Western Monks in Vietnamese Temple

Western Monks in Vietnamese Temple

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 ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Ten years ago, Ed Wayt, 35, didn’t know anything about Buddhism or Vietnamese culture. He grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and was a Protestant. But just over a year ago, he was ordained as a Buddhist monk.

Before “Brother Phap Tin,” as he now is known, vowed to devote his life to his faith, the Cornell University graduate was an unhappy software programmer in Seattle.

“When I started in computer programming, I wasn’t in touch with society,” he said.
Phap Tin also was an environmentalist and it was difficult for him to witness pollution. Recycling wasn’t enough. “I needed to address human nature…I wasn’t solving problems and needed to solve the root of it,” he said.

And after some personal exploration, he found his calling: serving as a monk at Deer Park Monastery, which this year marks its 10th anniversary. He isn’t alone. Instead, he is one of the combined 28 Vietnamese monks and nuns at Deer Park, six of whom are Westerners. 

They bring with them different backgrounds, life experience and life stories. What they have in common is a devotion to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk based in France whose Unified Buddhist group there oversees Deer Park.

Thich Nhat Hanh gave “Adrian” the name “Phap De,” meaning Young Brother. Born to Irish and German parents in Minnesota, Phap De entered the Catholic seminary when he was 15.

“I decided priesthood was for me,” said Phap De , now 76.

But after spending nearly 10 years in the church, Phap De had disagreements with his religion. He left the Catholic Church and became a stockbroker. Even though he earned a six-figure income, there was something missing. “I gave up on Catholicism and I had a lot of money,” he remembered.

A fellow stockbroker told Phap De about Thích Nhất Hạnh. 
“I read his book ‘Going Home: Jesus and Buddhas Brothers,’ and began to understand Jesus more.” With his piercing blue eyes, the monk smiled and said, “I recognized how much I lost.”

In 2003, Phap De gave up his stocks, houses, bank accounts and cars. Each days, he wakes up at 4:15 a.m., lights incense, and silently meditates with Phap Ho before beginning his day.

PhápHộ is the only Swedish monk at Deer Park. Previously known as Jerker Fredrikssom, he was born and raised in Stockholm and came from a working-class family.

“I was the first to graduate from college,” he said, talking of getting his law degree and working in various firms. “But I never really found what I wanted to do in life.”

Phap Ho is in his 30s but his shaved head, vegetarian diet and relaxed face make him look 20. He recalls how helpless he felt working in family law.
“A woman with three kids wanted a divorce and said her husband was controlling.” The husband contended she was mentally ill. 

“It was about getting revenge on each other,” Phap Ho said. “I wanted to deal with the situation in a more peaceful way.”

Phap Ho said he learned about Thich Nhan Hanh during a trip to India; he was ordained in 2003. 

Sister Dang Nghiem’s head is shaved. She wears a robe that is boring and drab. But when one watches the 42-year-old nun walk at Deer Park Monastery, there’s an air of elegance and grace surrounding her. The half-Vietnamese, half American woman was ordained a nun 10 years ago. She holds a medical degree from UC San Francisco. 

Born in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, as Huong Huynh, she lived in Saigon until her mother suddenly disappeared when the girl was 12. In 1985 she and her brother immigrated to the United States, living in different foster homes. She excelled in school but still was haunted by the sadness of Vietnam and her mother’s absence.

Sister Dang Nghiem could have had a successful career as a doctor, but it wasn’t enough. 

“I wanted to help people,” she said. “I felt so depressed when I couldn’t help my patients. They kept coming back with the same symptoms.”

She remembered when a man came in to treat an abscess on his arm from injecting heroin. The doctors had to carve into his bone to eliminate the infected tissues. “But later, he came back with new abscess on another site.” A doctor was just helping people on the surface, she said.

“Why was he a drug addict? I wanted to help people from the root of the problem.”