Oral Histories

Interview of Karen Hilsberg

Ordained in the Order of the Interbeing. Trained to teach the dharma under the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. Translator of works by Ven. Thich Phuoc Tinh, including "The Forty-two Chapters Sutra."
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Ordained in the Order of the Interbeing. Trained to teach the dharma under the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. Translator of works by Ven. Thich Phuoc Tinh, including "The Forty-two Chapters Sutra."
Cline, Alex
Hilsberg, Karen
Persons Present:
Hilsberg and Cline
Place Conducted:
Because of the necessity of restricting personal contact during the COVID-19 pandemic, all four sessions were conducted via the Zoom video conferencing platform.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. The interviewee was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content but made no changes.
5.5 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American context. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Birth--Father’s background--Mother’s and maternal grandparents’ backgrounds--Maternal side’s move to Los Angeles--Class disparity between parents’ upbringings--Differences in religious observance between parents’ families--Siblings--Early education at University Elementary School (UES)--Attending Stephen S. Wise Temple--Moving to Leo Baek Temple--Differences between Stephen S. Wise Temple and Leo Baek Temple--Attending Westlake School for Girls--Attending Swarthmore College and changing majors several times--Family begins transcendental meditation (TM)--Disinterest in celebrity culture--Visiting a Benedictine monastery--Early relationships with caregivers--Difficulty transition to college life--Post-grad blues--Graduate school at California School of Professional Psychology--Meeting future husband, Bruce Hilsberg--Bruce Hilsberg’s early life influences his decision to study psychology--Seeking spiritual fulfillment and attending A Day of Mindfulness--Discovering the teachings of Thic Nhat Hahn (Thay)--Learning the dharma at Plum Village under Catriona (then Christopher) Reed--Receiving the five mindfulness trainings--Begins attending silent retreats--Manzanita Village--Not finding a sangha locally, begins practicing alone--Deer Park Monastery--Continuing with Catriona Reed for a time.
Relationship with mother and siblings--Ignorance of Thic Nhat Hahn (Thay) prior to first mindfulness day--Differences in experience of mindfulness meditation versus transcendental meditation--Thay’s talk at Hilsberg’s first Day of Mindfulness--Silent retreat at Manzanita Village--Personal revelations during silent retreat--Transmission of the five mindfulness teachings--Lineage name: True Serenity of the Heart--Impact of “The Heart of Perfect Understanding”--Family retreat at Deer Park Monastery--Meeting Brother Phap Tri--Beginning organic Garden sangha in Hilsberg's Culver City home--Moving the organic garden sangha to a public space--Changing demographics of the sangha as it grows--Transferring leadership during Bruce Hilsberg’s cancer treatment--Practicing Judaism and Buddhism side by side with Rabbi Don Singer--Factors influencing cross practice of Buddhism among Jewish Americans--Thay’s establishment of Deer Park Monastery and the Thic Nhat Hahn Foundation--Helping organize Thay’s talk at University of California, Irvine--Sound issues during the UC Irvine talk--Collaborating with Denise Nguyen and Brother Phap Hai to organize the talk--Brother Phap Tri, Ripening Sangha, and the Order of Interbeing--Bruce Hilsberg’s cancer and its impact on the community--Support from the Vietnamese community during Bruce Hilsberg’s cancer treatment--Becoming ordained in the Order of the Interbeing--Receiving transmission of the fourteen meditation trainings--Importance of the fourteen meditation trainings in the family’s experience of grief--Preparing for Bruce Hilsberg’s death as a family at Deer Park Monastery.
Death of Abbot Thay Giac Thanh--Installation of “The Venerable” Thich Phuoc Tinh at Deer Park Monastery--Visit from the Venerable in their home during Bruce Hilsberg’s cancer treatment--Advice to Hilsberg from the Venerable during this time--Receiving comfort in the Buddhist view of no birth no death--Gratitude for the support received from their interconnected sanghas--Receiving wisdom of the Venerable’s personal experience witnessing his father’s death--Differences between Venerable’s and Thay’s teachings on karmic retribution--Thay’s founding of School for Youth and Social Services--Thay’s founding of the Order of Interbeing (OI)--Development of selection and training of dharma teachers in the OI--Transmission of the Lamp ceremony--American Dharma Teacher Caretaking Council--Mission of the Order of Interbeing--Monastic path to becoming a dharma teacher--Relationship between lay sanghas and monastic sanghas--Relationships between Plum Village’s Western and Vietnamese communities--Peace conference in Hanoi, Vietnam with Thay--Changes in teaching and community responsibilities due to Thay’s 2014 stroke--Increasing communal growth through the internet--Feeling that addressing historical privileges is necessary in moving Buddhism forward--Need for more inclusive practices to grow and support people of color and LGBTQ+ communities.
Buddhism and maintaining ties to other religions--Work of Lyn Fine and Brother Phap De--Comparing Western and Buddhist principles of psychology--Mindfulness movement as a secularization of Buddhist principles--Bemoaning the separation of mindfulness practice from its Buddhist roots--The struggle of a lay practitioner--Interpretations surrounding the mindfulness trainings--Appreciation of the impact of secularized mindfulness and the insight tradition--Challenges in Plum Village’s monastic community--“The Venerable” Thich Phuoc Tinh asks Hilsberg to translate his talks for Westerners--Self-publishing the talks “Be Like a Tree” and “The Ten Oxherding Teachings”--Translating Thich Phuoc Tinh’s book “The Forty-two Chapters Sutra”--Experiencing monastic life on retreat in Australia with the Venerable--Appreciation for the work of monasteries--Establishment of Plum Village Thailand--Vietnamese government's continuing suspicion of Thay--Days of Mindfulness--Practice through Zoom during COVID-19--Utility of many smaller sanghas in cities like Los Angeles versus large practice centers--Beginning a new practice and its helpfulness during the pandemic--Spiritual friendships and their importance--Gratitude.