend

9:00: As a foreigner, I go and meditate in the hall by myself while everyone is still continuing with their chores.

10:00: Chores end and everyone gets to have a break.

11:30: Lunch time! Similar to breakfast except this time with an even longer chant (the Heart Sutra)

12:30: After packing up for lunch and sweeping the dining hall again, everyone now gets ready for bed. The whole monastery goes to sleep because nuns have 19-hour days, they need to have a break in between. I loved this part of the day, I would lay down and listen to the trees blow in the wind and observe the silence and feeling of peace in the monastery and in my heart.

14:00: Wake up time! The big monastery bells ring to wake everyone.

14:30: I went to meditate for an hour by myself since I didn’t know Vietnamese and therefore couldn’t join the nuns for their daily class conducted in Vietnamese. After meditation, it was study time so I had to read and learn the Buddhist texts and books.

16:30: Snack time! For nuns, they are not allowed to ‘chew’ any food past lunch but they can drink liquids. As a foreigner, I was allowed to chew. My nun friends would save me food from lunch and give me things like instant noodles as they we’re worried that I was hungry. This was more of a sign of affection more than anything. It was incredibly touching and sweet!

18:00: The big daily Repentance session happens. Nuns puts on an even more formal robe and we all head into the main hall and line up according to our age and tenure. This session is all about ‘repenting’ all of our wrong doings in this life and past lives. There was a lot of chanting and bowing, definitely not an easy load on our knees. There are lots of formalities for this activity.

19:00: My usual taxi driver would arrive at the gate and take me home to my Airbnb. I would go home, read more Buddhist text and go to sleep in preparation to leave my home again at 5:30 am. REPEAT tomorrow.

19:30: Nuns meditate as their last activity of the day.

22:00: Finally bed time for everyone.

How many hours did I dedicate to mindfulness each day?

When I first got there, I met a monk. I asked him, how many hours of mindfulness AND meditation do you practice a day? His response to me was… “Every single minute of the day”. I was thinking WHAT HOW? But after my stay there, I realized how. No matter whether they are doing chores, eating, talking, walking, studying, meditating, cooking; they are being mindful and present in their every moment and doing active meditations (which I explain later).

Nuns and monks have 250 rules that they live by and a lot of these are designed so that they are able to practice 24/7 without distraction. One being that they are not allowed to leave the monastery (unless there is an exception), nuns with less than 5 years tenure are not allowed a phone and lay people (who are training to be nuns but not officially nuns yet) are not allowed to ask nuns for their names and converse. There are many more that I observed while I was there.

So in short, I practiced mindfulness every single minute that I was there. From the words that came out of my mouth to not wasting any bit of food, to clearing out the crap in my mind to meditating while sweeping leaves for 2 hours (active meditation), using only as much toilet paper and water as I needed and staying totally present while meditating, chanting or studying.

Whatever task or activity I had to do, the nuns always taught me a way to make that into a meditation or mindfulness practice.

what's the Most profound thing I left with?

The amount of love, kindness, generosity and patience that I experienced in one day alone there far outweighed anything I have ever seen or received in my daily life in any given week. THAT IS A LOT! Buddhists believe in oneness – where we are all the same and equal. That is also the reason why they dont get married, they don’t believe you can love one person more than others.

It is common to see that amount of love from my mother but seeing it come from a complete stranger – I truly learnt what loving everyone equally meant. The nun life reminded me that I should have very little time for negativity and focus on putting out more love, kindness, generosity and patience into this world. I am reminded every day by my nun teacher that by gaining more wisdom, I will be a better person and increase the amount of help I am to others and myself.

Very rarely can we love a stranger and show them the same generosity as we do to our loved ones. Over time, when we practice oneness, these differences become smaller.

What was the most challenging aspect of the whole experience?

The language barrier. I knew zero Vietnamese but everyone thought I looked Vietnamese and would start talking to me. I wouldn’t be able to answer and they probably thought I was rude until they realized I was a foreigner.

I spent my days using hand gestures and guessing what they were trying to say to me. They were constantly trying to teach me Vietnamese for daily conversation and Buddhist meditations/chants which luckily I understood the purpose of given my prior studies. Not knowing Vietnamese made it hard to quickly pick up the rules and know what I was doing wrong. I eventually got there but it wasn’t easy.

What was my first and last day like?

The first day was HARD! Not many people spoke to me and I had no idea what was happening nor what I was supposed to do. You get very little guidance as a foreigner and they take time to warm up to you so I made a really big effort to connect with them.

They have a lot of rules so I was very worried that I was doing things wrong. Like during meal time, we are seated on a long table on either side of the table. They said sit anywhere so I just stood at a random empty seat then later was told to move. I had no idea why but clearly I was in the wrong spot. Days later I asked about it and realized that we have to sit according to age and tenure.

My last day was very sad. I felt so incredibly full inside (from my experience) but I was so sad to say goodbye. I was so incredibly grateful for the experience that they had given me and I took away so many things that I would cherish and remember for the rest of my life. I was a different person today than my first day. I had gained so much more wisdom, knowledge, experience with my practice and most importantly love. I felt so full. I walked away being a better person with some big realisations.

My Buddhist teacher always told me, the more you do these pilgrimages, the more realisations you get.

Was it challenging at the start to switch off and be present?

I didn’t find it that hard due to a few factors. I was careful in timing my visit, it was my last day at my job, all my farewells were done. I hosted my sound meditation class that night and straight after I set off to the airport. My transit took 24 hours and 3 planes so I was mentally prepared and ready for my pilgrimage. When I got there, I was full of excitement of all my days to come where I could fully focus on myself and have the time to ponder over some changes and lessons that I have been wanting to act upon in my life for some time.

The good and bad parts

The bad parts…honestly the worst part was leaving and saying good bye. I really bonded with the nuns while I was there and my farewell was 2 days of sadness and gratitude all mixed together. They displayed the kindest gestures to me and even gave me whatever they had (nuns don’t have a lot) so that I could keep it as memorabilia to remember them.

There really was no bad parts of my visit but if I had to choose one, it’d be the mosquitoes. Every time I sat down to meditate, the mossies would buzz in my ear. It was distracting so I put a scarf over my head. The nuns told me it happens to them too but they have to ignore it as a part of their practice. Trust me, there was no ignoring mossies for me! It was very hard to resist killing them, no kill policy in Buddhism.

The good parts… personally I love doing active meditations. That is when you are doing an activity but actually being fully present and avoiding other thoughts. So if I am sweeping, then I am sweeping and concentrating on getting every leaf off the ground. I am not thinking about what’s happening in the world or the people back at home. This is something I always do a lot of in my daily life.

I enjoyed having so much time do this. I also loved the food, for the last few years, I’ve been trying to eat more vegetarian so it was really nice knowing that every bit of food I had was not just vegetarian but delicious too!

I loved having so many teachers guide me, the relationships and bonds that I formed and having the privilege to live alongside nuns who took me in as their own. This was a truly special and enlightening experience.

I also found all their rules fascinating and I made effort to understand why each rule existed. This was really enlightening to know why they do what they do.

Top lessons I learnt

Everyone will learn something different. I went with the intention of working on a few things and I definitely got what I wanted and more. Here are the top lessons (not all) that I walked away with.

1. Not making other people’s problems mine

I used to think that this meant if someone was angry or sad etc, don’t take those emotions on as if they were my own. But after a lot of reflection, I have realized what it also means is that when someone has their own issues or insecurities that lead to them being angry at you, trying to fix the surface problem won’t work as their underlying issues will always cause them to find new ways to be angry at you, ultimately only they can heal themselves. We cannot take away their problems but we can help and support them and be be patient for when they are ready to change.

2. Why simplifying my life is important

The nuns have rules around their friendship circles and who they will and won’t talk to. There is a reason for this. They lessen the negativity and drama that come from others and therefore aren’t distracted in their practice to pursue their higher purpose. Knowing that one day I will face my own death, I have limited time here to do good and that time in precious, scarce and limited. I want to spend more time working towards my purpose and live with positivity and happiness. I need to lessen the time I have caught up in drama and negative conversations and situations, especially those that aren’t relevant to my life. I can only control so much!

3. What true patience and kindness looks like

We often find it easy to show kindness and patience to our loved ones but it is often hard being able to offer the same love to a complete stranger. In Buddhism, it is all about oneness. Seeing yourselves and others as no different. Loving everyone like your mother. The nun life showed me how this is done! This is easy to understand in theory but when you are there, living and breathing it, the feeling is profound and inspired me to do better, be better.

4. Active meditation is totally acceptable

In the western society, meditation is usually associated with sitting down in silence. Every time I get asked about meditation, this is what people are referring to. In my daily life, I find that I am always trying to show people that there are other ways to meditate such as active meditations where you are doing something active but being completely present, filtering out other thoughts. In the monastery, it was so nice to learn that this was heavily encouraged and well understood. It is practiced every waking hour that we were not in a seated meditation.

What changes in my life am I planning following my experience?

Morally I’ve been trying to reduce my meat intake for a few years and it’s been extremely difficult but this visit really helped me propel that journey and strengthen my reason to do so. I have been trying to move more into a plant based diet since I returned.

Simplifying my life, who I choose to spend my time with and what I choose to be doing is such a big part of my daily considerations now. I used to feel bad for saying no, I used to spend time with people who would offload their problems onto me and whilst they walked away feeling so much better, I walk away feeling drained. I used to say yes to seeing people where our friendships weren’t even mutual. I am walking away from that, not because I’m trying to be rude but because I know my time here is limited and I now choose to spend it on things that lead me closer to my higher purpose.

During my time at the monastery, I was also able to come up with lots of meditations for Mirosuna. I also have a lot of teachings and lessons that I am bringing back to integrate it into the Mirosuna Way of life and its teachings. I cannot wait to share these with you!

What was surprising or unexpected during my time there?

The amount of rules and nuisances of how they do things there. I found these fascinating. Here are a few examples.

Nuns have shoes for all different areas. From when you arrive, you have to change your shoes to their outdoor slippers. To go inside the living quarters, you leave your shoes outside and change into another pair for inside. To go to the bathroom, you approach with your outdoor shoes but then leave them on the bathroom steps to change into the bathroom slippers. Slippers off before entering the meditation halls. Depending on the event, you had to dress differently and robe on and off many times. Sometimes you tuck your pants into your socks, other times you don’t. Every time I got this wrong (on the daily), I would be told, in the nicest possible way of course 🙂

The amount of rules at during meal time as well is intense. If you want to find out more before you go, feel free to drop me a message and I can elaborate but eating is no easy task and you need to be very mindful of your every move, every sound you make and every utensil you use.

I was also surprised that some nuns came across really unfriendly initially but I later realized that part of the rules is that they can’t really speak to lay people (like myself) and they can get in trouble for it.

Meal procedure and what I ate

There are some really big greenhouses and veggie patches on the property. Most of what I ate was from there. Meals consist of rice or noodles as the base then a few dishes of things like soy, tofu, veggies, soup and something sweet like fruit, yogurt, ice-cream. There is no onion, garlic and shallots in their food (Buddhist don’t eat these) but I’m pretty sure I was vegetarian not vegan there as there would have been dairy in some of the items above. Your daily drinks menu consists of green tea (from the garden) and water. The food is rather simple and plain but so delicious. I wish I could cook good vegetarian like that!

Before eating every meal, there is a formal chant. We then go into eating in silence for 25 minutes as we contemplate how grateful we are for the food to be on this table and we thank Buddha for his teachings to lead us to enlightenment. Then there is another formal chant to end the session. After this, we can talk and finish the meal. I found this Youtube video below which shows the exact dining hall (there are multiple dining halls) that I dined in, the exact chant we did, the robes we wore and the food that we ate. Enjoy watching!

The cost to stay at Truc Lam Monastery

Nothing. The monastery does not charge a fee nor is this an official program. It is up to you if you want to make a donation to the monastery. I did this by putting money in an envelope and handing it to the nun manager at the end of my stay. The money goes back into running the monastery as they do not have other means of getting money.

Would I recommend it?

I would highly recommend this for people who either want to see how nuns and monks live or those who already have a background in Buddhism and want to learn and practice more. I would also recommend this to those who want to journey inside themselves and spend time away from their normal life, to gain realisations or to heal.

When you speak to nuns or lay people, they will all say that these pilgrimages are not easy, you need to be prepared and be ready for what you may find inside yourself. Healing is not always easy.

Would I repeat it?

I found this video on Youtube of someone who visited Truc Lam Monastery and made a short video on it. This is what the public access areas look like. It is a very small section compared to the living quarters of the monks and nuns but nonetheless, it’ll give you a feel of the beautiful atmosphere there.

The public grounds of Truc Lam

Yes absolutely I would. I definitely want to go on more pilgrimages as the amount of growth I experienced in that time took my practice to a whole new level. I spent 5 years studying Buddhism in theory prior to this moment and there was nothing like living like a nun, alongside nuns.

Thank you to Truc Lam Monastery

I wanted to thank Truc Lam Monastery and the master nun for letting me train alongside you and for giving me this life changing experience. I want to thank all my friends and teachers at the monastery for supporting and accepting me into your way of life. Thank you for your generosity, kindness, wisdom and love. Words can never sum up what you have given me and I will hold this experience dear to my heart for all my days ahead.

“If you let cloudy water settle, it will become clear. If you let your upset mind settle, your course will also become clear ” – Buddha

If you decide to visit Truc Lam Monastery or if this blog has inspired you to do your own pilgrimage, I would love to hear from you below. I wish you all the best on your journey.

 

Love,
Sally Kellett
Founder of Mirosuna

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