The Monk and The Mercedes
Out of all the students in the chaplaincy program at University of the West, Tommy is by far the most fashionably American. Everyday he’s in blue jeans and baseball caps, shiny black shoes and a silver watch, nothing flashy, but good quality. He’s in the Army. He drives a silver Mercedes. And he is also a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk.
Tommy was seven when the last American troops pulled out of Vietnam in 1975. His father was an officer in the Army of the Republic of (South) Vietnam. He was jailed when the communists came to power. Tommy became the man of his family, consisting of his mother and three sisters. This was a precarious position for a boy who might grow up to follow in the footsteps of his father and oppose the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In order to protect his life, his mother got him false identity papers and his aunt, a Buddhist nun, arranged for him to be sent from his home in Nha Trang to her monastery as a novice. Tommy remembers being woken up early in the morning for chanting and meditation.
“‘What the hell?’ I was thinking. It’s so early. And, of course, I missed my family,” he told me. Otherwise he enjoyed his time in the monastery.
After two years, he returned home and was able to attend school, but during the summers he would still go to stay with his aunt in the temple. When he was sixteen, he decided to become a monk and took the official robes of the novice. Tommy’s father had been released from prison just two years before, after enduring almost a decade of torture and abuse. The entire family, Tommy included, applied and were granted visas to enter the United States. However, it would take another ten years before they obtained the passports necessary to leave Vietnam.
“I didn’t want to go,” Tommy told me. He had gone to the university using his false identity. He wanted to become a lawyer and protect the temples from being taking away. “But my sisters, they couldn’t go to university because of our father, even though they were very smart.” So he made plans with his three sisters and father to go to America. His mother decided to remain in Vietnam to care for her aging mother. She would join them later.
Tommy was twenty-four when he arrived in San Diego. He knew exactly three words of English – “hi,” “fine,” and “bye.” He was quickly busy as he began to study English and help out a Vietnamese temple, Nhu Lai Meditation Temple, in his new home. He made a deal with his students. He would teach them Buddhism and Vietnamese if they taught him English. Correcting a monk was not a done thing, but he insisted they tell him when his pronunciation and grammar were wrong.
In 2003, Tommy graduated from San Diego State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Social Work. While in school, he lived in a storage room attached to the temple, which was really little more than a large garage converted into a Buddha Hall. Early each morning he delivered newspapers to earn money for school.
“People want to give me money. When I was in Vietnam, the college is part of the Buddhist temples, but here it is a civilian university. I was going as a civilian, so I wanted to pay for it and I refused their money.”
Tommy’s sisters were also able to go to college. They got married here in the United States and one became a CPA and another a nurse. After graduating, Tommy started work on a Master of Social work, but after a year, another temple called. The San Diego temple had grown so successfully, a temple in Oklahoma wanted his help. Tommy accepted the invitation to Oklahoma City to help found the bilingual (Vietnamese and English) Mind Essence Zen Center. He remained in Oklahoma for almost two years years.
Tommy then discovered another underserved community of Buddhists – those serving in the U.S. military. These Buddhists began sending him letters from Iraq and Afghanistan following September 11th. Tommy resolved to become a Buddhist chaplain in the United States Army. While speaking to an Army recruiter, he was advised to enlist and the Army would make him a chaplain after he was in. However, it didn’t quite work out that way.
“He lied to me, but I went back to thank him because he helped me get here,” Tommy recounted bluntly, smiling as he said it. “There I was in boot camp, and I had to eat meat and carry a gun, and I was thinking ‘What am I gonna do?’ That’s when I remembered my bodhisattva vow. I realized no matter what I wear or what I eat I am a bodhisattva. I am still a bodhisattva even in a uniform. I am here to help people and I can still do that.” Even in boot camp, he counseled and encouraged his fellow soldiers as they came to him with problems.
After boot camp, Tommy was stationed in Germany, where he worked as a human resource specialist. There he founded an on-base meditation group and another off-base. He’d been driving a large SUV from the States, donated by his CPA-sister, but it didn’t navigate the narrow German streets well. Finally, he relented and let his German off-base students trade the SUV for something smaller. Thus, the shiny silver Mercedes.
Tommy’s true goal never wavered, so when the opportunity presented itself, Tommy returned to California to start his education as a chaplain. He had to scramble to find an officer to administer his offericer’s oath to become a lieutenant, as his orders to do so expired on December 31, 2007. He left Germany on December 29 and arrived in California on December 30. Tommy called upon the only Buddhist chaplain, himself still a candidate, known to be serving in the U.S. armed forces, Somya Malasari, fellow University of the West graduate. Somya put Tommy in touch with a friend and former monk with the same aspiration, Aroon Seeda, then serving in the U.S. Navy at San Diego. Even though many military officers were off for the holidays, ships were always manned. Aroon arranged for Tommy to take his officer’s oath from his superior aboard ship the day after Tommy returned from Germany. This qualified Tommy to begin his own studies as an Army chaplain candidate.
“People who won’t talk to a monk, will talk to a chaplain,” Tommy said. Being a chaplain means he is able to help more people, and not just Buddhists.
Second Lieutenant Tommy Nguyen began classes in the Master of Divinity program at University of the West in August 2009 while also serving in the U.S. Army Reserves. At UWest, he adds a voice of calm strength and grounded wisdom to a diverse group of students. He still lives in San Diego, near his numerous nephews and nieces, but drives his sparkling Mercedes up to Los Angeles to stay with a friend while attending classes during the week. Tommy continues to work with Vietnamese temples throughout North America, often flying to Oklahoma, Arizona, Washington state, or other parts of California to participate in ceremonies. In his yellow robes, he is every inch the Buddhist monk whether he is conducting a ritual for hundreds of fellow monastics at a giant temple, or for a few dozen Army officers in the field. He wears his Army uniform and his ‘civilian’ clothes as well as the yellow robes.
Tommy has taught me that as long as one’s aspiration and intentions remain pure, then the bodhisattva vow can still be fulfilled. It doesn’t matter what we wear, eat, drive, or where we go, as long as we do our best to live up to those intentions when we can. When we can’t, we make the best of the situation and continue trying to help others. Thank you, Tommy, for teaching me this and sharing your story.