A Zen man in Texas

A Vietnamese Monk in Grand Prairie and a Philipino Zen Master in Dallas

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so––William Shakespeare,  Hamlet, Act II

Part I

Thich Tre Hien was a small, wiry Vietnamese monk with a wispy, white beard who had studied for nine years in a Zen monastery in Japan. In early 1988, on a hot summer day in Grand Prairie, Texas, he noticed three men and a woman pacing back and forth on the sidewalk opposite his  house, which served as a Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. They carried handmade signs with English writing. Tre Hien’s English was simple, but  he could read the writing: “No Vietnamese here,” “Buddhism is a godless religion” and “Repent.” A few cars honked  horns as they drove past the house in the blue-collar neighborhood, where many people worked on assembly lines for the large aircraft and automotive manufacturing plants.

Ven. Thich Tre Hien died on 8/8/10

Assigned to Texas a few years earlier by his Vietnamese Buddhist order, he opened his home-temple, Chua Phap Quang (Lotus Dharma) in a  suburb just beyond the Dallas city limits to servethe large Vietnamese community. Most were  recent refugees who were known as “the boat people,” for their commitment to risk it all to get out of Communist-controlled Vietnam. Grand Prairie, with its redneck reputation, is a long downtown strip of commercial stores on US 180 running west out of Dallas.  Southern Baptist fundamentalist churches dominate the area.

Stories about the demonstration appeared in the Dallas newspapers. A few days later, I visited  Tre Hien to what was going on. The white clapboard house was shaded by towering pecan trees on a spacious  lot surrounded by a well-tended garden of roses and native wildflowers in full bloom, offering bursts of  color and beauty in an otherwise drab, car-in-the-yard neighborhood. There were ferns and flowering  bushes, bird feeders, wind chimes and a rock pathway winding along the side of the house, where several old cars were parked outside a side door. Dozens of shoes were scattered in front of the door.

I peaked through the screen door into a kitchen. A half dozen Vietnamese sitting on the floor turned to look, a silent pause during an evening meal of noodle soup. Tre Hin came to the door, business like, walking in the slightly flat-footed way that comes from years in a Japanese monastery. He motioned for me to take off my shoes and come inside. Tre Hien was the first true Zen man I  had ever met. I say that having never heard  him give a teisho, or Zen talk, but based on our conversations in simple English, I am sure of it.

“Please sit, have tea,” he said, smiling. I smiled at everyone and took a seat on the kitchen floor beside a low table holding bowls of pungent Asian food. Tre Hin wore brown, baggy pants and a light yellow T-shirt. A white-haired Vietnamese woman silently cut vegetables, her  teeth stained dark red from chewing betel nut. I could see Tre Hein’s  sleeping mat on the floor in his bedroom. A bookshelf with a  Kuan Yin statue  was next to his sleeping mat. He said he didn’t teach Americans at his temple because his English was too poor. Yes, I could meditate in the temple room of the house anytime I wished. There were also two Americans who had recently ordained as a monk living in a small room in the back of the house.

Later that evening, after a large bowl of noodles and duck egg soup, and many cups of tea, I meditated for thirty minutes alone in the temple room, the first time I had actually meditated anywhere outside  of my house. The living  room had been converted into a temple room with a bright red carpet and a three-foot gold  Buddha statue surrounded by a display of flowers from the garden. Chalky spirals of pungent incense drifted across the Buddha’s downcast eyes. I was certain it was the biggest Buddha statue ever to appear in Grand Prairie. I was happy to be sitting alone in the room, breathing slower and slower with the muffled sounds of Vietnamese coming from the kitchen. The sound of Tre Hien’s faint voice steadily rose and fell.  I felt like a foreigner in another country––a little self-conscious,  on-show. But I began to feel at home in a house full of Vietnamese immigrants.

My legs were in the half-lotus position. A few months before, I had started sitting in my home. As my leg muscles relaxed, I felt a comforting strength rise up my spinal column. After a few minutes, my breathing was almost imperceptible, and my back and shoulders grew more erect. My attention focused on the movement of my breath in and out. I felt a bridge opening up between my head and my stomach, air coming in through my nose, slowly expanding my lungs, expanding my stomach slightly, before passing out again, ever more slowly and naturally. My stomach muscles moved like a bellows, drawing in, expanding, and letting go naturally. The space in my mind cleared as my breath and thoughts moved slower and slower. My body, breath and mind settled and, most important, I was aware of the settling and yet removed  at the same time. I smiled inside.

I was 46 years old. I sensed that I had finally found a place that I had been moving toward  ever since I read a 61-page book on Zen Buddhism published by The Peter Pauper Press in 1959, when I was seventeen. It was a collection of excerpts from books by D.T. Suzuki. The book  had found me early, but why had it taken so long for the journey from that little book to meditating in Tre Hien’s house in Grand Prairie?

Sitting in his temple that night instantly connected me to the tradition of formal Buddhist meditation in  a practice that is thousands of years old, a structured, practical way to pursue a well-worn path of fulfilling growth, a way to take hold of one’s life. Tre Hien had come from the East to a redneck suburban neighborhood in Texas to offer me a place to experience my breath slowly moving in and out. He had created a place where I could still my thoughts and energize my mind and body. When I meditate now, decades later, I can taste exactly what it was like to meditate that first time in his home-temple. Tre Hien’s journey from the East to Grand Prairie was the reverse of the journey I took West as a young army recruit, assigned to Vietnam in the first wave of a few hundred Americans who entered the country in 1961, and then again as a grown man ready to start a new life in Thailand.

For two years, I sat three or four nights a week in the temple, along with a fellow American, Ananda, aka Steve Emory, a lanky, 6-foot, 4-inch Dallas native in his early thirties who had lived in the temple for the past year. Gentle and soft-spoken, Ananda guided me into a regular meditation practice and brought me along so that within two months I could in the full-lotus position for a two-hour meditation period with three breaks of five minutes walking meditation. Together, we deepened our practice together, usually ending the night with tea in the kitchen.

After meditation, Tre Hien frequently joined us as we sat on the floor at the low kitchen table. I watched him carefully, but nothing ever seemed to happen out of the ordinary. Then I understood that was it. Nothing out of the ordinary. What is is. It’s an amazing teaching to truly absorb and fully practice. We shared simple conversations, but, even more important, we shared time together and we were comfortable sitting in the silent house sipping tea.

One night, he asked, “How is your meditation?”

“Sometimes things feel far away, ” I said.

“You’re always closer than you think,” he said. That became a teaching that has never left me.

Over the next two years, the little home-temple attracted more Vietnamese. A few Americans drifted in and out, but few stayed around long enough to developed a rigorous meditation practice. The temple had many Vietnamese supporters, but few practiced meditation. Eventually, the home-temple expanded into a large, red brick temple constructed in a vacant area behind the house.

I to find another place where I could meet more people interested in meditation and Zen. Somehow, I came across  the name of Sister Pascaline, a Catholic nun who lived at a retreat in  Sand Springs, Oklahoma. I wrote her a letter asking  if she knew of a meditation group in the Fort Worth-Dallas area. She immediately wrote back: Ruben Habito. He lived in Dallas. I called and he answered. Yes, he had just started sitting with two or three people a few evenings each week in a room in a small house near the Southern Methodist University campus. Bring your zafu, he said, you’re welcome to join us. There’s a Zen saying: When you’re ready, the teacher will appear. I didn’t know it at the time, but an authorized  Zen teacher had finally come to Texas. He was ready to organize a zendo, and I had found my second teacher.


11 Comments on “A Zen man in Texas”

  1. Jerry Schmidt says:

    My first encounter with Zen was July 4, 1991 in the little zendo next to the kitchen with Ananda. There I met Roy who encouraged me to keep sitting and later showed me to the Zen center in Dallas with Ruben Habito. I am forever grateful for the help. I’ve gone from Grand Prairie to Keller to Albuquerque to San Diego in expanding my practice, some Zen and some not but all Buddhist meditation. Early on, I met a Vietnamese lady in Tri Hien’s kitchen who asked: “are you enlightened yet?” I said “I’m working on it.” Today, 22 years later, the answer would be the same. Thanks again, Roy.

    • royhamric says:

      Jerry,

      The Vietnamese lady you mentioned, I think, was Doan-Han Tran, and her email address is listed a little below this reply. Hope you’re doing well and still working the waves. Best, and more, O,
      Roy

      • kym chaffin says:

        Although I’m a guy my name is Kym. I just went through a Tibetan seminar taught by a famous dzogchen teacher from Nepal. Dzogchen is somewhat like Zen only they think it’s important to have a more sophisticated view of how the mind works than just sitting there.

        But the thing that interested me in terms of once having been a Zen student was his comments on their version of that basic sitting practice which they call shi-ne’. (which is pronounced “shee-NAY.”)

        He said something that I wouldn’t have agreed with in the old days but that I definitely would now. He said it’s absolutely essential that for your sitting practice to be “authentic” you have to understand that you’re not just sitting there developing concentration/insight. You must realize the point of the practice is to make your mind “softer and kinder.” And that to do that you need to remind yourself when you sit down what the five lay precepts are, e.g. no intoxicants, no “sexual misconduct” and above all be determined to no inflict any damage on anyone else through body, speech or mind.

        I practiced zen formally for three years, starting with a group supposedly affiliated with Sasaki Roshi and then moved over to Tri-Hien where I did god knows how many of those weekend sessions, somewhere between twelve and eighteen.

        …My point is that Tibetan guy is right. if you are not sitting there realizing your actual thoughts must be cleaned up you’re really just polishing that dull tile they talk about.

        best of luck,
        kym chaffin

  2. Ed Lewis says:

    kym
    Send me your email address. Mine is cedlewis@suddenlink.net

  3. Ed Lewis says:

    kym
    Send me your email address.
    Ed

  4. Hello,

    I was searching on the internet for any info about Ananda (aka Steve Emory) to let him know that our beloved Ven. Thich Tri Hien has passed away on 8/8/10; and came across your article.

    Anyway, if or anyone out there know where Ananda is please ask him to contact me.

    Please let me know if it would be ok for me to put your article about Ven. Thich Tri Hien or link to it on the website I have created for the temple.

    Please do come by if you ever in the area to view Ven. Thich Tri Hien’s relics that he has left behind.

    I am looking forward to meet or see you again (my family and I have knew Ven. Thich Tri Hien when he first come to Grand Prairie, Texas), so I have met you back then too.

    Sincerely,
    Doan-Hanh Tran

    • Ed Lewis says:

      The last time I saw Steve Emory I gave him money to buy a ticket to Robert Atkin’s zen center in Hawaii. I haven’t heard from him since. I sat at Trin Hien’s house with a group in the nineties.

  5. Rod says:

    Hey, Roy, thanks for this. I met Master Thich some years later, in the mid-90s, when I began to intensify a spiritual search that led me to Zen. He was also the first real-life Zen master I’d ever met. I sat a few times in the new temple, by myself. I believe a Pure Land chant was playing on the tape but I’m not positive. I liked going there and only really stopped when I moved away. I also tried the Maria Kannon Center when it was still meeting in that Methodist Church in East Dallas. It didn’t really take for me because of the some of the Christian art on the wall in the sitting room but probably it wouldn’t bother me so much now.

    I’ll always remember the very first time I met Thich, in that same kitchen in which you probably met him. His first words to me were, “Have we met before?” Which pretty much took my breath away. And then, seeing me carrying an armful of books about Zen and Buddhism, he told me to stop reading and start sitting. Good advice, really.

    I’ve never lived in a place since then that had any kind of organized Zen group, or even a Buddhist group, but I am mindful each day and even if I don’t always sit, I sit in my mind. I know that’s not the same, but it is something.


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