The antidote to fear
Brother Fulfilment wants you to be free
Interview by Becca Tucker
When he first encountered Buddhism, he thought, “Whoa, that’s so weird.” Then this California surfer and college professor started reading Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, went to France to study under him, and became a Buddhist monk. These days, when he’s not being flown back to California to teach mindfulness to Silicon Valley techies, Brother Fulfilment lives in a monastery on 80 acres in the Catskills, in a hamlet called Pine Bush. He’d like you to know that being a monk is “not as terrible as it might sound.” It is, in fact, “cool because you get to live a life of freedom -- which is what everyone wants.”
Someone donated them. I said yeah, this is kind of old school monastic.
What inspired you to become a monk?
Probably reading [Thich Nhat Hanh’s] books. I was like that’s very cool, I like this idea, I like this vision. Before that I actually went back to my original Christian roots on the recommendation of his books, because it’s clear that whatever path you take in life, you need the support of your ancestors to be really happy. Because we’re a continuation of a long line of people. Being in touch with them, even if they’ve done bad things – we have to own that and transform that if we want to be well. And they’ve also done good things. [Laughs.] So that’s why I got back in touch with my Christian roots. My grandfather was a Methodist minister. I’ve done a little getting in touch with my Jewish roots, on my dad’s side.
What did you do before you were a monk?
Worried a lot. I still worry sometimes. But it doesn’t bother me as much. What did I do for a job? I taught at a small college as a lecturer.
What did you teach?
Math and physics and alternative energy, that was kind of cool. I needed a job to pay off some school loans. Before that I was a Peace Corps volunteer for a couple years in Nepal. I think that is what attracted me to Buddhism probably. I think actually it repulsed me from Buddhism in some ways. I was like, “Whoa that’s so weird.” It wasn’t until I met our teacher that I realized that you didn’t have to speak a funny language or do weird stuff to practice meditation.
What kind of weird stuff didn’t you have to do?
All kinds of chanting and burning incense and like rituals and like walking around temples. It’s just very ritualistic kind of stuff. Which is all cool looking but also, like, a little bit, like, that’s just weird. It’s foreign, you know what I mean?
You said you worried a lot. Was there a particular thing you were worrying about?
Mostly relationships. That’s what I still worry most about. [Laughs.] People are so complicated. It probably goes back to my childhood and my parents getting divorced when I was young. Now I try to transform my worry into compassion for people, care. It’s possible to channel our energy into healthy things: anger, too, can be channeled into… I used to get angry at people as well.
Can be channeled into?
The same kinds of things. Anger has slightly different characteristics, you’d probably channel some of that energy into determination, right? Do something positive or to help. It’s another facet of compassion. It also requires energy. Compassion is not just like, “Oh I hope everyone gets along,” and then stops there, it’s not really compassion. [Laughs].
Where are you from?
Central California, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada
I hear you surf?
I grew up skiing in the mountains and did a little climbing as well, and I picked up surfing – it was my second degree in graduate school. Actually it was my primary focus. I got a degree in something else I wasn’t that interested in.
Computer science was my master’s degree, and I dropped out because it was giving me quite a lot of headaches and stress. But it came in handy to have a degree for teaching. I was a teacher in the Peace Corps too, also both my parents are teachers. A lot of teachers in our family. I think in teaching in the Peace Corps and then teaching at Sierra Nevada College, I realized that if I wanted to teach something I really had to live it, to transmit it. It wasn’t a matter of information; the way we live is the most important thing to teach. That’s one of the things that inspired me to become a monk.
You sign emails “Brother Man.” My five-year-old is delighted by this name. Tell me about it.
Yes, it’s very cool. If I was black it’d be cooler, maybe. We are under-represented. We have diversity issues like a lot of institutions these days. We’re almost all Vietnamese, which is different than white America. Man means Fulfilment in Vietnamese. I am actually Brother Fulfilment, nickname Brother Man.
That’s a name that Thich Nhat Hanh gave. So we belong to a lineage. One thing that’s cool about Buddhism is that it has this sense of transmission from teacher to student and that’s recorded down. There’s the lineage of teacher to student. Our particular chain they trace back 42 generations. The way it works is that the teacher transmits a “lamp” – there’s a whole ceremony, it’s like the lamp of wisdom – to a disciple when they’re sent off to teach on their own or do something like that.
Our tradition, we adapted that a little bit: maybe one teacher would transmit to one or a few disciples. Thich Nhat Hanh has transmitted the lamp to maybe 200 people by this point, and now we’re transmitting it to new people. So it’s kind of a new phase.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Tell me a little bit about him.
Oh wow. I would have picked another community unless there was someone of his caliber. I was definitely looking for someone to transmit this energy – this life energy, this kind of combination of determination and joy and lightness – it’s a very powerful mixture of humor and seriousness, concentration.
Zen can be described as meditative concentration practice where your focus is on being there, just being there, not like to accomplish anything. That’s what meditation means, to be there. This kind of quality is very strong in him. The other part of zen though is that when you’re there, if you’re really there, you know what to do and what not to do. We say you can make an appropriate response. Zen is nothing more than making the appropriate response. So it’s both that space of being there and how you respond to the moment. And he’s clearly a master of that [laughs]. Very focused.
You’ve spent time with him?
Yeah, not so much personal time. Once in a while we had some personal time. He taught all of us, kind of like a big family. ‘Cause in the monastic tradition we don’t have our own children so our students are really treated like our children, so he’s really like a grandfather, if you like, to me. For most of us, I would say. And that is very special. I think the most surprising thing is when, I don’t know, he’ll say something that kind of wakes you up or catches you off guard a little bit. One time he said to me, “You know Brother Man, one day we will have a monastery without chopsticks.” I thought, “I didn’t say I didn’t like chopsticks!”
Was that a comment on your whiteness?
Well, he recognized I probably didn’t grow up with chopsticks.
How many people live here?
There are about 22 nuns and 13 or 14 monks, and a handful of laypeople. We haven’t been successful yet in creating what we’re calling a many-streams community which would include monks and laypeople together in community, which is a vision that I have. Well, it’s not my vision. It’s our teacher’s idea.
Tell me about a typical day.
You just had a typical day, pretty much. But you didn’t come in the very morning.
I didn’t. 6am...that’s early.
I’ve been trying to convince them that it’s far too early for Americans to wake up before 6 to do something. I mean if your life depends on it you can, or your job, but otherwise it’s not a very recreational time. We got this from Asia. It’s so hot it’s nice to wake up early.
So wake up 6, sitting mediation. Some activity at 9:30, could be a class, could be a meeting. And then walking meditation 11:30, lunch 12:30, then break, rest / personal time, working meditation we call it, 3pm.
“Working meditation” means you garden or mow?
Everything. We make it run. I do lots of plumbing. We rotate, we change jobs. I was on maintenance last year. We don’t have a good maintenance program yet. We need a professional maintenance person. Can you put in an ad for us? [Laughs.]
Dharma sharing we’ll have at 4:30 together. Have you done dharma sharing?
You should do that when they do the bell.
I have to pick the kid up from school. What is dharma sharing?
Oh boy. You should come on a retreat sometime. Let’s see, dharma sharing, circle sharing, deep listening. So it’s a kind of confidential space, one person at a time sharing, people talk about their practice… or lack of practice, their difficulty, their challenge. It’s meant to be a place of looking deeply together. The goal is to generate collective insight to the nature of our experience. It’s kind of a collective meditation if you like. It’s a little bit like the Quakers. I mean, it’s not really that but it’s something like that. There’s not as much silence in ours. We talk more. [Laughs]
It’s a meditative conversation if you like. We use a bell to open it. We have a pause; we give space between sharings, like a few breaths’ reflection. We don’t do cross talk. I don’t know, it’s probably something that we adapted from recovery traditions, the 12 step traditions, but I’m not sure exactly. But it was already kind of in the Buddhist tradition to have sharing circles and stuff.
What are you going to share?
I can’t tell you because it’s confidential [cracks up]. It’s really nice to have a confidential space because, wow, some things you just don’t want other people to know – unless they’re really listening to you. Also when people repeat what you say it never sounds the same. So yeah, it’s very special. Everyone has all kinds of difficulties, so it’s like everywhere else. Someone said something, did something, you would prefer that things were organized another way, or you know, the everyday human things. Of course there’s big issues too, like are we responding appropriately?
To the big picture of our society and what’s happening in the world today. That’s kind of big picture on the social level but then there’s also like big picture on what our teacher calls the ultimate dimension, which is like, you know, it’s easier just to put it in Judeo-Christian terminology: how’s your relationship with God, is kind of the bottom line? Are you at peace? Do you have freedom?
And then the question is like, are we offering ourselves enough of that space, because it takes time and space to cultivate that kind of freedom. Are we offering that to ourselves and each other?
Do you have friends off-campus?
Yes, absolutely. I have close friends that have come visit me at the monastery. Some came all the way to France. It was nice. But these days when I’ve been able to go to California a few times a year so I usually get a chance to visit.
A lot of us are striving for misbegotten things. What would you say you’re striving for?
Oh man. Striving always leads to suffering. The image that we like is cultivation. ‘Cause it is true, we are doing something. The other word we like is aspiration, which is helpful in setting intention. Strive is okay, but I guess that we are just cautious of introducing the element of struggle into our actions, because it will take away our freedom.
So it becomes art, to be able to do the thing that you really want to do in the present, and to be happy with it, and to fold it into the next moment. I would say the ultimate aspect of it is very important, and that’s this kind of freedom. The biggest kind of freedom is the freedom from fear. That’s one of the main drivers, most of the time it’s subconscious. Fear of dying, that’s the main one. We are quite afraid of that, and it pushes us to do all kinds of things.
And there’s little kinds of dying, too, like just being a little bit uncomfortable. And we don’t like that, either. Self-effacement as a practice of humility, and also kind of freedom, you know? Like, if you’re not so wrapped up in what you gotta get done, what you need, you can enjoy the sunshine, birds, and blue sky, magnolia tree.
That’s what this is? I like the fuzzy buds.
It’s amazing that they come out [in November].
They’re going to be in trouble, aren’t they?
No, no, this is what they do every year. The buds come out in late fall. And they stay on the tree all through the bitter winter. Then they burst out.
So you think, it looks like the tree is not alive in the winter, but in fact a lot is happening, it’s cooking something. That’s a little bit like meditation. It looks like you’re not doing anything but in fact your mind on one level is very active, it’s reorganizing things. It’s making connections.
We teach people the practice: the first foundation is to be aware of their body, reconnect to the body, because it’s one of the greatest sources of wisdom. It’s teaching all the time. And we’re embodied. We only have our body in this moment, we can do something, say something, pick up something. That’s the basic practice of meditation — coming home, to the present moment, in the body.
So we teach people how to breathe mindfully: conscious breath, you don’t interfere with your breath. Just observe. That’s our focus, we teach that as a base for transformation and healing on an individual level leading to collective healing and transformation. We are not separate. We’re made of the earth, all those atoms, we come from it, go back to it, cycle, long line of ancestors. We have affinity with everything that’s alive. There’s a way to touch that, not just to think about it; to feel that. It’s very central to native wisdom, cultural wisdom. It’s one of the antidotes to the suffering of our society today. People are searching outside themselves to find connection.
I noticed one guy doing the walking meditation barefoot this morning.
Yeah. Connection, right? Also, the willingness to be a little bit uncomfortable. Asceticism has a bad rap, you know? And it’s true that taken to extremes it has no real value. But as a kind of antidote for comfort and pleasure-seeking it can be refreshing, the same way like cold water can be refreshing.
Simple life. Simple is enough, often enough. Simple things. We often ask the questions: what does one need to be happy? What are the conditions of happiness that you already have? And then you can be happy if you recognize. But then it’s good to see clearly what they are, because there are many of our brothers and sisters who don’t have those conditions. Food for one day is a kind of condition for wellbeing on the body level.
And so our teacher is famous for saying that if you want peace on earth, the first thing to do is feed everyone for at least one day.
But that also requires kind of collective insight. So we have our own mind, and we also have our collective mind, which is our socialization. It’s very cool because now the psychologists, brain researchers, they recognize that a mind is a distributed phenomenon. It is not an individual thing. It cannot be located in space or time. It’s very crazy sounding but this is what the Buddha was teaching a couple thousand years ago. Dan Siegel, The Mindful Brain. The Neurobiology of ‘We’. Very powerful insights. Therapies based on mindfulness, trauma therapy.
Do you feel like society is sort of catching up with you?
Oh, I think it’s always a give and take. We don’t have a monopoly on the truth or anything like that. We just want to focus on it. And we take it from wherever we can get it. At least that’s me.
Buddhism didn’t come from nowhere. Everything comes from something, that’s what we teach. That’s the antidote, by the way. That’s one of the main antidotes to fear, especially fear of dying. Everything comes from something, and returns to something, so non-existence is just an idea. It’s not reality. So that’s helpful.
But that’s just an idea. Ideas can point us in the direction but we have to train our minds so that we can feel that, and we feel free. We don’t have to worry as much. We know how to let go of things, and trust them back to the earth. Earth has plenty of wisdom. Wow that’s great, I get to give you a mini dharma talk.
Do you ever go off campus? The guy I was sitting next to at lunch said he likes to go to Middletown for pizza and ice cream.
I like to go to the Ridge. The Shawangunk Ridge. Sometimes I will go bouldering there, climbing. I like to ski up there too if there’s enough snow.
What I don’t like to do is go into Middletown and have to shop for stuff for the community. Every now and then someone gets the idea that we should have pizza and ice cream in Middletown, and we do do that. But I don’t like it that much. I’m kind of over that. I mean, what I like is the celebration. It’s good to celebrate life.
In the life of a monk, do you have romantic relationships? I don’t know how it works.
Yeah, no one knows what a monk is, huh? It’s so fascinating, too, because monastic is really a word from the Christian lineage, you know? It’s some funny thing, I don’t even know the roots of that but because we have so much in common with Christian vows, we call ourselves monks and nuns. Commitment, ordination, is a series of vows that one takes. We have two levels of ordination: novice ordination and full ordination.
The novice vows are ten. The first one is not to kill or to harm life. And the second one is not to take other people’s happiness. That’s a big one. Not to steal, but it’s bigger than that. Not to oppress or contribute to oppression or injustice, which is what it means to take other people’s wellbeing, to exploit.
The third one is to practice chastity, which is kind of if you like sexual freedom. Sexual responsibility. Sometimes it’s called true love. So for the monastics, yes, we commit to celibacy, and to protecting other people and helping people recognize and understand – helping ourselves first of all – understand the difference between sex and love. Which is a big deal. It’s not simple.
It’s a lot of practice, too. And then secondly, also, by doing that, to offer that space and freedom and safety to other people, and help them know how to do that. So that’s another big area of suffering in the society today.
That’s for sure.
Yeah. The #metoo movement, right? It’s really painful, right? It means that we don’t know what to with our sexuality, with our humanity. What we’ve learned to do with it so far is to exploit it to sell things, which is very harmful. Very harmful. And to see each other as objects to satisfy our craving. So getting free in that area is a huge freedom and takes a lot of work, especially in a society as broken as ours.
Do you miss anything about secular life?
[Laughs.] I used to miss surfing a little bit but I went surfing this year. There’s things that I still learn from laypeople all the time. Like – I don’t miss it, but I need to be in contact with it.
Can you think of an example?
Like, I don’t have kids, so in order to be in contact with young people, people either have to bring their kids here or I have to go somewhere where there are children.
Obviously it wouldn’t be good news for us if everyone decided to become a monk, not that there’s any danger of that. We could use a lot more. That’s my main aspiration, is to open the path of monastic life to people. It’s not as terrible as it might sound. It sounds terrible to people. It’s actually really great. It’s real freedom.
It is hard to live in community. Things never go exactly the way you want it. But it’s a training.
It’s clear that you are very in touch with the earth, from the blessing you say before [vegan] meals, your garden, the walking meditations. Can you talk about that?
I can just say yes, and. It’s available to everyone. Our connection to the natural world is one of the most nourishing and joyful things that anyone can experience. All you have to do is watch a child play with sticks or leaves or anything. And we never lose that capacity. So just do it. [Laughs]. Yeah, find a way, make it happen in your life. It’s a tragedy not to. We are made of that. We are the environment, we can’t live without oxygen, plants. They are also great teachers, wow. So resilient, patient.
Do you have a phone?
[Shakes head.] It’s a precept. Freedom.