Gosh it’s easy to misunderstand things

This morning, while reading the Discourse on Happiness from our Plum Village chanting book, it clicked. After reading the second sentence: “Late at night, a deva appeared whose light and beauty made the whole Jeta Grove shine radiantly,” I came to understand what Brother Phap De meant two years ago when I was at Deer Park.

He had just finished leading us in stick exercises one morning before breakfast when he asked us, in a light and friendly tone of voice: “Who was that diva dancing the polka in the parking lot yesterday? I think they should lead us all in a dance session!”

In that moment, my internal dialog went something like this: Oh man. That was me. I didn’t really think others were watching. Do I have to declare myself now in front of all these people?! I mean, I really REALLY do not want to lead a dance session, that’s for sure.

I sheepishly raised my hand, indicating that the diva he was inquiring about was me. Then, I raced the heck out of there and headed to breakfast.

Later, I pondered the terminology he has used: diva dancing the polka and felt a mixture of confusion (as I didn’t know exactly what the polka entailed but I was certain I wasn’t doing it), slight embarrassment, and feeling affronted. Did he call me a diva? I thought to myself on many occasions after that. I’m not sure I like that term. No, I KNOW I don’t like that term. Is that how others see me?! Oh dear.

Up until this morning, I thought he meant diva (with an i), as in someone who is a prima donna, as my paperback Webster’s defines it. (Then I looked up “prima donna” to make sure I understood that word correctly – which is listed as: an extremely sensitive, vain, or undisciplined person.) But now I realize he probably meant deva (with an e!), which is described as a Celestial being or angel in the glossary in the back of our chanting book.

Upon making this discovery this morning, my internal dialog went something like this:

This changes everything!


Thank goodness!

Brother Phap De

I’ve read the Discourse on Happiness a handful of times since Brother Phap De declared me the deva dancing the polka. But it wasn’t until just this morning that this insight arose, allowing for me to move into proper understanding.

The human experience is so incredibly fascinating, from a self-observation standpoint especially.

While it’s not worth giving it too much thought, I wonder: What changed? What allowed me to make this connection TODAY vs. some other day? I mean, I haven’t consciously thought about this instance with Brother Phap De in a long long time.

One of the guiding life sayings that I like to tell myself often is: Sometimes you don’t get to know why. Translation: This is a moment you would do well to practice just going with the flow of the river of life experience, Nicole. Stop trying to analyze things or come to some sort of neat conclusion that can fit in well with how you view the world, it’s a waste of time and energy.

Over the years since this encounter, even though I wasn’t a fan of being called a diva (with an i), I have dearly cherished this moment between us. He was genuinely interested in knowing who it had been that he had seen down in the parking lot. It was clear to me that he had been delighted in their joyful offering. And while I was mildly embarrassed that someone – especially a monk – had seen me dancing, I was also put at ease that he was able to sense my heartfelt enjoyment of dancing and appreciate it for what it was, vs. perhaps deeming it an inappropriate activity to do at a monastery (which was a back-of-the-mind concern of mine). And he was apparently so taken with my dancing that he even wanted me to instruct and lead others!

Brother Phap De passed away at age 82 (I think) in August of 2016. If memory serves, he made the “deva dancing the polka” comment in January of that same year, when Mike and I were there on retreat. It was an honor and privilege to get to know and spend time with Brother Phap De over the years that Mike and I have been visiting Deer Park, before he passed away. When I do stick exercises – which typically amounts to once a week – I think of him every time, as he was the one who would always lead them at Deer Park. Randomly during his instructions, he would prompt us all to smile – and when I lead them on our local retreats or at other times, I continue his memory and remind people of the same thing.

At the end of my stick exercise session each week, I do two standing bows in closing. The first bow is in dedication of Brother Phap De. And the second is in gratitude for the stick I use.

In conclusion:

Gosh it sure is easy to misunderstand things.

Now that I know what Brother Phap De actually meant, I am even more nourished from this encounter we shared. And now that I have been afforded the great gift of insight, it will allow me to carry forward this memory with more clarity, understanding, ease, and joy.

Sometimes – maybe even all the time – more understanding equates to more freedom. Freedom from what? you might wonder. To which the teachings in our tradition would say: Freedom from illusory notions and false views, which is ultimately what all of our suffering (large, small, or tiny) can be attributed to on a foundational level.

To read more about Brother Phap De’s life story, click here.



All those parts of ourselves that we don’t like – all those parts we’re self-conscious about, that we try to hide or fight or squelch or fix – befriending is always the answer.

As soon as we embark on the genuine path of befriending, the frequency of the relationship dynamic to whatever it is about ourselves that we don’t like changes right away. As Carl Rogers (co-founder of the client-centered approach to psychology) stated:

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”

~Carl Rogers

The pitfall that so many of us encounter in relation to inner transformational and healing work is the common predicament of trying to change, with the mindset of there being something about ourselves that’s damaged or broken or defective. We approach it from the angle of there being something wrong that needs fixing. And when we approach it from this standpoint the conditions for change and growth are extremely limited, because the ground for transformation and healing to take place is stripped and barren. What allows the ground to become fertile and ripe for transformation is the genuine act of befriending – acknowledging, accepting, and embracing ALL the parts of who we are. Only when we start to befriend ourselves can we start laying the foundation in order to build a more engaged, skillful, and well-contented life.

Befriending is always the answer. Whatever’s going on. Whether it’s something internal or external. Suffering is generated when we fight against something going on – when we want things to be different; other than as they are. To befriend is to stop struggling. To befriend is to allow things to be just as they are, to let things be. To let others be. To let ourselves be.


In a recent class offered at Deer Park Monastery, Brother Kai Ly taught the following (which I consider to be the in-depth process of what befriending is all about):

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Daily Practice – Day 14


Day 14 – Today was a day of rest for me.  After a long, active week I took today to rest and stay in bed.  And while it would’ve been easy to pass up on my meditation time, I didn’t consider that as an option for even a moment.

Today I read the Discourse on Taking Refuge in Oneself.  Here’s a passage taken from it (the words spoken are that of the buddha):

“All phenomena that are born, exist, and are subject to the influence of other phenomena, in other words, all phenomena that are composite, must abide by the law of impermanence and eventually cease to exist.  They cannot exist eternally, without some day being destroyed.  Everything we cherish and hold dear today, we will have to let go of and be separated from in the future.  In not too long a time, I will also pass away.  Therefore, I urge you to practice being an island unto yourself, knowing how to take refuge in yourself, and not taking refuge in anyone or anything else.

“Practice taking refuge in the island of the Dharma.  Know how to take refuge in the Dharma, and do not take refuge in any other island or person.  Meditate on the body in the body, nourishing Right Understanding and mindfulness to master and transform your cravings and anxieties.  Observe the elements outside the body in the elements outside the body, nourishing Right Understanding and mindfulness to master and transform your cravings and anxieties.  That is the way to take refuge in the island of self, to return to yourself in order to take refuge in the Dharma, and not to take refuge in any other island or thing.”


It is easy to take refuge in something or someone outside of ourselves.  To hang out happiness onto someone’s behavior or certain conditions or the weather.  One of the largest teachings I’ve been given through this practice is learning that the state of my relationship to my own health and well being is a choice I make (whether consciously or unconsciously).  And it’s something I continue to work on everyday.  Some days are easier than others.  There is a great responsibility and a great freedom that come along with knowing that my life is up to me and no one else.

Daily Practice – Day 11


Day 11 – Once again I opted to lay down for my six minutes of meditation instead of sitting.  I’ve been enjoying my daily practice and am finding it beneficial in regards to my relationship with myself – I feel more at ease even in the midst of stressful happenings and am more confident in my ability to meet the present moment on its own terms rather than my own expectations of how things should be, even when it’s challenging.  I’m also finding that I am becoming more motivated and skilled at not getting caught and stuck in my unskillful thought patterns and habit energies.  Of course there are other things at play here as well other than my daily sitting practice but I see clearly that it is of great support and benefit and for that I am grateful.  After my sitting I read the Discourse on the Eight Realizations of the Great Beings, which are as follows:

“The First Realization is the awareness that the world is impermanent…The Second Realization is the awareness that more desire brings more suffering…The Third Realization is the awareness that the human mind is always searching outside itself and never feels fulfilled…The Fourth Realization is the awareness that indolence (laziness) is an obstacle to practice…The Fifth Realization is the awareness that ignorance is the cause of the endless round of birth and death…The Sixth Realization is the awareness that poverty creates hatred and anger, which creates a vicious cycle of negative thoughts and actions…The Seventh Realization is the awareness that the five categories of sensual desire – money, sex, fame, overeating and oversleeping – lead to problems…The Eighth Realization is the awareness that the fire of birth and death is raging,  causing endless suffering everywhere…”

Buddhist-inspirationIn all but the Sixth Realization I see the same root which leads to the sufferings mentioned in the discourse: illusion.  Having false impressions about ourselves, other people and the world colors everything we do in body, speech and mind.  If we were able to see life clearly, unimpeded by the vast and varying array of our misperceptions, there would be no more suffering to be created.  Not only do we exist almost entirely in the realm of illusions but we cling desperately to them and don’t realize it.  We think, in fact we KNOW, that our thoughts are right, our way is right, our view is right, our perceptions are right.  When in reality our limited perspective about any given subject, person or experience is just that – very very limited, incomplete, oftentimes incorrect and bound up in our self-absorbed nature (a sea of illusion).

All of our suffering is self-manifested.  How we relate to life’s experiences and with what approach is how our world unfolds.  When we enjoy creating drama, which many of us do (and don’t know it), drama will manifest.  When we wallow in our physical ailments then a miserable life will ensue and our pain levels will only persist and increase.  When we victimize ourselves and blame others for our troubles and sorrow we live a life of anger and isolation.  When we are overly sensitive or take things too personally or seriously our comfort zone shrinks to the size of a tennis ball and everything and everyone has the potential to throw us off balance.  When we are unable to take responsibility for our own experiences in life we continue our path of suffering – generously watering the seeds of illusion as we tread.

How we view the world is how we live in it.  How we view ourselves in relationship to the present moment is the difference between whether we experience more joy and ease or more pain and suffering.