2011 DRBA Europe Delegation
By Julia Ha
When we were in London during the 2011 DRBA Europe Delegation, Dharma Master Heng Sure asked me in the middle of a lecture, “Julia, why did you decide to come on this delegation?” Without thinking, I responded, “for the people.” I did not go to Europe for sightseeing and traveling; it came more as a bonus than anything else. I went because I wanted to help bring a DRBA Dharma assembly to Europe, which has yet to have a DRBA branch monastery established there. Unlike other Asian countries that have disciples that number in the thousands, the Europe delegation trips are very much a grassroots effort, spurred by the sincerity and networking of a handful of devoted disciples. With them laying the groundwork for a Dharma assembly in Paris, our Dharma friends in London, Holland, and Poland also invited us over and Dharma events in their respective countries were added to our itinerary. Rounding out the delegation was the group of disciples from the United States who worked tirelessly to help make sure our European friends were able to have the most meaningful experience possible.
All the amazing people I met on this trip, ranging from the young teenagers to the respected elders, form the crux of my reason for going on the delegation. It is them I write for. However, it is specifically the women of the delegation that I want to dedicate this essay to, because it is them I think of when people ask me who my role models are. These women are not just my sisters, aunties or my grandmothers; they are my heroes.
We were incredibly fortunate to have so many people help us organize visits in various European countries, but this essay celebrates my three “big sisters,” Katherine Lam, Gabi Thuc Hue Ta, and So Dam. With the help of their family and friends, they created events, put together tours, scheduled speaking engagements, fundraised, did publicity, found us housing, prepared meals for us, and took care of us in their home countries of England, Holland, and France, respectively. I will never forget our first meal in the Lam family’s home in London, watching Phuong Thao and Bao Loc Truong’s parents ladle soup for everyone during a picnic in Holland, or the group dinners we had at the Dam family’s home during our last few nights in Paris. It is not easy to take care of 30 people, many of whom you have never met, especially on a student’s and/or young working woman’s budget and timetable. These young women have inspired me on so many levels, and I cannot thank them enough for all they have done not only as organizers of the delegation, but also as role models for the young people, especially myself.
The aunties have been such a big part of my life growing up in Berkeley Monastery, but this trip allowed us to connect on an even deeper level. Whenever you are around them, you cannot help but feel this sense of love and admiration for them, and this Europe trip was no exception. The aunties took care of us like we were their own children, nieces and nephews, cooking for us, spending time with us, and even chipping in money for us to sightsee. Whether they had known us for years or just for a few days, the aunties treated us all the same. For example, when we departed from the San Francisco Airport, they prepared lunch baggies for every single person; in London they cooked for us every night; in Holland, they went everywhere with us, even if it meant running from place to place; in Paris, they not only cooked but could be found standing at the sink, washing dishes for everyone. Extremely humble, they always worked behind the scenes, never wanting attention or recognition for what they were doing; they worked with the whole assembly in mind at all times, a selfless frame of mind that I truly respect. The young people became really protective of the aunties, always walking beside or behind them on tours, carrying their luggage, and trying to help out as much as we could for them.
I remember how one day in Holland, we were on such a rushed schedule that we were minutes away from missing an important train heading to the next event. A couple of us started worrying because we basically had to run to the train station, and we were afraid for one of the aunties who is not as healthy as the others. However, despite our protests, she mustered up all strength and hurried on. At the end of our stay in Holland, we had a group meeting where we shared snapshots of our favorite memories of the trip so far. This auntie spoke about us, the young people, and how much she appreciated all of us, and also about that one day running to the train and how touched she was that so many young people cared about her. While she spoke, she started crying and I remember tears were also streaming down my face because in that moment, everyone in the room could feel the love, the family feeling of our group, and it was just so powerful. I learned so much from the aunties just by watching them, and I thank them for constantly keeping me grounded in respect and gratitude.
Gwo Er, or who I call Ngoh Yi Po Po, is like the fairy godmother of the Europe delegation. Though usually part of a trifecta of DRBA Parisian elders, this time around she did most of the heavy-lifting, and without her, there definitely would not have been a delegation last year. She took refuge with the Venerable Master many years ago and returns to CTTB almost every year for the Ten Thousand Buddhas Repentance. It is because of her and the other Parisian grandmothers that there is a growing community of disciples in Paris, and ultimately throughout Europe; with them as the backbone, each delegation provides a platform for Europeans to learn about Buddhism, and now a number of Dharma Masters, volunteers, and IGDVS students can be linked back to these Europe trips. I admire Ngoh Yi Po Po because she is resilient; no matter the setback, she forges on to accomplish a goal. She is humble, tending to shy away from accolades and the spotlight, but is quick to shine the light on others. She inspires so many people around her to be better people, to work harder, to give our best everyday.
For example, I remember how each year for the Repentance, despite her age she bowed every single bow, putting all us young people to shame with our complaints of achy legs and sleepiness. During the delegation she would climb four flights of stairs several times a day just to make it to the Buddha Hall. Lastly, she works for the happiness of others. In Europe she worked to house as many people as possible, even donating new mattresses and sheets for the facility we were using. She used her own money and helped to fundraise so that our hotel, sightseeing, and other expenses were covered. She missed the Repentance last year so that she could work on preparing for the delegation. During the delegation, even though she was exhausted and stressed to the core, she showed up early every day to make sure things were in order. During her Dharma talk toward the end of the Dharma Assembly, she kept commending the young people for all their hard work and talked about how we inspired her; without a doubt, the reverse is true, for it is for her that we worked, her who we admire, love, and cherish beyond words.
Without my mother on this trip, so many people would not have gone on the delegation, or have been able to. When she decided to go, the aunties got on board; when we were trying to get more young people to go, she was the one to call to convince parents. Because of my mom, our small group of delegates ultimately grew to 30 in number. What many people do not know is that during the planning of and the actual Europe Delegation, she was very sick. However, she did not let her health prevent her from helping to execute a full but well thought out trip; she made sure that we would always have a meal wherever we went, that our agenda catered to both the younger and the older groups, that any obstacle would be faced with thoughtfulness and patience. She spent hours on the phone communicating with our friends in Europe, especially Ngoh Yi Po Po, and was the who I contacted daily for information for ordering tickets or just for updates on the trip in general. I remember the first day we got to Paris and when my mom and Ngoh Yi Po Po, whom my mom considers like a second mother, finally got to see each other. Though there were no words, I could see the amount of love, respect, and worry each had for the other, and they both were tearing up as they embraced. Probably no one really knows how much they both gave up for this trip, how many sleepless nights they had agonizing over details, how much satisfaction, joy and heartache there was when the USA delegation waved goodbye at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.
This trip was so transformative for me because of all the amazing people who were a part of it. I really saw the Venerable Master’s legacy in action as these old and new disciples banded together to create a Dharma assembly out of nothing besides sincerity, hard work, and a shared goal of bringing the Dharma to the West, which in this case is Europe. I will never forget how an elderly Vietnamese gentleman who sat in the back of the lecture hall started crying silently as he listened to Rev. Heng Sure lead the assembly in singing "She Carries Me.” Even though he did not understand the words until later when my dad translated them, this gentleman understood the message and the spirit of the song. Moments like these, as well as experiences like the Europe Delegation, remind me of how even though the Venerable Master is no longer with us physically, his words, his wisdom, and his legacy live on.