Dharma Talk: Living Practice

Question and Answer Session
with Thich Nhat Hanh and Monastic Brothers and Sisters

European Institute of Applied Buddhism
Waldbrol, Germany
May 20, 2011

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh: Today we have a session of questions and answers. We know that a good question can benefit many people. So please ask a question from your heart, a question that has to do with our practice, our suffering, our happiness. We know that a good question does not have to be very long. Young adults are encouraged to come and ask questions.

Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve been in a youth Sangha for almost two years. There are many Sanghas of young people growing in Holland and Germany, and it’s great to feel the brother­hood and sisterhood, and also the youth retreats that we have here in the EIAB [European Institute of Applied Buddhism]. I would also like to thank the EIAB for their support and their flexibility and trust in the wake-up group. As young people, we have this dream to create wake-up, living communities, but I wonder, how do we know that we have enough practice to make this really hap­pen? Do we need to have Dharma teachers as a foundation? Do we need to have laypeople finish the five-year [monastic] program to be the foundation? How do we create successful wake-up, living communities?

Thay: I remember one time we had a retreat in Montreal, Canada, and after the first session of walking meditation, one lady came up and said, “Thay, walking meditation is so wonderful, I enjoy it so much! May I share this practice of walking meditation with other people?” And I said, “Yes, you can share the teaching and the practice if you feel happy with the practice.” So if a group of young people are able to live happily and in harmony, connecting with the practice, they can begin to share the practice with other young people, even if they haven’t spent a lot of time learning and practicing Buddhism.

Maybe Brother Phap Linh can say a few words on this, on how to expand our movement and help more young people.

Brother Phap Linh: I know that the wake-up movement is very strong; we already feel like brothers and sisters on the path. Two years ago, Thay told us we need to have a wake-up tour of Europe, to spend ten days in each country. At the time we thought that was impossible, but already this year we’ve been able to do it in England and in Italy. We went to six different universities in the United Kingdom in March, a group of seven brothers and sisters and five young laypeople. Next year we want to make that dream come true by planning events in Holland, Germany, and Belgium.

Thay has encouraged us to invite people to practice as mo­nastics for five years. Now we will also have a two-year master’s program, for a Master of Applied Buddhism. So there are many ways that young people can come and train to become solid practitioners and to have the experience of serving others and sharing the practice.

The dream of living together as young people, sharing the practice, is already coming true. There’s a wake-up house in Aus­tin, Texas, and the core of their practice is agreeing to practice the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the house, and that way they maintain harmony. So I think we already know the way. We just need to continue.

Bell

Retreatant: Dear Thay, I would like to ask how to create a peaceful and friendly relationship with a person who hates you and wants you out of their life.

Thay: There are at least two things to do. The first thing is to be­come lovable, pleasant. Sooner or later the other person will notice that you have become more pleasant to be with. The second thing is that you may know people who are friends with the other person, who can help the other person notice that you are a lovely person, are pleasant to be with, so that he will adjust his first impression and recognize the reality that is now. So the first thing is, a flower should be a true flower. The second thing is that someone should remind us that the flower is there.

Bell

Retreatant: I have a habit to be offensive against other people in my thoughts. I want to change that, but I don’t know how. For example, when I walk down the street and see people doing things, I think to myself, “Oh, what an idiot!” Things like that.

Thay: When you see something, it might be only one aspect of that thing, the aspect that does not please you. Next time you see someone or something, do not allow just one aspect of it to seize you, but allow yourself to see the other aspects as well.

In the chanting book there is a sutra talk by Shariputra [Dis­course on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger]. He said that when you have anger, you have to look deeply in order to trans­form your anger. With a person whose way of doing things may not please you, but whose way of speaking can be very pleasant, you should pay attention more to his way of speaking, not to his way of doing. That way you can transform your anger. Even if you notice that his behavior is not pleasant and his speech is not pleasant, maybe his way of thinking is very pleasant. You can see the goodness in his heart, so you accept what is not so good in his way of speaking or acting.

Shariputra went on to say that even if his behavior is not pleasant, if his speech is not pleasant, and if his thinking is not pleasant, you can still feel compassion and transform your anger. You look deeply to understand that such a bad person must be someone who suffers very much, and you might be able to help him suffer less. If you think like that, you will accept him as he is, and the anger in you will be transformed. This sutra is very beautiful. I recommend that you read it.

Shariputra used the image of water to illustrate his teaching. First, he described a lake covered with straw and algae. If a person who is very thirsty and hot takes off his clothes and gets into the water using his arm to remove what is floating on the surface, he can enjoy the cool water. If he can see underneath the straw and algae, the water is deep and fresh.

Shariputra gave a second image of a person who is traveling and is so thirsty he is about to die, but he knows there is some water left in the footprint of a buffalo. He knows that it is a very small quantity of water, and if he uses his hands to gather the water, it might become muddy. So he kneels down and drinks the water directly and is able to survive. It means that even if the situation is difficult, if the person is not very pleasant in his way of speak­ing and acting, you can recognize the goodness in him and try to enjoy that. That is one way to transform your anger, your disap­pointment. The sutra is about five ways to put down your anger and is available in the Plum Village chanting book. If you read the sutra, next time you go out on the street, you will look at them and smile and accept them as they are. Thank you. Good question.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, yesterday you talked about nirvana and states of being and non-being, the here and now, and the true self. Lately I feel that my true self is like a drop that has been taken out of the collective consciousness, something like a cloud. And I feel, as I’m aging, that this drop has been separated, and I have this longing to reunite with the ocean. I would like to know whether you notice a longing to be reunited to the true self, and how I can live in the here and now in the face of this longing.

Thay: If the wave remembers that she is at the same time water, there is no need for the wave to go and search for water. You have the impression that you are separated from your true self, from your true nature. That is only a feeling, a wrong perception. You feel that you are away from the ultimate dimension; you do not have a connection with God. That is also a feeling born from wrong perception. We know that the ultimate dimension and the historical dimension are not two separate dimensions, they are just one. So if we say that the flower belongs to the Kingdom of God, then if we get in touch deeply enough with the flower, we get in touch with the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is not something outside the flower. The feeling of separation is born from the fact that you do not live your life deeply enough in each moment. If we learn how to live in mindfulness and concentration, then the Kingdom of God, the ultimate dimension, is always available to us.

So we need to train ourselves to live more deeply. If we have enough mindfulness and concentration, we can touch the ultimate with every breath, every step. Nirvana, or the Kingdom of God, can be experienced in every moment of our daily life. In fact, you can touch nirvana with your feet. You can be in the presence of God twenty-four hours a day. How? Learn to breathe mindfully, walk mindfully, eat mindfully, drive mindfully.

Bell

A written question: Dear Thay, following the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I try not to kill. So for the past two years when I saw a few little bugs in the kitchen, I left them in peace. But this summer there were so many that I began to kill them, always trying to keep a peaceful mind and friendliness, wishing a good rebirth in the next life. I remembered you saying that when we followed the North Star, it didn’t mean that we had to reach it. But to perform the act of killing again and again, doesn’t this create karmic imprints in my stream of consciousness? Or do I have to decide not to kill at all in spite of some disadvantages? Thank you.

Sister Jina: We say the Five Mindfulness Trainings are like the North Star. They give us a direction in life, the direction of non- violence. And we do our best. One of the main things is to keep our mind open, not to think we have to do it this way or that way. Every time I am confronted with a situation, I look again and say, “What is the wisest thing to do?” If you do that, then you may learn to focus on prevention. In this case, we can see what we do that brings the little beings into our kitchen. Then we can determine what we can do to prevent them from coming in. This goes for all aspects of our daily life. If we did kill the insects, then we have to know we may not choose to do the same thing next time. In the meantime, practice being mindful in your daily life. Then you will have more concentration and more insight about how to protect life and how to go in the direction of nonviolence.

If we start to feel guilty, then we may get to a state where we cannot do anything anymore because guilt overtakes us. It is better to look and to say, “I regret that I did this. What can I do now?” Then we have learned something from the situation, and this will benefit many people and many beings.

Thay: When we went to Hong Kong, we had to use a mosquito net in order to sleep during the night because there were a lot of mosquitoes. It is impossible for you to kill all the mosquitoes! So using a mosquito net is a good prevention technique.

In Plum Village our brothers and sisters used to pick up the insects in the garden and release them outside instead of using pesticides. If we allowed the insects to share our vegetables, there would not be enough vegetables left for us. So at night we went to the vegetable garden and we picked up all these small insects and released them far away. Our neighbors were very surprised to see us and wanted to know what we were doing in the dark!

But that does not mean that we have the best way. We are still learning better ways to protect life. Thank you for asking the question so that we can continue our reflection on that.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear brothers and sisters, I would like to ask a question regarding my superiority complex. All my life when I’ve met people, I’ve automatically judged them and found something in them that made me feel superior. I used to go to a school where at the end of each year we had the custom to invite the best of each year onto a stage before the entire school and honor them with a golden plaque. There is still this voice in me that would really like to share that I, too, once received one of those golden plaques. But I have also discovered how in this way I create a distance between myself and other people.

I have discovered that one reason for my feeling of superior­ity is that I’ve tried to protect myself from a feeling of inferiority. Because of this discovery, things are changing a little bit. However, this feeling of having to create a distance between me and other people is still an obstacle in my way. I would like to ask you for more advice on how to manage this better. Thank you.

Thay: This morning when I touched the earth with the Sangha, I saw all the non-me elements coming together and touching the earth. I did not see me at all, only the non-me elements. That created a lot of space inside. Because you believe in a self, you compare that self with other selves. Out of it come the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, the equality complex. If you touch the truth of non-self in you, you are free.

When I was ordained, I was told how to bow to the Buddha. Bowing to the Buddha because you have the impression that the Buddha is perfect and you are not perfect is not the best way. As a young novice I was told that before you bow, you have to look deeply into yourself and into the Buddha to whom you bow. There is a verse you can recite while breathing in and out, before you bow. The verse is: “Dear Buddha, I know I have no self and you have no self. That is why I can see me in you and you in me.”

The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are not two separate entities. So when you remove the barrier, the distinction between the one who bows and the one who is bowed to, then the experience of the bow can be very deep. Although you conceive of the Buddha as the perfect one, your teacher, the fully enlightened one, you have no complex whatsoever.

Then there is the insight that our ancestors have transmitted to us many wonderful qualities. If we have some talent, there’s no “our own” talent. That is something that has been transmitted to you by your father or your grandfather or grandmother. You should be proud of it. If another person does not seem to have that talent, that doesn’t mean that talent is not in him or her. That person has been in an environment that has not helped that talent to manifest. You are luckier, because you have been in an environment where that talent had a chance to manifest. If you can see that, you won’t have any superiority complex over him.

Also, our ancestors have transmitted to us negative things, habit energies, sufferings. If we happen to be in a good environment where there are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, we will be able to transform them more quickly than another person can. I know that the negative things in me may have been transmitted to me by my ancestors, and I know that with the Dharma, with the Sangha, I may be able to help transform them. Not only for myself but for my ancestors at the same time.

So the environment is very important. We should pay attention to how to create a good environment for us and for our children so that the good things can come out easily and the negative things can be transformed more easily.

Bell Retreatant: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, twelve years ago I had a crisis, and when I was in most need of the help of my friends, I was let down and even attacked by them. I became very ill and lost all my trust in other people. I have tried to look into the causes of all that happened, and I have tried to forgive myself and others. Now I am on a new path, trying to open myself up and to trust other people again. Much has changed for the better. But my old wound is being opened again by some recent interactions with people, and now I feel that people cannot be counted upon and I need to protect myself. So, dear Thay, how can I live in an open and trusting way, even with people who are not very mindful, and how can I at the same time protect myself?

Thay: We speak of protection with mindfulness. When you do things mindfully, you are in a safer situation. When you walk mindfully, you don’t risk falling down. When you speak mind­fully, you know what you are saying, and you know that what you say is going to create danger or safety. Most of the time the dangers come from ourselves, and not from others. We should learn to think mindfully, because our thoughts can draw danger to ourselves. When we do things, when we say things, when we think from a basis of anger and fear, we bring danger to ourselves and to the people around us. That is why when we notice that fear or anger is coming up, we should not say anything, we should not do anything. We should only go back to our mindful breathing and mindful walking in order to calm down these emotions. Learning to act mindfully, to speak mindfully, and to think mindfully is the best way to protect ourselves, and we can help protect the people around us at the same time.

If someone asks you to do something, to say something, you say, “Dear friend, I’m not in a position to do or say anything, because there is anger or fear in me. I risk making myself suffer more, and I risk making you suffer more.” If we can practice that, we are in a safer situation, and we can help another person to feel safer at the same time. And we can suggest that the other person, suffering from anger, do the same.

The second thing is that you are in a situation to help people in that negative environment, who have become the victims of such behavior. Mindfulness gives you that insight. These people did not have the intention to make you suffer, but they don’t know how to handle the suffering in them. That is why they do things and say things that make themselves suffer, and the people around them become victims. With that insight you are free and you are in the situation to help, because you have compassion in your heart.

Dear friends, it’s time for us to do walking meditation. Enjoy the Kingdom of God. Thank you.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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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

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

In a writing class I attended recently, the instructor asked us to write five questions that had shaped our lives. One of my questions was: What is real love, and how can I express it in daily life? This inquiry has steered my life’s course. It’s led me to volunteer for Hospice and in prison, to immerse myself in poetry, to sit with Sangha each week for a decade, and to seek truth in the words and actions of my teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh. The question also spurs me to study my own conduct—am I generous, tolerant, compassionate, kind?

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke suggested: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.” And Korean Zen master Seung Sahn taught, “Only don’t know.” When we sit with our questions and let ourselves be open and unknowing, we touch the childlike freshness of beginner’s mind.

This issue is full of questions and answers—curiosity and wisdom. In a Q & A session recorded in Germany this May, Thay and several monastics respond to inquiries about protecting life, creating peaceful relationships, and managing our feelings of superiority and inferiority. In three wonderful interviews—with Sister Trai Nghiem, lay Dharma teacher Eileen Kiera, and musician Susanne Olbrich—we find marvelous insights born of mindfulness, along with helpful guidance for being with illness and loss.

The theme of aspiration to practice the Mindfulness Trainings is also explored in this issue. Sangha friends share the joy, fear, determination, and insight—and in one case, the stinging scorpion—that accompanied them across the threshold to receive the trainings. We announce wonderful news about the globally growing Sangha: the birth of the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism, Thay’s proposal for bringing mindfulness into schools, and a 2012 Plum Village retreat for Buddhists and scientists.

The Mindfulness Bell is now on Twitter and Facebook—visit us online! We are here for you, joyfully sustaining this forum for stories about living Dharma. As Brother Phap Dung recently shared about the MB and Sangha service: “What we are all doing has so much to do with peace for the next generations to come; but then there isn’t any doer, just the doing, with heart and pure mind.”

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

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Letters

The Summer 2011 edition contained stories from several monastics and a discussion on intimacy from Thay. For me, Thay’s willingness to discuss the very uncomfortable subject of sexual misconduct makes him stand out as a unique teacher. Over and over, he has braved this subject and it has touched many people in ways he may not even be aware of. Years ago, unknown to my husband and me, our daughter was repeatedly sexually abused by a family friend. This action has caused our family deep and ongoing pain. The lack of mindfulness in these kinds of actions causes pain and suffering all over the planet every day. Just as we were reading Thay’s article in the Mindfulness Bell, the radio was playing yet another story of sexual misconduct by one of our congressmen. Our culture in the west is so focused on sex. There is a myth that without it, one cannot live a happy life. Also, that men especially are unable to channel their sexual energy elsewhere without dire consequences. We are so thankful to have a teacher who repeatedly speaks out for mindfulness in the area of sexual conduct. People across the planet need to address this topic. We need help with ways to be mindful in our sexual activities. May we awaken to our sexual urges and fi healthy ways to manifest them that cause joy rather than suffering. Sharing and shining light, we give thanks for the example set by our teachers.

Bobbie Cleave, True Capacity of the Earth

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Let me take this opportunity to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the beautiful issue of the Mindfulness Bell on monastic life. It is still very nourishing for me to read the stories from my lay and monastic brothers and sisters. I am honored to be a part of it!

Much love, Sister An Nghiem

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We received the latest issue of the Mindfulness Bell last week, and we would like to thank you for doing such beautiful interviews with the monastic brothers and sisters. Our whole Sangha was especially touched by your interview with Brother Phap Trach, as his parents and siblings are members of our Sangha. It was great to see their beautiful faces light up with joy and gentle surprise.

Broward Lotus Sangha (via Facebook)

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Lamp in the Mountains

An Interview with Eileen Kiera

By Tracey Pickup

I first met Dharmacarya Eileen Kiera (True Lamp) at Deer Park Monastery when she was giving a Dharma talk. I found myself drawn in by her simple and illuminating presence and the intimate way that she spoke about the natural environment of the rural practice center, Mountain Lamp, where she lives in northern Washington. Since that time I have returned to Mountain Lamp regularly to practice with her, the Sangha, the trees, and the forest creatures. On a late February day with the snow falling on firs and cedars, we sat down to talk about her life of practice.

Tracey Pickup: How and why did you start your spiritual journey?

Eileen Kiera: I believe I always had a spiritual draw toward stillness and the beauty of nature. That led to my eventual career as an ecologist specializing in arctic/alpine ecology. I began my meditation practice while working in the Arctic, where there was the vast spaciousness and deep stillness of the place. Only the periodic call of a bird or whistle of the wind broke the silence. I spent hours sitting behind a spotting scope watching the nesting sites of the Black Brant, and other activity in the salt marshes I was studying. In the summer the sun never sets, and I would sit through the days of bright, white sunlight and the golden nights when the sun ran along the northern horizon.

TP: What inspired you to follow Thay in those early years?

EK: Thay feels like a being of love. And peace. He emanates that, even in the face of all that he and Sister Chan Khong went through in Vietnam. When he talked about what he had gone through in the war, I always asked myself, “What would I have done in that situation?” I was challenged by his example as well as moved by his love.

TP: Was there any memorable moment or interaction that illuminated that?

EK: There were many. When we were at KokoAn, Thay noticed a beautiful calligraphy by Zen master Hannya Gempo. We walked up to look at it, so Thay could read the characters. I stood one step behind him out of respect, but he stepped back to stand equal with me. He wouldn’t let me stand behind him. Through the years, he has consistently shown me great kindness. At the same time, he cut me no slack when I’ve done something wrong. He told me when I was being foolish. He helped me see and transform so many habit energies and for that, I am eternally grateful.

TP: What are the general principles that he would consider foolish?

EK: Excluding other people, jealousy, competition, arguing, and picking and choosing who you did and did not want to associate with.

TP: What did you learn from being with him?

EK: I’ve learned to let go and to look with the eyes of love.

TP: You sought and found instruction in meditation. Why was it important to have teachers in your life? Couldn’t you have found this by seeking on your own?

EK: I couldn’t have. I continually get too caught in myself and my ideas and my constructs. I need a form and a teacher to challenge me to let those ideas, constructs, viewpoints, and attachments go.

TP: And by letting go of those attachments, what happened?

EK: Many layers of personality have fallen away, bit by bit, over the years. I feel more free, and in that freedom, there is a sense of peace and the connection that love gives.

TP: For most of your life you have been struggling with chronic celiac disease. How did you practice with the pain and the impact it had on you?

EK: I was sick without knowing why for many years. Before I was diagnosed, my practice allowed me to rest, and to transform personal pain and losses, kind of on a moment-by-moment basis—I didn’t know why life was so difficult, but practice allowed me to be there with whatever came. After I was diagnosed, and I under stood my difficulties better, my practice helped me to grieve and accept the losses. Mostly, however, celiac disease strengthened my determination and intention in practice.

TP: How did you touch that intention when you were so sick?

EK: When I was most sick, shortly before diagnosis, I couldn’t sustain a sitting meditation practice. I didn’t have the energy to sit upright for any amount of time, but I could practice when I took a step from the bed. I could be completely there in that step. That’s what became my practice—just this breath, just this step. I couldn’t do what I thought of as practice, ideas like “now I do twenty-five minutes of sitting meditation,” or “now I need to go on a retreat.” I couldn’t do any of that. I could just take this step. It was really very helpful. My intention to practice became really strong. When I got diagnosed and began the journey back to health, that deep aspiration and strength of intention carried me through other ob­stacles. I knew I could practice with any circumstances: healthy or not healthy, living or dying, with suffering or with joy. Fewer things got in the way of being mindful.

TP: Do you find you still carry that same intention?

EK: Of course it has changed now, but yes. It kept my practice alive and constant through working in the world, raising a daughter, being with my father over the years of his illness and death. It was also the wellspring that gave rise to the vision of Mountain Lamp.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong, Eileen Kiera, Jack Duggy, and Sangha at a retreat held by Aitken Roshi (seated beside That), KokoAn Zendo, Honolulu, Hawaii, November 1985

TP: In addition to supporting local Sanghas, working with stu­dents to deepen their practice, and leading retreats both here and in other countries, you are also developing a rural practice center in Washington for laypeople called Mountain Lamp. What gave you the inspiration to do this and why do you think it is important?

EK: A lot of it came from Jack and I wanting a lifestyle we came to know at KokoAn and Plum Village. We wanted to live in com­munity, to have people to sit with and walk with, and to have the support of others in practice. We knew there were some things that were essential for practice—having a spiritual home, having a teacher, having a Sangha that shares an ethical basis of precepts and mindfulness trainings. So the aspiration is to create a life of practice that has the potential to support other laypeople and create community—a spiritual home for many people.

Photo by Dzung Vo

TP: What is happening with the community of Mountain Lamp right now?

EK: We have a daily schedule of sitting meditation in the morn­ing, followed by breakfast in community and a period of work meditation. There are regular Days of Mindfulness and an annual one-month retreat. People come for personal retreats, and some people stay longer as residents.

In addition, my husband is a teacher in the lineage of Aitken Roshi. We hold Zen sesshin at Mountain Lamp as well as mind­fulness retreats. In some things, Jack and I co-teach, but mostly we keep the forms of the traditions pure in their own right. Ad­ditionally there are Sangha-led events, like Days of Mindfulness, Buddha’s birthday, and the annual harvest festival.

Over the years, we’ve welcomed Sister Jina, Sister Annabel, Thay Phap Dung, and Thay Phap Tri to teach and lead the com­munity in practice. We were grateful to have two brothers from Deer Park, Brother Phap Ho and Brother Phap De, lead a Day of Mindfulness at Mountain Lamp in May. In the years to come, we look forward to many more visits from our monastic brothers and sisters.

We are moving toward a more structured schedule with the awareness that as laypeople we need to work, and we have commitments outside of Mountain Lamp. We live together in an atmosphere of trust that we are together for the same purpose—to support each other and offer joy in practice.

More information about Mountain Lamp can be found at www.mountainlamp.org.

Tracey Pickup, True Fragrant Field, started the Wild Rose Sangha (www.wildrosesangha.ca) in Calgary, Alberta, Canada and is currently residing at Mountain Lamp as the Temple Keeper.

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Being Wonderfully Together

Receiving the Mindfulness Trainings

By Judith Toy

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In the 1980s, Thich Nhat Hanh formalized a way for people to deepen their commitment to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha within a worldwide community of engaged Buddhists. First, people may commit to following the Five Mindfulness Trainings, adapted by Thay from the traditional five Buddhist precepts. Second, people may study the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, receive Sangha mentoring, and subsequently apply to join the lay Order of Interbeing (OI). When receiving the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, a practitioner is given a new Dharma name. In some cases, Thay may invite people to take a third step: becoming a Dharma teacher in this tradition.

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The Five Mindfulness Trainings are worded in such a way that all over our planet, people who aspire to wake up, find common ground within them. As a clear and concrete expression of the Buddha’s teachings, they embrace the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, the path of right understanding and true love, leading to healing, transformation, and happiness for ourselves and for the world.

 Double Belonging 

I do not dip my big toe in the water of a pool; I dive headfirst into the deep end. In the mid-nineties, a few years after beginning to read Thay’s books, I heard him speak in New York City at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. At the same time, I read his new book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, and was floored. That this teacher was able to marry Christian and Buddhist ideals in such a clear and unbiased way seemed to me like a miracle.

What stopped me from considering transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings was that I did not want to renounce my Christianity. Then I heard that Thay kept a statue of Jesus on his altar. I read his book and began to understand the idea of double belonging. I immediately aspired to join Thay’s Order of Interbeing. I approached my first Zen teacher, Patricia Dai-En Bennage, and asked if she could help.

“I’m not really qualified to mentor you, Judith,” she answered. “But I can put you in touch with Lyn Fine, who founded the New York Metro chapter of the Community of Mindful Living, Thich Nhat Hanh’s lay Sangha there.”

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A Loving Mentor 

The two-and-a-half-hour bus ride from New Hope, Pennsylvania turned out to be well worth the wait. Lyn Fine is a quiet, petite power pack of a woman. She received the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in 1989. Soon after we met in 1995, she received Lamp Transmission, encouragement to teach, from Thay. She was able to model Thay’s clear and gentle approach for me. More than that, Lyn climbed onto the joy side of my depressed Libran scales, stood there, and did not get off until they were in balance again. To Lyn I owe my awakening to the middle way.

After meeting her the first time, I willingly began taking the trip to Lyn’s vintage, high-ceilinged New York apartment, where she lived with her mother, Leonore. It was a revelation to me that in their personal living space they hosted Days of Mindfulness, bringing the New York City public into their living room. Always by example, Lyn taught me how to chant the Heart Sutra, how to listen to a Dharma talk without busily taking notes, how to practice indoor and outdoor walking meditation, how to use the chanting book, and how to invite the mindfulness bell in the OI way.

Lyn often delivered her love gazes to me—looks that one young person called “eye hugs.” Her long, attentive looks into my eyes said, “Dear One, I am here and you are here, and I cherish you in this moment.” At first I wasn’t sure how to respond. But soon enough, I calmed down and dropped my separate self, returning her gaze with focus and affection. My speech was as direct as Lyn’s eyes. I let her know straight away that I was interested in ordination, which meant taking the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and becoming an OI member and lay minister. But first things first—I needed to enter the stream by receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings in a ceremony Lyn was authorized to offer.

She began visiting our Pennsylvania farm, soon afterwards dedicated as Old Path Zendo. My husband Philip and I followed Lyn’s lead, inviting the public into our home for mindfulness practice and retreats which she led. She gave her first Dharma talk, ever, at Old Path Zendo.

A Beautiful Dream 

In an age-old ceremony one October afternoon in 1996, Philip and I touched the earth side by side as we received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from Lyn. I felt like we were moving in slow motion, as if in a beautiful dream. She gave me the lineage name Clear Light of the Source, and Philip, Flowing Stream of the Source.

The memories we gathered from those times are precious as breath: Lyn arriving in the zendo with a stack of books, papers, and a glass of warm water, wearing her Mona Lisa smile and making a nest on her cushion; Lyn’s soothing voice as she taught pebble meditation to the children of our Sangha; Lyn playing “Na mo Bo tat Quan The Am”* on her recorder; each of us scattering ashes of a Sangha member’s son into the garden while Lyn played her flute.

After some years in Pennsylvania, my husband and I moved to North Carolina and became members of the Cloud Cottage Sangha. From time to time at Cloud Cottage, a Dharma teacher offers transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as a way of deepening our commitment to this way of life. We try to remind new folks that these are not commandments or laws of Buddhism; they are more like a flower opening to the sun.

In two spring events hosted by Cloud Cottage this year, eighteen people received the trainings. Maggie, Joe, and Bambi were among them.

On the Right Path 

Maggie Schlubach is a retired wedding planner who became Brave Action of the Heart in one of our ceremonies, led by California Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe Ward. Maggie says, “My biggest hesitation about receiving the trainings—and it took me several years to make this decision—was that I would not live up to my commitment.”

For Maggie, who approached her decision in a slower, more processed way than I, the ceremony inspired “a sense of wonder and gratitude. And I feel changed—more at peace and more certain that I am on the right path. I feel loved and appreciated, and feel like we have an extended family, especially on Sunday mornings at tea and when we plan events together.”

A Spoke in a Wheel 

Joe Lily is a five-star chef, and his new wife Laura Domincovic is an anthropologist. Together, they touched the earth to receive the trainings along with Maggie and several others in our ceremony. For extra encouragement, Philip and I bequeathed our lineage names to Laura and Joe. Joe is now Flowing Stream of the Heart, and Laura, Clear Light of the Heart.

Joe feels he has been living the trainings for years. “(I’m) not saying I have perfected them, but this commitment will help bring me closer to them. I had no hesitation about receiving them, just elation. During the ceremony I felt honored, excited, and lucky to have found this fulfillment in my lifetime. Many people live their whole lives and never truly explore their spiritual desires.”

I asked Joe if he felt changed after receiving the precepts. “The results are not in yet,” he said. “Actually, what I expect is a more gradual, stable growth over the rest of my life. I feel like a small part of this beautiful Sangha, like a spoke in a wheel, contributing enough to help the wheel roll, but not so much that the wheel collapses in my absence.”

Bathed in a Lineage Stream

Yoga teacher, dancer, and percussionist Bambi Favali, Deep Rhythm of the Heart, was inspired to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings because she knew that when she set goals and commitments, “rather than just floundering around,” she would be likely to keep them. And she wanted group support on her spiritual journey.

mb58-Being4“If I don’t attend Sangha, I feel guilty, because I feel I have not honored my commitment. My biggest question was: what if I fall short of my commitment? I had no issue with the trainings themselves because they align perfectly with my belief system and lifestyle.”

Immediately after the transmission ceremony, Bambi’s husband underwent double knee surgery and she became his caregiver. “I did not want to leave him, so I got out of rhythm with my intention right away.” Bambi now enjoys ride-sharing with a friend to help support her renewed commitment to attend Sangha gatherings and Days of Mindfulness. She feels that her name, Deep Rhythm of the Heart, aligns her “with the pulse of all that is.”

For Bambi, the Sangha is an extension of her spiritual family. The ceremony “felt like I was being bathed in the stream of the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhism, like being inducted into the stream of the energy of the masters. It feels to me that deep inside I have known these things and done these things before, and in this lifetime, I am reintegrating this aspect of my soul energy.”

“On a very deep level there is the reintegration into a bigger consciousness, and remembering, and seeing it in the words of the Mindfulness Trainings. Hearing them recited in our Sangha each time is another awakening into the beauty and depth of the teachings.”

If we live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we are already on the path of a bodhisattva, one who lives for the sake of others. Knowing we are on that path, taking each step with our spiritual family, we are not lost in confusion about our life in the present or fears about the future.

* “Na mo Bo tat Quan The Am” means “Homage to the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world.”

mb58-Being5Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, is author of the book Murder as a Call to Love, published this year. She and her husband Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, have led Days of Mindfulness and retreats in the U.S., and Ireland, and Scotland. They practice with Cloud Cottage Community of Mindful Living in North Carolina.

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My Deepest Aspiration

By Young Whan Choi 

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On the second day of the Potluck Sangha retreat in Olema, California, I began to feel at home. Nine men, spiritual brothers, were enjoying our meals in silence, practicing diligently, and sharing the fruits of that practice. A retreat participant had offered us a meditation in the morning. He asked us to see our teacher Thay sitting with us and supporting us. Then, he invited us to welcome our monastic brothers and sisters and to feel nourished by their presence. Next, we acknowledged each other—the nine men on retreat and the sixteen sisters practicing nearby—as well as the monks and nuns of the Vedanta Society that hosted us. As I breathed in and out, these words arose from my heart as tears began to form: “Knowing that I am held by the world, I breathe in. No longer feeling lonely, I breathe out.” I was touching my interbeing nature.

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The next day, I woke up and wrote two words in my journal: Run away. The feeling of connectedness had passed. Now, I was having uncomfortable emotions and judging myself and others. I felt like leaving rather than face what might be lurking beneath these feelings and thoughts.

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Weathering the Waves 

Stubbornly, I didn’t drive away. Besides, I’d carpooled so I was stuck. I made up my mind to search for answers and insights. One of our teachers shared with me that our practice has the quality of a sine wave. As we become more stable, we can reach both higher peaks of insight and understanding and lower valleys of pain and grief. Practicing the path of mindfulness means that we are open to a greater range of our life’s experiences. We can embrace more of ourselves while we deflect, avoid, and cover up less. Perhaps my practice was becoming steadier and more able to weather the waves of emotion that were roiling in my store consciousness. This thought was some solace, but I still wanted to run away.

At the next talk, another teacher shared her experiences with the Sangha. I saw the courage and vulnerability of her presence. She cried openly when sharing her own doubts and self-criticism. I felt my own heart pushing through layers of pain that had crusted over like an old scab that was finally falling away. I too had been judging myself. Just that morning, I scolded myself for slightly burning the oatmeal. Then I projected my anger on the Sangha, believing that they did not like the oatmeal I had made for breakfast. And I wanted to fix things, telling myself that I should eat all the leftovers so no one else would have to. But it was not really about oatmeal. The patterns of my life—judging myself, blaming others, trying to make amends, and wanting to run away—were emerging.

Would I run once again or would I stay? I breathed. In doing so, I bypassed my intellect and became more aware of my body. The feelings were scary.

The Path of Healing 

One of the layers of suffering in my life has been the alienation I felt because of racism. I grew up in a largely white community and there was ever-present pressure to assimilate. “Your house smells funny.” “Boy, you speak good English.” “When did you come to this country?” “Do you know kung fu?” These were the attitudes and perceptions that I encountered. Without the support of a large Asian community to embrace and celebrate my identity, I spared no effort at trying to fit in, which meant minimizing my Asian-ness and doing what my white peers were doing.

Eventually, belittling myself in this way, I created a tight, sensitive knot in my body. On top of that knot, I added layers of protection—judgment and cool composure—to keep others from hurting me or seeing my pain. Nevertheless, these old hurts were easily triggered by other situations—such as attending a retreat as one of a few people of color. The first few days’ retreat had given me some space to take off a few pieces of this armor, to test the waters, and to open up. My body’s fear of being hurt again was telling me to run away. The silence of the retreat and the encouragement to stay with my body gave me gentle reminders that I was strong enough to touch this suffering. I continued to sit and breathe. I touched grief, and tears nearly always came. I felt the tense parts of my body and smiled at them gently.

In many similar situations, I’d run away emotionally or shut down. One of the legacies of racism in my life had been to distrust white people, to assume that they would not understand, and to judge them for their lack of awareness. While I felt like I was protecting myself by keeping white people at a distance, I was never healing the generations of old hurts, including those of racism. I saw that the path of healing was to stay in the present moment with the painful feelings. On this retreat, I was learning tools and gaining confidence to be with the scariest places in my life.

On the final morning, our meditation was guided by two questions. The first question, “What is your deepest suffering?” allowed me to see that below the alienation of racism were even older hurts, such as feeling like a disappointment to my parents. The next question was, “What is your deepest aspiration?” From an inner place of peace and calm, these words came forth: “My deepest aspiration is to love openly and freely.”

Young mb58-MyDeepestAspiration4Whan Choi, Radiant Forest of the Heart, has been an educator for twelve years in various locations, including Corea, NY, Providence, RI, and currently Oakland, CA. Young Whan practices with The Hellajust and Compassionate Sangha, a people of color Sangha in the Bay Area.

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Joining with Grace

By Laureen Osborne 

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For seven years, I helped take care of my two elderly parents while trying at the same time to run my own business. My mother suffered with a rare form of dementia from which she eventually died in 2000. Eighteen months later, my Dad died suddenly of a stroke. By 2003 I felt my life had completely derailed. In the aftermath of all that suffering and sorrow, I was taking medications for depression and anxiety. I found myself wanting a new life. I felt I had endured enough suffering to last a lifetime, and I wanted to be happy again.

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The death of my parents really made me look at my life and how little time I had to enjoy it. I was desperate to find some happiness—but how? I realized I needed some help. I’ve never been a religious person, but I felt drawn toward a spiritual path. I went to the library and got some books on Buddhism. After about a year of study I wanted to learn more, so I surfed the web. That’s where I found Thay.

One of the first things I learned from Thay’s teachings is that happiness is not “out there somewhere.” I already had all the conditions for a happy life; I just didn’t know it. I realized I would never have found happiness the way I was going.

I am not a “joiner.” I’ve never been good at making friends because I’m basically shy, and I worry about what other people think of me. But I decided to join a Sangha. Based on what I had been reading about the practice, I thought people would accept me for who I was, and I was right: they welcomed me with open arms. I began going to Sangha every week. Suddenly, I had become a joiner. After another year of practice I wanted to make a formal commitment to the Buddhist path, so I decided to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

I remember the evening of the ceremony. I looked nervously around the room and saw that the other aspirants were as nervous as I was; it was a big deal to them too. I also saw the smiling faces of those already on the path. After the ceremony I received congratulatory hugs from everyone in the room. I knew at once I had made the right decision for my life.

Since then, I have taken the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and have become a member of the Order of Interbeing. One of my jobs as an OI member is to offer support to other Sangha members, especially those contemplating receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Receiving the trainings means different things to each of us. Often aspirants share with me their doubts about whether they will be able to practice the trainings diligently. When asked, I let them know that in my own experience, the trainings have permeated my consciousness even when I wasn’t aware that transformation was happening. They influence my thinking and are there when I need them to show me the way.

Doing the Right Thing 

In my “old life,” before learning to practice mindfulness, I knew the difference between right and wrong, but it was easy to ignore that moral voice in my head. Temptation was all around me. I found it very easy to take the wrong path. The introduction to the trainings says, “The trainings are a means to guide us.” For me, this has proven to be true. Whenever I have a decision to make, the trainings spring to mind and I am guided to make the right decision.

A couple of years ago while jogging I noticed something fluttering in the road. As I got closer, I realized it was a $20 bill! I bent and picked it up, and then noticed another and another. Suddenly, I was $180 richer! Then I remembered the Mindfulness Training on generosity, instructing me not to take things that don’t belong to me. I wondered who had lost the money, and it occurred to me that this money may have been very important to someone; maybe they were going to use it to pay their rent or a babysitter. I put up a sign near the spot where I found the cash and waited a week for someone to call. No one did. I donated half the money to our local animal shelter and kept the rest.

On another occasion, I was waiting for an elevator. When the doors opened, the lone passenger was a huge black man. He was wearing biker clothes and his arms were covered in tattoos. After a few seconds of hesitation, I stepped into the elevator, making the decision not to judge him based on my conceptions about his appearance. I smiled at the man and said, “How are you doing?” He smiled back at me. After a few minutes of riding quietly, he turned and spoke to me. He thanked me for getting on the elevator with him! He told me that people have often taken one look at him and refused to get on.

I never thought of myself as a joiner, but since receiving the trainings I have joined in several peaceful protests and marches, something I would never have done in the past. Part of my reluctance to get involved stemmed from my belief that one person can’t make a difference, that I am only one grain of sand on a huge beach. Now I realize I am a grain of sand that helps make up that beach. Doing something, no matter how small or futile it seems, is better than doing nothing at all. I like to think kindness and inclusiveness are contagious.

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What I value most about having received the Mindfulness Trainings is that now I have joined a community of people who think like I do—people who, like me, want to do the right thing, become better people, and live in a better world. I know that I am not alone on this path. I know that all over the world, people are practicing compassion and kindness. This knowledge is a huge support for my practice.

Later this year, I will be joining my Sangha brothers and sisters to offer a workshop on mindful eating in Ottawa. I am excited to have the opportunity to share this wonderful practice with people who are struggling with weight issues. Unmindful consumption is a cause of great suffering in our society. Sharing this practice could open the door of mindfulness for many people.

mb58-Joining4Laureen Osborne, True Beautiful Truth, practices with the Ottawa Pagoda Sangha in Ontario, Canada. She is the author of a vegetarian cookbook and a blog on mindful eating. For more information, visit www.mindfulcoachingclinic.com.

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Ordination by Scorpion

By Harriet Kimble Wrye

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It’s 2:00 a.m. at Deer Park Monastery, and later today, Thich Nhat Hanh will ordain me as a lay member of the Order of Interbeing. I’m lying wide awake on my bunk, not yet sure if I’ll make it. More specifically, not sure if I’ll be able to be there.

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My husband, Jim, is fast asleep in the men’s bunkhouse. My daughter, Ariel, is sleeping soundly two bunks away. Part of me is so touched and grateful for her presence, but another part of me feels like throttling her. I am afraid, extremely afraid, that she has done something beyond foolish which could cause my imminent death.

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No Death, No Fear

Last night after evening meditation, we all walked back to our dorms. Maintaining noble silence, my five bunkmates and I removed our shoes before entering. We took turns using the bathroom and I was last, after Ariel. When I closed the door, I saw a note above the sink written in her handwriting. It said:

“Please be aware. I discovered a small scorpion on the floor near the toilet. Of course I wouldn’t violate the precepts to kill it, and having no way to capture it, I shooed it under the sink cabinet where I am sure it will enjoy a peaceful night’s safe sleep.”

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A scorpion?! Loose in the bathroom where we walk barefoot? In the spirit of the retreat, I practiced calming my rising pique with measured breathing, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed, where I fell promptly into a deep sleep.

About an hour ago, around 1:00 a.m., I awoke, padded sleepily into the bathroom, and sat down on the toilet. Just as I relaxed, I felt a blazing, piercing sting on the side of my right foot. I barely stopped myself from screaming aloud. It jolted me awake like an electric shock, and I turned on the light. There on the floor next to my bare foot, with its tail arched menacingly over its horny body, was the scorpion. I imploded with a rush of feelings: panic, fear, and rage. What to do?

Deer Park, miles from town, generally doesn’t have cell phone coverage. I had no idea where Sister (doctor) Dang Nghiem was sleeping, only that it was too far away in Lower Hamlet. Shaking with fear, I reacted impulsively. Gathering a huge wad of toilet paper, I scooped up the scorpion and flushed it down the toilet. Trembling, hoping maybe it would survive the flush, I turned out the light and climbed back onto my bunk. Had I just broken the sacred precept not to kill?

Probably the one I really wanted to flush down the toilet was my own beloved daughter! What was she thinking?! I thought about waking her, but decided that would be self-indulgent acting out. There wasn’t anything she could do for me now. I’d have been waking her up out of pique. A fleeting thought crossed my mind: “Won’t she feel horrible when she discovers my lifeless body?” I chastised myself for that petty thought.

From John Steinbeck’s novel The Pearl, I knew that scorpion stings could be deadly. I also remembered that baby rattlesnakes deliver more fatal venom than grown ones. Nervously, I wondered if small scorpions were the same.

There was more than one irony to this predicament. For years, I was sure I didn’t want to be ordained. My Buddhist practice had been both beautiful and sustaining, but it was also something private and personal. Now, once I’d made this commitment, maybe I wouldn’t survive long enough to attend the ceremony. A further twist: one of the things that had helped me change my mind was Thay’s incredible talk “No Death, No Fear” at the UCLA Mindfulness and Psychotherapy Conference I helped to organize in 2006. So, I decided simply to breathe deeply, meditate, and wait. I would practice Thay’s teaching: face death without fear. If this was my fate, I would embrace it.

In the Here and Now 

So, I have been lying here in my sleeping bag for an hour, tracking every sensation in my foot, ankle, and leg. I feel them throbbing and swelling up. My leg feels hot, and I’m aware of a pulsing sensation. But I am not dead yet.

At the same time, I find myself smiling. What a beautiful ending to my blessed life. Here I am, held safe in this spiritual sanctuary, my loved ones nearby, about to be ordained by Thay, who teaches us how to face death utterly fearlessly. There doesn’t seem to be much I can do right now anyway, but simply watch and wait. If the pain really amps up, I’ll ask for help. But it continues, steadily throbbing, yet stable.

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I continue breathing deeply, smiling into fear, calmly watching my thoughts like a movie in my mind. I realize I am deeply meditating. I am fully present. I am here in the now. I am fearless. I am happy. And then I smile to myself. I have been ordained by a scorpion!

A True Precious Smile 

By 3:00 a.m., I decide that I will survive the bite. I will limp, and it will hurt, but I’ll be fine. Amazed and grateful that the teaching “This too shall pass” is yet again revealed to be wise and true, I fall into a short but deep sleep before the bell sounds for morning meditation and the day of my ordination.

The ceremony is profoundly moving. Fourteen of us are seated in the center of the great meditation hall on our zafus and zabutons. Behind the monks and nuns are all those who have come for the ceremony. I can’t turn around to find Jim and Ariel, but I feel their presence and it lifts me.

The ceremony begins with chanting, then a recitation of the Heart Sutra, and an invitation to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. All the ordinees are called to stand and come forward to “touch the earth,” to make three full prostrations in gratitude for our parents, our teachers, our friends, and all beings who have guided and supported us. That is easy, as my heart is brimming with gratitude. As each of the Fourteen Trainings is read, we make our commitment to practice it, prostrating our bodies.

Reciting each one, I realize I am finally fully owning my values and holding myself responsible to these philosophical and spiritual precepts. Performing seventeen deep prostrations is a real challenge to my old knees and shoulders, but I feel tears of gratitude that I can do it, and that, for this moment, I have completely forgotten my other ordination. I hope the scorpion swam to safety and is out in the field where she belongs. If she has died, I ask forgiveness and send her gratitude for her deep teaching, knowing that truly, we inter-are.

Finally Thay calls us forward, one by one, to give us our certificates of ordination and to bestow Dharma names chosen by our mentors and Dharma teachers with Thay. When I step forward and kneel before him, Thay hands me my certificate and grins broadly, his eyes twinkling at me as he says my Dharma name: True Precious Smile.

May I never forget today’s deep teaching—no death, no fear—and the preciousness of a smile. May I practice breathing with deep gratitude for each being who supports me intentionally or accidentally, and for each present moment throughout the rest of my wakeful life.

mb58-Ordination6Santa Cruz, California psychologist/psychoanalyst Harriet Kimble Wrye, True Precious Smile, is the author of Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom, due to be released in April of 2012. For information, go to www.pullingupstakesbook.com.

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The True Musician

An Interview with Sister Trai Nghiem

By Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai

 

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Brother Phap Dung and Brother Phap Lai interviewed Sister Trai Nghiem at Plum Village in the spring of 2011.

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Question: Were you always a Buddhist, you and your family?

Sister Trai Nghiem: By birth, yes. But not practicing. In Japan, we call it “funeral Buddhism.” Most people go to the temple for the first time when someone in their family dies, for a funeral.

I was twenty-eight when my mom died from cancer. I had contemplated death and impermanence before, but it’s completely different when somebody close to you is actually dying. The comfortable world that I was used to was falling apart. It was really her death that brought me to Buddhism.

Q: As a professional violinist, how has your music motivated you?

TN: I wanted to create something beautiful and to see how far I could reach as a violinist in the world of classical music. I wanted to be part of a world-class orchestra and I enjoyed the years I traveled and performed as a member of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. It was truly a beautiful experience.

Q: Did you have doubts about how far music could take you?

TN: When I was in college, I came across the following quote by Plato: “It is not he who produces a beautiful harmony in playing the lyre or other instruments whom one should consider as the true musician, but he who knows how to make of his own life a perfect harmony in establishing an accord between his feelings, his words, and his acts.” These words shook me violently, as I knew in my heart that I was not the true musician that I wanted to be. Even though I was enjoying a successful career and a lifestyle I had dreamed of, I was feeling stuck. The only way out was to completely let that go. When I decided to ordain as a nun, and was cleaning up my apartment, I found Plato’s quote again. This time his words brought me a smile. I still keep that piece of paper with me.

Q: What brought you to Plum Village?

TN: When I was younger, I saw beauty in fighting and going against the flow. But when my mom died, I ran out of energy to fight, and I decided to just let myself be carried in the flow of life and see what would happen. At that time, Thay’s books came into my life and they brought me a lot of comfort. I came to Plum Village for the first time in the winter of 2007 and I immediately felt at home.

Q: Did it feel like a paradise?

TN: To be honest, I couldn’t stand the practice songs, like “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” at first. And when I heard the monks and nuns chanting, it was so out of tune! But there was something else. There was this sweetness and warmth.

Before Plum Village I went to some zazen meditation sessions and yoga retreats. But it seemed that we were all caught up in ourselves, in our own pursuit of whatever we were trying to attain. And at Plum Village it was just a bunch of people living simply, being kind to each other, just like the way human beings are supposed to be. I fell in love with it.

mb58-TheTrue3Q: With the songs, too?

TN: Not immediately… but then I realized that this was my practice and saw that I needed to practice letting go of my judgmental, analytical, and cynical mind in order to just enjoy the present moment. Today I realize that the practice songs are one of the most clever methods of practice in our tradition. The moment I find myself in a foul mood, a song like “Happiness” comes to my rescue. Because we sing the songs every day, they are embedded in our store consciousness and become available whenever we are carried away in forgetfulness. Knowing their powerful “medicinal” effect, now I sing songs wholeheartedly with the gestures and everything.

Q: What attracted you to becoming a nun?

TN: I was always interested in some kind of spiritual life. But I could not imagine letting go of this wonderful life as a professional musician. I also didn’t want to disappoint people around me. I had a consultation with a sister on my first visit to Plum Village and she said, “You don’t need to think about it now, because when the moment comes, you will know.”

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Three months later, there was a retreat in Rome, and luckily I happened to be working in Italy so I went. On the last day of the retreat I was taking a train back to my work, and got a phone call from Japan, saying my father was very ill and was hospitalized. So I cancelled my work and went back to Japan to be with my father.

That summer, my father passed away. I had a lot to take care of around his death as well as with my work. I felt like I was running and running and could not stop. I knew that I could not go on like this for too long without damaging myself completely. I decided to be compassionate with myself and signed up for the Winter Retreat. I told myself, I don’t need to do anything, just let myself rest. Every night I’d sit in the Buddha Hall for a long time, alone. I wanted quietness. No music, no talking. After about a month of living with the sisters in New Hamlet, I knew this was it. The question, “Do I want to quit my job and become a nun?” was no longer there because I was already on the path even though my head was not yet shaved.

Q: What happened to your relationship to your music when you became an aspirant?

TN: One night I was sitting and I understood for the first time what it means to have “nowhere to go, nothing to do.” And then I realized, “Oh, I’m actually letting go of all the things that used to mean so much to me.” I had had no desire to listen to music since I arrived at Plum Village, but suddenly I had a desire to listen to a Brahms symphony. In my bed, I turned on the iPod and tears kept flowing. I realized, this is the world I was living in, and I have never appreciated it the way I could have. This incredible world of music had been with me since I was five. And now I was listening to the music and it touched me in a completely different way. I knew that the music was in me, but at the same time I was already standing outside of that world I was so used to. I knew there was no going back. I realized how lucky I had been my whole life to have music to take refuge in and to guide me.

Q: Do you see a similarity between being a musician and a monastic?

TN: Very much so. The Sangha is like an orchestra. Each member has a unique role and is irreplaceable. There is a percussionist who may play only one note in the entire symphony, while the violinists are playing the whole time without any rest. We’d never think of complaining that it’s not fair because that’s what makes the music so beautiful. To live happily in the Sangha, we also have to accept that each person has his or her own role. Some work more hours than others, but that’s just how it is. We suffer when we get caught in the complex of equality. When the orchestra is in harmony, we hear the sound of the orchestra as a whole, as one big instrument. If you heard the individual sound of each violinist in the orchestra, it wouldn’t be pleasant. We melt our individual sounds into the collective sound, so that there is no longer the distinction between “my sound” and “others’ sounds.”

One time, Sir Colin Davis, a wonderful English conductor, said during a rehearsal, when things weren’t quite jelling together: “Whoever tries to prove himself right is a terrorist!” Miraculously, we played in perfect harmony after this proclamation. Each member of an orchestra is an artist in his or her own right, yet when we try to convince others how it should be done, it never works. This teaching can very well be applied to Sangha life. In order not to create suffering for myself or others, I need to monitor my thoughts constantly, to see if I am caught in my own ideas.

If Sangha is an orchestra, Thay is a conductor. A skillful conductor never tries to control the musicians. He just lets the orchestra play. That’s exactly what Thay says to us all the time: “Di choi!” The literal translation is “go play!” It can also be translated as “go hang out and have fun.” Thay, just like a skillful conductor, trusts the Sangha, and based on that trust, he can bring out the best in each member of the Sangha. A layperson asked me once why Thay travels with so many monastics when he goes on a teaching tour. I said, “It doesn’t make sense for a conductor to go on a concert tour without his orchestra. We inter-are.”

When the whole Sangha is sitting together in the morning, it’s like an orchestra tuning up before a concert. I never tried to play the violin without tuning. Why should it be different with my body and mind? If I start out a day by tuning myself with the Sangha, the whole day is so much more harmonious and pleasant.

Q: You’ve lived and worked in many countries, and it seems like you led a very independent lifestyle, choosing your own schedule. The Sangha has a more mannered and restrained lifestyle. How does that feel?

TN: I used to have an idea about what it meant to be a monastic. I told my colleagues that I was quitting this traveling lifestyle and going into a quiet monastery in France, and for the first two years I wouldn’t go anywhere. And suddenly Thay says, okay, you’re going on tour. And I thought, this is not very different from what I was doing before. That’s what makes Thay a Zen master, because as soon as you get caught in your idea of how things should be, he will give you the Zen ax with a smile. I was caught in my idea of what monastic life as a novice was, a quiet life, out in the countryside, tending the vegetable garden.

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Actually, the practice doesn’t depend on outer form at all. It’s not what you do but how you do it. If I choose to be fully mindful when traveling and going out on retreats, I can make progress on the path. If there is no mindfulness, it’s a waste of time to be sitting, walking slowly, and studying sutras, even in a monastery. No matter what I do, whether cooking, cleaning, studying, or traveling, I remind myself to be mindful and enjoy doing it.

Q: What’s the best thing about being a novice?

TN: It’s like being a protected baby in a family. There are so many older brothers and sisters who can teach and guide me in different ways. I enjoy having the space to make mistakes. I have the habit energy of wanting to achieve something, so I’m practicing to let go of my idea of what it means to be a “good nun.” There’s a kind of collective idea of what a good monastic is, just as there is a collective agreement of what a good musician is. If I try to become “a good nun,” I will get stuck in the same place where I got stuck as a musician.

Since I was small, everything I did, I did quite well. So I still have the feeling that whatever I do, I should be able to do well. Even though I am aware of this habit energy and am carefully monitoring it by recognizing the motivation for my actions, it’s still there on a deeper level and is the cause of some basic underlying stress.

Q: Is pride an issue for you? Does it manifest sometimes as feeling superior towards others in the community?

TN: It manifests with self-disgust. It’s probably one of the most shameful things to admit. But a superiority complex is nothing more than another face of an inferiority complex. They are like two sides of one coin. Whenever I notice the complex of inferiority manifesting, I tell myself, “You ARE enough.”

I am happy to acknowledge that in the fifteen months since I became a nun, I’ve reduced my level of judgment and criticism towards myself and other people greatly. Having negative thoughts like judgments is a great waste of precious energy. Just as I take care not to waste natural resources like water and food, I also try to conserve my own energy so it can be used for something more beneficial. As a result, I feel much more relaxed than before and many people have shared with me that they notice the difference. Thanks to the Sangha, one thing I have learned so far in my novice life is this: being kind is so much more important than being good at something.

Q: Do you have any aspirations?

TN: To be happy. I didn’t always have a good relationship with my parents, but after they passed away I realized how much unconditional love they gave me. Whatever they did, I feel the only thing they wanted was for me to be happy. But because I was not able to recognize it until they were gone in their physical form, I had this regret; I wanted to make them happier, to do something for them. Now I know the way to pay respect to my parents is to just be happy. I’m practicing with and for my parents.

After their death, I’m so much more in contact with them. This sounds kind of cheesy, but I feel like they’re guiding me in every moment. I really feel their presence a lot more than I used to. If I don’t know what to do, I take refuge in my parents and let them do things. If I listen deeply, they always guide me to the right direction. I really feel that my parents brought me to this point in my life right now. And not only my parents, but all my ancestors—blood, land, and spiritual ancestors. And that includes all the wonderful musicians I have encountered in my life, like Bach and Mozart.

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Poem: At the Appointed Time

By Julie Ryan 

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When I cannot be with you
my feet begin to search
for a wide, quiet space
to silently circle
just as yours are doing now,
for the gentle rhythm of
left foot, right foot
in breath, out breath
treading our way
into silence.

At the appointed time
when I cannot be with you
this body finds a cushion
to rest on, knees
touching earth,
hands cupping peace
breathing the air
of our one sky.

In the space of no-thoughts
the well of Being
sends up its purest, refreshing
springs, and you,
and you, and you
and I
can drink.

We feel ourselves lifted,
an unnamable buoyancy.
The tug of some fine, thin
thread connects us
each silent prayer
a golden web fine
as spider silk, invisible
as air. On it we can throw
the entire
weight
of our lives.

It is here I rest
wherever I am
when I cannot be with you
and it is the appointed time.

mb58-Appointed2Julie Ryan practices with the Awakening Heart Sangha in Dallas, Texas.

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To Continue Beautifully

Sangha, Loss, and the Creative Process: An Interview with Susanne Olbrich

By Philip Toy 

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Into the nebulous, ongoing mystery of life I welcome, as if through an open door, the continuing spirit of the one I have loved.
– Martha Whitmore Hickman

During our summer 2010 pilgrimage to Ireland and Scotland, while visiting the Findhorn Community, we were invited by Northern Lights Sangha to conduct two Days of Mindfulness. One of the Sangha leaders, Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-present Stability—pianist, composer, and teacher—graciously consented to this interview.

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Philip Toy: Susanne, you have just returned from a concert tour in Germany, where your Marama Jazz Trio was warmly received. You composed some of the music after the sudden loss of your dear friend and former partner. One piece, “Beyond Gone,” was a meditation you played soon after hearing the news of H.’s passing. How do your practice and your music relate to such a loss?

Susanne Olbrich: It was in Plum Village during the ‘05-‘06 Winter Retreat, just after H.’s suicide, where I took refuge in the Three Jewels. Thay’s teaching on continuation supported me then, especially in light of his conviction that those who take their own lives may not have a good chance of continuing beautifully. Then and there I made a deep commitment to help my friend continue beautifully. Thus the piece “Beyond Gone”—a phrase from Stephen Levine’s book, Who Dies?

PT: Keeping such a commitment in the wake of deep loss requires extraordinary support. Where and how did you find support and encouragement?

SO: It started the first few moments after hearing the news when the shock set in and my legs began to go numb. It seemed as if what kicked in and began to operate was an emergency program designed to hold me. I heard the instruction, “Breathe, just breathe!” This inner voice lingered, and later became like a reliable old friend suggesting when I should rest, when I could let go of an excess obligation, when to focus on one breath, one step, and when to ask for help. Very unlike me! Yet, I would sit on my cushion much longer than usual, however long it took for the pain to subside.

PT: I can see how your decade of practice before this loss paid off. Yet, even with this fortunate help, how did you sustain yourself?

SO: I could not do it without my loving and steady Sangha. They gathered at my place, cooked soup, and filled the house with warm food aromas and their even warmer understanding presences. Whether I had the energy to fully participate or not, soon my isolation began to melt in the warmth of their companionship and compassion—their Sangha eyes, hearts, and hands.

PT: I know from my own experience of the death of my son, Jesse, by drug overdose, and my very close association with Sangha—the complexity of the loss of a child, likely by suicide, calls out for a rich and special brand of caring. How does Sangha embrace and minister to these complexities?

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SO: Making space and holding it, deep listening, sharing from the heart—all central components of effective Dharma discussion— together with the gift of benevolently witnessing one another in the circle. These all allow for the kind of conscious grieving and reflecting that can help dissolve searing issues and questions, such as not having time for bidding goodbye to the lost loved one, or the anger and guilt of “What did I do, or not do,” or “What could I have done,” or “If only….” We can allow all this to unfold within the stable and protective space of the Sangha without fear of getting lost or overcome.

PT: You and I share the experience of surrendering and taking refuge in Sangha following a tragic loss. For me it was key to surviving those earliest days, weeks, and months after my son’s death. As Thay teaches, the Buddha is there, too, in the midst of Sangha. Were you able to take refuge in the Buddha?

SO: The Buddha I took refuge in was the Buddha I had discovered in myself through practice, especially practice with my Sangha. It was the energy capable of witnessing tears and distress with utmost tenderness and letting me know it was okay. There arises an open space for us to recognize harsh feelings and thoughts. Within the fold of Sangha, these feelings may be held gently in the light of awareness, and we may finally watch them evaporate! This was the single most powerful act of self-care I could have given to myself—not just once or twice, but again and again with patience and perseverance. This is the love that heals.

PT: You say you made a commitment to help your lost partner continue beautifully. Tell us more about that commitment.

SO: Thay says that Dharma, too, can be found in Sangha. In Plum Village Sangha those five years ago, I read Thay’s book, No Death, No Fear. Through the teachings on no-birth, no-death, transformation, and continuation, my sense of deep loss was mitigated some and it sparked a new awareness. I was able to see the ways in which my lost friend continues: his adult children, the song I wrote for him, the tree planted at his memorial, the sturdy wooden tables he built for our Findhorn Community Centre, the grove in the Scottish Highlands planted in his honor as part of a national reforestation project, and of course, the many memories I and others hold dear. Also at that winter retreat, I birthed the idea for a new album, a CD in H.’s honor. The cover art would be one of H.’s beautiful nature photographs and the album’s name would be Continuations, in order to celebrate that: “Nothing exists on its own…. Everything is a continuation of something else, and everything will continue in manifold forms…. Nothing is ever lost.” Manifestation of the CD took nearly four years. Every step of the project was a teaching for me, from cover design to legal questions about royalties, from finding a manufacturer to creating a record label, and it was a labor of love. When I finally held the finished product in my hands, with H.’s photo of the Scottish West Coast, it was beautiful. I knew part of my grief had transformed into something else; an artistic offering, a rose from the compost.

PT: You seem to have a heightened awareness of transformation and continuation, leading to the birthing of your Continuations CD; there’s an interaction between mindfulness and the creative process.

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SO: Yes. The energy generated in mindfulness and the practice of deep listening, together with a present-moment focus—allowing what is to be—are working elements for me during the composition or playing of a musical piece. Composing music in its essence has much to do with listening deeply. What takes shape in my inner ear—from apparently mysterious sources—often amazes me. I simply could not have thought it out. In the case of “Beyond Gone,” that’s exactly what happened. About six weeks or so after H.’s suicide when many of my friends had gone back to normal, I was still feeling anything but normal. There was this not-so-subtle pressure that I should be over and done with this grief—ready to move on. In this emotionally stuck place, I had a strong impulse to play for H. It was a meditation.

PT: Your band members’ masterful back-up and solos on Continuations could be seen as an extended Sangha support for you in your grief journey.

SO: Yes, I am extremely fortunate to have found Anja Herold (soprano and tenor saxophone) and Jens Piezunka (acoustic bass and cello). Both bring an extraordinary quality of listening, musical sensibility, and creative imagination to the project. Both of these seasoned improvisers have significantly broadened my musical horizons. Musically, creatively, as well as personally, my work with Marama Trio has been harmonious and joyful.

PT: It seems that as your grief unfolded, your creative process ran parallel to your practice, or in concert with it. I’ve discovered that grief is different for everyone, that it’s at best a bumpy road, and that there is no fast forward button.

SO: Exactly my experience. During the final stage of the creative journey that led to the Continuations CD, I was blessed with two extra-large helpings of Plum Village energy. I was able to spend a whole month with Thay and the Sangha for Summer Opening, 2008, and again for Path of the Buddha Retreat, 2009. Feelings of inadequacy, ignorance of the technicalities of CD production, plans gone awry, bouncing between Scotland where I live and Germany where my band members live—all of these left little time for rehearsals and other preparations. So the energy of the practice was strong in me when I needed it most.

At Findhorn we have woven into the fabric of the community workday the practice of “attunement,” a kind of practical, organizational deep listening. Shifts in every department—management, kitchen, garden—begin with a joint attunement, sometimes holding hands, sometimes sitting around a candle, always breathing together for a moment in silence with a wish to benefit others, uniting heart and mind for the task at hand. While producing Continuations, for the first time in my life I adopted regular attunement sessions for my own often solitary musical work and have continued the practice ever since. We’ve discovered that our attuned work frequently yields a better result than work driven simply by efficiency-oriented thinking mind.

PT: You are very fortunate to have the dual communities of Northern Lights Sangha and the Findhorn Community to engage with, especially in times of great loss and creative struggle.

SO: Yes, I feel gratitude for these two amazing groups every day. I’ve been living in the spiritual community of Findhorn for over ten years now, and our inherent humanistic and ecological missions inform all that I do, here in my Sangha and everywhere I travel. While in the distant past my life has felt at times like pushing the proverbial boulder up the mountain, guided by Buddha mind within these two communities, the CD manifestation unfolded remarkably gracefully. I wish I could claim success practicing equanimity in every corner of my life. In fact, work and relationships are two areas where I do get caught in habit energies more often than I like. Yet, mindfulness practice over the years—be it through dark paths of grieving or inspiring musical projects—has informed and enriched my life. Music, like mindfulness, has the capacity to bring us home to ourselves and in touch with the wordless, refreshing, and healing aspects everywhere surrounding us. With it we can water seeds of beauty, understanding, and love. The piano has been my passion since age six and, long before I knew the term “meditation,” it became a refuge, a place to learn about concentration and dwelling happily in the present moment.

PT: I noted that some of the most common audience responses to your music during the Germany concerts were meditative: “soulful,” “spacious,” “it slowed me down in a pleasant sort of way.”

SO: Yes, though the project may not explicitly be about Dharma, it makes me so very happy to have touched listeners in this way.

PT: Thank you very much, Susanne. May you and your work in this world ever remain soulful and spacious.

Author’s note: On our return from Isle of Skye to Findhorn for our second Day of Mindfulness, I received news that my sole surviving elder brother had died. As I reflect on our stay at Findhorn, although we were across the ocean and far from home, we could not have been in a more accepting, loving, and understanding environment. From my sundown bedroom window at the Shambala Retreat House, I watched the tide wash out over Findhorn Bay, and I knew, despite everything—maybe because of everything—all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.

For more information about Susanne Olbrich and her music, visit www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich or www.susanneolbrich.webs.com.

mb58-ToContinue6Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, and his wife Judith have founded three Sanghas in Thay’s tradition. Since 1993, they have hosted mindfulness practice centers—first at Old Path Zendo in Pennsylvania, and for the last twelve years at Cloud Cottage Sangha, Black Mountain, North Carolina. Philip is a poet and jazz pianist. Cloud Cottage Editions is the Toys’ Dharma publishing imprint.

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Just Be There

mb58-JustBeThere1Wisdom from Sounds True

By Karen Hilsberg

In 1985, when she was twenty-two years old, Tami Simon founded Sounds True, a company that disseminates spiritual wisdom. She recorded radio interviews with well-known experts in psychology, religion, and personal development, and began to make the recordings available on cassette tape through a mail order company she started with a $50,000 inheritance.

In an interview, Simon recalled a visit to Plum Village over twenty years ago. She travelled to France to record the chanting of Plum Village monastics, including Thich Nhat Hanh, for the classic recording Drops of Emptiness. During her visit, Simon met with Thay and asked him how Sounds True could continue to support his teachings. Thay sipped his tea and pondered silently. He then responded, “Just be there.”

Twenty-five years later, Sounds True is indeed there as an independent voice in publishing. The company continues to offer recordings of retreats and teachings by Thay. Most recently, it has published a DVD of Thay teaching mindful movements, which Simon noted is “a unique [contribution] within his canon.”

When asked what she has learned from interviewing many of the spiritual luminaries of our times, Simon reflected on three lessons. First, she explained, “Nobody really knows what is going on.” Having observed that conditions are changing all the time, she recommended using our “don’t know mind” or “beginner’s mind” to look upon our lives. Second, she stated, “Each of us has an inner authority.” We each have a true autonomy to know what is going on within us and around us. Third, she proclaimed, “There is no end to the growing, softening, and deepening of our experience of source as source. There is no end to improving our relationships. The spiritual path is endless.”

Simon’s company is unique in that it maintains a corporate structure for its eighty employees that is both “mission-driven and profit-driven.” The 19 Core Aspirations of Sounds True include: “We encourage authenticity in the workplace,” “Animals are welcome,” “We encourage people to listen deeply,” and “We aspire to take time for kindness, have fun and get a lot done.” Sounds True offers training in the practice of mindfulness in the workplace, has a meditation room on-site, and has responded to employees’ requests for spiritual retreats. All-company meetings begin with a minute of silence. The company uses 100 percent wind power in its offices and warehouse, and prints its catalogue on eighty percent post-consumer recycled paper.

Sounds True’s most recent offerings include continuing education courses for professionals, online and interactive learning with spiritual leaders, and over seventy free podcast interviews. An additional free resource is www.withinsight.com, a site rich in articles, guided exercises, and author Q&A on the topics of meditation, energy healing, life purpose, and intuition. Simon noted that the podcasts, interactive guides, and online learning are especially wonderful for individuals in their sixties, seventies, and eighties, recently dubbed the Silver Tsunami generation, who find themselves with more time and less inclination to leave home.

What began as a woman with a tape recorder has developed into a cutting edge corporation that offers spoken word audio programs, videos, and music for the inner life. Over the past twenty-five years, Sounds True has ridden the wave of the information age and offered products that support countless people on their spiritual paths.

mb58-JustBeThere2Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives in California. She founded Organic Garden Sangha in 2003 and mentors Order of Interbeing pre-aspirants and aspirants in Jasmine Roots Sangha.

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Sangha Building in the Emerald Isle

By Fiona Wilson and Diane Stauder

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Consciousness exists on two levels: as seeds and as manifestations of these seeds.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Here in Ireland the excitement is mounting…. Thay is coming in April 2012! Can this be true? Our hearts are filled with joy as we face the challenge of making a long-term dream become a reality.

In the early 1980s, a small group of friends began to come together in County Wicklow, the “Garden of Ireland” on the east coast, just south of Dublin. Nearby is the famous ancient monastic site of Glendalough—where St. Kevin established his seat of learning in the middle of the sixth century. During the last 1,400 years, and perhaps even longer, pilgrims have visited these spiritual valleys seeking peace and solitude.

It was here that the seeds of mindfulness in Ireland were sown. The nation’s consciousness was beginning to expand and move away from the previously Catholic-dominated state. People actively practiced and explored new ways of living, including teachings from the Far East. Teachers came to Ireland to nurture and instruct those practices. Zen Master Hogan came from Japan to guide and preside over sesshin retreats.

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The sesshin retreats began in an old doctor’s house and dispensary in the tiny village of Annamoe, nestled in the Wicklow Mountains. One of the participants in these first small retreats was a wonderful, serene yoga teacher, Georgina van Hengel. She came from her yoga centre in Wexford, southeast Ireland. Georgina is now known as Sister Jina—Abbess of Lower Hamlet, Plum Village.

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In 1985, while studying in Japan, Sister Jina ordained as a Buddhist nun. Later she joined Thich Nhat Hanh’s community in Plum Village and received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma teacher. The deep connection with her Irish friends and family kept her in regular contact with the growing community of practitioners in Ireland. Fiona Wilson and Sister Jina organised teachings and monastic visits in Ireland. Biannual retreats and Days of Mindfulness began in Dublin, Wicklow, Cork, and Kerry.

Fiona has drawn lifelong inspiration from Sister Jina’s participation in the Dharma talks and discussions from those early gatherings. Their friendship developed and grew, and as Fiona went on to establish a Sangha and travel to Plum Village to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings, she knew that Sister Jina was there for her and the Sangha.

Thay came to Dublin in 1993 for a public talk. Irish people went to Plum Village to enjoy walking and sitting and learning the practice. Sanghas began to spring up across the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland—in Belfast, Dublin, Carlow, Cork, Galway, Meath, Sligo, and Wicklow. We began to reach out to one another, and we continue to reach across the country to support each other in the practice.

Mindfulness Ireland

Even if we have a lot of money in the bank, we can die very easily from our suffering. So, investing in a friend, making a friend into a real friend, building a community of friends, is a much better source of security.
– Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Is Every Step

Our Sanghas keep the practice alive by meeting in each others’ houses, meditating in sitting rooms, sharing food in our kitchens, and mindfully washing up and walking in nature. Sister Jina continues to offer retreats and Days of Mindfulness, and she has brought other nuns and monks from Plum Village to facilitate larger retreats. Through inter-faith collaboration, she’s nurtured many different aspects of mindfulness practice in Ireland, including Christian meditations and connections with other Buddhist traditions.

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Many people came forward to offer invaluable help in the running of retreats, and we had the beginnings of Mindfulness Ireland—a national Sangha and the umbrella body for all Sanghas in Ireland (www.mindfulness-ireland.org). As well as organising Thay’s visit next year, Mindfulness Ireland works to support local Sanghas, nurture new Sanghas, and share the practice in the land of saints and scholars. Mindfulness practice and Thay’s teachings enrich and nourish our spiritual heritage and help Irish people deal with the complex world of twenty-first century Ireland with its social and economic problems.

This year, Mindfulness Ireland marked several important milestones. Ten people received the first transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings on Irish soil during a retreat in Kildare in May with Brother Phap Lai, Thay Trung Hai, and Brother Phap Khai. An OI aspirant group is forming and growing with increased enthusiasm. Our Sangha friends Kathy Cooney and James Newton organized a family mindfulness camp in July with Sister Chau Nghiem (Sister Jewel) and Sister Mai Nghiem. Thay is to lead his first retreat in Ireland, and he will address the Northern Ireland Assembly on his first visit to this troubled part of our country.

We’re learning as we grow. It is not always easy, but we remember how important our community is, and how important and precious the practice is. We’re deeply grateful for support from the monastic community. We’re learning how to work together in harmony to manifest wonderful events, and remember to smile, and celebrate the joy we have in the present moment and in each other.

Please join us for the public talk in Dublin on April 11, 2012, and for our first Irish retreat with Thay, April 12-15, 2012 in Killarney, County Kerry, right next to Killarney National Park. Visit us at www.mindfulness-ireland.org for more information. Any time you find yourself in Ireland, please come practice with us and allow us to welcome you with heartfelt Irish hospitality.

mb58-SanghaBuilding5Fiona Wilson, Ancestral Abode of the Heart, lives and works in County Wicklow, Ireland as a special needs arts instructor. Founding member of Old Heart New Heart Sangha, she loves to express herself through embroidery and textiles. Diane Stauder also practices in the Old Heart New Heart Sangha and works as a homeopath in Arklow, County Wicklow. The authors extend special thanks to Sangha editors Maureen Lancaster and Bridgeen Rea.

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Birth of the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism

By Brother Phap Nguyen 

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On April 25, 2011, thirty monks and nuns were welcomed at the Hong Kong airport by the Sangha and transported to the newest Plum Village monastery. A small car held Thay and his attendants, and three buses—carrying the brothers, the sisters, and our luggage—followed Thay’s car to Lotus Pond Temple in the village of Ngong Ping on Lantau Island, Hong Kong.

Halfway up the mountain, we could see a huge bronze Buddha (the largest seated bronze Buddha statue in the world), sitting majestically on the peak. The road was very beautiful, hugging the mountain on one side and looking steeply down to the South China Sea on the other. Lush vegetation surrounded the winding road and added to the spectacular landscape. It took a little over half an hour to reach the top of the mountain, where many tourists and pilgrims were praying in front of the statue of the Awakened One. This mountain, adorned with the giant statue, is one of the famous tourist attractions of Hong Kong.

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In front of us was the imposing, white granite main gate to Polin Temple. The place was bustling with people. They did not seem to notice that just to the left of this busy gate was a small paved road leading to the hidden Lotus Pond Temple. In there the atmosphere was quiet and full of the flavor of Zen—a world totally different from the one outside. Leaving the bus, we found Thay already sitting in the shade of an ancient banyan tree, enjoying his tea. We bowed to him. He pointed at the tree and said, “This is an old friend of Thay’s.”

We learned that Thay had left his footprint here over forty years ago. It was very moving to witness this return. How fortunate that Thay is still here to be the old sturdy banyan tree where his spiritual descendants can take refuge. “Let’s go to the Buddha Hall to touch the earth before we eat; we are not allowed to eat without paying respect first to the Buddha!” Thay said in his gentle way, with a smile. We were moved. It was truly a reminder in the language of a gentle father.

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The First Seeds

The seeds of a center were sown in Thay’s first teaching visit to Hong Kong in 2001. In 2007, during Thay’s third trip there, a practice community called Plum Village Hong Kong was formed. After that trip, Brother Phap Kham and other Plum Village brothers and sisters residing in Vietnam and Thailand went to Hong Kong every three months to lead retreats and provide guidance to practitioners. In February 2009, a mindfulness practice center was established in the commercial and tourist area Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, with Brothers Phap Kham, Phap Chung, Phap Chung, and Phap Dung as permanent residents.

Although the center is located in a crowded downtown area, the brothers have been able to maintain a diligent practice, keeping the same daily schedule of sitting, walking, and working meditation as at the other Plum Village centers. Some practitioners come to sit with the brothers in the early morning, but the majority come after work for the afternoon walking meditation in the park and sitting meditation in the evening. These practitioners see the importance of the practice, which helps them feel less stressed and brings them peace and happiness in everyday life. Hong Kong, especially in the Tsim Sha Tsui area, is extremely crowded. Many people in this small territory live in small, high rise condominiums. Among such tight quarters, the light and relaxed steps of walking meditation are surprising for many onlookers.

Thay’s 2010 teaching tour brought much benefit to many in Hong Kong. Over 1,400 people participated in the retreat held at the Hong Kong YMCA. More than 300 people received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the end of the retreat. Among those was a venerable monk from another part of China. He had obviously received the Five Precepts elsewhere, but the Venerable insisted, “The Five Mindfulness Trainings as enunciated by Plum Village are so wonderful, I would like to receive them so I may transmit them to my disciples.” There was also an ordination ceremony for twenty-five new Order of Interbeing members from Hong Kong. It was a ceremony of warmth and great joy.

During this same tour, Thay gave a public talk to over 8,000 people at the Hong Kong Convention Center. A Venerable from Hong Kong observed, “Only Zen Master Nhat Hanh has the ability to attract such a large audience. Normally, we would be very happy if eighty people came to a Dharma talk.” Thay’s teaching tour made a big impact on intellectuals and business leaders, and the Hong Kong press published many news articles on Thay and the monastic Sangha as well as the teachings given during the tour.

One businessman interviewing Thay inquired, “Which realm would you prefer to go to when you die?” Thay looked at the person with his compassionate eyes, then gently answered with a smile, “It does not matter where I go. If we live deeply and solidly in the present moment, and are happy right here and now, then we will be happy no matter where we go.” Thay’s answer surprised the businessman. Normally people think that Thay might want to go to Nirvana or the Pure Land, or to the Tushita Heaven to help Maitreya Buddha prepare his appearance on Earth, or even back to this world to help people achieve liberation. Thay’s very practical answer was beyond expectations.

A Renewed Buddhism 

After the interview, the businessman described the status of Buddhism in Hong Kong and the difficulties practitioners were facing. Young people were no longer interested in coming to the temples. There were fewer and fewer monastics. The man spoke of his dream to reintroduce Buddhism in Hong Kong in a way that could bring more peace and happiness to individuals and communities. He acknowledged that wealth, power, and fame would not bring true happiness and peace.

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Thay said the only way to achieve such a goal was to bring forth a renewed Buddhism, responsive to the needs of today’s society. There had to be practices to help people relax, have less stress, calm the body and mind, resolve personal difficulties and suffering, bring reconciliation between family members, friends, and colleagues, and generate peace and happiness in the present moment. We should work to establish a healthy environment that appeals to young people. If not, they would no longer come to the temples and Buddhism would seriously degenerate over time. He said this phenomenon had happened and was still happening—not only to Buddhism but also to Christianity, and not only in Hong Kong but in other countries as well—and would continue if we failed to renew our spiritual tradition.

Thay went on to share about the practice of monastics at mindfulness centers at Plum Village in France; Deer Park Monastery, Blue Cliff Monastery, and Magnolia Grove Monastery in the United States; Nhap Luu in Australia; and Tu Hieu in Vietnam. The European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) in Germany brings the practice of Buddhism to modern society in the most practical way. At these centers, all practitioners, regardless of spiritual background, may participate in and benefit from the wisdom of the Buddha.

At the EIAB, unlike other Buddhist institutes around the world, the teaching staff includes more than fifty monastics residing together. The monastics live, practice, and teach on-site. Classes are taught on subjects such as living in harmony with others, managing anger and other emotions, ministering to the dying, etc. Retreats of various lengths are held. Consultations may be set up with the monks and nuns to resolve any question. The energy of the practice is pervasive and palpable. Every Sunday is a public Day of Mindfulness, open to everyone. The monastics in residence are the bedrock of the Institute. Having a large number of monastics in residence helps create strong practice energy and brings the quality and effectiveness of instruction to a very high level.

Thay said we could also establish an Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism (AIAB) in Hong Kong, known as one of the four rising tigers of Asia and as a land of respect for human rights and religious freedom. If an AIAB was established in Hong Kong, it would help not only Hong Kong and in particular its youth, but also countless others in East Asia.

The businessman was very interested in Thay’s statement. He said he had a good-sized temple on Lantau Island, about a ninety-minute drive from downtown Hong Kong, which could be offered to Plum Village for use as a practice center if Thay agreed.

Ideas were exchanged between Thay’s senior disciples and the businessman, who offered to transport Thay and some monastics to visit the temple the following morning. The offer to make the temple into a Plum Village practice center was happily accepted.

Lotus Pond Monastery 

Our sisters moved into the new temple, called Lotus Pond (Lien Tri), nearly a month before our arrival in April 2011. The temple is well laid out and spacious, built in the traditional architecture of Chinese temples. The Buddha Hall, which can seat around 150 people, occupies the top of the three-story building. The middle floor is the residence of the sisters, and the bottom floor is divided into two parts: in front is the ancestors’ hall, and behind it is the dining hall. Outside and to the left of the temple is Thay’s cottage, next to the path leading to our new Bamboo Forest (Truc Lam) Temple where the brothers live. The Bamboo Forest Temple is not as large as Lotus Pond, but it is a comfortable and cozy place for the brothers to live and practice together.

In the last few days of our stay, Thay took us to visit a number of temples on Lantau Island. Most of these temples are deserted, or occupied only by one, two, or three people. We were saddened to see the temples so abandoned. According to local Venerables, the number of monastics in all the temples in Hong Kong totals only about 200. One sister shared that once, on a round to visit nearby temples, she sighted a rather large one on the mountain, with beautiful architecture. Full of anticipation, she went up for a visit. When she arrived, she found all the gates locked. She rang the bell at the front gate. After a while, a man came out and asked, “What do you want?” She woke up to the stark reality that the temple housed no monastics, only a manager and caretaker.

Offering the Temple 

On April 28, 2011, in his first Dharma talk at Lotus Pond Monastery, Thay stated that Lotus Pond would be the foundation of the AIAB, whose purpose is to offer retreats for youth, families, social workers, government officials, teachers, businessmen, psychotherapists, etc. from Hong Kong and other Asian countries. AIAB will train monastic and lay Dharma teachers from Hong Kong and other neighboring countries. Furthermore, AIAB will offer coursework and guidance in the practice toward a Master of Applied Buddhism degree in a cooperative program with Thailand’s Buddhist University, Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya. A two-year curriculum will require residency at the monastery under the guidance of monastics. In addition, AIAB will offer a public Day of Mindfulness (DOM) every Sunday.

AIAB will have a minimum of thirty monastics in residence. This minimum is required to provide the appropriate level of support and guidance for the various programs. Thay believes that with the inspiration of AIAB, young people from local areas and neighboring countries will come to apply for the monastic program. The number of monastics in residence will gradually increase to 125, and it is Thay’s wish that a third of these be from Hong Kong. The audience responded with a round of applause, Plum Village style.

mb58-Birth5The first Sunday Day of Mindfulness at Lotus Pond Monastery was attended by over 200 people and included a ceremony to offer the temple to Plum Village for the establishment of the AIAB. The ceremony was modeled after the simple procedure used by King Bimbisara. According to this ancient Indian tradition, the offering has to be handed personally to the receiver. If the object of offering is too large or is something that cannot be touched or seen, water is poured onto the hand of the receiver. When offering the Bamboo Forest Monastery to the Buddha, King Bimbisara knelt in front of the Buddha with a container of water in his hands. After expressing his respect and wish to make the offer to the Buddha, the king poured water into the Buddha’s palms. The businessman who offered Lotus Pond Monastery likewise asked to make the offer, then poured water onto Thay’s hands. The ceremony signified Thay’s acceptance of Lotus Pond Monastery for the establishment of a Plum Village practice center in Hong Kong and marked the formation of the AIAB.

After the offering ceremony, the lay practitioners were jubilant. One woman related that she had quit her previous job in order to have a schedule that would allow her to come every Sunday. She has now found a new job, with permission from supervisors for time off during weekends for practice at the monastery.

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There were over 350 participants at the second (Sunday) DOM. The day began with walking meditation, led by Thay. In addition to the regular schedule, the monastic Sangha also held a Vesak (Buddha’s birthday) celebration ceremony after Thay’s Dharma talk. The children who helped set up the statue of the baby Buddha with the monastics in the front garden were very happy to be given first priority to bathe the baby Buddha.

mb58-Birth7After the ceremony, the Sangha was invited to have lunch in mindfulness with Thay. We all sat in a circle under the trees of the monastery’s front yard. Among us was Father Thomas Kwong, a Catholic priest from Hong Kong who had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings at Plum Village. The image of teacher and disciples quietly enjoying a meal together reminded one of the Buddha with the original Sangha. One practitioner remarked, “To have a quiet meal with Thay and the Sangha like this is rather like having the honor of sharing a meal with the Buddha.”

Another practitioner, a Hong Kong woman of Vietnamese origin, said joyfully, “Now that our temple is here, we feel like we have the home of our maternal grandmother to come back to.”

mb58-Birth8Brother Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He graduated from the University of Washington with a bachelor’s degree in International Business and Finance, and worked in the financial field until he moved to Plum Village in 2007. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since.

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Applied Ethics for Educators

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Dear Sangha,

In May 2011, in a Dharma talk at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Waldbrol, Germany, Thay shared his vision to bring mindfulness into schools on a large scale. Thay asked us to write to you for your input on, and help with, the preliminary proposal (below). Many of you are already bringing mindfulness into classrooms, and your experience can help us further develop this proposal and guide it in the right direction. Please help us connect with your contacts in the fields of education policy and teacher training, and in educational organizations at local, regional, and national levels.

Proposal for a Course in Mindfulness and Applied Ethics for Educators

This course is offered to educators who wish to cultivate peace and well-being in their own lives and contribute to creating a saner and more compassionate classroom and school environment.

Who We Are

Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village community of monastic and lay members have over thirty years of experience practicing and teaching mindfulness and developing a path of ethical living for modern society. We have shared these practices with thousands of people, including teachers, parents, children, social workers, therapists, police officers, health care workers, politicians, businesspeople, and artists, many of whom have become teachers of mindfulness and community-builders in their own right. In particular, we have led hundreds of retreats for families, with children’s and teens’ programs, as well as retreats for educators and students, in which we have developed and refined a rich and effective range of practices for transmitting mindfulness to young people.

Vision

We are now reaching out to those working in the fields of education policy, development, and training at both local and national levels. We wish to collaborate in order to offer regular courses to educators interested in the teaching and practice of mindfulness and applied ethics. We are identifying partners who are ready to implement these courses right away. Initiatives and preliminary explorations are under way with educators and policymakers in several countries in Asia, Europe, and North America.

Aim

This course aims to address the root causes of the suffering and division in our society and in our own hearts. As teachers, many of us see that this is a time of great challenge for young people, who often lack direction and tools to handle the pressures and stresses life presents them. Parents and other caregivers do not get the support they need to provide the essential guidance required for young people to grow up happily and contribute positively to society. Furthermore, many institutions do not provide good examples of integrity, cooperation, or responsible behavior that promotes the good of the whole.

The essence of the course in applied ethics is mindfulness, the energy of being aware of and awake to what is happening inside and around us in the present moment. With this deep awareness, we know what to do and what not to do in each moment to relieve suffering and increase well-being. The methods that we offer in this applied ethics course help us to understand our own bodies, minds, feelings, and perceptions, so we can then help others to do the same. We learn the art of caring for and transforming our suffering and nourishing our joy. Out of this, compassion and a living understanding of our interconnection with our family and society naturally arise.

Secular Foundation

This course is built upon the teachings of the Buddha, but it is non-religious and non-sectarian. Its foundation relies on the insights and concrete practices of Buddhism: interdependence, non-duality, and the intimate connection between happiness and suffering. Scientific evidence has demonstrated that methods arising from the Buddhist tradition are effective and that they can be applied successfully in an educational and secular context without reference to Buddhism. However, if appropriate to the institution or community, the course can be taught from a Buddhist or spiritual perspective.

Course Overview

Stage I: Taking Care of the Teacher

  • Cultivating awareness of breathing to help unite body and mind and strengthen concentration
  • Caring for our body to reduce stress and pain
  • Learning to cultivate feelings of joy and happiness and to appreciate what we already have
  • Learning to simplify our lives so that we have more time to relax and enjoy life
  • Learning to listen to and embrace our strong emotions, such as fear, anger, anxiety, and despair
  • Learning to use loving speech and compassionate listening to care for our relationships
  • Exploring non-sectarian, ethical guidelines for our own health and happiness and that of our families, schools, communities, societies, and the world
  • Looking deeply into our consumption and production as individuals and as a society

Stage II: Teaching Mindfulness and Applied Ethics to Students

  • Learning to guide sessions of relaxation for students
  • Learning to help students recognize and handle strong emotions
  • Learning the art of building community so that our classroom and our school can become a loving family environment
  • Learning to creatively resolve conflicts in the classroom
  • Helping students develop compassion by understanding their own suffering and that of their peers
  • Introduction to an age-appropriate mindfulness curriculum, with multi-media teaching materials, that can be applied in the classroom

Course Format

This course is offered in two stages, with each stage lasting one week, held in one of our residential centers or at an academic campus. The course format is organized as a residential retreat, with participants staying overnight and training in mindfulness all day long. Each stage can also be divided up into smaller units of time depending on the need (for example, three weekends or seven day-long segments spread out over time). Stage I is a prerequisite for Stage II.

Community Environment

The course takes place in the unique context of a residential community of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen practicing mindfulness twenty-four hours a day. The strength and harmony of the community is grounded upon a shared vision of ethical conduct arising naturally from the practice of mindfulness. The community provides support and creates a safe environment in which we can look afresh at our lives. Living and working together, we generate a powerful collective energy that has the capacity to heal and transform our bodies and minds.

In the course, mindfulness is learned in such a way that we can apply it right away in our daily lives. The residents offer participants their understanding and experience not just through their teaching, but through their embodied practice of mindful speaking, walking, eating, working, and relating. The most supportive environment for our transformation and healing is a harmonious and joyful community. Our thirty years of experience have taught us that community is essential for change to be deep and lasting. Living and practicing as a community, we find trust in the human family and we return to our lives refreshed and enthusiastic. The residential practice environment allows us to open up and rediscover our innate goodness and to bring meaning and direction to our lives.

For more information please contact appliedethics@eiab.eu or visit www.mindfuledu.org.

With gratitude,

The Sangha at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism

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Sangha News

The Sciences of the Buddha
A Twenty-one Day Retreat for Buddhists and Scientists

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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In Buddhism there are two kinds of truth: conventional truth (samvrti-satya) and absolute truth (paramartha-satya). In the framework of the conventional truth, Buddhists speak of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc. The Buddhist teaching and practice based on this framework helps reduce suffering and bring more harmony and happiness. In the framework of absolute truth, the teaching transcends notions of being and non-being, birth and death, coming and going, inside and outside, one and many, etc. The teaching and practice based on this insight help practitioners liberate themselves from discrimination and fear, and touch nirvana, the ultimate reality. Buddhists see no conflict between the two kinds of truth and are free to make good use of both frameworks.

Classical science, as seen in Newton’s theories, is built upon a framework reflecting everyday experience, in which material objects have an individual existence and can be located in time and space. Quantum physics provides a framework for understanding how nature operates on subatomic scales, but differs completely from classical science, because in this framework, there is no such thing as empty space, and the position of an object and its momentum cannot simultaneously be precisely determined. Elementary particles fluctuate in and out of existence, and do not really exist but have only a “tendency to exist.”

Classical science seems to reflect the conventional truth and quantum physics seems to be on its way to discover the absolute truth, trying very hard to discard notions such as being and non-being, inside and outside, sameness and otherness, etc. At the same time, scientists are trying to find out the relationship between the two kinds of truth represented by the two kinds of science, because both can be tested and applied in life.

In science, a theory should be tested in several ways before it can be accepted by the scientific community. The Buddha also recommended, in the Kalama Sutra, that any teaching and insight given by any teacher should be tested by our own experience before it can be accepted as the truth. Real insight, or right view, has the capacity to liberate and to bring peace and happiness. The findings of science are also insight; they can be applied in technology, but can be applied also to our daily behavior to improve the quality of our life and happiness. Buddhists and scientists can share with each other their ways of studying and practice and can profit from each other’s insights and experience.

The practice of mindfulness and concentration always brings insight. It can help both Buddhists and scientists. Insights transmitted by realized practitioners like the Buddhas and bodhisattvas can be a source of inspiration and support for both Buddhist practitioners and scientists, and scientific tests can help Buddhist practitioners understand better and have more confidence in the insight they receive from their ancestral teachers. It is our belief that in this twenty-first century, Buddhism and science can go hand in hand to promote more insight for us all and bring more liberation, reducing discrimination, separation, fear, anger, and despair in the world.

In the beautiful setting of Plum Village, from June 1-21, 2012, scientists and Buddhists will practice sitting together, walking together, and sharing their experience and insight with each other. The practices of mindfulness and concentration can help scientists to be better scientists and in this way, Buddhism can act as a source of inspiration, suggesting directions for future investigation and discovery. Conversely, we will explore how insights from science can be useful, not only to develop technology and improve our material comfort, but to reduce the suffering of individuals, families, and society. This retreat will bring a lot of joy and confidence in both traditions as we find out that good science and good Buddhism can be much and do much for the well-being of the world.

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Thirty Years of Plum Village

On June 16, 2011, during lunchtime in the Assembly of Stars Meditation Hall in Lower Hamlet, Plum Village, Thay called the brothers and sisters who were twenty-nine years of age, including the lay friends, to come up in front of the Sangha. Thay shared that the year they were born, Plum Village was also born—that they were the same age as Plum Village. Next year, they will be celebrating their birthday along with the 30th Anniversary of our beloved Plum Village community. Thay invited this group, and the whole community of the Plum Village tradition in France and the world, to help contribute to an anniversary celebration. Let us come together to nourish our brotherhood and sisterhood and to deepen our practice. Let us look into how we can celebrate Plum Village in a meaningful and deep way. Let us find ways to record and share the history of the Plum Village manifestation as a gift for our beloved teacher, Thay. To contribute your ideas and energy, please contact Brother Phap Dung at phapdung@dpmail.net.

Love Resounds
Remembering Nathaniel (Nacho) Cordova, True Mountain of Compassion

By Jerry Braza

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On July 16, 2011, our brother Nacho Cordova died in a motorcycle accident near the Oregon coast. Nacho continues to ripple like a wave through the hearts of his family, the worldwide academic community, and the Sangha. At his memorial service, one word resounded like a bell of mindfulness: LOVE.

Nacho clearly wanted the best for every person, as demonstrated by his deep, mindful presence and practice of loving-kindness. His Dharma name, True Mountain of Compassion, exemplify his ability to be there for others, especially when they were suffering. Despite his busy schedule, he found time to listen deeply and often followed the listening with compassionate action. His warm smile was a reflection of his open and loving heart. Nacho had the unique ability to bring joy and water the seeds of love in every person he met, and he left everyone feeling that they were his best friend. Through his practice he found a refuge within, and he had the ability to see all perspectives clearly, which allowed him to be centered and available with a clear mind and loving presence.

Nacho’s favorite quote was by Basho: “The temple bell stops, but the sound keeps coming out of the flowers.” Nacho continues in all that is beautiful in our world as well as in the hearts and spirits of his wife, Michelle, and his children, Alex, Phoenix, and Terra.

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In remembrance of Nacho, please consider honoring the family with a comment or reflection on the beautiful blog that began the day he died: http://nacho-cordova.blogspot.com/

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Book Reviews

mb58-BookReviews1Reconciliation
Healing the Inner Child

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2010
174 pages

Reviewed by Zachiah Murray and Natascha Bruckner

If the Buddha arrived at full enlightenment it’s because he suffered a lot.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

In this simple, clear, and practical book, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us to use mindfulness to overcome the mind and its suffering. He describes the Asian bitter melon, a vegetable with medicinal qualities, and explains, “Chinese medicine believes that bitterness is good for your health.” Likewise, our suffering is good for us; when we embrace it, we cultivate compassion.

Thay suggests that we turn toward our inner child to embrace our own suffering and become fully present. He offers four practices we can do with our inner child: talk, walk, write, and invite. First, we talk with our inner child—even out loud. Second, we practice walking meditation with the child within. Third, we listen to what our inner child has to say, and write it down. We might also write a letter to our inner five-year-old. Last, we invite our inner child into the present moment, to experience the wonders of life here and now.

Thay defines reconciliation as “leaving behind our dualistic view and our tendency to punish. It opposes all forms of ambition but doesn’t take sides.” Once we’ve reached reconciliation within ourselves, we’re able to reconcile with others. With the insight of interbeing, we know that just as a kernel of corn is in a corn stalk, our mother is alive in us. Therefore, when we reconcile with our own inner child, we also make peace with our ancestors.

In Part Two, four Sangha sisters and brothers—Lillian Alnev, Joanne Friday, Glen Schneider, and Elmar Vogt—share deeply personal stories about turning toward the inner child. These beautiful stories are real-life applications of the practice of embracing suffering; they show us that the inner child is always there and can never be taken away. Part Three is a collection of seven lovely practices to connect with the inner child, including the Five Earth Touchings and a sample letter to one’s inner child. “Without suffering, without understanding our suffering, true happiness is not possible,” Thay explains. This book is a wonderful guide to embracing our suffering, our inner child, and our world.

mb58-BookReviews2Mindfulness and the 12 Steps
Living Recovery in the Present Moment

By Therese Jacobs- Stewart
Hazelden, 2010
Paperback, 181 pages

Reviewed by Peter Kuhn

The Twelve Step model of Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions of people find freedom from a wide range of afflictions. The principles of the Twelve Steps are spiritual, rather than religious, in nature, and present a simple course of action for complicated people. The “program,” as it is commonly known, has been embraced globally and practiced by people of all religions and social classes.

In Mindfulness and the 12 Steps: Living Recovery in the Present Moment, Therese Jacobs-Stewart shines the light of mindfulness on the Twelve Steps and eloquently presents a view of them from a Buddhist perspective. With a mix of personal history, stories from Buddhist teachers, and refections from her regular Twelve Step Mindfulness Group meetings, she beautifully shows how the Dharma and the Steps inter-are. She writes, “The traditions of mindfulness and Alcoholics Anonymous have a similar view as to the source of our suffering: Bill W. called it ‘self-will run riot,’ while the Buddha described it as a delusion of separateness from others. Both agree that our suffering contains the seeds of our liberation. And, we can learn to live with serenity in any set of circumstances.”

Writing from direct experience in a clear, personal voice, Jacobs-Stewart infuses her book with the lightness and healing energy that characterize mindfulness practice. She looks deeply at each of the Twelve Steps, offering insight and clarity from her study of the Dharma, and guidance toward the practical application of the Steps in daily life. Mindfulness exercises are presented at the conclusion of each chapter. The Twelfth Step states: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.” This is a powerful bodhisattva vow, and in this book Therese Jacobs-Stewart honors it with understanding and love.

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Dharma Talk: Free from Notions

The Diamond Sutra

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall
Deer Park Monastery
Sunday, September 25, 2001

Thich Nhat Hanh

Right view is the foundation of the Noble Eightfold Path presented by the Buddha. Right view helps us to think correctly. It helps us to say things correctly, and to do things correctly, so we don’t create suffering and despair for ourselves and for others. When we practice mindfulness, we produce thoughts in alignment with right thinking, full of understanding and compassion. Then we only create happiness; we do not create suffering. With the practice of right speech, we say things that move us in the direction of understanding, compassion, and nondiscrimination. With the practice of right action, our physical action will only protect, save, help, and rescue. That is why the practice of mindfulness based on right view can help heal ourselves and help heal the world. We can start right away if we have a friend or a community of practice supporting us.

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We have to cultivate right view. If you listen to a Dharma talk or read a book, you’ll get some ideas about right view. But right view is something you experience directly, not through concepts and ideas. Right view is the kind of insight, the kind of under-standing, that can transcend the notion of being and non-being. It is not easy to understand.

When we speak of the birth of something, the creation of something, we are already caught in the notion of being and non-being. To be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. And to die means from the realm of being you pass into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. That’s how we think, but that is not right thinking.

So if you are caught in the notion of being and non-being, you are caught also in the notion of birth and death. When you observe reality as it is, you can touch the truth that reality is free from the notion of birth and death, being and non-being.

Can we speak about the birth of a cloud? According to our thinking, to be born means from nothing you become something. But looking deeply, you know the cloud has not come from nothing. The cloud has come from the water in the ocean, the heat gener­ated by the sun, many things like that. So it is very clear that our cloud has not come from the realm of non-being.

The moment you see the cloud, that is a new manifestation. Before that, it was there in another form. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth. The cloud has never been born. It has not come from the realm of non-being into the realm of being.

When you look up into the sky and you do not see your be­loved cloud anymore, you think your cloud has died, has passed from the realm of being into non-being, and you cry. But the fact is that your cloud has not died. It is impossible for a cloud to die. A cloud can become rain or snow or ice, but it is impossible for a cloud to become nothing. So the true nature of the cloud is the nature of no birth and no death. And the same thing is true of everything else, including ourselves, including our grandfather, our great-grandmother. They have not passed into the realm of non-being. If we look deeply, we can still see them around very close, in their new manifestations.

[Thay pours a cup of tea.] I’m pouring my cloud into the glass mindfully. If you are a practitioner of mindfulness, you can see the cloud in the tea. Your cloud has not died; it has just become the tea. The tea is the continuation of the cloud. When you drink your tea mindfully, you know that you are drinking your cloud. You already have a lot of cloud inside. This is only another cloud coming in to nourish you.

You are like a cloud. Your nature is the nature of no birth and no death. Being afraid of dying is not right thinking, because nothing can pass from being into non-being. Nothing can pass from non-being into being. If you cannot see the cloud in this tea, you have not really seen the tea. Mindfulness and concentration bring insight, which allows you to look at the tea and see the cloud.

In the Diamond Sutra, a very famous sutra in the Zen tradi­tion, we learn that there are four notions that you have to remove if you don’t want to suffer. These four notions are the crown of discrimination and fear and hate.

Tmb59-dharma1-3he Notion of Self

First is the notion of self. You separate reality into two parts. You distinguish between self and non-self. One part is yourself, the other part is the non-self. But looking into what we call a self, we see only non-self elements.

As a practitioner of mindfulness, you look deeply into this flower and you see that it is made only of non-flower elements. There’s a cloud inside also, because if there’s no cloud, there’s no rain and no flower can grow. So you don’t see the form of a cloud, but the cloud is there. And that is the practice of what we call signlessness. You don’t need a sign, a certain form of appear­ance in order to see it. There’s the sunshine inside. We know that if there is no sunshine, no flower can grow. There is the topsoil inside. Many things are inside: light, minerals, the gardener. It seems that everything in the cosmos has come together to help produce this flower. If we have enough concentration we can see that the whole cosmos is in the flower, that one is made by the all. We can say that the flower is made only of non-flower elements. If we return the cloud to the sky, return the light to the sun, the soil to the earth, there is no flower left. So it’s very clear that a flower is made only of non-flower elements.

What we call “me,” “myself,” is like that, too. We are also a flower. Each of us is a flower in the garden of humanity, and each flower is beautiful. But we have to look into ourselves and recognize the fact that we are made only of non-us elements. If we remove all the non-us elements, we cannot continue. We are made of parents, teachers, food, culture, everything. If we remove all of that, there is no us left.

When a young man looks into himself, he can see that he is made of non-self elements. If he looks into every cell of his body, he will see his father. His father is not only outside; his father is inside of him, fully present in every cell of his body. Suppose he tries to remove his father; there’s no son left. If we remove the father, remove the mother, the grandfather, the grandmother, if we remove our education, our culture, the food we eat, then there’s no us left. So the young man can see that his father is in him. He is the continuation of his father. He is his father.

It’s like the tea is a continuation of the cloud. Suppose the tea hates the cloud. The tea says, “I don’t want to have anything to do with the cloud!” That’s nonsense. And yet there are young men who are so angry at their fathers, they dare to say, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that person.” Because they have not looked deeply, they do not see that they are the continuation of their father. They cannot remove their father from themselves; they are their father. So to get angry at your father is to get angry at yourself. That is the insight you get from the practice of mind­fulness and concentration. If you have that insight, you are no longer angry at your father. You know that if your father suffers, you suffer. If you are happy, your father is happy also. No more discrimination between father and son, because father is made of non-father elements and son is made of non-son elements. Everything is like that.

So the first notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of self. If you can see, in the light of interbeing, that you are in me and I am in you, you’ve got the insight. Anger and the desire to punish are no longer there. Removing the notion of self is the basic action for peace.

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If the Palestinians look deeply, they see that the suffering of the Israelis is their own suffering, and that their happiness is also the happiness of the Israelis. If they can recognize that they inter-are, that their happiness and suffering depend on each other’s, then they will release their anger, their fear, and their discrimination, and they can make peace easily. If the Hindus and the Muslims look deeply and see they are in each other, then there will be no conflict, no war.

So the removal of the notion of self is crucial for peace. If we can do that, we can be free from discrimination, separation, fear, hate, anger, and violence. With mindfulness and concentra­tion, you can discover the truth of no self, the truth of interbeing.

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The Notion of Being Human

The second notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to re­move is the notion of man, human. Man is made only of non-man elements. Man, we know, is a very young species on earth. We are made of minerals, vegetables, and animals. Humans have human ancestors, but we also have animal ancestors, vegetable ancestors, and mineral ancestors. They are still in us. We are the continuation of our ancestors. We still carry the minerals, the vegetables, and the animals within us. If you have the insight that man is made only of non-man elements, you will protect the ecosystem. You will not destroy this planet. That is why the Diamond Sutra can be seen as the most ancient text on the teaching of deep ecology. In order to protect man, you have to protect minerals, vegetables, and animals.

The Notion of Living Beings

The third notion that the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove is the notion of living beings. When I was ordained as a novice monk at the age of sixteen, my teacher showed me how to bow to the Buddha. “My child, before you bow to the Buddha, you have to meditate.” He gave me a short verse to memorize: “The one who bows and the one who is bowed to, the nature of both is empty.” That means that I am made of non-self elements. I am empty of a separate self. And you, the Buddha, you are also made of non-you elements. That means that you are in me, and I am in you. There is non-discrimination between the Buddha and a living being.

If you do not have that kind of insight, communication is impossible. You have to see the true relationship between you and Buddha. You must see that the Buddha is made only of non-Buddha elements. And you must see that you are made of non-you ele­ments. You must see that you are in the Buddha and the Buddha is in you. Before you have that understanding, you should not bow, because you think that you and the Buddha are two separate enti­ties. So there is a discrimination between Buddha, the enlightened one, and living beings; a discrimination between the creator and the creature. You have to see God in yourself, and you have to see yourself in God, in order for true communication to be possible.

Looking into a buddha, what do you see? You see a lot of afflictions, sickness, and despair that has been transformed. So a buddha is made of non-buddha elements. Before that person became a buddha, she suffered from anger, fear, hatred, and wrong perceptions. But because she knew how to practice mindfulness and she got insight, she became free. She became a buddha.

So looking into a buddha, you see non-Buddha elements. If you do not see non-Buddha elements in the Buddha, you have not seen the Buddha. Don’t imagine that the Buddha is an entity that is separate from us human beings. The safest place to look for a Buddha is in yourself.

If you know how to grow lotus flowers, you know that a lotus flower is made only of non-lotus elements. Among the non-lotus elements is the mud. The mud does not smell very good; it is not very clean. But without mud you can never grow a lotus flower. So if you look into a lotus flower, and you have not seen the mud in it, you have not seen the lotus flower. It is only with mud that you can grow a lotus flower. It is with the suffering, afflictions, fear, and anger that you can make the compost in order to nourish the flower of Buddha within ourselves.

That is why in the Lin-chi Zen tradition, when you look into the living being, you see the Buddha. When you look into the Buddha, you see the living being, because you are made of non-you elements and the Buddha is made of non-Buddha elements. If you have that insight, communication between you and the Buddha will be very deep. Otherwise, you will be worshipping an idea that is not reality.

You are the Buddha. You have Buddha nature, and if you practice mindfulness and concentration, you can transform afflictions. That is why the Diamond Sutra advises us to remove the notion of living beings.

The Notion of Life Span

The fourth notion is the notion of life span. Suppose we draw a line from left to right, representing time. And suppose we pick one point here and call it B, representing birth, and another point, we call it D, representing death. Usually we think that birth is the point where we start to exist, to be. So the segment from birth, from B on, is being. Before we are born, we did not exist. So the segment starting with D represents non-being.

When we come to D—we are very afraid of coming to this point. [laughter] It’s not pleasant to think of D. But if you can remove your notions, your wrong thinking about D, you are saved by right understanding and you are no longer afraid of D; not by a god, but by right understanding.

We believe that to be born means from the realm of non-being you pass into the realm of being. To die means from the realm of being you pass again into the realm of non-being. From someone you suddenly become no one. You are caught in the notion of birth and death; in the notion of being and non-being.

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Many of us believe that the cosmos has come from the realm of non-being into being. That is how we understand creation. Both believers and scientists believe that the cosmos has a beginning. Scientists speak about how the cosmos has come to be, with theo­ries like the Big Bang. It means before that, there was no cosmos; there was no universe. The Big Bang, and then later on, the Big Crunch. [laughter]

We need the practice of mindfulness and concentration to get the insight that liberates us from these notions. The notion of birth and death. The notion of being and non-being.

A well-known theologian named Paul Tillich described God as “the ground of being.” But if God is the ground of being, who will be the ground of non-being? You cannot conceive of God in terms of being and non-being. God, the ultimate, must transcend both notions. So to describe God in terms of being is to reduce God to something much less than God.

Many of us try to have life and to eliminate death. But how is life possible without death? Death is the very foundation of life. Life is the foundation of death. They always go together. Do not believe that death is something that waits for us down the road. No. Because life is here, death is also here at the same time. You cannot say that now is birth, now is life, and death is for later. That is not right thinking.

Science can help us understand this. We know that at every moment, many cells in our body die, right? And every day new cells are born. So many cells are dying in one second and we are too busy to organize funerals for them. [laughter] Birth and death happen in the here and the now, in every moment, in every mil­lisecond. Why are we afraid of death? We are experiencing death in every moment, because where there is life, there is death.

The same is true of happiness and suffering. Many of us think that happiness alone is enough; we don’t need suffering. But suf­fering is something that helps create happiness. If we look deeply into the suffering of the other person, we will come to understand the root of their suffering. Understanding suffering gives rise to compassion and love. Understanding and love are the foundation of happiness. If you do not have understanding and compassion, you are not a happy person. Compassion is born from understand­ing. If you understand your own suffering and if you understand his or her suffering, then love and compassion will be possible.

It is the mud that helps to produce the lotus. It is the suffering that helps produce the flower of happiness. Let us not discriminate against the suffering. Let us learn how to make good use of the suffering in order to create happiness. Let us learn how to make good use of the mud in order to produce lotus flowers.

If you believe that you are born at one point and you will die at another point, after which nothing remains, you are caught in the notion of life span. It is impossible for you to die. It is impos­sible for the cloud to pass into the realm of non-being. Right view transcends the notion of being and non-being, birth and death. That is why this insight can help produce right thinking, right speech, and right action. It has the power to heal and to nourish.

Many of us think that happiness is made of power, fame, sex, and wealth; but many people running after these objects suffer deeply. Those of us who practice mindfulness and concentration know that every moment can be a happy moment, because a mo­ment of happiness is a moment when you are truly in the here and the now, and you notice that so many wonders are in you and around you. You can be happy right here and right now.

That is the teaching of the Buddha. It is possible to be happy and joyful in the here and the now. Every in-breath, every step can help you touch the wonders of life. Recognize that you are luckier than so many people. And if you are happy, you have an opportunity to help other people.

Edited by Barbara Casey, Sister Annabel (True Virtue), Alan Armstrong, and Natascha Bruckner

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Together We Are One

Excerpted from Question and Answer Session with Thich Nhat Hanh

Deer Park Monastery
September 10, 2011

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Question: Dear Thay and dear community, as a survivor of rape, how do I forgive my attackers?

Thich Nhat Hanh: The criminals, those who have made us suffer, also are victims. They were born and raised in an environment that was not loving enough to nurture them. And they had difficulties, but no one, including their parents, could help them. So they are victims of their environment. If we had been born and raised in that same environment, we may have become like them. That’s why, when we look deeply, understanding comes and compassion arises in our hearts. We can forgive.

Many people in Vietnam escaped the Communist regime by boat, and many of them died during the trip crossing the sea to Thailand or to the Philippines. Many of their deaths were caused by sea pirates.

The sea pirates were often born into families of poor fishermen in the coastal areas of Thailand or the Philippines. They heard that when the boat people fled their country, they may have had their family valuables, like gold or jewelry, with them. So if the sea pirates could rob them of their valuables, they could escape the poor, desperate situation they and their families had been stuck in for so long.

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Your grandfather was a poor fisherman. Your father also was a poor fisherman. And you are a poor fisherman, and you have no opportunity to get out of this situation. Your father and your grand­father couldn’t get good educations, so they had no opportunity to get jobs that would enable them to live easier lives. So if your mother did not know how to read and write, and your father was drunk every day, then it is very difficult for you to get an education and get out of this terrible cycle. It’s difficult for you to learn to have a loving heart. So when people tell you that if you go out one time and rob the refugees of their gold and their money, this will get you out of your desperate situation, you are tempted. In this way, the poor young fisherman becomes a sea pirate because of his ignorance, because of his background, because of his desperation.

I was in France when I heard stories about boat people. Many of us tried to go to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines to help. They encountered a lot of suffering.

Suppose you are on the refugee boat. Of course, you can protect yourself. You can shoot the sea pirate. Otherwise, the sea pirate will throw you into the ocean, rape your daughter, and take your valuables. Every time you hear that a boat person has been raped and killed by a sea pirate, you suffer, and you believe that if you had a gun and you were on a boat, you would be able to shoot that person. But if you shoot the sea pirate, he will die and you will not be able to help him. He’s a victim of his environment, and he did not have any education, any opportunity for a better life. So the sea pirate is also a victim.

If we meditate, we know that today there will be babies born on the coastline into these poor families. If educators, politicians, and others do not do anything to help these babies get better food and education, when they grow up they will become sea pirates. We can see that if we are born and raised in that way, we too may be­come sea pirates. That kind of meditation allows us to understand, to see that these criminals are also victims of their environment, and that allows the nectar of compassion to be born in our hearts, and we can forgive. Not only do we not want to kill them or punish them, but we are motivated by the desire to do something to help them. We can see that those who rape us are also victims. With that kind of understanding, we know that there are things we can do to help rapists and to prevent people from becoming rapists.

That is something parents, teachers, educators, and politicians have to meditate upon. We have to take the kind of action that will help change the situation and prevent these babies from becoming sea pirates and rapists.

Forgiveness is possible with understanding. You cannot for­give if you only have the desire, the intention to forgive. In order to truly forgive, you have to see the truth, to understand that that person is a victim. When you see that, compassion arises, and naturally you can forgive, and you feel lighter. And you don’t want to punish him anymore. You want him and his children to have a better environment in order not to continue like that, generation after generation.

So many of us in society are victims of violence, anger, fear, and discrimination. The only answer is compassion. Compassion arises from understanding. Understanding is the fruit of medita­tion, namely, the practice of looking deeply in order to understand why things become the way they are. When you respond with compassion, you suffer less, and you are able to help.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Letter from the Editor

Editor-NB

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Last fall, some of our Facebook friends told us they’d like to read about forgiveness. They wanted to learn how to heal the past in the present. As submissions came in, I was inspired to look deeply at the theme in my own life. Every day gave me an opportunity to forgive myself or someone else!

I learned that sometimes, before I’m able to forgive, I need to move through a firestorm of grief or rage. When I hear of a child who has been abused or killed by an adult, I feel blinded by those strong negative emotions. When I’m righteously angry, it feels unnatural to forgive adults who harm children. Yet when I embrace the anger and uncover the need beneath it—such as the need for justice and kindness—I begin to move through the painful emotion and into inner peace. Within that peace, my heart feels wider and more willing to understand perpetrators of abuse. It’s necessary to honor the anger and sadness—like mud is necessary to grow a lotus. And for me, the lotus is an insight: forgiveness will only come when I love the hurting child within an adult who hurts children.

In this issue, Thay’s response to a rape survivor (“Together We Are One”) tells us that to truly understand is to forgive. He skillfully shows us how to grow our understanding and use it to stop the cycle of suffering. Sister Jewel frames her two visits to prisons with a lovely teaching on self-forgiveness that is not just for inmates. She calls out to the truly free person within each of us. Practitioners share about their rocky roads to the beautiful vista of forgiveness.

The time is ripe to heal the past in the present, to fully arrive in the now. The challenges in our world, the needs of our planet, are asking us to rededicate ourselves to awakening. Our mindfulness is needed now. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Plum Village—a time to celebrate, to reflect, to honor our wondrous transformations as individual “cells” and as a global Sangha body.

As we reflect on the path that led us to this moment, we can also turn our attention to a vision of how to continue beautifully. The Thich Nhat Hanh Continuation Fund gives us a chance to support our practice centers and to invest in peace. Please read Elizabeth Hospodarsky’s article, “A Handful of Rice” (p. 38), detach the brochure from the center of this issue, and return it with your contribution. Your gift makes a tremendous difference in sustaining our teacher’s legacy.

May this collection of heartfelt offerings nurture your understanding and peace.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

A Ten Minute Lesson on Self-forgiveness in San Quentin

By Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem)

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Now I see why Jesus told the disciples to visit the prisoner. The prisoner lives at the physical locations of human retaliation, at the place where life keeps dissolving into death-making. If we lose contact with this place in our culture, we abandon justice and forgiveness. Side by side, prisoner and free, we are in it together.
— Cynthia Winton-Henry, What the Body Wants

When Jun Hamomoto invited me to visit the Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin state prison, I immediately felt drawn to go. On a Sunday afternoon, Jun picked me up and we enjoyed the beautiful drive from Oakland to San Quentin with the sun sparkling on the bay. We arrived at San Quentin and I left in the car any articles that could be a hindrance to getting past the security checks. I brought only a book as a gift for the sitting group, and even then, carefully removed the CD from its back jacket as Jun said it would require special clearance.

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At the guard house by the main gate, we handed our IDs to the guard, a big, sturdy, Caucasian man, and signed in. We heard over the intercom that there had just been a stabbing in one area of the prison. Someone later explained it was a fight between Latinos and Caucasians. I asked the guard what the prisoners could use to stab each other.

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“Those guys can create a weapon out of just about anything. They take pieces of metal out of their bed and sharpen it to make a blade, filing it down with their plastic cutlery. They file down springs in the bed to make sharp projectiles. They even make spears by wrapping wet newspaper in a cone shape around a sharp metallic head. You wouldn’t believe how creative they are at finding ways to harm.”

I said how important it was to channel that creativity into more constructive areas. The guard looked dubious and replied, “It is probably too late for many of these prisoners, better to start with kids still in school. But that’s why people like you are here. To help them be more positive.”

We asked if we could take a few pictures in front of the sign outside the gate before we entered. The guard came around the gate with us and zoomed in and out, trying several angles to get the perfect shot, first with flash, then without. Then he had us move to the other side of the sign and went through the whole process again. I was touched by his generosity and care because he came across as pretty gruff at first. I guess prison guards have to do that.

Jun asked if we could still go in after the stabbing, and the guard nodded. We walked through the staff parking lot toward the main entrance. I admired the white stucco Spanish architecture of the prison, its outer walls decorated with rows of beautiful blue tiles. The watch tower loomed over the several-story structure.

We signed in and showed IDs a second time to a younger Caucasian guard who stamped neon numbers across our wrists and allowed us to pass through one gate. Then we showed our IDs to a third older Latino guard sitting behind a glass window, and he let us in through the final gate. We entered a beautiful, grassy courtyard. Men were sitting on the ground near a guard station. We signed in yet again and let a pretty African-American woman guard know we were heading toward the Buddhist sitting group.

Jun explained that all the men were sitting on the ground because of the recent stabbing. On an alert, inmates have to sit down wherever they happen to be. (This was also the reason many of the men couldn’t get to the sitting group that night.) The men sitting down were friendly and seemed relaxed, sharing in soft, mellow voices. The two closest to us were African-American, one older, another younger. We exchanged a smile and turned to enter what Jun told me was the Muslim prayer room, which the Buddhist sitting group was allowed to use every Sunday night.

We entered the spacious, rectangular room, in which about fifteen men in bright blue prison uniforms and five visitors sat in meditation. All were on green mats and cushions arranged in a rectangle on the floor. An elder Dharma Teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center, Seido Lee deBarros, sat in a chair at the front of the room. Jun led us to our places. I was slightly skittish when I realized I would be sitting right next to an inmate. Young and with a short buzz cut, he looked Asian or Latino. But my nervousness quickly passed. I was really glad to be there.

Dignity and Discipline

I closed my eyes and followed my breathing, allowing my body to settle and feeling my excitement at being in this new and unfamiliar place. I quickly felt a real peace and presence in the room. Except for occasional far-off shouts and the low rumble of men conversing good-naturedly in the courtyard, it was quiet.

After about five minutes, one of the inmates stood and announced, as a guard entered the space, that there had been a recall because of the stabbing. All inmates had to return to their cells. We were a bit stunned. One of the visitors who sits regularly with the group said this had never happened before.

Several men came up to greet me. A forty-something African-American man thanked me for coming and shook my hand. He said he was sorry we couldn’t have our usual two-hour meeting and they were sad to miss hearing my Dharma talk. A tall, twenty- something Caucasian man also thanked me for coming and said they would have liked to share more with me. I shook hands with an elderly Caucasian man who started this sitting group over ten years ago, before anyone from the outside joined the group.

All of them had a clear, bright expression in their eyes. I was moved by their dignity and the discipline in the group. There was a kindness, friendliness, and openness that helped me feel immediately connected. It was also clear from the graceful way they accepted the unexpected interruption of our gathering that they had lots of practice with letting go.

I offered Thay’s book, Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, to Seidosan as a gift for the whole group. One of the inmates thanked me for it and said they would enjoy reading it.

After leaving, in the warm 7:00 p.m. sun, the five visitors, Jun, and I informally introduced ourselves as we walked back through the two gates and signed out. I reflected in our small group how good it was that we were meditating and cultivating peace around the time of the stabbing. Our energy was helping to balance out the violence and anxiety in another part of the prison.

The Group of Hope

I shared with the other visitors that if we had been able to spend the evening together as planned, I was going to tell the men the story of the Group of Hope, a humanitarian group in Brandvlei, a maximum security prison near Cape Town, South Africa. Visiting them in 2008 was one of the most profound and memorable experiences of my two weeks in southern Africa.

The Group of Hope began in 2002 with the intention to raise awareness about HIV in prison, to help reduce discrimination toward prisoners with HIV. The men wanted to do something for prisoners dying with AIDS, and so they began a garden and grew vegetables for them, visited them in the prison hospital, and sent cards home for them.

The inmates’ care and desire to educate others about the realities of HIV soon led them to sponsor twenty-six HIV-positive orphans, who came to the prison to visit with the men once a month, bringing them lots of love and joy. The Group of Hope threw birthday parties for them, grew vegetables for them, and made them clothes (they raised enough money to buy several sewing machines for this purpose).

When a volunteer introduced them to the first HIV-positive orphan they were to adopt, Thabang, the men asked the prison administration for the clothing in which they had entered the prison. They cut up their own clothes and hand-sewed clothes to fit Thabang. Bonding with him and the other children, they got a taste of fatherhood, and their life in prison began to have much more meaning and purpose.

By 2008, their social work from behind bars had grown exponentially to include making clothes for disabled children and elders, sponsoring orphanages and street children, visiting the sick in the prison hospital and making cards for them, as well as organizing festival events in the prison to commemorate World AIDS Day and to promote awareness of violence against women and children. They even established a memorial outside the prison entrance to honor and house the urns of their program’s AIDS orphans who passed away. The group’s good energy had a powerful effect on other prisoners.

Although the word “prisoner” was printed in small letters all over their bright orange uniforms, I felt it should instead say “free person” because of their great compassion and love. When we are free from hatred and discrimination, we are free people. Many people living “outside” do not look as free to me as the men in the Group of Hope.(2)

I found it very inspiring to listen and share with the Group of Hope. Because of their harmony and kindness, my first visit to a prison was positive and pleasant. Theirs was also the most racially integrated group I encountered on my entire trip in South Africa. While the majority of inmates were black, a number were white and “colored,” an Afrikaans-speaking ethnic group in South Africa, descendants of early Dutch settlers and native Africans. San Quentin’s Buddhadharma Sangha had a similar racial diversity, which I very much appreciated.

I asked the San Quentin visitors to share this story with the men the following week, and they promised to do it. Before we left, one of the women offered us bags of cherry tomatoes still on the vine from her garden. My, were they sweet! We enjoyed their juiciness and vital smell of just-picked freshness. Seidosan said, “Just like the Dharma, sweet in the beginning, the middle, and the end.” We all smiled, enjoying that precious, quiet moment of cherry-tomato-togetherness. I decided to offer some to the guard and slipped back through the gate to hand him a bunch. He was surprised and smiled broadly in thanks—another sweet moment of connection. Back outside the gate, our group kept lingering, not really wanting to part company, perhaps also feeling pulled to be with the inmates. The sun was edging further and further toward the horizon. Finally we offered bows and last words of appreciation for the time together.

Jun and I returned to her car. We drove a few yards down the main street and parked by a small beach. We walked down the wooden steps to the beach and as Jun stood still, calf-deep in the water, I walked back and forth along the length of the small cove, enjoying the waves coming and going. We watched the first stars come out and the lights of the cars dancing over the bridge. It was a beautiful ending to our visit.

For the Whole World

Thay speaks about knowing the taste of the whole pot of soup just by tasting one teaspoon of it. Our very short visit to San Quentin was a spoonful of a delicious, nourishing pot of inmates- who-practice-deeply-and-really-have-a-Sangha soup! I feel lucky to have had even just five minutes together, and to touch their humanity and goodness through the briefest of smiles, handshakes, and words of greeting.

The San Quentin sitting group, like the Group of Hope in South Africa, is a powerful example of self-forgiveness. When we decide to engage in positive, meaningful, transformative action in the present, we are releasing the bonds of the past and affirming that our lives are worth living and living well, to the best of our ability. By taking action now to water what is good in us, we release the wrongdoing committed in the past, not handcuffing ourselves to memories, self-blame, and recrimination, and ensuring that we will do better at avoiding harmful actions in the future. Whenever we water the good seeds in us, the seeds of suffering in us grow weaker all by themselves. For inmates, simply showing up to meditate and practice together is a bold statement of self- appreciation, self-love, and self-care; they are showing up not just for themselves, but also for each other, as friends, brothers, fellow travelers on the path.

Whenever we choose to keep going despite our past wrongs, to connect and deal openly with whatever is in our reality now, with hope and kindness, that is a moment of self-forgiveness. Doing what we can to build connection rather than create distance, to honor ourselves and others rather than to criticize and blame, that is self-forgiveness. These wholesome actions are also ways of forgiving life for the fact that our past wasn’t what we wanted or needed. Every day, we can choose to show up for life just as it is, determined to bring the best of ourselves to it.

Although I was asked to offer the inmates a teaching that Sunday evening, it was really they who gave me the Dharma talk! I am so grateful for such memorable teachings, shining from each inmate simply because they showed up and were truly present. I am thankful for their practice of awakening, moment by moment. What they do in San Quentin is for themselves, but it is also for the whole world.

  1. San Quentin is one of the largest prisons in the S., housing over 5,000 inmates. It is California’s oldest state prison, with the only death row for male inmates in the state. It is also home to the well-respected Buddhist practitioner Jarvis Jay Masters, author of Finding Freedom: Writings from Death Row and That Bird Has My Wings. Buddhadharma Sangha at San Quentin prison was founded in 1999 by Seido Lee deBarros and a few inmates. Outside members of the Sangha are affiliated with San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, Community of Mindful Living, and Buddhist Peace Fellowship. More information can be found at www.shoresofzen.com/sanquentinzen/
  2. Unfortunately, in 2010, the Group of Hope was shut down for security reasons, but the inmates are trying to start it up The group’s website, www.groupofhope.co.za, is out of date but still functioning, and it shows nice pictures of the men and the orphans they took care of.

Sister Jewel (Chau Nghiem) is from the U.S. and ordained as a nun in 1999. She is delighted by the ever-increasing avenues to practice and share mindfulness with children and young people, and to bring mindfulness to teachers and schools. She currently lives at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany and is editor of Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Forgiveness Is the Path

By Ankit Rao

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“I don’t think this is working.”

My life was turned upside down by these few words. My girlfriend of five years, the person I had bought a house with not more than a year before, and the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, let me know that things weren’t exactly as I had presumed them to be. Not only had she decided to leave, but she had been seeing someone else without my knowledge.

All the stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—would visit me in the years to come. I spent the next several months in what I call my “lost year.” I drank, sometimes six days out of seven. I spent as little time as possible in the house we had shared. There were times when I cried, times when I had so much anger and hate within me that I felt like I was going to explode.

What did I do? I threw myself into my work. My job entailed raising the general public’s awareness of environmental issues. I loved every second of it. I felt so much passion for helping to inspire people to take care of the world. I spent the weekends waiting for Sunday night to arrive so I could once again do what I cared about. I worked more than I ever had, with a lot of zest and a lot of denial. At work I was enthusiastic, full of life and vigor, but after work, as I neared home, I could not help feeling the expectation that what I had experienced was a dream and that I would finally wake up, that I would find my girlfriend waiting for me. That time never came. The house became like a living tomb, and the memories racked my mind every night. For four years, I could not escape them.

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You Cannot Help but Love 

I finally reached out for what I thought was my freedom by taking a post as an environmental education coordinator in Thailand. My job required me to spend weeks with children out in the rainforests, mangroves, mountains, and river systems of Thailand, and I found the work to be very inspiring. In my free time, I visited temples, swam, relaxed by getting massages, and felt a world away from where I had once been.

One day, however, I felt more than a little challenged. A coworker who I was managing on a trip spent the whole five days angrily disputing every decision I made. It’s not that I was not open to hearing constructive criticism, but I felt she could have found ways to communicate her ideas that did not disrupt the whole group. For the first time in a while, I felt anger rise up inside me.

I needed some peace, and as I inwardly asked for it, the whole universe seemed to assist me by offering me a book from the work library, the first book I laid my eyes on: Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh. Little did I know that my life would change the moment I picked up that book.

The section entitled “Understanding” explains that if someone has shouted, acted badly, or cursed you, you should look for the reasons why he has acted in this way as opposed to getting angry yourself. Once you have done this, you will start to understand the reasons for the person’s behavior. It may be due to his relationship with his parents or friends, or some disruptive event that happened in his life. The underlying message is that once you understand, you cannot help but show love.

So I tried to find out more about my colleague and what she was going through, and gradually I began to understand why she would shout at people when she did not get her way. Instead of having negative feelings toward her, I forgave her and started to show her love, even when she continued to shout. An amazing thing happened: the ice that had developed between us started to melt and the shouting stopped. It was a wonderful way to end my time in Thailand. I also realized that I had not thought about my ex-girlfriend for a whole year. I had moved on.

True Emancipation 

I left my job and traveled for fifteen months through India, Nepal, and Canada, going on many treks, volunteering on organic farms, and teaching. For a time I helped teach English to Tibetan students. These people had been denied their independence and forced out of their country, but I witnessed no anger or recrimination in them. I had seen the same attitude in people in Burma earlier that year, and I felt humbled. I wanted to know how people could endure great wrongs without being consumed by anger and blaming. It was during an Introduction to Buddhism course in Dharamsala, India, that I found the answer.

During a meditation session at the course, my thoughts came back to my ex-girlfriend. I looked back to my experience in Thailand and remembered Thich Nhat Hanh’s wise advice to try to understand the reasons why someone has treated you badly. For the first time in a year, I actually started to think about the process and the reasons that led her to do what she did. As much as I thought that she did not conduct herself well, I started to look at what I may have done that could have influenced her to make these choices. For the first time, I started to see what I had done: taking her for granted, complaining, not listening, arguing, and getting angry when she would not act as I expected her to. I was shocked and saddened. I realized for the first time that we were both to blame.

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I started to understand, and as I understood, I accepted, and then something happened that was bigger than anything I had ever experienced in my life: I forgave her for everything she had done and how she had done it. I felt at peace with her for her actions and sent her a ream of love. I released a deep sigh of relief. Yet for the remainder of the meditation session, I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and guilt for how I had acted and what I had done. I knew that if I was to truly emancipate myself from the past, I had to do one more thing: I had to forgive myself.

I forgave myself for all that I had done, for the mistakes that I had made, and for how I had made her feel. I made a promise to be more mindful of my actions and their effects in the future. Intense emotion filled my body, and I cried like a baby. In front of fifty other meditators, I cried as if none of them were present. And in this moment of forgiveness and surrender, my pain started to release. Forgiveness, like a pair of scissors, cut the cords that had bound me for so long.

As I left the meditation course several days later, the light seemed to shine on me from on high. However, looking into the sky I could not see the sun, nor blue skies, nor white wispy clouds. The light was from within. I forgave and I was free.

My fifteen-month journey ended with a retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California. I felt as if I had come full circle. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings had helped me many months before in Thai- land and India, and set me upon this course of self-discovery and forgiveness. Now here I was, immersing myself in his teachings. It was wonderful not only to hear Thay speak and to participate in group walking meditation, but also to hear others relate their life experiences and the ways Thay’s teachings had helped them. The message of forgiveness came up many times during conversations, and it was beautiful to hear others talk about having been healed by the same advice: whenever there is a potential argument or confrontation, stop, take a few deep breaths, listen, understand, accept, and show love.

Forgiveness is not a one-stop final destination. We must continue to practice it on our daily journey. If we are to have peace in every step, then forgiveness is the path on which we tread.

mb63-Forgiveness4Ankit Rao works to inspire people to care more for the planet’s resources, explore their relationship with nature, and see a positive change in their own personal development and wider community as they immerse themselves in the earth’s natural environment.

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There Is a Purpose

By Melissa Addison-Webster

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“The love of the Buddha is possible.”
— Thich Nhat Hanh, Youth Retreat at Plum Village, 2010

Even before my spinal cord injury, I had a history of driving irresponsibly. Between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, I put my parents’ car in the ditch twice and had my license suspended for twenty-four hours for driving under the influence of alcohol. I was young and arrogant and thought I was invincible.

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On June 9, 2000, my friend Lorena and I drove to a nearby town to buy groceries. We went out for lunch and drank some beer. Back at Lorena’s place, we smoked pot, and I invited her to my place for dinner. Before heading home, I drove to the liquor store and bought Old Milwaukee, just like my dad always drank. It was a rainy spring day. I turned onto a back road. The rear wheels of my truck skidded on the loose gravel, but I drove on. Then my mind went blank, and I have no memory of what happened next.

When I regained consciousness, I was in an emergency room. The first thing I asked was if my boyfriend Sam was there. He was. Then I asked the doctor, “What is my diagnosis?” He stated frankly, “You’ve broken your neck and you’ll never walk again.” I wept uncontrollably. Sam stood over me, unable to even hold my hand because of my critical condition.

My friend Lorena had saved my life. She was driving ahead of me, and when she noticed that I was no longer following her, she turned around to find out what had happened. She found my truck in the ditch, slammed up against a driveway, and me trapped inside with my leg caught in the steering wheel. I had smashed the driver’s side window with my head and pushed out the frame with my neck. I yelled, “I’m going to go, I’m going to die!” I felt I was about to leave my body and I was terrified. Lorena physically held my energy in my body and reassured me I would survive. The fire department arrived and extricated me from the truck, and I was airlifted to a hospital in Edmonton. I was twenty-two years old.

Learning to Survive

I had sustained a major burst fracture at the seventh cervical vertebra (C7), and the medical team decided the C7 needed to be fused to the neighboring vertebra to stabilize it. The only neurosurgeon qualified to perform the surgery was away at a conference, so I had to wait twelve days before undergoing surgery. I felt trapped in a horrible dream that wouldn’t end. What had I done to myself? Why had I not learned my lesson about impaired driving? How was I going to survive?

A wonderful nurse named Irena helped me get through those weeks in the hospital. She was a Buddhist, and she kept telling me, “Change is constant.” I had been intrigued by Buddhism since learning about it in my eleventh grade religion class, so I gladly accepted her prayer beads and wisdom. She also wrote out the mantra “Om mani padme hum” for me. She told me that by chanting this mantra, I was invoking the name of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. Irena was the first of many people whose gifts helped me begin to wade through my suffering.

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After close to a month in acute care, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital, where I spent four months learning how to feed and dress myself, how to catheterize myself, and how to slide my body from my wheelchair to my bed and back again. My mental outlook on life was extremely bleak, and I started taking antidepressants to get through the darkness.

One day I was sitting alone in the physiotherapy room asking myself, “What is all this about? How can I be experiencing so much loss?” I heard a gentle, quiet voice telling me, “There is a purpose. There is a purpose.” I didn’t mention this experience to anyone because I was already having enough problems coping with reality.

My relationship with Sam was getting worse, so I made the difficult decision to leave him. I felt so much shame and self-blame for how everything had turned out. I told people I was leaving to go to university in Ontario, and I moved in with my parents.

Healing Trauma

Going to university was good for my mind, and it spurred me to become an activist. I began protesting for proper accessible parking signage at the university. The protests made the local papers, and soon after that, the university put up some signs. I was so happy! I began to see how nonviolent forms of direct action could create social change. At the same time I began organizing with antipoverty groups in the city.

As I worked for external social change, I also began exploring internal personal transformation. I started sessions with an energy worker named Lilli Swanson, who practices Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapy, which helps to heal past trauma, and she encouraged me to join her meditation group. Although my mind raced constantly in the beginning, I began to notice and wonder about the peace I felt within my body. Every morning when I woke up, I lit a candle and sat for fifteen minutes, and slowly I began to learn how to calm my mind.

In 2006 I entered a graduate program in Disability Studies in Toronto. On October 11, I was rushing to a talk by Stephen Lewis, a Canadian diplomat and social justice activist. I quickly changed lanes on a one-way street, and another driver crashed into the front of my van. The driver’s side window was smashed, I was covered in glass, and it was raining. Fortunately I was near Lilli’s house, and she came to help me. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital, went through medical tests, and relived much of the trauma of my earlier accident, except this time I had a talented healer to help me get through much of the suffering. I realized that I carried deep unresolved trauma from the first accident; in a strange way, the second accident created an opening to release some of that trauma.

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I tried to go back to graduate school but was feeling extremely anxious and unwell. Due to Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, I was not able to sleep. Soon I was trapped in enormous fear and constant paranoia. At Christmas I decided to withdraw from the program, and I moved back in with my parents again. I needed to take time to heal and mourn my spinal cord injury.

A Purposeful Life

For some time, I had been longing to practice with Thich Nhat Hanh. I deeply revered his work as an activist and peacemaker. I had been given some of his books and had found them wise and accessible. In October 2007, I drove to a retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which have become my roadmap for living a more purposeful life.

On the drive home, my moods were up and down. One moment I was overjoyed to have practiced with a teacher who worked so diligently for social justice and peace. The next minute I swung back to my old thinking patterns. I felt I could not love myself after I had received and ignored so many warnings about drinking and driving. Because of my recklessness, I had lost the use of 85% of my body. I hated myself.

I began practicing with True Peace Sangha in Toronto in 2009. The Sangha has supported my healing by being a place of refuge. I have been able to cultivate a stronger foundation of mindfulness by meditating with other people, and this has allowed me to handle my difficult emotions with more compassion. Whatever emotion I share, whether joy or sorrow or even despair, I always feel loved and held by the Sangha. With the help of a fellow Sangha member, I went to Plum Village for three weeks in 2010. This pilgrimage was a wondrous gift, and I returned to Canada with much less fear in my body and more joy in my heart.

I am learning forgiveness because I can feel it radiating from the hearts of Thay and the monastics. Thay says we cannot just have a willingness to forgive. We have to begin to see and understand the suffering within ourselves and other people. Only then is true forgiveness obtainable.

To nurture self-forgiveness, I have found guidance from Avalokiteshvara. Chanting to her and asking her to come into my heart, I have been able to cultivate more self-compassion. Through mindfulness I have learned to witness my inner narrative. For a long time, my very first thought every morning was that I had destroyed my life and didn’t deserve love. Through my meditation practice I have learned to calm these thoughts and work through my self-hatred. Meditation has increased my ability to be present. Cultivating happiness by dancing and going to the dog park is part of my practice. Making art and journaling also relieves a great amount of pain. Living according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings and practicing Touching the Earth nurture my self-forgiveness, as well.

I deeply understand that suffering is purposeful. I had to give up the ability to walk to finally be able to look at my attachments, begin to find true love, and work toward the path of liberation. Even if I could change what happened to me, I wouldn’t, because I carried enormous sorrow within me and was unfulfilled in my existence. My injury has been a wonderful catalyst. Through my transition I have learned to be tremendously thankful for what I had previously taken for granted: mobility, living in a peaceful country, just being alive.

Walking Melissa, as well as inner child Melissa, is still within me, with her wholesome seeds of love, compassion, and joy. I am slowly learning that self-love comes through forgiveness and that I am worthy of love.

The biggest gift I give to myself is to deeply embrace and make friends with my grief. Although it may feel as though I have a vast ocean of sorrow to paddle across, I know mindfulness will keep me afloat and eventually carry me across to the shore.

mb63-ThereIs5Melissa Addison-Webster, Boundless Light of the Heart, practices with the True Peace Sangha in Toronto, and is a social worker, activist, and performance artist. Presently, she is completing her studies to become a Biodynamic Craniosacral Therapist, and enjoys spending time with her cat, Nina, and gardening.

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Traveling in Thailand

The retreat is over, traveling again.

At a guest house in Nong Khai
I start to talk about my travels with this guy from Georgia

When he finds out why I’m here
and between gulps of beer he almost shouts,
“so what’s it like to be Buddhist?”

No chance to answer before more beer arrives at the table
and the conversation changes to women
young Thai women

These older foreign men are on a quest
one laments the loss of his young girlfriend
one says to another
“did you find a woman yet?”

I can’t hear his angry answer

The Georgia man, with sadness in his voice,
recounts his three weeks in a Cambodian jail
arrested for begging at a tourist beach
The conversation gets louder: women, sex,
lack of money, where to go next
beer flows, cigarettes flare

I slip away to a quiet spot by the river
away from that table of angry men
reclaiming my island of mindfulness I smile

Stopping, no more talking

Through the bamboo leaning over the water
I see a brilliant blue sky
and with great clarity
I see that our practice is where we are
with what is, with understanding

This is it and I am one with these men
Their suffering is my suffering

And with immense gratitude for the practice
I walk slowly along the trail
my compassion flowing like the massive Mekong a few feet away

— David Percival, True Wonderful Roots
Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Making Friends Out of Bullies

By David Viafora

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My co-facilitator Joanna and I sat down under an arching oak tree, watching the sunset glowing on the chaparral hillside at Deer Park Monastery. It was our last meeting before the Compassionate Cougars, our children’s group, would arrive for a family retreat. There were still activities to plan, schedules to clarify, and roles to discuss, but we just enjoyed sitting silently, feeling the coastal breeze, and breathing with the mountain, allowing it to calm our spirits. Taking care of ourselves would be our most precious offering to the young ones coming up the mountain. We were healing the child inside each of us before they arrived, returning to the fresh air in our breaths, embraced by our father oak tree and nurtured by our mother mountain.

For five days before the retreat began, the children’s program staff spent time nourishing the child within, confident that this would be the best way to prepare for the arrival of more than 100 children and teens. We played games and shared our favorite animals, colors, and happiest childhood memories. We paired up and asked each other questions about our childhoods: Did you have braces? What was your favorite recess activity? What was a funny memory? Within a short time, this group of adults was giggling like third graders. The playfulness of childhood was returning to us.

Several days before the staff arrived, I journaled about my happy childhood memories. I felt surprised by the vast reserve of joyful memories that was available, and how my reflections brought joy, vitality, and gratitude to life within me. Yet I knew that if I wanted to connect deeply with my childhood, I couldn’t just hover over one end of the spectrum of experiences. To relate authentically with young people, I needed to embrace multiple dimensions of my own childhood, including the painful sides.

Don’t Throw Away Your Suffering 

For me, developing the courage to embrace difficulty and pain has been a gift from Thay and from the Buddha. The Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing explains that one can first establish awareness of the breath and the body, and then allow feelings of joy and happiness to permeate one’s whole being. After this foundation of peace and joy is established, it is much easier to accept and embrace difficult feelings. Thay shares that when we allow painful feelings to rise up from the basement of our store consciousness to the living room of our mind consciousness, the feelings can be recognized and healed. It is healthy to allow them to circulate in our consciousness and to be tenderly embraced by our loving attention. Thanks to these teachings, I’ve found that mindfully journaling about both joyful and difficult experiences can bear fruit. One memory stood out very clearly as I allowed my mind to survey the later childhood years. While I recognized my fear and hesitation to reflect on it, I could hear Thay’s soft voice inside of me, saying, “Don’t throw away your suffering; take good care of it. Your happiness and compassion depend on it.”

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As a third, fourth, and fifth grader, I was often teased by students who were older, physically stronger, and socially influential. When I was in sixth grade, however, I had greater social standing and was also quite physically strong. Once, I was on the playground near groups of boys and girls in my class. Another boy was playing by himself near a tree. I thought that it would impress the other boys and girls if I showed I was tougher than he was, so I started making fun of him. I could intimidate him because he was less physically strong and had less social standing than I did. My intention was not to hurt the boy, but I thought picking on him would make me look cool in front of the others. He seemed to be ignoring me, but it’s difficult to know how much that experience affected him.

Even though it happened so long ago, I found it difficult to accept what I had done. I questioned, “Where was my heart at that time? How could I have treated him so insensitively and without care for his feelings?” These became koans that I worked with during the family retreat. The memory was difficult to embrace. However I also felt some goodness in the reflection, knowing that I was beginning to accept sides of myself that I did not want to acknowledge before.

Our staff had an opportunity to share about our childhood experiences. When it was my turn, I shared my happiest childhood memories, and then let down my guard and shared the difficult memory. I recognized feelings of shame and sadness arising. I felt the deep listening and acceptance of my monastic elder brother and the group. Yet toward the end of my sharing, I looked at the others, and they were all looking downward. I thought, “Oh no, I’ve shared too much suffering, and perhaps too early for this group of fairly new staff. I’m supposed to be coordinating the Children’s Program this year, and now they may be questioning my integrity and capacity as a leader.” I had confidence in the Sangha’s deep support for me, but questioned if it had been the right time to share this childhood suffering.

I tried to keep an open mind, so I could learn from whatever the experience had to teach me. The next morning, I did a love meditation for myself and touched the earth, allowing the karma of my past and my ancestors to be released. Touching the earth helped me to understand how I inherited both beautiful and wholesome ways of being, as well as unwholesome and harmful ways from my ancestors—especially my land ancestors—when I was young. Since then, I have been working to transform them.

I reflected on the causes and conditions that allowed the painful interaction to happen. It was not an isolated incident, but rather a pattern of behaviors that took many forms. I was a victim of much bullying and teasing during the third, fourth, and fifth grades. I felt inferior to others as they treated me unkindly to raise their own feelings of power and superiority. The school culture had a strong effect on me. I received a transmission of unkindness and domination, which I then transmitted to children who were less socially and physically strong than me. Being bullied and bullying others appeared as two sides of the same coin. Understanding myself as a victim, it became easier to understand and forgive myself for what I had done. Understanding myself as a bully, it was easier to forgive and understand those who treated me this way.

Two Ways of Being Popular 

During the family retreat, I read the children a story called “How to Make Friends” by Robert Aitken, a pioneering American Zen master. Mr. Aitken shared about a time when he was a nerdy, scrawny young kid with glasses. One day at school, he tried to say something to a group of boys he admired. The head boy teased the young Robert while the other boys laughed. At the time, Robert hated those boys. Later, he understood that the boy probably acted that way to feel important in front of others. Mr. Aitken explained that there are two ways of being popular: the fake way and the true way. The fake way is when you make others afraid of you by talking about them and being rude to them. A truly popular person, however, tries to be decent and kind to everyone. He becomes popular because everyone feels safe to be themselves around him. Mr. Aitken wrote that if one person can be truly popular and decent to everyone, the entire school can change, because treating others in this way can be contagious.

After the young Cougars heard the story, silence pervaded, even among the loud and rowdy kids. They were touched because the story resonated with the stories of their own lives. One by one, the children started sharing personal experiences of being around fake popular kids, and how it felt to be teased. One boy shared that he often hung out with the fake popular kids because he felt safer. He said they wouldn’t hassle him when he was on their side. He admitted that it was sad to see other kids treated unkindly. A very kind and mature girl disclosed that she often hung out with fake popular kids and felt a sense of power. She did not feel as afraid when she was with them. In the past, she had been called a nerd for being smart, and although she shrugged it off, it was still difficult to be treated that way. Others shared that being teased or hassled was a part of everyday life at school for them.

As the children shared, a strong bond of sympathy and understanding naturally arose in the group. They seemed to understand each others’ suffering, despite being at different schools. This manifested strongly during one boy’s sharing. The boy was very talented in playing with a yo-yo. He recounted a time when he was yo-yo-ing at school, and some kids walked by and called him a freak. It was a visibly painful experience for him. The other Cougars were silent after he shared, and I could feel them listening deeply and sympathizing. After the silence, kids began to offer their support: “Oh, no way! I’m sure they’re just jealous of you. It’s because you are so awesome!”

This boy had a chance to share his yo-yo skills with our group, and he received a lot of positive affirmations; the other kids and facilitators were really impressed! Later in the retreat, many of the kids encouraged him to present his yo-yo skills during the performance night. They enthusiastically offered their support: “Yeah, we got your back. We’ll cheer you on and say, ‘Yep, he’s in my family.’” They told him, “We’d be proud of you.” His past suffering was visibly transformed in the present, as he felt the love of his friends and community.

Loving the Victim and the Bully 

A few of the children had been coming to Deer Park regularly for several years. I asked them to share about how they dealt with teasing and bullying. One boy shared that in the past, kids would try to tease him, and although he didn’t like it, he just ignored them. Once, he simply told them, “Can you please stop it?” He continued to ignore them and they stopped trying to pick on him. Another girl shared that a few years before, she had recognized that there were true friends and fake friends in her social group. When one person was gone, others would say unkind things about that person. She was afraid of how they would talk about her. She stopped contributing to the behavior, and then others stopped as well. She moved on and developed different friendships that she could count on.

Despite our past failed attempts to hold discussions with the Cougars for more than fifteen minutes, this discussion lasted over an hour and fifteen minutes. They spoke with the sincerity and wisdom of adults, because the topic was so real to their lives. The concentration in the group was solid. I listened, enthralled by the authenticity and depth of their sharing. They had a very safe and open space to share. I could understand the children who shared their buried feelings of frustration and pain as victims of bullying. And I could also listen with empathy to those who were initiating such unkindness toward their peers. I had been the victim and I had been the bully, and I lovingly accepted each of those sides of myself. So now I could really be one with each of the children.

The children produced a collective insight that kids who were bullying and popular in the fake way were suffering themselves. I shared with the children that bullies hurt others because they may have been hurt in the past, and they learned to do that to others; they hadn’t had an opportunity to grow enough love in their hearts. I shared with the children, yet I was also sharing with the eleven-year-old within me. I was answering my koan: “How could I have acted in an unkind way toward that poor boy? Where was my heart at that time?” Listening to the children’s deep sharing allowed the child inside of me to heal again. Now, from time to time, I send a prayer of lovingkindness to the boy on the playground. I don’t know if he will receive it, yet I trust that we will meet again, perhaps in different forms. And I feel his smile for that, because now we can be friends again.

After the retreat, I checked in with a few of my fellow staff brothers and sisters. “May I ask for your feedback about what I shared that evening about my childhood? Do you think that I was sharing too much raw suffering for the group at that time?” They looked at me, surprised, and said that it felt like the right thing for me to share. One very sweet sister said, “David, I thought it was very courageous of you to share that part of your childhood. I was only looking down because I was remembering my own bullying behavior as a kid. Boy, I was really a bully back then.” I was so surprised. We both laughed and smiled at our eleven-year- old selves.

mb63-MakingFriends3David Viafora, True Mountain of Meditation, is currently living at Deer Park Monastery. He has the most fun practicing with the Dharma Bum Kids Sangha and the World Beat Kids Sangha in San Diego, as well as the children’s and teens’ programs at Deer Park.

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Healing the Past in the Present

By David Ostwald 

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Sitting awkwardly at my first Sangha meeting in 1998, I was feeling both ill at ease and curious. But by the time we’d finished reading the Five Mindfulness Trainings, those feelings had been transformed to excitement and certainty: I had found my path. One phrase in particular grabbed my attention: “I am determined to make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.” It was an intention I was ready to embrace. (This sentence from the fourth training was not continued in the 2009 revision.)

Over the next months, I phoned some people with whom I had conflicts in order to reopen our fractured dialogues; to others I wrote letters of apology and appreciation. I gave a substantial sum of money to an old girlfriend, who in our years together had carried the majority of the financial burden. I thought I was making good progress until a more experienced practitioner quietly suggested that I might also want to apply the phrase to my internal conflicts. A crevasse opened at my feet; I had only addressed the tip of the iceberg.

Old Knots Loosening 

In spite of growing up in pleasantly cushioned middle class surroundings with well-intentioned parents, I received my share of wounds. And, like most of us, I developed compensatory behaviors in response. In my case, one of the most potent was taking on the role of the “good boy.” It was remarkably effective at the time, but now, more than sixty years later, it’s become a useless burden. Unfortunately, since my parents have been dead for many years, I only have the mom and dad I have internalized with whom to work out a more healthy and realistic position.

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One practice I tried, as a way to shed some useless behaviors, was to close my (almost) daily meditations by offering gratitude to my parents. Sometimes I focused on one parent, sometimes on both; sometimes for something specific—their wonderful curiosity, their trust; other times for something more general—their efforts to be good parents, or just for being who they were. Gradually, over the course of several months, I experienced small heart openings and old knots loosening: appreciation replacing hostility, flashes of anger replaced by understanding.

It was when I wanted to go deeper that I began to appreciate the power of Thay’s insight that we can heal the past in the present. As he points out, not only are all our blood ancestors alive in our very DNA, but so are all our life experiences—including the unresolved conflicts of those who raised us.

As my suffering was lessened by practicing compassionate meditation, I realized that I needed to be in touch with the suffering of the child that I still carried with me. Secure in this understanding, I began focusing on reconciling my conflicts with my mother. Several meditations in Blooming of a Lotus proved helpful, particularly those that encouraged us to look at ourselves and our parents as five-year-olds. Experimenting with the wording of these meditations—for example, choosing different ages for my mother—brought further gains. (I would imagine that for those of us who have stepparents or are adopted, there are probably other fruitful variations.)

Embracing my Inner Child 

Another helpful version was offered by Dharma teacher Lyn Fine. She suggested I begin with myself as a one-year-old and then, inhalation by inhalation, work up toward the present: “Breathing in, I am aware of my suffering as a one-year-old; breathing out, I embrace my one-year-old in arms of compassion.” “Breathing in, I am aware of my suffering as a two-year-old,” etc. I have found that some years arouse little or no effect, whereas for others, strong feelings well up. When I experience a “hot spot,” I try to look deeply at the emotions. How many causes and conditions can I discern?

Once, I found myself riveted in fascination when I inhaled “one,” and remembered lying tiny and helpless on an icy rubber sheet. The image was accompanied by feelings of loneliness and profound abandonment. I’m sure my practical scientist mother just laid me down in my bassinet for a moment as she prepared to tenderly bathe me. But wouldn’t someone less self-involved have extended her empathy to understand how vulnerable being left naked on that cold sheet might feel? At the same time, I began to wonder about my own needs. I know my mother was nursing me at that age; why do I not recall the loving warmth of that experience? Is there something in me which cries out, “More…give me more, ever more love?”

Another time, I successfully got by “one” only to stumble into a memory pit at “two,” the year my brother was born. Cradling my feelings, I was able to experience my self-centered, decades-old interpretation that his birth was an act of hostility by my parents. I chuckled. It was a rueful laugh, but I felt freer nonetheless.

Embracing my Mother 

Another technique I tried was writing my mom several long and painful love/hate letters. I could only send them by “internal mail,” but it was helpful nonetheless. Ultimately, it was making her hurtful behaviors the object of my meditations that provided real breakthroughs—although not right away. Significant change began only when I acknowledged that she, too, was scarred by suffering; that her suffering was mine, and mine was hers.

Many of my childhood hurts arose out of my mother’s inability to maintain her loving attention for more than twenty minutes. Hundreds of times, I reveled in her warm, loving support only to find myself abruptly “abandoned.” Naturally, like most children, I assumed I was doing something wrong. However, once I was able to embrace her with compassion, I recognized how damaged she was by painful events in her early life, which, of course, had nothing to do with me. How she must have suffered at age nine, when her mother left to be with her lover! No wonder she was fearful of being close to anyone for too long; she might be abandoned again—maybe even by me!

I rejoice in the healing and reconciliation that I am finding through my practice. At the same time, I often feel disappointed; growth seems to come so slowly. I have to remind myself that for every Buddhist story about moments of sudden enlightenment, there are at least as many about dedicated practitioners who sit, search, and question for the better part of their lives. Indeed, even after his enlightenment, Buddha practiced every day!

mb63-Healing3David Ostwald, True Path of Equanimity, has been practicing in Thay’s tradition since 1998. With his wife, Birgitte Moyer-Vinding, he facilitates the Flowing Waters Sangha in Portola Valley, California. David strives to extend mindfulness practice into his work as an opera stage director and as an educator teaching acting to singers.

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Forgive Us Our Trespasses

Pardoning an Imperfect Church 

By Brother Phap Kinh 

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Three times a day, around mealtimes, the brothers living in Upper Hamlet and Son Ha Temple of Plum Village can hear bells chiming from nearby churches. Whereas these bells used to call Christian practitioners to prayer, nowadays they mainly serve as simple reminders of the time of day. The bells are not rung by a human hand. Without enough priests in France to go around to every church, many are not open to the public.

In September 2011, eight Buddhist monks and thirteen nuns from Plum Village went for a “pilgrimage” to Abbeye Saint-Pierre, a living Benedictine monastery that is home to some fifty monks, in Solesmes, France. Our stay was part of a fraternal exchange between the two monasteries. Every two years, two monks from Solesmes come to Plum Village for a short retreat, and two years later, members from our monastic community return the visit.

Elder Plum Village monastics such as Sister Jina initiated this interfaith dialogue with our Christian counterparts, opening many doors within the Solesmes monastery and to the hearts of its monks. For those of us from the Western world, this pilgrimage is the realization of our teacher’s will for us to return to our source, water our ancestral roots, and honor a common monastic tradition going back over two thousand years. For our Vietnamese brothers and sisters, it was a chance to learn about European monastic culture. It was also the first time most of us from the West had stepped foot in a Christian monastery.

Some of us with Christian backgrounds were motivated by a desire to reconcile with our past and with the Catholic Church. Although monastics are free, and even encouraged, to embrace our original spiritual ancestors, it is not always easy to feel connected. Some of us suffered in our religions of origin.

A Living Church 

My father’s family was Polish Catholic and my mother was Orthodox, from Montenegro. I was born in a Catholic hospital in Juneau, Alaska, and attended a Catholic grade school and later a Jesuit all-boys high school. Many Polish Catholic families dream of having a priest or nun as one of their family members, and my Polish grandmother prayed I would become a priest.

Over the years, I have had many misgivings about the church and Christianity. I had never forgiven the Catholic Church for requiring my mother to abandon her family’s religion in order to marry my father. As a result, a tradition was lost to us. Since becoming a Buddhist monk, I have felt relatively at peace with my past, though my stay at Solesmes was a test to see if I had more wounds to heal and bridges to mend.

The first impression that many of us had upon entering the Abbey church, the heart of the Saint-Pierre monastery, was its vitality. The church felt alive, by virtue of the many monks praying and singing in it seven times a day. The well-being of the monastery was reflected in its gardens, buildings, and cloistered walks. I realized that this was my first time experiencing a truly living Catholic church.

The feeling of familiarity and brotherhood was strong and heartfelt from the moment we arrived. When the bells were rung during our stay, we saw the monk who was pulling the cord. And rather than simply reminding the locals that it was time for lunch, the bells corresponded to the chants and prayers inside the church, sung and spoken by a community of brothers who had dedicated their lives to beauty and worship.

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This insight brought me to a deeper understanding of the suffering of the Catholic Church that I had known all of my life. The hospital and school in Juneau, run by missionary sisters, were closed during my childhood, as has been the case for countless churches throughout Europe and the Americas in recent decades. But even before they had closed, the nuns had difficulty fulfilling their mission as their numbers dwindled. And if enrollment was still high in the Jesuit high school I attended, there was a sense that the priests were losing their grip on the situation, as the times, they were a-changin’. Sometimes the Church tried to hold on by asserting authority, but to increasingly deaf ears. Looking back, I see that we were living in the shell of a church past its prime. Individual members certainly tried their best, but the church as a whole lacked life and joy.

My experience in Plum Village is quite the opposite. If we lack the resources of the Catholic Church, we are nevertheless expanding and full of vitality. Our community seemed very young to the Benedictine brothers of Solesmes, and they were amazed by our numbers and the centers we have opened worldwide. Our relatively short existence—Plum Village celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, whereas Solesmes celebrated its 1000th year in 2010—makes everything we do modest in scale and scope. For example, it is hard to imagine Plum Village monastics running a hospital or a school. But our community is marked by a sense of being at the beginning, rather than at the end, of something major, something with the potential to flourish and last for centuries. Whatever forms the future may take, we know that we are the first generation of a Buddhism newly planted in the West.

Observing the life of our Benedictine brothers, the longevity of their vocation, and the depth and beauty of their practice, I was overcome with compassion for those within it who know that the Church has seen more glorious days. And yet the brothers continue to garden, build furniture, and publish books. Although their numbers are waning, they seem content to have four novices in their fold. They know that throughout history, conditions have come and gone, and that monastic life in Europe has alternately thrived and suffered throughout periods of revolution, war, and famine, but also of stability, peace, and feast. These dedicated brothers have chosen to offer their life to humanity, singing and praying for its well-being.

Rooted in Gratitude 

Looking with compassion, I no longer feel a need to fault the Church for what I may once have perceived as its arrogance, dogmatism, narrowness, discrimination, or exclusivity. I am thankful for the excellent education I received from nuns who were far from home and doing their best with very limited means. If some priests were unable to answer satisfactorily my spiritual queries, others took good care of my family in times of need. They made mistakes, but so have, and so will, we. Our teacher does not ask us to be perfect; he only asks us to try our best. And at the very heart of Jesus’ many wonderful teachings is to love and forgive both others and ourselves, unconditionally, and in spite of all our so-called trespasses.

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The practice of Beginning Anew allows us to praise others’ strengths, convey gratitude, and express our regrets and suffering. It was in a spirit of beginning anew and reconciliation that during a visit last summer to the town of my birth—my first as a monk—I visited my former grade school and parish church. Alone in the church, I touched the earth in gratitude to my teachers and spiritual ancestors from that branch of the great tree. I also attended a mass in the Catholic cathedral followed by a chanted vespers service in the Orthodox church just across the street. In so doing, I honored my ancestors on both sides of my family tree.

If my visit to Solesmes served to reaffirm my engagement to my current monastic life in Plum Village, it also filled me with admiration and love for the beautiful path of our monastic brothers and sisters in Christian monasteries. We are because they are. And in the true spirit of equanimity as taught by our teacher, I sincerely hope that others will follow their path, which is parallel to and not in competition with the one I currently follow.

Before inviting the great bell in Upper Hamlet, I thank my spiritual ancestors, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, and Buddhist alike, for sending me to Plum Village. I feel very fortunate to have these three roots. Thay teaches us that a tree with multiple roots is stronger than one with a single root. In this lifetime, I became a Buddhist monk rather than a Christian priest. I believe my grandparents in me are all pleased with my choice because I am here for our collective happiness and well-being. I dedicate my monastic life to my ancestors, as well as to all my friends and loved ones, and to the entire international mahasangha.

When I invite the great bell, I express the wish that all people, animals, vegetables, and minerals will be happy and free of suffering. And when I listen to the chimes from nearby Christian churches, I now think with maitri and gratitude of my brothers in Solesmes going off to chant, and I take them as melodious bells of mindfulness. May every minute and every second of our days and nights be well. 

mb63-Forgive4Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Brother Christopher is a novice monk in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born in Juneau, Alaska, and lived in Paris for twenty-five years before ordaining. He likes hiking, singing, climbing trees, and watching butterflies and clouds.

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Dear Grandma

By John Salerno-White 

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August 7, 2007 

I’ve just returned from a trip-of-a-lifetime to Africa and am in the midst of preparing for another trip-of-a-lifetime to Plum Village. With four days to prepare, I’m very involved with checking my packing list, brushing up on my French, and making certain that I understand all of my plane and rail connections.

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While looking through the papers from Plum Village, I notice that on Wednesday, July 11, we will be celebrating Ancestors Remembrance Day. This makes me even more joyful about the retreat, because I know many of the wonderful seeds in me have been nurtured by my most recent ancestors.

As I make an inventory of the gifts from my ancestors, I acknowledge:

From my mother, I received a deep appreciation of non-human beings. Trees, mountains, sky, wind, clouds…all of these were to be loved, treasured, and respected.

From her mother, I learned unconditional love. When we grandchildren involved ourselves in thoughtless, unhelpful activities, we knew that she still loved us and accepted us wholly.

From her father, I learned much about equanimity. He had the great gift of helping newly met people understand that they were seen as friends.

From my father, I learned how to be still. He showed me that if one sat quietly in the forest, it would become possible to see what was really there.

I now move on to the memory of my father’s mother. From that grandmother, I received the helpful gift of…

A feeling of loss and emptiness fall over me as I realize that I can’t recall anything of value imparted to me by that grandmother.

There is only a feeling of being judged by her as not being quite good enough. I find this very unsettling.

All three of these grandparents lived close to me in San Francisco, and I spent much time with them. I trust that through looking deeply, I can contact the wholesome seeds within me that have been watered by my father’s mother.

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I sit down on the bed and breathe for several minutes. Nothing but blankness presents itself.

I take the memories of my grandmother and mentally sling them over my shoulder. Grandma, right now I can’t see how you have helped me, but I’m taking you with me to Plum Village. We’ll work on this together, once we get there.

August 10, 2007 

I’ve been in Plum Village for a few days. Tomorrow is Ancestors Remembrance Day. Sitting in my room, looking out the window at the green trees, I invite my grandmother to join me. I do my best to see who my grandmother was, yet still cannot see how she is helping me.

Dear Grandma, I don’t know all of who you were. I never felt as close to you as I did to my other Grandma. I do recall receiving nurturing presents, birthday cards, and family meals, but I feel that there must be something more important that I’m missing.

Dear Grandma, we are so different, you and I. The Catholic tradition was a very important factor in your daily life. I remember you reciting prayers with your rosary beads. You had crucifixes in your home’s bedrooms and I recall a picture of the sacred heart of Jesus. You prayed very regularly. You went to church on days other than Sundays—on days when religious practice did not require your attendance. Grandma, I do not follow these religious practices. I am not like you at all!

OH!

I have a mala made of bodhi seeds that I use to count my breaths. I have several Buddha statues in my home. Thay’s calligraphy hangs on a wall. I sit in the morning and I sit in the evening. I come back to my true home as often as possible. I love being in a local Buddhist temple and find comforting joy in the presence of monastics. I have just travelled far to join other practitioners in a monastery.

Dear Grandma, I am you!

Thanks for all you’ve given me. Thanks for helping me to become deeply involved with this wonderful practice. I now see how you have been very important in making all this possible. I’m so glad that you came here with me.

Dear Grandma, please excuse me for taking so long to appreciate your positive influence in my present life.

Let’s go outside for a walk.

John Salerno-White, True Peace on Earth, teaches high school chemistry and lives in Vacaville, California. He facilitates three local Sanghas: Light Heart Sangha (Vacaville), SammaSankappa Sangha (at California Medical Facility State Prison, Vacaville), and Fresh Breeze Sangha (Davis).

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Ten Breaths for Happiness

By Glen Schneider 

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The Ten Breath Practice is a simple, concrete way to nourish our seeds of happiness and joy. It involves allowing ourselves to be “caught” by something wonderful during the course of our day: a sight, a sound, a feeling. When this happens, we stop and offer it our full presence. Something shows up for us, so we show up for it. You can practice it anywhere, anytime. It can change you and your relationship with the universe.

This practice is based on recent neuroscience, in which three important discoveries have been made about nourishing happiness and joy.

  1. Our brain is organized in clusters of neurons known as “neural pathways,” which are created when similar chemical signals are repeatedly fired among these Mental traffic tends to follow existing, readily available routes, regardless of whether the neural pathway is appropriate, accurate, or beneficial. The more we use a route, the more available it becomes. “What fires together, wires together.”
  2. The human organism is preferentially wired, overwhelmingly, to recognize dangers and Survival is the priority. Happiness and joy are optional behaviors.
  3. Neuroscientists have estimated that it takes about thirty seconds to firmly root a new neural So with awareness and practice, we can develop our beneficial pathways. New neural networks become more firmly rooted with the length of time something is held in awareness and with the intensity of the emotional stimulation. As new connections are created and used repeatedly, footpaths eventually become freeways. With practice, we can re-wire our brains so that patterns of happiness become habitual, authentic, and deeply nourishing.

As Zen meditators, we are accustomed to following our breath, so we can use ten breaths as the measure of time needed to set a new pathway. Suppose a flower catches our attention while we’re walking outdoors. We pause and simply present ourselves to the flower without judgment, commentary, or analysis. We behold it through awareness of our breathing—bringing mind and body together—and we count each breath cycle: “one, two, three,” all the way to ten. While breathing, please bring into awareness your emotions and body sensations. Let the experience be as intense as possible. See if you can open up every cell of your body to the experience.

Distractions or doubts may arise. “I’ve got other things to do.” “This isn’t working; this is boring.” “This really isn’t such a great flower after all.” You might feel foolish or you might break out in tears. The important thing is to find a way to count to ten, to really set and anchor the new neural pathway. And when you reach ten, why not count to twelve, or twenty? The sky’s the limit.

The Ten Breath Practice engages the teacher within. What catches your attention is entirely, uniquely up to you. How you behold this experience and allow it to penetrate is also totally up to you. Out of your own sustained awareness, you will create and strengthen new neural pathways. Your mind will grow, and the next time you encounter a flower, your experience of it will be easier, more familiar, and deeper. Good luck!

mb63-TenBreaths2Glen Schneider, True Attainment of Concentration, is a Dharmacharya and founder of the Buckeye Sangha in Berkeley, California. A naturalist/gardener, he is writing a natural history field guide to the East Bay part of the San Francisco area. He has two daughters, Rosa and Lily (pictured).

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Peanut Butter Love Balls

By David Viafora and Sangha Youth 

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During the September 2011 retreat at Deer Park Monastery, the young people offered their creativity, fun, and love to the Sangha by raising money for children in impoverished conditions around the world. Within the Children’s Program, we incorporated mindful eating and looking deeply into the sources of our food, cultivating gratitude by recognizing our many conditions of happiness, working in harmony and caring for each other, skillfully relating to money without greed, generating compassion for others, and finding ways to help those in real need.

The Children’s Program would like to thank Sister Jewel for pioneering similar activi­ties in Plum Village and the EIAB, and Terri Cortes-Vega for her well-explained practice of making Interbeing Peanut Butter Balls with kids  (Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children, 2011).

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The success stories are best told by the children themselves.

The Children’s Program has been talking about helping less fortunate children in the world. While discussing one day, we thought of ways to help these people. We came up with the idea of making cookies to sell to make money to donate to these people. We used many ingredients and experimented with many materials, including cranberries, raisons, almonds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, honey, oats, and peanut butter. The next day at lunch, we sold them to the Sangha and had so much fun. After that day, everybody wanted to make a second batch. A day later, David finally let us make another batch. We made about 125 that day, and sold them at dinner. We had fun all over again. On Saturday before the Question & Answer, we presented Thay and the Sangha the money, $450. I think the best part of all was the teamwork and fun we had.
-Manda Nguyen-Sanh, age 10

Over the past few days, we have made Peanut-Butter-Cookies to raise money for children in of food. The cookies were called Interbeing Peanut Butter Balls, Cosmo Coconut Balls, Peanut Love Logs, Everything in Everything Balls, and Choco Coco Balls. We made a lot of money and it was very fun. I hope we can make these again sometime!! :)
-BoiAn Nguyen-Sanh, age 7

As we made the cookies, I thought about how many poor/hungry children would be helped with our money. I noticed that the Sangha donated more money when they found out about our cause. One lady even donated a check of $50! The next day, when she came back for more cookies, we treated her to a complimentary cookie. Other people donated five, ten, and twenty dollars for only one or two cookies. I was amazed, and also happy for all the children that were going to be fed. The day after, my friend Dalia and I, as the oldest of the children, were chosen to represent the Children’s Program in front of the Sangha before Thay’s Question and Answer session. I was honored to represent my friends in front of so many people, the monastics, and Thay. I hope that after reading this, all the Children’s Programs will do something like it to donate to the less fortunate.
A lotus to the Sangha.
Thank you.
-Quynh Nguyen-Sanh, age 12

What I liked best about making the cookies was that we put our love into the cookies and we made them as mindfully and peacefully as we could. We’d spoon out some of the batter and for each spoonful we would say love or joy. We sat at a table to sell them, we sold out in 15 MINUTES. People loved them! We saved a couple for ourselves and when we ate them we thought about the ingredients and what was in them. For example there is a cloud in them because a cloud rains and the rain gives water to a peanut tree and we get peanuts from the peanut tree and we u se the peanuts to make peanut butter. The End.
-Sabine, age 10

We made cookies to sell so that we could get money for kids that r starving all over the world. It was really fun making and selling the cookies.I particularly liked making the chocolate ones. I hope that the hungry kids will be happy!
-Mischa, age 11

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