Fourteen-year-old Antonio Phan and his younger brother breathed
in the pungent smell of the sea as they lay hidden beneath fishing nets
on a boat in Vietnam in 1984, waiting for their father to spirit them
out of the country.
They left behind family members and spent a
month at sea, surviving on rations of rice and water. Then came two
years in a refugee camp in Hong Kong.
In 1986, the trio arrived in Kansas. At 16,
Antonio, whose life had been shaped by struggle and loss, could barely
speak English. He had lost his mother to cancer at age 5. He had witnessed
the death of soldiers and civilians. He had a bitter relationship with
his stepmother, had very little education and no sense of his own culture.
But today, at 39, the man embodies peace.
Now a Buddhist monk, Antonio goes by the spiritual
name "Thich Tinh Man." And visitors travel great distances
to learn the art of mindfulness from him at Compassionate Dharma Cloud
Monastery near U.S. 285 and Settlers Drive.
"I have listened to many, many stories(from)
young and oldhe has definitely made
a significant change in their lives," said Dr. Gratia Meyer, a
licensed psychologist from Greenwood Village who attends weekly gatherings
at the monastery.
"He is a true healernot
the laying-on-of-hands kind. He gives you the responsibility, teaches
you the tools to change."
Meyer's professional training includes developmental
neuropsychology, and she believes that Tinh Man's techniques, which
include deep breathing, walking meditation and yoga, can connect the
right and left hemispheres of the brain and help diminish fearful or
stressful reactions to life.
His approach, grounded in Buddhism, provides
a different perspective on the human struggle.
Westerners who suffer emotional or physical
pain tend to go to a doctor for the sole purpose of eradicating that
pain, Meyer said, whereas the mindfulness approach teaches people how
to observe the pain and learn from it.
"Rather than searching for ways to get
rid of it, you learn to live with it and decrease it within your daily
life," she said.
Meyer met the abbot in Lakewood in 2004 when
she walked into a Vietnamese temple and he offered her free tickets
to hear Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh speak at the Buell Theater. They
met again at the Pepsi Center in 2006 during a presentation by the Dalai
"He came down the sidewalk and said, 'I
think I have an opportunity to open a monastery,' " said Meyer,
who is Jewish. "I said, 'I will do anything to help you.' "
Meyer believes the abbot "walks the talk."
And he also has a system designed to teach young children to avoid violent
"This monk is single-handedly starting
day camps and overnight camps to help (children) learn how to diminish
their violent thoughts and to learn how to communicate with their classmates
and peers in a non-discriminatory way," Meyer said. "He started
the first one this summer. He had over 200 children and adolescents
In times past, the abbot traveled to other states
to promote his peaceful message, but this year "they came to him,"
Attorney Cindy Dang enjoys the "dharma
talks" by Tinh Man. She travels from the metro area to hear the
Buddhist teachings in English on Tuesday nights, and she also values
his "mindfulness" message.
Dang, Meyer and Dr. Bob Sparrow helped the abbot
make his way through the county process to establish the monastery after
he purchased the abandoned, 10-acre horse property less than two years
ago. He has since refurbished the main structure and hopes to transform
outbuildings into usable space for the youth camp.
"I come for the meditation, to relax my
body and my mind and realize what a beautiful moment it is," Dang
A winding educational path
Upon their arrival in Kansas, Antonio Phan's
father, who wanted the best possible education for his 16-year-old son,
told teachers the boy was only 10 so he would be placed in the fourth
grade. Antonio quickly advanced to the seventh grade but was uprooted
again when his father, a fisherman, followed work to New Orleans. There,
Antonio experienced a deep-rooted prejudice against Asians among the
He finally finished high school at age 23 in
Hawaii. And it was there that Antonio experienced a spiritual and cultural
crisis. Buddhism was the family faith, but his exposure to the teachings
as a child attending the temple with his grandmother was limited.
"There were different paths; I didn't know
which one really fit me, which I could really practice," Tinh Man
He pondered his role in the material world and
entertained the possibility of marrying and raising a family. But he
had witnessed too much turmoil in his own family, and he forsook that
path in favor of a life serving others.
Tinh Man attended community college, then traveled
to France, where he crossed paths with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who
invited him to a meditation center. Thich was a poet, scholar and peace
activist, and Tinh Man stayed at the center and learned.
Tinh Man later completed a bachelor's degree
in psychology at California State University, followed by a master's
degree in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism from Naropa University in Boulder. He
opened the monastery in October 2006. He is the only child in a family
of nine siblings to become a monk.
"I don't think, without all that suffering,
that I could be the person I am today, and do the work I have done,"
the abbot said.
A spiritual sojourn
On a recent Sunday, 285 traffic whizzed past
the monastery as a man in a long robe played a drum and another rang
a bell. As the voices of the teacher and his practitioners' rose in
song, the sounds of traffic diminished.
"May we awaken from forgetfulness and realize
our true home
," the group sang in Vietnamese. "(May)
wisdom envelop all life forms (and) compassion spread to all mountains
The modest number of men and women, there for
a monthly repentance ceremony, had left their shoes at the front door
and settled yoga-style on the rose-colored carpet before a giant gold
"He brings in monks and nuns from all over
the world," said Meyer, who has seen spiritual leaders twice his
age "sit" with Abbot Tinh Man.
But the practitioners on Aug. 30, who had traveled
up the mountain from the suburbs, were ordinary Americans with a simple
purpose. They were there to touch the Earth, to connect with fellow
humans, to chant from the heart and relax into the present moment with
a teacher who is wise beyond his years.
For more information about the monastery,