Dharma Talk: Karma, Continuation, and the Noble Eightfold Path

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear friends. Today is August 5, 2005. We’re in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village on the last day of our summer session.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Today I would like to speak about reincarnation, rebirth, and continuation. If we look at an orange tree we can see that it makes an effort every day to have a long continuation. Every day the orange tree makes leaves, and in the spring it makes orange flowers, which become tiny oranges. In those oranges are seeds, and that is how the orange tree assures its continuation. The orange tree has to continue.

And we do, too. We are humans and it is a natural tendency to prepare ourselves to continue. So continuation, rebirth, reincarnation is normal. How do we continue ourselves? This question begins our meditation together. Every time you produce a thought, that thought is a continuation. That thought will have effects on us, on our body, our mind, and on the world. The effect of that thought is our continuation. Producing a thought is the cause; the effect is how that thought impacts us and the world.

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To think is an action. Because the thought may be very strong, it may be painful, it can modify our body, it can change our mind, it can change the world. So thought is a form of action.

In Buddhism we use the word karma. Karma is action, action as cause and action as fruit. When action is a cause, we call it karmahetu. The Chinese word for karmahetu contains the character for karma and a character that means “seed.” When we produce a thought, the production of the thought is a karmahetu, karma-cause. That thought will have an effect on our mental and physical health and on the health of the world. And that health, good or bad, is the fruit of the karma, the fruit of the thought. Karmaphala is the karma-fruit. So karma is action, action in the cause and action in the fruit.

Right Thinking

When we produce a thought, we have to ensure that the thought is a good thought, a right thought, because if it is, it will bring us physical and mental health, and it will help the world to heal itself. Our practice is to try to live in such a way that every day we produce only good thoughts, thoughts in the direction of right thinking. We have to train ourselves to do that. A bad thought can destroy the physical and moral health of ourselves and of the world. So we have to be careful to produce only good thoughts.

Right thinking is recommended to all of us by the Buddha. It’s action in the form of thought. Each time we produce a thought, that thought carries our signature. You cannot say, “No, I didn’t produce that thought.” That is karma. Karma-cause, karma-fruit. If it is a cause, it will lead to a fruit—the fruit will be bitter or the fruit will be sweet, depending on the nature of the karma.

Right Speech

First, we have to understand that thinking is action. When we say some thing, that speech will have an effect on our body, on our mind, and on the world. Good speech will give us joy and health — physical and moral health — and it will change the world in the direction of goodness. We should produce right speech, which inspires understanding, joy, hope, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Your speech is the seed, it is the cause. And what it produces in you and in the world is the karmaphala, the karma-fruit. Action as cause and action as fruit.

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Sometimes action-fruit manifests immediately after the action-cause. Sometimes it takes months or years before it leads to a result, but sooner or later the cause must become the effect.

Right Action

The third kind of action is the physical act, the act carried out by the body. With the body you can do things. You can kill a person, you can kill an animal, you can kill a tree. You can save a person, you can save an animal, you can save a tree. The Buddha recommends right action because the action will have an effect on your physical and moral health as well as the world’s. We have to ensure that our actions are in the direction of right action.

Jean-Paul Sartre was a philosopher in the existential tradition. He said that man is the sum of his actions. When a child is born, he hasn’t acted yet, so he cannot be defined. But as the man begins to act, we can look at his actions and see the man. Man is defined by his acts. What Jean-Paul Sartre said is very close to Buddhism.

But Sartre’s declaration was not detailed enough, because we need to include thoughts. Our speech comes from what we are thinking; thinking is at the base of all speech and of all action. We may say that man is the sum of his thoughts, his words, and his acts. I think that Jean-Paul Sartre would agree, because in using the word “acts” he meant to include thinking and speech. Thinking as action, speech as action.

Thoughts, speech, and action create karma, and we produce this energy every moment of our daily life. You continue to say things, you continue to do things, and every thought, every word, every act of yours carries your signature. And that is your continuation. It is never lost.

The scientist Lavoisier, said, “Nothing is lost.” He’s a Buddhist, essentially. Nothing is created, nothing is lost. What you have produced as thoughts, as speech, as acts, continues to influence the world, and that is your continuation. Your continuation is your rebirth and your reincarnation. Nothing is lost. So you have to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

We want to continue in beauty. And we know that in order to continue in beauty we have to ensure that our thoughts are right thoughts, our speech is right speech, and our acts are right action. These are three branches of the Noble Eightfold Path recommended by the Buddha.

Right View

What is right view? Right view is our way of understanding the world; it brings insight into the ultimate reality. We are so often the victims of wrong views, and based on wrong views we create suffering for ourselves and others. So we have to avoid wrong views, wrong perceptions. If we continue to suffer because of violence and terrorism, it is because we need right view. The terrorists have a wrong view of themselves and of others, and the anti-terrorists also have wrong views about themselves and about the terrorists. Based on wrong views, we keep killing each other, so we have to look more deeply to obtain right view. With right view we will be able to stop the violence and terrorism. Right view is the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action, and that is why the Buddha began with right view.

The Buddha describes right view in a precise, deep, and clear way. A right view reflects wisdom, the nature of existence.

Impermanence

For example, the Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things, of phenomena, and other wise men have also spoken of this. For example, Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice, because the river is constantly changing. It is a fact that everything changes. Right view goes in tandem with the insight of impermanence. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have right view we don’t suffer, and we can create happiness.

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This is not just philosophy, it is life. For example, when you have difficulties with your partner, and you are about to argue with each other, the Buddha would say to you, “Dear friends, close your eyes. Imagine your beloved in three hundred years. What will she become?” When you can see what happens three hundred years from now, you see that it’s not wise to argue, because life is impermanent. If you can touch impermanence, when you open your eyes you will no longer be angry. You’re saved, because of the insight of impermanence.

Intellectually, maybe you agree that things are impermanent, but in your practical life, you act as if things are permanent. The Buddha does not speak of impermanence as a philosophy, but as a practice. We should practice concentration on impermanence. For example, all day, when you look, when you listen to something, you should get in touch with the insight on impermanence.

Looking at a flower, you see that it is impermanent. Looking at a person, you see that he or she is impermanent. So the insight on impermanence stays with us all the time, and that is why it is not a theory, but a concentration. It is the concentration on impermanence that will save you, and not the idea of impermanence.

With mindfulness we can keep the insight on impermanence alive and that will protect us from producing wrong thinking or wrong speech. So right view is the view that contains the nature of impermanence.

Non-self

We imagine that every person has a separate soul that remains the same forever, even as the body ages and decomposes. This is a wrong view, because it goes against the truth of impermanence. Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. So if we accept the reality of impermanence, we have to also accept the truth of non-self.

Impermanence is seen from the perspective of time. The same thing viewed from the perspective of space is non-self. Non-self and impermanence are the same thing.

When the son sees the father as a different person, as someone who has caused a lot of suffering and difficulty for him, he wants to punish his father with his words and actions. He doesn’t know that to make his dad suffer is to make himself suffer at the same time. You need to understand that you and your dad share the same reality. You are the continuation of your dad. If your dad suffers, you will also suffer, and if you can help your dad not to suffer, then your happiness will be possible. With the insight of non-self we can avoid many mistakes, because non-self translates into right view.

Terrorists and anti-terrorists think of themselves as two different entities. The anti-terrorist says, “We must punish the terrorist, we have to eliminate him.” And the terrorist also thinks that the other person is the cause of the suffering in the world, and in order to survive, he has to be eliminated. They don’t know that they are the same.

All the parties in a conflict have to understand the insight of non-self. If the other side continues to suffer, if there’s no safety, peace, or understanding on the other side, there won’t be safety, peace, or understanding on our side. When both sides realize that they inter-are, when they touch the nature of non-self, then there will be right view. With right view we will think, speak, and act in the right way, and then safety can become a reality. Right view is a view of reality that translates into impermanence, non-self, and interbeing.

Interbeing

When we look deeply into a flower we see the elements that have come together to allow it to manifest. We can see clouds, manifesting as rain. Without the rain, nothing can grow. So when I touch the flower, I’m touching the cloud, touching the rain. This is not just poetry, it’s reality. If we take the clouds and the rain out of the flower, the flower will not be there. With the eye of the Buddha, we see the clouds and the rain in the flower. And we can touch the sun, without burning our fingers. Without the sun nothing can grow, so we cannot take the sun out of the flower. The flower cannot be separate; it has to inter-be with the light, with the clouds, with the rain. The word “interbeing” is closer to reality than the word “being.” Being really means interbeing.

The same is true for me, for you, and for the Buddha. The Buddha has to inter-be with everything. Interbeing and non-self are the objects of our contemplation. We have to train ourselves so that in our daily life we can touch the truth of interbeing, of non-self in every moment. You are in touch with the clouds, with the rain, with the children, with the trees, with the rivers, and that contact reveals the true nature of reality, the nature of impermanence, the nature of interbeing, of non-self, of interdependence. If you can touch reality like that, you will have right view. And when you have right view, all your thoughts will be right, all your words will be right, and all your actions will be right.

This is why cultivating right view is the basis of the practice of Buddhism. And we can practice as an individual, as a community, as a city, as a nation. If we are shut in the prison of permanence, of self, we cannot obtain right view. In order to cultivate right view, we have to have concentration. We have plenty of intelligence to understand the notions of impermanence and non-self but the notions do not help us. That’s why we have to train ourselves to see things in their true nature. We have to keep this insight alive in every moment. That is why concentration is very important.

Right Concentration

The Sanskrit word for right concentration is samadhi. The notions of impermanence and non-self are useful, but they are not powerful enough to liberate you, to give you a right view. So you have to have concentration. Samadhi prajna is right view, insight, which is at the basis of all right thinking, right speech, and right action. But to cultivate prajna we have to practice concentration. We have to live in concentration, to touch deeply into things in every moment. We live deeply when we can see the nature of impermanence, of non-self, and of interbeing in the flower, and we can do this thanks to the practice of concentration. Without samadhi there is no prajna, there is no insight. So concentration is a door that opens onto the ultimate reality. It gives us right view.

Right Mindfulness

But before we can have concentration, we have to cultivate mindfulness. Mindfulness is smrti.

Mindfulness is the energy that can help us bring the mind back to the body so that we can establish ourselves in the present moment. In that way we can look at the blue sky. We can look at the clouds. We can look at the child who is sitting in front of us. And we touch deeply the wonders of life. That’s mindfulness.

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Mindfulness is the capacity of recognizing what is happening in the present moment. When pain manifests, we will be able to embrace that pain, in order to transform it. With strong mindfulness, we can realize the Kingdom of God is available, and the joy of living is possible.

Andre Gide said that God is happiness. I like that. And he said, “God is available twenty-four hours a day.” I also agree with him on that. If God is available twenty-four hours a day, then His kingdom is also available. The only question is whether we are available for the Kingdom of God, available for happiness. Mindfulness makes us available to the Kingdom of God, to the wonders of life that are here, in the present moment. I know there are many Buddhists in France, including Jean-Paul Sartre and Andre Gide, and the scientist Lavoisier.

Mindfulness is what we practice in Plum Village. We walk in such a way that every step produces mindfulness. When we breathe, when we wash our hands, when we cook, we do all that in mindfulness. Generating the energy of mindfulness is the basic practice because mindfulness is the carrier, the bringer of concentration.

When you are mindful of something, you are concentrated. The energy of concentration is in the mindfulness. As you continue, that concentration will become stronger and stronger. With vigorous concentration you can make a breakthrough into reality, and then you can touch impermanence as a reality. You can touch interbeing, non-self.

The Buddha began with right view, but I would like to begin with mindfulness.

Right Livelihood

Then we have right livelihood, our work, our job. The Five Mindfulness Trainings instruct us to choose a livelihood that will help us produce right thoughts, right words, and right actions. Unfortunately, there are kinds of work that harm us, that harm the environment, that bring violence. We have to look with mindfulness, to see what kind of work to have, so that we will be able to practice right thinking, right speech, and right action in our work.

Schoolteachers can practice in such a way that their thoughts, their words, and their actions nourish their students every moment of the day. The children in their class may have a lot of suffering. Perhaps their parents have not offered them enough of the appropriate kinds of food. They have not had the chance to receive right thinking, right speech, and right actions, and they’ve been wounded.

As a teacher, you look at the child and you see the suffering. And you know with right thinking, right speech, and right action you will be able to heal the child’s wounds. You have the ability to give that child a second chance by playing the role of the dad, the mom, for the child. The class can become a family. If you’re a doctor or a therapist, you can do the same thing. If you have understanding and compassion, you have a lot of power because when people come to you, your right thoughts will help heal people. You can help them because you have healed yourself by developing the energy of understanding and compassion.

The Buddha spoke of right livelihood, not only for monks and nuns, but for everyone. Right livelihood helps you produce right thinking and right speech. We need to take the time to look at our work, to see whether it supports us in producing right thinking and right speech every day.

Good thoughts always go with understanding and love. An occupation that causes you to produce thoughts of anger and of discrimination is not good for your health or for the health of the world. You may have to accept another form of work with a lower salary that will give you the chance to generate good thoughts and good speech. It’s possible to live in a healthier, happier way. If you have right view, you will have enough courage to stop the course of violence and of attachment. So right livelihood is very important, and we can define this in terms of right thinking, right speech, and right action.

Right Effort

The eighth is right diligence, right effort. The Buddha taught how to cultivate and take care of our energy, and he also taught how to practice conserving energy. In Buddhist psychology, we see our consciousness as having two layers. The lower layer is called the store. It’s always operating, even in our sleep. The store receives information and classifies it, and it makes a lot of decisions without the intervention of the mind consciousness, which is the upper layer.

When you drive a car you think it’s the mind consciousness that is driving, but actually a large part of the work is done by the store, without our conscious thinking. When you do your everyday work, the store plays an important role.

When the store operates, it takes less metabolic energy than the mind does. The mind consciousness takes a lot more sugar, glycogen, and protein to work. At the level of the store things are done very quickly and inexpensively, so most things are handled by the store and the mind consciousness does just the final part. In the store many seeds are buried, good seeds and bad seeds. The seed of anger is there. The seed of despair is there. The seed of meanness, the seed of compassion, are there. The seed of joy is there. So to cultivate right effort the Buddha proposed four practices.

Four Practices for Cultivating Right Effort

The first practice is, don’t water the bad seeds. You know that there are negative seeds in you, and if they manifest, you will suffer. So let them sleep peacefully. When you watch a film, when you read a newspaper, when you listen to music, there is a chance that a seed will be watered and will manifest. We have to consume in mindfulness so that the bad seeds are not watered. When we love each other we have to sign a peace treaty. “Darling, I promise never to water the bad seeds in you or in me, and you have to do the same. You have those seeds. You must not water them in you, and don’t water them in me.”

The second practice is that every time a bad mental formation manifests, we have to make it go back to sleep, because if we keep it here too long, then it strengthens down in the base. If we leave it up in the mind for an hour, then that seed has an hour of strengthening. It’s dangerous.

The third practice is to allow the good seeds to be watered so they have a chance to manifest in the mind. For example, a Dharma talk is a kind of rain that can water the good seeds in you. When they manifest in the mind consciousness, the landscape will be much more beautiful.

The fourth practice is when the good seed has already manifested, we help it to stay in the mind consciousness as long as possible. Like when you have a friend who comes to visit bringing good news, you try to keep that friend with you as long as possible.

That is the teaching of the Buddha on right effort, diligence, and conserving energy. It’s very concrete and practical and is done in a natural, relaxed way. We don’t need to fight or struggle; we don’t have to make exhausting efforts. Naturally and with a lot of pleasure, we can enjoy the practice.

These are the eight right practices representing the Noble Eightfold Path proposed by the Buddha to all of us. If a teaching can reveal the Noble Path, it is an authentic teaching of the Buddha.

The Right View of Reincarnation

Continuation is happening now, because every day you continue to produce thoughts, words, and actions that carry your signature. We don’t have to wait until this body decomposes to continue.

Most people think of reincarnation in terms of a permanent soul. This is popular Buddhism. But we have to rise to the level of right view. Continuation is a necessity, it is a truth. But this continuation must be seen in the light of non-self, of impermanence.

If, for example, you want to recognize my continuation, do not look in this direction. [Thay points to himself.] There is a part of my continuation in this direction, but when you look all around you, you will see other forms of the continuation. So don’t wait for the body to decompose. We’ve already begun our continuation. You know that you have the power to change. You can ensure a beautiful continuation. Let’s suppose that yesterday you produced a thought that was not worthy of you, and today you’re sorry. You think, “I don’t want to be continued in that way.” You can correct it, you can transform that continuation.

If you have touched right view, you will be able to produce a different thought, a thought that is worthy of you today, a thought that carries within it understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. The moment you produce this wonderful thought, it will go out and catch the other thought that you produced yesterday. And in the space of half a second it will be able to transform that thought.

So you have the chance to correct the past; this is wonderful. We say that the past is already gone, but the past is always returning with its new manifestations, and with those manifestations we can correct it.

If you have said something that’s not worthy of you, say something else today, and that will transform everything. Do something different today based on right view and transform the whole situation. That is possible.

If you have a Sangha that supports you, if you are supported by the collective right view, then it’s very easy to produce such thoughts, such words, such actions, to transform everything right now, today, to ensure a good future, a good continuation.

The teaching of the Buddha is very deep, and at the same time very practical. This teaching has the capacity to heal us, to transform our pain, our fear. It’s good to have enough time to learn more about these teachings and put them into practice in our daily life.

Translated from the French by Sr. Pine Tree.
Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Barbara Casey and Janelle Combelic.

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

Plum Village Retreats

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The Breath of the Buddha
June 1–21, 2006

After becoming enlightened, the Buddha Shakyamuni continued to practice breathing, sitting, and walking meditation. Practicing in this way helps us develop our wisdom, compassion and happiness.

In this twenty-one day retreat, we will study the practice of mindful breathing, using the texts of both Northern and Southern Buddhist traditions of the Anapanasati Sutra. We will explore how to update and apply these teachings in our daily life, and how we can offer them to others.

A Mindfulness Retreat for Scientists in the Field of Consciousness
A Convergence of Science and Meditation
August 19–26 , 2006

Science studies the brain from outside, but do we know what happens when we look inside to experience our own minds? Ancient Buddhist wisdom has been found to correspond very closely with recent scientific discoveries on the nature of reality. Discoveries in science can help Buddhist meditators, and Buddhist teachings on consciousness can help science. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the monks and nuns of Plum Village invite you and your family to a seven-day mindfulness retreat to learn about our minds using Buddhist teachings and recent scientific findings.

During the retreat participants are invited to enjoy talks by and pose questions to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Although priority will be given to neuroscientists and those who work in the scientific fields of the brain, the mind, and consciousness, everyone is welcome to attend.

In the beautiful setting of Plum Village, we will enjoy the powerful energy of one hundred lay and monastic Dharma teachers, and enjoy the brotherhood and sisterhood of living in community. Lectures will be in English and will be simultaneously translated into French and Vietnamese.

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Letter from the Editor

mb41-Editor1To Our Readers

The evidence of constant change is all around me. A week ago, the brown and yellow leaves were still hanging from the great old walnut and chestnut trees in my backyard. It seemed like overnight that the remaining leaves fell, changing the landscape and the view from the second story window by my desk. Now there is so much more light coming in, even in the early hours, and the busy activity of the black and white chickadees is in full view.

A couple of months ago, it became apparent to me that it was time to pass on the Mindfulness Bell editing position. After five years of being blessed with this wonderful work, it feels important to have new Sangha eyes lead the collaboration of reviewing the material and gently massaging the offerings into publication form.

I first remember meeting Janelle Combelic at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel in Hue, Vietnam last spring. Over several breakfasts, we talked about writing and editing. Janelle was interviewing participants on the pilgrimage as research for some freelance writing projects. She agreed to help me edit the sections featuring the Vietnam trip, and it has become apparent that she is the natural choice to step into the managing editor position. Janelle brings experience as a writer, editor, and magazine publisher. She also lives in both the U.S. and France, which gives her a more global view of our Sangha. As an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, her dedication to our practice is clearly evident in her writing and editing. I am delighted that Janelle has agreed to use her skills on behalf of the Sangha in this way, and I am confident that we will all enjoy the fruits of her labor in future issues.

I cannot even imagine a way to express my gratitude to our teacher and to the Sangha, for this opportunity over the past five years. Every day I receive messages from practitioners around the world, offering poems, stories, teachings, photos, and artwork, which express deep healing and transformation. I have gotten to know many of you, through e-mails mostly, and in this way have experienced the net of our Sangha friendships concretely. I take refuge in the strong and vibrant net of love holding each of us, one to another. Here we can find palpable comfort and support to help us each day, and we can offer our love and caring to all in our Sangha family. With this living practice, our web of love grows stronger, and the depth of our gratitude enables us to face the changes of life together.

As I finish writing this, just a few days after beginning, the view outside my window has radically changed again. This time there is a three-inch blanket of snow over the trees and the garden below. May I learn to welcome whatever changes come with an open heart, and to trust the freedom and inevitability of impermanence.

May we all be free of clinging,
May we all be at peace.

A deep bow of gratitude,

Barbara Casey

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North American Tour

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Less than a week after the end of the summer  retreat at Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh and some members of the monastic Sangha embarked on a two-month tour of North America. Retreats and public lectures took place in Massachusetts, Quebec, Colorado, and California. The tour culminated with a visit to Mississippi, where Thay received the gift of a new practice center called Magnolia Village.

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Hundreds of people took the Three Refuges and the Five Mindfulness Trainings, while thousands more were exposed to Thay’s ongoing message that “A smile is the most basic kind of peace work.”

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At the Colors of Compassion Retreat

By Angela Dews

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Participants at the Healing Our Families, Building True Community: People of Color Retreat at Deer Park Monastery in September 2005 collaborated on an elaborate mural. According to artist and writer Brett Cook, the project was “an interactive, multidisciplinary, revolutionary experience in mindfulness that culminated in a large public work illustrating what makes a happy community.” For photos, video and a story of the process, go to homepage.mac.com/brettcookdizney.

I am feeling increasingly that my New York Sangha is a family. Still, this brother and sister connection at people of color retreats brings a joy that startles me when I look up and see us walking, sitting, breathing, smiling, and listening to Thay. My brothers and sisters who are Asian, Black, Latino and Native are not the same as me, but there is something we share about living in a power structure where white privilege is a given.

Some of us were concerned about the presence of white folks at this year’s Deer Park retreat. I quickly noticed them, then had to let it go. In fact, I was glad that mixed race couples could share that space, but was glad that my Dharma discussion group was all people of color (a must, I think). And, because some of the white folks were friends, I was able to tell them:

  • I didn’t necessarily come to talk about race and culture with my people of color; although I did.
  • I definitely didn’t come to explain anything about my experience as a Black woman to you; although I did.
  • I didn’t come to hear what in your life experience and political viewpoint makes you the same as me; although I did.
  • I didn’t even come to take part in the late night “rap” sessions; although I envy the sharing that I missed.

I came for retreat and healing and to learn. I came to be in a rare space with my teacher. It turned out that I could talk about the anger and despair I was feeling about politics in Harlem, which had just about worn me out. And it was a gift not to have to apologize or start from the beginning.

Thay told me things that I needed then and that I need daily. Among the things I remember: mindful consumption is essential for community building; harmony is possible; your way of life is your message; don’t think because you are poor you are helpless; anger is not the only source of energy.

Two More Gifts

Sister Jewel talked with me about my ancestors. She gave me the idea and the “permission” to go to Abyssinian Baptist Church and clap hands and sing about Jesus being “right on time,” because I need the community. I’m going to take a Jewish New York friend with me to Abyssinian. Months ago, we crossed tribal lines by deep listening in a conference room in a seaside hotel in Vietnam. I accepted his invitation to Brooklyn where I felt happy, breathing and walking with his Sangha family. He’s already been to my Sangha; now he’s coming to Abyssinian.

For years I failed to add the third refuge to my practice because I felt alienated from Sanghas full of white people. Meeting practitioners and teachers at people of color retreats (including two at Spirit Rock in California and two sponsored by Insight Meditation in New York), who were usually the lone practitioner of color at their Sanghas, inspired me to find a local home. I am also inspired to continue to seek out their company whenever the gift is offered.

Angela Dews, Peacemaker Strength of the Heart, practices with the Riverside Sangha of the Community of Mindfulness New York Metro.

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Peace Is Every Step

How the Mindful Walk with Thich Nhat Hanh in Los Angeles Became an International Day of Mindfulness and Peace

By Beth Howard

mb41-Peace1At the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado, someone asked Thich Nhat Hanh what could be done to bring peace to the situation in Iraq. He responded by saying that there are many wrong perceptions on both sides. We must begin, he said, by looking deeply at our own practice. To have peace in the world, we must first have peace within ourselves. Thay also suggested that we share these practices with others, teaching them to look deeply and helping them to find peace within themselves. “There is much in the peace movement that is not peaceful,” he stated.

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Participants at the retreat organized a Peace Affinity group to discuss these issues. At the meeting, Sister Susan from Deer Park Monastery began by reiterating that the peace movement lacked peace at its core. When asked how Thay might participate and help us, Sister Susan said that Thay would support our efforts, but we needed to do the work.

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And so the Peace Is Every Step project was born.

An Alternative Peace Movement

Peace Is Every Step formed as an alternative to the currently fractured peace movement. Its purpose is to use deep listening, deep looking, and loving speech to foster peace in each individual and in the world. It is a peaceful organization for individuals and organizations who wish to create peace from a nonviolent, non-angry place by using peaceful means. As Thay teaches, to have peace in the world, we must start at home, within ourselves.

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Specific suggestions by participants at the meeting included local, state, and national initiatives and actions; advertising campaigns; and networking with a number of peace organizations. A large peace rally was already planned in Washington, D.C., which seemed a perfect opportunity for a mindful, peaceful presence. Melissa O’Neil and Kelly Osborne, human rights and environmental activists and organizers, volunteered to work with Sister Susan to create a database that would allow the Peace Affinity group to stay in touch and share ideas and information. Jeremy Williams offered to build the Peace Is Every Step Website.

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Susan Skog, a writer and inspirational speaker, presented a synopsis of the Peace Affinity meeting to the larger Sangha at the retreat. “Peace is still alive in America,” she said. “We just need to water the seeds of peace.”

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Two weeks after the retreat, Peace Is Every Step was online at www.peaceiseverystep.net. The first e-mail was sent out to inform the group of a Peace Walk in Los Angeles, led by Thay and organized by Deer Park Monastery. Skog, Williams, and Janet Jackson were instrumental in networking with and inviting peace groups and media. Many existing peace organizations put out invitations and e-mails to their members announcing the Peace Walk, including True Majority, United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, and Nonviolence International. Almost immediately, people responded from around the globe, with plans to have simultaneous events that would coincide with the L.A. Peace Walk, thus creating an International Day of Mindfulness and Peace.

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Walking for Peace in Los Angeles

On Saturday, October 8th, Thay led over three thousand people in a mindful, silent Peace Walk. Thay requested that we walk together in silence, with no banners or signs; the walk was not a demonstration against anyone. He said, “If you are a Buddhist, please come. If you are a Christian, please come. If you are Jewish, Muslim, or belong to or identify with any other religious creed or peace organization, please come. If you are white, brown, black, yellow, red, or any other color, please come. We shall learn together that wrong perceptions of self and others are at the foundation of separation, fear, hate, and violence, and that togetherness and collaboration is possible.”

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Thay explained from an open stage before the walk, “We don’t think shouting in anger can help. If you make other people angry and fearful, then you cannot reduce violence and fear.” He encouraged participants to practice deep listening and loving speech.

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The two-hour silent walk and prayer for peace proceeded serenely through the streets surrounding MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey was killed in the war in Iraq, attended the walk. (See Sheehan’s comments on page 14). For many, the walk exemplified A.J. Muste’s often quoted phrase: “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

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The walk was widely covered in the local media. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Thay stated, “I don’t think shouting angrily at the government can help us end the war. When we are able to change our own thinking, the government will have to change.”

A Peaceful Homecoming Parade

On the same day, across the globe, people gathered to support Thay’s message. Peace Walks or vigils were held in a dozen cities, including Lafayette, Indiana; Portland, Oregon; Atlanta, Georgia; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Helena and Lewistown, Montana; Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Denver, and Boulder, Colorado; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada; and Sydney, Australia.

The Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, practiced mindful walking in Colorado State University’s Homecoming Parade. Before the parade some Sangha members expressed concern because of recent clashes between pro-war and antiwar protesters in their city. But after the walk, what many recalled were the smiles of the people along the parade route, reminding them of Thay’s saying, “A smile is the most basic kind of peace work.” Susan Skog, who lives in Fort Collins, remembers best the hands of children, reaching out to receive bright yellow bookmarks printed with the calligraphy, “Peace is every step.”

Future Plans

Currently, plans are underway for additional peace projects. One proposal is A Long Walk for Peace, a mindful walk covering as many as 200 miles that would also offer the opportunity to practice engaged Buddhism, perhaps by helping to build housing for hurricane victims.

For further information about Peace Is Every Step events, go to www.peaceiseverystep.net. If you have questions or suggestions, contact info@peaceiseverystep.net, and if you would like to be on Peace Is Every Step’s listserve, please send an e-mail to sangha-subscribe@peaceiseverystep.net.

Beth Howard, Peaceful Source of the Heart, practices with the Bird & Bell Meditation Group in Cheyenne, Wyoming and with the Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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I Have Arrived: I Am Home

By Cindy Sheehan

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I was honored and humbled to be in the presence of a holy man, Thich Nhat Hanh, today [October 8, 2005] at MacArthur Park in a Hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles.

Thay (teacher), as he is known, walks with an aura of peace and acceptance radiating from him. Thay teaches: “Every day we do things that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our life, our way of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive.” This is what we see Thay doing.

In a speech I delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on the one-year anniversary of my son Casey’s death, which was also the thirty-seventh anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., I said: “We must all do one thing for peace each day.” I now know that is not enough. We must live peace and embody peace if we want peace on earth. Our entire lives must be for peace. Not just one activity a day.

Every Step Is Peace

That was the theme for today’s walk in MacArthur Park. Thay reminded us to be in the present and take every step in peace and know that we are walking on the earth in peace. He lovingly admonished the hundreds of people who came to hear him, to do everything in peace: eat, walk, talk, breathe, sleep, work, play, etc. There was to be no yelling, no angry words, no harsh statements. This admonishment struck me to the bone, because I have been so strident in my criticism of the Bush administration in what I have seen as a greedy and destructive quest for power. The way Thay teaches can truly help our country to live in eternal peace and not eternal war.

“I have arrived. I am home. “

This was the first sign we passed as we started on our walk. Thay told us we should say with every step, “I have arrived, I am home,” and that every second we newly arrive in the present. I see so much conflict and struggle in our world because we don’t live in this second. Instead, we are worried about the next second and are mourning the past second. Camp Casey taught me to live each moment in the arrival moment. One of the reasons I have been able to remain calm in the face of an onslaught of troubles and calamity is because I realized in Camp Casey that I could not struggle against the current of my life and change my destiny any more than I could bring my son back from the land of the dead. Each second of each day is our precious arrival and we should honor each moment. Jesus Christ also said: Why worry about tomorrow? Today has enough worries of its own.

I Am Home

I met a new friend today named Jewel, whose son was a medic on the front lines in Iraq and has tried to commit suicide three times since he returned from the desert of pain. The distraught mother is beside herself with worry, said she feels her boy is dying. His superiors will not allow him to be diagnosed with PTSD so he can’t get the treatment he desperately needs. Jewel is Buddhist and I told her: “You realize your son died in Iraq.” She replied to me: “We have all died because of this war.” She is right. On April 4, 2004, Cindy Sheehan died, and Cindy Sheehan was born. The dead Cindy Sheehan lived for her home and family. She kept a neat and tidy house, often cooked meals, did everyone’s laundry, entertained friends, laughed more than she cried, worked at various jobs, and her family meant the entire world to her. She lived an insulated life filled with Thanksgivings and Christmases and birthdays and other celebrations.

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The Cindy who was born on 04/04/04 still adores her family above all things but now knows that the human family is worth struggling for too. The lifelong cause of peace with justice is worth leaving her home for and traveling around and being home wherever she is. I pray for Jewel and especially for her son, that he realizes that he “died” in Iraq but he can be a much better person than the one who left his loving home and mother. Tragically, the story of Jewel and her son is not an uncommon one.

“In order to rally people, governments need enemies. They want us to be afraid, to hate, so we will rally behind them. And if they do not have a real enemy, they will invent one in order to mobilize us.” —Thich Nhat Hanh

This has been one of my feelings and themes for months. I know that during the terrible war [in Vietnam] Thay had no enemies, but the perceived enemy was communism. Now, in this evil war that we are struggling against, the perceived enemy is terrorism. I just saw a poll that said only thirteen percent of Americans fear a terrorist attack but the war machine has taken over and created this perceived enemy.

Last week, George Bush said things were going to be far worse in Iraq in the next few months. He likened Iraq with World War 1. Why do we allow our leaders to sacrifice our young to the war machine? War will stop when we as parents, educators, religious leaders, brothers, sisters, husbands, and wives refuse to live and think in a way that allows our loved ones to be taken to a war of someone’s choice and killed. I wish I had refused to allow Casey to go to Iraq. I wish I had knocked him out and taken him to Canada or anywhere far enough away from the war monster, but I know that that would not be enough to stop the war. We all need to change our way of living and thinking so that young men no longer need to be sacrificed. I pray that the sacrifice of my son’s life will help me and others to dedicate ourselves to walking in peace.

Thay has said: “Some people think it’s a miracle to walk on water. I think it is a miracle to walk on the earth in peace.”

If we don’t learn how to do this as a people we are in for a hard time. Thay has shown hundreds of thousands of people in the world how to walk in peace. Now that we have identified the war in Iraq as insane, we need to walk on earth in peace in order to go forward. I am committing my life and Casey’s life to peace. An exit strategy from Iraq is not enough if we cannot learn to change our way of walking.

Let’s walk each step away from the killing, and walk each step in peace towards the answer. Let us join hands in working always for peace, in peace: being peace.

Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq, made international news when she traveled to Crawford, Texas and camped there to get President Bush’s attention. She is a founding member of Gold Star Families for Peace.

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Dwelling in the Ultimate in North Mississippi

By Steve Black

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“In the Ultimate I dwell,” Thay says. And turning to the child holding his right hand, he says, “Do you know what the Ultimate is?”

Silence. The child looks at Thay. His head is level with Thay’s thigh. He says nothing.

Thay gently repeats the question: “Do you know what the Ultimate is?”

“No,” the child says. “Neither do I,” Thay replies.

They begin walking, Thay and the two children on his left and right.

A few steps later they stop again.

“If you don’t know what the Ultimate is, I’ll tell you tomorrow,” Thay says. “It’s a kind of plant. It’s a kind of flower.” He grins.

And with that we begin walking along the front of the meditation hall, which has been newly built in the Mississippi hill country, about four miles from Batesville. It is Tuesday, October 11, Thay’s seventy-ninth Continuation Day and the first morning of his visit to Magnolia Village. Over 200 of us are gathered here this morning. Tomorrow, on the Mindfulness Day, that number will increase more than 300, and more than forty people will receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings. On both days, roughly half the participants are Vietnamese and the other half are Westerners.

We walk through the chilly morning fog, around the long meditation hall, and across a wide field lined on either side with the tents of those of us who are staying at the center during Thay’s four-day visit here. There are no dormitories. In fact, the only structures here are the meditation hall, a one-story house where Thay and the monks are staying, a mobile home that is being used to house the nuns, and a hand-hewn corn crib that was built in the nineteenth century and stands as a witness to the land’s former manifestation as a cattle farm.

This land, 118 acres in all, is a gift from the North Mississippi Vietnamese community. Inspired by Thay’s visit to Memphis for Peace Walk 2002, they began to look for property suitable for a practice center. A year later, in November 2003, they had located this property. Now, twenty-three months later, the sale of the land has closed, and the meditation hall has been built, along with a beautifully landscaped pond with a bridge leading to a Kwan Yin statue on a small island.

Learning the Landscape

The history of this land on which we are walking is at once rich in joy and saturated with suffering. On land that was worked by slaves forced into labor, on land in a state that, through lynchings and countless acts of brutality and small, daily humiliations, has become the emblem of the racism that has darkened our entire country’s history for so many centuries, on land that has known the joys of generations of farm children at play, we are now enjoying these precious four days with Thay and the monastics and friends who have gathered here from Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

The grass is damp from heavy dew and by the time we have reached the middle of the field, my shoes are soaked through. They will remain uncomfortably wet until the sun emerges in the early afternoon and begins to dry them. But there is a joy and solidarity in this dampness. All around me I see people with their shoes soaked, their pants wet up to their calves, brown grass blades stuck on their heels and pants legs. We are all walking together.

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At the end of the field, we walk through a gate and onto a gravel lane, down into a ravine and out again, stepping into a wide pasture. We are walking slowly, learning this new landscape as we go: its dry creek beds; its unexpected patches of late blooming swamp sunflowers, blue wild ageratums, and purple beauty berries; its stands of persimmon, oak, cedar, pines, sassafras, and sweetgum trees.

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We walk for a long time, stopping finally along the edge of the pasture, and Thay sits on the ground. We all ease ourselves onto the wet grass, taking a moment to find a position that will ensure the least amount of dampness. Thay shows the children how to make the “five mountains” with their hands and then Sister Chan Khong begins singing. Thay guides us in the singing as well, making us repeat verses when we lose the melody or sing off key. At one point, during “I Take Refuge in the Buddha” he stops us and, reminding us of our southern roots, says, half-scoldingly, “This is country music.” It’s true, I realize, when Thay begins singing again; here we are in Mississippi, singing about taking refuge in the Buddha to a traditional country melody.

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Blessings

Later that morning, in the meditation hall, Thay formally accepts the donation of the practice center. He has promised us that, two or three times a year, monastics will come to Magnolia Village to lead retreats, and he says that if the Sangha practice in the Mid-South area becomes strong, he will send a group of resident monastics in a few years. As part of the Acceptance Ceremony, the monks offer a chant, and then Thay stands and, lifting a glass of water and a long-stemmed rose, begins flinging droplets onto the fruit and flower offerings on the altar. He steps up onto the altar and sprays water onto the Buddha statue made out of beautiful white Vietnamese marble. Stepping down, Thay walks along the side of the hall, flinging water onto the walls and dropping it onto the heads of the people sitting along the edge of the room. And once Thay has circled the room, he begins to walk up and down the rows of people sitting on cushions, dropping water onto our heads. Thay walks up behind me and I can’t hear his feet approaching. Suddenly there is the sound of rose petals rustling above me and when the drops fall on the crown of my head, I feel as if a weight has landed on me. I bow my head slightly and Thay steps quietly forward.

Sitting there, I bow in gratitude to Thay for coming to Magnolia Village. I bow in gratitude to the opportunity to practice with so many friends on the path. I bow in gratitude for this opportunity to dwell in the Ultimate in North Mississippi.

Whatever the Ultimate might be.

Steve Black, Compassionate Continuation of the Heart, and his wife, Virginia, Peaceful Mountain of the Heart, live and practice in Statesboro, Georgia.

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Poem: The Woman, Planting

mb41-TheWoman1Shaded
by her conical
palm leaf hat,
she squats beside the road,
oblivious to traffic
and me,
digging the dry dirt
with bare hands—
no shovel, no spade,
no tool of any kind
in evidence—
just skin and fingernails
and fierce determination.
I pass her,
walking,
aware of my incongruity—
a red-haired American Buddhist
in Hanoi,
dressed in traditional
temple robe,
placing each step mindfully
on the rutted path,
alert to maniacal motorcyclists
emerging from morning mist.
No smile,
no glance
flickers between us,
each intent
on our appointed tasks.
mb41-TheWoman2How then to explain
or describe
the shock of recognition,
the explosion of insight?
I do not see her
as someone like me,
or myself
as someone like her.
I see her AS me.
We merge into one.
Showing no outer indication
of the cataclysmic event,
I walk on,
shaded
by my palm leaf hat,
tool-less,
save for deft hands
and the determined vow
to plant
a garden of peace
in the war-torn country
of my heart.

Emily Whittle

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Monks & Nuns:

Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part Two

By Lori Zimring De Mori

The author questions two young monastics on their journey from lay life to ordination. Part One of this article was published in the autumn issue of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Phap Tue

Phap Tue, whose given name means wisdom, ordained as a monk in December of 1999. Growing up in Northern California, his passions were nature, soccer, reading, and the Grateful Dead band. During the summer of 2003 he helped run the children’s program at Upper Hamlet in Plum Village and with great intelligence and sensitivity facilitated the adults’ discussion about the Five Mindfulness Trainings. He is twenty-nine years old.

Thay often asks us to remember our fi experience on the path. What was yours?

Lots of the Vietnamese monks remember a feeling they had when visiting a temple. My family went to church on Sundays, and there I saw the seed of silence and something beyond the ordinary, but I was much more moved by the natural world, especially when I went down to the creek behind our house by myself. I was about five or six years old. Even as a child I had a propensity to be happy alone. The creek brought me into a silent space and seemed to open up my mind.

When I was in fifth grade I read a book called The Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was about a group of friends on a spiritual journey to find themselves as individuals, and as friends, though the tale was clothed in mythological adventure. There were a few characters whose personalities influenced me deeply, particularly a mage, or wizard. The wizards lived virtually alone, deep in the woods, in towers, in mountains or in other hidden, mysterious places. They wore robes, had no girlfriends, and were entirely devoted to their practice. I see this character in me now. I think a Buddhist monk is quite possibly as close as you can get to a modern-day wizard.

So were you a quiet, solitary child?

Not at all. I was also a real talker and loved being in community, on teams. My dad was determined for me to play out that feeling in the athletic realm. He’d been a great soccer player when he was young but denied that first love in favor of more socially acceptable choices. Our relationship centered around competition and approval. I liked soccer, I liked learning, and I wanted approval, so in school I was a teacher’s pet and out of school my primary focus was being in nature and playing soccer.

How did those two sides of you—the solitary and the social—play themselves out as you got older?

My best friend growing up was a wild, free-spirited kid named Shane. He wasn’t a good student and he didn’t really care about people’s approval. I learned from him to be a bit more bold. By high school we’d grown apart. I was playing soccer on state teams. That made me popular and girls liked me but I was also becoming more of a loner. I started eating lunch with my English teacher who was a devout Christian. We’d talk about religion, politics, and literature. In my senior year I started reading Joseph Campbell. I had a strong spiritual inclination but it suffered from my devotion to soccer, where success was measured in terms of fame and recognition rather than through understanding. On the other hand, my coaches taught me discipline, focus, and concentration. They were very good teachers in many ways.

At the same time I started doing hallucinogenic drugs, mostly mushrooms. Mushrooms became my “spiritual path”—they showed me things about myself I’d never seen before. I’d take them every full moon and go hiking alone. I was getting in touch with the natural environment in a new way, but it was usually drug facilitated. I also loved the Grateful Dead. A whole group of us—mostly older than me—would follow them around the West Coast and go to all their concerts. We’d free dance, spinning around in circles. There was this ethic of peacefulness and love among Dead fans. We never saw each other outside of the concerts. When we left we’d just say, “Love you. . .see you next concert.” I fell in love with a girl who was always at the concerts. She was twenty-five, a vegan, and an environmentalist. I was nineteen. I didn’t tell her how old I was.

What did you do after high school?

I went to UC Berkeley and played competitive college soccer. I trained every day but didn’t really hang out with my teammates. We were friends on the field, but off the field I enjoyed other things than going to parties, drinking, or chasing women. So, I spent most of my time training, studying, and being alone in nature. Then I crashed.

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What do you mean, you “crashed”?

I got injured during my freshman year at Berkeley and I just couldn’t come back from the injury. I couldn’t walk without pain. Yet the greatest pain was not the physical pain I experienced but the psychological trauma of losing who I felt I was. I fought with my old ideas of God and “what was meant to be.” I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play soccer competitively but I couldn’t really let go. I became angry and depressed, lost confidence in myself. I was so lonely, and yet didn’t want to be in a relationship. I felt like I had work I needed to do on my own. I realized I didn’t really miss soccer, that I loved dancing and hiking more. I had virtually given up alcohol and other drugs by then, and I began to distance myself from my old friends. In my sophomore year I moved into an apartment on my own. I still felt heavy and depressed so I just put all my energy into school.

Did you have any spiritual practice at this point?

Not at first, but two things happened which influenced me. I went to an exhibit of Tibetan sacred art at a place called Dharma Publishing. The gallery was lit by thankas, colorful tapestries with different deities, natural scenes, and silent stories. I was in a dark place in my life at this time, so this color was a great gift.

There was a lecture afterwards about the Four Noble Truths. It really touched me. It addressed my real experience and gave guidance in a practical way. I wanted to hear more. Dharma Publishing became my Sangha and I started going to teachings every Sunday. The teachings fit with the values of nonviolence and peacefulness which I already held from my Grateful Dead days, and I found them intellectually flawless. No dogma. No conditions. Just “see for yourself.” I started reading books about Buddhism and felt nourished by the teachings.

Around the same time I was up late one night flipping through television channels and a guy named Tony Robbins was advertising workshops to help people see what they wanted in life and teach them how to get it. His approach was not strong on the spiritual but he did talk about knowing what your values are, understanding that many have been inherited rather than chosen. His idea was to create a hierarchy of values and make them your target. But first you needed to discover what your values were.

I saw that I valued two things very strongly: one was compassionate understanding, which was in accord with my new spiritual awakening. The other was a value I hadn’t even realized was strong in me—the desire to influence people, to be seen as someone who could do things. I decided to leave that behind and to try to live without looking for approval. I wanted to be truly free. But I needed wisdom, understanding. I also needed to drop my fear of not doing well in school. I was often nervous about grades. I began to see this was another way I sought approval and recognition. I saw it was based on fear of rejection. So I made sitting meditation my new priority. I began sitting for two hours each morning. School became easier and more enjoyable and I found my happiness was not so much about what I did but what was inside. Compassionate understanding became my number one priority.

Were you practicing with a teacher or on your own?

There were lay teachers at Dharma Publishing and they were wonderful but I got to a point where I wanted a teacher “with the glow.” I had a friend who was practicing in Dharamsala. After graduation I told my parents I was thinking of going to Chile to teach or to India, to practice. I told them I was also considering the monastic life. They didn’t take me seriously.

I’d also thought about getting a teaching credential. My father said he’d pay for school if I got my credential before going away. I thought, “The practice can be done anywhere; I can practice at school.” So I took the opportunity, with one condition: I would study because I loved it. And I would not stress. So I went back to school, tutored kids, and coached soccer. I liked teaching and the kids liked me but I was aware that my love was always conditional, even to my students. I gave them attention but I didn’t really know how to love and understand them. Through meditation I was beginning to see clearly that I didn’t really understand myself, yet I was teaching. There was always an element of hypocrisy, for I still had insecurities and fears I needed to resolve.

In the meantime I was still sitting every morning and had started reading Thay’s books and I’d found a Sangha two blocks from home. It was very alive, deep, and honest. One morning I was sitting and I saw all these ideas I had about myself and suddenly thought, “It’s all a painting—you’ve made it all up.” This was one of the first deep realizations I had. As I continued to sit regularly each day, the meditation bore more insight. I remember one morning after I had sat I opened my eyes and felt extremely calm. Everything was silent. There was one of Thay’s books beside me: The Diamond That Cuts through Illusion. I opened it and read a passage. It spoke of a type of giving called “the giving of non-giving.” It meant you gave to someone without conditions, with no discrimination between self and other. I read this passage and thought to myself, “Is this possible? Is this true?” And a very honest voice, that was my own, rose out of me: “You know it’s true.” And then I thought to myself: “It’s over. That’s it. It’s all over.” I stood up and called my department counselor and told her I was withdrawing from the education program. I told my dad that he hadn’t wasted a penny but I had learned all I could learn and was going to become a monk.

Why did you decide to go to Plum Village?

I’d read many of Thay’s books—the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, and Your Appointment with Life. I thought that if the community of Plum Village practiced in the same way Thay set out in his books I’d be fine.

I wrote to Plum Village to see if I could come that summer and was told to wait and come after the summer retreat. So I decided in the meantime to go to Thay’s Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont to practice for a month. It’s very quiet and contemplative there. I ended up staying for six months before coming to Plum Village. I ordained a month after arriving.

How did your parents react to your decision to become a monk?

My mom was upset. At first she cried and yelled. More recently though, she’s come to visit me, practice with us, and has even taken the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My father was absent. When I asked him why he thought I was becoming a monk he said he thought it was because I didn’t know what else to do. My reasons were exactly the opposite.

Does anyone ever leave the monkhood?

Sometimes. Overall the percent of Westerners who leave is higher than non-Westerners. There were sixteen people in my ordination family. One has left already.

What is your practice like now?

There’s a communal feeling that comes from living in Plum Village. Sometimes I miss the quiet of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, but I believe that mindfulness and awakening can happen anywhere, at any time. I feel that practice should be engaged, not just on the hilltop. Otherwise I’ve really tried to let go of any expectations. I want to create harmony and to share. I’ve retired from sports and moved away from competitiveness to things like yoga and dance. I’m losing my sense of ambition.

Are you interested in teaching?

I don’t think about teaching too much yet. I still have thundering insights on the cushion then get up and start making judgments about others. In monastic life you’re often put up before others and expected to teach. I still prefer to train myself until I am a more stable practitioner. I know I can’t get up there egoless yet. I still want to be taught.

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Viet Nghiem

Chan Viet Nghiem received the monastic precepts when she was twenty years old, in February 2002. Born in the north of France, she is one of the youngest Western nuns to have ordained with Thich Nhat Hanh. Her given name means “True Transcendence.” We spoke under the temple bell at Plum Village’s Lower Hamlet. She began our conversation by handing me a photo album. The first picture showsa bright-eyed baby; one of the last shows Thay cutting a lock of her thick, dark hair at her ordination ceremony.

What brought you to Plum Village?

My mom and I were living in Paris. She had come to Plum Village in the spring of 1997 and wanted to bring me back with her for a week that summer. We hadn’t been getting along, and she thought that with the help of the sisters at Plum Village we might learn to communicate better. I thought she wanted the nuns to “fix” me. The idea of spending a week with her at Plum Village sounded awful!

At the age of fifteen, I felt I had no preparation to face life and its challenges, at school and in my family. I often felt lost and hurt, and carried away by my emotions. I was discovering the presence of a world within me that I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t know how to communicate that to my mother. She wanted to help me, but she didn’t know that I would end up wanting to become a monastic!

How was that first experience?

I didn’t like it at all in the beginning. The distractions of society had been keeping all my fears and feelings of insecurity hidden. It was very overwhelming to face them all in the silence of this place. I wanted to go home but my mom insisted that we stay for the whole week. After three days I started to settle, and discovered a sense of home and safety within me. During Thay’s first talk, he asked an American and a Japanese to practice hugging meditation as an act of reconciliation. It was so powerful. I noticed that the sisters and brothers practiced to make everything sacred in and around them, just by breathing in and out.

Did you take the Five Mindfulness Trainings?

Not that first year; the ceremony scared me. I was shy and didn’t want to stand up and kneel in front of the sisters. But I really liked

my first retreat at Plum Village, so I made my mom promise we would come back for a longer time the following year. And that time I took the Mindfulness Trainings and they really helped me. I was in a teenage crisis, rebellious and reactive against the whole world. Taking the Trainings was a foundation for me to learn to respect myself and others. They were seeds planted in the soil of my being. They gave me guidance, something to help me “swim” in society, They were a light in the dark for me.

What happened?

Something changed in me, slowly but deeply. I went back to my environment with a powerful tool of protection. I could imagine the misery I would put myself through without the Trainings. I had hard times, especially with my friends and my boyfriend, and their influence on me. But I knew I had support from a spiritual community, and that meant a lot.

Thay helps people to “re-become” human. Back at school it felt like the teachers and other students helped me lose my human nature. It was all about good grades—not about acknowledging our feelings, our suffering. Thay teaches through his actions. This really made an impression on me. I could listen to a Dharma talk and have no doubts. I had a capacity to put it into practice, at my own pace. Sometimes I would cry, seeing the difference between the love that Thay embodies and the lack of sensitivity that I met in some of my teachers.

Is this when you decided to become a monastic?

Not really. I was almost seventeen and thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I decided I wanted to live in community. I didn’t want to marry or have kids and I didn’t want to work for money. I felt a deep aspiration for service, but I didn’t want to be a monastic. I wanted everything about monastic life but to be a monastic.

The Christmas after my second retreat my mom and I returned to Plum Village together. Sister Jina became the abbess of Lower Hamlet that winter. As I watched the ceremony, with the rows of monastics in their yellow robes facing each other, I realized that this was what I wanted to do. From then on I started coming to Plum Village to get to know the life of the sisters. I developed and found a deep support from them.

How did your mother feel about your wanting to become a nun?

I hadn’t told her at this point. I hadn’t told anyone, not even my best friends. But deep down I knew this was what I wanted to do. At eighteen, I graduated from high school and came to spend the summer in Lower Hamlet. I started helping in the teenage program.

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When I came home from the summer retreat I told my mom that I was planning to return to Plum Village to ordain. She thought I was joking. When she realized I was serious, she asked me many questions to test me. Now I realize that I’ve been quite rude to her: I never really told her anything until three months before I left home! I’m her only child and my leaving for monastic life was hard for both of us.

Though my teachers supported me with many opportunities to go to university, I decided not to go. I was afraid I would be caught in some kind of study that would prevent me from discovering who I am. Finally, I left everything behind and decided to come to Plum Village to give it a try.

When did you become an aspirant?

I returned to Plum Village in November 2000 and became an aspirant on my nineteenth birthday. The sisters advised me to wait a year before ordaining as a novice. I shared a room with two other women—both were Vietnamese and old enough to be my mother and grandmother. We didn’t share a common language and I felt a bit lost, at first. The cultural differences were difficult for me to handle, but the practice we shared helped all three of us to get to know and support one other.

What are your days like now that you have ordained?

When there isn’t a retreat, we practice sitting meditation, chanting, and walking meditation every morning. We study basic Buddhism, chanting, and languages. We gather to listen to Dharma talks on Thursdays and Sundays and once a week we have a lazy day.

I’ve become interested in Christianity since I’ve become a nun. I have met Christian monks and nuns and we share our practices. Between us is born a dialogue (which they call communion), in which each one of us expresses the heart of our tradition.

I have so much fun here, in Plum Village. I feel happy, like I’m really blooming, getting to know myself better and at the same time, serving and getting to know others. I like interacting with people, listening to them, helping. For me it’s more important than a formal practice. I received full ordination in November 2004, exactly four years after I arrived in Plum Village to ordain. There is so much for me to learn, I feel I’ll never stop discovering something new!

Every sister has a mentor who is an elder sister in our community, a guide in the practice. My mentor has been a wonderful example of what true patience and listening are, and we share joy and love for life. Our relationship is sometimes sister-to-sister, sometimes mother-to-daughter, and sometimes simply between friends on this path.

Have you stayed in contact with your old friends in Paris?

They think it’s strange that I’ve become a nun. Some of them think I’m crazy. I’m still in touch with a few friends but none of them have come to visit. Most are indifferent to their church and don’t understand what I’m doing here. For them religion is something that changes your thoughts and takes away your freedom. To me, it is the opposite, it is where freedom begins. An inner freedom, the real one!

mb41-Monks6Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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Poem: Discourse on True Contentment

By Sister Dang Nghiem

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I heard these words of Thay one time when he was living in the vicinity of Escondido at the Deer Park Monastery in the Oak Grove. Late at night, a group of coyotes appeared, whose passionate howls made the whole Oak Grove tremble joyfully. After paying respects to Thay with the right front paw pointing in the direction of the moon, the elder coyote asked him a question in the form of a verse:

“People, animals, plants, and minerals are eager to know
what are the conditions
which bring about true contentment.
Please, Thay, will you teach us?”

(This is Thay’s answer:)

“To live in a Sangha,
to have brothers and sisters working in harmony,
to serve peoples of all nations ––
this is the true contentment.

“To have a chance to practice and transform,
to see yourself becoming more accepting and more solid,
to recognize that others also blossom ––
this is the true contentment.

“To be able to recognize and forgive,
to nurture gratitude to your blood family and spiritual family,
to express love through loving speech and deep listening ––
this is the true contentment.

“To have time to sit peacefully for your ancestors,
to touch the Earth tenderly with each step,
to eat in union with the whole cosmos ––
this is the true contentment.

“To create practice centers and hold regular retreats,
to turn gymnasiums and theatres into Dharma halls,
to bring the Dharma rain into ghettos and prisons ––
this is the true contentment.

“To witness police officers, business people, legislators,
scientists, and war veterans enjoying the Pure Land
with their mindful breaths and mindful steps ––
this is the true contentment.

“To provide a joyful environment for young people,
to help them reconnect with their families and society,
to show them that there is a beautiful path ––
this is the true contentment.

“To practice, work, study, and play together,
to realize the beauties and hardships of your brothers and sisters,
to cherish and protect them as your own marrow ––
this is the true contentment.

“To live a life simple and uncompetitive,
to come back to your breath as your soul food,
to rejoice in the music of the bell, wind songs, and laughter ––
this is the true contentment.

“To avoid speaking and reacting in anger,
not caught by your ideas and judgments,
and to be diligent in doing beginning anew ––
this is the true contentment.

“To savor the freedom in non-waiting,
to transform the grasping mind into that of true love,
to be a kind continuation of your spiritual ancestors ––
that is the true contentment.

“To see all life forms as your brothers and sisters,
to enjoy simply being together,
to actively build a beautiful past with your true presence ––
this is the true contentment.

“To rise in the morning with a smile,
to retire each night with peace, content to let go of all,
to know that you have loved and have been loved deeply ––
that is the true contentment.

“To live in the world
with your heart open to impermanence and change,
to progress stably on your true path, free of fear and worry ––
this is the true contentment.

“For he or she who accomplishes this,
arriving and at home wherever she goes,
always he is peaceful and happy ––
true contentment is in the moment one lives.”

Thay had finished the teaching. The coyotes were extremely delighted at what they had heard. At once, they stood up with posture erect and gave rise to another harmonious and joyful howl. The moon smiled contentedly from above, as she floated freely in the immense space.

Sister Dang Nghiem lives at Deer Park.

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The Role of the Lay Sangha

in the Time of Buddha Shakyamuni

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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With the publication of Freedom Wherever We Go (1) the Revised Pratimoksha (precepts of the fully-ordained Buddhist monks and nuns) becomes available to be studied and read by laypeople.

Traditionally, lay practitioners have not been permitted to read the Pratimoksha. The Buddha did not forbid it, since in the time of the Buddha the Pratimoksha was never written down, but he did forbid the recitation of these precepts by the monks in the presence of the laypeople. It is still forbidden. When we recite the Revised Pratimoksha, in the Sanghakarman procedure which precedes the recitation, the question is posed: “Have those who have not yet received the bhikshu ordination already left?”

This is because at several junctures during the recitation the monks and nuns are asked: “Is your precepts’ body pure?” One needs to be in the safety of one’s own Sangha to consider this question; and the same is true for the lay Sangha. If someone were to feel the need to express regret for not having observed the five or the fourteen mindfulness trainings, it would be best for them to confess within the small circle of their local lay Sangha friends who know them well. If we express regret for an offense outside of our small practice family it can lead to many wrong perceptions.

Apart from that, the lay Sangha can and should scrutinize the practice of monks and nuns with regard to precepts and fine manners. This has been the case since the time of the Buddha.

Monastics and Laypeople Influencing One Another

When we read the texts of the Vinaya (2) the allusions to lay practitioners are everywhere. The first reason is that the Vinaya is not just concerned with how monks or nuns relate to one another, but also with how monks and nuns relate to laypeople. The second reason is that many of the disciplinary measures taken by the Buddha and the Sangha arose because laypeople disapproved of a certain behavior they had observed in monks and nuns. Thirdly, many of the concessions to austerity allowed by the Buddha also came at the suggestion of the laypeople.

For instance, one time at Kitagiri, a lay practitioner heard some young men asking a monk if he would act as a go-between for them and a young lady. They had already tried to persuade the young woman to come with them on a picnic but she had refused.

The lay practitioner was shocked when he heard the monk assent to this request. He could not understand how a monk could agree to do such a thing. He reported the matter to senior monks who immediately saw the impropriety of such an action and told the Buddha. The Buddha made a precept forbidding monks and nuns from acting as go-betweens and matchmakers (3).

This incident shows how laypeople can inappropriately support the misbehavior of monks and bring the level of the practice down for everyone, or, more appropriately, seek the advice of monks who are strong in the practice.

Kitagiri was a town far from the important practice centers of the Buddha. Some monks who were weak in the practice had taken up residence there, and far from the supervision of the greater Sangha, they had adopted bad habits. The laypeople who may never have received correct instruction in the practice supported the misbehavior of the monks and even encouraged it, since they also wanted to join in the fun. The misbehavior consisted in taking part in worldly singing and dancing, playing betting games, making flower garlands, sitting with laywomen, and eating off the same plate. Things had gone so far that when a monk who was practicing correctly passed through the town he was laughed at and no one would offer him his midday meal.

However, in Kitagiri there was one lay family who had remained loyal to the true practice. They were delighted to see a monk who was walking serenely through the town on the traditional alms round. They were dismayed to learn that, although it was already late in the morning, the monk had received no alms. They took him to their house and offered him the midday meal. When he had eaten they asked him to report the state of affairs of Buddhist practice in their town to the Buddha. After this the Buddha sent the venerables Shariputra and Mahamaudgalyayana to put things back in order.

Help from Lady Visakha

There are lengthy accounts of well-renowned lay practitioners from the time of the Buddha. Anathapindika is the most outstanding layman and Visakha the most outstanding laywoman. These two figures had had connections with Buddhas in many past lives and had made the aspiration to support a Buddha and his Sangha. Lady Visakha was richly endowed with material means and was always ready to make offerings to the monastic Sangha. Secondly, she made many suggestions about small changes in the daily life of monastics that would mean less hardship for monks and nuns. Thirdly, she had no fear of pointing out the misbehavior of monks and nuns when she saw that it was endangering the reputation of the Buddha and his monastic Sangha. Sometimes she would speak directly to the monk or nun whose behavior she could not countenance. Otherwise she would go directly to the senior monks, nuns, or the Buddha. Her heart was filled with loving kindness for the Buddha and his Sangha, and her actions were always based on this and her deep observation of the situation.

Lady Visakha had a nephew who wished to ordain as a monk. He made his request during the rains retreat and was turned down. The monks told him that they had decided before the retreat that they would not accept any ordinands during that retreat. At the end of the retreat he said that he would not ordain. Lady Visakha was very disappointed and reported to the Buddha what had happened. The Buddha made a precept that monks cannot make blanket decisions that they will not ordain those who request ordination at a particular time.

The Buddha also gave permission for members of the monastic Sangha to leave the monastery for a maximum of seven days during the rains retreat if sent for by a layperson who was making a special offering, like monastery buildings, and if the layperson made the request in person. In other cases of great need by the lay Sangha a monk had permission to leave for seven days. Seven days was not a long time since the monk would travel on foot, so some of that time would be spent traveling. In the Plum Village Sangha of the present time, leaving the three-month retreat for any reason is strongly discouraged. Nowadays laypeople who feel in need of teachings from the monastics have the opportunity to stay at Plum Village or another center belonging to this lineage in North America or Europe.

Once Lady Visakha saw a monk sitting in a secluded place with a laywoman. She went directly to the monk and told him that this was unseemly. When the monk appeared unmoved by her words, she went to the senior monks who reported the matter to the Buddha, who made a precept forbidding such behavior. Not many of us would be as forthright as Lady Visakha. We should probably prefer to go directly to senior monks and report what we had seen.

There is recorded in the Vinaya an incident that shows the compassion and understanding of Lady Visakha. She came to the Buddha and asked if he would grant her eight wishes. The Buddha replied that he was not a teacher to grant wishes, but he would listen to her wishes. Lady Visakha lived near Sravasti and her wishes were for monks and nuns who happened to come to Sravasti.

  1. She wished to offer robes to the monks and nuns for the monsoon season. She had seen monks going about stripped to the waist because they had no dry robes to wear. They resembled the sect of naked ascetics and she did not think it was appropriate that people could not identify Buddhist monks.
  2. She wished monks who were newly arrived in Sravasti to be sent to her home for a meal. She had observed that when monks arrived they were tired and hungry and it was too much for them to have to make the alms round.
  3. She also wished to give monks a meal before they set out on a journey so they didn’t start out hungry and have to make the alms round in a strange place where they were not sure where they were
  4. She wanted to offer medicine to any monk or nun who was sick. She had been distressed to see sick monks and nuns without the means to acquire
  5. She wanted to offer food to any monk or nun whose ill health prevented them from going on the alms round.
  6. She wanted to offer food to any monk who was tending the sick, since it was not good for such monks to have to leave their charges in order to make the alms
  7. She wanted to provide the monks and nuns with a breakfast of rice porridge every day. She felt that it would improve their health.
  8. She would offer bathing robes to all the nuns in Sravasti. She had heard that they bathed naked and this was not appropriate.

When she had expressed these eight wishes the Buddha asked her what benefits would accrue to her through their fulfillment. She said that if a monk came to Sravasti and reported that one of them had died, she would ask: “Did the monk who has died ever come to Sravasti?” If the answer was “Yes,” she would conclude that that monk must have received the benefit of at least one of her eight wishes. Such news would bring her happiness and peace of mind. From this would result concentration and other spiritual fruits of the path of practice. The Buddha approved of her answer and granted her wishes.

Laypeople Help in Monastic Dispute

It is clear that the Buddha was ready to listen to suggestions from the laypeople about monastic life. The kings Bimbisara and Prasenajit also made suggestions that were adopted by the Buddha. It was King Bimbisara’s idea that the followers of the Buddha should celebrate an Uposatha day. This later became the day twice a month when the monks and nuns recited their precepts.

The dispute at Kosambi shows how the laypeople helped the Buddha bring to an end a serious dispute that had arisen in the monastery. As soon as the Buddha heard that there was a dispute concerning the infringement of a minor rule, he gathered the monks and gave teachings on the benefits of harmonious living. He met both sides in the dispute and told both that they should concede. However some of the monks had not wanted to listen. One monk had even stood up and asked the Buddha not to interfere. At that point the Buddha left the monastery and went into the forest alone. Later the monks even came to blows. The laypeople were extremely distressed about the dispute and that the Buddha had left. They came together and decided that they would not greet, stand up for, join palms before, or give alms food to the monks. This action convinced the monks that it was time to change their behavior and practice what the Buddha had advised them to practice in the first place.

Turning the Bowl Upside Down

There were times when laypeople acted inappropriately in their relations with the monastic Sangha. One layman participated in a scheme to bring disrepute upon a senior monk. At the instigation of some monks who were very angry with the senior monk, this layman reported falsely to the Buddha that his wife had been sexually assaulted by the senior monk. When it was proved to the Buddha that this was a calumny the Buddha instructed the monks never again to call at that man’s house on the alms round and that no offerings should be received from him. It was called “turning the bowl upside down.” When the man heard about this from Venerable Ananda, he was so shocked that he fainted. Other laypeople came to his aid and suggested his whole family make confession of this transgression. When this was done, the Buddha gave instructions for the monks to “turn the bowl upright again,” to receive alms from this man.

Prostrating to the Sangha

Since the laymen and laywomen constitute half of the Buddhist Fourfold Sangha, they have the right to scrutinize carefully the comportment of monks and nuns. This is not judgment. In Asia laypeople commonly prostrate before monks and nuns. This can be a dangerous practice if the monks and nuns have not been trained to receive prostration and to remain humble. As monks and nuns we should see that when someone prostrates before us they are not reverencing us as an individual. They are paying respect to the Buddha’s Sangha that we represent; they are no more paying respect to us than someone reverences a flag that represents a nation. If I thought that I were receiving the prostration because of who I am as an individual, that would lead to pride and be very dangerous for my practice.

There was a monk in Vietnam who was not practicing the precepts well. A devout laywoman prostrated before him. Her friend admonished her: “Do you not know that that monk is not practicing correctly?” The lady replied that she knew that the monk was not practicing correctly but maybe that prostration would bring the monk to his senses, reminding him that he was still a part of the Buddha’s Sangha in which the laypeople have great faith.

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At the end of his life Anathapindika made the request that laypeople, as well as monks and nuns, should receive the deepest teachings of the Buddha on no-birth and no-death. In our time laypeople receive these deep teachings and have an opportunity to put them into practice while working, raising a family, and supporting the monastic Sangha.

One of the aims of monastic discipline is to show ways in which monks and nuns have become burdensome to the lay Sangha and to encourage them not to do things that can cause difficulties for laypeople. Examples are: using money which has been donated for a specific purpose, for another purpose; receiving more than one midday meal at the same house on consecutive days; accepting an invitation to eat at one home and then going to another home to eat first; making demands that laypeople cannot easily fulfill.

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Laypeople often ask how they can best support the monastic Sangha. If you have seen your path clearly as a lay practitioner and you are happy and solid in it, that is the best support you can give to the monastic Sangha. It means that you know how both paths of lay and monastic practice are equally valid and mutually supportive. You feel close to the monks and nuns and keep in regular communication so that the monks and nuns know what the real difficulties facing a lay practitioner are and we can work together on developing suitable Dharma doors to help. It is very encouraging when we, as monks and nuns, hear from lay practitioners about how they are using the practice to deal with situations they meet in their family and at work. When we hear about the suffering that you encounter and know about the different misfortunes we may have been sheltered from, it helps motivate us to practice more diligently so that we can liberate ourselves and others.

If lay Sanghas can organize study groups and Dharma discussion concerning the Revised Pratimoksha it will bring us closer together as a fourfold Sangha. Just as monks and nuns want to support the lay practitioners in their practice of the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, so the lay practitioners can support the bhikshus and bhikshunis in their practice of the Pratimoksha.

Note: Green Mountain Dharma Center is being developed as a center for the practice of the Fourfold Sangha, where monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen will live and practice together.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is the abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont, and the senior editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

1 Thich Nhat Hahn, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2005
2 The corpus of literature connected with monastic discipline.
3 “Freedom Wherever We Go,” pp.36 & 92.

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Poem: Gratitude to the Sangha

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I remember your feet that April day—
Barefoot, sandaled—
Slowly, tenderly touching that sweet portion of prairie.
Someone said later that we must have kissed
A hundred varieties of sprouting grasses
And tiny blooms, and clover, and colorful weeds that day—
Kissed the prairie with our feet.

The wind blew hard that day, too—remember?
It wore us out and charged us up all at the same time.
We came inside breathless and needing to settle,
And we did.
We breathed, feeling a quiet prairie wind move through our bones.

Gratitude to the Sangha.
I remember bits and pieces of that day
And many other days and nights—
Sweet walks inside on the mat of the dojo.
And I remember your faces—
Animated in sharing, tranquil in meditation.

Gratitude to the Sangha.
You are always here—when I see you and when I don’t.
You are my groundedness in place and time,
My home, my boat in flood waters.

And the most wondrous thing about you
Is that you are growing.
You now include the sky, the wind, the water,
Beings large and small, beautiful and ugly,
Healthy and suffering.
Something in your generosity opens my heart.
I can embrace more. I see the same in you.

Gratitude to the Sangha.
Each of you has something to teach me—
Learnings so treasured, so useful.
Gratitude to the Sangha.
The Eternal Mystery has given us to each other—rare gift.
And in our gratitude we give this gift again and again
Wherever we show up in the world.
The gift multiplies and the sum is past figuring.
Its power is beyond measure.
Every human needs this kind of community.
So, our joy-filled work will never end.
There will be no unemployment for the Sangha.

And even on those days
When we might feel our role is small
Or our efforts feeble,
We can always stop, breathe,
Watch our feet touch prairie grass,
Feel prairie wind move through our bones,
And say with a whole heart
“Gratitude to the Sangha.”

Pat Webb, True Mountain of Action

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Inviting the Bell at School

By Suzanne Vitullo

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After visiting Plum Village two years ago, I was inspired to introduce the practice of inviting the bell in my elementary school classroom. The children I teach are learning to speak English and come to ESL class for about eighty minutes every day.

Here’s how I introduced the practice to the children: “I am going to invite this little bell three times, very slowly. When we hear the bell, we will take a few moments to calm down and to pay attention to our breathing. When we breathe well, more oxygen enters our brains and we are able to learn and think better. When we are calm, we can focus better.”

After the bell sounds, we all take deep slow breaths. I invite my youngest students to put their hands on their bellies to feel their breath go in and out.

At first, I invited the bell; now the children take turns. The student who rings the bell chooses a good listener to invite the bell the next day. After the bell sounds and we have all enjoyed our breathing, the children simultaneously say “Thank you” to the child who invited the bell.

Regularly, we review the reasons for inviting the bell. I might ask: “How do you feel when we ring the bell?” Children have responded: “I feel calm inside.” “When the bell rings I don’t feel mad about anything.” “I feel happy.” Often if I forget to invite the bell, the children remind me, “Ms. Vitullo, remember the bell!”

We have all become more aware of how paying attention to our breath is helpful. When children are upset or angry or crying, I remind them to pay attention to their breath. This often calms the tears enough so I can find out what is wrong. It offers an alternative to acting out, to reacting without thinking. Sometimes, it allows the children to find their own center.

At first it felt strange to integrate the practice of inviting the bell into my classroom, though it soon became a part of our regular routine. When my assistant principal observed my class, she noticed that the children enjoyed the bell and it seemed special to them. Inviting the bell in my classroom has also helped support my practice, allowing time for both me and the students to come back to our peace and joy. May my sharing inspire other teachers to bring mindfulness practice into their classrooms.

Suzanne Vitullo lives in Basalt, Colorado. She recently took a leave from her teaching job to attend the winter retreat at Plum Village.

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Transformation at the Prison

By Terry Masters

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Friday Morning

I got to the prison early but Kent was already there, pacing the floor.

“Hi Kent,” I smiled.

He nodded but didn’t stop pacing. “Are you okay?”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said, as he paced. “I think I’m goin’ crazy. I don’t think I’m gonna be a Muslim anymore… I just… This is horrible…”

“What happened?”

“Well…” Pacing back and forth, but in front of me so I can hear him.

“This white dude? Yesterday he got in my face. Real bad. “And I wanted to smash his face in. I pictured him on the floor and I was stompin’ his face.

“But you know what I did?” I shook my head.

“I walked away.”

“You walked away from him?”

“Yeah! Listen. I been shot at. I been stabbed. I been dragged behind a car and I don’t even know how many fights I been in… and then… I walked away from that dude.”

I smiled. Kent didn’t notice. He was still pacing.

“I think I’m turnin’ yella. I’m nuthin’ but a big coward.

I’m a…”

I interrupted. “Kent! This is wonderful! This is so beautiful.

You did just like we’ve been talking about.”

He stopped pacing and faced me, waited for me to continue.

“Yes! Somebody…” “A white dude!”

“…A white dude got in your face, made you angry and you stopped to notice what was happening.”

His brows furrowed; he was really listening.

“You stopped, Kent! You listened to your true self.” He looked doubtful.

“You did! You stopped, just like our teacher says to do. You didn’t just react out of habit.”

His face softened a little. “And now…”

“Yeah?”

“And now, you’re doing walking meditation!” (Sorry, Thay.

I know pacing isn’t exactly walking meditation.) “This is wonderful, Kent. This is so wonderful.”

He didn’t exactly smile, but a little bit, he did. And sat down for our meditation as the other guys filed in.

Next Friday

When I came in only Kent and another guy were there, a guy I didn’t know. Kent introduced me to him: Charlie. Charlie and I visited a little as Kent moved the chairs out of the way so we could do some yoga before we meditated. Charlie is a Choctaw from Oklahoma. After a short visit, he walked away to help with the chairs.

Kent came up to me and whispered, “That’s the dude.”

“The dude?’

“Yeah, the white dude I told you about.”

“You brought him, the white dude, to meditation class?” My eyes were wide with astonishment. A smile spread over my face.

“Yeah.”

“Oh my gosh, Kent, you are amazing!” “Terry, don’t cry!”

“Well, I’m so happy!”

The other guys arrived. After yoga and after our first meditation, we always talk a little about our practice. Kent said to the group, pointing to Charlie, “This is the dude.”

Everyone knew right away who he meant. They bragged on Kent until he hid his face, pretending to be embarrassed, “Cut it out!”

I was grinning. Tears of joy were forming. “And Terry, don’t cry!”

“I’m not crying.”

“She can cry if she wants to, Kent—leave her alone.”

We all sat still then, enjoying the wonder of this man.

After a while I said, “Kent, would you be willing to tell us how it came about that you invited Charlie to join us today?”

“Well… well, I was doin’ yoga in our dorm and Charlie, he comes up an’ he says, whatcha doin’? and I say, yoga, and then after a while I say, and I’m gonna do meditation after that. And then after a while I say, and Friday I’m goin’ to meditation class, wanna come? And he says yeah.”

I’m speechless. We all are. We just sit in our circle, smiling. Finally I say, “So, Charlie I know this is your first time here, but would you mind telling us how you got the courage to say whatcha doin’ to Kent?”

Charlie squirmed in his seat as he said, “Well, Kent is a positive guy, uh…” Squirms, his eyes on his feet. “And I’m a… positive guy…” Squirm. “And well I just thought there’s too many negative guys around here and it doesn’t make sense for two positive guys not to uh…” Squirm. “Uh, stick together. So I asked him.”

Charlie took a breath and looked up at us.

Awed, no one said anything.

Charlie added, “And I like it here.” Pause.

“I’m comin’ back.” Pause.

“I’ll be back next week.” Pause.

“Yep.”

I didn’t cry.

There, at the prison? I didn’t cry.

(Although everyone but Kent said it’d be okay.) But I cried when I got home.

Cried and grinned.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas.

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Mindfulness in a Virginia Supermax Prison

“All is Dharma. All is practice. All is perfect perfection.”

By Bill Menza

mb41-Mindfulness1Joe Giarratano has been in prison for twenty-five years, many of those in solitary confinement in Virginia’s Red Onion supermax prison. I have been writing to Joe for about fifteen years, including his twelve years on death row, and the time he was exiled by Virginia prison officials to prisons in Utah and in Illinois. I first met Joe on death row when I accompanied Amnesty International representatives visiting four prisoners in 1982. All have been executed except Joe.

During his exile to Utah and Illinois I sent Joe information about the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Buddha, and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. I told him I had found a way to deal with suffering as nothing else could. I told him that these tools were like a magical formula, that they made my life more calm, peaceful, and joyful. I suggested that he study and practice the teachings of the Buddha. I believe that the practice of the Way has saved Joe’s mind and body many times from the hells and insanity that supermax prison confinement inflicts on prisoners. Supermax prisons are based on research of Nazi prisons and the brainwashing of POWs by the North Koreans. They are non-human environments that aim to make prisoners completely compliant, as well as to punish them continuously.

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Practicing in Hell

“Generally,” Joe writes, “I am holding up well under the rigors of supermax segregated confinement. Nevertheless, I know that anyone subjected to this type of ordeal––especially for long durations––does not escape unscathed. From experiences with long-term isolated segregated lockdowns, i.e., my years on the row, I know the tremendous amount of mental concentration it requires just to keep one’s head above water. There are times, even now, when I’m not so sure of my own grip on reality…More and more, I find myself having to turn inward just to maintain my balance in this madness; and even then, I must remain on guard for hallucinations, for feelings of suffocation, paranoia, fear, and rage.”

Joe has been a good student of the Buddha. He has studied as much as is possible given the environment, and has passed the books and articles on to the prison library. Unfortunately, Virginia prison officials have now sealed all cell doors with hard rubber gaskets, so that prisoners cannot pass on papers or books, or talk to each other through the small space at the bottom of their cell doors.

Some of Joe’s letters have helped me and others have a more compassionate view of prison guards and officials by helping me understand more deeply that they too are human beings caught by many causes and conditions. Joe often begins or ends his letters with the statement: “All is Dharma. All is practice. All is perfect perfection.” When I first read these words I was quite taken by them, knowing the situation Joe finds himself in each day. He is alone in a cell no larger than a very small bathroom twenty-four hours a day, except for a few hours twice a week when he is taken out to shower or to exercise in a cement box. Exiting from his cell, he is handcuffed around the wrists and hands with a chain around his waist to which a dog chain is attached, chains around the ankles, and armed guards nearby. He receives food through a slot in the door of his cell.

Joe had been sentenced to death by a Norfolk, Virginia judge for a double murder. But after an international campaign for clemency, in 1991 his sentence was commuted to life with a recommendation for a retrial. Appeals came from Amnesty International, the Pope, the European Parliament, the Irish government, and thousands of individuals. But no retrial has taken place. The campaign developed from serious doubts about his guilt and the defectiveness of the judicial process that convicted him. (A recent report by the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, Broken Justice: The Death Penalty in Virginia, concludes: “Virginia’s criminal justice system is crippled by procedures that fail to ensure a reliable determination of guilt or innocence.”)

Jailhouse Lawyer

The campaign was also conducted because Joe had become an extraordinary rehabilitated prisoner, educating himself in law and the classics. He successfully filed two briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court for two other inmates while on death row.

One brief was about the lack of legal counsel for prisoners on Virginia’s death row in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Joe was trying to save fellow death row inmate Earl Washington, who did not have a lawyer and was a few days from being executed. Earl is a developmentally disabled African American who was exonerated in 2003 for the murder of a woman in Culpeper, Virginia. Police there had coached Earl into confessing to a murder he had not committed, and he was given an inadequate defense at his trial.

Recently, Joe filed motions in Federal Court to have the Virginia Department of Corrections follow standard medical procedures in testing a prisoner with a hepatitis C infection so the extent of his illness can be determined and drug therapy initiated. This is in response to a policy held by many state prison systems, of not adequately testing infected prisoners so drug treatment will not be required. This saves them money.

Joe has always been a passive and respectful prisoner. He has encouraged others to file grievances rather than to react violently. After he was removed from death row he set up a peace studies course among the most violent prisoners which was copied by other prisons in the U.S. Nonviolence teacher and columnist Coleman McCarthy helped Joe develop the twelve-week course called “Peace Studies: Alternatives to Violence.” At the commencement ceremony for the first class of graduates, peace diplomas were passed out and each participant came forward to say, in one way or another: “If I had known about nonviolence when I was a kid, I probably wouldn’t be in this place today.”

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While he was incarcerated in Utah, Joe worked with the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Department of Justice to expose abuse of prisoners, including the death of a young man strapped to the “devil’s chair.” Prisoners are strapped head to toe to this metal chair. Unable to move at all, there is a hole in the seat so urine and excrement can fall into a bucket. It is meant to be used on unruly prisoners for only a couple of hours at a time. The prisoner who died had been kept in the chair for several days, dying from the blood clots that form when there is no body movement. Joe’s work caused the director of the prison, a former military prison officer, to resign, and the gross mistreatment of prisoners there to be stopped.

Zen and the Art of Law

At the Illinois prison Joe taught a class titled “Zen and the Art of Law” to young gang leaders. Because of this, the warden had Joe placed in solitary confinement. Today, Joe rarely receives a visitor, partly because Red Onion Prison is located in a remote part of southwestern Virginia. When visiting, the prisoner and the visitor sit in phone booths and speak on a phone. There is no personal contact, but they can see each other through the plastic wall that separates them.

In 2004 the American Association on Mental Retardation honored Joe with their Dybwad Humanitarian Award for his efforts on behalf of Earl Washington. And this year American University gave Joe a Peacemaker Award for his work on behalf of prisoners and with students at the Center for Teaching Peace, founded by Coleman McCarthy.

Recently a team of lawyers has begun working to have the evidence used to convict Joe reviewed. Unfortunately, the evidence used at his trial, which did not connect him to the murders, has been lost by the Norfolk police. Additionally, Virginia’s draconian laws prevent the courts from looking at new evidence after a conviction, except for DNA evidence in special situations.

Joe’s legal situation and the conditions of his imprisonment bring a stronger meaning to his words: “All is Dharma. All is practice. All is perfect perfection.” These words remind me that all things are the Dharma, and therefore material for practice and transformation. Instead of responding to a prison hell with anger, hatred, and violence, Joe has shown that one can transform hellish conditions to better states.

I find these words coming from Joe and the hell realm in which he lives to be a powerful mantra, especially when I am working with my own difficulties and suffering. They help me see things as they really are, in process, in transformation. You might call it “perfect perfection.”

Dharma teacher Bill Menza, True Shore of Understanding, practices in Fairfax, Virginia and Washington, D.C. He has been a volunteer human rights worker for prisoners since 1975. If you would like to write to Joe Giarratano, contact Bill at bemetta@yahoo.com.

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Responding with Respect

Peaceful Communication in Politics

By Brian N. Baird

The Honorable Brian N. Baird is serving his third term in the House of Representatives representing the third district of Washington State.

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Having studied and intermittently practiced mindfulness for a number of years, in the autumn of 2003 I was looking forward to a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh arranged for members of Congress. A week or so before the retreat I received an angry and accusatory letter from a constituent who was upset about a particular vote I had taken on an environmental issue. Members of Congress are constantly receiving these types of letters; however, this one came from a long-time friend and supporter. The essence of the letter was that based on this one vote, the writer concluded that I had lost all sense of principle, reason, courage, and decency. He added that I was clearly only interested in reelection; that I was a bitter disappointment to him; that he could never support me again in any election; and that he would in fact back my next opponent, regardless of who that was.

These letters are never pleasant to receive, particularly when they come from friends, and especially when the writer’s focus on the single vote neglects countless other areas of agreement. What made it more troubling was that much of the writer’s anger was based on inaccurate information that he had received from some other source; he apparently reached his conclusions and fired off a letter without checking the facts.

My immediate emotional response was frustration and anger because I felt unjustly attacked and accused, and because all the other work I had done was not being acknowledged or appreciated by the writer. In response, I sat down at my computer and worked late into the night penning a harsh response that might be tremendously cathartic emotionally but was not constructive or appropriate to send. Fortunately, I chose not to send this letter, but instead let it rest for a while.

A few days later, I attended the mindfulness retreat. While there, I found that the practice of meditation over three days had a healing effect in many aspects of my life. Through breathing, walking, and eating mindfully, I was able to let go of some of the stress and pains that build up in this line of work, and I found instead a deeper level of patience, peace, and calm. Somewhere during the three days, I began to reconsider sending the letter. I realized that the tone and content were based on my own hurt, and that responding with anger in turn would not further understanding but would ultimately be counterproductive.

Several days after the retreat, I wrote a much different letter. Rather than lashing back, I offered a respectful explanation of my vote, then acknowledged that I had been personally troubled and hurt by the writer’s attacks because of all the other issues we held in common and all the work I had done on those matters. Further, I crafted a brief list of “self-reflections for disgruntled Democrats,” which I enclosed with the letter. The purpose of the list was to invite those who might send such hostile missives in the future to take a moment themselves to think before writing or acting on their own frustrations and anger. After letting this new letter rest for a couple of days as I continued to practice mindfulness, I made some further revisions and then sent the letter to my constituent. My goal was to be sure that I was sending the letter from a position of peace, compassion, respect and understanding, rather than anger or hurt.

A few weeks later, at a community event, I happened to see my friend who had written me the letter. At first I felt a tension between us, but then he approached me to thank me for writing, to apologize for his initial communication, and to express understanding for the first vote, and appreciation for the time I had taken to write. I, in turn, thanked him for his past support, for taking time to read and consider my reply, and for his apology. Since then, we have restored our friendship and have agreed that while we may agree to disagree at times, the values we have in common are far stronger than the issues on which we may not concur and we will work together to understand those differences if they do arise.

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This story illustrates to me on a small scale a much larger principle relating to mindfulness and its application to public life. Whether I am responding to a letter or voting on an issue of international importance, in political life it is especially important to be as clear as possible about my own motivations and emotional state and to approach my responsibilities from a position of mindfulness. The clarity and understanding that mindfulness brings make my life more rewarding and my actions in relation to others more respectful and compassionate. The challenge and opportunity for me personally is to continue the practice and to continue to learn and apply what I discover as a result. I sincerely believe if this were more common in the Congress, the institution and our nation would be better served.

Brian Baird attended the retreat for members of Congress with Thich Nhat Hanh in Washington, D.C. in 2003.

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Peace, Salaam, Shalom

By Susan Hadler

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On September 24, 2005, approximately 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to demand an end to the war in Iraq. People clustered into various affinity groups including the Buddhist one that Sangha member Susan Hadler joined.

We sang as we walked down Sixteenth Street towards the White House, “Peace, Salaam, Shalom.” I sang to Abdullah Abdul-Majeed Al-Shadoon, wearing his name on a tag around my neck, given to me at the church where we gathered before the march. Abdullah Abdul-Majeed Al-Shadoon was twenty-six years old when he died on April 22, 2003. A beloved son, a brother, a friend, maybe a father. I also sang to my father who was twentyfive when he died in April 1945 in World War II when I was an infant. I sang with the mothers and fathers walking with us whose children were killed recently in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We walked together with our knowledge of war and our message of peace: clergy and laypeople of all faiths, Code Pink women, anarchists dressed in black, Buddhist monks accompanying our steps with drums, brothers and sisters coming from Alaska to Florida. I walked with the Buddhist affinity group, thankful to be part of a community practicing walking, singing, sitting, and breathing peace. We walked with the larger Sangha, gathered to hold in mind and heart the names of all the dead in the war on Iraq and to present those names with a letter to President Bush as a plea to end the killing and to use our resources for helping people live.

We sat in front of the White House, peacefully and joyfully sharing food and water. We did not move when the police told us to leave. The police picked up Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, and carried her to a paddy wagon. She was smiling. They arrested people in batches, handcuffed them, put them into paddy wagons, and drove off. We sat on the curb and sang peace songs to Mr. Bush and the White House and Congress and to each other. Walking. Sitting. Singing. Smiling. Our practice nourished us and gave us strength. The atmosphere within and around us was peaceful, dedicated, generous.

Prisoner 5-168

Our turn came. Our Buddhist affinity group stood in a row, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front. When it was my turn I smiled and bowed to the young police officer, turning as he attached the handcuffs. As prisoner 5-168, I entered a DC Metro bus borrowed from the city due to the unexpectedly large number of people being arrested, 374 in all. A police escort led the bus to the park police headquarters in Anacostia.

Our bus was our jail cell for about ten hours. We were a joyful group of forty-eight women of all ages and colors, singing, talking, sharing stories. Those who could scratched the noses of those who couldn’t, as we worked to wriggle out of our handcuffs. The young police officer assigned to us tried to be tough but ended up becoming our friend. As time went on my slight headache worsened and I lay down on the back seat, a woman sharing her pillow with me. I followed my breath in and out, and I felt Thay’s presence, reminding us to keep breathing. He knew where we were and I felt his prayers and energy. I began to relax.

About one p.m., we were led inside a garage split into two rooms by a chainlink fence, women on one side, men on the other. Sangha sister Roberta and I began doing mindful movements and a circle formed. As the outside doors closed, we knew we were locked up in a filthy, greasy place, but our minds were free and we were able to help each other stay calm. Often during that night and since then I have sent love and courage to those who are imprisoned.

We Are Free

Finally the police called our numbers to be processed. Inside the police headquarters more information was taken and for a short time we were put into tiny dirty cells, about seven to a cell. Called by number for fingerprinting and photographing, we were then given back our names and our property.

I looked out the door into the four a.m. night and saw a taxi waiting, and Maia and Bob of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship welcoming us. Our taxi driver was a South African who had been arrested many times in his country’s efforts toward liberation.

Because we were a Sangha and because we practiced, we were peace and we were free and we were home every step of the way.

Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Alexandria, Virginia. This was her first arrest.

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Buddha, Ananda, & Katrina

By Sid Kemp

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In early September my wife, Kris, spent six days in the Superdome in New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina passed overhead. From early Monday through early Saturday, I had no news from her.

I have been a Buddhist practitioner for twenty-five years, and a member of the Order of Interbeing since 1989. I would like to share how our tradition and my practice flowed through my life in those days. Perhaps in a later article, Kris and I will share her story and how our lives are being changed by our encounter with this deep suffering.

Two thousand six hundred years before Katrina, the Venerable Shariputra died. Shariputra was an enlightened disciple of the Buddha and one of the Sangha’s greatest teachers. A monk brought his ashes to Ananda, lifetime friend and longtime attendant to the Buddha. When Ananda heard of Shariputra’s death, he felt sad, and he also felt weak and had trouble standing. When he brought the news to the Buddha, Buddha was sad, but he did not grow weak.

Over eighty generations have passed since the lives of Buddha, Ananda, and Shariputra. But people are much the same. Some of us are like Buddha, some like Ananda. In fact, some days each of us is like Buddha; some days each of us is like Ananda. It is in our nature to be Buddha. It is in our practice to be like Ananda; striving to be Buddha, but not all the way there yet. In the week that I could not reach Kris, I was sometimes like Ananda, sometimes like Buddha.

For the first two days, I was like Ananda. My body was weakened by the blow. I had difficulty sleeping, eating, and taking care of myself. I am grateful to my practice that I was able to be like Ananda. Without it I would have been angry instead of grieving. I can understand the craziness that made men in similar situations shoot at helicopters, yelling at the pilots to come rescue their mothers. I understand that kind of anger. It is part of me.

But being Ananda is not enough. It is good to be Buddha, as well. After two days, I realized that I had work to do, service to perform, decisions to make. I could not remain in grief and weakness. So—although I didn’t feel like it at all—I took long walks for exercise and renewed my formal meditation practice.

The transformation was swift. For the next three days, I was like Buddha. I was clear and strong. I did work, and even won a professional award for it. I cared for my wife’s family, my family, and our friends as we struggled with the fear and pain that arises when a loved one is missing and at risk. All the while we were hearing terrible and confusing stories about New Orleans. Some of us were locked in fear, others fantasized of rescuing her. My mind did all of that, but it was familiar ground. That is what the mind does. This is why it is important to develop inner strength, so when difficulties come we can respond with clarity and stability. We can be Buddha. We can be strong, balanced, and clear, capable of allowing love and wisdom to flow through us, even when faced with uncertainty.

I had a busy week. Fortunately, my professional work, at its core, is about digesting confusing news, figuring out what is really going on, and communicating with people. So I had the skills to handle the situation, and, by the grace of my teachers I also had the presence of mind and the strength to do what needed to be done.

What I have learned is that the fruits of the practice are good no matter what—whether we are, in one moment, clear but weak like Ananda or, in another moment, clear and strong like the Buddha. And if we feel and act out of fear or anger and hatred, that is okay, too. The full range, from suffering human being through practicing human being to awakened human being, is available to us in each moment.

Kris did make it home safely. I first heard from her on Saturday morning, at three-thirty. By the grace of the Dharma, I was able to get a friend to meet her and offer her a shower and a bed, saving her five hours on a bus. And I drove across Texas through the dawn to meet her.

Sid Kemp, True Full Taste of Enlightenment, is an author and project management consultant. His wife, Kris, is a visiting professor of religion at Tulane University.

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Hurricane Gathas

By Ruth Kaplan

Breathing in, I see my fear.
Breathing out, I return to the present moment.

Breathing in, I see my attachment to my life and possessions.
Breathing out, I see the truth of impermanence.

Breathing in, I do what I can to protect myself and my property.
Breathing out, I remember that my most valuable possession is peace of mind.

Breathing in, I am grateful for time and resources to prepare for the storm.
Breathing out, I feel compassion for those who are not able to prepare.

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This exercise can be adapted for use with any fearful situation, especially natural disasters. So often, by remaining in our fear of the future, we forget that we are okay in the present moment. Our fear then expands to fear of loss of possessions, and we calm ourselves remembering that all possessions, including this precious body, are impermanent. This can then give us the equanimity to do what is reasonable and possible to protect ourselves and our possessions, without fear. But even as we go about making preparations, we can return to our true selves, and maintain peace of mind in the present moment. Finally, it helps to remember that many others are in similar situations, but without the ability to prepare, or the trainings to help them maintain peace of mind. If we cultivate loving kindness and compassion for them, it helps us as well to be less fearful. After all, just as with hurricanes, so often we are fearful and prepare for something that never actually occurs. So if we use it as an opportunity for practice, our actions are not wasted.

mb41-Hurriane2Ruth Kaplan, Subtle Lake of the Heart, lived on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and wrote these gathas while preparing for Hurricane Cindy, which missed her area. She has since moved to Austin, Texas, and practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha.

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An Explosion of Grace

The First Retreat for Young People at Plum Village

By Susan Rooke

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Thay has often spoken of the tragic situation in France, where thirty-three young people commit suicide every day. He has asked us, “What are we doing today for those who are going to kill themselves tomorrow or the day after?”

A year ago, Anne-Marie Ascencio, a French member of the Order of Interbeing, shared with Sister Chan Khong her dream of initiating a retreat for young people run by the fourfold Sangha at Plum Village. Her idea was received with enthusiasm, so a small group of young monastics and members of the French OI organized, over the Internet, the first young persons’ retreat in Plum Village. It was held during the last week of June 2005 at the Middle Hamlet and thirty-two young people came, ages thirteen to twenty-six. Of the twenty staff members, there were five monks, three lay Plum Village residents and seven members of the French OI. A group of young nuns and aspirants visited and offered daily support.

We divided into three families, one of which was English-speaking. We had planned to include only French speakers to avoid translation problems, but retreatants took turns translating for friends, and the international flavor was a bonus.

This was a typical day:
6:00  Wake up; exercise with bamboo poles, or yoga
7:30  Sitting meditation
8:00  Breakfast; working meditation; questions & answers with monks and nuns
11:00 Free time
12:00 Lunch
14:30 Sharing in families
16:30 Creative workshops (drawing, painting, writing, calligraphy, collage, dance, music…)
18:00 Dinner
20:00 Deep relaxation; evening activity 22:00 Noble silence
23:00 Lights out

The creative workshops were new for Plum Village. A nun gave a dance workshop under the trees, the music offered spontaneously by two young people. An array of paints, brushes, pencils, and paper was provided in the painting area, along with piles of old magazines for collages. On the dining veranda a large white wall displayed the creative works as they were made; before long the veranda was decorated with paintings, poems, and calligraphy. Retreatants were encouraged to create spontaneously, in a relaxed, non-academic way, working on pieces alone or in groups.

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One evening we participated in a percussion workshop, creating rhythms on drums, saucepans, wash bowls, bells, wooden spoons, and blocks of wood. Another evening, around a bonfire we enjoyed pancakes cooked by a group of young retreatants as a gift to the community.

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The practice was offered in formal and informal ways. Youngsters were taught sitting and walking meditation, stopping and listening to the bell, and eating in silence. The informal teaching was also important: a long conversation with a monk over a cup of hot chocolate; visiting together around a group painting; talking and really listening to each other. This atmosphere of freedom and peace was created with a minimum of structure so the young people had a safe space to talk, be creative, make music, or just be together.

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During the week, Thay gave two teachings that were attended by the Plum Village community and a question and answer session for the young people. Appreciative of this special opportunity, the young people asked good questions about violence, anger, and monastic life. Thay finished the session asking the young people to continue the spirit of the retreat by forming a “committee of the heart.” This new committee will operate over the Internet. For information about future retreats, keep an eye on the Plum Village Web site.

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The ultimate expression of gratitude for this wonderful retreat came on the last evening, when fifty of us practiced Beginning Anew. Seated under the oak trees, with the evening light fading, we shared the transformations of the past six days. A younger and elder brother reconciled with deep, loving words and a hug. Many shared long-hidden, hurt feelings, brought into this compassionate space to be held gently, listened to, and respected. Finding understanding, forgiveness, and healing. Heard over and over: “This has been the best week of my life.”

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On the first day, the young people arrived anxious, fearful, and stressed from school exams and the pace of city life. They were noisy and talked a lot. It was a joy to watch their faces transform; to see their shy smiles and hear their laughter; to enjoy the noble silence becoming more silent; to hear their language become more gentle. For the sake of the young people, and for our sake, I hope others will organize young persons’ retreats all over the world.

Susan Rooke, True Joyful Stream, lives in the foothills of the French Alps.

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Joyful Togetherness

A Dharma Festival for Young Adults

In the fall of 2005, a group of young adult practitioners gathered for a weekend retreat in rural Northern California. Here are reports from a few of the participants.

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Alissa

During the winter retreat of 2004 young practitioners in the US came together for the first time in significant numbers. We had a chance to confide in each other: “I’m by far the youngest one in my Sangha,” and “My friends and family don’t get what I’m doing,” were commonly shared sentiments.

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In the Bay Area, we are fortunate to have many young practitioners living nearby. We get together often, to practice and talk about the particular challenges our generation is facing. The most frequent concerns are around relationships and sexuality, followed closely by how to earn a living doing work that is meaningful.

We decided to take the questions head on:
• How do I find the man/woman of my life and craft a mindful relationship?
• How do I date and have sexual relationships in a mindful way?
• How do I build mindful relationships with my parents, family, and friends?
• How do I build a career that fulfills me and embodies my practice (right livelihood)?
• How do I choose where and how to live in a way that meets my needs as an individual and the needs of my community?

Perhaps what made the retreat so powerful was that it was done entirely by young adults: the organizing, the recruiting; we even had one of our Dharma brothers do the cooking. When monastics from Deer Park accepted our invitation to come support us, it became a meeting of the fourfold Sangha: monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen, all of us in our twenties and thirties.

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Many times during the organizing process, we were asked: do you really want to limit it to young people? And after repeated examination, the answer was always: this time, yes. Drawing a circle of young practitioners, we give ourselves a chance to stop wondering when the teacher will arrive to invite the bell and present the Dharma talk. We see more clearly the elders that are among us already. We see that the teacher and I are one, that we already have the answers, and that now is the time to wake up to the teacher within ourselves.

Alissa Fleet,
Boundless Transformation of the Heart

Anna

When we came up with the name for our retreat, Joyful Togetherness, little did we know how applicable it would be. The answers, for many of us, were in the experience of the retreat itself. We touched true togetherness and experienced the issues with a Sangha that truly understood.

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There was no single moment of revelation for me. There were quite a few moments when I felt or acted with strife, or raced around on that edge that I love so much where I am the orchestra leader, and each instrument, with perfect precision, falls into place. But at the end of the retreat, what I had wanted so much from the monastics—an experiential realization of the Dharma, and an answer to the questions that came, not in words, but in experiential understanding—had become a reality.

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Each question, as articulated originally, was an analytic way of approaching life, a way of cutting ourselves into pieces. In the retreat, as I was surrounded by loving faces, kind hands, gentle touches, the questions collapsed back into themselves, into daily moments, into small decisions and gestures, into me. The question of mindful sex was no longer urgent, not because it wouldn’t manifest, but because it was no longer by itself a question. It was rather a piece of a greater fabric, a wave in the ocean of many lives, manifesting when conditions were correct, not manifesting when conditions were not correct.

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Each moment, each step, each gesture, each word, we rediscover who we are and we remake the world anew, so that we are truly free. In every action we carry with us all of our ancestors and all of our descendants, so that we are never alone. We are the consequence and resolution of our histories. Within us, all things end and all things begin. Just like this.

Anna Halpern-Lande,
Sincere Refuge of the Heart

Gary

As our retreat committee was planning the retreat, there were times of doubt and confusion because of the scale and complexity of the retreat. Northern California hadn’t hosted monastics in some time and there was a feeling of pressure that we wanted to get it right. And yet we hadn’t received official confirmation that the monastics would come. At one point we committed to hosting the retreat whether the monastics were there or not; and whether anybody registered for the retreat or not, for that matter. It was an exhilarating moment in our Sangha when we came to this conclusion. We had no assurances, save for our resolve and our commitment to do the retreat, even if it was just for ourselves.

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I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted from the retreat. I had been asking these questions for such a long time with little fruit. One night as I was studying Dogen’s Instructions for the Cook it struck me, “I want to explore the practice of being the cook; or, as the word is given to us from Japan, Tenzo.” This was well received and the planning began immediately. Following are some insights I gained from my Tenzo practice:

If you are a good cook but a poor practitioner, your food will glisten like fool’s gold. If you are a sensible practitioner and a fair cook, your food will shine with the light of love and insight. Avoid cooks who play music or radio or get caught in diversions; who make innumerable trips downtown; who don’t participate in the community by attending morning and evening sits; who don’t partake in the family sharing or sleep in community; who avoid the intimacy and rhythms of practice. You may as well order pizza and Chinese takeout if your Tenzo is not a full-minded practitioner. The quality of your cooking is not measured in tastes and textures. But the harmony and purity of your heart is exuded in the food, in the kitchen community, and your overall practice.

Gary Brain,
or as his Dharma brothers and sisters like to call him, Honey Bear of the Heart Mind

Tim

I remember sitting under oak trees by a quiet creek in a circle of forty young people as we each held one long yellow ribbon that connected us. In silence and in discussion, in listening to Dharma talks and in walking together under the starry sky, what made our retreat so special was sharing the gift of mindfulness practice with so many young people whose questions and fears were so close to my own.
I knew as we listened to the sound of the bell that my questions, “How can I support myself without losing my joy?” “Will I be able to have a relationship and family that reflect my aspirations?” were shared by many others, and the togetherness was comforting.

I am twenty-six years old, and people of my generation have the task of finding spirit not by dropping out of society, which we have seen creates isolation, but creating a spiritual life as part of society. While many of us do drop out for a time, we are coming to see the eventuality of our return, which makes possible the transformation of society. As the forty of us smiled and sat and ate together, we were and are creating mindful lives for ourselves and for society. The support that we offer each other as we are faced with choices about family, livelihood, and sex was clear water for parched lips.

Tim Desmond, True Mountain of Joy

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Book Reviews

mb41-BookReviews1We Walk the Path Together:
Learning from Thich Nhat Hanh & Meister Eckhart

By Brian J. Pierce, O.P.
Orbis Press, 2005

Reviewed by Chan Phap De

This is not another academic comparison of two great mystics; rather, it is a love affair, a meeting of two brothers in the heart of the author. Friar Brian is a Dominican monk and Zen practitioner who has been guided through his own spiritual journey by these two teachers. “Permeated by the flavor of living experience,” comments Bhikshuni Annabel Laity, “this book provides a freshness of insight and the deep humility that we need on the spiritual path.”

After years of reading Thay’s books, the author was finally able to join the Plum Village community for the 2004 winter retreat. He writes, “Meeting Thay and practicing with his monastic community have been a gift that I shall never forget, and in a surprising way, it brought me face to face with Eckhart. I realized with great delight that, through the person of Thay, I was sitting at the feet of both of these beloved teachers, drinking in their teaching in a profound way.”

Focusing mainly on Thay’s teachings in Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, the author explores the common ground between Christianity and Buddhism, finding many intersecting points in the spiritual wisdom of Thay and Eckhart. For example, the following statement of Eckhart’s sounds like Thay: “God’s seed is in us. If it were tended by a good, wise and industrious gardener, it would then flourish all the better, and would grow up to God, whose seed it is, and its fruits would be like God’s own nature. The seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree,…the seed of God grows to be God.”

Friar Brian credits the simplicity of Thay’s teachings on the practice of mindfulness and contemplative meditation with helping him understand the theologically rich and dense sermons of Eckhart, who, seven centuries ago, was “easily misunderstood and labeled as dangerous.” Whereas Eckhart emphatically said “What does it avail me that this birth of God is always happening, if it does not happen in me?” Thay simply says, “We are all mothers of the Buddha.” Thay also uses the birthing metaphor: “Waves are born from water. That is why we adopt the language that waves are sons and daughters of water. Water is the father of waves. Water is the mother of waves.”

Thay warns against trying to grab onto the Buddha: “You believe that going to the temple you will see the Buddha, but by doing so you are turning your back on the real Buddha.” Eckhart says, “If a person thinks that he or she will get more of God by meditation, by devotion, by ecstasies or by special infusion of grace than by the fireside or in the stable—that is nothing but taking God, wrapping a cloak around his head and shoving him under a bench. For whoever seeks God in a special way gets the way and misses God, who lies hidden in it.”

What Thomas Merton said of Eckhart can be said of Thay: “He breathed his own endless vitality into the juiceless formulas of orthodox theology with such charm and passion that the common people heard them gladly.” In this book, Friar Brian taps into the good juices seemingly hidden in the Catholic tradition. He offers meditations on subjects such as suffering, the Cross, the Trinity, baptism, the Mystical Body of Christ, equanimity and grace.

As a former priest, a current Catholic, and a “beginner” monk, I felt great joy in reading this book. It not only helped me tap more deeply into my Catholic roots, it also connected me more deeply with Thay’s teaching. Like Thay, the author has made a significant contribution to helping Christians connect with their roots and spiritual ancestors.

mb41-BookReviews2Pine Gate Meditations

By Ian Prattis & Carolyn Hill

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

The guided meditations and chants offered in this CD come from the weekly practice at Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario. The hour long CD contains two chants, performed by Carolyn Hill, and four guided meditations offered by Ian Prattis.

The two chants, from the Plum Village Chanting Book, are the evening chant and the incense offering (the variation that starts,  “The  fragrance  of  this  incense”).

The guided meditations are each from twelve to fifteen minutes in length, making them a useful way to enjoy an extended guided meditation in solitary or in Sangha. There is a meditation on the Four Brahmaviharas, one on the Five Remembrances, an Earth meditation which helps us be in touch with our connection  to Mother  Earth, and  an Indian based So Hum healing meditation that comes from Ian’s practice in India. Prattis’s soothing voice and the gentle background sounds of water help to bring the hearers into a state of calmness and centeredness.

Though this presentation is rooted in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh practice, it also offers some new ways of exploring our spiritual connections. Ian encourages us to be creative in our use of these chants and meditations, and invites us to share them with family and friends.

A practical tool for Sanghas everywhere, the Pine Gate Meditations can be purchased by check or money order to Ian Prattis and mailed to 1252 Rideout Crescent, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada K2C 2X7. Costs are $23.00 US, including shipping; $23.50 Canadian. Or contact Ian at iprattis@cyberus.ca.

mb41-BookReviews3What the Stones Remember
A Life Rediscovered

By Patrick Lane
Trumpeter Books, 2005

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

Patrick Lane is a recipient of most of Canada’s top literary awards and considered one of the finest poets of his generation. He has also been an alcoholic and drug addict for over forty years. This book is the story of his first year of recovery as he emerges from a rehabilitation facility.

Lane finds his salvation in his half-acre garden, and shares intimate details of the lives of the flora and fauna that are his closest friends. Month by month, we track with Lane the change of seasons in the garden, and explore his circuitous path to healing and transformation through the gentle but unyielding examination of childhood memories.

The book flows seamlessly between childhood and early adulthood memories, usually painful; brief but sharply aware observations of a body and mind coming out of a lifetime haze of addiction; and intimate observations of the natural world. But perhaps more remarkable is the honesty that comes from deeply chosen words which reflect both the beauty and the pain of this man’s story. Lane tells us what his discovery of language meant to him: “Poetry was more important to me then than food or sleep, my wife or my children. I found my place in the world with language. I was certain that with language I could heal myself and control what surrounded me. If the house should burn down what would be most important was how I would describe the flames the next day. Love for me lay in imagined places, not in the real world. Death’s only dominion was in a poem.”

Walking through these stories with Lane––sitting with him by his pond with a cup of coffee in the early morning; watching the arrival and departure of the many spiders and birds that inhabit this territory; gathering boulders at a far-off quarry––weave this man into the reader’s heart. Though the stories focus mostly on his challenging early family life and his refuge in the natural world, the brief but stark reminders of the addiction he has just stepped out of remind us of his fragility and vulnerability.

In one of the many short paragraphs that sear with the challenge of freeing oneself of addiction, he states, “This is a fearful time for me and this first morning I stare at a whirl of flies and think the mad thoughts of an alcoholic. The absence of others has always meant excess to me. Bottles of vodka clink in my mind like wind chimes. I know my sickness will abate, the sickness of drinking will slip away, but I pray to the garden that I live this one day sober.”

As the months go by, it seems that Lane goes through a softening, an increasing sensitivity to the beings in his world. One story tells of his starting to drive down the road in his pickup, only to discover a small spider in her web on the outside mirror. Knowing that increasing his speed as he approaches the highway would kill this creature, he pulls to the side of the road and finds a place to gently put her in the bushes.

The final garden project is the creation of a meditation garden. Though at first its location is surprising––in the front yard, near the road––this choice seems to represent the final stage of healing, returning to the world, centered and imperturbable.

In this remarkable book, we witness the suffering of one man, healed and transformed through a deep awareness of the world around and within him. A model for us all.

mb41-BookReviews4A Mindful Way
A Simple Guide to Happiness, Peace and Freedom in Eight Weeks

By Jeanie Seward-Magee
Trafford Publishers, 2005

Reviewed by Constance Alexander

A Mindful Way offers an eight-week course combining mindfulness meditation with writing exercises as a means to self-exploration. The three-part program includes a daily ten-to twenty-minute sit with emphasis on breathing, two to four pages of free writing (in the tradition of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), and a nightly gratitude recollection. The layout of the book, wide margins with sidebar quotes from many traditions, makes for easy reading. The central five chapters each take one of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as their focus.

The author has practiced in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for a number of years, and Thay has written an introduction to this book. All profits from the sale of the book go to support Plum Village.

As a practitioner for four years, I decided to undertake this program as a way to deepen my own practice. I like to write—a bonus, given the many writing exercises. For those of us in a post-therapy era of our lives, going back to write about childhood and family may feel like “been there/done that.” However, the author raises enough interesting questions to keep one writing; for example, “Describe your life for the past ten years, but do it as though it’s ten years from now.” Talk about confronting all your hopes, dreams, and fears of the future!

I also enjoyed taking time before bed to remember five things for which I was grateful that day. I realized how often I prepared for sleep feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Remembering the small treasures of the past twenty-four hours and writing them down helped recast things in a brighter light. That little gratitude book became my reverse “to do” list—instead of guiltily reviewing what I hadn’t “crossed off my list,” I could refer to the list of blessings which had been heaped on me (many of which, I realized gratefully, were out of my control).

The author recommends that anyone using this book, if not already in a spiritual community, join with like-minded friends for this eight week journey. I agree. Sharing what arises will sustain and enrich the experience. In the early days of my practice, I dreaded reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings as, coming out of a strict religious background, I tended to see them as the Five Commandments (think stone tablets backlit with flashes of lightning!). It was only in sitting and sharing with my Sangha that I learned the beauty of the Trainings.

The author’s personal reflections, the stories she shares from her life, are an integral part of A Mindful Way. For me, these are sometimes not quite on target as illustrations of her point. This cavil aside, I found A Mindful Way a useful practice tool. It is an ambitious book, seeking to combine a spiritual guide with a more conventional self-help manual. But as such, it may also garner readers who would not otherwise pick up one of Thay’s books. There are many doorways to the practice.

mb41-BookReviews5No Time to Lose
A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva

By Pema Chödrön
Shambhala Publications, 2005

Reviewed by Judith Toy

The night the Buddha died in the tiny village of Kusinara, nearly three hundred bhikkhus lit torches. Until dawn they told stories of the Buddha’s life in the presence of his body in repose, while sal blossoms floated to earth. It was as if the torches symbolized the light of the Buddha himself entering the bodies of his disciples. Pema Chödrön has lit such a torch for us with her book, No Time to Lose, A Timely Guide to the Way of the Bodhisattva, her commentary on the Tibetan Buddhist classic, Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life (Bodhisattvacharyavat ara) by Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist master from the monastic university of Nalanda, India. The author calls Shantideva’s work “a rhapsody on the wonders of bodhicitta,” the mind of love.

Translated by the Padmakara Translation Group into quatrains with the accessible cadence of iambic pentameter, Shantideva’s words sing: And may the naked now be clothed,/And all the hungry eat their fill./And may those parched with thirst receive/ Pure waters and delicious drink.(10.19) Shining the light of her wisdom on small groups of stanzas, Chödrön brings the twelvecentury old teachings home to present-day Westerners.

The emphatic and pragmatic title gives us a no-nonsense summons to get down to business in our own life and practice. Shantideva and Chödrön encourage us to use our lives to water seeds of love. As we set out on the bodhisattva path to free endless beings from their suffering, Chödrön offers, “Everything we encounter becomes an opportunity to develop the outrageous courage of the bodhi heart.” The authors repeatedly remind us to fall back on our essential Buddha nature.

Chödrön offers a helpful study guide at the end, which is useful while reading. Our Sangha’s aspirants to the Order of Interbeing will use this book as they enter the bodhisattva path. Compared to two previous translations of Shantideva, I found this one the most helpful for its rhythmic, poetic translation and for Chödrön’s down-to-earth commentary. Allen Ginsberg’s translation of the last famous lines of the Heart Sutra captures for me the imperative of this book: “Gone, gone, to the other shore gone, reach (go) enlightenment accomplish!”

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Sangha News

Unified Buddhist Church Named a Charter Partner in “Sit for Change”

The Unified Buddhist Church, the fourfold Sangha that practices throughout the world with guidance from Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, has been named along with Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, Save the Children, and a small number of other charitable groups as a Charter Partner in the newly created Sit for Change movement. Each year, the Sit for Change effort will encourage meditation practitioners around the world to enjoy ten days of meditation, commencing on December 21 and culminating on New Year’s Eve. The handful of Charter Partners, including the Unified Buddhist Church, will receive the donations made by sponsoring meditation participants during the ten-day period, as well as the donations made directly to Sit for Change.

In troubling times people often ask, “What can I do?” What is sometimes missing in ensuing discussions about the need for political restructuring and social justice is how each world religion might also draw upon its contemplative practices to provide equanimity and insight. Participation in the Sit for Change effort is one way to encourage people to draw upon the contemplative resources that are part of our shared human heritage.

The New Year’s Eve meditation at Plum Village was dedicated to this worldwide effort, as was a December 31, 2005 meditation at Sanghas practicing in Thay’s tradition throughout the world. There can be little doubt that participation in programs like Sit for Change (www.sitforchange.org) will enhance communication among worldwide contemplative traditions in very real ways.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction

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Please Help to Support Our Two Monasteries in Vietnam

mb42-PleasePlum Village 7th  August, 2005

Dear friends,

Today, from Plum Village, Thay has ordained ninety-one monastics. Eighty-four of them were ordained via the Internet at Tu Hieu Temple, where Thay grew up as a novice, and Prajna Temple in the Highlands of Vietnam, where many of you joined Thay during the Vietnam trip.

For the first time, Thay has asked us to write you to ask for your support of our two monasteries in Vietnam, Tu Hieu and Prajna. When Thay returned to Vietnam after almost forty years,  millions of Vietnamese people had not met Thay in person, but their respect and love were overflowing when they had the opportunity to spend three months with the Plum Village delegation of monastics and lay practitioners from thirty nations.  Everyone had the opportunity to walk with Thay and touch the wonderful reality of the land that had nurtured Thay’s insights—the insights which have helped millions of people to transform their suffering and to overcome their many difficulties in life.  Now hundreds of young Vietnamese men and women have made the courageous decision to follow Thay’s example to practice in order to transform themselves and to help bring wellness into their families and society.  They are willing

to leave behind their diplomas, money, possessions, parents, sweethearts, mobile phones, e-mail accounts, and scooters.  They vow to go as a river with the Sangha, and whatever offerings they receive, whether food or material things, they will offer up to the Sangha, so that everyone can benefit together.

Presently, our root temple, Tu Hieu, has 101 monks and male aspirants, and Prajna temple has 120 monks, nuns, and female aspirants; all practicing in this spirit.  Both monasteries are guided by fourteen monks and nuns from Plum Village. The Prajna temple   is on a mountain road, eighteen kilometers from the closest market, so the brothers and sisters cannot use bicycles for shopping.

We very much need your financial support, so that we can purchase the necessities for our two new monasteries.  We need beds, blankets, pots and pans, and scooters. Each day, 221 persons in two monasteries use up to eighty kg of rice.  Right now, each room holds twelve to fourteen sisters on bunkbeds.  We are in great need of a computer, a fax machine, and a photocopier in each monastery.

In the past, some of the monks and nuns attending public school became distracted, neglected their practice, and eventually lost their monastic path.  Now we offer classes in the monastery instead. In addition to learning sutras and concrete ways to transform suffering,  each week there are two periods each to learn English and Chinese, and one period to learn Vietnamese.  We believe that training in this way, within four years these monastics will be ready to lead retreats, both inside and outside Vietnam.

Please show your kindness by choosing the items you would like to donate and send the appropriate funds to one of the addresses below:

___ Beds: $30/bed. Donate 20 beds x $30 = $600

___ Bunkbeds:  $60 each

___ Blankets: $8 each

___ Sweaters: $8 each.

___ Rice: $25/100kg. The two monasteries need 24 tons x $25 = $600 per month

___ Mosquito nets: $3 each.

___ Donate 100 mosquito nets x $3 = $300.

___ Old scooter:  $1,000 each

___ Photocopy machine:  $500 each

___ Computer: $500 each

___ To sponsor a monastic (food, medicine, toiletries, electricity, water, etc.): $25/month

WHERE TO SEND MONEY:

  • USA: make check to UBC Deer Deer Park Monastery, 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026 or transfer directly to account of Deer Park Monastery 029-1314078, Wells Fargo Bank, 145 North Escondido Blvd., Escondido CA 92025; Routing Transit Number 121-04-28-82
  • In France: make check to EBU Village des Loving Kindness Temple, 13 Martineau, F 33580 Dieulivol, France. Att: Sister Chan Khong.
  • In Europe and Asia, please transfer your gift to the bank: UBS Bank, Aeschenvorstadt 1, CH Basel, Switzerland; account of Sister CAO P.F.Chan Khong for the Unified Buddhist Church, attn Mr. Guy Forster 0233-405 317 60 D in USD, 405 317 01 N in Swiss Francs and 405 317 61 F in Euros, SWIFT Code: UBS WCH ZH 40A.

Each day, young people come to our two monasteries and ask for ordination. However, our living quarters are too crowded, so we have to build more. We depend on you to continue this beautiful and noble service. Yours truly,

Thay and the Plum Village Sangha

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Dharma Talk: The Keys to the Kingdom of God

New Year’s Eve Dharma Talk by Thich Nhat Hanh

31 December 2005, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village

mb42-dharma1Good afternoon, dear Sangha. In the teachings of Christianity and Judaism there is the Kingdom of God. In Buddhism we speak about Buddha Land, the Buddha Field. You might like to call it the Kingdom of the Buddha. In Plum Village we say that the Kingdom of God is now or never, and this is our practice.

In Plum Village the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, is not just an idea. It’s something you can taste, you can touch, you can live in your daily life. It is possible to recognize the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, when it is there.

mb42-dharma2

In the Buddhist tradition the Buddha Land or the Pure Land is a practice center where the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas are teachers and all of us are practitioners.

What Is the Purpose of Practicing?

To practice is to bring about more understanding and compassion. Happiness would not be possible without understanding and compassion.

My definition of the Kingdom of God is a place where there is understanding, there is compassion, and where all of us can learn to be more understanding and more compassionate. On this we agree.

But there is something else that we should agree about also—whether there is suffering in the Kingdom of God, in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

If we take the time to look deeply, we see that understanding and compassion arise from suffering. Understanding is the understanding of suffering, and compassion is the kind of energy that can transform suffering. If suffering is not there, we have no means to cultivate our understanding and our compassion. This is something quite simple to see.

If you come to Plum Village in the summertime, you see many lotus flowers. Without the mud the lotus flowers cannot grow. You cannot separate lotus flowers from the mud. It is the same with understanding and love. These are two kinds of flowers that grow on the ground of suffering.

I would not like to send my children to a place where there is no suffering, because I know that in such a place my children will have no chance to develop their compassion and understanding. I don’t know whether my friends who come from the background of Christianity or Judaism can accept this—that in the Kingdom of God there is suffering—but in Buddhist teaching it is clear that suffering and happiness inter-are. Where there is no suffering there is no happiness either. We know from our own experiences that it is impossible to cultivate more understanding and compassion if suffering isn’t there. It is with the mud that we can make flowers. It is with the suffering that we can make compassion and understanding.

A Logical Proposition

I can accept, and many friends of mine can accept, that there is suffering in the Pure Land, in the Buddha Field, because we need suffering in order to cultivate our understanding and compassion, which is very essential for the Pure Land, for the Kingdom of God. We learn from suffering. If we are capable of cultivating understanding, that’s because of suffering. If you are able to cultivate compassion, that is because of the existence of suffering.

I think it is very important to re-examine our notion of the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, and no longer think that it is a place where there is absolutely no suffering. Logically, it is impossible.

Many of us think of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Buddha, as something that belongs to the future, after this life. In terms of time and space, the Kingdom of God is far away.

I remember about forty years ago when I first went to the United States to speak about the war in Vietnam. I was invited by many groups, and I remember speaking in a church in the vicinity of Philadelphia where the majority of practitioners were black people. I said that the Kingdom of God is right now, right here, and you don’t have to die in order to step into the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be very alive in order to step into it. For me being alive is to be mindful, to be concentrated, to be free. That is the kind of passport you need to be allowed into the Kingdom of God: mindfulness, concentration, freedom.

If you belong to the population of the Kingdom of God, you are a practitioner because you are producing understanding and love in your daily life. That makes the Kingdom of God continue to be the Kingdom of God. If the population of the Kingdom does not practice understanding and love, they lose the Kingdom in two seconds because the essence of the Kingdom is understanding and love.

It’s very easy to visualize the Kingdom of the Buddha as a practice center where there are dharma teachers teaching us, helping us to cultivate understanding and compassion. Everyone enjoys the practice, because as they produce more understanding and compassion, they suffer less. They are capable of transforming suffering into compassion, into understanding, into happiness. The practice in Plum Village is to experience the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, in our daily life.

Helping the Kingdom to Manifest

Of course, you can say that the Kingdom is now, it is here, but that’s not enough. We have to help the Kingdom to manifest. Without mindfulness, concentration, and a little bit of freedom we cannot do so.

The Kingdom of God is situated in our cerebral cortex, in our mind.

Most of us have a computer, a Microsoft PC or Apple Macintosh, and many of us just use our computer to do some work like word-processing or checking the stock market. But the average PC or Macintosh can do much more than that. We use only about ten percent of that capacity. If we know how to make use of the other capacities of the computer, we can do a lot of things.

The same is true with our cerebral cortex, with our mind and our spirit. If you know how to use the powerful energy of understanding and compassion, you can process many difficult problems of daily life. There is a very powerful computer within, and we should learn how to use that computer properly for us to be able to deal with the daily situations that make us suffer.

The Buddha proposed that we practice according to the Noble Eightfold Path. If we follow his instructions to practice right view, right thinking, right speech, and right action, we’ll be able to explore the vast territory of our mind and allow these wonderful powers to come and rescue us. In fact, we limit ourselves in a very small circle. Our thinking is very narrow, and that is why we suffer much more than a Buddha or a bodhisattva.

The Power of Right Thinking

We think all the time, and many of our thoughts are not very positive; they make us into a victim of negative thinking. When you say, “I’m good for nothing,” that is the kind of thought that has the power to make you suffer. “I can never finish that. I cannot meditate. I cannot forgive. I am in despair. I will never succeed in doing that.” Or, “He wants to destroy me. I am not loved by anyone.” This kind of thinking is not what the Buddha called right thinking.

In us there is the capacity of understanding and of loving. Because we are not accustomed to touching the ground of understanding and compassion, we cannot produce wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

Suppose your friend, or your brother or sister does not understand you. Suppose you think that your teacher does not love you. When you entertain that kind of thought, you suffer. That thought may not correspond at all to reality. You continue to ruminate upon that thought and other thoughts of the same kind, and very soon you fall into a state of depression because you are not practicing right thinking.

“My brother must have said something about me to my teacher. That is why this morning he did not look at me.” Your thinking may be totally wrong, and you have to be aware of the fact that your thought is just a thought. It is not the reality.

If you think, “My teacher doesn’t understand me, but I am capable of helping him to understand me,” that is a positive thought. You are no longer a victim.

The Buddha proposed the practice of right thinking. During sitting meditation or during the time of working, thoughts like that might arise, but you don’t allow yourself to be the victim of negative thoughts. You just allow them to come and you recognize them. This is a thought, and this thought is just a thought; it’s not reality. Later on you might write it down on a piece of paper, and you have a look at it. When you are capable of recognizing your thought, you are no longer a victim of it. You are yourself, even if these thoughts are negative.

The Territories of the Mind

A thought does not arise from nothing. There is a ground from which it arises. In our mind there is fear, anger, worry, misunderstanding. And a thought might arise from these territories.

But in our mind there is also the vast territory of compassion, of understanding. You might get in touch with the Kingdom of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in your mind. Then these territories will give rise to many wonderful thoughts in the line of right thinking.

When you recognize a thought, you may like to smile to it and ask the question, on what ground has this thought been produced? You don’t have to work hard. You just smile to your thought, and you now recognize that the thought has arisen from the territory of wrong perception, fear, anger, or jealousy. When you are able to produce a thought that goes in the direction of understanding and love, in the direction of right thinking, that thought will have an immediate effect on your physical and mental health. And at the same time it has an effect on the health of the world.

When you produce a negative thought that has arisen from your fear, anger, or pessimism, such as, “I’m not worth anything, I cannot do anything, my life is a failure,” that kind of thought will have a very bad effect on your mental and physical health. The practice offered by the Buddha is not to suppress this negative thought, but to be aware. “This is a negative thought. I allow it to be recognized.” When you are able to recognize that thought you reach a degree of freedom because you are no longer a victim of that thought.

But if you are not a practitioner, you continue to ruminate about the negative situation and that will make you fall into a state of depression.

To recognize the presence of a thought or feeling is very important. That is the basic practice of a practitioner of meditation. You do not try to suppress the feelings and the thoughts. You allow your feelings and your thoughts to manifest. But you have to be there in order to recognize their presence. In so doing, you are cultivating your freedom.

In our daily life we may allow these thoughts and feelings to appear, and we are not capable of recognizing their presence. Because of that we become the victim of these thoughts and feelings and emotions. We get lost in the realm of feelings and thoughts and perceptions because we are not truly present. The practice is to stay present in the here and the now and to witness what is going on, to examine it, to be aware. That is the practice of freedom.

Being on Automatic Pilot

We are accustomed to allowing our mind to chase after the pleasant and to avoid the unpleasant. Our thoughts follow this habit pattern: running, following, searching for the pleasant; and trying to run away, to avoid the unpleasant. Because of that we lose all our freedom. We do not know that we are running after something and trying to avoid something. We are carried away by our thoughts, our feelings, our perceptions.

Imagine an airplane on automatic pilot. The plane can reach its destination, can do the things that it has been asked to do, with no need for any human being on the plane. Very often we behave like that. We are on automatic pilot. We are not present to witness what is happening. The practice that is proposed by the Buddha is to be there, to stay present, to be truly alive. You know the value of each thought, of each feeling, of all your perceptions. You know that there are territories you have not discovered within yourself. You don’t allow yourself to be carried away. You want to be yourself. You don’t want to be on automatic pilot.

Every time a thought, feeling, or emotion arises, you want to be there to control the situation. You don’t want to be carried away. You smile to your thinking, to your feelings, to your emotions. You don’t want to react right away because the habit energy in you pushes you to respond right away to the feelings, to the emotions, to the thought that just arose. This is extremely important.

You tell yourself: “Well, this is a thought, this is a feeling, this is an emotion. I know they are in me, but I am not just that thought, that feeling, that emotion. I’m much more than that. I have a treasure of understanding, compassion, love, wisdom in me, and I want these elements to come forward to help me to sort out this situation, to help me to be on the right path.”

You give yourself the time to breathe in and out. You don’t hurry to react or take action. And while you are breathing in and out you give the wonderful positive elements within yourself a chance to intervene.

There is a computer within us, and this computer has a lot of power. If you know how to make use of this power you can transform the situation. You can bring a lot of light, joy, and compassion into the situation. By not allowing yourself to be carried away, you give yourself an alternative perspective from which you can see things more clearly. You are not in a hurry to react, to jump to a conclusion. You just become aware of the situation, what is manifesting in you and around you. The practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking gives you space, which allows the positive elements to intervene. You allow the Buddha, the Kingdom of God, in you to have a chance.

Within us there is a territory of depression, a territory of hell, and our negative thinking and emotions spin out from these territories. But we know that in us there is also the territory of the Kingdom of God, of the Buddha Land. There is the powerful seed of compassion and wisdom in us. If we give them a chance, they can come and rescue us.

The Way Out of Depression

We have the power to recognize our thoughts, our feelings, our emotions, our perceptions. We don’t have to suppress them. But we want to have the time and space to look at them and recognize them as they are. This is the basic practice. To do that we have to stay present in the here and the now. Very often our body is there, but our mind is elsewhere. Our children do not feel that we are truly present.

Whenmb42-dharma3 you come to a house and you want to meet someone in the house, you ask, “Is anyone home?” And if someone said, “Yes,” then you’d be happy. You don’t want to go to a house where there is no one.

Very often we are not home. We are lost in our thinking, our worries, our projects, our anxiety, our fear. We are completely lost. We are not there to be aware of what is going on. The practice offered to us by the Buddha is not to be on automatic pilot, but the practice of conscious, mindful living.

If you are depressed or if you are afraid that you will fall back into depression, this is the way out. If you can stay present, if you can identify the kind of feelings and thoughts that are responsible for your depression, you can be free. You know that this kind of thinking, this kind of feeling will cause a relapse, and that awareness is the beginning of the healing, of your freedom. You are not afraid. If you are truly present, you can allow the difficult materials to come for you to recognize them. And you can do something to invite the wonderful materials to come and to stay with you, to help you to process the materials that you need to process.

The Kingdom of God is not an idea. It is a reality. Every time we are mindful, every time we are concentrated, we can get in touch with the Kingdom of God for our transformation and healing. Of course, hell is there in the present moment, but the Kingdom of God is also there in the present moment, and we have to choose between the two.

A few days ago I said that many people who are born in France have not had a chance to see all the beauties of France as a country. But many of us who come from other countries, we have the chance to enjoy the beauty of France. The fact is that the territory of wisdom and compassion, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of Buddha, is available. But we are too concerned with our narrow territory of success and failure, with our daily life and our anger, worries, despair. So we have not had a chance to unlock the door of the Kingdom of God.

The Key to the Door of Happiness

In order to unlock the door of happiness, the door of the Kingdom, the door of compassion and love, we need a key. That key, according to the teaching of the Buddha, is the triple training on mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The Kingdom of God is a place where we can cultivate insight and compassion.

When you grow corn, you have corn to eat. When you grow wheat, you have wheat to eat. When you grow understanding and compassion, you have compassion and understanding, the ground of your own peace and freedom and happiness. And in order to grow understanding and compassion, we have to be there. Understanding our suffering, anger, and depression is very important. Being aware of suffering and understanding our suffering is the door into the domain of happiness. Unless you understand the nature of suffering, the cause of suffering, you see no path leading to the transformation of suffering into happiness.

The Buddha spoke about the Four Noble Truths. The first one is to be aware of ill-being. By looking deeply into the nature of ill-being, you find the second Noble Truth: the lack of understanding, the lack of compassion.

There is a path leading to suffering: the ignoble path of wrong view, wrong thinking, wrong speech, wrong action. There is a path that leads to happiness, the cessation of suffering: the path of right thinking, right view, right speech and right action. We are capable of stopping, of leaving the path of suffering and beginning to take up the path of happiness. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

A New Year’s Resolution

Suppose you look at a brother or a sister and you just had the thought that maybe this brother or sister has said something to Thay, which is why Thay does not look at you this morning. You know that this kind of thinking brings suffering because it is wrong thinking. But if you are aware that this kind of thinking can lead to anger, despair, and hate, you are free. You tell yourself: “I have to produce another thought that is worthy of a practitioner. Thay might have a wrong perception of me, but because he is my teacher I need to help him.”

The truth may be that the teacher has not misunderstood you, but in case he does misunderstand you, you don’t mind because he is your teacher. You can help him to correct his misperception. And with that you have peace, you have love. That kind of thinking brings you happiness. You are not a victim of your thinking.

If you learn to look at people and think like that, you will suffer less right away. You look at your partner, your son, your daughter, your father, with eyes of compassion and understanding. Even if you see a shortcoming in that person, even if that person has said something or has done something that makes you suffer, you’ll say that he or she is a victim of wrong perceptions and you need to help him or her. That kind of thinking will free you from your suffering. You know that with the practice of deep listening and loving speech, you can help him or her to correct the wrong perception.

At the beginning of the talk I said that right thinking—thinking in the direction of understanding and compassion—has a good effect on your physical and mental health and a good effect on the health of the world. All of us are capable of producing right thinking.

Maybe the resolution that you would like to make today on the last day of the year 2005 is: “I decide that next year, starting tomorrow, I will learn to produce positive thoughts and practice right thinking. I want my thinking to go in the direction of understanding and compassion. Even if the person in front of me is not happy, is acting and speaking from the ground of suffering, I am still capable of producing thoughts in the line of right thinking.”

And when you make such a resolution you are making it on the ground of right view, because right view is the foundation of right thinking.

What Is Right View?

Right view is that everyone has suffering. And if people do not know how to handle their suffering, they will say things or do things that make people around them suffer. As a practitioner, however, you don’t have to suffer, even if the action or speech of another person is negative. If you are capable of touching compassion and right view in yourself, you won’t suffer. You say: “Well, I have to help him. I don’t want to punish him, I want to help him.” That is right thinking. And right thinking makes you feel much, much better. It has a positive effect on your health and the health of the world.

So I make the vow, “I have decided that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2006, I will do my best to practice right thinking.” Right thinking consolidates your right view. Right speech also helps you consolidate right view.

What is right view? When you are fully present in the here and the now, and observe your thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you recognize that they are thoughts, feelings, and emotions; they are not reality. You are not sucked into it. You retain your freedom, and that is very important. Even if a negative thought arises, you are fully present in the here and the now. If you remember that your thought is just a thought, this will allow your wisdom, your compassion to come into action to help you. This will keep you free.

The Buddha is someone made of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight bring you freedom. The practice of mindfulness helps you to live your life. Mindfulness allows us to recognize the negative things and to touch the positive things, and we can open the door of the Kingdom of God in us. It is possible for us to touch the wonders of the Kingdom of God all day. The key to the Kingdom is to stay present in the here and the now, and to allow ourselves the time to get in touch deeply with what is going on and not to react right away the way we did in the past.

Tasting the Wonders of Life

There are very concrete things that we like to do that might bring us a lot of happiness and freedom. Whenever I walk, I walk in such a way that each step can bring me freedom. I don’t lose myself in walking. I don’t lose myself in the past or in the future or in my projects while walking. While walking, I want to taste the wonders of life, the wonders of the Kingdom of God. There are those of us who are capable of walking like that.

While breathing, whether in a sitting position or standing position, we may breathe in such a way that we recognize that we are alive, we are present. We can get in touch with the wonders of life.

While eating, we know that we are fully present. It is us who do the work of eating and not the machine. We are not on automatic pilot. We are on conscious living. We are on mindful living.

The greatest success, the most meaningful kind of success is freedom. We have to fight for our freedom. It’s not by going somewhere, or in the future, that we have freedom; it is right here and now. The way to begin is to stay present, to stay alive, to be yourself in every moment.

When you brush your teeth, for instance, you may choose to brush your teeth in such a way that freedom, joy, and happiness are possible. You can be in the Kingdom of God brushing your teeth, or you can be in hell brushing your teeth. It depends on how you live your life.

Freedom is the ground of happiness, and the way of freedom is the way of mindfulness. The practice of mindfulness as it is presented in Plum Village is to learn how to live mindfully each moment of our daily life. That kind of training should be continued if you don’t want to fall into the abyss of suffering and depression.

Because we have a Sangha that is practicing mindful living, we are supported by the Sangha. The Sangha that is practicing mindfulness, concentration, and freedom carries within itself the presence of the Buddha and the presence of the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God.

As we gather together on this New Year’s Eve, we become aware that the Sangha is always there for us. We can take refuge in the Sangha. Taking refuge in the Sangha means taking refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma. It means to live always in the Pure Land of Buddha, in the Kingdom of God.

Transcribed by Greg Sever.
Edited by Janelle Combelic and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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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

mb42-Editor1Dear Readers,

Hué, Vietnam, March 2005: I am sitting in the rooftop restaurant of our lovely hotel overlooking the Perfume River, enjoying the decadent breakfast buffet. (Once I snuck a few of the freshly made crèpes to a French nun in the Plum Village delegation, much to her delight.) Today I am visiting with Delores Nims, a Sangha friend from Oregon. We talk of my desire to write about the trip and I remind her that she offered to introduce me to the editor of the Mindfulness Bell, Barbara Casey. “But, you were just having breakfast with her!” says a bemused Delores. “Oh, that Barbara!”

Thus began a new friendship and a marvelous working relationship. I started by editing the sections about the Vietnam trip in the summer and autumn 2005 issues; then, much to my surprise, Barbara asked me if I would take over editing the magazine. I’ll never forget the shock I felt, reading her emailed proposition, as

I sat at my computer in the farmhouse near Plum Village where I spent that summer; but it didn’t take me long to accept. Back on U.S. soil, I worked with Barbara on the winter issue, and then took over as editor in February when Barbara’s mother suddenly died. Please hold her and her family in your prayers, as they journey through this challenging transition time.

The daily practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight yields surprising and miraculous fruits. The blessings that have come my way since I devoted myself wholly to the practice are too numerous to be counted. Editing the Mindfulness Bell is one of the best. I am deeply grateful to my teacher, my friends and mentors in the fourfold Sangha, Barbara and all those who have worked so hard on this magazine, and the worldwide community of practice.

It is a privilege to serve the sangha in this way. Not only do I get to do the work that I love—editing and writing—but I am meeting extraordinary people all over the world. On top of that, I get to read many beautiful and inspiring accounts of the practice; I only wish we had space to print them all! That is one of the hardest aspects of an editor’s job.

One way to publish more of your wonderful writing is to solicit shorter pieces. I am inspired by one of my favorite magazines, The Sun, to introduce a new feature into the next issue of the Mindfulness Bell: a “Readers Write” section. The topic will be the First Mindfulness Training. Write from your own experience, simply and sincerely, about how this Training has changed the way you live or view the world. Feel free to comment on all facets of the Training as Thay has rewritten it. Please keep it short (under 500 words) and submit it to mindfulness.bell@yahoo.com by July 1.

May our collective mindfulness—the healing power of love—bring peace to a world much in need. May the joyful expression of creativity inspire more and more hearts to dance!

Blessings of peace,

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Coming Home

By Alexa Singer-Telles

The following stories were shared at the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group at the October 2005 Deer Park Monastery retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The richness of the sharing of this Jewish sangha touched us deeply and inspired us to share a few of our stories with the wider community. As we explored the ways that we feel connected to—or disconnected from—our Jewish roots, our practice supported us to see each other with greater understanding, and to embrace our experiences of both suffering and joy. With deep gratitude we hope to continue this kind of sharing in special affinity dharma discussion groups at retreats in our tradition.

Lyn Fine, True Goodness, Dharma Teacher

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This morning, a friend and I stopped at a bridge while walking along the Sacramento River Trail. The small creek had just filled with water from several days of autumn rain. As we quietly reflected on the moving water and the colorful falling leaves, I heard a loud splash. Three large salmon were working their way up the shallow creek. Two had succeeded in getting to a fairly deep pool while the third was turning its body sideways and undulating to make its way through a shallow rocky channel. I experienced both wonder and determination in the way that salmon travel far into the ocean and then turn and return home to the place of their birth to spawn and die.

Witnessing the salmon, I contemplated the mystery of how one finds the way home.

I had such a homecoming experience at the Deer Park retreat in September. I chose to be in the Jewish Roots dharma discussion group. That first evening, I made my way in the dark to a long picnic table, candlelit, filled with “family,” initially strangers yet at the same time Sangha friends and mishpucha (Yiddish for family). Here were Jews from all over the globe, with different life experiences and relationships to Judaism, yet our connection was palpable. I found the group to be a touchstone, as we gathered around the table, nourishing the deep root of our Jewish heritage. The particularity of the Jewish stories that we told reflected a collective history of suffering, exile, chutzpah, love, tradition, and wisdom. I felt a deep respect for both the challenge and the gift of being Jewish in this world.

Enjoying the Interplay of Traditions

The topic dear to my heart was how people integrated their Jewish roots and Buddhist practice, since that has been a challenge for me. In 1991 when I met Thich Nhat Hanh and began practicing mindfulness, I also met an open-hearted rabbi and began my first exploration of Jewish spirituality. Fortunately, both teachers encouraged embracing both traditions. Though it was complicated at times trying to decide when to keep them separate or weave them together, I eventually let go and learned to enjoy their interplay as it manifested in my teachings and sharings. I drew comfort from the words of Natalie Goldberg, a Jewish Buddhist writer, who explained that the longer she meditated, the more Jewish she became.

Two recent experiences have brought me peace and a sense of integration. This spring our Sangha held a retreat at our tiny local synagogue; temple members who saw the sanctuary transformed into a zendo were inspired to begin a beautification project. I explored the property and discovered a grassy creekside area for walking meditation that I hadn’t seen before. Sangha eyes transformed my perception of the synagogue I have attended for more than twelve years.

The Jewish Roots group completed my journey home. Both a rabbi and a Buddhist monastic from a Jewish background were in the dharma discussion group; their presence and deep wisdom were my vehicle for witnessing interbeing and letting go of any perceived separation. I experienced the mystery and wonder of knowing how to find my way home, just like the salmon.

Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California in 1991. She has been creating rituals that weave Buddhist practice together with the cycle of the seasons.

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Jewish Roots, Outstretched Branches, & Buddhist Leaves

By Laureen Lazarovici

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One of the most satisfying aspects of my retreat at Deer Park in September was taking part in the Jewish Roots discussion group. I knew they were my dharma brothers and sisters and at the same time my tribesmen and women, connected to me by 6000 years of Jewish history and heritage. I heard tales of ambivalence, inner conflict, pain, and also joy, liberation, and compassion. We were all struggling with integrating two moral systems and two sets of spiritual practices into our lives in authentic and meaningful ways.

I’m now realizing how much I saw and experienced the entire retreat through Jewish eyes. For instance, I had great resistance to having meals in silence. In Jewish cultures, and many others as well, meals are times for family and friends to gather, discuss, argue, debate—in short, to be noisy. Jewish holidays are often organized around festive meals and special dishes: the Passover seder features symbolic foods to commemorate the Exodus from slavery to liberation, or we break the fast together after Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. So to be silent while eating when there were other people around was a challenge.

As if to rebel, I made inane small talk in my head and ate my meals as mindlessly as if I were making inane small talk with my friends. I know this was a lost opportunity to practice with gratitude, but it was an eye-opener in its own way.

A Buddhist Bar Mitzvah

During the retreat, I had the privilege of witnessing the transmission ceremonies for the Fourteen and the Five Mindfulness Trainings. My reaction was, “We should do this instead of bar mitzvahs.” A bar mitzvah is the coming-of-age ceremony for Jewish thirteen-year-old boys; for girls, the ceremony is called a bat mitzvah. The translation is “son or daughter of the commandments.” For the first time a young person reads from the Torah publicly in synagogue and—ostensibly—takes on the moral responsibility of adulthood.

But in our society, thirteen-year-olds aren’t really on the cusp of adulthood, and many bar and bat mitzvahs simply involve big parties and awkward teenagers trying to pretend they are having a good time. Watching the transmission ceremonies, I thought about how much more powerful it would be if our coming-of-age rituals allowed people—at whatever time in their lives they felt ready—to proclaim publicly and in front of their communities a commitment to live by a set of guiding precepts that bring harmony and happiness to our hearts, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

Segregating the Sexes

The night before one of the transmission ceremonies, the monks and nuns told the Sangha that for the following morning’s ritual men would sit on one side of the room and women on the other. I’m emphatically not a morning person, so the next morning I dashed to the meditation hall barely awake. In my foggy-headedness, I sat on the men’s side of the hall by mistake. A man sitting in front of me leaned back and tapped me on the knee in what felt like an unnecessarily harsh way. “The women sit on that side,” he hissed.

I skulked to the back of the hall and examined my emotions. I felt humiliated and angry, but out of proportion to the incident. It took me a few days to realize why this experience touched a soft spot. Much more than a rough tap on the knee, what bothered me was the ongoing struggle for equality within Judaism.

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For their prayer services, very religious Jews segregate the men from the women. The two genders sit on separate sides of the prayer space, usually divided by a mechitzah, a screen or curtain. Sometimes the women’s section is even in the back or upstairs. More liberal branches of Judaism do not follow this practice.

The issue of separate seating divides the Jewish community because it is an indicator of separate and often unequal gender roles in the religion and culture. So for me to be shooed off to the women’s section in a Buddhist context was jarring. [See Sister Annabel’s commentary on “Sitting Separately” in the sidebar.]

What To Keep and What To Let Go Of

Another powerful experience for me during the retreat was the practice of touching the earth. As we lay prostrate on the ground, our teacher instructed us to hold on to what we valued about our ancestors and let go of what caused us pain.

My rigid mind resisted this instruction at first. “No, it’s all or nothing. You have to take the bad parts if you want the good parts.” But then a voice of compassion arose: “Who made up that rule? Just try and see how it feels.” I took a deep breath and let some of the negative legacies from my ancestors flow downward and seep out of my body and into the earth. I felt cleansed and liberated.

Those of us exploring and embracing Buddhism who also want the richness of our root tradition in our spiritual lives can do the same thing. We can experiment with what we keep and what we let go of. These might shift over time, re-assembling themselves in new and perhaps surprising ways. As we work to integrate our practice of Judaism with our practice of Buddhism, we are honoring our roots while letting our branches reach upwards to bring forth new leaves.

Laureen Lazarovici, an “alumna” of the Weeping Cherry Sangha in Arlington, Virginia, now sits with the Malibu Sangha in Los Angeles, California.

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Dreaming with My Dad

Growing closer to those we love who have already passed away

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

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How many of us have suffering from our past, especially when it comes to relationships and how we live our life? Many people ask how we can fix mistakes or heal deep wounds we carry with us in our daily life. The Buddha teaches us that impermanence is life. We like impermanence when it benefits us and gives us what we want, but when it takes us away from our loved ones or causes us to suffer, we don’t know how to accept it. We want to be with our loved ones forever. We want to make our life meaningful and precious.

I was raised Jewish and went to synagogue for all the High Holidays; we celebrated Hanukkah and Passover at home with the family. Every once in a while we went to minyan (prayer service) on Friday night, but still I felt a sense of emptiness and a lack of spirituality and guidance. I did enjoy the Jewish traditions and how the Jewish observances were so family oriented. When it was time for the family to gather for holidays, it wasn’t about gifts; we came together to remember our ancestors and to let go of regular daily routine, to reflect on our lives.

A Heart-Breaking Loss

Actually it was my dad, Barry Allen Brodey, who had the Jewish roots. My dad passed away ten years ago, when I was sixteen years old. Some teenagers shot him in order to get into a gang. I remember the day my mom had to break the news to us. She wanted to do it as skillfully as possible and took us to a beautiful wooded area near our house, where we sat on a log surrounded by trees in the early summer sunshine. The news was so shocking that I didn’t even cry. I didn’t know how or what to feel. I thought you only heard this news on the TV. I just turned into a frozen block of ice, filled with disbelief and despair. A part of me wanted to believe that he just went on a vacation. But he wasn’t on a vacation, and he would never come home. I never got to say good-bye or I love you one last time. He had to die alone and far away from home.

My father was like the summer sun, making everything around him vibrant and alive. There was no way any person could have a dull moment with him. He was the life of the party. He not only called me his little princess but also treated me like a princess. My dad was always more than happy to take me out with him, but like most kids I took it all for granted. He gave me all I needed to be happy—life and his love. But while he was still alive, I focused so much on wanting to understand his suffering, the part of him that was closed to the world and simply untouchable.

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I was stuck on a weed rather than enjoying his garden. I didn’t feel it was my place to pry into his life and open up wounds, but it made me feel hopeless because I didn’t know how to connect with him. I couldn’t help him for fear that the family would deny what I saw, and I felt like a fool for saying anything. If my dad did share his sadness with me, I was afraid of having to truly face it and deal with it.

Looking back now, I know what I was doing at the moment was just perfect. I was there with him and in my heart I was happy to have him as my dad.

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A Gift of Healing

After I was ordained, I started having dreams of my dad. They are such a refl    of how I was and how I have been transformed. The first happened five years after his death. I had been ordained only a few months. In this dream, I was in my bedroom—there were no colors. My dad walked in with a melancholic look, his head bent, his shoulders slumped. He gave no hint that he might be harboring a childlike hope to receive love by coming into his daughter’s room. I just sat there on my bed unmoved by his presence, nor did it dawn on me to show my love to him.

The second dream occurred about a year later. My dad came to visit me still very sad and depressed, oblivious to the world around him. This time I acknowledged his presence happily. The atmosphere was still somewhat gloomy, but there was love present. I took him on a tour of the monastery grounds and brought him up to a room to rest. I carried with me a photo album to show my dad the special events that had taken place in the past years. Many sisters came along with us to make both of us feel supported and loved. Then we parted company as he lay down on the bed and peacefully sank into it for a much needed rest.

In the last dream, which took place a year later, I was together with my dad, my sister, and my brother at some kind of celebration. There were lots of colored round balloons, red, yellow and blue ones, and many green trees under a clear sunny blue sky. We sat around a white table with a floral centerpiece, laughing and giggling as Dad told us stories. My dad was so happy. He looked as if many of his burdens had been lifted from him and his heart was much lighter. I could see his joy and freedom as my own, which made my heart rejoice in a peaceful way. Over the course of my stay in Plum Village, I have learned how to take refuge in the Sangha and break down a few of the walls around my heart to allow the love and wisdom of the Sangha to embrace me. But it didn’t embrace only me, it embraced my dad.

The Faith and Obedience of Abraham

My dad was not a Buddhist nor would he have wanted me to be a Buddhist nun. But one thing is for sure, he always wanted me to be happy. I took to this path out of faith and in obedience to what I heard in my heart, I think much like our Father Abraham did with God. Thanks to the practice of non-fear and learning to open my eyes to the life around me, my dad and I have the chance to live together for a long time. I have no regrets about our past relationship. Nor do I feel that he is alone, because he still lives with me every day, just as our spiritual ancestors continue in us through our faith and obedience.

Each time I hug a person or share my pain with someone, I know that he too is loved and he too is cared for, and we smile together in peace.

Sister Hanh Nghiem lives at Deer Park Monastery.

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There and Back Again

Integrating My Buddhist Practice and Jewish Roots

By Louis Weiss

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In 1999, after many discussions about things most important to us, my wife Vicki invited me to read The Miracle of Mindfulness and to join her at Lakeside Buddhist Sangha for meditation. Thay’s teaching resonated strongly with my own emotional and spiritual experience. I became a regular on Sunday night for sitting and walking meditation and dharma talks. I participated in days of mindfulness and weekend retreats. As I read books by Thay and other contemporary Western Buddhists, I became aware of several things. One was that Thay’s teachings of engaged Buddhism felt much like the engaged Judaism I had been affiliated with for the past twenty years. Another was that Buddhist teachings were very supportive of and based in the principles of My roots in Conservative Judaism were established in the small Midwestern town I grew up in. It was a town that didn’t understand or tolerate “others.” The local parochial schools taught my neighbors that Jews were responsible for killing Jesus and were to be treated as outsiders. My days at school and playing in the streets always required a defensive awareness. So the synagogue became a true sanctuary for me. Each day after school I went to the synagogue, spread my homework out on the sanctuary floor, and found comfort in learning about the world beyond my daily experience from within the protective peace and quiet of that dim, musty space. I adhered to the ritual of Conservative Judaism because it worked for me. I learned, I recited, I prayed, and I hid out.

Then in the 1960s I left town and went to college; there I learned that God had died while I was en route. Those years allowed me to develop a social consciousness, an awareness of spirituality, and a glimpse at the diversity of the world. Conservative Judaism didn’t work for me anymore.
In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s my kids came along. I wanted them to have a religious identity and education, so I became a “pediatric” Jew. I did it for the sake of the kids. The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation was in my neighborhood and I knew a number of other families who sent their kids to the religious school there. So I joined.

All Things That Breathe

I had stumbled into a community that would become a central part of my life, my identity, and my spiritual well-being. Reconstructionism is a new sect of Judaism that recognizes that ritual must be preserved to maintain an identity as a Jew but it must not segregate us from the world. In Reconstructionism, egalitarianism replaces the paternalistic focus of Jewish practice. More important to me, it emphasizes the need to be engaged in socially relevant activities in the broader community. In Reconstructionist Judaism God is understood as the life force, in fact, the very breath that sustains life in all forms on this planet—and probably the universe. The prayer book we use is called in Hebrew “Kol Haneshamah” or “All living things” (literally, all things that breathe).
psychology I use in my professional and personal life. And many of the Western Buddhist teachers I was reading were Jews!

My Neighbor Is Myself

Regular attendance at the Sangha made me yearn for more of an engagement in my Jewish practice as well. I had worked on Saturdays for all of my professional life, but began to feel strongly about having a regular day of mindfulness. I decided to stop work on Saturdays and to attend Shabbat services and Torah study each week at the synagogue. Now I have two spiritual communities to share and support my meditation practice and my engagement in the larger world.

Having taken and retaken the Five Mindfulness Trainings, received a dharma name, and read and chanted sutras with my wonderful Sangha community, I began to think about the principles of Judaism that Reconstructionism asserts in the context of mindfulness, breath practice, the concept of oneness and no-self, and the immeasurable value of belonging to a spiritual community. I have learned to read the Old Testament from a perspective of faith in community, right speech, right livelihood, right thinking, and other aspects of the Eightfold Path. To me the admonition of Deuteronomy to “Love your neighbor as yourself ” isn’t about loving another person in the way you love yourself. Rather it is a reminder that my neighbor is myself.

The central prayer of all Jewish practice is “Shema Yisroel. Adonay Elohenu Adonay Echad.” or “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One.” When understood in Reconstructionist terms—God as the life force in us and in the universe—this doesn’t just put a stamp on monotheism, it is a reminder that we are all one with each other, the natural world, and the spirit that sustains life.
Now where have I heard that before?

Louis Weiss, Diligent Inclusiveness of the Heart, is a member of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and a clinical psychologist.

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Poem: I Ate the Cosmos for Lunch

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I ate the cosmos for lunch
And then again for dinner
What will I tell my friends?

I noticed that I am bigger now too—
More to me than I thought.

Not only is my Mom inside me,
And that would be enough.
I also have my Dad, blood ancestors and
Spiritual ancestors.
The Sangha, mindfulness trainings,
Thay and the Buddha.

There’s more too.

Like the Forest I lived in for five years,
Walking home on a dirt road in the moonlight,
Or moonless night, to a ring of redwoods
Where I made my home.

And freight trains, as they creak and groan
Like monsters waking up,
As they start moving down the tracks,
Taking my friends and me on adventures across the country.

And my feline friend who started sleeping over on his own
And stayed with me for four years.

The list is quite endless.

But let me get this straight—I’m empty,
Yet I have the entire cosmos inside me.

I’m sure my friends will notice this,
And how much bigger I’ve become.
More solid, more joyous.
More compassionate and loving.

More able to live how I truly want—
Joyfully working for the care, respect
And dignity of all beings.

And my friends will want to know my secret.
I guess I’ll start with:
Breathing in, and
Breathing out…

—Caroline Nicola

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Healing All Moments

A Retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Jill Siler

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The Vietnamese monk seemed to float onto the stage. He put his palms together and bowed his head. Then smiling, he folded his legs, effortlessly sank to the floor, and settled on a small round cushion.

“Dear friends,” said Thich Nhat Hanh, “this moment heals all moments.” I didn’t understand that at all, but I loved listening to the gentle, earnest way in which he spoke. The dharma talks, or teachings, were being given in a huge tent where hundreds of people sat on the floor in front of him; some sat on little cushions called zafus, some sat wrapped in blankets, and some sat on chairs further towards the back. We’d gathered here for a five-day, silent retreat to study with this world-renowned Zen teacher.

“The Buddha often taught about the importance of slowing down,” he continued in his beautifully accented voice, “of stopping all thoughts so that we might enjoy present moment awareness.”

Whatever. I have things to do and places to go. I have a staggering list of things that must get accomplished for me to even keep afloat, let alone make progress.

“This wonderful present moment,” he said again, smiling like he was really happy about it.

Present moment, my foot. That’s not going to solve my problems.

My husband was pouring our retirement savings into his boat and in denial about it. I was taking radioactive medication and my hair was falling out. I felt like throwing up all the time, my knees hurt, and my teenage daughters were careening through the hellrealm years of their adolescence. These were the elements creating my present moment.

But then he said that by practicing this simple idea, this sutra—and a sutra is a sacred teaching—suffering could be relieved and we could experience a greater capacity for joy. Well, I’m all for less suffering and greater joy, so my interest was sparked. He said that it takes practice to bring ourselves into the here and now, but that we should try it when we find that anguish or discomfort has risen in us. He said if we become mindful of our thinking and look deeply at the nature of what caused our personal sorrow we can begin to heal or unravel it.

Whatever. I could not unravel ill health or my husband’s boat.

Thich Nhat Hanh put his palms together and closed his eyes. He took a breath: slow, slow, in and out, and the room got quiet as a night sky. He asked us again to remember this simple teaching, from the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone”: Do not pursue the past, for the past no longer is. Do not chase the future, for the future is yet to come. By looking deeply at life as it is in the here and now, happiness is attainable.

Well that was it. I had personally hoped for something with a little more kick to it.

At the end of his two-hour talk, he asked us to take our cushions and blankets back to our rooms because it might rain and the tent leaked. I really liked where my zafu was placed. I was very close to Thay and knew chances were slim that I’d get this close tomorrow. The retreat was being held on the side of a mountain in Vermont and it seemed senseless to drag my cushion back down the mountain and haul it up again in the morning. I peeked out at the cloudless evening sky and decided to just push my cushion against the tent pole behind me and leave it there. When almost everyone was gone, I furtively arranged my cushion and slipped out of the tent.

People were scattered over the mountain, moving with mindful attention; walking with slow deliberate steps. The whole scene was so reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead that it struck me as ridiculous. I felt no reverence for any of it and I thought I might leave early.

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Giving It a Try

That night, back in my room, it was time for me to take more medicine. I dreaded it because I knew it kept me feeling sick. As I stood at the sink, filling my glass with water, I began to notice that I felt really uncomfortable. This is what happens to me when there’s no TV, no one talking, and no distractions. I become more aware of what’s going on inside. I considered what Thay had said about looking deeply at our suffering instead of running away from it. The discomfort, I found, was fear. I got so sad, that I believed I could feel my heart aching. I was really scared the medicine wouldn’t work and I might die. I wanted to see my daughters find happiness. I wanted to be an old woman. I didn’t want to say goodbye to my friends or be brave. I wanted to be alive and figure it all out.

This is suffering, I decided, so maybe I should try that present moment thing.

I considered the sutra; look at life as it is in the here and now. Don’t chase the future.

I took a breath and tried.

The present moment sucks, I thought. I’m really depressed. I took another breath and tried again.

In this moment, I discovered, I’m okay. Actually, I’m good. I’m not nauseous. I’m not dead. I’m okay. Actually, as I thought about it some more, just right now in this moment, I’m getting well. I’m good.

It worked! This little monk might be onto something. Reality was still reality, but the suffering part, the mental anguish had passed. Very cool, I decided. Maybe I’ll stay.

All Is Lost

Two o’clock in the morning: thunder is cracking over the mountains so loudly that the window shakes. The rain pours down with such shocking intensity that as I stand by my window weeping, I can’t see five inches into the lightning-illumined night.

All is lost.

The retreat is ruined for me. My blanket and my zafu are in the tent getting soaked. What is wrong with me? Why am I such a mess? I came a thousand miles to listen to this guy and when he tells me to take my cushion, I think I know better. It’s too cold to sit in the tent with no blanket and I don’t want to sit with the tourists on chairs in the back. I hate myself. I hate this retreat. I want my zafu and blanket dry: I want to do this night over.

I get back in my bed and listen to the rain pound against the roof. I kick the blankets, moan, and blow my nose. I roll over, kick the blankets, and roll over again. I think of Thay’s words… life as it is in the here and now. Right now my zafu and blankets are getting soaked, I wail to myself, the soul of misery. Tomorrow will be ruined and the next day. I bet it takes a month to dry out a zafu.

Practice not chasing the future, I remind myself. I take a breath and try again.

In this exact moment, I am here in this bed; nothing hurts. I am not hot or cold or dirty or hungry. Though the heavens are crashing over me and rain is pouring down on everything, I am dry and warm and safely inside. Tomorrow will bring what tomorrow will bring. Right now there is absolutely nothing I can do about that.

I did this for a while and began noticing that I felt downright cozy. I slept peacefully till the br-r-ron-n-nng of the morning bell called us to meditation.

In the tent again, my zafu and blanket were waiting for me, dry and warm. I wondered how much of my life I’d spent worrying about things that wouldn’t even happen. I wondered how many times I’d traded a moment of peace for a moment of suffering.

Vacuum Meditation

A few months later, I was vacuuming my house. A huge mirror hangs on one of the walls. As I worked, I whined and grumbled to no one. “Geez! Look at this. Gross! Stupid dog. Why do I even bother? Sheez!” I was bent over, sucking up some dog hair, and I happened to glance at myself in the mirror. I saw how I’d aged and as I looked at my face, I saw my mother looking back at me. I saw how like her I’d become, not just physically, but the same style of complaining and negativity. In that instant, I saw how I carried my mother and my grandmother’s habits into my daughters’ lives. I saw how I could change that and suddenly, I knew that in that specific moment, I was healing all moments. I was healing the past of my ancestors and the future of my daughters and granddaughters.

I turned off the vacuum cleaner and set it down.

With palms pressed together, following my breath, I touched the present moment and thanked my teacher.

Jill Siler, Calm Calling of the Heart, founded the Miami Beach Sangha after this retreat with Thay as a direct result of Thay’s request that she either find a sangha or center to practice in, or start one.

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The Better Way to Live Alone in the Jungle

By Terry Masters

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The Buddha taught:

“…I want to tell you that there is a wonderful way to be alone. It is the way of deep observation to see that the past no longer exists and the future has not yet come, and to dwell at ease in the present moment, free from desire. When a person lives in this way, she has no hesitation in her heart. She gives up all anxieties and regrets, lets go of all binding desires, and cuts the fetters which prevent her from being free. This is called ‘the better way to live alone.’There is no more wonderful way of being alone than this.”

from the “Elder Sutra”*

Last spring I lived alone deep in the jungle of Peru in a hut near the Amazon River. My hut sat on stilts and had screen walls, hand-hewn plank floors, and a thatched roof. There was no electricity so I had no refrigerator, no lights, no radio, no fan, no telephone. No washing machine, sink or toilet; no running water at all unless you count the Yanomono River which ran a few yards from my hut.

It was the Yanomono River that taught me the better way to live alone.

During the day I gave reading lessons to children in a little jungle library, and in exchange for my dinner, at night I taught English to the mozos—the guys who worked at the tourist lodge about forty minutes by dugout canoe from my hut.

The first evening, after working at the library, I gathered the supplies for my English class, put on my rubber boots, got my paddle, and walked through the jungle to the muddy riverbank where my dugout was tied to a tree root. I began paddling to the lodge just as the sun was setting. The river, and even the air around the river, was gold and pink, purple and orange and red. It is a wonderful thing to be in––not under, but inside––a sunset in the jungle in Peru.

I paddled slowly under a tree of sweet-smelling, lilac-colored flowers. Many of the flowers had fallen into the river, so I was gliding in golden, lavender-petaled water. The air was soft and warm and smelled green.

Women and men bathed on the riverbank. They smiled and waved at me as I passed.

“Hola Señorita!”

“Hola amigos!” I called back. “Buena noche, ¿no?”

As I paddled around a curve, naked children from the village swam out to play “Sharks Attack the Gringa.” They splashed me––as sharks will do when confronted with a gringa in a dugout canoe––and I cried out, “Ayudame! Ayudame!” (“Help me! Help me!”)—as gringas will do when confronted with a river full of ferocious fish.

When I arrived at the lodge, I was still smiling. I ate my dinner and gave an English lesson to my new Peruvian friends. At 9:00, when I was ready to paddle home, the darkness in the jungle was so thick that I could only see the top of my paddle and the front of my dugout canoe.

There was no moon. The stars filled the sky; a few were reflected in the river. I smiled, anticipating gliding back home through a dark peaceful river of silver starlight and purple flowers.

But as I left the lodge, I realized that although I could see the starry sky above and specks of starlight in the river, I could not see the riverbank, nor could I see where I was in the river. I peered into the darkness. I saw nothing.

My Peruvian friends had told me to stay in the middle of the river–– if I got too close to the bank, things in the trees could get into my canoe. I didn’t ask what things. I imagined them, though: fifty-foot anacondas, canoe-sized caiman, monkeys, bats, frogs, lizards, scorpions, tarantulas, snakes—I imagined every jungle critter known to man or woman jumping, flying, falling, crawling, or slithering into my canoe.

I got lost: the river “S”ed and I “Y”ed into a tangle of tree roots and vines. I had to paddle my way backward out of a little creek, back into the Yanomono again. I stared into the darkness trying to see where I was and what was around me. I saw nothing.

My heart began to race. I couldn’t get my breath. I began to paddle frantically through the river, bumping into the right bank, then the left.

A bat flew past, brushing my face with its wings. I squealed.

Mosquitoes buzzed my ears, bit my arms.

The sounds from the rainforest grew louder: frogs especially, but birds too, and other jungle animals I couldn’t name. I had to get home!

I peered anxiously into the darkness, trying to see what was out there, looking for the bank of mud in front of the path to my hut, looking for the tree root that was my port, looking for anything familiar. I could see nothing.

I passed under a low hanging branch and something fell from the tree into my hair. A tarantula! A huge tarantula! A huge hairy jungle tarantula!

I paddled fast, desperately slapping the water with my paddle. My arms, my shoulders, my whole body was tense. I gasped for a breath.

And then a voice from somewhere inside whispered, “Stop.”

I stopped. I took a slow breath.

I lifted my paddle from the water and let my canoe drift.

I stopped telling myself jungle stories. I stopped my Tarzan drama. I just stopped. Stopped and took a long slow breath.

Then another. And another. And another.

Finally, I forced a little smile.

“Hola, rio.” I whispered. Took a breath. Let it out.

“Buena noche, ¿no?”

The sounds of the jungle softened. The stars brightened. The river slowed.

I lifted my paddle and gently dipped it into the soft starsparkled river. I pulled it slowly through the calm waters.

Breathing in, I know that I am here, now. (Dip the paddle, pull the water, glide.) Breathing out, I know that I am now here. (No longer inventing scary jungle stories.) In…. here.

(Not thinking about the English lessons I just gave; not planning how to get up the muddy slope when I get home.)

Out….here. (Dip, pull, glide.)

Here in this present moment.

(New trees above me, new stars. New water below, new fish and mud and snakes. The air I now breathe is not the air of my last breath.)

Here in this wonderful moment. (Dip, pull, glide.)

After a while I saw some white tree trunks that looked familiar and dipping my paddle in, pulling back easily, I glided slowly toward them. I had arrived. I was home.

“Try living like that,” the Yanomono River said. “Thanks for the dharma talk,” I smiled.

The next day it rained most of the day. About an hour before sunset, when the rain had stopped, I took a small bucket to my canoe to bail out the rainwater. I also expected to bail out that huge tarantula that I had shook from my hair the night before.

There was no tarantula. In the rainwater, in the bottom of my dugout canoe, a small purple flower floated.

During the months I lived in the jungle, I became friends with the trees that lined the banks of the Yanomono River and familiar with its “S” turns. I came to know the sounds of the jungle and its smells. I recognized the reeds on the left that meant the river was going to wind to the right; the wide space overhead that meant I was to go straight; the cluster of white-barked trees that meant I was getting close to home; the hoarse frogs that meant I had arrived.

Aware that I was surrounded by friends—the river, the stars, the trees, the sounds, the smells—I was no longer so afraid. In fact, most of the time I was awed by the majesty—by the miracle—of it all.

It was the Yanomono River, deep in the jungle of Peru, that taught me The Better Way to Live Alone.

mb42-TheBetter2*The “Elder Sutra” as well as the “Discourse on Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone” can be found beginning on page 234 of The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book. Both are the subject of Our Appointment with Life by Thich Nhat Hanh, which also includes his beautiful commentary on them.

Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, lives in Austin, Texas where she practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha. She has just returned from another month teaching English in the jungle of Peru.

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Carts & Koans

By John Beaudry

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I was standing on a narrow sidewalk, bent over, putting a small bandage on a cut my sandal keeps making in the top of my right foot.

The bus that would take us the remaining distance to the island and the temple had not arrived yet. So I had bought some bandages from the small store next to the bus stop.

Standing on the sidewalk, I put my foot on the store step, bent forward and concentrated on ending the little pain that had been present since early that morning when we had begun our journey from the city to the island.

On the first part of the journey, I had been focused on the koan I always carry in my mind. The strain of pushing against the barrier of the koan, of trying to close the space between it and my mind, merged with the irritation of the cut. The pain intensified the always-present feeling that I lacked sufficient ability to break through the barrier of the koan, that breaking through was impossible. Still, I held onto the koan as fiercely as I could.

Now, I finished attaching the bandage to the foot, checked it—and then realized that there was a head next to mine that also seemed to be looking at my foot. I straightened up to see an old, weathered woman standing next to me, bent over forward past a ninety-degree angle, with her hands clasped behind her back. She was trying to pass through the space between the store wall and me and was bent over because she could no longer stand up straight. I took my foot off the step, opening the space wider for her to pass through.

As she walked slowly past and away, I watched her, trying to see the cause of her present condition. The effect of her past struggles had been to push her dangerously beyond the limit of her physical ability. Past suffering had led to present suffering.

Her hands were the highest point on her body, resting way down her lower back almost directly over her legs. Those hands, I speculated, had carried baskets of vegetables, or worked rice fields, or pulled loaded carts behind her. In that moment, though, the hands’ purpose was to provide balance for walking, and to keep the arms out of the way: If she unclasped her hands, her arms would hang down in front of her legs, dead weight with nothing to support them. So, she held her arms and hands as far back as she could and let her legs carry them.

She reminded me of the old men and women in Seoul, where I live, who pull rustic, wooden carts behind them, collecting loads of cardboard and other recyclables, often piling them high above their heads. To me, the weight of the load looks like a lot more than they can handle, pulling the carts up resistant hills, down obstacle-filled alleys, through dangerous street traffic.

When I’m out walking the back road in the mornings, pushing against the barrier of the koan, I pass the cart pullers, often walking in the opposite direction. As we approach each other, their physical struggle is obvious. But there is something else as well, something underneath or behind their suffering that eludes my perception. What is it? In the moment we pass each other I try to cross the space between my understanding and their experience, and I fail.

They walk bent forward, arms behind, hands holding on tightly to the metal bar.

Walking at a slow, determined pace, the cart pullers seem to be concentrating only on the essential: a firm grip, the next step. Looking straight ahead, apparently undistracted by sights and sounds around them, and appearing to rely on intuition to find what they are looking for, they pull against the weight of their load. Are they really that single-minded in their purpose?

To me, their work seems possible only for people of greater physical ability—stronger, younger people. Month after month, on hot days and cold days, they walk their path. It may be that some dare to pity them. But, looking closely at them and seeing what they do, in those fleeting moments, I rediscover compassion and renew awe in my life, the same experience I had upon seeing the old woman who seemed to be looking at my foot.

Connecting to the Source of Compassion

After the old woman passed out of sight the bus came. And soon after that we crossed over the bridge to the island and arrived at the bottom of the road that led up to the temple. We walked up the steep hill at a slow but determined pace, and I noticed as we walked that the bandage was holding, protecting the cut.

At the top of the hill we passed through the old stone temple gate, headed for the main Buddha Hall, went in, and as we always did upon first arriving at a temple, performed the bowing ritual. As I bowed before the statue of Buddha, the weight of the koan, the weakness of my ability, and the strength of the barrier all bowed with me.

After a last bow, I stepped out of the temple door, putting my left foot in my sandal. And as I bent down to check the condition of the bandage on my right foot, I thought of the old woman at the moment when she had passed between the store wall and me. But this time I saw the moment clearly; this time I could see into it as it expanded in my mind.

The moment deepened until it merged with my whole being. In that one moment that seemed to extend forever, I saw deeply into the simple and awesome truth of the moment when the old woman passed between the wall and me, and at the same time into the mystery of the cart pullers.

This moment merged with that moment in a birth of clarity, and I connected to the source of my compassion for them, and my awe. I understood: There are people all around me who are doing the impossible. And in that moment I shared their burden, their suffering and their strength. There was no space between us.

Intuitively, I turned my head from the bandage on my foot to the direction the old woman’s head had appeared from—and saw the smiling face of a monk who was walking toward the Buddha Hall to welcome us. I slid my right foot firmly into the sandal, stood up straight, clasped my hands behind my back, and walked slowly forward to meet him.

John Beaudry has taken the precepts but continues to search hermitages deep in the Korean mountains for an old master to take as a teacher. He lives in Seoul.

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On the Way Home

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

In response to a request from her teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Annabel is writing about her life. Thay suggested that her story be serialized in the Mindfulness Bell and then put together in a book. In this first installment, when the story begins she is in her early thirties.

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In 1984 I was in Cheshire, England, working in an organic garden. In the winter it was sometimes very cold. As the wet English snow fell and the bitter easterly wind blew, we picked spinach. What can be more painful than the blood trying to make its way through frozen fingertips? In the greenhouse the broccoli and Chinese cabbage flourished even in winter and if the mice did not come in and eat the seedlings, lettuce would grow too. It was wonderful how fine the vegetables looked without herbicides and artificial nitrates. I was happy to learn that cultivating organically is possible and I felt the vegetables were happy too.

The garden, however, did not completely fulfill me. Somewhere something very important was missing. I had not found my sangha. Because of this, Buddha and dharma or the spiritual life were lacking. I had not arrived, I was not at home. Still I was able to dream and one night I had a dream to show me there was a way ahead. In the dream I was walking up a green hill and I came to the top of the hill. There was a wall or fence along the top of the hill, stopping me from going down the other side. I walked up and down the fence, searching for a way to climb over. With difficulty, I did climb over. There was a farmer on the other side; it may have been my father. He showed me a gate in the fence and asked me why I had not used it. It would have been so much easier. These years of wandering without arriving had been like struggling over a fence and only now had I seen the gate. The gate had always been there, only I was not aware, I had not seen it. It

is not necessary to struggle, but because we cannot see, because we are ignorant, we struggle.

Now that I have arrived, is that not the happiest thing? “I have arrived” does not necessarily mean that I have realized the path. It just means that I know I am on the path and I do not need to be anywhere else.

The dream was a presage because the next day I received the newsletter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship U.K. and in the newsletter was the poem “Please Call Me By My True Names” with a photograph of the Vietnamese Zen Monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Thay was smiling and holding a teapot. Photographs of Thay were rare at that time and this teapot photograph appeared in many places. It was perhaps the only one available. I already had an idea of what Buddhist monks looked like because I had spent time in India, but Thay did not conform to that idea. Intellectually I did not understand the poem but the images were music to my soul: the caterpillar—whoever would look so deeply at caterpillars? Whoever would have the time to look deeply at caterpillars?

Finding Safe Anchorage

In that poem and that photograph I was beginning to arrive. I did not have the fruit of arrival but the fruit of going in the direction of arrival. There was a safe anchorage for my boat that had been sailing for so many years without a port of call. In 1980, I had gone to India to practice Buddhism with Tibetan nuns. Before that I had lived in a community along with practitioners of different faiths. I had even camped out around Greenham Common in order to resist any attempt to move nuclear missiles from that base. But in my heart I was not at home and I had not found the path I most wanted to tread.

As I became more involved with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, I learned about the Vietnamese refugees detained in refugee camps in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was a British protectorate at that time. So I met people who had been in those camps and I heard their stories. I learned that there was a place called Plum Village that opened its doors to guest practitioners for one month every year from July 15th until August 15th. A friend and I thought of going in the summer of 1985, but when I wrote I received a reply from Sister True Emptiness (Sister Chan Khong) saying all places were taken. It was not yet time for me to go.

I was still not sure if Plum Village was my true spiritual home. Indeed when I first read part of The Miracle of Mindfulness, I was not sure if it was for me. After the intricacies of Tibetan Buddhism, its complex rituals, its teachings couched in descriptions of strange and distant scenes, something so homely and simple was a shock that was difficult to accept. When I could fully accept Plum Village teachings, Plum Village would accept me. To do that I had to meet Thay and Sister True Emptiness.

Fortunately Thay agreed to come to England in March 1986. It was still bitterly cold and I organized a retreat in Cumbria in a drafty old castle that some Tibetan monks had acquired and rented out for others to have their retreats. This castle had huge rooms that could never be heated. The fireplaces gave out heat to a space only one meter in front of them. One day it snowed and one day it was fine enough for us to walk to the sea. Thay did not complain. He ate the English food that the retreatants ate. He attended all activities on the schedule and led them all as well as giving the dharma talk. Gently he encouraged me to practice by saying “and you do not need to hurry, just take one step at a time,” because I wanted to run everywhere, doing everything. Before the retreat began, Thay invited me into his room to ask me what I thought of the daily schedule he proposed for the retreat. I was moved: why would Thay ask me? After all I was a complete beginner, I knew nothing. Still, I said the proposed schedule was very good.

Thay had someone bring a cloud bell from Plum Village to use to announce activities and summon us to mindfulness. A cloud bell is a flat piece of bronze molded in the shape of a cloud. It has a sharper sound than the round bowl-shaped bell. It was invited in the draughty corridor on the ground floor of that castle twenty years ago. Thay must have felt cold. When I looked at Thay’s bed it looked as if it had never been slept in. I imagined Thay sat in meditation all night long. Sister True Emptiness asked me to try to find an electric heater for Thay’s room. I do not remember that we paid Thay or Sister True Emptiness any honorarium.

The Door Opens

When we went to London Thay gave a talk in Friend House on Euston Road, the main center for Quakers in the United Kingdom. Again I was moved when Thay asked me to tell the audience about

the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, as if I had something worth saying. Thay treated others with that kind of respect. Everyone had something to offer and Thay gave them a chance to offer it.

How lucky I felt as I went to sleep! How lucky to have met Thay, although I was on my own again. I joined a Tibetan Sangha in London for a time and I was happy that having practiced with Thay I now knew how to prostrate. Before I met Thay I did not like to prostrate. It was just an outer form. Thay taught me the content of prostration—surrendering all idea of a separate self and touching the quality of great understanding, great action, and great compassion—not as mine and also not apart from me; real but neither inside or outside. My practice in that Tibetan-based Sangha was successful because of what I had learned in the fiveday retreat from Thay.

Before, Thay’s teachings had seemed too simple for me; now they were miraculously simple, real, and concrete. During that retreat I wore brown clothes, not intentionally; it was just that the warm clothes I had with me were brown. And sitting in front of Thay, who was wearing a brown robe, I felt we were one. The simple act of holding up a sheet of paper, as Thay did in the dharma talk on the last day of the retreat, touched me deeply. The talk was on the Heart Sutra. That sutra had been a closed door for me; the commentaries I had seen and heard on it had been complex and difficult to understand. Now it sufficed to look at a piece of paper and see the cloud floating in it. The piece of paper was truly empty of a separate self—that, the intellect could understand—but Thay transmitted something else. Thay’s own emptiness and my emptiness were in it.

How lucky to meet my enlightened teacher in my own country! The Tibetans had told me that that was where I would meet my teacher and he would not be Tibetan, but from Far East Asia. The prophecy came true. Prophecy comes not just from the mind of the one who prophesies but from the mind of the one who is prophesied to.

“Here Is India”

In Plum Village Thay sat on a hammock in a gray robe. He was preparing the Upper Hamlet for the summer opening. Thay’s first words to me were “Here is India, India is here.” I thought Thay meant it was very hot, as hot as in India. It was deeper than that. To me India was home, at least my spiritual home. I believed spiritual home could not be found anywhere else. I missed India with a kind of longing. “Here is India” meant you have arrived, you are home. My conscious mind did not realize it, but deep down, the seed was sown. One month later, in the Lower Hamlet, I realized I was home. It was a feeling of being at home that I had not felt since I was a child. Looking up at the hills of the Dordogne to the north of the Lower Hamlet, I was home. Contemplating the white knobbed stones that made the walls of the Red Candle Meditation Hall, I was home. These things had always been part of me and I had always been part of them.

At first Thay allowed me to dream of my Indian home, perhaps it was part of Thay’s dream too. Thay said: “Although you cannot be in India you can dream of being there. For instance there is the little hut you make of bamboo with its banana leaf roof and there is the little garden you plant with mustard greens. So simple is the ideal life.” Then later Thay would ask: “Have you ever felt that India is in London?” To which I answered a definite “No.” Somehow I know that India is not a place on the map. India is a place in my mind.

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The Upper Hamlet has its own enlightened ambience. This ambience comes from the practice of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. The ambience tells you that you are walking on holy ground. The old stone house had its musty odor as you came in on the ground floor. It had been built to be cool in the heat of the summer sun and not lose too much heat in the winter cold, so the stone walls were thick and the windows few and small. The half-cylindrical tiles of the roof were not cemented into place but cupped into each other so that they could slip and leave gaps that allowed the rain in. The people of the neighborhood climbed onto their roofs at least once a year and replaced the tiles that had slipped out of place. In the past not many tiles needed to be replaced but since the invention of the supersonic airplane this has changed. The airplane breaks the sound barrier just over Plum Village and the resulting boom shifts the tiles. Nowadays people prefer to cement their tiles into place.

When I first arrived in Plum Village that airplane had recently been invented. None of us knew about repairing roofs and we were subjected to numerous leaks. The attics were full of buckets and tubs to collect rain before it penetrated beneath, but we never covered all the leaks and if the rain was heavy enough it was sure to come into your bedroom. One night I moved my bed to the other side of the room but the leak followed me. Not only rain came in but snow too. In the first two years I was in Plum Village it snowed significantly and the snow stayed for many days. There was enough room between the tiles for powdery snow to blow into the attic. This could reach six inches and it was important to clear it because the weight could break the ceiling. Clearing snow in the attic was very cold work. We filled rubbish bins with snow and they were very heavy to move. There was no heat up there and the bitter wind blew in through the tiles. Soon my hands and feet were frozen stiff.

Each bedroom had a small ceramic and iron wood stove. We would buy these second-hand from local people who wanted to get rid of them. There was a hole in the wall for an aluminum pipe to take the smoke outside. The stove did not hold much wood so after an hour or so if you did not replenish it, it would go out. We found the wood on the Plum Village land. Lower Hamlet consisted of twenty-one hectares. I helped the four young Vietnamese refugees who lived in Plum Village at that time by splitting logs and sawing branches to put in the stoves. These young men went out and cut down trees for us. Our neighbor, M. Mounet Père, was a bodhisattva. One day he came into the kitchen and said that in France you cannot cut down trees on other people’s property. It seems that our young Vietnamese refugees did not know where our property ended. To put right this ignorance he took us to the Mairie (city hall) and showed us the plan of the different parcels of land that had been purchased for the Lower Hamlet. He then took us on a tour of the boundaries, showing us exactly where Lower Hamlet territory began and ended. M. Mounet Père was a good man. He promised Thay he would not go hunting when the annual summer retreat was held in Plum Village. He taught us many things about gardening and cultivation of the land. He baked tartes aux pommes (apple pies) and sold them and when his oven—which he had made himself—was hot he allowed us to bake our bread in it.

M. Mounet would visit us almost every day to find out how we were doing and to offer us any advice or help we might need. I was truly grateful for his presence in those early days. His home is now a part of Lower Hamlet. He died unexpectedly and we sent spiritual energy for him. Sister True Emptiness went to his house to send energy over the body. She had not witnessed undertakers working with a corpse before, since in Vietnam it is always the family that washes and clothes the body of a loved one. She was shocked by what she saw as a heartless way of treating the body. We went to the burial in the local cemetery where every year on All Souls’ Day we place flowers on his grave. Sister True Emptiness has always encouraged her younger monastic sisters to perform a ceremony of sending energy on that day to those who have passed away in the neighborhood and we do this in Vermont also. I was always moved when I saw how Thay and Sister True Emptiness included whoever they met, whether Buddhist or not, within the embrace of their spiritual concern.

Sister Annabel Laity, Chan Duc, True Virtue, was born in England, and studied Classics and Sanskrit before going to India to study and practice with Tibetan nuns. She has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986, became a Dharma Teacher in 1990, and was Director of Practice at Plum Village for many years. Since 1997, she has been director of the Maple Forest Monastery, Vermont, and was installed as abbess at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in 1998. In 2000, she was the first Western nun to teach the Dharma in China.

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The Quest for the Holy Grail

By Brother Phap Hai

This article is an excerpt from dharma talks given by Brother Phap Hai at Deer Park Monastery during 2005.

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Sisters and brothers, in the Chinese language they have a beautiful way of referring to a practitioner. They call practitioners “cultivators,” Cultivators of the Way. In English we tend to use the word “practitioner,” which is not as descriptive as the word cultivator, or cultivation.

Mindfulness practice is about cultivating the ground of our being, recognizing the seeds that we have in our consciousness, and creating the conditions that allow the positive seeds to come forth. It is about becoming fully who we are. Rather than being a practice of hard labor, through cultivating mindfulness we allow our innate wisdom to blossom, in its own time, in its own way.

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Meditation practice is about becoming a real human being, and becoming a real human being doesn’t mean that we push parts of ourselves away. It means rather that we draw parts of ourselves to us, in order to understand them.

We have a little organic garden here in Deer Park, and it’s interesting to watch how it gradually takes shape. We plant different seeds. There’s corn growing at the moment. There are tomatoes, there’s lettuce, and many other kinds of fruits and flowers growing in that organic garden. And each one of these blooms in their own time, in their own way. The corn is ripening now. It won’t ripen in winter. The tomatoes also are starting to come on now. They don’t usually ripen in December.

Nature is a wonderful teacher if we are listening. We would laugh if we walked past our organic garden in December and saw someone shouting at the tomatoes for not ripening at that time. They’re not going to grow any faster! We would feel sorry for such a person and yet we do the same thing to ourselves every day. We judge and criticize ourselves feeling that we are never quite good enough. Cultivating the ground of our being is a radical act, something that goes against many layers of conditioning, because we discover that everything that we are looking for is available right here, right now, within us. Flowers of real peace bloom when we give ourselves permission to be fully who we are.

There’s a beautiful poem by a Zen poet called Basho that sums this up perfectly:

Sitting quietly
Doing nothing
Spring comes and the grass grows by itself.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

In our Western tradition there’s a legend that’s coming up in popular culture right now—the legend of the Holy Grail. This myth is very deep in the Western consciousness; it just keeps coming up in different forms. Recently I listened to a lecture by Joseph Campbell on the Holy Grail called “The Forest Adventurous.” This teaching has something to say to us as practitioners.

King Arthur and the Knights are all sitting there at the Round Table. King Arthur stands up and says, “Okay! Before we eat our meal, who’s had an adventure this morning?”

(It seems that they had many more adventures in those days than we do now.)

None of the Knights of the Round Table had anything to share. They all just sat there.

So King Arthur said, “Well, until we have an adventure, we can’t sit down to our meal.”

They’re all thinking, now what kind of adventure could we have? What are we going to do so we can eat? And then the Holy Grail appears, beckoning them on a quest. They decide, all right then, we’re going to set out in search of the Holy Grail. They get onto their valiant steeds and tsch-tsch-tsch-tsch plod down to a forest, conveniently nearby, which just happens to be called the Forest of Adventure.

Interestingly, in this story of the Holy Grail, although you set out on a quest—you know, these valiant quests, with a big horse, a big sword, and everything—you do not find the Grail, it finds you. Here we have the same teaching as Master Linji, to stop our seeking, to stop running around, and come back to what is going on right here, because the path, the Holy Grail, the Forest of Adventure, is right underneath our feet. What is important is our willingness to undertake this journey, the journey of opening the heart.

So they arrive at the outskirts of the forest, where they realize that there are two possibilities. Either they all enter the forest together, in search of the Holy Grail, or they enter the forest separately. Bear in mind that up to this point they had traveled together to get to the Forest of Adventure, as a Sangha, as a community. When they got to the Forest of Adventure, they felt, oh, it would be a shame for us all to go down that very clear path through the forest, but rather each Knight should enter at a place of his own choosing. Only then would it be an adventure.

In our journey of practice, initially we are in search of something— peace, enlightenment, joy, a chocolate donut—that we think exists outside of ourself. We are carried by the energy of the Sangha. For the real adventure to begin, we need to discover and nourish our own aspiration. What is your Holy Grail? Why are you a practitioner? What brings you back to your Sangha each week?

To see this, to touch this very deep and profound longing in your heart is to touch your deepest aspiration. The Sangha is a place where we help each other to realize our deepest aspiration.

The Sutra on Fear and Dread

Many of the world’s myths and legends feature this image of the forest. In European fairy tales, to give just one example, we have Hansel and Gretel going into the forest to the witch’s house. In the spiritual traditions as well we have this image of this forest, this place of the unknown. In Buddhism, what happened to Siddhartha when he decided to leave home? Where did he go? He went into the forest.

There is a series of lovely teachings about Siddhartha, the future Buddha, entering the forest. When Siddhartha entered the wilderness, he experienced great fear and dread. Any little sound in the forest, like a stick cracking, he would imagine to be a tiger coming to eat him up.

In one sutra, called “Fear and Dread,” he shares his experience of entering the forest, this place of mystery. I invite you to enjoy this discourse in its entirety, as it has much to say to us. The Buddha shares about the intense fear and dread that overcame him when he entered the forest, the place of the unknown. Leaving behind the comfortable and familiar, he shares his practice of understanding fear. When the fear and dread came upon him he would continue doing whatever it was he was doing—sitting, lying, standing—until he understood where the fear was coming from.

Once we have a solid place of refuge within us, we need to stay with what is happening, not run away, not try to distract ourselves. We in the West have a great tendency to do this—anything to avoid what we’re calling here fear and dread. It might be our sadness, our depression. The Buddha is telling us to dwell with what is being brought up for us. Meditation practice is about understanding who we are, what is going on within us and transforming the experiences that we have into opportunities for insight to blossom.

Where is the Holy Grail? Where is the Forest of Adventure, for us as practitioners, for us as cultivators? Where is the place where we feel fear and dread the most? Where is the place of mystery? It’s within our heart. Meditation practice by its very nature brings us back to what’s going on within our body, within our mind. Mindfulness practice is about learning to dwell with whatever is present.

The Sutra on Inscriptions

There is a beautiful teaching on this called “Inscriptions” :

“Monks, there are these three types of individuals to be found existing in the world. Which three? An individual like an inscription in rock, an individual like an inscription in soil, and an individual like an inscription in water.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in rock? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. Just as an inscription in rock is not quickly effaced by wind or water and lasts a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, and his anger stays with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in rock.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in soil? There is the case where a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. Just as an inscription in soil is quickly effaced by wind or water and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual is often angered, but his anger doesn’t stay with him a long time. This is called an individual like an inscription in soil.

“And how is an individual like an inscription in water? There is the case where a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. Just as an inscription in water immediately disappears and doesn’t last a long time, in the same way a certain individual—when spoken to roughly, spoken to harshly, spoken to in an unpleasing way—is nevertheless congenial, companionable, and courteous. This is called an individual like an inscription in water.

“These are the three types of individuals to be found existing in the world.”

I would add that we can be all three; in certain situations we are like water, or like soil, or rock. It depends on our conditioning.

The Four Practices for Dealing with Strong Emotion

The first practice, and perhaps the most difficult, when we’re dealing with a strong emotion—whether it’s happiness, anger, joy, hatred, sadness, jealousy—is to recognize it. We recognize what we have within our being. This is only possible if we’ve really practiced stopping, coming back to what’s going on in the present moment. As mindfulness develops, we see more clearly which experiences stimulate which seeds—joy, anger, jealousy. But mindfulness is not a practice of avoidance! It is essential to have a solid foundation, a solid place of refuge within us, but this doesn’t mean that we cut ourselves off from life. On the contrary, we begin to engage more fully in our lives.

If we’ve been able to practice stopping and coming back to ourselves, to understand a little bit more of what nourishes us and also what doesn’t nourish us, then we’re able to be open to what is happening. This is the second step: accepting.

The third aspect is embracing. Last week we had a family retreat, and I had the opportunity to see how parents embrace their children. Children are wonderful Zen masters, but they’re not always quiet, calm people sitting on cushions. They’re very active Zen masters, and sometimes very loud. I was watching how the parents were interacting with their children, how they embraced them. It was a beautiful thing to see.

Whatever seed is manifesting, we recognize it, we accept it, and we hold it. If it’s a seed of anger, a seed of resentment, we allow it to be there. We don’t push it away. We want to understand. So we hold it close to ourselves, not with the idea that we need to fix something but rather to be available for wisdom.

Recently I have not been well; I’ve had a number of health challenges. Sometimes it’s a little bit like swimming through blackstrap molasses. I have to use my energy skillfully and really choose what is important. This has been a profound teaching for me. I was given a very stark choice: the doctor could prescribe heavy medication which would mask the symptoms, or I could continue to experience the pain and take a natural route, slowly coming more in contact with the rhythms of my own body and learning what it needed. I chose to go the natural route, and I have had to accept my limitations—being weak, asking for support, being vulnerable. These things were the very hardest things for me; so my body has become a teacher.

The fourth aspect is looking deeply. When a strong emotion of misperception has arisen, and we have practiced recognizing, accepting, and embracing, then we can practice looking deeply in order to understand. What watered that seed of anger in me? What need is that anger trying to tell me about? And then we have the insight. We begin to know, when that seed of anger arises in us, how to work with it. And very slowly, very gently, the seed of anger changes. The way it manifests begins to change, and it transforms from something that we used to see as entirely negative into something positive.

Creating Happiness

Our ability to create happiness within and around ourselves depends very much on our ability to be available to those conditions that we have in our heart, in our life. We need to transform those seeds that ordinarily we think are negative. In fact, our anger can be something very positive. It’s not that we want to water the seed of anger, but when the seed of anger arises, we begin to practice these things—to recognize it when it arises, to accept it, to embrace it, and then to start looking deeply.

We need to be really honest with ourselves. When we can embrace with attention the seeds that we call negative, then understanding will grow. I always like to say that the seeds that we think are negative are really just the positive seeds in disguise. With mindfulness practice we will see this.

We know, for example, what things touch the seed of anger within us. We know what things touch the seed of joy within us. So we cultivate the ground of our being for this transformation to take place. We begin to understand how to nourish the positive and healing elements within us, in the search for this Holy Grail—the Holy Grail of understanding, the freedom of the heart.

1 “Fear and Dread” Bhaya-bherava Sutta, Majjima Nikaya 4 2 “Inscriptions” Lekha Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya III.130

Thay Phap Hai is Australian by birth and is entering his tenth year of monastic life. He was ordained as a Dharma Teacher in January 2003.

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Fragrance of Tea Flowers

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Before she became a nun, Sister Dang Nghiem was a physician in the United States. She has been at Prajna Temple (Bat Nha) near Bao Loc since September and she wrote this letter to Thay on December 12, 2005.

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Beloved Thay,

I have wanted to write to you several times. However, the personal time that I have is extremely limited, and when I actually have some, the electricity is out for power conservation.

I am very happy here at Prajna Temple. I keep praising quietly, “The dharma is truly deep and lovely!”

The first night when I arrived in Prajna, at the Sisters’ Hamlet, Red Fireplace Hamlet, the monastery was in total silence. I was very surprised, because I had been informed that 170 people were there. Once I came in the room, so many sisters stopped by to greet me and we had a joyful moment.

How Many Share a Room?

After a while, I bowed deeply and smiled to the bright and friendly faces in sign of farewell, but I was surprised to see that there were still many sisters standing around my newly assigned bed. So I said to them, “Dear sisters, please return to your room to rest. I probably need to rest, too.” Do you know what their reply was? “Elder sister, we all live in this room!!!” Sixteen people live in a room five meters by five meters, which includes an indoor restroom with one toilet, a sink, and a showerhead. This restroom is divided into three sections by two curtains, so that one person can use the toilet, one to three people can use the sink, and one person can shower or wash clothes, simultaneously.

When I climbed onto my upper bunk bed for the first time, I hung my weight on it as I had often done in my dormitory in college. Unexpectedly, the whole bed tipped towards me, and I jumped down quickly to catch the bed. I have enough experience by now, and I can climb onto it skillfully like a cat.

Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels

Every morning I wake up at three to do my toilet, to avoid waiting in line. Then I come out to the balcony to enjoy sipping half a liter of warm water, before I do yoga. The wind blows wildly, howling in waves. The stream and waterfalls flow continuously and forcefully nearby. I do the exercise Sun Salutation and the headstand pose, as I quietly recite the Three Refuges. However tired I may feel some mornings, I still strive to wake up early to do yoga, and I also run in the evenings. I am aware that for me to continue on this life-long path of practice, I must take good care of this body. My heart is filled with joy and gratitude to the Three Jewels for giving me enough strength, faith, and every opportunity to practice.

A small bell is invited at 4:00 a.m. to wake up the Sangha. The Great Temple Bell is also invited at that time. The sounds of the Great Bell and the chants reverberate throughout the mountains. Local people also take these sounds to wake up and prepare for the new day. At 4:20 a.m., the activity bell is invited to announce exercise time. Everyone quietly does walking meditation to the meditation hall (on the upper level) and the dining hall (on the lower level) in the adjacent building, to do the Ten Mindfulness Movements. Every level is full of people. There are young aspirants who are still sleepy, standing like zombies and raising their arms only occasionally. Even though sitting meditation begins at 5:00 a.m., most are already at their cushions by 4:50 a.m.

Our sisters chant energetically and powerfully! In Plum Village, I often felt self-conscious of my loud chanting voice. I do not have to worry about this here, because my voice blends in with the Sangha’s like milk in water.

Stories About Food

We eat breakfast at 6 a.m. Everyone leaves her shoes outside and walks barefoot into the dining hall. The shoes are aligned neatly next to each other, and sometimes when I come out, I see my shoes have been moved closer to the door threshold; I am touched by these quiet kind gestures. There are three serving tables (for

170 people), narrow and only one meter long each, because our food is simple and without much variety. We usually have rice at all three meals, with a stir-fry dish and a vegetable dish. There is soup at lunch, but sometimes we have just one dish. The sisters ask to have rice, instead of noodle soup of some sorts, because they get hungry very quickly, and they cannot work or sleep well at night.

In the dining hall at Deer Park, there is a separate table full of bottles and containers of soy sauce, olive oil, chilies, peanuts, sesame seeds, and so on. Here in Prajna, food is flavored with enough salt, and only occasionally there is a bowl of soy sauce or tomato sauce on the serving table (tomatoes are too expensive for cooking). The shopping sisters also try to roast sesame for the Sangha, but the jar is emptied so quickly that only two or three days later we see another jar. In principle, we can talk after two sounds of the bell, but everyone remains silent throughout three meals; some whisper if it’s very necessary to exchange something. I am happy with this, because that little tiny dining hall would be like an open market place if everyone talked.

Before Sister Thoai Nghiem left Deer Park to return to Prajna this last October, she told us that the sisters in Prajna crave sweets. Upon hearing this, some sisters thought that this craving for sweets was due to them being teenagers. I myself thought it could be because they were malnourished. After a few days in Prajna, I found myself craving sweets as well! Sister Nhu Hieu shared that the other day she had a lollipop, and it tasted better than any candy she had ever had in France! We both laughed together, because we are far from being teenagers. Each time when our brothers and sisters from Plum Village are together for a meeting, we bring all our sweets, place them on the table, and eat together. The truth is that none of us has the heart to enjoy these sweets alone, if we don’t have enough to share with those in our room.

Last week we had a meeting with the Venerable Abbot of Prajna Temple, and he said he felt much love for us coming from Plum Village, because we all become darker and thinner here. “Even brother Pháp Kham, who was fair and round when he first arrived, now also looks so dark and thin!” (“He’s looking more like a mountain person [a montagnard, mountain tribesman] now,” a sister whispered, and all of us giggled). “Well, we have given seventy, eighty percent of ourselves, so we can give up to ninety, one hundred percent of ourselves. We just continue to stretch our arms a little longer. So many people desperately need our practice. Centers like ours must be present everywhere in Vietnam in order to rebuild our country….” The Venerable spoke with such enthusiasm, and with such a charismatic smile, we looked at each other and laughed, admiring the Venerable for his talent for giving us effective spiritual boosters.

Letting Go of Attachments

Before I came to Prajna Temple, I heard Sister Thoai Nghiem say that the biggest problem here is attachment. I reacted strongly, believing that people with that tendency should be expelled from the community. However, living together with the sisters and listening to them, I understand better the causes of their tendency for attachment.

I practice Noble Silence each Lazy Monday for at least half a day, because I conduct an anatomy class for our sisters later in the afternoon. Last Sunday evening, it was past 10 p.m. already when one of my mentees came to my room, asking me to help her with her insomnia because, she said, “I know you’ll be practicing Noble Silence tomorrow.” I told her to return to her bed, lie down, and follow her breathing. If she could not sleep that night, it would be okay; she’s had this problem several years, and we were not going to solve it that night. She walked away angry, and her steps were heavy. A few days later, I asked her if she was still mad at me, and she said her anger resolved after she had been following her breathing for a while. I asked if she knew why I sent her back to her room that night. “Because you want me to practice taking refuge in myself,” she replied.

Because all of us, monastics as well as aspirants, live in one building, the sisters have the tendency to “stop by” your room anytime they want. Some also tend to “hang out” nearby or at a distance, looking at you with curious and affectionate eyes. Sometimes I return to my room late, feeling exhausted, and I see some young aspirants knocking on my window, waving and smiling!!! I have requested a couple of my mentees to memorize the sutra “Taking Refuge in the Island of Self.” They are to recite it to me by memory, to contemplate on this sutra, and to apply this teaching in their daily lives.

Having lived with the sisters and listened to their life stories, I understand more why some of them are prone to attachment. Many of them do not receive love or positive communication in their families and in their previous temples. Therefore, when they happen to meet a person who has some freshness and who spends time to take care of them, they want to attach themselves to that person. They want to attach their hearts, fragile and full of sadness, to a person they think they can trust. I see clearly that as older brothers and sisters, we must practice to nourish stability and space within ourselves, so that we can understand others more deeply with time, and so that our love entails no “hook” that others can “attach” to.

Background of Our Monastics

These past three weeks our dharma teachers have begun to interview the aspirants and visiting nuns who request to stay and practice with us. I also participate in these interviews to help assess their health condition. Each day, we use the working period, an afternoon activity, and the evening sitting session to conduct interviews. I have learned a great deal from these sessions.

There are sisters who are so innocent and pure; they want to become monastics because they have seen how beautiful the monastics can be in their fine manners, behavior, and speech. There are also those who come from unhappy families; their parents abuse and neglect each other, and the young people do not want to repeat this cycle of suffering. There is one girl who spent most of her tender years caring for a mother with mental illness, begging for food, working as a maid, and defending her mother and herself from perverse men. There are those who came to live in a temple when they were only three or four years old. Yet their faces are somber, their hearts closed off, because they have witnessed such division and abuse in their root temples.

Dear Thay, it is very painful to hear all of these stories and more. In his last minutes before the Buddha died, he was so compassionate as to ordain Subhadda as his last disciple and to advise the new monk to practice diligently towards liberation. Suddenly, I touch the immense love in your heart, and I understand why it pains you when we have to turn someone away from our practice center here—though our facilities are stretched beyond limit. Our environment of practice has the capacity to nourish and enliven the faith and aspiration in people. I sincerely hope that my brothers and sisters, monastic as well as lay, will come and help build true practicing communities in Vietnam.

Beloved Teacher, you are here in every second and every minute. You are the tea flowers emitting fragrance throughout the mountains and valleys. You are the stream that flows through all paths. Even though our center is newly established, with your wisdom of Sangha building, the support of the Buddha and the patriarchs, the wholehearted care of lay friends, and the diligent practice of our brothers and sisters, Prajna is growing quickly and tremendously  strong.

Every late afternoon during the exercise period, some of us practice martial arts, some weed the tea hillsides, and some jog along the creeks. Our sisters’ clear laughter intertwines with the luscious green of the mountains. A chanting voice is heard nearby:

Now that I have entered this holy place
I must use the sacred medicine to enlighten my spirit
before I go out again.

mb42-Fragrance2To you our deepest gratitude.
Brothers and sisters at Prajna Temple,

Dang Nghiem

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Mindfulness in a State Psychiatric Hospital

By Bruce L. Hilsberg

Bruce Hilsberg passed away on March 29, 2005; you may read an essay by his wife Karen in issue 39 of the Mindfulness Bell.

When I first became a student of Thich Nhat Hanh over ten years ago, I never thought that my personal interest in meditation, mindfulness practice, and the dharma would become an essential part of my work as a psychologist at a state psychiatric hospital.

I had practiced mindfulness with my wife in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, attended days of mindfulness with Thay when he visited California, and participated in meditation classes and dharma discussions with a local Order of Interbeing teacher. Over time, I have taught mindfulness techniques to some of the patients in my private practice to help them find relief from symptoms including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, manic depression, and anxiety. Still, my mindfulness practice felt compartmentalized. In the context of working at the state hospital, I still subscribed to the medical model of illness and disease in which I had been trained. During work, I contemplated curing mental illnesses and reducing symptoms rather than seeing individuals as people with strengths and a desire to build on these.

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But all that changed last year, when an outside consultant was brought in to help improve the state hospital where I had worked for over eleven years. It just so happened that this consultant, who served many state psychiatric hospitals in the United States, had cultivated a Soto Zen Buddhist practice and had integrated mindfulness training into his work. When the consultations with our hospital began, I found a door through which I could enter to begin integrating my personal and professional beliefs and practices. This is the story of my journey this past year and a half.

Our system at the state hospital has watered many seeds of negative habit energy over the past decades, resulting in problems that need new solutions. For example, the system encountered difficulties in accurately diagnosing and properly treating individuals with serious and persistent mental illnesses. With the help of our consultant we are moving in the direction of systemic change for the betterment of the people connected to the hospital: administrators, staff, individuals with psychiatric disabilities, family members and the community.

From the Medical Model to the Recovery Model

One of the first methods we are using is stopping and looking deeply at ourselves and each other. While we are well aware of changes that we would like to see, part of my practice has become to accept that I am where I need to be in this moment and the hospital too is where it needs to be. Sangha building has also been a very important part of the process. We are forming connections with each other to support mindfulness in our work environment so that we can embody the practice and then bring the fruits of our practice to the hospital and the people with whom we work. In this regard, we have struggled to get out of “automatic pilot” and instead to recognize our habits, realize what we are thinking and doing, and look deeply so that we can make better choices for ourselves. In turn, we can help others to make better choices for themselves. This forms the basis of a new model of treatment for mental disorders called the recovery model.

In the recovery model, we think about individuals—what helps them and what hinders them in their lives. We talk about choices and empowerment. In the same way that Thay talks about our store consciousness with our positive and healthy seeds as well as our negative and unhealthy seeds, the recovery model sees individuals as having seeds of strength and seeds of weakness. In the old medical model, we might have asked, “Why was the individual so ill? How can we treat and cure his illness?” Now with the recovery model, we ask, “How did the individual sustain herself in the face of her illness? How can I help support her strengths and help her to recognize and water her own seeds of health, growth and well-being?” We now focus on conducting strengths-based conversations with them instead of routine diagnostic work-ups (though accurate diagnoses are still considered very important).

The research that is now emerging in the field of psychology indicates that mindfulness training is an incredibly effective treatment for many people suffering from psychiatric disorders such as chronic depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. The treatment does not necessarily make the disorder completely vanish, but it can empower individuals to manage their symptoms effectively, to discontinue negative cycles of thought and behavior, and to lead more adaptive and contented lives outside of hospitals and in the community. Furthermore, many individuals with psychiatric disabilities have benefited from mindfulness training as they learn to change the relationship they have with the symptoms of their illness and to feel a sense of control in their lives.

What Mindfulness Looks Like

Over the past year and a half, as I have been mentored by our consultant, my own mindfulness practice has deepened immensely. At work, I try not to operate on automatic pilot anymore. I don’t see events as meaningless. I see the importance of my speech and my actions, and I appreciate that all I have right now is the present moment and my own presence in the moment. I spend a great deal of time in meetings, and my behavior at meetings has changed. I’ve become more present in the meetings. I recognize that while there is a lot to do, what I am doing in the moment is what I need to be doing right now. I listen deeply to others’ speech, I don’t interrupt others, and I breathe mindfully. I realize that my list of things to do does not control me. I practice non-attachment to outcomes happening within a certain arbitrary period of time. I understand that I do not need to balance my time, but to find balance in my life. I realize that my list of things to do is there to assist me in seeing what needs to be done and what my priorities are, but that is all. I feel a sense of acceptance in my work of what is. Just as in my life, rather than feeling that I need to chase after a goal, buy something, or accomplish something to feel better, I am just being in acceptance of what is.

At work, I have begun to offer a weekly meditation group for members of the hospital staff. For the last couple of months, every Thursday at lunchtime we sit on chairs or on the floor in the administration building and meditate together for half an hour.

Though I have attended meetings in this room for many years, now that I meditate there, I am aware of new sounds that I never heard before. For example, I am aware of the sound the clock makes as it ticks. We have core members who are present almost every week, and we also have people who come and go. The energy of the group practice is becoming strong, and after the practice we discuss our experiences together in a spirit of acceptance, understanding, and lack of judgment.

One thing I dream of is a time when these practices will be so much a part of the institution that before a treatment planning meeting, the treatment team will take some mindful breaths together and set an intention for the meeting. This would help each person at the meeting to move beyond their own tendency to be on automatic pilot and to truly experience the individual as an individual, rather than seeing the purpose of the meeting as a task that must be accomplished.

In my private life, my wife and I have made a new commitment to meditate together every morning before our young children wake up as a way to support each other in the practice. We also have had wonderful opportunities to spend time at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido and to practice breathing, sitting, walking, eating and working meditation as a family with the support of the monastic Sangha. We have come to see the truth for us in the Dharma Seal, “You have arrived, you are home.” We have also recently formed a Sangha in our area to offer the practice to our family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends on a weekly basis and to seek support for our Order of Interbeing aspirant training.

To some, the changes that have happened at our hospital are remarkable and inspiring. To others, it seems that change is moving at a snail’s pace. Many people within the hospital are struggling with the changes and feel angry, resentful, or helpless. Others are embracing the changes and feel the freshness of the new approaches as they are introduced. For me, some days are full of frustrations as more entrenched problems in the system emerge into the light of day. “Breathing in, I know I feel frustration. Breathing out, I smile to my frustration and am grateful that I am alive.” Other days are exciting as new standards of care for the individuals we serve are implemented. Overall, I can say that mindfulness is now a part of my daily work life as well as my personal life. Through mindfulness training we are working to improve our hospital, the treatment practices, and the quality of life of the individuals we serve, as well as staff, administrators and family members. It has not been easy to introduce these ideas into a bureaucratic system, but my work is enormously meaningful to me now in ways that it has never been before.

Bruce L. Hilsberg, True Commitment of the Heart, was Chief of Psychology at Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, California. He and his wife practiced with the Organic Garden Sangha in Culver City, California and at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.

From: Spoken Like a True Buddha, an unpublished compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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Thanksgiving

By Cathy Nason

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I wonder if he’ll see me after coming all this way. How could I have allowed two whole years to pass without even a card, a phone call?

This home seems better than the last. The women at the reception desk are warm and attractive. They call his social worker, Keith, to walk me to Andy’s ward. Keith is black and strong with an incredible warmth and cheerfulness. I am immediately grateful that he is in Andy’s life.

The Dementia Ward

He unlocks the first set of doors and a woman stands hopeless in her pee-drenched pants. He cheerfully yells at her to get to the bathroom and take care of herself. Slowly she moves toward the bathroom. He explains to me that this is the dementia ward.

After the second set of locked doors we are in Andy’s ward. The familiar sense of madness: one girl screaming obscenities, one man singing like Johnny Cash, a Middle Eastern-looking man bent into some contorted position on the floor.

Keith directs me to the desk where I am to sign in. They flip to Andy’s page and I see he has had no visitors, except for his conservator back in August, a person I have never met. My heart aches. Why do I stay so busy? Why is the rest of the family so busy? Possibly it is too painful for us—and that is why we keep so busy. I am so sorry, Andy.

Keith takes me to Andy’s room, which he shares with three men. One of them is pretending to be dead. The nurse and Keith stand over him trying to get him to respond. I walk by this chaos to Andy who is standing and smiling. Keith asks Andy if he knows who I am. Cheerfully he says, “Yes, it’s my sister Cathy.”

His hair is long and greasy, he is missing some teeth, he has a pot belly; but he looks really good to me. I give him a three-breath hug and he allows it. It feels so good to hold him, I can feel our mom’s sweet essence in him. He is very quiet.

Andy opens my present to him, a pen and one of Thay’s writing journals. He puts them in his drawer. He has absolutely nothing, except his radio. I tell him he is luckier than the rest of us with all our trappings of possessions, and he smiles. Then we just sit. I tell him a little bit about what the family is doing but he seems more interested in just now. I ask Keith if he will take our picture. Andy likes it when I hold him.

I am amazed that this time he is so happy to see me. Then in that instant he says, “You have to go now, it’s time for my cigarette break.” I am happy that at least this time he has seen me, after coming all this way.

A Walk in Heaven

He walks me to the door and then he does something that he has never done before. He takes my hand and smiles, and then adjusts it to his for a perfect fit. And he starts walking slowly around the circumference of the ward. I am doing walking meditation with my Bro, and it feels as if Thich Nhat Hanh, my mother, my father, brothers, sisters, all our ancestors are with us in this moment. I am experiencing heaven on earth, a smile on my face from ear to ear, walking slowly and mindfully with my brother, hand in hand. We get to his door after this lap around heaven, and I am expecting for the gift to be over. He passes his room for a second lap of walking and smiling, then a third. Finally he says, “Okay now, I really got to have my cigarette break.” I ask if I can join him and he says no.

Keith comes to lead me out of the ward. I feel peaceful and grateful for Andy’s gift to me—to walk amongst the chaos with such ease and grace.

One of the patients is grabbing at Keith and insisting on his attention. He firmly sets his boundaries and walks on with me. I tell him he is very good at what he does. He says, “After twenty years I am getting better!” Then he laughs and says, “That lady still pushes my buttons.”

I am grateful for Keith and the people who work with the mentally ill. I say goodbye to the receptionist with a feeling it is all perfect, just the way it is.

mb42-Thanksgiving2Cathy Nason, True Silent Path, lives in Truckee, California, where she practices interior design incorportating spirit, feng shui, and green design.

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