12 min read

How to know if you’re on the right path

Image of a sunlit forest path with pine trees lining either side of the path stretching into the distance
Path through pine trees, Plum Village France, taken 2016. photo by Robert Walsh

Very often when I open a book from Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thầy for short), whatever sentence I read is magically the sentence I was needing to hear at that moment. A sentence that speaks to my heart. That’s what watching the dharma talk discussed in this post was like for me.

I watched this year’s New Year's Eve dharma talk from Deer Park Monastery (Plum Village’s centre in California) a few days after the new year. It was offered by Brother Pháp Dung (pronounced fap yoong). The whole thing was joyful to take in. The last twenty minutes or so of his talk spoke directly to what I’m processing through right now. So, in this post, I’ll review a bit of what I heard throughout and focus on his concluding words.

Brother Pháp Dung ordained as a monk in 1998, he is a senior PV dharma teacher, and is the former abbot of Deer Park Monastery in California. He was born in Vietnam in 1969 and came to the US when he was nine years old. He received a professional BA in Architecture from the University of Southern California, and worked as an architect/designer for four years before becoming a monk. He helped to establish Deer Park Monastery and other US centres, creating meditation programs and retreats for children, teens, families, and young adults, as well as planning its halls and infrastructures. I previously shared some of my personal connections with him in this post. Like many wake uppers around the world, I consider him to be a mentor and a guide. He is there for so many of us around the world in his kind, gentle, and playful way.

Outline of the talk:

  • 5:00-14:00 – Monastic Sangha Chanting
  • 17:00-20:30 – Welcome and arrival meditation
  • 20:30-1:18:20 – Main talk by Brother Pháp Dung

Insight from weird places

Pháp Dung opens the talk by welcoming everyone to a New Year's Eve at Deer Park. He reflects that this will be a different kind of celebration compared to the usual celebration outside the monastery. It would be a celebration with peace, happiness, and depth.

He tells some stories about struggles he faced as a young person growing up in Los Angeles. He had many expectations of himself that caused a lot of suffering. His friends liked to party. He had jobs lined up. In telling these stories, he encourages us to reflect on what expectations we have on ourselves – of being a friend, a husband, a father, a son, etc.

Letting go of our expectations can be healing.

Phap Dung shares that Thầy helped him let go of a lot of his expectations for himself. He prefaces one story that he shares about this with the statement that,

You often get insight from weird places.

During a Vietnamese retreat, he arrived at the end of dinner service (during retreat meals, everyone lines up at buffet style tables) and there was salad left, but no salad dressing. He’s the kind of person to really lather on the dressing. He described his usual salad as “more dressing than salad”, but that night he had to eat without any dressing at all. It was his first time and he still remembers it. He realized, to his surprise, that after chewing for a while there was actual flavour. He reflected in his journal afterwards and thought about the question:

How to be myself without all the salad dressing?

He reflects on how he presents himself for others.

In the past 6 months, I’ve been struggling with the question of what career path do I want to walk down. I recently finished a 6-year journey of school/training/my first job as a physiotherapist. Having just finished a 2-year stint at a local hospital, I’m not sure what role clinical work as a physio will play in my immediate future. I’ve recognized that my thoughts on this can be influenced by how I think I should present myself to others. If I’m talking to another physiotherapist, I sometimes feel I need to make an easy excuse for why I’m not working clinically right now. If I’m talking to a Plum Village mindfulness friend, the conversation is quite different, both internally and interpersonally. There is a lot more to unpack there, but I’ll leave that for another post.

For now, dear reader, I invite you to reflect on what some of your salad dressing might be – how do you present yourself for others? Are there some expectations you have on yourself that might be healing to let go of?

Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a path

One side thought that Pháp Dung speaks to in his talk is how they describe buddhism in Vietnamese. He says that:

Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a path.

In Vietnamese, there isn’t just a word Buddha, it’s the way of the Buddha. So, it is engrained in Plum Village that it is a path.

”đạo Phật” translates to: “the way of the buddha”

He shares that the words: “the way of the Buddha” really help him think about how he can improve himself. This reminds me of my earlier post about Sr. Chan Duc’s talk and her statement that we can learn to understand and love ourselves better. We don’t need to (and it wouldn’t be possible to) have 100% accurate understanding of ourselves. Understanding ourselves is not an end goal that we arrive at. It is a path that we walk.

Be cautious of your intellect: Dharma rain

Pháp Dung reminds us to be careful not to use our intellect when listening to a dharma talk. Be cautious of the energy of “ah, I get it, I understand”. When you truly listen, whether you understand the words of a dharma talk or not, it penetrates you like rain. If you use your intellect, it’s like putting down a layer of plastic on top of the earth, the rain does not penetrate.

Be careful to not use the same intellect that has made us the way we are…the mind that we are used to using.

Learning and absorbing Buddhist psychology and dharma is different from the learning many of us were trained to do in school and university. Phap Dung says that it is inexpressible. He says, “you can tell when the teaching has penetrated when you see someone with tears in the dharma hall. You know that something is happening that is not intellectual. It is touching all the cells in the body. It’s uncontrollable.”

Pháp Dung describes some monastics’ practice of listening to a dharma talk as meditation. When they listen, they simply allow it to penetrate without thinking or comparing what is being said to their experience.

In this blog, I will often reflect on myself and invite you to reflect on how the learning applies to your life. I would encourage you, whenever you click on a link from this blog to a video of a dharma talk, to enjoy allowing the words spoken to flow over/into your mind. This is largely how I spent my first 10 years of practice with Plum Village. Just let it soak in. Don’t worry about remembering the “important part”. I’ve noticed that the act of writing this blog has influenced how I listen to dharma talks, and so I have to be mindful of that.

If, while listening to a dharma talk, you constantly judge “do I get this or not”, you may get stuck in your mind. You may not actually take in the words that are being said.

Healing is non-linear

Pháp Dung really underscores that healing is non-linear. It’s not, “ah, I get it now”. We are not progressing from one stage to the next.

Insight, transformation, and liberation are not intellectual.

Remember: insight often comes from weird places.

How to know if this is the path

As Pháp Dung continues, he starts to get more and more concrete about finding our path. He reflects that so many people want to know exactly what to do with their life. This idea can get in the way.

I can say that this has absolutely been true for me personally.


Pháp Dung describes the word volition as it is used in the Buddhist context. In can be thought of as the “desire to achieve, it’s intentional”. He references the French words raison d'être, or “reason for being”. Plum Village monastics use the word bodhicitta to describe their volition. This is a beginners mind, a mind of service, and of love. In all cases, in the buddhist concept, it’s not about an end goal.

For me, I think there has always been a desire to serve others. I think my different career choices have reflected that volition. My first career was as a cinematographer. I wanted to make films that helped people learn about themselves, in the way films had inspired me when I was in high-school. I recently finished training as a physiotherapist and my volition continues. I have an aspiration to help people reconnect with themselves and their body on the path of healing. This is in part inspired by my journey with physiotherapists helping me care for low back pain. Recently, I am wondering how much mindfulness work will play a role in my career. My personal volition continues to evolve, to be impermanent.

Pháp Dung states that:

Our volition needs food to care for it.

We need to be aware of what we consume in our conversations, in the social media we take in, in our society. Pháp Dung encourages us to find a community of like-minded people to support us in maintaining our volition. For anyone reading this that is in the age range 18-35ish, definitely come check out the Wake Up Toronto sangha that I help to facilitate. For anyone outside that age range, there are resources on our website for finding a practice community.

The path needs to be cared for | You make the path as you travel

Pháp Dung describes our path in life as something that is not static. It is something that needs to be cared for. It is continuously made and re-made as you travel it. He says, “the path, usually you think it’s going to go somewhere”, but:

The path is our home.

He recognizes that it is a kind of oxymoron. One word is directional (path) and the other is more fixed (home). It’s not something you project in your mind as a destination to reach in the future. You build your future by taking care of the present moment. He says that when you make a commitment, you can get in trouble, you can become fixed or rigid.

This feels to me a bit radical and so Plum Village. One of the primary teachings from Thích Nhất Hạnh is learning to dwell happily in the present moment. So much of our capitalist world is about getting to a destination, like finding a partner or making enough money to buy a house. Sometimes we might not truly enjoy the process along the way. If we have a fixed goal, we might not be open to something else that crosses our path. Even if we do achieve our goal, say of falling in love, Pháp Dung reminds us that it still needs to be continually cared for. For that matter, so does a house. Everything needs a bit of maintenance.

A new way of looking

Pháp Dung invites us to see that if we are taking care of the present moment, if we see the next step and do it wholeheartedly with confidence, there is no question. “If you realize it’s not quite what you like, you step again.” It’s very based on what is happening to you now.

He describes that this is how he looks at his life as a monastic. When he first came to PV, he didn’t know he wanted to be a monastic, but he knew he wanted to be there. By taking each step, he “built his path to this moment”.

If I don’t take care of my path now, it deteriorates

When Pháp Dung thinks about the question: “how do I know what I want to do?”. He reflects that embedded in this question is a search for a future concept of whom I should be and what I should do. It’s not present moment focused. He states that this is the way we are trained by society. Things like diplomas and certificates may be necessary, but on the other hand, protecting and nourishing bodhicitta is based on how you are taking care of yourself right now.

It is not a view of the future.

Phap Dung’s bus driver

He tells a story of his childhood school bus driver as an example. As kids, him and his schoolmates did all kinds of things that should have upset his bus driver. They made fun of him, they made a mess of the bus once. He never got angry with them and was always happy. For this, Pháp Dung will never forget him.

Pháp Dung reminds us that the most important thing is to find happiness, peace, contentment, and acceptance with what we are dealt. We affect the people around us, and our presence in the here and now is what will have impact. Just like his bus driver. It’s not necessarily what we do, it’s how we do it.

Pháp Dung also talks about chatting with grocery store clerks. “When they fully engage with you, you know that their job is interacting with me as a human being, it’s so beautiful”. He encourages us to:

Remove our idea that there is something more important to do.

The idea that we should be doing something more important with our life is once to be cautious of. One example Pháp Dung offers is being a social or environmental activist. He states, that “being an activist is important if it’s dealt to you, but be careful that it doesn’t diminish your presence in the here and now”.

From Thích Nhất Hạnh’s earliest time in the US, while he was speaking out against the war in Vietnam in the 60s, there was a concern for the wellbeing of activists. Thầy has a famous verse:

There is no way to peace, peace is the way

At war protests, Thầy’s presence was one of peace and calm rather than anger. He spoke out against war peacefully. This is at the very foundation of Plum Village practice. In the face of both small and great adversity, we have to know how to be at ease within ourselves. We have to be mindful of the possibility of losing ourselves and the possibility of burnout.

How do I know my path?

Pháp Dung advises many times throughout his talk to look for the path that makes you happy right now.

Radiate stability, happiness, and a sense of joy. This will carve your path. It’s magical, you have to trust that.

The idea we might have for ourselves, the projection of what we want to be somewhere in the future, is “usually a mess”. He says, if you follow that, you become less easy and more unhappy.

He encourages us to find the thing that we “gravitate towards”. Meditation can help remove our concepts and ideas that are linked to how we are trained in school. We should be careful of the linear and transactional thinking that education teaches us.

The spiritual path is a mess.

He states that if meditation is affecting you, “it should be scary”. We might recognize that we have no idea what we’re doing. This is where Pháp Dung is at right now. People ask him about the direction of Plum Village now that Thầy has passed. He says he has no idea, but right now, he likes being here.

We accept the messiness of the spiritual path.

The idea of control, of wanting to know what to do with my life, is what causes suffering. He states that, “mindfulness can be illogical, messy, and very beautiful”. It can be a “realm of magic and surprise”.

“Please, on your path, don’t make it so planned. It’s ok that you don’t really know your future, but you are happy now. Do not be afraid of what other people will think about you and what your family feels about you.”

This is what Thầy offered him and why he’s a happy person now. He has dreams for the future, but tonight, after offering this talk on New Year's Eve, he will go celebrate with his monastic family and be in the present moment.

Pháp Dung continues,

I cannot wish for you that you will realize your aspiration. I hope you are happy now, that’s all I can say. Don’t project what you will be in the future. Tomorrow, new year, yeah whatever. You know what you have to do. Remove your resentment, don’t hate, be kind, make amends with your neighbour, find your cause and get into it… The world needs you to pass on what you are experiencing in your path. It’s not about becoming employees, good citizens, but to become awakened beings and behave kindly with everyone you meet on your path.

Let it go

He concludes the talk by strongly encouraging us to not take notes on his talk 🙂. Do not intellectualize it. Let it go.

If something touched you, let it go. Come back to the trust that, whatever needs to happen with you, will naturally ripen. You are a part of nature, you just need to get out of the way.

He invites us to listen to the sound of the bell to conclude.

With each sound of the bell, especially (during) the out breath, we get out of the way of our healing. Let mother nature in us show us that this present moment is the path.”

I hope, dear reader, that some of these words and ideas have been helpful. As Pháp Dung invites us, we can now let it all go and trust that the teachings from him have soaked into the soil of our consciousness. You can always review this post or re-watch his talk on YouTube later. At this moment, I invite you to take a few breaths and come home to your body.

The dharma talk discussed in this post was given by Brother Chân Pháp Dung on December 31, 2022 at Deer Park Monastery, the Plum Village practice centre near San Diego, California in the US. It was delivered to the monastic and lay community of practitioners present at the monastery and live-streamed on the Deer Park Monastery YouTube channel. There are plenty of other Dharma talks from Pháp Dung and other monastics on their YouTube channel. There are other upcoming live-streams scheduled as well.

As you like, please review the Resources page of this site where I am collecting all the links, resources, and references from every post.

As always, please leave a comment or message me. I’d love to hear from you.