About our founder:
Founder of Detroit Lotus Sangha
In January 2007, Si Mo started the Detroit Lotus Sangha, the first group practicing Thich Nhat Hanh’s style of Zen Buddhism in the metro area. Mr. Mo has practiced Thay’s teachings for over thirty years. (“Thay,” pronounced “tie,” is Vietnamese for “teacher” and is used as an informal title for Buddhist teachers.) Mr. Mo’s story highlights the power of Zen to help practitioners transform both everyday difficulties and the intense suffering brought about by war.
Like Thay, Mr. Mo is a native of Vietnam. As a young man, he lived in Saigon, the South’s capital during the Vietnam War. By the early 1970’s, he was reading Thay’s books but was unable to talk with others or practice with a sangha. Thay’s 1967 book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, was banned because it was a manifesto for peace. People caught with it were often arrested and risked torture. Despite these restrictions, Mr. Mo read it and other books Thay wrote, while he meditated and practiced on his own.
Mr. Mo was still in Saigon when it fell to Ho Chi Minh’s forces in 1975. During this time, his heart suffered for many people who were imprisoned in re-education camps, suffered forced labor, inadequate food, and harsh living conditions, as well as the intermittent threat of injury and death from abusive guards who shot prisoners at will.
Like many southerners facing such conditions, Mr. Mo left Vietnam in a small boat not meant for long-distance travel. Many of these people, known in the media at the time as boat people, died in their flight from a repressive regime, their crafts capsizing in rough seas or taken by pirates seeking the refugees’ belongings. The boat people sought ports in Southeast Asia, often hoping eventually to reach the U.S or another free country.
In October 1980, Mr. Mo led a group of 22 people across the Pacific, traveling over 200 miles southwest from Vietnam toward Malaysia. The group was on the ocean for seventeen days. After one day, the engine broke, and the boat just drifted across the sea. On the second day, the group met a big storm. On the third day, the group was running out of water and food and growing desperate. On the fifth day, Mr. Mo ordered the group to row the boat. It took eleven days to finally be rescued by an oil company. Mr. Mo chained himself to the boat, telling his companions that he would go down with the craft if it sank. Nearly thirty years later, Mr. Mo says he doesn’t know how he and the others spent twelve hours a day under the hot sun without food and water yet still generated the energy to keep rowing. When people touch the edge of death, he says, sometimes they find such reserves. Inspired by his leadership, the group lost only one young man, who leapt from the boat while hallucinating from thirst. All of the remaining 21 people, including Mr. Mo and his wife, survived and reached Malaysia, where Mr. Mo spent three months in a refugee camp. Eventually, with the help of the North Hills Christian Reformed Church in Michigan, he came to the north suburbs of Detroit.
Once in the U.S., he kept practicing Zen, following Thay’s teachings. In doing so, he transformed the pain and anger that had grown in him as he witnessed deaths, ongoing bombing, and continuous risk to his family members’ lives and his own. Mr. Mo describes how his practice transformed his relationships. He stresses accepting circumstances and others’ responses—even anger, attacks, and aggression—with compassion and equanimity. Practicing Thay’s methods for controlling our own speech, actions, and mind during such encounters can transform them, he explains. Conflict occurs when we try to change others, rather than accepting them. Yet, he insists, we must practice for ourselves first. In doing so, we generate compassion and understanding, without counting on achieving anything within the relationship. There is no goal. By focusing on the practice itself, rather than on achieving a goal, Mr. Mo has brought harmony into his relationships with his wife and six children, with his colleagues at work, and with others in his community. While he practices Zen, his wife practices Roman Catholicism, and they deeply respect one another’s spiritual commitments.
Although Mr. Mo searched for a sangha following Thay’s style in metro Detroit, he did not find one. In 1998 he received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Thay at a retreat. In 2007, he founded Detroit Lotus Sangha for English-speaking practitioners. Noting that the lotus is a symbol of the Buddha, Mr. Mo points out that, like the lotus, people have our feet in the mud. Thay’s style of practice helps us see how suffering can produce the flowers of understanding, compassion, and peace.
Mr. Mo is deeply involved in the Vietnamese community in metro Detroit, working to bring healing to the many people still suffering from spiritual and other wounds inflicted by the Vietnam War. His commitments in this community include leading a sangha for Vietnamese speakers, as well as other spiritual endeavors with Vietnamese Buddhists and Roman Catholics; the transmission of Vietnamese arts and culture through youth programming; and extensive work in youth mentoring, with a focus on character building and cultural heritage. Although these commitments do not allow him time to participate regularly in Detroit Lotus Sangha’s meetings, he supports the group and visits when he can.
Mr. Mo stresses how lucky people living in the U.S. are to have legal protections of religious freedom and ready access to books and ideas. As his life story suggests, connection with sangha deepens and supports one’s own practice. We at Detroit Lotus Sangha are deeply grateful for his guidance and support, as well as for the rich insights into the dharma that he has so generously shared with us. The full story of his journey from Vietnam to the U.S. is told in Vietnamese in Mr. Mo’s book, Seventeen Days Across the Pacific Ocean. Funds are being raised to translate the book into English. All profits from the sale of this book go toward the Unified Buddhist Church for children in Vietnam.
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