06/05/2014 09:49 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Truc Lam Tay Thien Zen Monastery

Had I known the monks rise at 3 am to begin daily meditations I might have reconsidered showing up for the 5 day meditation course at Truc Lam Tay Thien Zen Monastery, where Buddhism first arrived in north Vietnam as far back as 300 BC. "Why did you come here?" the Vietnamese asked, to which I replied with a lie of omission, "to learn about Buddhism and meditation..."


The Buddhists don't talk while they eat. Did you know that? I didn't. Not that it would have mattered since I don't speak Vietnamese and hardly any of them spoke English. Turns out there's a lot I didn't know about the Buddhists: I had no idea they went to bed at 10pm in order to rise at 3am or that the monks correct you with a huge wooden paddle if you don't keep your back straight during meditation or that when meditation finishes you nearly cry trying to unwind your crumpled legs. Nor did I realize they slept without mattresses. Physical discomfort focuses your mind on nothingness, or in my case nothing except the discomfort I'm in.

The course filled with roughly 300 mostly Vietnamese students and young professionals on holiday, and then me, each of us handing over our electronics and normal lives in order to learn more about Buddhism and how meditation can cope with life's problems. The Vietnamese welcomed me as if I were an angel from heaven or Justin Bieber. They were more loving and kind than words could describe, and of course, words couldn't describe because I hadn't a clue what they were saying. They pointed and gestured and gently touched my arm with the utmost patience, guiding me through each day as if I were a toddler. On the other hand, I'd recommend sending myself as a US representative to any country in the world; turns out nothing makes the Vietnamese giggle like a tall, white, red headed, waving and smiling American whose only vocabulary is, "I love you," in their native language. At the closing ceremony I taught a group of Vietnamese girls to sing "Mary had a little lamb" to the entire group of students and monks, featuring a meditation walk and solo of the line, "whose fleece was white as snow,"--because we all agreed that was the most difficult part--by yours truly.

The last day I opened up. Seeking first to understand before being understood I told them that I respected and admired Buddhism and believed Jesus was for anybody who couldn't reach enlightenment on their own, and that, based on the very real distance between enlightenment and myself he seemed like the perfect escape hatch for me and any other stragglers. I also attended the course with the hope that the monks--one step removed from the Dalai Lama--and meditation could help me, too. Sitting on the floor of the temple with the master I tried explaining my problems through a translator. I started with explaining I think I have a problem with greed and ended with the more vulnerable reality, "It's just that I believe I have something really important to accomplish with my life and I'm worried that it will never happen." When the master told me I was a very good person I had to look away from the kindness in his eyes to keep from tearing up.

The Vietnamese Buddhists opened my heart, reminding me I don't have to live for myself because of what's been done for me. I spend seasons believing I'm a failure because I haven't accomplished enough. Their sheer joy that I would come so far to see them and make the effort to understand their beliefs and culture, taking pictures with them and telling them "I love you" in their own language, made me realize you really can make a difference in small yet significant measures. I felt that in some small way I had returned their love by giving them all I could. The master had noted that my walking meditation was the best of the entire class (I kid you not), encouraging the group in Vietnamese "people from his country are not scared of failure. They have courage, do their best and are willing to try new things."

I felt the author of my story saying, "Derek, I poop out billion dollar companies and Nobel Peace Prizes and New York Times Best Sellers every morning after breakfast, and none of it matters unless it helps people live better stories with their lives through the things for which I care, things like love and hope and patience and perseverance and courage and kindness and justice, and this is the end and not the means to it." Achieving that, it turns out, only requires putting on a smile and singing "Mary had a little lamb," empathizing with others in ways they'd never expect, and letting the rest fall off your soul like sweat, each drop a lesson of its own.