The Nun’s Story

Every now and then life captivates you in a way you don’t expect, changing not only your primary relationships, but the way you view the world. Like an ineffable mystical experience, I found this one difficult to describe. It happened just yesterday and I will attempt to justify the experience with mere words.

I’ve been planning a field trip to a local Buddhist temple for months. It’s located just two blocks from Notre Dame High School. I consider it a huge privilege that our school has access to all the diverse opportunities of downtown San Jose. There are libraries, temples, universities, cathedrals, galleries, museums, exploratorium, labyrinths, parks, theaters, and so much more. We consider the downtown part of our classroom experience at Notre Dame.

I contacted Abbess Tien Lien from the Vietnamese Temple, Tinh Xa Ngoc Hoa, located two blocks from Notre Dame. We worked out a date for my classes to visit, but as luck would have it, the Abbess was called out of town last minute. She said there was a young nun that could meet with us but she doesn’t speak english. Another beautiful thing about Notre Dame is our ethnic diversity. I asked the ND community for volunteers that spoke Vietnamese and three students offered to help. After securing permission, rides for injured students, shifting classes for the interpreters, and finding chaperones for both blocks, the day finally arrived. I didn’t even pray for decent weather, it just happened.

Near the end of our visit I was feeling joyful and somewhat relieved everything was going so well. My students were having a wonderful experience, the interpreters were doing an incredible job, and the nuns were warm and inviting. We had time to wander the grounds, observe the exotic statues, and examine the beautiful alters honoring the Buddha, goddesses, and enlightened teachers. Leaving our shoes at the door, we were handed a lighted incense as we entered the temple, the students respectfully bowed, and placed the incense in pots filled with sand. The mood was serene and peaceful. 

I was seated on the carpeted floor with my students, in a circular pattern around the young nun, with the ornate alter looming in the background. The russet colors assaulted our senses as the incense filled the room. A giganic statue of the Buddha dominated the small space, flanked by two white porcelain goddesses, one on his right, and one on his left. Bowls of fruit and lush foliage decorated every available space. I had my student interpreters seated in front closest to the young nun. 

First, the students would ask a question in english, the interpreters would try to find the language to ask the question in Vietnamese, the dialects are slightly different which slowed the process, the nun responded, more interpreting, and so forth. The interesting thing about the pace of the conversation is how relaxing and calming it felt to wait a few minutes between questions and answers. It gave us time to thoughtfully consider and respond. Usually we talk so fast, thinking only about what we want to say next, and then we miss what is actually being said. This was good for my soul and for whatever reason I was feeling grateful.

I waited for a break in the conversation to tell the students we needed to wrap things up. The nun was sharing a final story with our young interpreter. I was memorized by her soft voice, the rhythmic cadence, when I felt a sudden shift in the the mood. I looked to my student, her head was bowed, then back to the nun, who had tears forming in her eyes, but they did not fall. The student was clearly emotional, tears sliding down her cheeks, as she struggled to interpret the story. I started crying in response to my student but I didn’t know why. The emotion in the room was palatable.  This is the nun’s story.

In a strained voice my student began, “There was a young boy who grew up in a small town, he was smart and curious, he wanted to find a wise teacher that could help him attain enlightenment. (This is the ultimate goal of all Buddhists and a wise teacher is imperative.) He searched the entire town but did not find a mentor. He finally went to an elder in the community and asked for help in identifying the right teacher.” My student has to stop and wipe her eyes. I’m using my sleeve, it’s useless, everything is running.  She continues in a soft voice, “The elder quietly considers the question for a long time. He tells the young man he will know his true teacher because the sandals this person wears will be on the wrong feet. So the boy travels the world in search of his teacher, he stares at the sandals of everyone he meets, but no one has the sign.” My student stops again, removes her glasses, gazing at the ceiling she gathers her composure, before she can continue, “The boy has been gone for many years, but his search brings him to a neighboring town, and he decides to stop home for a short visit. His mother is overjoyed, as she runs to greet him, she slips her sandals on the wrong feet. When the boy comes upon his mother, he recognizes the sign, falling to his knees, he bows before his true teacher.” Sob.
The nun explains that our parents bring us into the world, they are our first and most important teachers, they lay the foundation for the rest of our lives. In a gentle voice she reminds us to never forget them even when our travels bring us far and wide. It was a beautiful story and especially touching for my students who will entering college in the next year or so.  It reminded me of my own son, living so far from home, in search of new adventures, teachers, maybe even enlightenment. I’ll be sure to wear my sandals on the wrong feet when he returns. 


The conversation begins in the comments….leave a thought or two.

You might also enjoy: Look Both Ways Before Crossing or How Have My Children Changed Me



2 Comments

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  1. What a moving story. It made me think of my Dad He raised eight children of his own and numerous other children who needed a place to stay. Somehow he was patient enough and wise enough to instill strong values in all of us.

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  2. Your Dad sounds like a wonderful man, knowing what a beautiful person you are Chris, I can only imagine what an extraordinary childhood you must of had! A good upbringing is the best gift a parent can give their children. Thanks for reading and commenting. xoxo

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