Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh Talks About Tibet

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh When the Plum Village delegation led by Thich Nhat Hanh landed in Rome for fourteen days of public talks, retreats, and other events, the demonstration by 600 Tibetan monks on the occasion of the forty-ninth year of the movement to oppose the yoke of Chinese rule was in its eighth day. The capital of Tibet, Lhasa, had been cut off from all outside contact by Chinese tanks, armored cars, and military personnel. The repression by the Chinese forces was bloody; the corpses of hundreds of victims, most of whom were Tibetan youths and Buddhists, lay in the streets.

mb48-dharma2During his stay in Rome Thich Nhat Hanh was interviewed on Italian television about the situation in Tibet. Thay made two principal proposals:

  1. The European parliament should call an extraordinary meeting on the situation in Tibet and send a multinational delegation to Lhasa and other parts of Tibet that have witnessed suffering due to the occupation. The delegation should listen deeply to the suffering of both sides and make a report to the countries of Europe and North America.
  2. The European and North American countries should intervene to make it possible for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to visit Tibet and give teachings on the Buddhadharma and organize retreats — just as Thich Nhat Hanh was able to go back to Vietnam to teach the Dharma. If Thich Nhat Hanh was allowed to return to Vietnam to teach, then China should allow H.H. the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet to teach. The people of Tibet and the Chinese people need to be in touch with the wonderful presence of H.H. Even if H.H. were only to teach the Dharma and encourage the preservation of Tibetan culture — and say nothing about politics — it would bring enormous happiness to the people of his homeland. If pressure from Western countries enabled Thich Nhat Hanh to go back to Vietnam, then similar pressure could enable the Dalai Lama to go back to Tibet.

During the interview, Thich Nhat Hanh also suggested that the government of Vietnam should allow the organizers of the International Wesak Celebration — due to take place in Hanoi in May 2008 — to invite H.H. the Dalai Lama to attend. This would bring a great deal of happiness to Vietnamese Buddhists and would also show that Vietnam takes a very different stand toward Tibet than does China. Thich Nhat Hanh also told Tibetan Buddhists not to give up hope because Vietnam was under Chinese rule for nearly 1000 years, but was finally able to reclaim her independence. During a press conference on 27 March in Naples, Thich Nhat Hanh repeated what he had said earlier on Italian television; namely that he was ready to go to Tibet with H.H. the Dalai Lama to support H.H. and teach the Dharma to Tibetan Buddhists with H.H. if he was granted a visa to do so.

Originally published in Phu Sa Magazine

Translated from the Vietnamese by Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Dharma Talk: The Way to Well-Being

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

At the retreat at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, Sister Annabel offered this Dharma talk on August 24, 2007. In her soft British-accented voice, Sister Annabel gave a brilliant elucidation of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

Dear Sangha, today please allow me to say a little bit about the Four Noble Truths. First of all, I shall write the Four Noble Truths on the board. There’s a way of expressing this, where to each Noble Truth we add a word:

  1. Ill-being.
  2. The way to ill-being.
  3. The end of the way to ill-being.
  4. The way to end the way to ill-being.

Sister Annabel, True VirtueThat is the Indian way, in which we use the negative mode. In the Western way we use the word “well-being,” which is more positive. Many scholars have talked a lot about the Four Noble Truths, and they have certain ideas concerning the Four Noble Truths. Really, they are a practice, and we don’t need to be a scholar to understand it. We just need to be a practitioner. We don’t even have to be a Buddhist. We just practice.

This is a very basic teaching of the Buddha, because the Buddha saw how beneficial it is for us. We are very lucky that 2,600 years later we have an opportunity to take hold of that practice, just as it was used in ancient India, and to use it in our own time.

So in order to do the practice, I would suggest that we use one of the practices Thay talked about yesterday: vipashyana, looking deeply. We don’t always need to be sitting on a meditation cushion in the meditation hall in order to practice looking deeply. We can be seated at our writing desk with a pen and a piece of paper, or we can be on the bus or on the train. As long as we establish ourselves in shamatha, stopping, calming, then we can always practice vipashyana.

mb48-dharma22For your own practice, I would suggest that you take a piece of paper and fold it into three so that it has three columns. Although there are Four Noble Truths, we may not need to have a column for the third one because as Thay has been teaching us, there is no way to peace; peace is the way. There is no way to healing; healing is the way. So in the same voice we could say, there is no way to well-being; well-being is the way. The Fourth Noble Truth is the way to well-being, so the Third Noble Truth and the Fourth Noble Truth are just one exercise.

The First Noble Truth: Ill-Being

The First Noble Truth is quite essential. Without that, the other Noble Truths can’t be there. The Four Noble Truths interare; you practice one, and the other three are already there. In the Heart of the Prajnaparamita we say, “No ill-being, no cause of ill-being, no end of ill-being, and no path.” And that is as much to say that ill-being doesn’t have a separate self. As we practice for ourselves, we will begin to understand this. This isn’t theory. The Dharma is available for us to see directly when we put it into practice in our daily life.

Your first column is for the First Noble Truth. Some people get stuck in the first column, but if we practice we won’t be stuck there. We won’t say, “Oh, dear, everything is ill-being!” That is the scholar’s approach, but our approach is our real experience. So in this first column, write down everything that in your personal life you feel to be ill-being. It could be psychological, physical, or physiological. So you write down, maybe, “despair” — that is the overwhelming emotion that you feel sometimes. Or you write down “depression.” And you might write down physical pain that you have.

We need to look deeply because sometimes we don’t even recognize that we have ill-being. There is something that is wanting to be transformed, maybe from our ancestors, that lies deep in our consciousness. It’s calling out to be transformed, but we haven’t heard its call. There might be anger there, or depression, but we haven’t fully recognized it. It is like someone who’s drunk too much who says, “I’m not drunk.” Somebody who’s angry can say, “Oh, I’m not angry, there’s nothing to be angry about.” But looking deeply we recognize that. So we write it down.

Having written down all that, we look at it in the face. In my personal experience, this is a tremendous relief. We may be able to do this on our own or we may ask someone to help us. We may go to the doctor or the psychotherapist, and they may tell us what our ill-being is, if we haven’t seen it. But principally, it’s something that we have to see for ourselves. So even though we’re in the First Noble Truth, we already, by facing it as the truth, begin to see it as it is.

This is something the Buddha teaches us very clearly. In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, in the last section on the mindfulness of the objects of mind, there is a phrase that the practitioner is aware of ill-being “just as it is.” We don’t magnify it, we don’t diminish it or pretend it’s not there. We just look at it as it is and when we do that, we accept it. That is the first step to healing.

That is what we do with our strong emotions. If there is an emotion in us that comes up frequently, that blocks our way, we acknowledge it just as it is. Loneliness: just as it is. Write it down.

The Way to Ill-Being

Now as you’ve been practicing looking deeply, you’re already on your second column. In your unconscious mind the second column has already begun to reveal itself. The second column is “the way that led to the first column.” That is what Thay was talking about yesterday: the Buddha told us that without food nothing can survive (1). No emotion, no physical thing, no psychological state can survive without its food.

The Buddha said that if you can see the source of the food that is feeding your emotion, and you can stop ingesting that particular food, whether it’s edible food or the food of sense impression, then you’re already liberated, you’re already transformed.

The “way” is the causes. What are the causes of this ill-being? What has led to this ill-being? For each point of ill-being that you wrote in the first column, in the second column you can write down the things that are causing it.

Maybe it’s what you consume through your mouth. Maybe it’s your misunderstanding of what the practice is; you haven’t understood that the practice is for joy and for healing. Maybe it’s because of what you want, your desires — you want to be famous, you want to be praised, you want to have a position, or you’re afraid of losing those things. Maybe there are difficulties that began in your childhood, and you haven’t yet managed to embrace your five-year-old child fully. These are all ways to the suffering for you to look into. And, of course, as Thay said yesterday, maybe it’s the television programs, the newspapers, the telephone conversations. You can write them down.

There are two other kinds of food. Yesterday Thay talked about edible food and the food of sense impressions. When we come to the third exercise, we can mention those other two kinds of food.

The Way to End the Way to Ill-Being

The third exercise is the way to well-being, or the way to end the way to ill-being. We’re not going to just cut the ill-being off, to banish it, but we are going to find out what its causes are. And we are going to remove the causes, because we don’t want to treat the symptoms, we want to treat the roots of our ill-being. So that is why sometimes we say, “the way to end the way to ill-being” — the way to well-being. The Buddha taught the way to well-being as the Noble Eightfold Path.

When you do the third part of the exercise you can use these teachings of the Buddha to help you. You adapt each of these eight aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path to your own sickness, your own ill-being.

Right View

Right View is the way you have of looking at reality, of looking at the world. And the Buddha taught the truth of impermanence, the truth of no-self, and the truth of nirvana. If we have right view, there must be the acknowledgment of impermanence, no-self, and nirvana. If there isn’t that, then there will be ill-being. So this may be part of the cure for some of your ill-being.

When we are at peace with the impermanence of our health, of our life, then we can do our best to profit from the days and the months that are left to us, in a way that is beneficial both for ourselves and our descendants. The same is true with the teaching on no-self, on not being a separate self. My happiness is your happiness. Of course, in my family relationships, when I see that, it will bring much more well-being to myself and to my family.

mb48-dharma23Nirvana just means not being caught in any views, being free of views. When we are caught in a view, when we must be right and we’re ready to fight and die for our view, we suffer a great deal. When we despair about the future of our planet, we can become very dogmatic and caught in our views, and this puts us at odds with other people. The only way that we can save our planet is through brotherhood and sisterhood, which means letting go of our views. But it doesn’t mean we don’t care. Seeing that the planet is impermanent doesn’t mean, we don’t care anymore, we don’t do anything. It means we do everything we can, but we do it very peacefully. When we are not caught in our views, it doesn’t mean we don’t see the danger and we don’t do everything we can to prevent that danger from happening.

Right Thinking

The second aspect is Right Thinking. To be mindful of our thinking — to know what we are thinking and where our thinking is taking us — is also important. The way we judge and blame other people leads to our ill-being as well as theirs. If we can have a compassionate, non-judgmental, non-blaming thought, that is a way to our well-being.

All kinds of thinking we have — our complexes, guilt, comparing ourselves with others — is linked to our idea of having a separate self. Our constant thinking is a mechanism to keep our idea of a separate self alive.

The third kind of food the Buddha taught is linked with thinking. It is the food of intention. The food of what I intend to do, what I decide to do, what I want to do, is sometimes called volition. This kind of food can give us a great deal of energy. To explain this kind of food, the Buddha told a story. Suppose there is a young man who’s strong and in good health and he lives in a town. Outside that town there is a large pit that is filled with redhot coals. There are no flames, they’re smokeless because it’s so hot. Every time the young man goes out of the town near that pit, he feels that it’s not safe, because if he were to fall into that pit of coals he would suffer a great deal; he could even die. So he decides to leave this town and go live in another place where there isn’t a pit of coals outside. That is the Chinese version.

The Pali version is a little bit different. There’s also a young man, he’s living in a town, there’s also the pit of coals. But he doesn’t make the decision to go and live somewhere else. There are two strong men in the town. They take hold of him and they pull him towards the pit, and he didn’t want to go there at all, but somehow he couldn’t stop them. They were much stronger than he was. He knew that if he fell into that pit he would not survive, and he would suffer a lot. Still, the two strong men dragged him in that direction. This is another rather dramatic and drastic way the Buddha had of describing our intention food. A lot of energy can pull us in a direction we don’t want to go. These intentions are not necessarily wholly in our conscious mind. We may have things deep down in us driving us in a certain direction without even knowing it. For instance, ambition, the desire for fame, the desire for money, the desire for sex. All those things can be very strong sources of food.

In our meditation, when we are making our lists, we need to look deeply. What is my deepest desire? What are the things that are pulling me along in my life? Do I want to be praised? Do I want to have a position? Do I want to be useful? These things are motivating my way of being.

When we discover what is motivating us, we may be able to stop that source of food and go in a different direction — to have time for our family, to have time to be in nature, to have time to be with our sangha, to build our sangha. Because that is where we feel most happy, to be one with our sangha. To be part of the sangha body without having an idea of a separate self. Some people might get burned out with leading a sangha sometimes, so we have to be careful of that also; when we are in sangha, we just be part of that sangha, part of the river, part of the flow.

Right Speech

The guidelines for Right Speech are given in the Fourth Mindfulness Training: learning how to listen deeply, to speak lovingly. Ask yourself, is this the key to my well-being, in my relations with my family? When I am angry, do I know how to practice the Peace Treaty, to calm myself before I say anything? (2) And also, do I know the skillful way to express my anger so that I don’t repress it? Because repressing anger is also very dangerous.

So if under the First Noble Truth you wrote down one of your sufferings as anger, then when you come to the Third Noble Truth you may like to look at Right Speech as one of the ways out of your anger, and not watering these seeds in yourself and in others. When you are angry, you may not spill out your anger over someone else, but you can look after it by your mindful breathing, your mindful walking. You can take a walk and accept it just as it is. You can embrace it. And then, somehow talk about it. Talk about it maybe first of all in writing. Write down for your loved one what happened. Read over the letter to make sure that it’s easy enough for the loved one to accept, that you’ve talked mostly about yourself, how you feel, without blaming, without judging. Put yourself in the skin of the other person as you read the letter. If you are quite sure she could accept it, send it to her. If you are not sure ask a friend who knows you both to read it and give his opinion.

If you can, come directly to your loved one and say, “This morning I was really upset. I practiced quite a bit, walking and breathing, and I know that I can’t transform this upset on my own. I wish I could, but I need your help. So please help me. Let’s find a time when we can sit down together and you can tell me all about what was happening for you when you said that, or when you did that. That will help me a lot, not to make the same kind of mistake again.”

So this is the practice of Right Speech in order to help us out of our suffering.

Right Action

After that we have Right Action. There are three actions, as we know: the action of our body, the action of our speech, and the action of our mind. Right Thinking and Right View already cover the action of our mind. Right Speech covers the action of our speech. Therefore Right Action covers the action of our body. Right bodily action is very well described in the First, Second, Third and Fifth Mindfulness Trainings.

We may like to look at Right Action in terms of our consumption. What kind of edible food do we consume? Do we consume at the right time? Do we eat at the right time? Do we eat in the right way, that is, in a peaceful atmosphere, not in a rush? What do we eat? If we eat the flesh of a chicken that was raised in a cage, we can imagine the suffering of that chicken. We know that the body and the mind are not two separate things. All the frustration and despair the chicken must have suffered being raised in a cage have gone into the flesh of the chicken, and then we eat it. If we drink the milk of a cow that has come from a factory farm, all the suffering, despair, rage of that cow have gone into the milk. This is also something that we ingest.

So we look at what we eat, how we eat, when we eat. That can already help us on the way to well-being of our body and our mind. A meal is to nourish us, not only physically. We give ourselves a chance to get spiritual nourishment as we eat.

Then the other points of Right Bodily Action are covered by the First Mindfulness Training: not harming, protecting life. The Second Mindfulness Training covers not taking what is not ours, what we don’t need. Not over-consuming, not harming the environment, which are a kind of stealing. The Third Mindfulness Training is right conduct in sexual relations. This also leads to our happiness and the happiness of our family.

Right Livelihood

Does my profession bring me happiness? Does it bring me a lot of stress? Maybe one of the things that you wrote down on the First Noble Truth was stress. So now we look at Right Livelihood and we ask ourselves, how much stress does our work give us? What is our workplace like? Is it a place where we can feel relaxed? Do we bring a flower or a green plant to put in our workplace to make it somewhere where we can relax and we can breathe? How can we make our workplace a non-stressful place? How can we do the kind of work that nourishes our compassion, so that when we come to work we can look at our co-workers with the eyes of love and we can care about them? When we say in the morning, “How are you?”, some people don’t expect an answer to that, they just carry on walking. “How are you?” and the other person says, “How are you?” Even when I went to the doctor one time he said, “How are you?” and he expected me to say, “Fine.” But the reason I went to him was because I wasn’t fine.

When we go to work, what we can do is ask, “How are you?” and we really mean it. I want to hear how you are. “Did you sleep well last night?” and so on, because I care about you. Then our workplace begins to have more compassion in it.

Right Effort

Then we have the practice of Right Effort. This is also connected with another kind of food. In order to be able to talk about the fourth kind of food — the food of consciousness — I need to draw that circle on the board.

mb48-dharma24Store consciousness stores all the seeds, every possible seed of every possible emotion in latent form. They may never manifest in your lifetime, but that doesn’t mean to say they’re not available.

If the causes and conditions were right, they would manifest in mind consciousness. Every individual, as we call our self, has access to the collective consciousness, which is also called store, unconscious mind, background consciousness.

There are four parts to Right Effort, and they all have to do with the seeds that are in the store consciousness.

  1. The seeds in store consciousness that I need for well-being and have not yet manifested. I shall make the effort, I shall practice to help them manifest.
  2. The seeds in store consciousness that are for my wellbeing and the well-being of others that have already manifested and are already manifesting. I will make the effort to keep them manifesting.
  3. The seeds in my store consciousness that are not beneficial for my well-being and that haven’t manifested yet. I will not water them and help them to manifest.
  4. The seeds of my store consciousness that are not beneficial for my well-being, that have already manifested. I will help them to transform and go back to the dormant position in the store consciousness.

There’s no idea of destroying seeds, but helping seeds to manifest or helping seeds to be dormant. What this means is strengthening seeds or allowing them to weaken.

One of the teachings of Buddhism is that the longer a seed remains in the mind consciousness — that is, manifesting in our mental formations — the stronger it becomes. And if it’s repeatedly manifesting, it will become stronger. This is very clear. If you want to learn how to sing a song, the first time you sing the song the seed of that song is very weak in your mind consciousness. You quickly forget the song. But when you’ve sung, “Breathing in, breathing out, I am blooming as a flower,” seven or eight times on different occasions, then it will be very strong. Whenever you need that song you just have to call on it and it will come up without you having to think about it.

But the same is true with our anger. If we rehearse our anger often, it will become much stronger and it will come up more easily. So the idea is not to rehearse our anger, which is harmful for ourselves and harmful for others. It doesn’t mean repressing our anger. It must be expressed, but it must be expressed in the right way, that is beneficial.

So this is the food of consciousness, the last kind of food. The Buddha gave another very drastic example.

One Hundred Stab Wounds

There is a criminal, and he’s committed a very serious crime. The king sends his soldiers out to arrest the criminal. They find him, they arrest him, and they bring him back to the king. “Your majesty, what should we do with this man?”

The king gave orders. “He should be stabbed one hundred times.”

So the next morning he was stabbed one hundred times. At noon the king asked, “What happened this morning to that criminal?”

They said, “Well, we did stab him one hundred times, but he didn’t die.”

The king said, “Then he should be stabbed another hundred times.”

So they stabbed him another hundred times. And then the king asked them, and again they said he didn’t die. The third time he said, “Stab him a hundred times.” So they stabbed him another hundred times.

The Buddha asked his monks, “Monks, do you think that man suffered?”

The monks said, “Lord Buddha, to be stabbed a hundred times, that kind of suffering is unbearable, unthinkable. But to be stabbed three hundred times successively, that is beyond belief.”

So the Buddha said, “That is the food of consciousness.”

To give an example of what is meant: The human species is a very young species, the youngest species on this planet. For the human species to be here, there must have been all the other species that went before. In our genetic makeup (according to Buddhism our genetic makeup is not just our physiology, it’s also our psychology; I don’t know if scientists agree with that, but to me it’s clear because the body and the mind are not two different things) all the animal species, the plant species, the mineral species, they’re part of us, they’re part of our genetic inheritance.

Consciousness was there – in different living beings – before the human species arose. Physically in our brain you can see that the brain stem and other parts of our brain, apart from the neocortex, also belong to the animal species. If you remember the time before you were a human being, you were a little fish swimming in the sea, and one day a big fish came up behind you with its mouth open and caught the little fish, ate it. The little fish was very afraid, and that is like a stab wound in consciousness. When you developed into a kind of land species, you were chased by the big animals. So that was another stab wound, maybe the same place as the first stab wound. It is much more painful when you’re stabbed twice in the same place.

mb48-dharma25Now you’re a human being, and those wounds, those stabbings, they’re still there. If you’re not careful with the food of consciousness, you can be stabbed in the same place again. It may not be fear of the big fish, it may be fear of terrorists; so many things we can be afraid of. Maybe when you wrote down the First Noble Truth exercise, one of the things you wrote down was fear. So now you have a chance to look at your Right Effort, the food of consciousness. How do you allow that fear in your consciousness to get stabbed again? What do you do? How can you practice Right Effort to avoid the stab wound, to avoid watering the seed of fear?

In the same way, the anger may have been there for a very long time. Now when it comes up into your mind consciousness, you know that you can take care of it with Right Effort. With the practice of mindfulness every day, you can learn how to breathe and how to take care of the seed of anger when it manifests, the seed of despair when it manifests.

Very often, not doing anything when we are overwhelmed by a strong emotion, that is the Right Effort. The Right Effort isn’t necessarily to feel you have to do something, you have to solve the problem, but just to be able to sit there, do nothing, and embrace the emotion. Above all, we need to have time for it. We don’t have time to look after our emotions. So either we repress them and send them back a little bit stronger into our consciousness until they explode, or we want to resolve them quickly, so we vent them or we rehearse them. So Right Effort means to give yourself plenty of time to look after your emotion.

When I have a strong emotion I say to it, “Dear one, you have the right to be there because you are caused and conditioned, and once the cause and condition are there, there’s no way I can stop you from being there. So you have the right to be there. And I know you’re impermanent, you won’t always be there, but I don’t know quite how long you’re going to be around. Never mind. If you want to be around three days, it’s okay. If you want to be around three hours, it’s okay. As long as you want to be around, I’m here looking after you.”

“I’m here” doesn’t really mean me, it means that other seeds in my consciousness like compassion, care, mindfulness are going to be there.

Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration

Right Mindfulness means living deeply the present moment, being aware of what is happening. That can heal so many things. Right Concentration is an extension of Right Mindfulness. It means giving our whole attention to an appropriate object of our perception in order to discover more of its reality.

Thay has said each step can heal, each breath can heal. Right Mindfulness is to be aware of the wonderful things in life. You may ask yourself, why didn’t the Buddha have Right Happiness as one of the Noble Eightfold Path? It’s really there, although it’s not expressed. Because in Right Mindfulness there is Right Happiness. When we are aware of everything that is nourishing and wonderful in life, it brings us a very deep happiness.

Finally, how can Right Concentration and Right Mindfulness help us? You might like to write down how you’re going to realize the practice of these things in your daily life when you go home. What place are you going to always walk with concentration and mindfulness, to become your walking meditation path on a daily basis? What time are you going to use for sitting meditation, to be able to concentrate? What time are you going to put aside for being with your family, for using loving speech with your family, for expressing your appreciation of your children and your spouse?

All these intentions can be written down in the third exercise. As we said, when you begin to practice the third exercise, wellbeing is already there. Because there is no way to well-being. Well-being is the way.

Sister Annabel Laity, True Virtue, was abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont; she is now in Europe helping Thich Nhat Hanh start the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

[1] For an in-depth teaching on the four kinds of nutriments, see Chapter Seven of The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings by Thich Nhat Hanh (Broadway, 1999).

[2] Several versions of the Peace Treaty, including a Peace Treaty for oneself and for couples, can be found in various books by Thich Nhat Hanh including Creating True Peace (Free Press, 2004) and Friends on the Path: Living Spiritual Communities, compiled by Jack Lawlor (Parallax Press, 2002).

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Letter from the Editor

mb48-First1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

It is impossible for me to read this issue without thinking of our recently deceased son, Jesse Toy. Everything I see and do is through the lens of his sudden passing on February 4. We are thankful for the hundreds of cards and letters from you, our Sangha — from Germany, Norway, the U.K., and across the U.S. As Jesse’s father Philip and I walk the changing landscape of our grief and joy, there is one image we will not soon forget: Jesse’s pink baby blanket spread on the floor in the meditation hall, covered with colorful origami paper cranes, bright flowers of peace and hope.

This is the cream of our practice: the blanket — a symbol of birth and the ground of mindfulness; the color — pink for the new life of Jesse’s continuation; and the joyful cranes — emblems of our transformation body. The origami peace crane project was launched by our friend Teijo Munnich, a Soto Zen Dharma teacher. In the two months since Jesse left his physical body, we have fully celebrated his life. We were joined by former Sangha from Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania at our Quaker service. We hosted an elegant Ceremony for the Deceased in Thay’s tradition at Cloud Cottage in North Carolina. Next week our Sangha will plant a weeping willow in honor of Jesse. Yet the cranes have touched us most. The care and cherishing in every fold of each colorful bird speak of Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The birds on the blanket look like they’re having a party!

This issue of the Mindfulness Bell is like that blanket — a Dharma party. These pages are the blanket: the expression of the practice of our beloved teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, of our blood and spiritual ancestors, and the skill and love of our editor, Janelle Combelic. Each story, poem, letter, and prayer is like one hopeful paper crane. Each crane is distinct, yet each is the same as the others. Tears fell on the origami paper as we folded together. And from our suffering fly the wings of peace.

Paper crane-making for those who are sick, dying, or have died springs directly from the suffering of World War II after the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan, and the little girl Sadako who touched hearts around the world with her suffering. So, too, in the stories of this issue the wars and tribulations of life are present. Every story, poem, and image tells us transformation is possible — that through our precepts, concentration, and insight, we can gently invite ourselves back to the present moment, this wonderful moment. In February, our son passed away. This spring the forsythia shines brighter than any spring before.

Sister Annabel Laity wrote us a letter to help prevent us from drowning in our grief after Jesse’s passing. She invited us to touch and learn to liberate the anguish of our ancestors who lost their sons in wars and other sudden, tragic ways. She wrote, “I have confidence you can transform this grief into a beautiful flower, and that your son lives on in the fruits of transformation that you realize.”

From out of our season of sorrow and wonder, Philip and I offer you crocus buds of gratitude, dear Thay, dear Sister, dear Sangha.

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace
Associate Editor

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Letters

Thank You, Thay

Dear Thay,

I just finished a weekend retreat with Dharma Teacher Larry Ward. The insight and mindfulness I learned was very helpful to my practice and essential for my growth.

You may not remember, but in 1995 I was incarcerated at Folsom State Prison. While there your organization sent me a free subscription to the Mindfulness Bell. We started a meditation group and you donated many books and audio tapes. When I was paroled in 1997 our group had grown to over 300 men meeting weekly to sit in mindfulness meditation. I hear now it has grown to at least eight prisons with over 3000 men meditating daily. The books and meditation help you provided are still part of the meditation library at Folsom State Prison.

I have remained with my practice and what I learned from your books and teaching has helped me be successful with my freedom. For that I must say thank you.

I also took the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings this morning at our retreat with Larry Ward.

I am now beginning to use my talent to teach more prisoners about meditation through a journal/newsletter. You can read about it on my website at http://m-squared.org/dharmaseeds.html

I hope to someday meet you in person and bow in reverence for what you passed on to me through your teaching — for which I am ever grateful.

Peace,
Mark Maxey
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Editor’s reply (from Sr. Annabel at Plum Village): Dear friend, thank you for being free where you are. Thay is very happy when he reads your letter.

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Printing on Recycled Paper

At the New Year retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery, the little Buddhas took the vow of the Two Promises. They vow to develop understanding and compassion to people, animals, plants and minerals.

The evening before that I made my resolution for the New Year: “to feel the pain of the earth and to act, just a small step, a promise I can keep.” This letter is the fruit of that resolution and the will to help the little Buddhas with their vow.

When we read the “oldest text on deep ecology,” as our teacher calls the Diamond Sutra, we learn that we have to respect and protect other beings in order for us to have a chance. We read this on a paper that is a tree, the air we breathe and the whole universe.

My aspiration for the year 2008 is to read the Diamond Sutra and the Mindfulness Bell on post-consumer recycled paper, that we may have a chance to develop our understanding and compassion for all beings.

Gil-Ad Arama
Montreal, Quebec

Editor’s reply: We had been thinking about this for a while but Gil-Ad’s letter prompted action! Printing on 100% post-consumer waste (PCW) recycled paper would cost too much and increase the weight of the magazine. We have switched to 30% PCW for the inside pages and 100% PCW for the cover, which slightly increased our printing costs. Contributions to the Mindfulness Bell to help offset those increased costs are most welcome.

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EIAB Update

The European Institute for Applied Buddhism has received so much support from readers of the Mindfulness Bell. We are very heartened and grateful for this support. We have almost found a home for our first establishment. It is in Germany, very close to Cologne and Bonn.

We need one more official go-ahead from the government of Germany before we can buy the property. The town councillors of four different political parties have voted unanimously to accept our buying the property and we are hopeful that in six weeks or so we shall be able to make the purchase. At that time we shall be asking for any material support you can give to make the purchase.

It would be wonderful if you could come to Germany and practice in the Institute itself, but if you cannot make the journey do not worry. The courses offered at the Institute will also be offered at Blue Cliff, Deer Park, and Plum Village.

In the garden of five hectares we shall establish a garden of medicinal herbs.

There will be more news in the next edition of the Mindfulness Bell.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue
New Hamlet, Plum Village, France

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Winter/Spring 2008 Issue

Here’s a little story of how our Sangha enjoyed the latest MB.

In January our Sangha wanted to do a Beginning Anew ceremony and our host for the night, Rhonda, wanted to introduce it with a few words. Well Rhonda was the first to get her Mindfulness Bell — weeks before the rest of us did — so she was able to read some passages from Janelle’s article and the one by Brother Phap An and Sister Dang Nghiem. It was lovely. We all said it was a miracle that Rhonda got the magazine so early — that Thay and the folks at the MB were taking care of us, protecting us, making us so happy.

Terry Cortes-Vega
Austin, Texas

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A War Is Never Over

By Trish Thompson

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The road from Hue to Dong Ha snakes through villages and countryside, bounded on each side by ankle-deep floodwaters. On this day in October 2007, the rainy season in Central Vietnam is, thankfully, coming to an end. The annual flooding has been particularly heavy this year, with more than forty people having lost their lives.

As I stare out the car window, we make slow but steady progress, passing cement-block homes, most of which are painted only on the front. Occasional crudely constructed kiosks display Coca-Cola products, sweets, and cigarettes, inches from the highway.

Three Americans with a Vietnamese driver, we have been invited to visit the Quang Tri Province offices of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, an American non-governmental organization (NGO). We want to hear a first-hand report on Project Renew, which works with those who continue to suffer the effects of a war that has, for many, never really ended.

I have lived in Hanoi for more than three years, very much at home and at ease with the people and the rhythm of life. I understand I am not separate from what I see. After all I, too, am a child of a war. Mine was between mother and father. Their war left me with many wounds. I am grateful for those early years of conflict, for they determined my purpose in this Life. With the help of the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, I continue to work to transform the violence of the past — inside me and around me.

The Ravages of War

During the Vietnam War (here called the American War) Quang Tri was one of several provinces that included, or were near, the official line separating the Communist North and the American-backed South. The Ben Hai River served as the official boundary for divided Vietnam since 1954. By the mid-sixties, troops of both the North and the South, including American Marines, were based on either side of the conflict-free Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that included the river.

This concentration of troops and supplies attracted some of the heaviest fighting of the war. These provinces were the target of more bombs than were dropped during all of World War II, in both the European and Pacific war zones. In addition, the deadly chemical Dioxin (Agent Orange) was heavily sprayed over much of the area to expose anything that moved on the ground, thereby aiding the work of the bombers overhead.

From the appearance of the land, which was once lush jungle, the defoliation effort was successful — thirty-three years later, the Earth continues to recover from the abuse of those years of war.

Unexploded Live Ordinance (UXO)

My friends have grown quiet. They, too, are concentrated on the scenes that in some cases literally float by. Though this is their first trip to this area, no commentary is needed; the landscape says it all. For me, in spite of my efforts to remain in the present moment, memories of my initial trip to this area rise to the surface.

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It was during Thay’s 2005 trip to his homeland. An OI brother, Jeff Nielsen, has arranged for some of us to slip away as the international Sangha enjoys a Lazy Day in Hue. Jeff is a veteran who has made many trips to Quang Tri, the first while in uniform. With us is a Vietnamese university student. She tells us that many people will not visit the countryside of the province. They are disturbed by the presence of the wandering souls of those who died here. I am silent, as are my brothers and sisters.

In Dong Ha, Jeff takes us to the Center for Peace Trees, a tree-planting project, supported by American veterans. We are told of their attempts to educate local youth in how to recognize and avoid contact with the various forms of unexploded, live ordinance (UXO) which lie hidden in the soil of Quang Tri. I am shocked by this information, which is new to me. The numbers are staggering: 32,000 Vietnamese citizens have been injured by UXO since the shooting stopped. Most have been maimed forever. Some have died. The majority are children.

We practice walking meditation among the dried leaves in front of the center. I recognize the feelings. They take me to another time and place — 1971, and I am in Dachau on a snowy day. We are four, with one caretaker, and the thousands of souls whose moans seem to float through the silent air. I am keenly aware of the suffering, then, there, here, now. Where does it begin? Where does it end?

Reasons for Hope

As the driver avoids the potholes, memory takes me once again to that day in 2005, on the old Ho Chi Minh Trail, a modern quiet highway stretching to the border with Laos. We stop to talk with a group of eleven men who are finishing their day’s work. Four days each week, they search with metal detectors for UXO. Some are easily located, exposed by recent rains. Others must be dug from the ground. Once dismantled, these bombs of various sizes and shapes are hauled away, to be detonated each Friday. The group foreman, a German man who previously worked to locate land mines in Bosnia, has been doing this work in Vietnam for four years. He says the previous week was a “light” one, yielding only 263 bombs. Even though many such teams do this work, “it will take more than 100 years to clear Vietnam of UXO.” How to respond to that announcement? We thank the men for their courage and commitment, and continue our journey through a countryside of new-growth trees and hills that once witnessed and survived the terrible suffering of man’s war against man.

We enter the streets of Dong Ha and make our way to the project office. We spend a pleasant two hours, listening to staff, asking questions, and viewing a DVD that tells the story of Project Renew. While their search-and-destroy program for clearing the land of UXO is a major thrust, they also offer direct assistance to those who continue to suffer the effects of the war. Their prosthesis program has helped thousands who have lost limbs through contact with explosives, and their mushroom-farming program is providing jobs. I am so impressed by the professionalism of the staff and their enthusiasm for their work.

Later in the day, we begin our return trip to Hue. As I reflect on all we have seen and heard, I feel happy. True, we have seen that a war, once begun, seems to never end. But equally true, we have seen that one day love and compassion also appear.

mb48-AWar4Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, lives in Hanoi where she practices with the Hanoi Community for Mindful Living.

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Poem: Question

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Marine, why are you in my country?
You tell me you are here to save me.
I don’t believe you.
Marine, you are not listening to me.
I don’t hate you and your eyes tell me you don’t hate me.
Marine, why are you in my country?
Open your eyes. What keeps my words
from reaching your heart?
Why did you kill me?
Why did I kill you?
I died before you knew me.
You died before you understood.
Come to me – open your heart.
I will hold you and you will know me
and understand.

— Paul Davis

Paul Davis, Authentic Connection of  the Heart, read this poem last year at the retreat in Stonehill. He explains: “In 1965, as a nineteen-year-old Marine, I went to Vietnam knowing little about life and nothing about the Vietnamese people and culture. My belief system, developed as a child in rural America in the 1950s, sheltered me from seeing the reality of that war. However, at a deeper level my experiences in Vietnam were being stored. Later, as my desire to look deeply grew and as my heart opened, I was able to re-examine my experience. Several years ago while on retreat with Thay and the Sangha, I wrote this poem. It was inspired by a question a young Vietnamese girl asked me in 1966 and I wrote it in her voice.”

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Spanning a Bridge

For Love to Deepen

By Sister Dang Nghiem

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During Thich Nhat Hanh’s trip to Vietnam in early 2007, several Great Requiem Ceremonies were held, to help heal the wounds of war. Here, Sister Dang Nghiem continues her recollections of those powerful events and the deep transformation she experienced. (See part one of her article in the Autumn 2007 issue).

Each day when a ceremony began, the monastic Sangha would do walking meditation from outside the ancestral hall to the front courtyard, then to the main hall of Temple Vinh Nghiem (Adornment with Eternity). Sixty young monks from Prajna Temple walked in front, holding up ceremonial instruments, followed by the Chanting Master of Ceremony (Venerable Le Trang), Thay, the assisting chanting monks, the musicians, the high venerables, and over two hundred monks and nuns from Plum Village, Prajna, and Tu Hieu.

Thousands of people watched the procession in complete silence and respect. Most ceremonies took place in the main hall, and lay people could only observe them by looking in or by watching two big screens in the courtyard. Still, everyone participated wholeheartedly and offered up their concentrated energies to the souls of the departed. Some people had wondered why Thay, a Zen master, would have these ceremonies performed in the Vajrayana (Tantric) tradition. Suddenly, I appreciated the wonderful meaning of ‘‘skillful means.’’ With certainty, thousands of beginners like me would not be able to meditate and concentrate their minds continuously for three days, but they could more easily follow these Tantric ceremonies and benefit from them.

I Stand Still

My thorax feels like a heavy cement block. The in-breaths and out-breaths are superficial and laborious. I intentionally make my abdomen rise and fall, but oxygen seems not to have enough space to enter the lower parts of the lungs. Strange, I had assisted in surgical procedures that were eight to ten hours long when I did have back pain and abdominal pain, but I never experienced chest pain like this. I relax my shoulders and arms, and I continue to follow my breathing.

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The powerful chanting of the monks stirs my deep consciousness: I see thousands of skeleton figures standing on the water and heading towards the shore without moving. The immense ocean is without waves. Everything about those skeletons and about the space around them is gray and foggy. Suddenly, I realize that I saw these images fifteen years ago, when I was still a medical student at UCSF. There were afternoons when I wandered aimlessly along the beach. I stood watching those gray skeleton figures, not knowing how they were related to me and to the pervasive sadness always haunting me. I had written about them in a poem, titled “Dreams”:

…These days my limbs guide me near the waters.
The sky is gray.
Still, the waves are grayer.
I see stick figures through the mist.
Forever claimed by the sea,
They walk without moving.
Something whispers:
‘‘Walk straight. Walk straight.’’
My heart pulsates, but I am drawn to silence.

I also see people falling down in an open field; I see little children screaming wide-mouthed and lying exhausted on their mothers’ corpses; I see a naked woman curling up in a bush; I see layers of people stacked on each other. I see.

I continue to follow my breathing. I did not know that these images and the innumerable possible deaths were stored in my consciousness. Everything I had ever seen, heard, and perceived; everything my parents, ancestors and society had ever seen, heard, and perceived — they all have been imprinted in my mind. Tears stream down. Sweat oozes in big droplets, even from places I had not known could perspire. My whole body seems to be excreting, and purifying.

For My Mother in Me

I stand still. So that the young girl in my mother can be absolved from injustice. That young girl had left her arid homeland Quang Ngai to go to Saigon for work. She became a maid, and she saved every penny to send home to her mother. Each night, the owner came to her little corner at the back of the house. She curled up under her bamboo bed, but he would not let her be. He used a broom to poke her and get her out. The young girl wandered on the street; her education was minimal, she had no skills, and circumstances pushed her as they had pushed countless young girls in war time. She worked for American soldiers, and she gave birth to my brother and me — Amerasian children who did not know their fathers’ faces. Then she became mistress to a rich old man, in order to take care of her children and relatives.

There were times when my mother would yell at me and beat me up as if I were her enemy. Afterwards, while I was sleeping, she would rub green oil on my bruises and cry. Her dream was to go to America, and all she thought about was leaving. One day in May 1980, my mother went to the market for work as usual, but she never came back. She disappeared at the age of thirty-six. I was only twelve. I remember squatting on the toilet seat, thinking: “Good, from now on she will not abuse me anymore!”

For My Father in My Brother

I stand still. So that the father inside my brother can be absolved from injustice. My brother was born with blond hair and fair skin. He was so beautiful that I used to wrap the embroidered tablecloth around his face and body. He looked like a princess and I carried him on my hip everywhere. Yet children in the neighborhood yelled at him, ‘‘Amerasian with twelve butt holes!’’ They spit on him; they made him the American prisoner in their war games. Sending him to the United States was like severing her own intestines, but my grandmother was well aware that if my brother had remained in Vietnam, he would be teased and shamed and exploited his whole life.

When he got to the United States, children in school yelled at him, ‘‘V.C. go home!’’ because he did not speak any English. Like a wounded animal, my brother lashed out in fury and beat up those kids with all his might. The psychologist diagnosed him as having ‘‘uncontrolled extreme anger.’’ The United States government paid money to put my brother in a rehabilitation center for rich kids who had problems with drug addiction, gang, and other violence. My brother is thirty-five years old now, and he is built like a football player. In his house, there are over sixty guns of different sizes; stacks of bullets lie all over the room. He is a licensed gun dealer. In his house, there are over a hundred videos about the Vietnam War and other violent crimes. My brother cannot sleep without the television on all night. His eyes are gentle and bright, and he smiles often. Yet, my brother’s mind has a dark side, which continues to damage and torment him.

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For My Uncles

I stand still. So that my uncles can be absolved from injustice. My eldest uncle (Uncle Number Two) ran away from home to the North to become a Communist. Every so often, soldiers of the [South] Vietnam Republic would call my grandmother to their post, beating her and harassing her about my uncle. After the fall of Vietnam Republic in 1975, my uncle returned to look for his mother and siblings. He brought with him a white pillowcase with red words ‘‘Returning to Motherland”; he had embroidered it while he was serving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. My uncle enthusiastically took my grandmother to the North to meet his wife and three children. However, he died within six months. Years of suffering from malnutrition, bouts of malaria, tons of bombs and chemical warfare had damaged his heart, lungs, liver, and intestines. My grandmother had to return to the South alone, too stunned to cry.

My youngest uncle (Uncle Number Six) ran away from home to go to Saigon when he was thirteen years old. Not being able to find my mother, he lived on the streets, polishing shoes, stealing things, involved in reckless sexual activities, and later he joined the Vietnam Republic Army. After the fall of [South] Vietnam, my mother sent him to a distant farmland, so that he could avoid the communist rehabilitation camp. He got involved in drinking and womanizing again. The neighbors were angry, and they turned him in to the police. My uncle escaped from prison, swimming over twenty-five kilometers along the river to reach my grandmother’s house. My uncle died before he turned fifty-five. Cigarettes, liquor, and women had drained all of his life energy.

For All the Dead

And I stand still. So that the Vows to the Dead and the compassionate energy of the Three Jewels can absolve injustice for all my people – the people with names but bodies unfound, and the people with bodies but names untraceable. Dying in injustice, and living in repression. Whether or not living people like me are aware, the injustice endured by the dead continues to be choked and repressed in our consciousness. Sometimes we can only breathe at the neck or chest level; our bodies are tense and restless. Sometimes we feel stressed and agitated. We do not understand at times why we think, speak, and behave so negatively and cynically. The undercurrents from countless generations, although invisible, still ravage our lives. Recognizing these forces and calling them by their true names is to span a bridge into the deep consciousness, so that the dead in the living can live with lightness, and so that the living in the dead can truly live.

Tears stream down, but I do not suffer. I give thanks to Thay. He was able to untie the knots in himself, so that today he can establish Requiem Ceremonies to Pray Equally for All People and to Untie the Knots of Injustice in them – creating the favorable conditions for his disciples and his people to uproot and remove these deep internal formations.

mb48-Spanning6Sister Dang Nghiem currently lives at Deer Park Monastery; before she became a nun she was a medical doctor.

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A Conscientious Objector is Asked,“First Time in Vietnam?”

By Brian McNaught

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The question is asked frequently of middle-aged American male visitors, “Is this your first time in Vietnam?” It generally means, “Did you fight in the war?”

My spouse and I were asked the same question by the U.S. Senator who sat next to us at breakfast in the Hanoi hotel in which we were all staying. The depth of our answers depends upon the questioner.

With Senator Jim Webb (D-VA), who was visiting Southeast Asia with his Vietnamese wife, and who offered that he had fought in DaNang, our next destination, we simply said, yes. I explained that I was in Hong Kong to do a series of presentations to Wall Street executives on gay workplace issues, and that we came to see Vietnam and Cambodia because we had heard they were beautiful countries. That was the truth, but the answer was incomplete.

We didn’t want to agitate his painful memories, evidenced by the ever-so-subtle wince I witnessed when we mentioned DaNang. Knowing how emotionally torn and scarred Vietnam vets can be, I generally say very little in their presence about my early and consistent perspective on that war.

To our Vietnamese questioners, however, I quickly and gladly explained that yes, this was our first visit, and that we both had actively and vigorously opposed the war. I, in fact, was a conscientious objector, a status that was achieved after a hard-fought battle with my draft board and with my family, that was inspired by my spiritual beliefs, and that I have never regretted. The Vietnamese, regardless of age or gender, always smiled and enthusiastically said thank you.

A Difficult Position

It was remarkable and surprising how good their response made me feel. It was nearly forty years ago that I passionately marched, wrote, and voted against the war. I had imagined that my feelings about the personal and national conflict would have been forgotten or irretrievably buried.

My unflinching public opposition to the war in 1970 was conceived and nurtured by, among other factors, my attraction to the Sermon on the Mount, the lives of Gandhi and Francis of Assisi, the books Mr. Blue and Hiroshima, the protest folk songs of the 1960s, the courage of the Berrigan brothers, and the selfsacrifice of Thich Quang Duc, the sixty-six-year-old Buddhist monk who self-immolated on the streets of Saigon. My idealism at the time felt very strong, pure, and just. Yet, my position was painfully called into question by my love for a cousin who was a helicopter pilot in the war, by friendship with fraternity brothers who were in ROTC, by romantic patriotism, by admiration for the sacrifices made by those who fought against the atrocities of the Nazis. I also harbored doubts about my answer to the draft board that I couldn’t respond to their hypothetical question: would I use force to stop someone from raping my mother?

Spending several days in DaNang, reflecting on what Americans call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese call the American War, can be a deeply challenging, but nevertheless healing process both for those Americans my age who fought in it and for those of us who fought against it. But they are feelings that we have rarely talked about to each other. I’m just assuming that Senator Webb would have been pained by my early resistance to the war, just as I’m assuming that he lacked any awareness of how deeply affected people like me were by those times.

Losing Peace

When I walked in the surf outside our luxury hotel, among teenagers playing soccer, I tried to imagine what it might have been like for my peer group in 1970 when I did my alternative service at a Catholic newspaper in Michigan. Many of them served and died where I was now vacationing.

My father walked in the surf with me during my silent reflections. Though he has been dead for a dozen years, I felt his presence powerfully. Dad was so completely embarrassed and ashamed by my refusal to fight in the war that at age fifty-seven he threatened to either commit suicide or re-enlist in the Navy. His very angry glare at me at that moment remains one of my most enduring memories of him.

Though I didn’t lose my life, a limb, or my sanity as a result of the war, as so many others my age did, I lost the respect of my father and of many of his generation. I also lost the peace in my own life that I sought to secure for others by my actions. Once I left the comfortable environs of my socially conscious, Catholic college campus and entered the multi-generational work world, I was immediately immersed in an emotionally-fractured culture populated by friends who had lost friends or sons in the war. Debating the war’s merits with them or with others never seemed like a mindful thing to do. I lived in fear of exacerbating the pain of others in my youthful need to justify my position. I thus lived alone with the most soul-searing and divisive public position I had ever dared to take.

As I made my way down the beach at DaNang, imagining battleships and machine-gun fire, I wondered if my father’s perspective on the war and on my decision had changed with time. We never talked about it. It seemed no one wanted to talk about it. The past was best left in the past.

Even though reminders of the war abound in this country, from the concrete bunkers that dot the landscape to the 400,000 children disabled by Agent Orange, Vietnam is healing and thriving. The war that did so much damage to their families and to mine is not on the minds of those who are thirty years old and younger. These “baby boomers” talk enthusiastically about their futures, wave and smile happily in response to friendly gestures from Americans, and refer excitedly to what they recently read on AOL about US-Vietnamese economic cooperation. The past is indeed past for them, even if they are curious about that of their middle-aged male visitors.

From Vietnam to Iraq

Here at home in the States, young ones are thinking about the Iraq war, which our government calls “nation building” and the Iraqis call the “American occupation.” There is no draft today, so young people in the U.S. are not forced by law to make life-altering moral decisions about the war in Iraq or any other military venture. They don’t have to fight to prove to a doubting draft board that they are truly conscientious objectors. This is a good thing in many ways, as it frees them to pursue countless other means of making a contribution to society. On the other hand, being forced to take a personal moral position on war is not bad for the soul.

If today I was forced to make a decision about fighting in Iraq, my position would be guided by the Tao Te Ching, the teachings of the Buddha, the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron, and by my personal experience of creating my own suffering and my own happiness. I would still choose to be a conscientious objector but at age sixty, I’m far less romantic and idealistic than I was at age twenty, far more able to see the shades of gray. I can see how situations can dictate personal ethics. I would, for instance, now state clearly to the draft board that I would protect my mother or any person from being raped or assaulted, by any

means possible, even if it meant losing my conscientious objector status. On the other hand, I’m far more conscious and careful today about protecting the life of spiders, flies, ants, and worms than I was in my late teens and early twenties.

Though I don’t have children of my own, I do have a young nephew who has decided to enlist in the Marines as soon as he graduates from high school next year. David’s decision does not embarrass or anger me. He will never have to recall a searing glare from me. But I do feel that he is far too young to make a mature decision about participating in a war and I’m at a loss on how to help him understand the lifelong emotional ramifications of that action.

I don’t know how David feels about the prospect of going to Iraq, or what prompted his decision to become a Marine. We’re not that close. I do know that he’s really good at paint ball competition and that he imagines he will be very good with a gun. He’s the product of a single-parent household and he needs discipline, a college education, and a secure financial future, like so many of his peers who enlist not to fight in Iraq but to survive in the United States.

For whatever reason one decides to fight or not fight in a war, regardless of whether or not there is a draft, the effects of the choices we make in our youth will impact us profoundly for the rest of our lives. Forty years from now, when my nephew David visits the Middle East as a middle-aged tourist, he will undoubtedly be asked, “Is this your first time in Iraq?” It’s my hope that his answer, and those of his generation, brings forth in him and in his questioner feelings of peace.

Brian McNaught is a best-selling author and a corporate diversity consultant on gay and transgender issues in the workplace. He and his spouse, Ray Struble,divide their time between Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and Provincetown, Massachusetts.

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The Light at the Tip of the Candle

mb48-TheLight1I was deeply touched recently by a book called At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace. The author, Claude Anshin Thomas, describes in detail the suffering he has experienced as a Vietnam veteran [see below].

The description of his suffering made me look more deeply into the experiences of a soldier. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be trained as a killer at the age of eighteen. How it would feel to kill another human being. How it would feel to watch my friends die in front of me, or to watch children die as a result of the military action in which I was involved. How it would feel to live in fear of violent death on a day-to-day basis.

Looking deeply at these things helped me to understand the suffering on a different level. I realized, for example, that I could not even begin to think of how I would reconcile the thoughts and emotions around killing another human being, let alone many human beings. I know that labeling the people I killed as “enemy” would not bring me comfort in the long run. I know the energy of those actions would continue with me in some form as long as I lived.

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Anshin Thomas also offers his opinion that the United States, as a people, never really took responsibility for the Vietnam War. Most people viewed the war as distant and unconnected to their day-to-day lives. They did not recognize that it was their lifestyles that supported the institutions of war. And, for the most part, they did not offer support for the veterans of the war, or for the victims of the war in Vietnam.

All of this got me to thinking about the war in Iraq, and my connection to that war. I realize that I have not really taken responsibility for my connection to that war. I follow the news about Iraq, and frown at it. I think from time to time about the tragedy of the war, and how I disagree with the U.S. government’s position on the war.

The Light at the Tip of the Candle

By Claude Anshin Thomas

mb48-TheLight2Claude Anshin Thomas came home from the war in Vietnam in 1967. In the years following his military service, his life spiraled downward into post-traumatic stress, drug and alcohol addiction, and homelessness, but his life turned around when he discovered Buddhism. Zen, he found, offered him a path toward healing, a practical way to cope with his suffering rather than run from it. The following took place in 1990, when Thomas attended a meditation retreat for Vietnam veterans led by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I drove to the retreat on my motorcycle. At that time I was riding a black Harley Davidson. I was dressed in a typical fashion for me: black leather jacket, black boots, black helmet, gold mirror glasses, and a red bandanna tied around my neck. My style of dress was not exactly warm and welcoming. The way I presented myself was intended to keep people away, because I was scared, really scared.

I arrived at the retreat early so I could check the place out. Before I could think about anything, I walked the perimeter of the whole place: Where are the boundaries? Where are the dangerous places where I’m vulnerable to attack? Coming here thrust me into the unknown, and for me the unknown meant war. And to be with so many people I didn’t know was terrifying to me, and the feeling of terror also meant war.

After my recon I went down to the registration desk and asked where the camping area was, because I didn’t want to camp where anyone else was camping. I was much too frightened to be near so many strangers. This time each day, sunset, was filled with fear — fear of ambush, fear of attack, fear of war exploding at any moment. Rationally I knew that these things wouldn’t happen, but these fears, like the reality of war, are not rational.

I put my tent in the woods, away from everybody else, and I sat there asking myself, “What am I doing here? Why am I at a Buddhist retreat with a Vietnamese monk? I have to be out of my mind, absolutely crazy.”

The first night of the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh talked to us. The moment he walked into the room and I looked into his face, I began to cry. I realized for the first time that I didn’t know the Vietnamese in any other way than as my enemy, and this man wasn’t my enemy. It wasn’t a conscious thought; it was an awareness happening from somewhere deep inside me.

As I sat there looking at this Vietnamese man, memories of the war started flooding over me. Things that I hadn’t remembered before, events I had totally forgotten. One of the memories that came back that evening helped me to understand why I had not been able to tolerate the crying of my baby son years earlier.

At some point, maybe six months into my service in Vietnam, we landed outside a village and shut down the engines of our helicopters. Often when we set down near a village the children would rush up and flock around the helicopter, begging for food, trying to sell us bananas or pineapples or Coca-Cola, or attempting to prostitute their mothers or sisters. On this particular day there was a large group of children, maybe 25. They were mostly gathered around the helicopter.

As the number of children grew, the situation became less and less safe because often the Vietcong would use children as weapons against us. So someone chased them off by firing a burst from an M60 machine gun over their heads. As they ran away, a baby was left lying on the ground, crying, maybe two feet from the helicopter in the middle of the group. I started to approach the baby along with three or four other soldiers. That is what my nonwar conditioning told me to do. But in this instance, for some reason, something felt wrong to me. And just as the thought began to rise in my head to yell at the others to stop, just before that thought could be passed by synapse to speech, one of them reached out and picked up the baby, and it blew up. Perhaps the baby had been a booby-trap, a bomb. Perhaps there had been a grenade attack or a mortar attack at just this moment. Whatever the cause, there was an explosion that killed three soldiers and knocked me down, covering me with blood and body parts.

This incident had been so overwhelming that my conscious mind could not hold it. And so this memory had remained inaccessible to me until that evening in 1990 .…

At the retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh said to us, “You veterans are the light at the tip of the candle. You burn hot and bright. You understand deeply the nature of suffering.” He told us that the only way to heal, to transform suffering, is to stand face-to-face with suffering, to realize the intimate details of suffering and how our life in the present is affected by it. He encouraged us to talk about our experiences and told us that we deserved to be listened to, deserved to be understood. He said we represented a powerful force for healing in the world.

He also told us that the nonveterans were more responsible for the war than the veterans.* That because of the interconnectedness of all things, there is no escape from responsibility. That those who think they aren’t responsible are the most responsible. The very lifestyle of the nonveterans supports the institutions of war. The nonveterans, he said, needed to sit down with the veterans and listen, really listen to our experience. They needed to embrace whatever feelings arose in them when engaging with us — not to hide from their experience in our presence, not to try to control it, but just to be present with us.

I spent six days at the retreat. Being with the Vietnamese people gave me the opportunity to step into the emotional chaos that was my experience of Vietnam. And I came to realize that this experience was — and continues to be — a very useful and powerful gift. Without specific awareness of the intimate nature of our suffering, whatever that suffering may be, healing and transformation simply are not possible and we will continue to re-create that suffering and infect others with it.

Toward the end of the retreat I went to Sister Chan Khong to apologize, to try to make amends in some way for all the destruction, the killing I’d taken part in. I didn’t know how to apologize directly; perhaps I didn’t have the courage. All I could manage to say was: “I want to go to Vietnam.” During the retreat they had said, if we who had fought wanted to go to Vietnam to help rebuild the country, they would help arrange it. And so I asked to go to Vietnam; it was all I could say through my tears.

* When Thay gives teachings he does not normally say that nonveterans are more responsible than veterans for the war, but nonveterans are just as responsible as veterans. — Sister Annabel

mb48-TheLight4From At Hell’s Gate: A Soldier’s Journey from War to Peace, by Claude Anshin Thomas, © 2004, 2006 by Claude A. Thomas. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, MA. www.shambhala.com.

Claude Anshin Thomas is a monk in the Soto Zen tradition and the founder of the Zaltho Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes peace and nonviolence.

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My Responsibility for the War in Iraq

By Bruce Campbell

What Sacrifices?

But I haven’t really done anything about it. My lifestyle has not changed one bit since the war started. I have not had to make any sacrifices as a result of the war. I have not attempted in any way to help those who have been impacted by the war. And I haven’t gotten involved in the political process to help shape the U.S. government’s position on the war. So, I’ve decided that it is time for me to do a few things with respect to the war in Iraq.

First, I am determined to keep in touch with the suffering of the U.S. service men and women in Iraq and with the suffering of the Iraqis and others impacted by the war. This does not mean that I can’t enjoy my idyllic life in Boulder, or that I should be remorseful or angry. But it does mean that I need to cultivate a sense of connectedness to what is happening. And I will try and find a way to have some direct interaction with those who are suffering.

Second, I am determined to find a way to help those who are impacted by the war. I will need to explore this in coming months, but it will at least include donating time and/or money to charities that are involved in assisting veterans and Iraqis.

Finally, I am determined to get more involved in the political process in the U.S. I am still feeling my way around this one, as I don’t want to create more aggression through political action. I do not believe in denouncing others for their views. I am not interested in action that encourages anger or division, but I would like the voices of non-violence and compassion to be heard.

Taking Action

I am still in the process of exploring how I can best turn my expressed intentions into action. As a first step, I shared my concerns by e-mail with family, friends, and members of the wider Sangha. It was difficult to open up in this way to so many people, especially to people outside the safety of our local Sangha meetings.

But the results have been heartening. I have initiated dialogs with people that I might not have otherwise considered as sources of information and support with respect to these issues. Many people shared their own experiences and heartfelt thoughts on Iraq and war in general. Perhaps most importantly, the public expression of my aspirations strengthened my resolve to take action.

I also received some practical feedback about people and organizations that I could contact to help me turn my expressed intentions into action. Here are just a few:

  • The List Project (www.thelistproject.org) aims to resettle Iraqis that have become targets of violence due to their support of the U.S. effort in Iraq.
  • The American Friends Service Committee (www.afsc.org/iraq/default.htm) is sponsoring a “Wage Peace Campaign,” which offers direct assistance to Iraqis (including resettlement of refugees) and resources to support political action for peace.
  • The Coming Home Project (www.cominghomeproject.net) offers mindfulness-based retreats and counseling for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families.
  • The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is developing a directory of sanghas for veterans; it also has resources available to help educate sanghas about working with veterans (www.bpf.org/html/current_projects/peace_pages/wc_info.html).

Through his contact with Thay and time spent at Plum Village, Anshin Thomas experienced how a mindfulness practice and a supportive community could help to transform the suffering from his violent past. And although I cannot pretend to understand the depths of Anshin Thomas’ suffering, I have touched in my own life the transformative power of Thay’s teachings and the Sangha’s love.

So, over the past couple of months, I have focused my efforts on making the practice and community we share accessible to veterans returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In our greater Sangha, I have talked to Vietnam veterans and a veteran of the Gulf War who are willing to share their practice with our most recent veterans. In Colorado, we are organizing a group of Sangha members that want to help facilitate programs for veterans. We have the Mindfulness Trainings to guide us, and decades of collective experience in peace work through engaged Buddhism.

I am a part of the Iraq war, and the Iraq war is a part of me. I am, therefore, responsible for healing the suffering it has caused— in myself, in those around me, and in those far away. I am deeply grateful that so many resources are available to help me heal and transform that suffering and to prevent more wars from happening.

Bruce Campbell, Freedom of the Heart, lives in Boulder, Colorado where he practices with Mountain Stream Sangha. He is an attorney and a core member of the Colorado Community of Mindful Living. He can be reached at Bruce.Campbell@bdclaw.com.

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Getting Better, not Bitter

The Dharma in Tanzania

By Karen Brody

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Thay’s teachings have been words deeply etched in my heart for years, but this summer was the first time I encountered their true meaning. My husband’s work for an international non-profit took us to Arusha, Tanzania. What luck, we thought, that we had found a location in Africa that was suitable to live in with children. We had lived in Nairobi, Kenya and had complete clarity that Nairobi’s routine aggressive violence was not an atmosphere in which to raise our children. Johannesburg, similar in its extreme violence, where people not only lived behind gates (routine in Africa) but talked about how many levels of security they had before intruders could get to them, also felt like an unacceptable life to me. But Arusha — a small yet rapidly growing town an hour from Mount Kilimanjaro, protected by Mount Meru, and the gateway town to the Serengeti, where five years ago security companies didn’t even exist — it seemed perfect.

Here’s what happened ten days after arriving in Arusha with our sixand eight-year-old boys.

My husband returned home just past midnight after dropping off a friend at her hotel after she had dinner with us that night. The night guard opened the gate; my husband drove in, got out of his car, and went to the gate to lock it from the inside with a padlock. He heard a man say, “Open,” so he opened the gate. Three gunmen were holding the guard, guns to his head. Two guns immediately went to my husband’s head and the gunmen led him and the guard to our house, ordering my husband to open the door. I was downstairs when the door opened and at first I noticed just my husband walking in, very pale. Then I saw the gun. A second later I saw the first gunman. I gasped in a whisper, “Oh my God!” as one of the gunmen ran over to me and pointed his gun at my head. In that instant the words of the Dharma popped into my mind:

Life is impermanent.

These words bathed me. I felt clear and strangely calm as the gunmen sat us down on the couch, took our wedding rings off and tied my husband up on the floor with wire. I repeated to myself:

Impermanence.

The tallest gunman led me upstairs. As we approached my children’s bedroom he put his gun to my nose and told me if I did anything stupid he was going to shoot me and my children. I breathed deeply thinking:

Breathing in,
Breathing out,
I am free.

As I repeated to myself “Breathing, Free” my thoughts became illogical in a Western sense. Logic would have told me to hate this gunman; instead I felt deep compassion. Thay’s teachings flooded my body and mind.

“Where Are the Dollars?”

In my bedroom the gunman shouted at me, “Where are the dollars?!” We actually only had fifteen dollars in the house that night. I emptied my wallet. He was getting angrier. “Where are your jewels?” he demanded. I gave him the few things I carried with me. No diamonds, nothing expensive. “Where’s your husband’s gun? Get the gun!” The gun? It had never dawned on us to get a gun. Even my husband, not a practicing Buddhist, felt that violence is never solved with more violence. There was no gun.

Unhappy with what I had produced the gunman put his gun to my head and told me I must find him some money and jewels. So I ransacked the room, and as I threw our belongings on our bed another mindfulness moment occurred.

Breathing in,
I see the goodness inside of you,
Breathing out,
I smile at your goodness.

It was obvious to me at that moment that the gunman wasn’t looking for money or jewels; what he was really looking for was love. So I watered the flower in him. As I dropped my clothes on the bed I imagined each piece of clothing filling the robber with love. Fifteen minutes later he brought me downstairs and tied me up on the floor next to my husband and the guard.

Tied up on the floor, my hands and feet tightly wired together, I thought: I should be scared. But then I heard Thay’s voice whisper to me: Call them by their true name. So this is what I did. I recited:

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and my laughs
at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

Lying on the floor, face down, I repeated to myself, “Wake up, Compassion” as the gunmen put all of our computers and electronic equipment in bags to steal.

The Open Door of Compassion

Our Kenyan friend, Rose, was staying with us. Rose is a poor African woman who had been our maid in Nairobi years ago. She came down to help us settle in and meet our boys. I consider her a member of our family, which is why she was living in our home, not typical in Africa. The tall gunman spotted her room and asked me, “Who’s in here?” “Our friend,” I replied. He walked in. Rose later told me she wasn’t sleeping, and because our floors were concrete and the gunmen spoke to us in a whisper she did not know anything was happening inside the house, but of course she was shocked to be taken out of bed in the middle of the night. They tied her up also in the living room, searched the house again for money and jewels and then untied her, took her into her bedroom … and raped her.

Breathing in,
Breathing out.

I didn’t know at the time she was being raped, but that’s what the tall gunman did. He raped her. And then, twenty minutes later, after talking for a while about taking me with them in one of our vehicles that they stole to get away, the gunmen tied heavy cloth over our mouths so we would not scream and put all four of us in Rose’s room, tied up, in the dark.

Untying wire is not easy, but I got free first. Then the guard, then my husband, and finally after I shouted out “Rose, are you okay?!” she slowly sat up. “Thank goodness they did not hurt the kids,” were the first words from her mouth. It was only later that she told me she had been raped.

I expected logic to rise up in me; I expected to feel mad. How could they have done this to Rose? Yet, again, instead the Dharma surfaced and I found myself not angry at the gunmen. The news that she was raped just made me want to water the seeds of love in the gunmen even more. My intellectual self thought, this is crazy, how could I not be mad? It felt like a betrayal of Rose to not be mad at them. Surely, Rose was mad.

Two nights after the incident, with my family and Rose settled into the safety of a hotel room in Arusha, Rose slipped a note under my door that I discovered at bedtime. She wrote of moving on from the experience. And at the end she wrote, “Let’s get better, not bitter. ” At that moment it was clear to me that she was watering the same seeds I was. The Dharma lived in her as well.

We left Tanzania one month later having lost over $30,000 from the move to Arusha, and we returned to the United States without a home, job, cars, or a school for our children to attend.

Thank you, Thay, for your teachings. Love and compassion is the only way forward. Of this I am clear.

Karen Brody is a member of the Budding Flower Sangha in New Paltz, New York.

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Watering Fearlessness

A Mantra (or Two)

By David C. Gritz

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Sometimes life presents us with very intense training opportunities for our practice. Probably you are familiar with those “opportunities” for learning. We didn’t ask for the experience and we wouldn’t choose it, if we were given a choice. But regardless of how we wish reality would be, it isn’t like that. It’s like this and here we are, in the middle of it!

A while back, I was headed to a family retreat at Deer Park. I needed the quiet time and was looking forward to being immersed in four-fold sangha, as well as speaking with my monastic brothers and sisters. As I was driving to Deer Park with my two children, we were listening to Green Day’s song “Novocain.” I began crying, because the song’s request for Novocain to take away the pain of life’s trials hit home so strongly. I so wanted relief from the pain of constantly trying to face the difficulties!

For months prior to that moment, life had been offering a series of very intense training opportunities. I felt as if I was being punched in the stomach, not just once in a while, but several times a day or several times a week. There were too many things to detail here, but I’ll give some examples.

I work as an ophthalmologist, specializing in a group of very serious eye diseases that can result in blindness. Despite offering patients the latest and best eye care possible, some people still lose vision. Studies have shown that people fear losing vision even more

than they fear death or any other loss. So in my medical office, in addition to many people with very severe diseases, there are people with lots of fear and anxiety and frustration.

Over the course of a month, there were three patients who lost vision in their only good eye.

One was a woman in her sixties who had lost the other eye to glaucoma. She always inspired me by her zest for life despite her limited vision. Shortly after we first met, I did a cornea transplant in her one good eye and her vision improved from blindness to 20/20 (although she only had tunnel vision due to glaucoma). It was a much better result than we had expected. But the transplant was rejected in less than a year, and after a series of eye problems she lost all vision in her only eye.

Another nineteen-year-old patient came to me with a very severe eye disease that caused blindness in one eye and constant, severe pain. When we first met, she was always doubled over in pain. With very strong medication, she improved and no longer had pain. Her family was so happy with the wonderful transformation, as she returned to be the bubbly, joking person she had been before the constant pain. She still had 20/20 vision in the other eye. Within days of the visit when we were all happy with how well she was doing, another disease attack occurred and she lost vision in her good eye. With additional strong medicine, the vision returned. This cycle repeated a number of times and each time the vision came back. But then an especially severe attack occurred and the vision was permanently lost.

The third patient who lost vision in his only eye was a single father with a young developmentally disabled son. A very good doctor had made a bad decision to do surgery in the patient’s only eye. A rare complication occurred and the patient was sent to me. After months of intensive treatment including two surgeries, we realized there was no hope of improved vision.

During that same month when these three patients lost vision, I found out I was entangled in a lawsuit. Another patient with severe eye disease had been referred to me for treatment. Despite intensive treatment, she lost some peripheral vision in one eye. She brought a lawsuit because of the outcome. I was surprised because I perceived that she and I had a very good relationship. It was difficult to think that even when I had done everything that was possible and could see nothing to change (upon reviewing the medical chart in detail) I would get sued.

In the following month, another lawsuit emerged from the third patient I mentioned above. In addition to these patient-related issues there was a variety of other difficulties at work with coworkers and supervisors, challenges at home, and family difficulties.

My formal and informal mindfulness practice was of great help in dealing with these challenges and enabling me to still see the joys of the present moment. However, after more than six months of this ongoing assault, my energy was very low and my resilience in the face of adversity was waning. With each new blow I would think, “How can I deal with this? I need to face it and deal with it, because this is my practice. I have no other choice. But how?”

Water the Seeds of Non-Fear

At Deer Park, I asked Sister Dang Nghiem for her advice about these situations and my waning energy. “How can I help to rejuvenate myself and maintain my energy, so I don’t feel so drained?” I asked. She suggested that I deepen my practice through watering the seeds of non-fear.

I was uncertain how to go about this. I didn’t perceive the presence of fear in this situation and didn’t know how to water the seeds of non-fear. I spoke to my teacher, Lyn Fine, after I returned home. Lyn explained that fearlessness can help us face difficult situations and maintain our energy when faced with adversity. Lyn had several ideas for cultivating fearlessness. One of these suggestions was to find a mantra that would help to face each moment with fearlessness.

“And This Too!”

Lyn told me about Maha Ghosananda, the Cambodian patriarch, who was asked, “What is the essence of practice?”

In response to the question, he replied: “Here.

“Now.

“And this too!”

He said “And this too!” with a joyful, fresh voice that conveyed equanimity — whether the phrase was in reference to the blue sky, the lush green of the rice paddies, or the killing fields.

I started using “And this too!” as a mantra to go with my breathing, throughout my days at work and home.

I also explored finding another mantra. There is a song in Portuguese that I love, called “The Blower’s Daughter.” One line in the chorus is “É isso aí” (pronounced eh EES-oh ee), which means, “And so it is.” I loved the melodious sound and rhythm of “É isso aí,” in addition to the meaning, and I began using this mantra also. When a difficult situation arose, I would use it as a chance to take a breath and say silently (or sometimes aloud), “É isso aí!” When a wonderful moment arose, it would be another chance to take a breath and say, “And this too!”

A typical response prior to starting the practice of “É isso aí!” could have left me feeling downcast as I mumbled inside, “Oh, boy. Woe is me. And THIS, TOO!” Instead, a fresh “And this too!” or “É isso aí!” helped me to see glimpses of humor and irony. When another potential “punch in the stomach” occurred, the mantra helped to quiet my mind and keep it from running on, telling me stories about how this blow was going to lead to other problems in the future.

Over time, situations changed and my experience gradually transformed. With the mantra practice, feelings of equanimity for the situations grew stronger. This particular practice helped me to more deeply experience the reality of impermanence and touch the precious jewel of the present moment, finding a unique and difficult-to-describe joy, even in the difficult moments. Through this practice, I continue to look for better understanding of my suffering and to experience transformation.

“É Isso Aí,” sung by Seu Jorge and Ana Carolina on the CD and DVD, Ao Vivo: Live. The original song was written in English and is called “The Blower’s Daughter,” music and lyrics by Damien Rice.

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David C. Gritz, Truly Embracing Compassion, previously lived in Berkeley, California and attended Morning Light Sangha. He has relocated to Kansas City with his family, where he enjoys the sangha fellowship of the Heartland Community of Mindfulness.

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Letting Go

 

By Roberta Schnorr

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Sweat.

I am bathed in sweat.

The temperature has gone up ten degrees since breakfast. I have put on more clothes: a long sleeved “Haz-Mat” suit, huge rubber overshoe boots, and three pairs of gloves (nitrile medical gloves, covered by dishwashing gloves, covered by leather work gloves). A respirator conceals my nose and mouth; goggles cover my eyeglasses. Each breath smells and tastes like old rubber tires. The stale moisture from my lungs accumulates. My glasses fog. Time to move.

To manage these giant boots I learn to pick up each foot a little higher. I take smaller steps; I am conscious of each step. The crotch of my jumpsuit goes to my knees. The legs are long, the body loose and baggy. Sitting, kneeling — and especially getting back up — requires mental planning. Climbing a stepladder in floppy boots and a baggy suit is a new exercise. Once, I almost fall, trying to descend too quickly. I catch myself, regroup, and take it one step at a time. I make certain both feet are on the floor before I pivot or walk away.

My tools are a hammer and a short pry bar. I find that I am able to wrap my thickly gloved fingers around these, and possibly, use them. Time to work.

I am in New Orleans in July. It has been nearly two years since Katrina washed away those old, tired levees. It is not Cajun food or jazz that beckons, but a wish to help drain the stagnant pool left by disaster and neglect. Here I stand, inside my Haz-Mat suit, boots, goggles and triple gloves. I am like the Wicked Witch from The Wizard of Oz.

I Am Melting!

But somehow, I am okay. It seems my fears about my ability to tolerate the heat were unfounded. I am not nauseous. I have no headache, no migraine aura. I am really okay.

I am working with a team of eight people — adults and teenage youth. We are “gutting” a house. Our instructions are simple: all paneling, sheetrock, tile, molding, doors, insulation, carpet, and linoleum must go. We must find and pull every interior nail. All that will remain are two-by-four studs and subfloor.

Three of us begin in a small bedroom. We learn how to negotiate this job and coordinate our movements in the confined space. We work without talking, silenced by bulky respirators.

Everywhere I turn, I notice the water stains on the walls — about twenty-four inches above the floor. This marks the peak — where the floodwaters crested and stood after filling this home. As I pull Sheetrock from interior closet walls I find a barrette and a Barbie doll shoe. I think of my daughters and the bedroom they shared when they were small. This barren space was once a little girl’s room. I picture her, playing with her dolls, trying to sit still while her mother does her hair; sleeping snugly in her “big girl” bed.

It is hot. We take a break every hour. When one of us stops to rest, we tell all the others. We lay down our tools, remove our respirators and gloves, and gather in the backyard. We pull cold water bottles from the cooler and pass them around. We settle under a little shade — on coolers and storage boxes. As we sit and drink the best water we have ever tasted, we notice each other, and more. Sometimes there is a gentle breeze. We are grateful.

Among our little group are friends, and also, new acquaintances. Here we sit, bound by shared effort on this modest, water-stained house. As we huddle in the meager shade, I am struck by what I experience with my new teammates. There is no need to fill the space with chatter. We talk. We listen. We are still. Words or silence — it feels just right.

Working Meditation

I notice, even on my first day, that I find a rhythm and unfamiliar satisfaction as I plug along. The old walls give up Sheetrock easily — except for the six to eight inches near the floor. Real wood baseboard — four inches high — is snugly fastened around each room’s perimeter. I try prying the baseboard from the studs. It does not budge. I kneel down for a closer look. At the bottom of the baseboard is quarter round. A closer look reveals more— carpet strip — a flat strip of wood that fastened the edges of wall-to-wall carpet.

After some experimentation, I figure out how to get under one end of the carpet strip. I use the straight end of my pry bar and hammer, removing the strip three or four inches at a time. I return to my starting place and position my pry bar (the curved end this time) on top of the quarter round, near the baseboard. I hammer down on the curve of the bar and the quarter round gives. Working in tenor twelve-inch sections seems best. Finally, I approach the solid wood baseboard. I move steadily from one two-by-four stud to the next, inserting the curved end of my pry bar, hammering (down) then prying (up), hammering and prying. At some unpredictable point the length of baseboard gives. Long sections come loose.

I realize how different this feels from my usual mind states. I am focused, fully present — not daydreaming or racing to reach some imaginary goal. Occasionally, my mind wanders. I think about an unfinished project that awaits me at home. Each time, I catch my thoughts, let go, come back. I will give it my full attention when I get home. I realize that, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am fully engaged with the task at hand. It seems I am able to be just here, hammering, prying and sliding along. I am not fighting the repetitive work and slow progress — I am pulled into a friendly, rhythmic pace. I work with, not against this old house, coaxing her along, as she slowly surrenders her handsome wood trim.

One day, as we pull Sheetrock from the ceiling, we discover what seems like miles of corner bead, a strong metal trim that forms and sustains the corner joints. Working overhead on a shaky stepladder, it presents a new challenge. I change my method, pulling down all of the Sheetrock first. Blown-in insulation spills out, covering my head and shoulders. I press forward, exposing the

relentless corner bead. I try force. I try pulling. Finally, I concede to its strength and seek its pattern. The corner bead is nailed every three inches. I can free only three inches at a time. I accept this truth and focus on one nail, then another nail.

Something shifts in this moment. The struggle is over. I use my claw hammer — insert at the point of the nail and push away. One by one, the nails come free, often with a single push. As with the baseboard, I find my rhythm, and I am right there, nail after nail, foot after foot of corner bead — like me — just letting go.

An Unexpected Retreat

In New Orleans, in the house of a woman I will never meet, I discovered long, silent hours to be with myself, working mindfully, staying present. I was surprised that in this place, my mind did little wandering, but tuned in, moment by moment, to the present. Here, I did not think about tasks or outcomes, discovering satisfaction as I became one with the process — accessing an unfamiliar rhythm as I pulled sheetrock and molding, freed corner bead, shoveled debris, or pushed a wheelbarrow.

Time with people I hardly knew was pleasant, tranquil. We came together every hour, for cool water and rest. At midday, we traded items from simple box lunches. We talked. We listened. We sat in silence with our weary breath.

In this time far from home, doing unfamiliar work, I was, for many moments, present — to myself, to others. Present — to my experience — right here, right now — in someone’s stripped house in New Orleans.

Romb48-Letting2berta Schnorr lives in Central Square, New York with her husband Dick and teenage daughters Grete and Molly. She is an education professor at SUNY Oswego.  In July, 2007, Roberta and Grete traveled to New Orleans with members of a Lutheran church to assist families whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

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Poem: The First Precept

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In Lhasa, sitting in a dim café, soft cave of quiet,
I hold a chipped white porcelain mug and sip jasmine tea,
its flavor like warm spring flowers on my tongue.

I watch the woman bend low to slowly sweep
the old wooden floor with her worn nub of a broom.
She moves like a mallard floating on an evening lake:
this is life; there is no thought of finishing this motion.

Her dark face is weathered by wind and sun, both harsh at this altitude.
With lined brow she looks gnome-like, a mysterious little witch
dressed all in deep blue: blouse, apron, skirt to her ankles
same outfit every day this past week.

A small spider moves almost crab-like across the floor
in fast starts it scuttles, stops suddenly,
then hurries along again, edging ever closer.

She sees the spider and lays down the broom.
Like a dreaming dance or sleepy stretch
she bows even lower and scoops
the eight legged creature into her hand.

With themb48-TheFirst2 same slow pace she heads to the open door
one foot in front of the other, a silent march of patience.
She stoops again, places the spider on the ground
outside, a new home of rock and weeds.

Reentering the room, she looks like a little girl now
her step lighter and quicker
bright smile stretches across her mouth
twinkles in her eyes like a secret joke:
sunlight shines silver
on a spider web after the rain.

— Julie Hungiville LeMay

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The Leaves of One Tree

By Le Thu Thuy

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When we arrived, the hallway in the Claymont Court building was filled with light. It was a cold, windy, winter night and the retreatants came in wearing heavy winter jackets. We hugged each other with deep breaths and beaming smiles. At dinner time, the sound of a gentle bell rang, subduing all noise and motion. The whole room became a completely quiet place. We had our first meal in silence.

Before long, [Dharma teacher] Anh Huong appeared and sat in front of my husband and me. She gave us a gentle, motherly smile, and expressed her appreciation to my husband for driving me here. Anh Huong suggested that, as soon as we finished dinner, he should head home to be with our three teenagers, and assured him that I would be safe during my stay.

Being Nurtured in Body and Soul

As Anh Huong promised, I was safe and well taken care of. I was pampered with fresh country air, well fed with organic vegetarian food, and accompanied by gentle friendship. I noticed that the head cook often joined us in the sitting and indoor walking meditation. This time, she also joined us for the Touching the Earth meditation and sat next to me. At the end, Anh Huong carefully guided us through Hugging Meditation. We hugged each other in three long breaths of respect, appreciation, and love. The cook hugged the person on her right, then me, and by that time her eyes and mine were filled with tears. She carried the aromas of the foods that she had prepared. This fragrance touched my heart and carried my memory back to the cozy days in Vietnam, when I was awakened by the smell of the wonderful foods that my mother cooked for the Vietnamese New Year festival. In silence, I thanked the cook for all her tasteful and nourishing food. She was not just a cook, but a dear sister making meals for us. Some of her desserts were incredibly delicious. She baked the best brownies that I have ever tasted; I swallowed them slowly and savored each small bite.

On this three-day weekend retreat, I could do what I could not find the opportunity to do in my busy life — my mind and heart were with the food and drink in each meal. I loved to hold a cup of tea with both hands and let its heat warm my cold hands. I slowly drank one sip at a time. I felt the tea being absorbed gently by the tiny cells of my whole body. As the night came, and in the silence of the warm companionship of my two roommates, I quickly fell asleep. It was more like a vacation than a religious retreat as I actually had the time and space to rest.

A Daughter in a Confucian Home

Within the Sangha’s cradle, I allowed myself to be fragile. The little wounded girl inside of me had a chance to breathe, to sob, and to ask for compassion and acceptance. In her Dharma talks Anh Huong showed us how to practice no-self by looking at our hands. Using mindful and compassionate breathing, we looked deeply at our ancestors’ traits that exist in each vessel of our hands. Joining her invitation, I found my own suffering intertwined with my ancestors’ torments. By deeply contemplating the past, I recognized my mother, the only daughter of a well-established family that was deeply influenced by the teachings of Confucius.

My mother grew up with her voice being ignored and her presence considered irrelevant. In that culture, a daughter was worth nothing because her father believed that she would soon belong to another family when she married; he would invest very little in her education. My mother had a fifth-grade education — her younger brothers went to college abroad and later became a doctor, a professor, and a law enforcement officer.

I was more fortunate. My parents worked very hard to give me the best education in Saigon. Witnessing the lack of education and mistreatment that his only sister endured, my father offered me the same opportunities, attention, affection, and love that my brothers received.

Because we did not carry my mother’s family name, my siblings and I were often treated as outsiders by her father. Sadly, no one was aware of the seeds of unworthiness that played a big part in my mother’s identity and were quietly being passed on to her children. I often felt insecure and left out, while my siblings set ambitious goals to establish their own identities and reputation, perhaps as a way to mask their feelings of being rejected. We may achieve wealth and certain positions in our society, but we are often lost in coping with our frustration and resentment toward the maternal family.

I learned that the collective karma is much more powerful than I realized. As I consider my own past and my present way of living, I realize that I fill my days with activities to expand my intellect, to make acquaintances, to earn a comfortable living, and to help others, without realizing that the deep seeds in my consciousness are controlling my thoughts, my speech, and my actions. My knowledge of Buddhism and Christianity, including the satisfaction of doing good deeds, was not effective in reducing the potentially destructive effects of negative emotions. But in calmness and mindfulness, the Buddha’s wisdom and the Sangha’s compassion helped to shed light on this dark corner of mine.

My Grandfather’s Secret Love

I remembered spending many summer nights at my grandfather’s home. He had shown his care and love for me in private. He boiled hot water for me to bathe, told me stories of his childhood with his younger sister, his love for the first wife who died young while giving birth to their first son, read books, and instilled in me a love for literature and history. I no longer blame him for not being able to display that soft, gentle part of himself in public. I now understand that many men of his generation, living in such a culture, would not have known how to behave any differently. My resentment was melting away as my heart filled with his love for me and mine for him.

Walking on this path of understanding and love makes my soul soft and cleansed. Mistakes and regrets are a part of the past, while hope and happiness are right here under my steps.

Healing the Past

We live six hundred miles away from where my grandfather was buried twenty years ago. I never went to visit his grave. Modern transportation offered many opportunities to do so, but for many years, I have down-played the importance of such a visit and often found good excuses for not doing so.

Since I got back from this retreat, the newly found understanding and love for my grandfather made me, for the first time, want to visit his resting place. My husband drove my mom and me to Canada to visit his family and my uncle, who liked the idea that all of us would visit my grandfather. My uncle drove his wife, my first cousin, my mother, my husband, and me to the cemetery. He and my husband had a bonding talk in the front seat while my mom and I caught up on the stories of our lives with my aunt and my cousin in the back. We had a lovely time during the ride. It was a cold, windy day at the graveyard, but I dressed properly for the weather and felt warmed by the family love and reconnection. I stood in front of my grandfather’s grave and lit the incense. With mindful breaths, I first expressed my gratitude and respect for all the ancestors and then offered my wholesome feelings to my grandfather.

As we left the cemetery, a new chapter in the account of my maternal family tree was being written. It would record the fact that my grandfather has always been in me and will always be in my descendants. The DNA will always support this and nobody can deny or alter this fact. Gender, last name, and success will not signify how we relate to each other; real blood, true love, and a deep understanding will. Each individual has their own place in the universe. My experience proves that by deeply understanding the past and mindfully living in the present moment, it is possible to transform past mistakes and change the course of the present and future.

To Live as One

We’re all the leaves of one tree,
We’re all the leaves of one tree,
The time has come for all to live as one
We’re all the leaves of one tree

Lately, each time I sing that song with the Sangha, I see that my grandfather is joyfully singing it with me and we let each word sink deeply into each vessel of our body. Nothing could take us apart! I am a leaf of one tree just like my grandfather is and we are “falling gracefully without regrets” into the cradle of the Three Jewels.

Le Tmb48-TheLeaves2hu Thuy, Opening of the Awakening Heart, has been practicing for many years with the Boat of Compassion Sangha and the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia (MPCF) Sangha.

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On Love and Being Gay

By Laurie Arron

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“I believe that we all have the need to love and to be loved, and life without love is not pleasant, it is suffering.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, Friday, July 13, 2007, Lower Hamlet

These are the words Thay spoke to me during the first Question and Answer session of the summer retreat at Plum Village. I had asked about finding love and had clearly stated I was gay. Thay’s answer was all about true love, and it demonstrated to me that he believes true love is possible regardless of sexual orientation.

Although I’ve accepted being gay, there’s still a voice in my head saying there’s something wrong with me. I’m forty-five now, I’ve been single for over four years, and I don’t know if I’ll ever find true love — or be able to let go of my grasping for it.

Years of Silent Suffering

Sometimes the memories of being a gay teen cause tears to well up inside me. I know that I have a long way to go in healing my suffering.

I first realized I was gay when I was thirteen years old. It was a terrible and frightening realization. At school, a “fag” was the worst thing you could call someone. It’s what we called the kids we didn’t like, the ones who didn’t fit in. I’d used it many times. How could I possibly be one of them?

But the fact was that I had a strong physical attraction to some of the boys in my class and none whatsoever towards the girls. My grim realization was indisputable.

I could not deny my sexual orientation, but I could keep it an absolute secret. I thought being gay was unnatural and I desperately wished I could be “cured.” I was convinced if anyone knew they would hate me, except my parents who would simply be devastated. I thought it would be better to be blind or in a wheelchair. At least then people wouldn’t hate me.

I hid my sexual orientation from everyone until I was twenty-seven years old. Being “in the closet” was very difficult, and I turned to smoking marijuana to ease the pain and escape my reality. I did fine in school and work, but whenever I thought about having to live life without love I was consumed with despair. It wasn’t until a close friend of mine (who wasn’t gay) killed himself that I realized life was too short to waste. I decided to take a leap of faith and stop hiding who and what I really was.

I went to a “coming out” support group and there I finally started to accept my sexual orientation. At the group they did things like turn on their head the questions gay people often get asked. They pointed to the absurdity of asking questions like “when did you first realize you were heterosexual?”, “what do you think your parents may have done to contribute to your heterosexuality?” and “what made you choose to be heterosexual?”

I’ve come a long way since then. I got involved in working for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people when I was thirty-one and eventually became Director of Advocacy for Canada’s national LGBT equality advocacy group. In 2005, Canada’s federal government debated and passed a law extending civil marriage to include same-gender couples. I did many media interviews and was about as publicly “out” as you can be.

But even being so comfortable with being gay, in public places I still had to ask myself whether it was safe enough to hold my partner’s hand or give him a kiss when I greeted him at the airport after not seeing him for several weeks. These are simple acts that most people take for granted, but for gay and lesbian people they are not so simple. And that’s in Canada, one of the most accepting and progressive countries in the world. In many countries, being gay is still criminal, sometimes even punishable by death.

I look back and sometimes it feels like my youth was stolen from me. While my friends learned to date and to be in relationships when they were teenagers, I started from scratch at age twenty-seven. The whole possibility of young love was already gone.

I find it particularly hard not to regret those lost years and wish I’d had more courage and come out earlier. My equality advocacy has been driven by my desire to make the world a better place for LGBT youth, so they don’t have to go through what I did.

The most difficult thing about the suffering I experienced was not being able to tell anyone. I suffered alone and in silence, with absolutely no support. I think about how wonderful it is to have a Sangha for support. Looking back on my years in the closet I realize that it was the exact opposite. The fact of not being able to tell anyone magnified my suffering a thousand times.

The Question of Marriage

A big source of suffering for LGBT people is the exclusion from marriage. It’s often said that love and marriage go together, but for same-gender couples this is usually not permitted. Only the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada, and South Africa have equal marriage. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts permits same-gender couples to marry but our marriages are not recognized by the federal government. Israel also recognizes our marriages, but they must be performed in another country.

Marriage is about many things, including love, commitment, intimacy, companionship, emotional support, financial support, children, and fidelity.

Some people argue that marriage is essentially about procreation, but many opposite-gender couples don’t have children and many same-gender couples do. According to the Canadian Psychological Association, studies show that children of same-gender couples do just as well as other children and are no more likely to be gay or lesbian themselves.

Simply put, marriage is the central and most prominent way in which society recognizes romantic love and commitment. Since being gay is defined by who you love, the exclusion or inclusion in marriage sends a powerful signal about our place in society.

Exclusion says our love is inferior to the love between a man and a woman. This message does us great harm, both in affirming anti-gay attitudes and also in telling LGBT people that there’s something wrong with us. Inclusion in marriage sends the message that we are not flawed because of our sexual orientation. It says that we are equally worthy of respect and consideration.

This is especially important for LGBT youth. This poignant letter to the editor was written when equal marriage legislation was before Canada’s Parliament:

“I wonder if those fighting so hard against same-sex marriage ever consider how much it means to gays. They don’t know what it’s like to be a teenager — when the pressure to conform is so great — and you experience the horror of realizing that you are gay. They can’t understand what it’s like to listen to your friends talk about how they hate queers and how they wish they were dead. You consider suicide, because you never want anyone to find out the truth about yourself; your shame is too great to bear.

“And these people can’t understand the hope that filled my soul when I first found out that Canada was considering allowing same-sex marriage. This legislation goes so far beyond marriage. It is a symbol. It represents the hopes and dreams of gays for a better world. Now that I’m 18, I can finally admit to myself that I am gay and no longer feel the shame that almost drew me to suicide. At least now I have hope.”

The Desire for True Love

My deepest aspiration is to understand my suffering and to transform it. At Plum Village Thay Phap An told me that most of us spend much of our time struggling with one particular issue, one that is based on a misperception of reality. This misperception acts like a prism, distorting how we see the world and causing us to suffer. Covering up this misperception is a block of pain that has been built up over the years.

My block of pain seems to revolve around my desire to find true love and my belief that I won’t, perhaps because there is something wrong with me, or perhaps because I am simply fated to be alone.

I have had many insights about the source of my suffering, usually when I cry during sitting meditation. This has happened many times when I recall a feeling from the past, such as the sadness and despair when my partner left me, or the fear that I will never find another. And then another thought will manifest, perhaps from a different time in my life, and I know that there is a connection between the two.

Slowly, slowly, I am chipping away at the block of pain that exists deep inside me. I still have a long way to go to get through the block of pain, and to see and penetrate the misperception that lies beneath it. I don’t know if I will ever get there, but I know I am on the path, and I have faith in that path. The more diligent my practice, the happier I am.

For example, sometimes I despair. But I identify it as despair, or perhaps a mix of despair, sadness and grasping, or whatever feelings I can identify. I observe my in-breath and out-breath. I remind myself that this is just a feeling, and that feelings come and go.

For much of my life I learned to suppress my feelings and to cut myself off from my body. But that did not end my suffering. If anything, it made the suffering worse and prevented me from taking positive action. My practice is helping me to re-connect with my body and to become whole again.

Feelings are not only in my mind, but also in my body. I find the feeling in my body and I describe it to myself. Perhaps the feeling is a tension between my shoulder blades, or tension from my neck extending outwards to each arm. I observe that this is how despair is manifesting in my body. When I release the tension in my body, the feeling also dissipates. Sometimes this happens quickly, sometimes it takes a long time. Sometimes I don’t have time to wait because I’m too busy at work and I just live with the tension until later.

Underneath despair I find joy. I have experienced this hidden joy many times. Sometimes I can even find joy without having to go through despair. If I just look around my body, I can almost always find somewhere that’s experiencing joy.

Smiling Through Tears

I have also observed that I need my Sangha to support my practice. It is so easy to practice at Plum Village, but so difficult to practice in the world, with the pressure of work, friends and the dominant western culture. My Sangha helps motivate me to be diligent.

My practice helps me transform my suffering into happiness. It gives me faith that there is a way out of suffering. It reminds me that my suffering is impermanent. With this awareness, I can smile through my tears.

mb48-OnLove2Laurie Arron, Faithful Embrace of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. He divides his time between Toronto and Ottawa and is a member of the Mindfulness Practice Centre of the University of Toronto and the Pine Gate Sangha.

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Blue Sky Practice

By Susan Hadle

Almost every place is taken tonight in the meditation hall. “Probably a lot of people have come to find an island of comfort and safety after the tragedy at Virginia Tech,” I tell myself as I settle into my cushion. I notice the seed of sorrow that has darkened my mind since returning from caring for my brother who took his last breath just weeks ago. This seed seems to have a little magnet inside that attracts sadness.

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Richard is the bell inviter and he welcomes us to the second half of the evening. He tells us he has a practice he wants to offer that he learned from John Bell of the Mountain Bell Sangha in Massachusetts. It’s called Blue Sky Practice. He explains. “First we’ll sing the song ‘Blue Skies’ and then we’ll take a few minutes to think about a ‘blue sky’ experience. A few people will tell what qualities blue sky moments have for them. After that we’ll meditate on our own blue sky experiences. Next we’ll find one other person whom we don’t know very well and take turns sharing our blue sky times and then we’ll return to the circle and share.”

“We Left the Camps Singing”

Surprised and curious, I wait while Richard hands out little squares of paper with the words to “Blue Skies” printed in blue ink. And then Freddie leads us as we sing:

Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see
Bluebirds singin’ a song
Nothin’ but blue birds all day long.

Never saw the sun shinin’ so bright
Never saw things goin’ so right
Noticing the days hurrying by
When you’re in love, my how they fly.

Blue days all of them gone
Nothin’ but blue skies from now on.
Blue skies smilin’ at me
Nothin’ but blue skies do I see.

We stumble along together the first time and then we sing with our hearts. Sangha energy flows and begins to open this crowded heart. I remember something I learned during the retreat at Deer Park. Thay wants us to be happy. The Buddha wants us to be happy. And, most amazing, happiness can exist even in the midst of sadness. Daffodils bloom on cold, wet spring days. On a transport to Auschwitz, Ettie Hillesum threw a postcard out the train window that read, “We left the camps singing.” Not fake happiness that we wear to please others, but the happiness that comes from remembering that right now we are alive, the happiness that comes from being aware of what is real in this moment.

Earth Beneath and Sky Above

We’re given a few minutes to think about a blue sky experience. I am walking on a mountain ridge close to the sky. So free. People share and I think of other blue sky times. And then we meditate for about ten minutes. “Blue sky. Remember blue sky,” I tell myself as I notice the seed of sorrow sprouting again. This seed has grown thick recently with sad thoughts: “It shouldn’t have happened. I don’t want it to be like this. They were too young. It could have been prevented. If only.” And then, “Oh yes. This is Sangha and we’re meditating on our blue sky moments.” I am walking along the red dirt path, trees beside me, earth beneath and sky above. All is well. This picture fades and I am back with my brother. I feel sad. I open my eyes and remember that I am with the Sangha where we are together concentrating on blue skies. Space opens up inside me and I relax. I feel light and content to be sitting here with the Sangha.

We find a partner and share. He goes first and I listen like Buddha, as Richard has suggested we listen, wide open to listening, just listening without thoughts or feelings. I feel refreshed enjoying his blue sky experiences and then telling him mine.

We join the circle and share moments of clarity and joy and freedom. It’s right here as we talk, ‘blue skies smilin’ at me.’ I bow in, “Blue sky mind is contagious. I feel happy.”

Now it’s today and I wake up early to meditate. The heaviness of the past month is gone. I hear the birds and see the golden sky behind the trees. I invite the little bell and the little bell is the blue sky filling me with spaciousness.

mb48-Blue3Susan Hadler, True Lotus Recollection, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community in Washington, DC. In the past two years Susan has been able to be with her mother, her brother and her step-father as each took their last breath.

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Heart to Heart

In each issue of the Mindfulness Bell readers take on a different topic, writing in short essays about their personal experience and their practice.

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We have covered the Five Mindfulness Trainings; now we ask for your thoughts on the role that art plays in your practice and your life. Keep it concrete, personal, and short — under 500 words. Send your submission to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 15, 2008 (or so). The next topic, due October 15, 2008, will be the role of music in your practice and your life.

The Fifth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking and consuming. I will ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being and joy in my body, in my consciousness and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

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Two years after I discovered Thay and his teachings, I decided to stop drinking alcohol. There were many reasons. I had just spent six months in India without drinking any alcohol and I was inspired to continue this practice. I had also witnessed the terrible effects of alcohol addiction on someone very dear to me. And I was deeply inspired by Thay’s teaching — it is better to be mindful of what is going on inside of ourselves rather than losing ourselves in a glass of wine.

At first, when socializing with friends, I had a lot of explaining to do. Apparently, not drinking is more unusual than being a vegetarian. The most difficult part was, by far, how to explain my decision to my friends without making them feel that I was, in some way, judging them. After they recognized my preferences, even if they didn’t completely understand, many of them made a special effort to serve lovely soft drinks or juices, instead of a bottle of wine.

Meanwhile, alcohol completely faded away from my system and my thoughts. I bypassed the alcoholic beverages in the supermarket and enjoyed a variety of soft drinks. I never really drank much, but by quitting completely I became more aware of how I had used alcohol; it was the way that I coped with stress in my life. After work, just one glass of wine would induce a warm, relaxed feeling that allowed me to let go of everything. “So, what’s wrong with that?” I used to say to myself, especially if one glass of wine would do the trick. However, the wine smoothly masked a problem without contributing anything to a solution. Why did I let myself get so stressed out by things that were happening at work?

Going completely “tee-total” also helped me recognize the role that alcohol is playing in our society. I discovered how socially unacceptable it is to not drink. There is a stigma attached to it and an assumption made that the only people who completely quit drinking alcoholic beverages are alcoholics!

After six years of not drinking alcohol, I gradually became less strict with my practice. On occasion, when I socialized with friends or colleagues, I would have a glass of wine or beer. I enjoyed the taste and the sense of gezelligheid (cozy togetherness), something that is very important to us in The Netherlands. But this also meant that alcohol started creeping back into my life. In the supermarket, I began once again to look at the wine. Or when cycling home from work, I felt a craving for a glass of instant relaxation. I resisted but realized that for many years there had been nothing for me to resist — because when I was not drinking alcohol the cravings were gone. I guess that is one of the considerable benefits of quitting completely — you just don’t have to think about it. Ever!

So, I have chosen to quit again, but this time with a deeper understanding of the reasons why. Reasons that will give me the confidence to believe that I will avoid the fate of the famous smoker who said “giving up is easy, I’ve done it lots of times.”

Evelyn van de Veen
Shining Strength of the Heart
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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I have suffered a lot from what I have ingested in the past. Growing up, my family was very unhappy, and we weren’t able to be close and supportive. As a result, all of us developed addictions to eating and TV, among other unhealthy habits. Joining the sangha and hearing this training, I knew I had to change the fundamental way I was relating to myself. I no longer wanted to neglect my body and be terrorized by my disturbing thoughts and feelings. I had taken refuge in eating, intellectual snobbery, unwholesome creative expression and a judgmental attitude; now I wanted to let go of these. But how could I make such a massive change?

This training brings me in touch with the many elements I am made of. Cultivating awareness, I can choose what elements to allow in me to become the future me. I accept that I am vulnerable, affected by everything in my environment, and also that I am powerful, able to direct my future by knowing what environments will allow me to grow healthy and which not. When I identify suffering, I can examine what I have been consuming — eating, paying attention to, thinking about, saying, or participating in. By doing this I have the confidence that I have taken a good step toward well-being.

Now when I eat, I think, do I want to eat this food because my body wants the nourishment, or because I feel agitated and want to ignore the agitation? If it is that my body wants to be nourished by the food, I am being compassionate and loving to myself by eating it. If it is that I feel agitated, I need to give myself compassion, to take care of myself by returning to my breath and calming my agitation.

When I buy things, bringing awareness I can ask, do these bring the joy I’m after? I invite my motivations to reveal themselves, and also my needs. And then I ask, what does bring me joy and peace? This way I can know my real self, and pay attention to all the wonderful things around me that do bring me joy, solidity, clarity. I need to be compassionate and use these opportunities to nourish myself now so I will be strong in the future.

This training leads me to the refuge of the sangha, to the wholesome environment that it provides. In the sangha I consume stability, sanity, love. I participate joyfully in the stream of life horizontally in my peers by allowing my heart to open. Being present I nourish them and am nourished by them, and my life has meaning. From this training I recognize that my practice is food for myself and everyone I meet. I practice this training for my family in order to love them better, for my ancestors whose environments filled them with disparagement and craving, and so lost them the opportunity to develop the capacity to love and be loved.

Scott Morris
Realizing Vision of the Heart
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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In my studies I learned that insight was one of the doors to liberation and that non-self, impermanence, and non-suffering were the keys to insight. These were interesting ideas, but I couldn’t really find out how to practice them. It turned out that my practice with alcohol gave me my first glimpse into non-self.

When I first practiced the Fifth Mindfulness Training, it was often a forced affair, almost a physical effort to refrain from drinking. Sometimes this technique didn’t work and I ended up drinking anyway. In these cases I often tried to bring mindfulness to my drinking, taking notice of how it made me feel. I brought awareness to the reasons I wanted to drink and I discovered the desire to connect more deeply with others, to escape from negative emotions, and to feel more confident. Sometimes taking notice of these desires caused my beer to remain unfinished.

Over time, I saw how my life was improving due to reduced alcohol consumption. Still I occasionally felt like I was missing out on the fun. Other times it was the opposite, a feeling of guilt for drinking and going against my vow. And other times I got on my high horse and told my friends how bad they were for drinking.

Mindfulness made it easier and easier not to drink. I started to feel more free. Then something changed — I noticed how my drinking would encourage my friends to drink. It’s easier to drink when others are doing it. I saw that by buying a beer, I was paying for alcohol advertisements. I was partly responsible for the alcohol problem we have in our society. My point of view had shifted — it wasn’t just about me anymore. When I saw this for the first time, and understood it in my heart, then in that moment all desire to drink was removed. There was no guilty feeling, no sense of missing out, no wanting to escape. Replacing the desire was a feeling of love and care for my friends. I realized I could connect with them in a way that was true without needing alcohol. I could be with them without judging them for their drinking. I felt so free. I felt that for the first time in my life, my intentions were finally in line with my aspirations.

The insight of non-self and the mind of love are there with their clear voice: it’s not just about me.

Paul Baranowski
Solid Awakening of the Heart
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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Poem: Paint a Portrait of Me

mb48-Paint1First paint a book, pages filled
with endless hope
Describing rides down an
endless slope
In thick, long strokes
Paint the words of a song
floating, flying
In a way to stop all crying
Then center a sunset giving
new light
And the clouds of color in their
flight
Draw the trees, softly calling
Draw the leaves, gently falling.
Paint me singing
With nature’s voice ringing
In the book, through the pages
Song singing through the ages
Once you’ve completed your
masterpiece
you can sign your name and
get some eats.

— Brooke Mitchell, age 11
Carlsbad, California

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The Helping Hand

By Brother Phap Dung

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Brother Phap Dung (pronounced FAP YUNG) gave the children’s Dharma talk before Sister Annabel spoke during the Colorado retreat, 24 August 2007.

I enjoy my life very much as a monk. I live with my brothers and sisters at Deer Park Monastery in California. We live together as a family. The nuns live in a place called Clarity Hamlet, in the oak grove, and the monks live in a place called Solidity Hamlet. It’s all rocky up there, and the sisters live by the stream where the oak trees are. We come together each day to do sitting meditation in the big meditation hall, and we watch the sun come up.

Have you ever seen the light change in the morning? It’s very beautiful. This is what we experience every morning. Because when we come out of our room going to the meditation hall, there are stars. We sit in there and we watch. We wake up with the sun. Afterwards we come out and do exercises while we watch the sun. It’s very nourishing to wake up like that, very quiet. I get to sit with all my brothers and sisters and it’s very nourishing.

Every year we have retreats like in Plum Village where families come with their kids, many little ones like you, and sometimes I take care of them. We also have a teen retreat just for teenagers. At the beginning when we first had the teen camp the parents said they would go somewhere else, stay away from the program, but they would find a way to sneak in. So the teens wrote us a letter and said please don’t allow any parents, any adults, they keep coming and trying to tell us what to do [laughs]. So we wrote them back and said, okay, we respect you. This year we had a hundred teens and we practiced yoga in the morning before sitting; the teens love yoga! Some of them are new to it so they do these moves and they fall — it’s a lot of fun. That’s how we start the day.

It’s wonderful to see so many young people learn to practice to sit still, to be okay not to run around and play computer all day. There we don’t have any computers and television for them, and some of them, like the new kids that come, they’re very afraid that they will not survive five days without television!

This last retreat we had with the teenagers, guess what we took away from them? We took their cell phones, can you believe that? We took their iPods, all their gadgets and video games. I remember the first meeting we had. They were like, “No, you can’t do this! No, but I need them! I need to talk to my mom.” You could see they were really afraid to be away from their cell phones. “But my friends! I have to check my messages!” You could see in their bodies, when they’re sitting around in the dining hall talking to us, they have physical reactions as if they’re addicted. So we thought that was quite interesting. [laughter from audience]

But after maybe three days, they made new friends and they were able to not even think about their cell phones and things. You’re very lucky right now — you don’t have cell phones, right? Once you get cell phones, you spend most of your time doing that, and you’re not really in front of your friends. The teens found out they’re in front of their friends and they play with sticks, with pine cones and stuff, and they really enjoy it.

And they go hiking. We take them hiking deep into the mountain where the coyotes live. Ohh! [laughter] And we go low and look in the bushes and we try to find the tracks of the coyotes, — you never see the coyotes — they disappear because they have these secret passages under the bush. So we take the children up the mountain, we go look for these paths.

Sometimes in the family retreat, we take the children all the way up into the mountain with their families, and we have sitting meditation up there. Then we enjoy breakfast or dinner. We watch the sun rise up in the mountain or the sun set out over the ocean. It’s an area where there are a lot of flat rocks. There are no railings re, so the monks and nuns, before we have the family retreat, do a little prayer,: “Please land ancestors, help us to — ,” cause you can imagine a hundred children going up there, and rocks are like cliffs, but there are no railings. But the children ays enjoy sitting and eating in silence up in the mountain. It’s y wonderful. They don’t need television, video games, and text messaging with their friends. They enjoy nature with us.

A Family of Fingers

I want to share with you today about our hands. I remember I was growing up, my mom taught me that a family, it’s like our hands [holds hand up and wiggles fingers]. Can you imagine u have five fingers and you always ignore this finger, and you everything with these fingers? [holds one finger down and ves the other four]

There’s a saying in Vietnamese, but I don’t really know it ughs] because I wasn’t really good with Vietnamese when I was owing up. I grew up in America. Anyways, I remember my mom ays reminding me that a family’s like a hand, and you always knowledge each other and see each other in the family. It could your father, your mother, your brother, your sister — you always things together, and you help each other, right? Your family is like the fingers on your hand, so if you have brothers and sisters, you help each other out.

Once in a while, this finger will be not so happy with this finger, right? Does that ever happen to you in your family? Sometimes it’s like this. You’re too close to each other, it’s like, “Get away from me! Get away from me!” [laughter] “I want to go in the closet! Mom!” Right? But look — how far can you go? [he wiggles his fingers; laughter] You still have to be in the family, right? So, remember that. Okay?

Once in a while we need space, and that’s very important. You kinda get very mad at your brother or sister, right? When I was young and I got mad at my mom or at my dad, I used to run in the closet. I’d go, rrrh! and I tried to pretend to my parents that I ran away. [laughter] You know, I’d run in the closet and I’d sneak in there and put all the blankets on, and I tried to stay there a long time, so that they’d think I ran away. And nobody looks for me! [laughs] So I stay there for a long time, and I come out, and nobody thinks I ran away!

So you cannot really run away far, because your mother and your father, sometimes they get angry at you, but they always love you, because you’re still part of one hand, you’re still part of the family.

But once in a while, we need space, and that’s okay. So we ask you to go home with your mom and dad, and tell them that we need a place for us to go when we feel angry, when we feel sad. “You know, Mom, Dad? I think we need a space. Our teacher called it the breathing space, a breathing room, or we can call it a flower room.” Go home and ask your mom and dad to set up a space in our home. It could be a corner or even a little area of the house where you have a cushion, a little flower, and if you feel angry, you go there. If you feel sad, you go there.

You see this finger here? When it feels a little sad or needing some space, you go to mommy and daddy, or you go to your brother, “I am going to the flower room.” Okay? “Please, everyone, you know, I need time to breathe.” So we go in there and we can sit on the cushion. Everyone try it, okay? Everyone sit in that space. Sit beautifully. No one can bother you in that space. Everyone in the family has to agree to that, even the young ones. The parents, you have to respect the young ones. So you sit there and you follow your breath. Everyone try it.

Pretend we’re sitting in that room. Sit beautifully. We can use our hands to help us. You put your left hand on your belly, and then you put your right hand on the belly on top of your other hand. We close our eyes. And we breathe in. Right now, I’m taking care of myself. I need space, I need to be still. So we sit there, and we close our eyes for a few minutes like that. And we become more calm.

Can everyone remember that? When I was young, your age, I didn’t have anybody to teach me that. All I knew was how to run into the closet and hide under the blanket. But now, you have a way, you don’t need to run. You can be with your feelings. So next time when your brother and sister, you rub against each other too much and you need some break time, instead of going to tell your mom, “Yah!” and yell, you go to that space. And you take care of yourself.

And now, please, for all the mommies and daddies, if you can help establish a space where our children can find some place for them to practice. We hear many stories from families that the kids remind their parents to breathe. Your mom, sometimes, and your dad, they take care of you and they get tired. You ever see your mom get tired? Because she gives everything to you. Yeah, she gets grumpy. Your mom is like a flower, like this [points to flower] and you need to take care of her. And your dad, too, you know. Because sometimes they take care of you too much and they get tired.

So I’m going to teach you with the hands again, with both of your hands. You go like this, it’s like a budding flower [holds hands together in lotus bud, then opens palms with wrists together, creating a blooming flower]. “Mom, here’s a flower for you.” You don’t have to go to the store to buy a flower. When you see your mom or your dad feeling grumpy — it’s not nice to feel grumpy, but you have to help your mom, because she takes care of you the whole day and sometimes at night, too — she’s like a flower and you have to take care of her. “Hi, Mommy, here’s a flower for you.” She’ll know that you’re there for her and then I think she will freshen up. Sometimes when she is grumpy, please try to help her — staying out of the way, giving her space, just like you when you need space.

So remember the hand — family [holds hand up]. You can’t run away from your family. Once in a while you rub against them, but you go to the space, breathing, and remember to give space to your mom and dad. Remember your hands can help you.

Brother Phap Dung is abbot of Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

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Bell of Mindfulness

An Exercise for Children

By Terry Cortes-Vega

Here is an activity to engage in with the children of your Sangha. What you might say is in boldface. Actions for you to take are in italic — remember to take your time! The answers to questions in parentheses are the answers our children gave us.

Materials Needed

  • Bowl bell and its cushion
  • Bell inviter

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Hear the Buddha Calling

Did you know the Buddha calls us? Today we will listen to see if we can hear the Buddha calling us. Listen, I think he is calling us now!

Bow to the bell and if it is a small bell, mindfully pick it up. Bow to the inviter and pick it up. Smile to the bell and the inviter and breathe in and out.

Body, speech and mind in perfect oneness. We send our hearts along with the sound of the bell.

Awaken the bell by placing the inviter on the rim of the bell and holding it there. After breathing in and out, invite the bell to sound and allow it to sing.

Breathe in. I listen. I listen. Breathe out. That wonderful sound brings me back to my True Self.

Set the inviter down. Return the bell down on its cushion. Bow to them.

Did you hear the Buddha call to us? When we hear a bell, we are hearing the Buddha calling us! That is why we stop whatever we are doing and show respect to the Buddha in the bell. We stop our moving. We stop our thinking. We stop our talking and we listen to the beautiful sound of the Buddha. It is not the Buddha from a long time ago who is calling us; it is the Buddha inside ourselves; it is our Buddha nature. We smile when we hear the call. We breathe in and we say to the Buddha inside ourselves—to our Buddha nature, “I listen. I listen.” Then we breathe out and say to our Buddha nature, “That wonderful sound brings me back to my true, kind, loving self.”

Would you like to learn to invite the bell?

Guide a child through the procedure described above (in italics).

Guide other children as they learn to invite the bell, following the same procedure above. All of the children might say the “I listen” gatha together each time the bell is sounded.

Sometimes the Buddha is a bell. Sometimes the Buddha is a bird singing. Sometimes the Buddha is a baby crying or a telephone.

Can you think of other sounds that the Buddha inside you might use to call you back to your Buddha nature? (my dad calling me, an alarm clock, thunder, wind in the trees, a rooster crowing, the sound of a river, an airplane flying over my house, a horn honking, my cat meowing)

Can you think of ways other than sounds that the Buddha inside you might use to call to you? Things you might see or smell or touch that will remind you to come back to your Buddha nature? (sunset, finding a lost toy, butterfly, storm, dinner cooking, my cat crawling up in my lap, iris, my dog wagging his tail, my favorite stuffed animal) Why do you think the Buddha inside you—your Buddha nature—wants to get your attention? (to remind me to be happy; to remind me to love the person I’m with; to remind me to be kind)

mb48-TheBell2jpgWherever you are, it is wonderful to listen for the Buddha. Or to look for the Buddha. Or to see if you can smell or feel the Buddha calling you. When we get back together again, we will share with each other the different ways the Buddha has called us!

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Sangha News

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Thay Rewrites the Five Contemplations

In view of the statistics showing that more greenhouse gases are produced by factory farming than any other single factor, Thay has changed the wording of the fourth of the Five Contemplations that we use as part of a mindful meal.

The Contemplations now read as follows:

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard work.

May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.

May we transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed.

May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.

We accept this food so that we may nurture our sisterhood and brotherhood, strengthen our sangha and nourish our ideal of serving all beings.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue
October 2007

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New Dharma Teachers Ordained at Plum Village

On January 9, 2008, Plum Village held a Grand Ordination Ceremony called Earth-Refreshing. The following lay Dharmacharyas received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh:

  • Charles Al Lingo, True Seal of Virtue, U.S.A.
  • Cheryll Ann Maples, True Precious Mindfulness Trainings, U.S.A.
  • Eevi Elizabeth Beck, Practice of True Compassion, Norway
  • Ger Levert, True Ocean of Peace, The Netherlands
  • Seijja Mauro, True Jewel of Compassion, Finland

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Cheri Maples’ Gatha

Breathing in, I know that mindfulness is the path to peace.
Breathing out, I know that peace is the path to mindfulness.

Breathing in, I know that peace is the path to justice.
Breathing out, I know that justice is the path to peace.

Breathing in, I know my duty is to provide safety & protection to all beings.
Breathing out, I am humbled and honored by my duty as a peace officer.

Breathing in, I choose mindfulness as my armor & compassion as my weapon.
Breathing out, I aspire to bring love and understanding to all I serve.

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Q & A about Blue Cliff

During a recent visit to Blue Cliff Monastery, we had the opportunity to ask Brother Phap Vu some questions about the new practice center.

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Tell us what you know of the history of this place.

This was told to me by Corky Jeronimo, the former owner. The Jeronimo family lived in New York City, but during the 1940s there was a wave of anti-Cuban, anti-Latino sentiment and Corky’s parents decided to move out of the city. At that time the Catskills was a very popular place for city folk to escape to, especially on the weekend.

This was an existing farm — basically a house and a barn. The original house, in which Corky grew up, is still intact; we call it the Farmhouse. It shows up on late nineteenth-century maps, so it has to be at least a hundred years old. The original barn was eventually converted into the main building.

As the family settled in, relatives and friends would come up to visit. Eventually the parents decided to start a get-away resort. As time went on the various buildings were built, one at a time, then swimming pools and tennis courts.

Why did the Jeronimos decide to sell?

Most decisions there were several factors, including economics, but mostly they wanted to retire and unload a cow.

What did you do after you bought it?

We had to pour more money into it for some basic renovations such as the kitchen, laundry room, and Harmony Meditation Hall, which was an indoor swimming pool. In the main building we took out the bar and lounge for the main dining room. We renovated Jade Candle Meditation Hall to make it larger and added on a bathroom–shower block. We also did a little work on the Farmhouse, adding a bathroom and bedroom downstairs. We took an old barn down and built a storage building.

All of the rooms in all the buildings had large double or queen size beds as well as television. We had to get rid of the beds and the televisions. We started to get the word out in the local community that there were old beds and TVs to be had; not too many responded but eventually we got rid of them. In place we put bunk beds.

We also established trails in the forest with benches and bridges and a stone staircase for people to enjoy. We planted bushes and trees. We turned the outdoor swimming pool into a garden. Much of this needed to be done but we also did it in preparation for the big retreat with Thay [in October 2007].

Not only did we do all this but there were the basic maintenance issues — such as bathroom doors that didn’t close or didn’t lock. I trimmed about fifteen doors and changed close to twenty door knobs. I also repaired several toilets that needed parts; I had to rebuild two completely. Some roof work had to be done, some still need repairs. Some of the decking on the buildings was rotting and some of the beams and railings had to be replaced; they still need some more work. Two of the main water lines broke, one just before the October retreat.

What plans do you have for future work?

What future work — we’re broke!

In the monks’ residence we are currently converting the garage into a kitchen and adding on a dining hall. Mostly we will be looking to do some repair and renovation on the existing buildings; they certainly need it. Each building has its own issues that need to be addressed — you know, like sanghas. But with a little loving care… !

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Overall the buildings really need to be better insulated. The Jeronimos didn’t operate during the winter months so the buildings lose a lot of heat, which is very expensive in terms of fuel. We are beginning to look into green technologies and strategies to bring the cost down and help Mother Nature a bit. I do see that eventually we could turn to alternative energy sources, but one step at a time.

What is Thay’s vision for Blue Cliff Monastery?

Thay sees New York City as an acupuncture point for America and therefore wishes that the monastic sangha in BCM develop a strong practice in order to make that acupuncture point effective. This is why some of the older brothers and sisters have been brought in to support the practice. I think it is essential.

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mb48-SanghaNews7For this current year we are mostly concerned with building brotherhood and sisterhood here at BCM. This is a new territory for the monastics; in Plum Village the brothers’ hamlet and sisters’ hamlet are kilometers away. Even at Deer Park the hamlets are clearly separated, but this is not the case here. So we are learning how to be a more integrated community. It is really going to take a change in perspective. Think about it, we come from a tradition where for centuries monks and nuns are separated. Now we are here together. Formally, Thay has established two hamlets here: one for the brothers and one for the sisters. In actuality it comes down to two residences: one residence for the brothers and one residence for the sisters. This is due not to an idea of what a monastery is or isn’t or what it should be or what it shouldn’t be but to sheer practicality of the property.

mb48-SanghaNews8Geography plays an important role in forming societies and cultures. Here the question of what I am attached to is very relevant. More specifically, what perspectives, understandings, reactions, and decisions come out of that attachment? The teachings of the Madhyamaka school need to come forward — getting beyond categories and distinctions, little boxes that we sort the world of experience into and fool ourselves into thinking this is truth, this is happiness.

 

—Janelle Combelic,
True Lotus Meditation

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Book Reviews

mb48-BookReviews1World As Lover, World As Self
Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal

By Joanna Macy
Revised edition
Parallax Press, 2007
Paperback, 202 pages

Reviewed by Emily Whittle

Every once in a while a book falls into my lap that I want to purchase by the case and give away at busy street corners or drop from airplanes like packages of medicine. World As Lover, World As Self by Joanna Macy is one of those books.

This is how Macy describes her book: “Carl Jung said that at the core of each life’s journey is one question we are born to pursue. The one question threading through my life here on this beautiful Earth is about how to be fully present to my world — present enough to rejoice and be useful — while we as a species are progressively destroying it. This book is my attempt to answer this preoccupation, as well as insight into the relief and guidance I have found in the teachings of the Buddha.”

Joanna Macy looks unblinking at the feeling of despair over the rapid extinction of species and the unprecedented plundering of our planet’s lands and waters. Giving voice to the pain of being alive in a special time when human beings have lost the certainty of the continuity of our species is an act of courage and of compassion. Her words brought me to tears, but they were tears of relief — the relief of honesty and clear naming.

Once named and honored, she proceeds to outline a path to heal our grief by first mining the past for wisdom that can help us, finding inspiration in the Buddha’s teaching of interdependent co-arising. This teaching “first shows us how profoundly we’re entangled in the web of life, thus relieving us of our human arrogance and loneliness. Second, it frees us from having to have it all figured out ahead of time, for the solutions arise as we walk the path and meet each other on the road. And lastly, it reveals our distinctiveness as humans: our capacity to choose.”

Ahhh! Already, I feel lighter.

Moving on to the present, she shares practical exercises to cultivate our gratitude, a sure antidote to despair. The Mohawk Thanksgiving Prayer gives me goose bumps and draws more tears. Reading it at sangha, I hear scattered sniffling and know a nerve has been touched.

She addresses the problems of apathy, burnout, and overwhelm that plague social activists, offering additional practical strategies for collective strengthening and awakening. Her suggestions provide a scaffold that can be creatively adapted to groups of many persuasions and focus.

In the final section, Macy addresses the future, challenging us to alter our sense of time through a powerful guided meditation, telescoping our life as Gaia into twenty-four hours. Seen in this context, our human history begins at one second to midnight. Then, rendering that final second into another twenty-four-hour day, the Buddha and Jesus arrive at six seconds to midnight; our industrial age bursting on the scene only in the last microseconds. But what swift changes those microseconds bring!

If the threat of our annihilation is the catalyst to our birthing as compassionate guardians of the Earth’s future, then even toxic nuclear waste can be viewed as a great gift. We can wake up. Books like this can be a valuable guide on the path of transformation.

mb48-BookReviews2Buddha Mind, Buddha Body
Walking Toward Enlightenment

by Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, Berkeley, 2007
Softcover, 146 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

I am reading this book in the second month after the sudden passing of our thirty-six-year-old son, Jesse. I chose it because the back cover reads: “In… this follow-up to his classic book, Understanding Our Mind, Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how we can instill the habit of happiness in our consciousness.” I want my happiness back. I am reading it because, just as in the days when I first fell into the arms of Zen, I am desperate.

Back then, my sister-in-law and her two sons, my teenage nephews, had been murdered. Now our son is dead of a heroin overdose. The rhythm of Thay’s syntax in this book calms me. And his incredible clarity, as always, brightens my mind.

One of Thich Nhat Hanh’s great gifts to the world is a group method of outdoor walking meditation which he adapted from Shakyamuni Buddha’s first alms rounds. In Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, which would serve well as a primer for new students, Thay weaves in and out of walking meditation. “You can take a step and touch the earth in such a way that you establish yourself in the present moment, and you will arrive in the here and now. You don’t need to make any effort at all.” A good place to begin.

To this practice, he adds the basics of Buddhist psychology and the way to happiness through the Six Paramitas, which he supplements with a lucid explanation of the importance of Finding Wise Friends and the Four Elements of Love, the ground of our Bodhisattva path. Walking Meditation, Touching the Earth, and Total Relaxation are exercises offered by Thay so we can make manifest the words of this wisdom book, which includes the Verses on the Characteristics of the Eight Consciousnesses in both Chinese and English in Appendix I, and a Sanskrit key in Appendix II.

Buddha Mind, Buddha Body, is comprehensive. Thay tells how our minds work and how our feet work, and he shows us how we can use both body and mind to walk into the realm of happiness and reclaim our sovereignty, our free will. He shows us once again that happiness and freedom are not an individual matter. We will be liberated only when we can inter-be with all forms of life.

Yet this is only speculation until I can put into practice what our teacher so clearly articulates here through poems, stories, sutras, and scientific studies. So I put down the book and head for the mountain wilderness to walk with my late sister-in-law and my two nephews and our son, Jesse. “Jesse,” I say, “walk with me.” I call to Dougie, Danny, Louise. “Please walk with me.” I follow my breathing. With my boot soles, I kiss the red earth where Cherokee once roamed.

They are with me, too. And the mica strewn on every path in southern Appalachia — like glitter on the clay-red soil and decomposing leaves — shines as tiny mirrors, the net of Indra reflecting all Buddhas everywhere, each a window to the cosmos.

I am thinking of my Sangha friend Susan when on the path I spy a heart-shaped rock. Susan collects these! I pick it up and hold it in my palm. Its temperature is cold, but I know that, like my heart, if I continue to hold it, its original warmth will return. Suddenly I notice I feel happy, even in my sorrow.

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How Can We Help the Children in Vietnam?

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In many regions of Vietnam the social infrastructure is non-existent. In mountainous areas parents are forced to work long hours in order to scrape a living from the stony soil. Young parents who work on tea and coffee plantations in the central and northern highlands are not able to care for their children as they are working. Moreover the elderly relatives who could help are often living very far away. At a very young age children are left alone for the whole day. There is a serious risk that they may drown in ponds or puddles, be bitten by snakes, fall and hurt themselves, and so on.

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Any help we can contribute for the care and education of young children in poor areas of Vietnam is very precious. Our help for the schools includes facing the issue of malnutrition, from which sixty percent of young Vietnamese suffer. In our schools children are given a midday meal and a glass of soy milk. Education provides families with hope that they can improve the lot of their children in the future and find relief from grinding poverty.

  • $15 a month will provide a child with a nourishing meal once a day and an education in nursery school or primary or high
  • $30 a month pays the salary of a school teacher who will teach twentyfive children in a remote

We are in great need of your help to continue this work. Please send your donation to one of the addresses below. We depend on you to continue this beautiful and noble service.

U.S.A.
Make a check to “UBC Deer Park”
and mail to:
Deer Park Monastery
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido CA 92026 USA
Or transfer funds directly to account of
Deer Park Monastery,
029-1314078,
Wells Fargo Bank,
145 Escondido Blvd.,
Escondido CA 92025
routing transit number 121-04-28-82.

France
Make a check to “EBU Village des Pruniers” and mail to:
Loving Kindness Temple
13 Martineau
33580 Dieulivol
France
Attn: Sister Chan Khong

Europe and Asia
Transfer funds to UBS Bank,
Aeschenvorstadt 1, CH
Basel, Switzerland;
account of Sister CAO N.P.F. Chan Khong for the Unified Buddhist Church;
attn: Mr. Guy Forster;
0233-405 317 60 D in USD,
405 31701 N in Swiss Francs, and
405 317 61 F in Euros;
Swift Code: UBS WCH ZH 40A

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Dharma Talk: History of Engaged Buddhism

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Hanoi, Vietnam – May 6 -7, 2008 

At the beginning of the seven-day English-language retreat in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh gave a rare glimpse into his early career. This excerpt from two Dharma talks reveals Thay as a teacher, social activist, and prolific writer – and revolutionary advocate of Engaged Buddhism, also called Applied Buddhism. 

In 1949 I was one of the founders of the An Quang Buddhist Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, and I taught the first class of novices. The temple was very simple, built of bamboo and thatch. The name of the temple was actually Ung Quang. A Dharma teacher came from Danang, the Venerable Tri Huu, and we both built Ung Quang temple. The war was going on between the French and the Vietnamese resistance movement. 

Five years later, in 1954, the Geneva Accord was signed and the country was divided into two parts: the North was communist, and the South was anti-communist. Over one million people migrated from the North to the South, among them many Catholics. There was a lot of confusion in the country. 

At the Ung Quang temple from time to time we received French soldiers who came to visit us. After Dien Bien Phu the war with the French ended, and it was agreed that the country should be divided and the French would withdraw from the country. I remember talking to the French soldiers. Many of them came to Vietnam and died in Vietnam. 

A Fresh Look at Buddhism 

In 1954 there was great confusion in the minds of people in Vietnam, especially the young people – monks, nuns, lay practitioners. The North was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology. In the South, president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Catholic, was trying to run the country with another kind of ideology called “personalism.” It seemed that the ideological war had begun. 

Buddhism is a very ancient tradition in Vietnam, and most of the people have a Buddhist seed in them. Mr. Vu Ngoc Cac, manager of a daily newspaper, asked me to write a series of articles about Buddhism. He wanted me to offer insight as to the spiritual direction we should take in order to deal with the great confusion in the country. So I wrote a series of ten articles with the title, “A Fresh Look at Buddhism.” 

It is in this series of ten articles that I proposed the idea of Engaged Buddhism — Buddhism in the realm of education, economics, politics, and so on. So Engaged Buddhism dates from 1954. 

At that time I did not use a typewriter, I just wrote in the oldfashioned way. And they came and they took the article, and the article was always printed on the front page with a big red title. The newspaper sold very, very well because people were very thirsty. They wanted spiritual direction because confusion was so huge. 

Rose Tea and Fresh Corn 

That series of articles was published as a book later on. Not long after, I visited Hue. Duc Tam, who had been in the same class as me at the Buddhist Institute, was the editor of another Buddhist magazine. His temple was on a small island in the Perfume River, Huong Giang, where they grow a very tasty kind of corn. He invited me to stay a few weeks in his temple. Every morning he offered me tea with a kind of rose — it’s a very tiny flower, but it smells nice when you put it in the tea. Every day we did walking meditation through the neighborhood, and we bought some fresh corn. He nourished me with rose tea and fresh corn, and he wanted me to write another series of articles on Engaged Buddhism! [laughs] 

In fact, I wrote another series of ten articles with the title “Buddhism Today,” which was also on the theme of Engaged Buddhism. This series was translated into French by Le Vinh Hao, a scholar who lives in Paris. The title he took for the book is Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme. 

In 1964 when I visited America to give a series of lectures, I met Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, and I gave him a copy of Aujourd’hui le Boudhisme; he wrote a review. 

Buddhism That Enters Into Life 

In 1963-64, I was lecturing on Buddhism at Columbia University. The struggle led by the Buddhists for human rights ended the regime of President Diem. Maybe you have heard about the Venerable Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself with fire, and who drew the attention of the whole world to the violation of human rights in Vietnam. That was a completely nonviolent movement for human rights. When the Diem regime fell, I was asked by my colleagues to come home and help. 

So I went home. I founded Van Hanh University, and I published a book called Engaged Buddhism, a collection of many articles I had written before. 

I think this is the first time you have this information. [laughs] 

This is the beginning of 1964. I had written these articles before that, but I put them together and published under the title Engaged Buddhism, or Dao society. Di vao cuoc doi. Cuoc doi here is “life” or “society.” Di vao means “to enter.” So these were the words that were used for Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam: di vao cuoc doi, “entering into life, social life.” 

Six months later I produced another book, Dao Phat hien dai hoa, “Buddhism updated,” “Buddhism renewed.” This is the Chinese — Buddhism made actual, the actualization of Buddhism. So all these terms, all these documents, have to do with what we call “Engaged Buddhism.” And after that I wrote many other books – Buddhism of Tomorrow. [laughs] 

But at that time already, my name was banned by the government of the South, the anti-communist government, because of my activities for peace, calling for reconciliation between North and South. I became persona non grata. I could not go home anymore, and I was in exile. 

So my book, Buddhism of Tomorrow, could not be published in Vietnam under my name. I used a montagnard’s name — Bsu Danlu. You may wonder where that name came from. In 1956 we founded a practice center in the highland of Vietnam called Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery, Phuong Boi. We bought the land from two montagnards, K’Briu and K’Broi. The name of the village where the Fragrant Palm Leaves Monastery was situated is Bsu Danlu. 

Wisdom in the Here and Now 

I continued to publish my books in Vietnam with many other names. I wrote a history of Vietnamese Buddhism in three thick volumes and I signed the name Nguyen Lang. So although I was away from the country thirty-nine years, I continued to write books and some of them were published in Vietnam under different names. 

As we have said, the first meaning of Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that is present in every moment of our daily life. While you brush your teeth, Buddhism should be there. While you drive your car, Buddhism should be there. While you are walking in the supermarket, Buddhism should be there — so that you know what to buy and what not to buy! 

Also, Engaged Buddhism is the kind of wisdom that responds to anything that happens in the here and the now — global warming, climate change, the destruction of the ecosystem, the lack of communication, war, conflict, suicide, divorce. As a mindfulness practitioner, we have to be aware of what is going on in our body, our feelings, our emotions, and our environment. That is Engaged Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is the kind of Buddhism that responds to what is happening in the here and the now. 

A Fresh Take on the Four Noble Truths 

We can speak about Engaged Buddhism in terms of the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth is dukkha, ill-being. Traditionally Buddhist teachers have spoken of the First Noble Truth in this way: old age is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, separation from those you love is suffering. Leaving all those you love; wishing for something but never obtaining it. But these are old ways of describing the First Noble Truth. Now as we practice mindfulness we have to identify the kind of ill-being that is actually present. First of all we know there is a kind of tension in the body, a lot of stress. We can say that suffering today involves tension, stress, anxiety, fear, violence, broken families, suicide, war, conflict, terrorism, destruction of the ecosystem, global warming, etc. 

We should be fully present in the here and the now and recognize the true face of ill-being. 

The natural tendency is to run away from suffering, from ill-being. We don’t want to confront it so we try to escape. But the Buddha advises us not to do so. In fact he encourages us to look deeply into the nature of the suffering in order to learn. His teaching is that if you do not understand the suffering you cannot see the path of transformation, the path leading to the cessation of suffering. 

All of us know that the First Noble Truth is ill-being and the Fourth Noble Truth is the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. Without understanding the First you never have the opportunity to see the path leading to the cessation of ill-being. 

You should learn to come home to the present moment in order to recognize ill-being as it is; and as we practice looking deeply into the First Noble Truth, ill-being, we will discover the Second Noble Truth, the roots or the making of ill-being. 

Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being. Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more. We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal. 

If we know how to live like a Buddha, dwelling in the present moment, allowing the refreshing and healing elements to penetrate, then we will not become victims of stress, tension, and many kinds of disease. 

You can say that one of the roots of ill-being is our incapacity to live our life deeply in each moment. 

When we have a lot of tension and irritation in us we cannot listen to the other person. We cannot use loving speech. We cannot remove wrong perceptions. Therefore wrong perceptions give rise to fear, hate, violence, and so on. We have to identify the causes of our ill-being. This is very important work. 

Suppose we speak of suicide, of broken families. We know that when communication becomes difficult between husband and wife, father and son, mother and daughter, people are no longer happy. Many young people fall into despair and want to commit to suicide. They don’t know how to handle despair or their emotions, and they think that the only way to stop suffering is to kill oneself. In France every year about 12,000 young people commit suicide, just because they can’t handle their emotions like despair. And their parents don’t know how to do it. They don’t teach their children how to deal with their feelings, and even school teachers don’t how to help their students to recognize and hold their emotions tenderly. 

When people cannot communicate they don’t understand each other or see the other’s suffering and there is no love, no happiness. War and terrorism are also born from wrong perceptions. Terrorists think that the other side is trying to destroy them as a religion, as a way of life, as a nation. If we believe that the other person is trying to kill us then we will seek ways to kill the other person first in order not to be killed. 

Fear, misunderstanding, and wrong perceptions are the foundation of all these violent acts. The war in Iraq, which is called anti-terrorist, has not helped to reduce the number of terrorists. In fact the number of terrorists is increasing all the time because of the war. In order to remove terrorism you have to remove wrong perceptions. We know very well that airplanes, guns, and bombs cannot remove wrong perceptions. Only loving speech and compassionate listening can help people correct wrong perceptions. But our leaders are not trained in that discipline and they rely on the armed forces to remove terrorism. 

So looking deeply we can see the making of ill-being, the roots of ill-being, by recognizing ill-being as the truth and looking deeply into its nature. 

The Third Noble Truth is the cessation of ill-being, which means the presence of well-being — just as the absence of darkness means the presence of light. When ignorance is no longer present, there is wisdom. When you remove darkness, there is light. So the cessation of ill-being means the presence of well-being, which is the opposite of the First Noble Truth. 

The teaching of the Buddha confirms the truth that well-being is possible. Because there is ill-being, well-being is possible. If ill-being is described first in terms of tension, stress, heaviness, then well-being is described as lightness, peace, relaxation – la détente. With your body, breath, feet, and mindfulness you can reduce tension and bring about relaxation, lightness, peace. 

We can speak of the Fourth Noble Truth in very concrete terms. The methods of practice enable us to reduce tension, stress, unhappiness, as seen in the Fourth Noble Truth, the path. Today’s Dharma teachers may want to call it the path of well-being. The cessation of ill-being means the beginning of well-being — it’s so simple! 

From Many Gods to No God 

I would like to go back a little bit to the history of Engaged Buddhism. 

In the nineteen-fifties I began to write because people needed to have spiritual direction to help them overcome their confusion. One day I wrote about the relationship between religious belief and the ways we organize our society. I described the history of the evolution of society. 

First, our society was organized in groups of people called tribes. Over time, several tribes would come together and finally we set up kingdoms, with a king. Then the time came when we had enough of kings and we wanted to create democracies or republics. 

Our religious beliefs had been changing along the way. First of all, we had something parallel to the establishment of tribes — polytheism, the belief that there are many gods and each god has a power. You are free to choose one god to worship, and that god will protect you against the other gods and the other tribes. 

When we form kingdoms, then our way of belief changes also — monotheism. There’s only one God, the most powerful God, and we should worship only one God and not many gods. 

When we come to democracies, there’s no king anymore. Everyone is equal to everyone else, and we rely on each other to live. That is why monotheism is changing to the belief in interdependence — interbeing — where there is no longer God. We are fully responsible for our life, for our world, for our planet. I wrote things like that during the time I was trying to build up Engaged Buddhism. 

Birth of the Order of Interbeing 

In 1964, we established the Order of Interbeing. The birth of the Order of Interbeing is very meaningful. We need only to study the Fourteen Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in order to understand why and how the Order of Interbeing was established. 

At that time the war was going on very fiercely. It was a conflict between ideologies. The North and South each had their own ideology; one side was Marxism-Leninism, the other, personalism and capitalism. Not only did we fight with ideologies imported from the outside, but we also fought with weapons imported from the outside — guns and bombs from Russia, China, and America. As Buddhists who practice peace and reconciliation, brotherhood and sisterhood, we did not want to accept such a war. You cannot accept a war where brothers are killing brothers with ideologies and weapons imported from the outside. 

The Order of Interbeing was born as a spiritual resistance movement. It’s based completely on the teachings of the Buddha. The First Mindfulness Training — non-attachment to views, freedom from all ideologies — was a direct answer to the war. Everyone was ready to die and to kill for their beliefs. 

The First Mindfulness Training: “Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones…” 

This is the lion’s roar!

“Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.” 

The teaching of the Buddha from the Nipata Sutra concerning views is very clear. We should not be attached to any view; we have to transcend all views.

Right View, first of all, means the absence of all views. Attachment to views is the source of suffering. Suppose you climb on a ladder, and on the fourth step you think you are already at the highest level. Then you are stuck! You have to release the fourth step in order to be able to get up to the fifth step. To be scientific, scientists have to release what they have found in order to come to a higher truth. This is the teaching of the Buddha: When you consider something to be the truth and you are attached to it, you must release it in order to go higher. 

The basic spirit of Buddhism is non-attachment to views. Wisdom is not views. Insight is not views. We should be ready to release our ideas for true insight to be possible. Suppose you have notions about impermanence, non-self, interbeing, the Four Noble Truths. That may be dangerous, because these are only views. You are very proud that you know something about the Four Noble Truths, about interbeing, about interdependent origination, about mindfulness, concentration, and insight. But that teaching is only a means for you to get insight. If you are attached to these teachings, you are lost. The teaching about impermanence, nonself, interbeing, is to help you to get the insight of impermanence, non-self, and interbeing. 

The Buddha said, “My teaching is like the finger pointing to the moon. You should be skillful. You look in the direction of my finger, and you can see the moon. If you take my finger to be the moon, you will never see the moon.” So even the Buddhadharma is not the truth, it’s only an instrument for you to get the truth. This is very basic in Buddhism.

War is the outcome of attachment to views, of fanaticism. If we look deeply into the nature of the war in Iraq, we can see that it is also a religious war. People are using religious belief to back up the war. Mr. Bush was supported by many [right-wing Christian] evangelists. The resistance fighters and the terrorists in Iraq are backed up by their Muslim belief. So this is somehow a religious war. Peace cannot exist if we maintain our fanaticism concerning our views. 

Lotus in a Sea of Fire 

In 1965 I wrote a small book on the war in Vietnam, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, published by Hill and Wong in America. The war in Vietnam was raging, it was an ocean of fire. We were killing each other; we allowed American bombers to come and destroy our forests, our people. We allowed weapons from China and Russia to come. But Buddhism was trying to do something. Those of us who did not accept the war wanted to do something to resist the war. 

Buddhists did not have radio or television stations. There was no way for them to express themselves. 

Whoever is listening, be my witness:
I do not accept this war,
let me say this one more time before I die.  

These are lines in my poems.

Our enemies are not men. 

Our enemies are hate, fanaticism, violence. Our enemies are not men. If we kill men, with whom shall we live?

The peace movement in Vietnam badly needed international support, but you could not hear us over there. So sometimes we had to burn ourselves alive to tell you that we didn’t want this war. Please help stop this war, this killing of brothers by brothers! Buddhism was like a lotus flower trying to survive in an ocean of fire.

I translated the book into Vietnamese, and an American friend in the peace movement helped bring that book to Vietnam. The book was printed underground and many young people tried to circulate that book as an act of resistance.

Sister Chan Khong, who was a professor of biology in Hue University, brought a copy to Hue for a friend. She was arrested and put into prison because she owned one copy of that book. Later on she was transferred to a prison in Saigon.

The School of Youth for Social Service

Young friends came to me and asked me to publish my poems about peace. They called it anti-war poetry. I said okay, if you want to do it, please do. They collected about fifty or sixty poems of mine on this topic and submitted them to the government of South Vietnam. Fifty-five of the poems were censored. Only a few were left. But our friends were not discouraged and they printed the poems underground. The book of poetry sold very, very quickly. Even some secret police liked it, because they also suffered from the war. They would go to the bookstore and say, “You shouldn’t display them like this! You should hide them behind the counter!” [laughs]

Radio stations in Saigon, Hanoi, and Beijing began to attack the poems because they called for peace. No one wanted peace. They wanted to fight to the end.

In 1964 we also established the School of Youth for Social Service. We trained thousands of young people, including monks and nuns, to go to the countryside and help the peasants rebuild their villages. We helped them in four aspects: education, health, economics, and organization. Our social workers went to a village and played with the children and taught them how to read and write and sing. When the people in the village liked us, we suggested building a school for the children. One family gave a few bamboo trees. Another family brought coconut leaves to make a roof. Then we began to have a school. Our workers did not receive a salary. After setting up a school in the village, we set up a dispensary where we could dispense rudimentary medicines to help the people. We brought into the village students of medicine or a doctor and tried to help one or two days. We also organized cooperatives and tried to teach people the kind of handicrafts they could do in order to increase the income of the family.

We have to begin with ourselves, from the grassroots. The School of Youth for Social Service was founded on the spirit that we don’t need to wait for the government.

A New Youth Organization in Europe 

We trained many young people, including young monks and nuns. Finally we had more than ten thousand workers working from Quang Tri to the south. During the war we helped sponsor more than ten thousand orphans. That is part of Engaged Buddhism — the young people.

This year we intend to set up an organization of young Buddhists in Europe: Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. So many young people have come to us, to our retreats in Europe, America, and Asia. Now we want to organize them. They will use the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their practice, and they will engage themselves into society — to help produce a healthier society, one with more compassion.

If my friends here are inspired by the idea, then please, when you go home, invite the young people to set up a group of Young Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society.

Last month we went to Italy, and we had one day of practice with the young people in the city of Napoli [Naples]. The five hundred young men and women who came to practice with us loved it! They are ready to engage in the practice of peace, helping to produce a healthier, more compassionate society.

Our young monks and nuns will also be involved in that organization.

Foundation of an Institute of Applied Buddhism 

We have also set up a European Institute of Applied Buddhism. I hope that during this retreat, Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, will offer a presentation on the Institute of Applied Buddhism. We shall have campuses in America and Asia also. Everyone who has successfully completed the three-month retreat in Plum Village or Deer Park will be given a certificate of completion issued by the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

The Institute of Applied Buddhism will offer many interesting courses. You might like to help organize a course in your area; we will send Dharma teachers. One example is the twenty-one-day course for young men and women who are preparing to set up a family. There they learn how to make their conjugal life into a success.

There will be courses for those who have been diagnosed with AIDS or cancer, so that they can learn how to live with their sickness. If you know how to accept and live with your sickness, then you can live twenty, thirty more years.

There will be courses for businesspeople, for school teachers, and so on.

This kind of certificate will help you to become an official Dharma teacher. One day you might be inspired to become a Dharma teacher, to go out and help people, to be a continuation of the Buddha.

Nowadays we are using the term “Applied Buddhism,” which is just another way of referring to Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed by Greg Sever. Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel. 

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To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at editor@mindfulnessbell.org.

Letter from the Editor

mb49-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

“Each of us has to discover for himself or herself the cause of ill-being,” says Thay in his Dharma talk at the retreat in Hanoi. I am sitting on my couch furiously scribbling as I transcribe Thay’s words from the DVD. (Our invaluable volunteer Greg Sever transcribed most of the two talks that are excerpted in this issue, but then I decided I wanted to include Thay’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths.) The sun is shining outside my home in Colorado, the grass needs mowing, I’m way behind my ideal schedule for getting the Mindfulness Bell articles to Sister Annabel for review.

With a compassionate calm smile, Thay continues, “Suppose we speak about our hectic life — we have so much to do, so much to achieve. As a politician, a businessman, even an artist, we want to do more and more and more.” I just have to laugh. What irony! Like many people I know, I’m juggling so many different responsibilities, tasks, and fun projects that I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.

Thay goes on: “We crave success. We do not have the capacity to live deeply each moment of our daily life. We don’t give our body a chance to relax and to heal.” Finally I get it. I pause the DVD, put down my pad and pencil, and take a few breaths. I realize I need a break so I go outside and water a few plants, pull a few weeds, pet the dog.

A month later I take a real break and attend the Healing Self, Healing Earth retreat at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park — five days of peace, healing, insight, and new friendships.

In addition to enlightening Dharma talks and mindful hikes in the Rocky Mountains, one of the blessings for me when I go on retreat is the opportunity to speak with readers of the Mindfulness Bell. It’s heartening to hear that people enjoy the magazine, read it on the plane, keep it by their bedside, savor old issues. In this issue we also print letters from prison inmates who benefit from the Mindfulness Bell. Thank you all for sharing your kind thoughts with me, and do continue to share your writings, art, and photos. In particular, I would love to hear from practitioners on the subject of mindfulness in the workplace.

Another way that our journal touches people is when articles get reprinted; this year we’ve had Dharma talks and essays picked up by Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly; Intersein, the German Sangha magazine; The Lotus Bud newsletter in Sydney, Australia; the new Sangha newsletter in Thailand; and Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge. And we earned a complimentary review in Utne Reader’s online newsletter.

In addition, we’ll have another piece in Shambhala’s prestigious anthology, Best Buddhist Writing 2008. Here’s what editor Melvin McLeod wrote to me: “It’s perhaps a surprising choice: young Cameron Barnett’s description of his retreat at Plum Village, and how it helped him after he returned to school… This piece will be included with authors who include the Dalai Lama, Natalie Goldberg, Sylvia Boorstein, and of course Thich Nhat Hanh himself. I felt that it told such a sincere story of how the practice can be applied that it deserved to be in such august company… I’d also like to say how much I admire and enjoy the Mindfulness Bell. Of course I have the greatest respect for Thay and all his historic work, and the Mindfulness Bell is a reflection of this great teacher.”

To me, the Mindfulness Bell is also a reflection of our four-fold Sangha — an ever-inspiring kaleidoscope of wisdom, compassion, and beauty in the world.

Blessings to you all,

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Letters

Prison Dharma

About 50 copies of each issue of the Mindfulness Bell go out to people who are incarcerated. Their heartwarming letters remind us why we do this work.

Another year has passed and once again the Mindfulness Bell has offered to extend my subscription for the new year. I am truly grateful for the offer.

Yes, I would very much appreciate the opportunity to receive the Dharma via the Mindfulness Bell for an additional year.

We have a very small Sangha here at Gulf C.I. and we are able to gather once each week on the recreation yard. Each issue of the Mindfulness Bell we receive is passed around and becomes the topic of many discussions and fuel for our practice.

I send many thanks and our best wishes to everyone who in any way helps to bring the Dharma to others, and especially to those who share via the Mindfulness Bell.

Humbly yours,
Patrick L. S.
Gulf  Correctional Institution
Wewahitchka, Florida

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Hands in the lotus posture and bow to all at the Mindfulness Bell staff.

I am in receipt of the complimentary card gift subscription that you send me. It’s difficult to find the right words to express all that I feel by your generosity. The only thing that I do know is that I am very very grateful for your kindness and by giving me the privilege of receiving the beautiful insights that the magazine brings. You all are doing a wonderful thing by your donation of the Mindfulness Bell to us incarcerated seeking the truth of the teaching of the Buddha.

You will never know how much you all have helped me. Thanks!

Yours in the Dharma,
Fabio V.
Union Correctional Institution
Raiford, Florida

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I very much enjoyed the articles in the Mindfulness Bell. I loved reading about Thay’s home in Vietnam and the practice people are doing both there and around the world and it strengthens my mindfulness practice. I have very much enjoyed and loved the poetry in the middle of the Bell. Also I would like to thank you for giving a complimentary gift subscription and was wondering if you could send me another year’s worth. It is very much read and I loved every issue.

Good karma,
Guy W.
Skyview Prison Unit
Rusk, Texas

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I pray this letter finds all of you happy and well!

I am writing to express how truly thankful I am to receive the Mindfulness Bell. I do not know who my benefactor is — I certainly am in no position to afford your publication — but be assured that it gets quite a lot of use here! There are 330 men in this building and I share and talk with quite a few men here the different articles and poetry. Please let my benefactors know that they are in my thoughts and prayers!

I pray for all of you and to your continued success! Be happy and at peace!

Edward T.
Chuckwalla Valley State Prison
Blythe, California

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Viet Nam or Vietnam?

Occasionally we get feedback that we should be more respectful of Vietnamese culture and write words, especially place names, the way the Vietnamese do. (Unfortunately, we don’t have the capability to print all the accents.) With so many contributions in this issue pertaining to the Sangha’s Vietnamese trip, I sought advice. Who better to ask than Sister Annabel, who is expert in Sanskrit and has translated Thay’s books from Vietnamese into English? Sister Annabel responds: When we write Ha Noi or Viet Nam without the appropriate accents it already ceases to be Vietnamese. Unless you are going to write using accents, I suggest that you write Hanoi, Vietnam, Saigon.

Sister Annabel, Chan Duc

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Vesak — and More — in Vietnam

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In May 2008 Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha made a third voyage to Vietnam, this time for a historic occasion: the United Nations Day of Vesak. This was the first time this biannual gathering of the world’s Buddhists was held in Vietnam. As the official U.N. report stated, “Thich Nhat Hanh and his delegation contributed an important spiritual energy to the UNDV events with three retreats offered in Vietnam in the weeks leading up to the UNDV conference. They held two retreats for young people, attended by over 3500 people with a thousand who took refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings… A retreat for Westerners had over 400 participants from forty-one nations. A busy city hotel was transformed into a peaceful monastery … demonstrating the transformative and healing nature of the Dharma.”

Inspired by Thay and his Engaged Buddhism, the three-day conference that followed the celebrations focused on “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.” It featured presentations by dozens of teachers and practitioners, including many disciples of Thich Nhat Hanh, who gave the principal keynote address.

In addition to Thay’s Dharma talk from the Hanoi retreat, we offer a couple of essays about the events, along with an interview of Thay Phap Kham, one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s senior monks from Plum Village who now lives primarily in Vietnam. The next issue of the Mindfulness Bell will feature more articles about the UNDV, including some of the presentations from the conference.

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Report of the United Nations Day of Vesak 2008

National Convention Center, Hanoi, Vietnam May 13-17, 2008

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Vietnam hosted the Fifth United Nations Day of Vesak Celebrations 2008 (UNDV 2008) entitled “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society,” with great joy. Over six hundred Buddhist delegations consisting of about five thousand Buddhist monastics and laypeople from seventy-four countries came to find, in the spirit of compassion and wisdom, the solutions to pressing world issues.

Dressed in many-colored Buddhist temple robes — brown, gray, orange, red, and yellow — the delegates who assembled to open the three-day celebration represented many traditions and lineages. They offered a moment of silent prayer for victims of recent natural disasters in Myanmar and China, followed by an opening address by Prof. Le Manh That, Vice President of Vietnam Buddhist University and Chairman of the International Organizing Committee for UNDV 2008. His Holiness Thich Pho Tue, Supreme Patriarch of Vietnam Buddhist Sangha offered a congratulatory message, followed by a welcoming address by Mr. Nguyen Minh Triet, President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Keynote speaker Ven. Mathieu Ricard stressed the importance of first transforming ourselves if we want a wiser and more compassionate society. He said that cultivating our mind is the best service we can do for society. Keynote speaker Most Ven. Prof. Dharmakosajarn shared that the goals of the UN are similar to the goals of Buddhism in the search to attain peace and security in the world and establish conditions of respect for international law and human rights.

The important keynote speaker was Zen master, Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. He urged delegates to commit themselves to not only support building a just, democratic, and civilized society in theory, but also in practice. “We have to change ourselves before we can make the change happen in our society. Being peace is the foundation of making peace. Without transformation and healing we are not calm and compassionate enough to use loving speech and deep listening, and our efforts will not help change our society.”

Cultural Activities

Cultural highlights of the UNDV celebrations included a Buddhist art and photo exhibition, as well as special processions of lights and decorated floats. On May 14 a spectacular candle-lit procession started the evening performance, which included a Vietnamese fan dance, traditional drumming, and musical offerings. On the evening of May 15 a rich and moving theatrical performance on the life of Buddha was portrayed in Vietnamese opera style. Cultural activities were organized not only in Hanoi but also in fifty-five cities and provinces.

The final evening, after the closing ceremony, there was a candlelight vigil praying for World Peace with thousands of people. Sanghas throughout the nation of Vietnam and around the world were asked to join in a simultaneous prayer vigil.

Panel Workshops

The heart of the conference was seven workshops, each of them with three panels, one in the morning and two in the afternoon. Buddhists from around the world  shared their practices, teachings, experiences and research on the topics related to the conference theme, followed by question-and-answer periods.

War, Conflict and Healing: A Buddhist Perspective

The international gathering investigated the causes of war, conflict and disharmony among different cultures, nations and religions, and tried through the light of Buddhist doctrines to find solutions. With twenty-two presenters, many coming themselves from recently war-torn areas like Israel and Palestine and Northern Ireland, they concluded that for society to be healthy the individual must be healthy. To do this, we should practice non-attachment to views. When we go into regions of conflict we see that suffering is experienced on all sides. But we have difficulty acknowledging that the suffering of “the other” is the same as our own. Buddha’s teachings help us recognize this. We need to look deeply into the roots of our own suffering and develop the capacity to also see the suffering of others. If we look deeply, hope is possible.

Social Justice

In the Social Justice Panel, presenters shared that the way to peace and justice lies in peaceful personal and collective action. We heard examples of the practice of mindfulness applied to the training of police officers and lawyers, as well as in mediating and resolving community disputes, and the negotiations between an international corporation and indigenous tribes.

In assuring social justice, we must acknowledge our interconnectedness. Buddhist ethics, grounded in this understanding of interconnectedness, play an important role in the development of a just society. On a personal level, the application of mindful, deep listening and peaceful, loving speech in a context of social action can support and promote the transformation of the society.

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Engaged Buddhism & Development

This panel emphasized that development must not only be defined as economic growth and material prosperity but also as the growth of happiness and peace in society. Many societies that are so-called ‘developed’ have high rates of crime, depression, suicide, family breakdown, and deep unhappiness, brought about precisely by the materialism and drive to consume that is the mark of our current definition of ‘developed’ societies. Specific examples of efforts to engage in development work integrating the Dharma included a plea for support for the efforts of Sanghabuilding in Africa.

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Care for Environment: Buddhist Response to Climate  Change

The panel recommended that the Buddhist world prepare itself for climate change and promote more education about the issue. It also asked both lay people and monastics to set an example and that Earth Day be recognized and honored in the world.

Family Problems and the Buddhist Response

Many local Vietnamese delegates attended this panel. Everyone was very moved and inspired by the concrete, practical sharing of how to resolve conflicts, the importance of deep listening and loving speech, and the role of mindful breathing in creating deep transformation in ourselves, families, and society. The central message was the important role of the Five Precepts or Mindfulness Trainings in healing family problems and preventing them in the first place. The sharings were personal while remaining very relevant, and at times the audience was moved to tears. There was a real cross-cultural dialogue and experience of deepening understanding across many different barriers of language, culture, and generations.

Symposium on Buddhist Education: Continuity and Progress

The thirteen presenters at this workshop spoke of the important role that Buddhist teaching and practice can play at all levels of learning, from grade school to university, serving as a stabilizing and transformative force of wisdom for the individual and collective consciousness. The continued growth and maintenance of these centers of teaching is critical to the well-being of people within these societies as well as in relationships with other nations. There is a growing interest in Western countries to integrate Buddhist teachings into the very foundation of education in schools, from primary level to university programs.

Buddhism in the Digital Age: Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative

The panel presentations discussed many ways that Buddhist texts, art, culture, artifacts and temples can be detected, preserved, and shared using various digital technologies. The panel subjects were divided into three general categories: digitalization and preservation of historical sites; preservation of texts through digital media; and the location and mapping (via technology such as Google Earth) of Buddhist sites.

Conclusion

We would like to thank all Venerables and delegates from ninety different countries for your participation at this Fifth UNDV conference.

You are invited to attend upcoming international Buddhist events including the 2nd World Buddhist Forum in August 2008, the Fifth World Buddhist Summit in Japan in November 2008, General Conference of the International Association of Buddhist Universities, Bangkok, Thailand, 2008, the activities of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (WFB) and Inner Trip Reiyukai International (ITRI), and especially we hope you will come join us for the Sixth World Buddhist Summit in Vietnam in 2010.

This report, edited here for length, was a collaborative effort of Dr. Manpreet Singh, Sr. Thong Niem, Sr. Chau Nghiem, Sr. Nhu Nghiem, Ven. Thich Nhat Tu, Avi Magidoff, Karen Hilsberg, Loan Phan, Sita Ramamurthy, Sally Tinker, Carmen Kuchera, Kate Ettinger, David Haskin and other lay practitioners who reported on the different workshops at the Vesak conference. Also see http://vesakday2008.com.

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Practice in Vietnam: An Inside Look

Interview with Thay Phap Kham

By Barbara Casey in Hanoi, Vietnam

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During the retreat in Hanoi, former Mindfulness Bell editor Barbara Casey sat down with Thay Phap Kham (monks who have received full ordination are addressed as “Thay”) for an extended chat. This energetic and committed monk has been instrumental in establishing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Sangha in Vietnam and Hong Kong. He’s also a longtime friend and supporter of the Mindfulness Bell.

Please tell us your story about being born in Vietnam, about leaving, and then what it was like coming back for the first time.

I was born in a small village in the country, in the middle of a war zone. In the daytime it was controlled by the South Vietnam government, but at night it was under the control of the guerrillas, and at times they would take people away and terrorize them. When I was five or six years old, I saw the consequences of war. My neighbors were killed. I saw people being mutilated and burned like charcoal. I saw soldiers on both sides getting killed. Some of the guerrillas who were killed were acquaintances of my family in the village. As a small child, witnessing those kinds of things made me suffer. And a deep understanding grew in me, that there should be a better way, that something like this shouldn’t happen.

I remember vividly the image of a black GI who came to my village in a convoy. I wasn’t afraid of him; he gave me some candy. But a soldier from the South Vietnamese army told me to go home because there was some fighting about to happen. So, even at that young age I had some kind of human connection with those soldiers.

When I was eleven, my hometown was taken over by the North Vietnamese army, so I moved to central Vietnam, and then to Saigon, with my family. I lived with the communists for three years [after reunification in 1975], and then I left by boat in 1978. From a refugee camp in the Philippines I emigrated to the U.S. in 1979.

Those three years under the communists taught me a lot. I became a responsible young man. And then I left Vietnam with my mother and my five brothers and sisters. After emigrating, I attended the university and graduated, and then worked as an engineer for about thirteen years.

Where was this?

Near Washington D.C. When I was twenty-five I discovered Buddhism through reading Thay’s book The Miracle of Mindfulness. It explained Buddhism to me as a way of practice, not as worship or religion. In 1987 I went to Plum Village because I wanted to come back to my cultural roots. I thought Plum Village was a place where many Vietnamese people came and participated in cultural activities, and spoke Vietnamese, and wore traditional clothes, and felt nostalgia for their homeland.

But as Plum Village developed into more of a Buddhist meditation center, I grew with that. Ten years later, in 1997, I came to practice as an aspirant. In 1998 I became a monk, so I have been a monk for about ten years. People who knew me at that time were very surprised to see me as a monk, because they saw that I was already very happy. For ten years I had been a community activist working with Vietnamese youth, teaching them about Vietnamese culture, language, and traditions. I taught Vietnamese language to the children almost every weekend. It was a way for me to serve.

But being a monk I can serve more people all over the world. So I told those people that being a monk makes me happier!

I see that the direction of my life was determined when I was very young. I was sent to a boarding school, and this had a big impact on my life. Almost every month I was allowed to go home from the school in Hue to Quang Tri where my family lived. My father would come pick me up. One day the bridge on the road was broken, because of the floods and the fighting, and my parents were on the other side and I on this side. It’s something I consider very heroic for me, an eight-year-old boy! So I crossed that broken bridge alone, and when I saw my parents, they hugged me and gave me popcorn; I felt a lot of joy!

After that trip, every night before going to bed at the boarding school I dressed up in nice clothes, and I prayed. I would pray, “Dear God, dear Buddha, and dear Jesus Christ, let me be with my family.” I did not know who had the supreme power, so I prayed to them all. But I didn’t want to be selfish, so I said, “Let all the people have a chance to be with their families also, and let the war end.”

I did that for one year. But of course it didn’t happen. The war still went on, so I stopped praying.

So you live in Vietnam again.

Yeah. Returning to Vietnam gave me a lot of experiences. I was born in Quang Tri, the place that suffered from the heaviest fighting. Just in front of my house, there was this place called Old Citadel, where the armies from the North and the South fought many fierce battles. During the two months of a last battle there in 1972, tens of thousands of people were killed or wounded. When I returned to Vietnam, I visited that place three times and contemplated — they say that every square foot of it is covered with blood. But now it has become a beautiful park. I see that people have good intentions, and it was a relief to see that local people made peace with it.

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I’m happy to be back in Vietnam, but also disappointed with the morality and the values of the society now. Before we went to war and during the war, people were taking care of each other. But now, even though we have peace, it seems like people don’t take care of each other.

Vietnam has grown and developed, but if you look deeply there are many poor people, and the gap between the rich and the poor is getting bigger. This has happened in many developed countries, but it should not have happened that way in Vietnam. Also, people have lost their family values. We can see more buildings, more high rises, but if you look carefully, we see that life is difficult for people here. It’s congested and polluted. The people and the country have a long way to go to become a more developed, a more ordered society.

So I’m happy to be back, but I also see a challenge. I think that’s why Thay has made three trips back — to help, to give a hand in this process.

I have met quite a few young people at our retreats and I see their hope and also their disappointment. Having nothing to look forward to, it seems like there are no opportunities for them. In Vietnam I see that Buddhism can offer some hope, some way out.

What is Thay’s Sangha like in the different parts of Vietnam?

Since the trip in 2005, we have set up the practice in Prajna Monastery (in the highlands) and in Tu Hieu, Thay’s root temple [in central Vietnam], and we now have about four hundred monks, nuns, and aspirants who practice in our tradition. The average age is about twenty-two, very young, so they are creating a base of Buddhism for the next fifty years. Prajna is located in a remote area, but whatever we do at Prajna, people all over the country pay attention to it. Prajna is the place that people can think about and know that there is a group of people practicing for them. It gives them hope.

We have plans to expand our practice in the north. The people in the north have just returned to Buddhism after years of absence, and their practice consists mostly of faith and religious rituals. But they seem like they’re very open to our way of practice. It’s up to us to integrate their worship of Buddha with our practice. If we are skillful, we can make a big difference in the north.

There are already many temples in the north, and Plum Village doesn’t need to own a center in order to teach. We would like to be treated as a partner and be invited to teach in the temples that already exist. That makes people more secure and they’re more willing to help that way. We have to integrate with them and offer the practice so that we can spread the teaching. There are eighty-four million people, so five hundred Plum Village monastics cannot do the work alone. We need to have interbeing with other traditions, working together as a team.

We cannot be caught within the form of Plum Village traditions, of Thay’s teachings. It is the content of the practice — love and understanding — that counts.

Our presence in Hong Kong is also a support for Vietnam. The practice there is attracting quite a few people. Like everywhere else, people throughout Asia have suffered with the fast pace of modern life. If the help is there, they come. So we have a very positive outlook.

However, we need to really be careful not to over expand. We need our practice to be strong, to emphasize quality over quantity. Looking back, I think we have made quite big leaps.

What’s your relationship with the government at this point?

I think the Vietnamese government is more open, but being a communist country, they are afraid of some movement becoming too popular. They don’t want anybody to have so much influence. But they are fairly open to Thay’s teachings; for example, now most of Thay’s books have been published in Vietnam. But to spread more into the mainstream to professionals, to people who don’t come to temple regularly, we may have difficulty. We have not been able to go to schools or businesses to share the practice. We need to make the teachings available in other places besides the temple. So we have to think of ways to propagate the Dharma. For instance, people can go online to download a Dharma talk or read articles written for mainstream magazines.

As long as they don’t see us as a threat, the government will allow, maybe even encourage us to spread the teachings. We have to follow the rules, but I don’t think that we are forced to spread the propaganda of communism.

However, there are still political sensitivities. The government asked Thay and the Sangha to refrain from talking about Tibet and Burma, because these are sensitive issues. But we are in the business of practice, so as long as we can do so in a skillful way, we will continue to express our love and understanding to other peoples throughout the world.

Do you think the government sees a benefit to society in Thay’s teaching?

I think so. We have more difficulties with some segments in the Buddhist church in Vietnam than with the government, primarily due to jealousy. I think that by teaching people about moral values, we’ll help build the country. We have to do a lot more and see that this process must continue beyond our lifetimes. But at least Thay has come home and started the process. We have to find skillful ways to continue.

How can people in North America, Europe, Australia, and South America support the efforts of the Sangha in Vietnam?

The practice of other people from different parts of the world helps. On this trip, people have come from forty countries and the peaceful energy generated has impressed people already. Vietnamese people see this and say, These people are from the developed world, and they come from far away to learn the practice with this Vietnamese monk, and we are here in Vietnam, and he’s a Vietnamese man, why don’t we learn from him?

The staff in the hotel have already commented on how quiet, well behaved, and nice to be with we are. And that’s the best Dharma talk that we can give them. People who serve us in the dining hall or at the reception desk, or people doing the room service, notice the difference in a practitioner. I think being where we are, being good practitioners, is the best way to help the practice in Vietnam.

In the next twenty years Asia will be the center of attention, with the big growth in India and China and other countries. So it is good that we are beginning to take root here at this time. But we do not give less attention in the West, because that is where innovations and ideas and support will come from. Financially, Prajna is supported by the Western practitioners; Plum Village is responsible for one-hundred percent of operations and training. By going to retreats, contributing to this and that, practitioners all over the world are supporting our efforts here. That’s interbeing.

Being stronger in the West helps our practice to be strong in Vietnam. And by being stronger in Vietnam it helps us be strong in the West. From the beginning we have sent monks and nuns to Plum Village, from Prajna. And several of us from Plum Village have lived here in Vietnam.

Tell us about the online interview Thay did recently.

Thay gave an interview with an online newspaper, Vietnam Net [http://vietnamnet.vn and http://english.vietnamnet.vn]. It is one of the most visited websites in Vietnam. Quite a few people read it.

The interview lasted for almost two hours, and the interviewer asked quite a few questions — about how the teachings can help people live more moral lives, how the Buddhist values of happiness, stillness, and slowness contradict the ambition to be successful. How we can overcome jealousies among the monastics in the Buddhist church. How Buddhism can advise what a smaller Buddhist country should say to a bigger Buddhist country who always has the intention of invading [China]. He asked quite a few questions about how to apply Buddhism in real life; for example, how can his company practice as a Sangha? And Thay responded to all those questions, giving a Dharma talk to the whole nation.

Do you have any idea how many people might listen to that interview?

They say that it got one million hits. Perhaps several hundred thousand people really listened to it.

So censorship doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue?

Now it’s not an issue, because they already know Thay, so they’re quite comfortable!

Well, good! That’s a lot of penetration.

Yeah. And they transcribed the whole interview, and put the video on the Web so Vietnamese people all over the world can listen to it.

I am optimistic. There are still some hurdles — I’m still not able to get a long-term visa to stay in Vietnam. Every six months I have to renew, at the government’s mercy. But I have been here almost three years, with some break in between. The path is wide open. I am happy being a monk, so it’s the path for me.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.

Bmb49-Practice3arbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, lives in Ashland, Oregon with her husband, Robert, and practices with the Peaceful Refuge Sangha.

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Rejoicing with the Sangha in Hanoi

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

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The seven-day retreat on Engaged Buddhism in Hanoi was truly wonderful. I was touched by the rooted feeling of being a community.

Before the orientation, the Order of Interbeing, monks, and nuns were on stage ready to invoke the name of Avalokiteshvarya. Looking out at the audience, I saw a sea of bluish grey robes — I was totally surrounded by spiritual grandparents, mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, brothers, and sisters. I could even feel the presence of my ancestors coming up to support this event. I could only do mindful breathing during the chanting because my attention was on gratitude to my entire line of spiritual and blood ancestors. My lips could not open to sing the chant but the chant resonated in my heart.

Getting enough favorable conditions for the retreat to take place was not an easy task. But with the practice of mindfulness and keeping to our breathing, our patience and faith worked their magic and the fruit of much hard work ripened to perfect sweetness and maturity. We managed to turn the Golden Lotus Hotel into the Golden Lotus Monastery. For seven days, three hundred and fifty people from all over the world stayed in closed quarters. We were able to utilize every inch of space in the Golden Lotus Monastery to practice walking meditation, gather for Dharma discussion, do chi qong, and even find space to be with ourselves. Since we had nowhere to go and nothing to do, it was so easy to dwell joyfully together in our Golden Lotus Monastery!

For the first time, we got to hear Thay share his story about Engaged Buddhism. We listened to the history and rise of this tradition. During the guided meditation in the morning, we were able to come back to ourselves in a very gentle yet powerful way to heal our hearts and to recognize our path to transform our suffering. Tears were shed, leaving our hearts light and giving us a true sense of liberty. The Dharma talks offered inspiration to reach out and help people in the here and now without the need to worry that we will lose our practice. We learned to see that by being mindful, it is only natural to help those in distress. When we help them, we also help ourselves.

The Brothers and Sisters caring for the Dining Meditation Hall did a superb job making the meal time into a period of practice for deep looking and transformation. They invited the bell to welcome us all to come eat together as a family. The manager of the hotel worried when he saw how simple our meals were; he was afraid that we were suffering! Quite the contrary was true — everyone enjoyed the meals. They could feel the goodness and love and care put into preparing the dishes and serving the food.

The ceremony for transmitting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing was like the Grand Ordination Ceremony during the winter retreat. Both lay and monastic practitioners received the Trainings. Although we didn’t see a statue of the Buddha or any Patriarch, I am sure they were smiling and proud of us.

Surprisingly, there were a number of young people (nineteen to thirty-five years old) attending the retreat. We had a marvelous time together. We felt so safe with each other that we could share things we would never imagine sharing with other people. We could recognize our practice was vital to our future. We even had T-shirts made as a bell of mindfulness to practice wholeheartedly and diligently to aid in reducing the suffering in the world. The T-shirts said “Let the Buddha Breathe.” We just need to welcome the Buddha into our life and trust that this awakened being knows what to do and we take the joy ride with the Buddha.

When the seven days came to an end, the retreat was not over. We continued dwelling in our energy of peace and healing and nourishing it. We did walking meditation around Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi, seeing the morning life of the Vietnamese. People were jogging, doing aerobics, playing badminton, doing other kinds of exercises, and going to work. We also did sitting meditation in front of the memorial statue of King Ly Thai To. He offered the longest period of peace in Vietnamese history — two hundred years. The following day we had a Day of Mindfulness. We broke out into affinity groups according to the panels that would be discussed at the Vesak Conference the next day

At the opening day of the Vesak Conference we processed into the convention center on a red carpet and we mindfully ascended the long wide staircase between the Dharma Protectors into the hall. We were the largest group at the conference. It was nice to be at the conference as a practitioner and not as a business person with an agenda.

My happiness from the conference came when I met up with the young people’s group at the end of the evening to reflect on the day, to hear other people’s take on the event. I could see that my Sangha was boundless as long as I took the time and saw the joy in being together with those around me. The other part of the conference that touched me were the blown-up pictures of the Requiem Ceremonies from last year. I saw that love was timeless and nothing can stop love from entering the hearts of people.

Our time together in Hanoi made its impression in history and in our hearts. It was a very special twenty-one-day retreat condensed into two weeks of retreat, days of mindfulness, conference, and holiday celebrations. Quite the gift!

Sister Hanh Nghiem, True Action, now lives at New Hamlet in Plum Village.

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The Long Walk from War to Peace

By Larry Calloway

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Thich Nhat Hanh’s return to Vietnam in May for several retreats followed by a United Nations conference was a triumph for his “engaged Buddhism.” Not only was his global influence evident at the conference, but he and four hundred retreat participants (most of us Westerners) were warmly received on a dramatic slow walk in the center of Hanoi.

Triumph perhaps is too military a term for the vindication of an eighty-two-year-old monk who teaches “peace is every step,” but his young life was defined by war, as was his ancient nation. Not until 2005 was he free to return after thirty-nine years — exiled first by the anti-communists, then by the communists.

Sponsoring this year’s UN Vesak Conference was a significant move for the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which has been criticized for religious repression but is encouraging tourism and the recovery of ancient cultural traditions. The conference at Hanoi’s proud new National Convention Center included formal workshops on a variety of issues addressed by Thich Nhat Hanh and his monastic representatives. But because the world continues to suffer from “the scourge of war,” and perhaps because the conference was for the first time in Vietnam, the issues of war, conflict, and healing were foremost.

In his opening address, Phra Dharmakosajarn, one of the most prominent monks in Thailand, made the connection between world peace and Buddhism saying, “No doubt meditation and moral principles contribute to peace, since war begins in the minds of men.” Or, as Thich Nhat Hanh put it in his keynote address, “The roots of war and conflict are in us!”

Thay proposed “the idea of engagement,” he told us, in his first published article in 1954. It was “a time of great confusion” in Vietnam. (The French colonialists, defeated at Dien Bien Phu, were exiting and the Americans, covert sponsors of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, were entering.) As war formed in the minds of McNamara, Rusk, Bundy, the joint chiefs, the Kremlin, Mao, and others, the Vietnam Buddhists countered, in so many words: Leave Vietnam alone!

Perhaps because this was Vietnam, Thay’s Dharma talks in the eight-day retreat dwelt on the American war, as it is known there. The people of the small nation were

caught between foreign ideologies. “Everyone was willing to die for ideologies,” he said, but Buddhism teaches freedom from ideology. The fighting was with ideas and weapons from the outside. “How can you fight such a war? Brother against brother?”

In the early sixties Thay went often to the United States, where he would eventually study at Princeton, lecture at Cornell and teach at Columbia. He was a powerful multilingual anti-war speaker. But sometimes there was a problem. At a huge anti-war rally in 1966 a young man suddenly yelled, “Why are you here? You should be in Vietnam fighting the American imperialists!” In other words, Thay said, the man wanted him to fight, to kill Americans. He answered, “Well, I thought the root of the war was here — in Washington — and that’s why I have come.”

No Ordinary Protester

In Hanoi I met Paul Davis, who had a similar thought at an anti-war march in New York in the sixties. People started yelling, “Ho Chi Minh, Ho Chi Minh, you’re the one who’s gonna win.” That was never the point.

Paul was no ordinary protester. He had joined the United States Marines two weeks after his high school graduation in rural Ohio and landed at Da Nang in 1965, when the U.S. under President Johnson began direct combat operations. Davis was wounded in 1966, and while recovering in the U.S. appeared as a Marine on a panel at a college. Someone asked him if the Vietnamese wanted us there. He spun out a long response, and his interlocutor said, “You have not answered the question.” In a Zen-like, koan-like moment, Paul’s whole mental being suddenly dissolved. He held back tears. Somehow his life had changed forever.

More than ten years ago, after his son died in a car crash, Paul began attending Thich Nhat Hanh retreats. He now counsels Iraq war veterans and their families. In 2003, Paul obtained his Marine casualty report and followed the coordinates to the point where he was wounded. He recognized the distant horizon that he saw as he waited for evacuation. This was on Marble Mountain, near Da Nang, named for a pure white quarry. In the village below, dozens of shops now sell sculptures to tourists.

The War Remembered

The first morning in Hanoi I went walking around the lake (not the one John McCain dropped into) near the big government-built Kim Lien hotel that Plum Village had booked. I took photos of people walking, fishing, or just sitting by the pretty lake. There were young lovers. I was generally ignored except that some children were delighted to see their digital pictures and some old men stared at me coldly.

Later I told my discussion group that I felt the Vietnamese had forgotten the war, had moved on. Two Americans disagreed. But an expatriate Vietnamese man said the Vietnamese had not forgotten but they were used to war. The Americans were just another invader in a long history of warfare to which the nation is inured. This is a sentiment often heard in Vietnam.

One day I went to the National Fine Arts Museum and saw the artistic record of the war. There were a dozen impressions of Viet Cong guerrillas set in villages with women and often children looking on. The pictures carried a mood of grim determination and suffering. Americans were depicted as large and authoritative, including a captive pilot who was being beaten.

Hanoi also has a war museum that displays wreckage of American planes shot down, although it is not promoted for tourists. Near Saigon, however, a park called the Cu Chi Tunnels is on the tourist circuit. Here you can crawl forty feet in a dark, claustrophobic representation of the hundred miles of tunnels from which the Viet Cong attacked and vanished, unaffected by constant B52 bombardment and undiscovered by ground patrols. There are displays with mannequins representing the ingenious tricks of camouflage and cruel demonstrations of pitfalls and traps made from sharpened bamboo.

Once, our bus went through a crowded slum near the center of Hanoi and a Vietnamese woman who worked as a tour guide said, “I hate this neighborhood. It was destroyed in the Christmas bombing. There is a monument here to the dead.” The NixonKissinger bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong from December 18 to 30, 1972 was described by the Washington Post as “the most savage and senseless act of war ever visited … by one sovereign people over another.” Senate Leader Mike Mansfield called it “a stone age tactic.” Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese negotiator at the Paris peace talks, called it “barbarous and inhumane.” It was the last desperate U.S. air offensive in a war that had already been lost. Sixteen of the one hundred B-52s were shot down. The Paris Peace Accords would be signed January 27, 1973.

Morning at the Lake

Early one morning during the retreat, we boarded buses and took a walk along the shore of the central lake, Hoan Kiem, in downtown Hanoi. People were already out doing their morning jogging and aerobics. We left the buses and gathered at the tall statue of Ly Thai To, who moved the capital to Hanoi. There were the four hundred of us in gray robes, plus thirty or so monks and nuns in brown robes with conical reed hats. We walked along the old section of Hanoi and past the historic water puppet theater and turned around near the rock pile monument with the Chinese character for heaven and passed the red bow bridge that goes to an island shrine.

Funny thing, I thought. No police. No wise guys making nervous comments. No angry motorcycle drivers urging our slow-walking meditative line to clear an intersection. Just people watching, curious. Then, about half way through the demonstration, I noticed some of them were lining up along our way. And they were standing respectfully with their palms together at their hearts.

Back at the foot of Ly Thai To sat Thich Nhat Hanh, diminutive and smiling. Many of us sat around him, as if waiting for a lesson. Without comment, he took in the air and the morning sun and the trees and the birds and the lake, which was at our backs. He suggested that we all turn around, that the view was much better that way. He smiled. He was home.

Larry Calloway lives in the high mountains near Crestone, Colorado. A retired journalist, he recently received a Master’s degree in Eastern classics from St. John’s College of Santa Fe.

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The Eight Practices of Respect —Gurudharmas

For a bhikshu to practice with regard to a bhikshuni

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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  1. A bhikshu should join his palms in greeting when he sees a bhikshuni join her palms to him, even though that bhikshuni has only been ordained as bhikshuni for a short time. A bhikshuni, no matter how long she has been ordained, represents the whole bhikshuni Sangha, which has been a partner of the bhikshu Sangha from the time it began to exist and will continue to be so in the future.
  2. A bhikshu does not think or say that the karmic retribution of a nun is less favourable than that of a monk and for that reason a bhikshuni’s studies, practice, realizations and  service to the  Buddhadharma cannot equal that of the bhikshu. A bhikshu is aware that the reason why the Pratimoksha for bhikshunis has more precepts than that for bhikshus is not because bhikshunis have a less favourable karmic retribution: it is because the nuns themselves established more precepts for self-protection and the protection of monks and laymen.
  3. When a bhikshu sees a bhikshuni he should be aware of whether she is of the same age as his mother, elder sister, younger sister, or daughter might be. He should feel respect for and want to protect and assist in the practice any bhikshuni who is older than him as he would feel respect for and want to protect his mother and elder sister. If the bhikshuni is younger than him he should feel care and concern for her and want to protect and assist her in the practice as he would feel concern for his younger sister or daughter.
  4. A bhikshu never maligns a bhikshuni, even in a roundabout way. He never hits a bhikshuni even with a flower. It is courteous of a bhikshu of the twenty-first century to offer a cup of tea to a bhikshuni. A bhikshu knows that just as the bodhisattva Samantabhadra is found in the person of the true bhikshu, so the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is found in the person of the true bhikshuni. This knowledge fosters mutual respect.
  5. When organizing the three-month Rains’ Retreat, bhikshus should make sure that it is in a place where there is a bhikshuni Sangha, so that the bhikshus have an opportunity to be near to, offer teaching to, and receive the support of the bhikshuni Sangha, because the bhikshuni Sangha always has and will be a partner of the bhikshu Sangha.
  6. When the bhikshus hear about a bhikshuni who is learned in the Dharma, is skilled in sharing the Dharma, and practices well the precepts and all other aspects of the path, they can contact the bhikshuni Sangha and invite that bhikshuni to come and give teachings and share her understanding and experience of the practice with them.
  7. When bhikshunis volunteer to come to the bhikshu monastery in order to help cook and lay out a celebratory meal at a memorial service or other important ceremony, the bhikshus should find ways to help out and work alongside the bhikshunis, especially in lifting heavy items.
  8. When bhikshus hear that a bhikshuni is in ill-health or has had an accident they should express feelings of sympathy and they can delegate bhikshus to visit her, ask after her health and find other ways to offer support.

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The New Gurudharmas for Monks

 

 

By Sister Annabel, Chan Duc

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Before the Sangha traveled to Vietnam, Thay wrote a code of conduct for monks with regards to nuns, to update the ancient code of conduct for nuns with regards to monks. Sister Annabel graciously wrote this commentary for the Mindfulness Bell.

The Sangha of the Buddha is known as the Fourfold Sangha. It comprises bhikshus (fully-ordained monks), bhikshunis (fullyordained nuns), laymen, and laywomen. The bhikshuni component of the Sangha was added last of all.

Tradition has it that it was not an easy matter for women to be accepted as monastic members of the Sangha. If the tradition, which says that the Buddha hesitated in receiving women as monastic disciples, is true, it is not something difficult to understand.

Surely the Buddha must have been taken by surprise when his dear aunt and a large number of Sakyan ladies arrived in Vaishali with swollen and bleeding feet after walking hundreds of miles barefoot to prove that women too could lead the life of wandering monks? No doubt he was also moved. His aunt Mahagotami had previously asked permission to ordain as a nun when the Buddha was in Kapilavastu and had been told that the time was not yet right for women to ordain.

It was not that the Buddha saw women as of inferior intellectual or spiritual properties that he hesitated to allow them to follow the monastic vocation. The reservations of the Buddha had to do with the cultural and social situation in which the Sangha of his time found itself.

Concerns of the Buddha

First of all the Buddha wanted his disciples to have the best conditions to realise the practice. His monk disciples spent the night at the foot of trees and begged for alms in the towns and villages. This could have been very dangerous for women to do. According to the Indian custom of that time women were always to stay in a house where they were under the protection of their father, husband, elder brother, or son. The only women who did not have that protection were courtesans and loose women. The Buddha feared that his nun disciples would be branded as such and in fact this often happened. It also happened that on a couple of occasions when nuns unusually stepped out of the monastery alone they were sexually assaulted.

The second question the Buddha must have asked himself was how the monks he had already ordained would accept nuns as fellow members of the same spiritual family. Were the monks sufficiently free of their cultural and social prejudice to offer protection to nuns and support them in their practice?

The third question for the Buddha concerned the relationship of the nun Sangha to the monk Sangha. The Buddha taught that the recognition of seniority was essential for harmony in the Sangha (Culavagga VI, 6). Westerners should remember that seniority is not hierarchy. Seniority is a matter of protocol and mutual respect but the ways juniors have of showing respect to seniors differ from the ways seniors have of showing respect to juniors. The Buddha made it clear that the nuns were juniors. The nuns after all had had no education. They joined the Sangha after the monks had already been practicing for many years. The monks had already memorized the precepts and discourses of the Buddha. Many had become teachers in their own right. It was only natural that the nuns should show respect to the monks as their seniors.

The Original Gurudharmas

These facts are the basis for the eight original gurudharmas (practices of respect) to be practiced by nuns. They were as follows:

  1. A bhikshuni should always greet a bhikshu with respect even though she is senior in years of ordination to the bhikshu.
  2. Bhikshunis should practice the annual three-month Rains’ Retreat in a place where there is a bhikshu Sangha for them to take refuge in and learn from.
  3. Twice a month the nuns should send a nun (with a second body) to invite the monk Sangha to let them know on what day they should recite the precepts1 and to send them a monk to give them teachings and exhortations concerning their practice.
  4. At the end of the Rains’ Retreat the nuns have to request shining light from the monks as well as from the other nuns. (This meant that if the monks had seen, heard, and suspected anything untoward in the nuns’ practice they could let the nuns know and give suggestions for the nuns’ practice.)
  5. If a bhikshuni breaks a Sanghavasesa precept, she has to confess the offense to and be purified of the offense by the bhikshu as well as the bhikshuni Sangha.
  6. A nun can only receive the full ordination from monks as well as nuns.
  7. A nun cannot malign or criticize a monk.
  8. A nun cannot admonish a monk for improper conduct.2

These eight practices of respect have sometimes led people to think that Buddhism discriminates against women. Although there is no small number of individual monks, nuns, and laypeople who believe that to be a woman is a disadvantage for progress on the spiritual path, this is certainly not what the Buddha taught. After the Buddha’s parinirvana, some monks took the opportunity to promulgate their culturally ingrained prejudices. The Buddha said clearly that the fruits of the practice that can be realised by women are no less than those realised by men. In accepting women as nuns the Buddha has opened up a way for hundreds of thousands of women to realise the fruits of the monastic path.

What is needed now is to continue the career of the Buddha by making it clear to Buddhists and non-Buddhists that the bhikshuni Sangha is an equal partner of the bhikshu Sangha in the Buddhist community. The eight gurudharmas for monks that Thay has given us have already been practiced in many Buddhist communities for years. We only need to acknowledge that this is our practice and will continue to be so, so that people no longer have doubts about the status of Buddhist nuns.

Interpreting the New Practices

The first gurudharma for bhikshus is equivalent to that for bhikshunis. Thay has added the fact that each bhikshuni is a representative of the whole bhikshuni Sangha. In bowing to her one is bowing to the whole bhikshuni Sangha. The concept of partnership is also mentioned. It means a spirit of cooperation between monks and nuns in continuing the career of the Buddha.

The second gurudharma for bhikshus is to clarify that it is not a handicap to be a woman. This is an illusion to which women as well as men are subject. Women themselves sometimes also believe that they have been born women because they have not laid down sufficient wholesome roots in past lives.

The third gurudharma for bhikshus is a re-wording of a teaching given by the Buddha (SN IV,3,127). It means that our practice community needs to be a family. Here Thay makes it clear how we can support the members of our spiritual family. Just as the monk practices to see the nun as his mother and so on, so the nun practices to see the monk as her father, brother, or son depending on his age.

The fourth gurudharma for monks is equivalent to the seventh gurudharma for nuns. Thay has added the practice of looking at oneself and at the nun as a bodhisattva. This helps us to recognize the enlightened nature in each other and support wholeheartedly each other’s practice.

The fifth is equivalent to the second gurudharma for nuns. There are mutual advantages for both the bhikshu and bhikshuni Sangha when they practice in proximity to each other.

The sixth is perhaps the most revolutionary. Many monks still hesitate to listen to a nun teaching, let alone invite her to teach them.

The seventh is a continuation of what the Buddha wanted. In the pratimoksha3 there are already precepts forbidding nuns to act as servants to monks. Here we see that in physical work as well as in spiritual practice, the monks are to give the nuns a hand.

The eighth new gurudharma reiterates the need for mutual care and concern if the Sangha is to function as a family.

Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, was abbess of  Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. She is currently assisting Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

1 The precepts had to be recited at the full and new moon. There were no calendars and the educated monks knew how to calculate when the full and new moon days fell.

2 We should know that lay women who were strong in their practice did sometimes admonish monks with the concurrence of the Buddha who also made some precepts for monks at the suggestion of the lady Visakha. This gurudharma is to keep harmony between monks and nuns.

3 The pratimoksha is the disciplinary code of fully-ordained monks and nuns.

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A Day in the Life of a Catholic Zen Monk in Plum Village

December 8, 2007 — Feast of the Immaculate Conception

By Brother Phap De

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This morning, I awaken and smile, saying “Twenty-four brand new hours are before me! I vow to live each moment fully, mindfully, and to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.”

Then, I light a candle and a stick of incense before a picture of Mom, Dad, and my brothers and sisters, saying, “In gratitude, I offer this incense to you and all my ancestors. May it be fragrant as flowers, reflecting my loving reverence and gratitude. May we all be companions of the saints, especially Mary, our Mother of Compassion, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception.”

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Thanks to Thay and to the Vietnamese practice of ancestor worship, this Catholic now feels connected to his ancestors and is nourished by reverential gratitude to his parents and other ancestors

— a practice that the misguided Catholic bishops and priests tried to stop in Vietnam. When I light a candle and make the incense offering in front of their picture, I know that they are not actually in the picture. Rather, I know that they are actually in me. I know that the real altar of my ancestors is my body/mind on which I honor them by the way I live, particularly as expressed in the Fifth Mindfulness Training, mindful consumption. This living connection to my ancestors is helping me let go of my attachment to my ego, my notion of being a separate self and somebody special.

Only Zen Monks Stop

At 4:45 a.m., I quietly brew a cup of tea, without waking up my roommate. Drinking my tea, I gratefully remember that it was Mom who first taught me the devotion to Mary. As a boy, I prayed to Mary for many different things—even for assistance in winning basketball games.

After this, our ordinary day begins with sitting meditation (Holy Hour) at 5:30 a.m.

At 7:00 a.m., the centuries-old church bells sound the Angelus, calling us to stop and remember that Mary said “Let it be” to the Angel, and became the mother of Jesus. In the old days, everyone stopped at the sound of the bells and recited three Ave Marias. Nowadays, only the Zen monks stop. I love the sound and recite an Ave. Hearing the Angelus bells is like hearing the voice of Christ, calling me back to my true self and inviting me to be like Mary: with the energy of the Holy Spirit, to give birth to Christ in my own life, in my own soul and body. I know that if I don’t, then what she did will have been wasted as far as my life is concerned.

As the Angelus bells continue, I remember the Gospel story of how the newly pregnant Mary “set out and walked with haste” (she had not yet learned slow walking meditation) to the home of her cousin, Elizabeth, who greeted her with: “Blessed are you among women.” (Luke 1:39 and 42) The sound of the Angelus bells wakes me up to the realization that like Mary, my brothers and sisters embody Christ-consciousness here and now. Thus, like Elizabeth, I say to my sisters and brothers: “Blessed are you.” How lucky we are!

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Then, breakfast at 7:30. We sit, in a circle, on cushions on the floor — twenty monks and six laypersons, breaking bread together. I am surrounded by my companions. I remember that the word “companion” comes from com (together) and pan (bread), that is, breaking bread together. I remember Jesus breaking bread with his disciples. This morning I see the abbot’s mother sitting and eating with us — like Mary did with Jesus and his companions. I look gratefully at the two cooks, a New Zealander and a Vietnamese, who prepared the food, even though they understand very little of each other’s language. This is the Holy Thursday brotherhood meal and Pentecost (enlightenment) in the here and now.

Walking with Mother Mary

We study from 9:15 a.m. until we gather for walking meditation at 11:00. I usually invite Dad and Mom to walk with me. How can they not, for they are in me. Dad is learning how to walk more slowly, keeping his attention on the flowers and surroundings, not on the destination or job waiting ahead.

Today, I also invite Mother Mary to walk with me. After all, she is my spiritual ancestor and I am blessed with her spiritual DNA — the Christ-consciousness in me. Today, holding my hand, Mother Mary no longer walks “with haste.”

The divine feminine energy of Mary is very much with me in this Zen Buddhist monastery. (Buddhists know Mother Mary as Avalokita or Quan The Am or Kwan Yin.) Many of us can experience Mary’s spiritual DNA through our practice of touching the earth, when we lie on Mother Earth and reflect on the presence of her healing energy in each of us and in the body of our community. We chant Namo Bo Tat Quan The Am and send her healing energy to people around the world. This chant often brings tears of joy and gratitude to the listeners. To me, it feels like it generates the same energy that’s found in Lourdes and Fatima, energy that once seemed lost to me.

Now, it is 4:00 p.m. and time to do my working meditation: clean the meditation hall before the community arrives for the evening sitting meditation and chanting. When I was a priest forty years ago, lay persons cleaned the church after I celebrated Mass. Now, it’s my turn. I am learning humility — like Mary. They used to call me Father Adrian, now I am called Phap De, Young Brother. Five years ago, Thay told me that to become a monk I would have to give up my stock portfolio, property, bank accounts, and cars, and he said, “You will learn humility.” It has been surprisingly easy. Phap De is living joyfully and peacefully.

Her Wondrous Light

6:00 p.m. — Tonight, on this Feast of the Immaculate Conception, I was delighted when my Vietnamese brother led us in a chant of praise to the Great Saint of Compassion, Mary. Here are the lyrics:

From the depths of understanding, the flower of great eloquence blooms:
The bodhisattva stands majestically upon the waves of birth and death,
free from all afflictions.
Her great compassion eliminates all sickness, even that once thought of as incurable.
Her wondrous light sweeps away all obstacles and dangers.
Her willow branch, once waved, reveals countless heavens,
Her lotus flower blossoms a multitude of practice centers.
We bow to her. We see her true presence in the here and now.
We offer her the incense of our heart. May the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening embrace us all with great compassion.
Praise to thee, Mary, Our Mother of Compassion.

9:00 p.m. — I am aware that I have come a long way and have let go of some old theological notions about Original Sin and the Fall/Redemption paradigm. “We have entered a broken and torn and sinful world — that’s for sure,” writes theologian Matthew Fox. “But we do not enter as blotches on existence, as sinful creatures. We burst into the world as original blessings.” Now I can see the dogma of the Immaculate Conception (Mary was conceived without original sin) as an effort to help us wake up to the magnificence of Mary.

The Buddha’s gift of the communal practice of the mindfulness trainings helps this Catholic to live up to the example of Mary and the teachings of Jesus. We may be ordinary persons, but, like Mary, we are all Immaculate Conceptions. The joyful Angelus Bells repeatedly invite us to wake up to this Good News!

Brother Phap De (Brother Adrian) lives in Son Ha at Plum Village. Once upon a time, he worked as a Roman Catholic parish priest and teacher.

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Be Still

The Mindful Christian

By Diane Strausser

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We all know the importance of words. Relationships are built with them. Our important teachers use words that help us structure our lives and we carry those words in our minds as we go about the business of living.

Despite the fact that I had been flirting with Buddhist practice for over twenty years, I had not devoted myself with any consistency. My practice finally began on a spring morning several years ago. I sat in a room of three hundred strangers who had gathered from all parts of the country to experience a day of mindfulness. A diminutive woman gazed out at us from the elevated stage with a very gentle smile on her face. She took her sweet time looking at us and eventually uttered the words, “Welcome, my dear friends.”

The world changed for me with those four simple words. I thought about the possibilities that existed as I considered the strangers in this room to be “dear friends.” What if I went home and thought about my neighbors as “dear friends”? And the grocery store clerk. And people I ran into in my small town. The casual people in my life. Extended family. What if I included the people who had disappointed me to also be “dear friends”? I thought about all of this in the flash of an instant after Anh-Huong Nguyen uttered those words. It was her first Dharma teaching to me. I’m not sure there will ever be a more powerful teaching in my life. I fell in love that morning with the practice of Applied Buddhism.

Teaching Not-Buddhism in a Catholic Church

I took that frame of reference with me when I gave my yearly Lenten presentation to a rural Ohio Catholic church. I am invited each year to speak about creating sacred relationships. My role as a relationship coach and therapist takes me to venues both secular and religious. As I considered what topics I might cover, I struggled with the potential difficulty in sharing the joy of my Buddhist practice with a conservative, Catholic population. My practice is my life and keeping it in the closet is not possible.

Once again, I heard the words of Anh-Huong. In teaching us about community building she reminded us about the importance of compassion. “If people are uncomfortable with a statue of the Buddha, take the statue away.” So, I took the statue away.

“Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) became the basis of my presentation to my seriously Catholic friends. I reframed my practice and used their Christian language to teach them how to create peace in their lives so that they could offer it to the world — just as we practice in Applied Buddhism. My focus that night would be as it always is: stopping, calming, and resting which lead to healing and transformation, the principles of the Buddha’s teachings.

That evening I sat in the sanctuary on a step just below the altar. Behind me was a wall of stained glass softly illuminated by the setting sun. Christ hung on a huge cross above me. The parish priest sat with his congregation in the pews facing me, and I began with the words, “Welcome, my dear friends.”

I picked up my singing bell, held it high on my fingertips and let it ring three times. I simply closed my eyes, breathed in and out three times and consciously set the tone for my presentation. My friends looked at me. Confusion filled their faces and I just smiled.

The first thing I taught that night was breath awareness.

Shhhhh,” I told them. I rang the bell.
Hear the bell of God calling…

Now, pay attention to your breath, and as you breathe, think of these words…

Breathing in, I am aware of God calling.
Breathing out, I give love.

We talked about the importance of being still enough to hear the voice of God.

Can you hear God’s voice as you wash the dishes?

How about when you’re driving, or waiting in line?

Can you hear God’s voice when somebody disappoints you and you struggle with a response?

The Gift of a Smile

We moved on to giving the gift of a smile.

One of the best ways to relax is to smile. When we smile, it is impossible to be upset. When we smile, our throat relaxes, our cheeks rise and our eyes lift. The muscles of our face send messages to the nerves at the base of our skull. Those nerves send relaxation messages to our brain. Our brain is happy because the signal is sent that communicates,“all-is-well” to the“fight-or-flight” centers. Oxytocin is released in our brain because we are wearing a smile. Oxytocin is the chemical released when a parent cuddles an infant or when lovers hold each other. Oxytocin is the medicine that God gave us to help create compassion and love.

Your smile is a miracle. Your smile has no negative side effects. Your smile is absolutely free. Your smile is a sacred gift to yourself and to others because that one little gesture helps you to make space for the presence of God.

Hear the bell of God calling.
Breathing in, I smile to God.
Breathing out, I smile to my sisters and brothers.

We sat there, looking at each other and smiling. The priest leaned back in the pew with his huge hands resting on top of a friar-like belly, glancing at his people, smiling at them and taking delight in our togetherness. He welcomed my words in front of his pulpit and his smile invited me to keep talking.

Sacred Touch

The practice of sacred hugging was my next topic.

Sharing a physical connection is a sacred act visible in all of God’s creatures. Watch puppies, or lions, or giraffes. Watch the touching that goes on in nature. We human beings are often unconscious about how we touch each other. Being awake, being conscious allows us the pleasure of sacred touch.

Consider offering a very special hug, a sacred hug to the people you love. A sacred hug is not the typical quick leaning into each other and offering a few limp pats on the back. A sacred hug is an act of love given with great tenderness and great generosity.

Follow this recipe for sacred hugging:

Stand facing the other person, making eye contact.
Smile.
Put your hands together over your heart.
Bow to the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in them.
Give them the gift of your smile.
Take three breaths in and out.
Open your arms and embrace the other.
Take three breaths in and out while holding.
Release.
Put your hands together over your heart.
Bow to the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in them.
Say a silent prayer of gratitude for them in your life.

Think about offering a sacred hug to the important people in your life. Then, think about hugging more people. Smile.

The wonderful people of that congregation emptied the pews and spent time giving each other sacred hugs. The farmer hugged his wife and then the blond little girl across from him. The new father cuddled his infant and hugged his mother-in-law with one arm wrapped around her. The priest went from person to person holding them close to his huge body, breathing in and out. The women hugged each other. The men hugged each other. Smiling.

I watched the scene as I held my bell in my lap feeling the joy of this moment. I was deeply moved at the willingness of these quiet, self-contained folks to breathe, smile, and hug. Once again, I understood that no matter what we are or who we are, when the goal is peace we are all the Buddha, or Christ, or Krishna, or Yahweh.

Love Never Fails

No teaching is complete until we talk about loving-kindness. So I read one of the most powerful biblical scriptures:

“Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)

We were created by God to be an example of His love and we are challenged to be visible symbols of that divine love. Transformation is a vehicle that carries us to the Kingdom of God.

Our loving nature allows us to look deeply at our beloved and those around us. The peace in our heart gives us the ability to let go of our misperceptions. We look at others and know that there is deep suffering in them. We are able to be with them without blame, shame, or judgment. As we look deeply and begin to understand the nature of pain in those around us, we are able to be there with them in their place of suffering. We offer them our true presence with love and with kindness.

Loving-kindness is a gentle spirit that whispers healing into the lives of others. Loving-kindness transforms who we are in this very moment.

Hear the bell of God calling.

Breathing in, I feel loving-kindness.
Breathing out, I give love.

As the evening came to an end, a few people hurried off to another meeting. Others came to me with their smile and a desire to hug me. The priest congratulated me and said, “You always teach us such new ways of looking at relationship.” I smiled to myself knowing that what I taught is more than two thousand years old.

My husband and I drove back to the city that night, winding through the quiet country landscape. I was reminded of some of the words in a Christian hymn.

Let there be peace on Earth.
And let it begin with me…
Brothers all are we
Let me walk with my brothers

In perfect harmony.
Let this be the moment now.

That night was a “burning bush” experience for me — a miracle. I shared the most amazing evening with a group of people in a small church in rural Ohio. Despite our differences, there were far more similarities and we were perfectly at ease with each other. I had the privilege of sharing the beauty of my practice. They were open and absorbed my words as they learned how to deepen their Christianity. They were in me and I was in them. Although the world didn’t notice us, I believe that we made things just a bit better for all of us with our smiles, hugs, and mutual breath.

Never once did I utter the “B” word. It just wasn’t the point.

Diane Strausser, Peaceful River of the Heart, practices with Bliss Run Sangha in Columbus, Ohio. She is a therapist, author, and a frequent speaker for both local and national conferences on people and relationships (www.successfulrelationships.com).

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Singing in the Inspiration Choir

mb49-Singing1By Mary Zinkin

Singing in a gospel choir has been a dream of mine for years. And now that I have found my way to be in the Inspiration Choir in an African-American Southern Baptist Church I know why.

Being the only white woman in this old Portland church is opening me to deeper understanding of issues around race. I am amazed at how accepted I feel — certainly “other” and yet appreciated for my spirit, my voice, my heart. And probably most people in the choir don’t even know my name.

I never picked beans as a kid to earn money for my family. I don’t have a clue about the hair products or hair processes they refer to. Jesus is not my savior. Jokes produce laughter, and while I laugh too I’m not at all sure what is funny. When the colors are decided for what we are to wear on the Sunday we sing, I secretly hope I indeed have something to wear; then they add, “Oh, let’s wear gold, everyone has that!” (I have no gold.) And though I’ve had a life filled with suffering, I haven’t any way to truly know what they’ve experienced being African-American in the U.S.A.

All that slips away when we rehearse and when we sing for the congregation. I feel connected and a part of their lives and experiences. Every word the preacher speaks pierces my heart with meaning.

I feel my Jewish roots; I hear the Buddha’s teachings; and I sing praises and glory to Jesus. I watch healing moments of people being witnessed and held as they cry. And I am healed. And I cry.

I feel at home as the suffering in life is named — aloud, with intensity, with emotion. I feel divinely connected to the knowing that healing and transformation are not only possible but a true reality in my life. And my heart opens wider to embrace the truth of life as it is in the present moment.

I am honored by the generosity in allowing me a space amongst them. I am inspired to share the fruits of my hard work. Humility is strengthened in me in “giving all praise and glory to God.” And I am reminded that causes and conditions have manifested for me to be here as an instrument for alleviating suffering.

Mary Zinkin, True Precious Commitment, lives in Portland, Oregon; she studies and practices with several sanghas.

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Hear the Angels Sing

By Janelle Combelic

mb49-Hear1 [W]hen the seed of mindfulness in you is touched, suddenly you become alive, body and spirit together. You are born again. Jesus is born again. The Buddha is born again.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers

The stone in the ancient church radiates a profound chill, which the tall propane heaters can barely dispel. Sculpted heads — angels, grimacing demons, and fantastical creatures — glare down from the stark white stone columns, as they have for a thousand years. Though the church is in a tiny French village — on the crest of a hill surrounded by the pastoral landscape of the Dordogne — I am singing a Christmas carol in English along with other Protestant expatriates. My heart is full to bursting with love for the Christ child.

I was invited to the Anglican Service of the Nine Carols by my neighbor Paddy. A British widow, she lives across the street from the house I have rented near Plum Village. I spent the previous summer at New Hamlet and now I have moved back, bringing my dog Serafina with me. In this rental house on a farm near Lower Hamlet, I can have Serafina with me and still attend the winter retreat at the monastery.

The Anglican service could have been cast by the BBC — about one hundred people, mostly British, most over sixty, staid and proper. Their tweeds and dark woolens steam in the tiny church, giving off an acrid and comforting animal scent. The minister, who arrived late, looks the part with his gray hair, white cassock, and smiling blue eyes. But when he starts to speak I can hardly keep from laughing — he has a slight speech impediment and he sounds just like the priest in one of my all-time favorite movies, The Princess Bride. That said, he does a fine job and it is a lovely service.

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Paddy, standing all of five feet two in her pumps, sporting a crisp white blouse and gray tailored skirt, is an indomitable force of bustle and cheer known to all. The small choir, with Paddy as its physical and virtual heart, leads us in singing many of my favorite Christmas carols, like “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear”:

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the angel-strain have rolled
two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not
the love-song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hastening on,
by prophet-bards foretold,
when, with the ever-circling years,
comes round the age of gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and the whole world give back the song
which now the angels sing.

Tears roll down my cheeks as I sing and I send gratitude to Thich Nhat Hanh, paradoxically, who brought me back to the faith of my childhood.

A Long Roundabout Journey

My father was profoundly anti-religious and especially antiCatholic. My mother took on his views but she had been raised Presbyterian and managed to take us to church in New Jersey a few times. Then we moved to France when I was eight years old and my religious education stopped. Somehow, in spite of that, I carried from my childhood a deep and passionate love for the friend I found in Jesus Christ. Then, as a teenager and young adult I turned against it, exploring all kinds of spiritual traditions from the East; after all, this was the nineteen-seventies and that’s what many of us were doing — taking drugs, learning to meditate, listening to Indian music, studying astrology, dancing Sufi dances.

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It wasn’t until I was in my forties that I finally came back to the Christian church of my forebears. Many years ago, before I became his student, I remember Thich Nhat Hanh advising Westerners to stick to their own religious tradition. Buddhism, he wrote, can teach us how to live and how to be happy, but it need not replace our religious practices — sentiments echoed by the Dalai Lama. During a life crisis when I needed a faith community, I finally turned to Christianity. And two years before I moved to Plum Village, I officially joined a Protestant church, a very liberal congregation in the United Church of Christ.

At Plum Village I enjoy the chanting in Vietnamese, the simple rituals, the bowing and prostrations. But these practices do not touch the child’s heart in me, they do not bring tears to my eyes. So while I study Buddhism and do my best to put the teachings into practice, I call myself a Christian. How ironic and delightful that it took a Buddhist teacher to help me find my own faith!

Christmas at Plum Village

Ten days after the Anglican Service of the Nine Carols in the frigid little church, I attend my first Christmas retreat at Plum Village.

On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Thay gives a Dharma talk that opens my heart to the birth of Christ more powerfully than any sermon in a church. In his gentle warm voice, using simple language easy for us Westerners to understand, Thay explains that Buddha and Jesus Christ are both incarnations of the divine, come to teach us the way out of suffering. We look for the Buddha, we look for Jesus Christ, in history and in the world, but where they really are is right inside us. Jesus Christ is being born in my heart on this Christmas night!

On an earlier Christmas eve, Thay gave a similar talk that was published in his book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. “Christmas is often described as a festival for children. I tend to agree with that because who among us is not a child or has not been a child? The child in us is always alive; maybe we have not had enough time to take care of the child within us. To me, it is possible for us to help the child within us to be reborn again and again, because the spirit of the child is the Holy Spirit, it is the spirit of the Buddha. There is no discrimination. A child is always able to live in the present moment. A child can also be free of worries and fear about the future. Therefore, it is very important for us to practice in such a way that the child in us can be reborn.

“Let the child be born to us.”

Monastic Vaudeville

After the Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, Thay returns to his hermitage and the Sangha — all two or three hundred of us — gathers for a festive dinner in the meditation hall. A chilly rain has drizzled all day so we hurry in the twilight and mud, carrying our plates from the dining hall. A true Plum Village feast: egg rolls, fake pork roast made from wheat gluten, olive loaf, vegetable soup, rice noodles, and a lavish spread of delicious Vietnamese dishes I have no name for. Dessert consists of half a dozen sorts of cookies, most of them made with hazelnuts gleaned from a neighbor’s orchard, and apple crumble, also made with gleaned fruit. All made lovingly from scratch.

Fires in the two wood-burning stoves crackle and hiss merrily. The pungent scent of smoke mixes with the smell of damp wool and the luscious fragrance of the food. We linger in small groups, monastic and lay friends, chatting. The sun went down hours ago over the fertile hills of the Dordogne, where all around us in towns and villages and isolated farms, families gather for Christmas Eve.

Finally the time comes for the event we’ve all been waiting for: the Christmas Eve entertainment. (A warning to readers: raucousness, sexual innuendos, cross-dressing monks, and slapstick humor follows. If you don’t care for ribaldry at Plum Village, read no further.)

People new to Plum Village are often surprised to find that every retreat ends with an evening of performances. Monks, nuns and laypeople, especially children, sing songs, perform dances, recite poetry, play musical instruments, or put on skits. On special occasions one is treated to a performance by the Plum Village Players, like tonight.

We sit in a semicircle before a large open space against the long wall. A nun sounds the bell and automatically, reverently, we fall silent.

Then we burst out laughing as onto the makeshift stage walks a bearded Jesus, played by a tall young Western monk wearing a headdress over his bald pate and a shawl over his brown robe. Soon he is joined by his father Joseph, appropriately coiffed in a white towel and also sporting a false beard.

“Jesus, my boy,” says Joseph, draping his arm around the brooding youngster, “it’s time you joined the family business. You’re eighteen, a good worker, and together we can do great things.”

“But father,” replies the teenager, “I don’t think I’m meant to be a businessman. I… I feel I have another calling.”

“Nonsense! Your mother and I have plans for you. You will carry on the family business. I’ve got it all lined out.” Joseph waves his hand in a grand gesture and a big sign appears, carried by two petite Vietnamese nuns: “Joseph & Jesus Corporation.”

We roar with laughter. The play continues as the Devil appears, his face painted in a horrific red mask, his fist wrapped around a cardboard pitchfork. In a series of mini-skits, the Devil tempts Jesus with power, fortune, fame, and we in the audience laugh appreciatively. After all, we recognize this theme; it is one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s core teachings, that happiness cannot be achieved through power, fortune, fame… or sex.

When a tall beefy Vietnamese monk walks out wearing a huge black wig, a blue veil, and a voluptuous bust, the hall explodes in cheers and hoots and gales of laughter.

“Jesus,” s/he coos, “you’re such a handsome young man. Come with me, I can show you pleasures like you’ve never dreamed of.” She bats her eyes, flutters her veil, adjusts her bust, to more laughter and even whistles from the audience.

“Mary Magdalen,” Jesus stammers. “You’re so… so beautiful!” Even he can’t keep himself from laughing.

Naturally our young Jesus comes to his senses. “No!” he says, turning away from her. “I know that you can’t make me happy, any more than power, wealth, or success in the eyes of the world.” Mary Magdalen struts over to the Devil and together they leave the stage, defeated. (Most of us in the audience know, thanks to books like The DaVinci Code, that the much-maligned Mary Magdalen was not a prostitute but perhaps Jesus’ favorite disciple or maybe even his wife. But no matter.)

Joseph reappears from the shadows and Jesus approaches him. “Daddy, I love you very much but I need to follow my own path.”

“That’s okay, son. Your mother and I understand. We know you’ll do the right thing and we support you in being who you were born to be.”

“I love you, Dad!” Father and son embrace and walk off the stage, their arms around each other.

To ecstatic applause the players take a bow, but a resonating bell sounded by the Bell Mistress brings us all back to quiet and mindfulness of our own breath.

I Take Refuge in Jesus Christ

The celebration continues with performances by lay friends and monastics: songs, poems, even a dance by a group of beautiful young nuns. The Plum Village Singers perform the finale: a haunting rendition of “I Went Down to the River to Pray,” the baptism song from the movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou?

Tired, happy, blessed by joy and beauty, we walk out into the frigid night. The rain has stopped, perfuming the air with damp earth and wet fallen leaves. I breathe in deeply. In the distance, ringing from hilltop to hilltop and calling the faithful to Midnight Mass, chime the bells of the village churches.

I remember the Dharma talk earlier in the day, when Thay turned to Sister Chan Khong and asked her to sing a variation on a familiar Plum Village chant: instead of “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life,” she sang, “I take refuge in Jesus Christ, the one who shows me the way in this life.” Her crystalline girlish voice rang through the hall like the sound of angels.

The Christ child smiles, born again in my heart.

mb49-Hear4Janelle Combelic, True Lotus Meditation, is the editor of the Mindfulness Bell. She is writing a memoir about her dog, Serafina, and the year they spent together in France on a farm and at Plum Village. They now live in Colorado.

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