Dharma Talk: Finding Our True Home

March 28, 2004 – Colors of Compassion Retreat

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb37-dharma1On March 28th, at the end of the three-month winter retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Sangha offered a three-day retreat called Colors of Compassion, for people of color. Three hundred retreatants gathered to practice mindfulness, listen to teachings, and share with one another the experiences of joy and suffering that come from being a person of color.  

This section begins with a powerful talk by Thay, given on the last day of the retreat. Following is a story of a courageous couple who escaped Vietnam as boat people, exemplifying Thay’s famous poem, Call Me By My True Names. Also included is an interview with Sister Chau Nghiem, the organizer and registrar of the Colors of Compassion retreat, and a selection of stories and poems of insight offered by retreatants. 

mb37-dharma2There are white people who live in the United States but still do not feel that they have a home here. They want to leave because they don’t feel comfortable with the economic, political, and military policies of this country. In Vietnam it’s the same. There are those who have Vietnamese nationality but who do not feel that Vietnam is their true home They do not feel loved or understood, and they do not feel that they have a future there, so they want to leave their country.

Who amongst us has a true home? Who feels comfortable in their country? After posing this question to the retreatants for contemplation, I responded. I said: “I have a home, and I feel very comfortable in my home.” Some people were surprised at my response, because they know that for the last thirty-eight years I have not been allowed to return to Vietnam to visit, to teach, or to meet my old friends and disciples. But although I have not been able to go back to Vietnam, I am not in pain, I do not suffer, because I have found my true home.

My true home is not in France where Plum Village practice center is located. My true home is not in the United States. My true home cannot be described in terms of geographic location or in terms of culture. It is too simplistic to say I am Vietnamese. In terms of nationality and culture, I can see very clearly a number of national and cultural elements in me –– Indonesian, Malaysian, Mongolian, and others. There is no separate nationality called Vietnamese; the Vietnamese culture is made up of other cultural elements.

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There are elements of Chinese, French, and Indian culture in me. You cannot take these out of me. If you remove them, I will not be the person who is sitting here. In me there are also cultural elements from Africa, and beautiful elements of Native American culture in me. In my room I hang a dream catcher so I can contemplate my dreams just for fun.

I have a home that no one can take away, and I feel very comfortable in that home. In my true home there is no discrimination, no hatred, because I have the desire and the capacity to embrace everybody, every race, and I have the aspiration, the dream to love and help all peoples and all species. I do not feel there is anyone who is my enemy. Even if they are pirates, terrorists, communists, or anti-communists, I do not have enemies. That is why in my true home I feel very comfortable.

I heard the story of a young Japanese American man who went into a café. While he was drinking his coffee he heard two young men talking in Vietnamese and crying. The young Japanese American man asked them in English: “Why are you crying?” The Vietnamese men said: “We cannot go back to our country, our homeland. The government there will not allow us to go back.” The Japanese American man got upset and said: “This is not worth crying over. Even though you are in exile and cannot go back to your country, you still have a country, a place where you belong. But I do not have a country to go back to.

“I was born and raised in the United States, and culturally I am American. But I feel uncomfortable because Americans do not truly accept me; they see me as foreigner. So I went to Japan and tried to make it my home. But when I arrived the Japanese people told me that the way I speak and behave are not Japanese and I was not accepted as a Japanese person. So, even though I have an American passport and even though I can go to Japan, I do not have a home. But you do have a home.”

Like the Japanese American in the story, there are many young Asian Americans who have been born and raised in the United States, who are American in their way of thinking and acting, and they want to be seen as true Americans, immersed in this culture. But other Americans do not accept them as Americans because their skin color is yellow. They feel sad and want to go back to Japan, Korea, or Vietnam to find their home. They think: If it’s not in America, my home has to be somewhere else. But they don’t fit in with the culture of their ancestral country either. Other Asians call them “Bananas” because though their skin is yellow, inside they are white, completely American. This also happens to African Americans who go to Africa but aren’t accepted there.

This is not to say that white people have found their home and feel comfortable in the United States. Just like Vietnamese people in Vietnam, many people do not feel comfortable in their own country and want to go elsewhere. Very few among us have found their true home. Even though we have nationality, we have citizenship, and a passport that allows us to go anywhere in the world, we still do not have a home.

Life Is Our True Home 

In the Colors of Compassion retreat we have learned and practiced to be in contact with our true home, the true home that cannot be described by geographical area, culture, or race.

Every time we listen to the sound of the bell in Deer Park or in Plum Village, we silently recite this poem: “I listen, I listen, this wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” Where is our true home that we come back to? Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret. Our true home is not the past; it is not the object of our regrets, our yearning, our longing, or remorse. Our true home is not the future; it is not the object of our worries or fear. Our true home lies right in the present moment. If we can practice according to the teaching of the Buddha and return to the here and now, then the energy of mindfulness will help us to establish our true home in the present moment.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, the Pure Land lies in the present moment; nirvana and liberation lie in the present moment. All of our spiritual and blood ancestors are here if we know how to come back to the present moment. My true home is the Pure Land, my true home is true life, so I do not suffer or seek, I do not run after anything anymore. I very much want all of you who have come here for the retreat, whether your color is black, white, brown, or yellow, to also be able to practice the teaching of the Buddha in order to come back to the present moment, penetrate that moment and discover your true home. I have found my true home. I do not seek, I do not worry, I do not suffer anymore. I have happiness, and I want all of my friends, students, and disciples to be able to reach your true home and stop trying to find it in space, time, culture, territory, nationality, or race.

The Buddha offers us wonderful practices so we can end our worries, our suffering, our seeking, our regrets, and so we can be in contact with the wonders of life right in the present moment. When we have the mind of nondiscrimination, we can open our arms to embrace all people and all species and everybody can become the object of our love. When we can do this, we have a true home that no one can take away from us. Even if they occupy our country or put us in prison, our true home is still ours, and they can never take it away. I speak these words to the young people, to those of you who feel that you have never had a home. I speak these words to the parents who feel that the old country is no longer your home but that the new country is not yet your home. Perhaps you can grasp this practice so you can find your true home and help your children find their true home. This is what I wish for you.

Civilization Is Openness and Tolerance 

If you have only one way of thinking, one way of behaving, then you are confined to the limits of your culture. With your habitual way of thinking, you imprison yourself and you cannot understand the suffering, the difficulties, the dreams of people of other races or other nationalities. You have a view about freedom, about happiness, about the future, and you want to force that view upon other cultures, other nations, other groups of people, and you create suffering for them. You think that everybody has to follow a certain economic model, a certain way of thinking, and only then are they civilized. When you think in this way, you have tied yourself up with a rope, and you cause danger and suffering for yourself and others.

We need to learn to let go and be open to other ways of thinking and behaving. We should not think of ourselves as superior in terms of race, science, or ideology. We have to practice to open our hearts, to learn about other cultures and other ways of thinking and behaving, so we can establish communication with people of other nations. If you were born and raised in the United States you should not let the American culture imprison you. Try to learn about the country your parents and ancestors came from. This will help you develop good communication with your parents and your ancestors; otherwise you may be cut off from the cultural stream that is one of your deepest roots.

Do not think that the culture and education you received growing up in the United States is superior; this is narrow-minded. We have to open our hearts to learn about the cultures of Asians, Africans, Europeans, and others. Europeans think and behave differently than Americans, even though many Americans have European ancestors. When we have a stubborn attitude, caught in the values, culture, and way of thinking of our own civilization, we are narrow-minded and isolated. The United States right now is isolated politically and militarily, and in the way Americans think and respond to violence and terrorism. It is not the same as the way Europeans think and respond. We need to listen to the Europeans and to people of other nations. We need to learn to let go of the view that our way of reacting and behaving is the best. When we are able to practice the Buddha’s teaching and come back to the present moment, we are in contact with our true home. Then we are not narrow-minded, we are not discriminating, and our hearts are open to embrace all races, all cultures.

Tomb37-dharma4 be civilized means to be open-minded, to offer space to others to live according to their views. Civilization is opening our arms to embrace all races, all people, all species; it is not thinking that our race or our culture is superior to all others. If young people can open their hearts wide to learn about their own and other cultures, they will begin to have rich insights. They can help those who are still isolated and caught in their own culture to come together with those from other cultures. This will allow understanding and acceptance to grow, remove boundaries, and heal conflicts.

Speaking to Young People 

If you have a great aspiration to learn about other cultures, to go to other countries and to help people accept and understand each other, you have a very great ideal. With that ideal you will not get stuck in despair, blaming others for your difficulties; instead your life will be very meaningful. I am sharing these words with the young people. Many young people have no path and don’t know what to do with their life each day. So they turn to drugs or alcohol and waste their lives. This is such a pity, because each young person can become a great bodhisattva, a great enlightened being whose deepest desire is to help people and bring together those who are separated by hatred or cultural difference.

Dear Sangha, I don’t want to be narrow-minded. I don’t say that Vietnamese culture is the best. Vietnam has many good things, but also many negative things. Buddhism has many good things, but also many negative things. One shortcoming of Buddhism is that we just talk, talk, talk about Buddhism but we do not practice. We can talk beautifully about nonself but we have a big sense of self, a huge ego.

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I have the capacity to see the good and beautiful things in other cultures and spiritual traditions. My true home is vast, immense. And my two arms can embrace all nations and all religions. I do not hate, I do not have any enemies, even the terrorists and those who wage war on terrorism. I only love them. I just want the opportunity to come close to them, listen to them, and help them to let go of their wrong perceptions, hatred, and violence. I do not hate dictators, communists, or anti-communists. I want to come close to them, help them understand, and let go of the views they are caught in.

There is no hatred in my true home; therefore I have happiness. Even though there is discrimination, violence, and craving in life, I use these things as nourishment for my practice. It is just like a garden: wherever there are flowers there has to be garbage. If you leave flowers for five or ten days they will become garbage. An intelligent gardener will collect all the garbage to make compost and so bring forth an abundance of fruits and flowers. It is not a matter of not having garbage, it is a matter of knowing how to transform garbage into flowers.

Surrounding us are many wonders: the blue sky, the white clouds, the blossoming flowers, the singing birds, the majestic mountains, the flowing rivers, countless animals and birds, the sunlight, the fog, the snow; innumerable wonders of life. The Kingdom of God is here in the present moment, but because we have hatred and discrimination we are not able to be in touch with the wonders of life.

The Buddha teaches us not to be foolish, not to run after the objects of desire: riches, fame, power, sensual pleasure. There are people who have a lot of money, power, fame, and sex, but they suffer endlessly; some even commit suicide. When we listen to the Buddha and come back to the present moment to be in touch with the wonders of life, we become rich, we become free—free from objects of craving—and we have the opportunity to recognize our wonderful true home. If we have found our true home then we will have enough love and understanding to help transform and heal the wounds caused by violence, hatred, and discrimination.

No Enemies 

When I ask: “Do you have a home yet?” you might say: “Not yet. But with this teaching and this practice I can have my home.” It’s true. The teaching of the Buddha is the teaching of dwelling peacefully and joyfully in the present moment. If we know how to come back to the present moment and generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then we will be in touch with the wonders of life. We will have happiness immediately. We will have insights. We will no longer discriminate, no longer be narrow-minded. And we can open our arms to embrace all species, all peoples, and we have no enemies. To have no enemies is a wonderful thing. When we have no enemy, no reproach, no blaming, then our mind is light like a cloud. I have no discrimination or hatred, so my mind is light and I have great happiness. I want you to be able to practice like that so that you have your true home, so that you do not accuse and judge the people who have caused you suffering. Do not look at them as your enemies, but see them as people who need understanding and compassion, so that you can help them. That is the bodhisattva’s way of looking.

We can all have this way of looking: when we are able to look in this way, we can call ourselves the children of the Buddha. To call ourselves children of the Buddha, we need to have the eyes of the Buddha, the eyes of compassion, the eyes of love. “Looking at life with the eyes of compassion” is a phrase from the Lotus Sutra. We use the eyes of compassion to look at all people and see that they are all our loved ones. We can help Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, anyone. Nobody is our enemy.

What Is Your True Name? 

Now I want to ask you a second question: “What is your true name?” Tell me. What name do you feel most comfortable with, most happy with? What are your true names? I have written a poem on this contemplation called “Please Call Me By My True Names.”

mb37-dharma6This poem was based on a real event. There was an eleven-year-old girl escaping from Vietnam with her family and other people. She was raped by a pirate, right on her boat. Her father tried to intervene, but the pirate threw her father into the sea. After the child was raped she jumped into the ocean to commit suicide. We received the news of this event one day in our Buddhist Association office in Paris. It was so upsetting to me that it kept me from sleeping; I felt anger, blame, despair. But if we are practitioners we cannot let blame and despair drown us; we have to practice walking meditation, sitting meditation, mindful breathing, and deep looking.

That evening in sitting meditation I saw myself being born as a baby boy into a very poor fishing family on the coast of Thailand. My father was a fisherman. He had never gone to the temple, he had never received any Buddhist teaching or any education. The politicians, educators, and social workers in Thailand never helped my father. My mother was also illiterate, and she did not know how to raise children. My father’s family had been poor fishermen for many generations —my great grandfather and my grandfather had been fishermen too. And when I turned thirteen I became a fisherman. I had never gone to school, I had never heard of the Buddhadharma, I had never felt loved or understood, and I lived in chronic poverty, persisting from one generation to the next.

Then one day another young fisherman said to me: “Let’s go out onto the ocean. There are boat people who pass near here and they often carry gold and jewelry, sometimes even money. Just one trip and we can be free from this poverty.” I accepted the invitation. I thought: We only need to take away a little bit of their jewelry, it won’t do any harm, and then we can be free from this poverty. So I became a pirate. The first time I went out I did not even know that I had become a pirate. But once out on the ocean, I saw the other pirates raping young women on the boats. I had never touched a young woman, I had never even thought about holding hands or going out with a young woman. But on the boat there was a very beautiful young woman, and there was no policeman to forbid me, and I saw other people doing it, and I asked myself: Why shouldn’t I try it too? This may be my chance to try the body of a young woman. So I did it.

If you were there on the boat and you had a gun, you could shoot me. But shooting me would not help me. Nobody ever taught me how to love, how to understand, how to see the suffering of others. My father and mother were not taught this either. I didn’t know what was wholesome and what was unwholesome, I didn’t understand cause and effect. I was living in the dark. If you had a gun, you could shoot me, and I would die. But you wouldn’t be able to help me at all.

As I continued sitting, I saw hundreds of babies being born that night along the coast of Thailand under the same circumstances, many of them baby boys. If the politicians and cultural ministers could look deeply, they would see that within twenty years those babies would become pirates. When I was able to see that, I understood. When I put myself in the situation of being born in a family that was uneducated and poor from one generation to the next, I saw that I would not be able to avoid becoming a pirate. When I saw that, my hatred, my resentment, my reproach vanished, and I felt that I could love that pirate.

When I saw those babies being born and growing up with no help, I knew that I had to do something so that they would not become pirates. The energy of a bodhisattva arose in my mind, the energy of love. I did not suffer anymore, but I had a lot of compassion and I could embrace not only the eleven-year-old child who was raped, but also the pirate.

When you address me as “Venerable Nhat Hanh,” I answer “yes,” but when you call the name of the child who was raped, I also answer “yes.” And if you call the name of the pirate, I would also answer “yes.” Because they are also me. If I had been born in that area under those circumstances I would also have become the pirate. I am the young girl who is raped by the pirate, but I am also the pirate that rapes the child. And so I could embrace both of them, in order to help not only that young girl but also the pirate. I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my two legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am also the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda. Those poor children in Uganda do not need bombs, they need food to eat. But here in America I live by producing bombs and guns. And if we want others to buy guns and bombs, then we have to create wars. If you call the name of the child in Uganda, I answer “yes.” And if you call the name of those who produce the bombs and guns I also answer “yes.” When I am able to see that I am those people, my hatred is no longer there, and I am determined to live in a way that I can help the victims, and I can also help those who create the wars and destruction.

So, when people call us African Americans, we answer, “yes.” When they call us Africans we answer,“yes.” When they call us Americans, we also answer “yes.” When people call the names of those who are discriminated against, we answer “yes.” And when they call the names of those who are discriminating, we also answer,“yes”—because all of them are us. Within us are the victims of discrimination as well as the perpetrators of discrimination. When we know that we are all victims of ignorance, violence, and hatred, then we can love ourselves and also love others. We have to practice in such a way that we free ourselves from thinking and feeling that injustice has been done to us, that we are inferior, that we are without value. The teaching of the Buddha can help us to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination that can free us from our inferiority complex. Only when we are free can we help others in the same situation, as well as those who discriminate and exploit. We do not look at them as our enemies anymore, but we see that they need our help because they are also victims of ignorance and of the narrow-minded aspects of their traditions.

In 1966 I gave a Dharma talk at a church in Minneapolis, and afterward I was very tired. I walked slowly in meditation back to my room so I could enjoy the cold, fragrant night air and be nourished and healed. While I was walking, taking each step in freedom, a car came up from behind and, braking loudly, stopped very close to me. The driver opened the door, looked at me and shouted: This is America, this is not China. Then he drove away. Maybe he had thought, This is a Chinese person who dares to walk in freedom in America, and he could not bear it. This is America, only white people can live here. And Chinese people, how dare you come here and how dare you walk with such freedom? You have no right to walk in this way. This is America, this is not China. That is discrimination against nationality, against race. But I was not angry—that was the good thing about it—I thought it was funny. I thought: If he would just pause for a moment, I would tell him, “I agree with you one hundred percent, this is America, this is not China: why do you have to shout at me?”

We know that the seed of discrimination lies in all of us. Once in New York a black woman shouted at me, even though I am also a person of color—only a different color. But because I wore a brown robe and I walked in freedom, she could not bear it. So don’t say it is only white people who discriminate. The oppressed and the oppressors are inside all of us, and our practice is to attain the wisdom of nondiscrimination.

So when somebody calls me Nhat Hanh, I answer “yes”; when you call me Bush, I answer “yes”—because Bush is also my name. If you call me Saddam Hussein I will answer “yes”—because I am all of them. I don’t want Mr. Bush to suffer; I don’t want Saddam Hussein to suffer. I want everyone to be happy and free because they are my beloved ones. Right now, living the life of a bodhisattva, I have no enemies because I have no discrimination.

I want all the practitioners who come to Deer Park to practice so you can have this mind of nondiscrimination, so you can rebuild your life and become free. In this way you can help young people, whatever their color, to reach this freedom. Then they will be able to help build their community, and help everyone around them.

Please Call Me By My True Names 

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow—
even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving
to be a bud on a Spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death
of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing
on the surface of the river.
And I am the bird
that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily
in the clear water of a pond.
And I am the grass-snake
that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks.
And I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am also the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands.
And I am the man who has to pay
his “debt of blood” to my people
dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.

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Poem: Please Call Me By My True Names

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow— even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope. The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am a mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am a frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate.

And I am also the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up and the door of my heart could be left open, the door of compassion.

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

Thich Nhat Hanh Returns to Vietnam!

And You Are Invited!

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The Vietnamese government has invited Thich Nhat Hanh to return after thirty-nine years in exile. Thay will be teaching in temples throughout the country over a four-month period. Practitioners are invited to join Thay and the Sangha for one or more segments of the trip.

“I want to go back to my root temple with my friends, my disciples, as an offering to the patriarchs. When you make an offering on the altar, you select the most beautiful fruit. You wash them carefully and arrange them on a plate. We are trying to do the same.

“The whole trip will be deep practice. Every step will be taken in mindfulness. The way we walk, the way we sit, the way we smile, the way we speak should be an offering, and we have to prepare ourselves in order to be a beautiful offering. I want those who join me to be at their best, in terms of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. This will have an impact on the land and on the people, especially the younger generation.

“This is the best thing I can offer to my ancestors, to my country, after thirty-nine years of absence.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, June 16, 2004

Join Thay for one or more segments of the journey

Segment 1 January 13 to February 4 Hanoi/Saigon
Segment 2 February 4 to February 28 Saigon/Hue
Segment 3 February 28 to March 23 Hue/Hanoi
Segment 4 March 23 to April 11 Hanoi/Binh Dinh

For more information and registration instructions, go to www.plumvillage.org, then follow the link to The Trip to Vietnam

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Letter from the Editor

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Our teacher has said that the Dharma seal of Plum Village is I have arrived, I am home.

Now, after thirty-nine years in exile, Thich Nhat Hanh has been invited to return to Vietnam. When I heard this news, my eyes filled with tears of gratitude. I can only imagine what it must mean to be able to see the landscape, to smell the flowers, and to hear the birds of your native land after such a long time.

And yet, I know that our teacher goes in freedom, because he has found his true home. As he says, this journey is an offering to the ancestors, to the land and the people, given in generosity from an already full heart.

In a Dharma talk given at the Colors of Compassion retreat last March at Deer Park Monastery, Thay spoke about how so many of us have not been able to find a home in this world, reminding us that finding our true home depends on the simple practice of coming to rest in each breath.

Thay says: “Our true home is life, our true home is the present moment, whatever is happening right here and right now. Our true home is the place without discrimination, the place without hatred. Our true home is the place where we no longer seek, no longer wish, no longer regret.”

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An article about a couple who escaped from Vietnam as boat people exemplifies how to live with courage and compassion. Also featured in this issue are stories and poems from participants at the Colors of Compassion retreat. Sr. Chau Nghiem, coordinator for the retreat, offers her understanding of the blessings and challenges growing up as a person of color in an interview with Larry Ward.

The section “Practice in the World” offers examples of committing to and offering the mindfulness trainings in a nonsectarian way. We hear wisdom from Thay on the roots of violence and abuse in times of war. Also included are stories and poems from monks who participated in an ancient, indigenous people’s ceremony.

In a rich variety of daily practice tips, Sangha members offer concrete teachings on eating, being in touch with the moon, making soymilk, and sweeping. The practice of mindfulness is for each moment of our lives, from bathroom activities in the morning to lying down to sleep at night. May we make each moment count, may we be fully alive to each precious breath.

In gratitude,

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Boat People

by Christine Dawkins

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During the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh and the young members of the School of Youth for Social Service braved the mine-laden fields of the embattled countryside to bring food, clothing, building materials and medical supplies to the villagers whose homes and families had been destroyed. Later, Thay wrote in Lotus in a Sea of Fire that all that is beautiful contains suffering, and that all suffering can bring forth great beauty. The sea of fire that was the war in Vietnam brought forth the lotus of Plum Village, its sister monasteries in the United States, and the many practice centers and Sanghas that have grown all over the globe. It has also brought the Vietnamese and Western worlds together into a family that is beautiful and diverse.

My guilt, grief, and anger towards my government have been held in the arms of the forgiveness, faith, and resilience with which the Vietnamese people I met have embraced their lives. I can only hope my listening to their stories also brought them a small measure of the peace and healing they brought to me.

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On January 27, 1972, the Paris Peace Accords were signed, ending the ten-year presence of the United States military in Vietnam and giving the U.S. sixty days to withdraw all troops and dismantle all military bases within South Vietnam. For most Americans, this ended the long and futile nightmare of a costly war. While there would be many social, political, and economic consequences, most of us in the U.S. breathed a sigh of relief and tried to put the war behind us.

Although the Paris Peace Accords provided for the reunification of Vietnam, it was common knowledge that the invasion of South Vietnam by Viet Cong military forces was now inevitable. The accords also provided that the unification was to be accomplished without foreign interference. But although the United States had withdrawn its support of South Vietnam, the North Vietnamese still received support and arms from Russia and China. No longer fettered by U.S. presence in the South, and in direct violation of the accords, Communist soldiers marched southward through the devastated countryside, occupying town after town, until they reached their final destination, Saigon.

Saigon fell on April 30, 1975. Aware that their days of freedom were numbered, thousands of South Vietnamese attempted to flee the country in the weeks prior to the fall, but only a lucky few had the connections to obtain exit visas. Life under the Communists was intolerable for many, especially high-ranking South Vietnamese military officials. I met one man who had been told that he just needed to go to a few classes explaining the new regime’s rules, but ended up in a reeducation camp for five years. These so-called camps were really prisons, where the inmates were forced to perform hard labor under inhumane conditions.

Thus were the Boat People born, hundreds of thousands of courageous men, women, and children who entrusted themselves to the China Sea in the hope of finding a better future for themselves and their children. In 1986, it was estimated that one million Vietnamese refugees had taken to the China Sea in small boats. Many of these people relocated to the United States, Australia, Canada, France, and other European countries. There is no way to know how many never made it. Some believe another million died on the way by drowning, starvation, dehydration, or at the hands of Thai pirates who routinely attacked, robbed, tortured, abducted, raped, sold into prostitution, or murdered the refugees.

The Boat People began their exodus in 1975. By 1979, the number of people braving the China Sea had mounted significantly. Unfortunately, so did the number of pirates. These pirates were Thai fishermen who had learned that piracy was more lucrative than fishing. Because the Vietnamese had been forced to leave everything behind, many of them sold whatever they could to bring gold for their new start in life. In small boats that easily capsized, filled way beyond their capacity with passengers with little or no seafaring skills, the boat people were easy prey for the pirates.

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Just getting a space on a boat was no small task. Vietnam was even more divided after the war than during it. Sometimes there were Communists and freedom fighters in the same family. Under the Communist regime, it was very important to keep up the appearance of a humble hard-working Communist. This meant knowing who could be safely approached to arrange for escape.

One couple, Cuc and Xe Dang, made several attempts before they managed to get on a boat. During one attempt, the family had to split up. Xe went with one group while Cuc was scheduled to take off with another. It was nighttime and the group Xe was going with was being ferried out to the fishing boat in a small rowboat. Xe insisted on going last, as three years in a re-education camp had taught him to listen to his instincts. Half the group had already been ferried out when the Communist police captured the escapees. Xe was able to intercept his wife and then had to hide for several months, having already been singled out by the Communists for the harsher treatment given to those who had worked for the Americans.

In the meantime, Cuc’s father was approached by someone who asked if his son-in-law might be interested in going in a boat with him and some others. This is the boat that finally carried them to freedom. The journey was not an easy one. They had a one-yearold and a four-year-old child and traveled with some young nieces and nephews. During the eight-day trip, their boat was attacked by pirates eight times.

The first time, the pirates took everything, including food, clothes, watches, and jewelry. Even their spare engine was stolen. They were made to strip and were searched. Other times they were left alone when the pirates saw they had nothing. But one time, the pirates took three young women onto their boat and raped them. “We were very scared,” Cuc said, “and thought we would be next. But then a friend, who knew a little English said, “Pray to Buddha.’” Cuc laughed, “I did not know who Buddha was. But I prayed with the others out loud. ‘Please, Buddha, help us, Buddha! Please help us, Buddha!’ over and over again. It turned out the pirates were Buddhist and they got scared when they heard us calling Buddha, so they left!” Cuc asked her friend, “Who is this Buddha we called to?” “It is But!” her friend answered. “I had no idea that Buddha was the English word for But. I thought I was praying to some strange God.,” Cuc said.

But their difficulties were not over. When they finally made it to Malaysia, they were told the refugee camp could not accept them. They stayed on shore during heavy rains in a place without a roof and only a pit dug into the ground for a toilet.

After several days, an official told them they were going to be taken somewhere in preparation of being sent to the United States. They were told to get into their boats, which were tied in a chain and attached to a Malaysian ship. Cuc and Xe’s boat was the last boat of eight. The ship took to sea, going too rapidly for the small fishing boats to withstand the ocean waves that poured in from the ship’s wake. Xe told the others in his boat, “We are going to sink unless we untie ourselves.”

It had become apparent their destination was not the United States, but the middle of the ocean. The boats were being watched by the Malaysian officials on the ship’s deck, but since it was dark and Xe’s boat was last in line, someone was able to crawl out to the prow and cut the line. Solemnly, they watched as the other boats were towed helplessly out to the open ocean, their hulls filling with water.

One of the first things Cuc did when she finally made it to the United States was commission a painting depicting the boat that carried Cuc, her husband and two children over the turbulent China Sea from Vietnam to freedom. “When we finally arrived in the United States, we had lost everything,” Cuc recalls. She glances over at the large oil painting above her fireplace. “The painting, done by a famous Vietnamese artist, was very expensive. But I did not care about the cost.” In the painting, the small fishing boat bobbing precariously in the foaming waves is emblazoned with the number of the boat they escaped on. “I bought it so we would never forget our escape, so that my children will always know: We are Boat People! When they do poorly at school, when some difficulty comes up for us, we stand in front of this painting, and I remind them. We are Boat People!”

Christine Dawkins, True Wonderful Mind, practices with her daughters, Siena and Chiara, at Deer Park, with the Still Water Sangha in Santa Barbara.

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Our Racism is a Crying Baby

Larry Ward Interviews Sister Chau Nghiem

June 20, 2004 at the New Hamlet, Plum Village

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Sr. Chau Nghiem, can you give us a glimpse into what it was like being a person of African American and European American descent, prior to coming to Buddhist practice and monastic life?

It’s been at the center of my searching all my life. I have always tried to understand who I am, because from a young age I felt that there were conflicting parts of me. My life has been very complex and very rich because of this.

I was born in Chicago and grew up in a large, Christian, lay residential community. My mother is African American and my father is European American. Tthere were other African Americans in the community, as well as Indians and Asians, but it was mainly European Americans. The neighborhood surrounding us on the north side of Chicago was very diverse.

When I was eight or nine, I would squeeze the bridge of my nose a lot, hoping it would become skinny like a white person’s, because somewhere I got the message that my nose was too flat. Also, my brother and I met my dad’s parents for the first time when I was nine, after my parents had divorced. It was only after my parents divorced that we were allowed to come visit them in Houston. And they had an African American maid. So that was a very stark message and it stuck with me.

But from age eight to twelve we also lived in Kenya. It was very good to live outside of the United States, which has unique racial practices. It was wonderful to live in an African country, to go to school with many African children, and to grow up in an environment where people lived simply and close to the land. Visiting the homes of my Kenyan friends, I learned some of their native language and culture. Near our home, there were always women in their beautiful, colorful kangas, selling things in the market. Something deep in me was nourished.

I went back to Chicago for junior high, and was bussed to a racially diverse school on the South Side. I had Latina, Polish, Asian, and black friends. But being different racially wasn’t something we talked about or were really aware of, I think because we hadn’t started dating yet. It all gets complicated when you think, Who am I going to date? Race wasn’t on my mind, and I didn’t see myself as a person of color or as a person of a certain race.

But when I started high school, we moved to Atlanta. I lived with my dad and his fiancée, who were both white, in an all-black neighborhood. I attended a mostly white school. So suddenly, I was out of the lay residential community that I’d grown up in all my life which had been a cushion between me and the world I now found myself in. It began to get really hard, with no other racial groups but whites and blacks, and all this Southern history embedded in the culture.

It became clear that I didn’t fit with the black folks. I’d grown up in different parts of the world, but mostly with white people, so I didn’t talk like a black person. I didn’t have the same mindset or family background. I could dance! I could always dance, but otherwise I didn’t fit in. There were other kids who were biracial: black and white, and we all had to try really hard to prove that we were black. It was very painful.

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I think not growing up with my mom also made me feel like something was missing. My parents divorced when I was seven and my brother and I lived with my dad. We only visited my mom and her relatives for two weeks every summer so I never really lived with black people. I was hungry for something they had that I felt was my inheritance, but that was somehow foreign to me.

Around that time I started to read a lot of African American authors. My dad always had us listen to many kinds of music, but especially to soul music and R&B. This cultural connection to my ancestors spoke to me on a very deep level, and helped me make sense of things.

In high school it became clear that I did belong to a certain color, and that was black. I took that on, and said, “I have a white father, but I am black, because that’s what society says I am.” So I dated mostly black men and checked the African American box on official forms. But I knew that the boxes I checked and the messages I was receiving did not fully describe who I was.

In my junior year of high school, I wanted to spend a year abroad as an exchange student and I chose Brazil. I wanted to experience being in a society where the lines of racial discrimination were less rigidly drawn and where people interact with other races with more humanity and ease. The African Diaspora became the focus of my academic interests. I learned capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. My master’s thesis in university was on capoeira as emancipation practice for African American young people. A major concern of mine as a teenager and young adult was to understand and help to change the suffering caused by racism that I experienced and witnessed around me.

What was the purpose of the People of Color Retreat?

For me it was to embrace people of color, to reach out and say, “Hey, you! We want you to feel like this is your space, too.” It was motivated by a deep wish to help people feel at ease. Like our other retreats which focus on a group of people with a common life experience (i.e., police officers, congresspeople, children, artists, psychotherapists, etc.), we wanted to provided one more condition to help people feel safe and bring mindfulness into their lives. Sometimes you have to open lots of doors; this was just opening one more door. Also many of the monastic brothers and sisters felt that in order to be complete as a community, we needed to reach out to a wider group of people, to include a missing element in our Sangha.

Who attended the People of Color Retreat? What were we like and where were we from?

The first night in the front of the Dharma hall, looking at the sea of colored faces, I could have cried. It was so beautiful! Mainly we were from the United States, many of us coming for the first time to this practice, and many who were new to Buddhism. Many were also from the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender communities. The two biggest racial groups were African American and Asian American,  although most people had quite a mixture in their backgrounds. There were also Latinos and Native Americans, and a few European Americans.

Why has it taken so long to introduce this practice to people of color?

Actually, I think a majority of Buddhists in the United States are people of color: they’re Korean Buddhists and Chinese Buddhists and Japanese Buddhists. They are mostly in insular communities that are preserving a tradition.

Another aspect of Buddhism is influencing mainstream American society. When we become Buddhist practitioners it’s difficult not to reflect in our Sanghas whatever racial blindness we carry. If we live in a white neighborhood with white schools and primarily white work environments, of course our Sanghas will reflect that. There are also economic obstacles. But the number of practitioners of color is definitely growing. A hundred people attended the African American Buddhist retreat at Spirit Rock in 2002. This year at Deer Park there were almost three hundred.

What was the biggest challenge in the organization and development of the retreat?

For me the biggest challenge was defining the terms of inclusiveness. How do you handle requests from people who aren’t of color but who want to come? How do you design a Dharma discussion where people of color feel at ease, and also include our forty white monastics? At first we felt the retreat should be for people of color only, but Thay suggested that while priority could be given to people of color, European Americans could still come if there was space.

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When we began to reach our maximum capacity, I had to turn away white people. Some felt that they were being discriminated against and were hurt. The monastery is usually open to everyone, so being a person of color and having to explain to a white person that they can’t attend was quite painful. I told one person he couldn’t come because we had to save the last spaces for people of color and he said, “Well, white is a color!” I wrote him and said, “White is a color, but white is not the color that is undergoing racial oppression in this country.” I sent him some concrete statistics on the racial discrimination happening here. Several other cases were not easy to resolve. How do you determine who is white or of color anyway? Some people look white but have ancestors of color; who are we to say they are not people of color? These difficulties illustrate how people of color often spend so much time thinking and worrying about what white people feel and think. It’s not a helpful habit energy to always see ourselves through the eyes of white people. In the end, retreatants were happy that the majority of people were of color and asked that future retreats have the same ratio.

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There was so much karma coming at me at the registration desk! It was difficult to feel like I was taking sides but at the same time trying to offer people of color the safe and supportive environment they needed. I don’t know how to be fair and compassionate all the time.

Next time there should be at least three people to help with registration, for greater collective insight into such situations.

For me just to talk about “them” and “us” and “white people” and “people of color” is painful. Since becoming a nun, I don’t think about my European and European American brothers and sisters as white, I just see them as my brothers and sisters. But in this retreat full of people of color, I felt an incredible joy and glory in myself being a person of color; it was profound and healing. I had never been around that many people of color practicing mindfulness.

How has the practice been helpful to people in dealing with their suffering?

It was so important for people to hear that Thay understood and shared their difficulties. In his orientation, he talked about his struggle for peace in Vietnam, his connection to Dr. King, and his own experience of being discriminated against. He told of being detained at the Seattle airport in the 1960s when he was on tour speaking out against the war in Vietnam. Because he did not have a transit visa, immigration officials seized his passport and locked him in a room with big “Wanted” posters on every wall. Thay was telling us, “I’ve been there. I’ve been through what you have experienced.” And people felt, Ah! Okay. I’m not going to be preached at by someone who doesn’t know where I’m coming from. Here’s someone who has been where I am and has reached a very beautiful place in spiritual life. So I don’t have to be stuck.

Usually when we have a transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings, Thay puts the incense on the Buddha altar and gives the second stick of incense to a monastic to put on the ancestor altar. But at this ceremony, Thay offered incense to both altars. I think people really felt embraced and honored by Thay.

People also felt moved by the sense of community. For many, there aren’t other people of color they can share these concerns with in their local communities. Here we nourished each other, shared our common ancestry, and our desire to transform. We invited everyone to put an object connecting them to their ancestors on the ancestors’ altar. Someone brought a bag of rice, someone brought a book about slavery. Someone brought a T-shirt, with a picture of Indian chiefs that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492: the Department of Homeland

Security.” [Laughs.] There was a necklace, a bag of seeds, a doll. People brought pictures of their families, their ancestors, a drum. The last night retreatants shared a song or poem, or talked about their object on the altar. It was a highlight of the retreat: each sharing was so rich and nourishing. We were honoring and healing our blood family in the context of a spiritual family.

How can practitioners help increase access to Buddhist practice for people of color?

I think mainly it’s just to be open and not to feel like we’re doing anything wrong. When we bring up the idea of including more people of color in our Sangha, just to be aware of whatever feelings come up. It might be something comfortable, it might be uncomfortable. We have to be gentle with ourselves.

We need to talk about racism or discrimination like Thay talks about our painful mental formations: it’s a crying baby, and we need to take care of it. We need everybody’s mindfulness and insight because we’ve been running from it for a long time; we have to be careful not to be violent with ourselves, with our language; we need to have compassion for ourselves. Our attitudes about racism and discrimination are a transmission from our family and society. It’s thick, uncomfortable mud, but it can produce a lotus. We need to have a positive outlook.

Thay is so wonderful, setting the context of how we talk about racism in our practice of compassion and understanding. We also need to have curiosity and inquiry, not to assume that we know everything. We’ve been indoctrinated since birth, so we need a sense of spaciousness around our perceptions, being open to changing. We need to look into ourselves and to ask, “When did I start to identify as a person of a certain color, and how has that influenced my life? How do I act from that, in helpful and unhelpful ways?”

The history of racism in our society is so present, right under the surface; it doesn’t take much for it to come up. There’s little clarity or understanding about it. As a society, I see us going in the wrong direction; we’re becoming more stratified. We need a spiritual perspective on this collective suffering. Shining the light of mindfulness on this area of our lives will bring a lot of benefit. There are skilled people—you’re one of them, Larry—who know how to ask the right questions in a way that helps us to touch honestly the painful and scary feelings, and to see how to transform them.

For me this is totally about transformation and liberation, not about getting even or complaining or blaming.  And it’s collective––we have to heal all of us. My five-year-old nephew is already being affected by racism. Already! He’s five years old, and I can see it. And I don’t want kids to have to live with that reality. This is about healing all of us, being compassionate with ourselves, and being willing to go where it’s not easy or comfortable.

What is emerging as next steps?

There is a five-day retreat for people of color planned at Deer Park in September 2005. The exact dates will be on our Website soon. The folks at Spirit Rock have asked Thay to lead an event in the Bay Area. People are excited, saying, “Come over here! Do some of that for us!”

There is this issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Parallax Press is publishing a book this fall called, Dharma, Color, and Culture. There are plans to set up a self-sustaining endowment fund to help more people of color and other underrepresented groups to attend Thay’s retreats. We want to find ways to reach out to more young people of color. We are creating an group for people to dialogue about increasing diversity in our Sanghas (e-mail inclusivesangha-subscribe@yahoogroups.com to join in!). Trained people could come to local Sanghas or to our bigger retreats to lead us in how to unlearn racism and be more inclusive to people of color. I’d love to see our whole Sangha body engaged in a conversation about this.

I talked with a person of color from the UK who thinks it would be extremely helpful to have a similar retreat there. So this feels like a story I heard of an osprey who dove into the ocean for a fish, and picked up a whale. There is a lot of substance here to be worked with personally and collectively and globally. The inspiration of what’s already happened is starting to water positive seeds of healing and transformation in other places. Thank you for your interview.

Wonderful! Thank you, Larry. Thank you very much.

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Larry Ward is a Dharma teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Finding Home

by Earthlyn Marselean Manuel

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Enchanted are the souls of Africans whose bloody feet cracked the seashells that lay beneath the sand on the seashores of my beginnings. I call for the healing of those feet in me and in those around me, breathing wind a million years old, left in the thicket of trees and foul marshes. Come my ancestors to the table where I eat rice that you have given me. Come feel the cotton clothes I wear because of the crops you harvested. Come let me kiss your hands that swelled long after sunset each day. If only all that you loved and lost came back from the heavens, back from beneath the sea.

Walking sacred land where you withered and rose again despite the horror, I give honor, thanking you for surviving my beginnings, for the world that shares in the abundance created by you. We must remember you stained the sand that washes beneath our feet, pushing us deeper into it, turning us into purple sand dunes in your honor.

I lost sight of home, the trees planted in my name, ceremonies, sight of waterfalls; and I have lost the smell of certain flowers and fruits. Rage stays a memory of you on this planet, a memory that will not pain us forever.

And now I’m finding home, close to the sacred earth your bones have settled, nestled close to each breath. I climbed the heavens and saw you there; your face alights from resting. Where the sea delivered you to this land is where you are too. I move on in your honor, your stories unburied, your spirit alive in everything.

I go now speaking your names, finding home in the way I walk across the street. Being so close to home that one day, someone will yell out to me, “Hey this is not Africa.” And I will respond, “It certainly isn’t.”

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Poem: Roots

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At the end of the Civil War
my great-grandfather walked
four hundred miles
back home to Georgia
and gave up his gun.
Said he’d seen enough dead
men and beasts in those
four years to cure a man
of hunting, forever.

Not too long after that
he stumbled in the night
upon four men in sheets
about to lynch a Negro.
In those days one knew
all one’s neighbors.
He yelled, “What you plannin’
to do with that man?”
They yelled, “Kill him!”
He said, “You do, and I’ll
turn your names in to the
authorities, every last
one of you!”
They said, “You do, and we’ll
shoot you, too!”
They did.
The next day, he did.
And that night,
as he sat with his family
at supper,
they did.

Emily Whittle

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Being Born a Person of Color

by Larry Ward

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It is a miracle to be born. It is also a miracle to be born as a person of color. While it is true that most of the people in the world are people of color, it has rarely been seen as a miracle but rather as an overwhelming burden and devastating curse. Attending the People of Color Retreat at Deer Park Monastery was a deep joy for me. It was healing to practice with such a multicultural Sangha.

It is a rainy day here in Asheville, North Carolina. The city is surrounded by fog; the air is thick and it is often difficult to see clearly. I catch only glimpses of the green trees through the large raindrops that are nourishing the earth. My journey with the spiritual aspects of being a person of color has been like today’s weather––a lot of fog interspersed with glimpses of clarity.

While growing up in the inner city of Cleveland, Ohio, my greatest resource on my journey as a person of color were my parents and the inspiring men and women of the civil rights movement. My parents taught me to be respectful of everyone regardless of their color. They taught me to love my African American roots. They taught me the value of living a spiritual life. Through their storytelling, they also taught me the pain of discrimination, prejudice, and racism.

The inspiring heroes of the civil rights movement taught me to find my own dreams and discover my own courage in fulfilling the task of social justice. They taught me to think globally, as discrimination and prejudice know no borders. They taught me to act with compassion on behalf of the whole society.

Discovering a path of practice, supported by my teacher and the Sangha, has and continues to bring me deep healing and transformation which penetrates every fiber of my being and brings me peace, freedom, and understanding. This has come about through the continuous practice of recognizing and embracing my suffering, my anger, and my fear as a person of color. I have come face to face with the self-esteem complex in the seeds of my psyche and the collective psyche of our society. I have become more intimate with the pain of being devalued, threatened, and harmed; in so doing I have become more connected with the despair of my ancestors.

Through the practice of looking deeply I was astonished to discover how much hurt there was in every cell of my body. When the tears come I know they are the tears of my ancestors that are my self. I have learned to practice recognizing and embracing the gifts and positive energies of my ancestors that reside in every cell of my body.  I am learning to heal the negative patterns and energies that I have inherited. When the sadness of the wounds of time rises up within me, I go to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha as my refuge. I can truly say that through the practices the Buddha taught, my tears have become Dharma rain, nourishing my compassion for myself, my race, and all people.

I have discovered that my transformation and healing is the transformation and healing of my ancestors. I have learned that the roots of exercising bigotry towards others often mask a profound doubt in one’s own value, worth, and dignity. I have come to see that racism and discrimination at their roots are manifestations of the three poisons of which the Buddha spoke: hatred, greed, and ignorance. The practice of the mindfulness trainings are my raft over this ocean of disease. I am learning not to add to my suffering by caring for my body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

This does not mean that all of my habits of mind and body that cause me and those around me to suffer have been removed. Nor does it mean that our society is rid of the mind of violence, hatred, and ignorance. It does mean that I feel safe and unafraid with my practice, my teacher, my family, and my Sangha supporting me. I enjoy sitting, lying, and walking meditation as they refresh my body and my mind. I participate in days of mindfulness and retreats whenever possible. This nourishment keeps me from losing hope in myself and hope in humanity.

Yes, it is a miracle to be born. It is also a miracle to be born as a person of color. I am touched by the miracle of all peoples, all places, and all times as I come home to the miracle that is myself.

Larry Ward, True Great Sound, received lamp transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2001. Living in Asheville, North Carolina, he and his wife, Peggy Rowe, are co-directors of The Lotus Institute, which shares Thay’s teachings throughout the world. They live on four acres of land where they plan to build a lay practice center.

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An Open Letter from a Southern White Girl

by Trish Thompson

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Eeanie, Meanie, Meinie, Mo

Catch a Nigger By His Toe.
If He Hollers, Let Him Go.
Eeanie, Meanie, Meinie, Mo

Dear Brothers and Sisters of African American Ancestry,

If you grew up in the southern United States in the 1940s and 50s, you might be aware that white children and adults commonly recited this verse. To make a choice between two things, a person pointed a finger first at one thing and then at another, repeating the verse, word by word. The choice was determined on the last word, “Mo.”

I am that little white girl whose house you could not enter, except to work. You could never sit at my table, though I could sit at yours. Sometimes you helped your mama by bringing the freshly-picked vegetables or clean laundry, entering through the back door. The front of the house was off-limits to you. We shyly eyed each other, uncomfortable, never really talking. An only child, I wanted a playmate, but I do not remember wanting to play with you. Even the thought was unacceptable.

We lived in the country, my family in a comfortable house with most modern conveniences, yours across the dirt road in a brokendown, three-room shack. Your parents stuffed the cracks in the floors and walls with paper, when they could find some. You had no window screens, no plumbing, and no electricity. A wood-burning kitchen stove was a welcome source of heat in winter, but created misery in the hot, southern summers.

I loved your parents, but I never knew your family name. My parents were “Mr. Wattie”and “Miz Mamie” to you. I was aware that our way of addressing each other was odd. I knew the rules, but I didn’t understand the reasons for them. As the years passed my awareness grew, though I often ignored what I saw happening.

Whites generally ignored the presence of blacks, not easy in a county whose population was split fifty-fifty. We kept you “in your place,”separate from us. You sat in the back of the bus and in separate waiting rooms at the doctor and dentist; if there wasn’t one, you waited outside. You sat in the balcony at the movies, entering through a side door. You could not enter our restaurants or sit at our lunch counters. And, you were quiet, no trouble at all.

I used the “Whites Only” toilet at the theater and elsewhere. There were none for you. What did you do? I drank from the “Whites Only” water fountain. Yours said “Colored.” The “Only” was unnecessary, as whites, including me, would go thirsty before drinking from the fountain you used.

Your people stepped off the sidewalk, in deference, when mine walked by. It was expected. Some whites reacted violently at the hint of any attitude lacking “proper respect”, though I only heard about such incidents. In my experience, black people were always subservient, never making eye contact. Every black man knew to be very careful in the presence of a white woman.

Your people had no police protection. White families were also denied basic protection; the police never “interfered” in domestic issues, no matter how violent. When I was nine years old, I saw a long procession of cars drive slowly through our little town, each with several white-hooded figures inside. In broad daylight the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of a white family who had been too friendly with “niggers.” I remember feeling curious and also afraid.

Racial jokes and demeaning language were the norm among whites of all ages and levels of education. And yet, individual white and black people had real affection for one another, working together and helping each other as neighbors. In the rural South, we truly felt ourselves to be one big extended family. It was all very confusing to me.

After I moved out of the South in the early 60s, I began to realize that a great injustice, a subjugation of an entire race of people, was continuing, and I had been part of it. All of us, black and white, had been caught in a life of fear and oppression. Not one of us had ever really been free.

How do I understand those years of my childhood, those unbelievably dark years? I have so much I want to say to you. As memories continue to surface, I breathe deeply. Some wounds seem to bleed forever.

Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, practices with the Sea Island Sangha in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her letter is excerpted from a series of essays she is writing on her early life in the Deep South.

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The Culture of Violence in Boys and Men

by Terry Miller

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I spent two weeks of the 2004 Winter Retreat at Deer Park Monastery as part of my personal and professional work, during a sabbatical from my college teaching job. I have been researching, contemplating, and writing about boys and violence. This topic is very much a part of my own personal practice, as I confront my maleness and the violence of my country.

Growing up as an American boy, I felt alienated from most of my American brothers, and extremely sensitive to the violence in the culture of boys. I turned eighteen in 1967 and was drafted into the army to fight in the war in Vietnam. I refused to serve and helped others to resist the war. As luck would have it, I did not have to fight or kill in a war that I did not support, nor did I have to serve time in prison, as I had expected.

I became an elementary school teacher, and thus continued to spend my days with boys and girls. I tried to integrate peace education and conflict resolution into my classroom, and I worked with other teachers and parents in this effort. Deep down, I still felt alienated from men and boys. I was repulsed by violence on the playground, in sports, in the media, and especially by the cruel physical and verbal bullying which seemed so common in the culture of boys.

In the early 1990s, and again in 2003, many Americans were in full support of the U.S. participation in the wars in the Middle East, believing that bombing and killing were necessary to maintain our safety. At the same time, from the 1990s on, the violence in the culture of boys took a terrible turn. Horrific incidents of shootings in schools began, and awareness grew of the prevalence of physical and verbal bullying among teens. Many of us felt increasing revulsion and despair at the violence of men and boys. We asked ourselves: What is wrong with this entire gender of human beings?

As Thich Nhat Hanh teaches, we are not separate from those boys and men. They are me, and I am the product of the same cultural experience. It was time for me to look deeply at the behavior of boys and at my own behavior. My time in Deer Park was a crucial part of that work.

So many of the stories I have read, both factual and fictional, confirm that beneath the inclination to violence lies deeply rooted fear. We fear the enemy; we fear violence and death caused by bad people or bad nations. Boys and men are raised with another, equally powerful fear—the fear of weakness, the fear of cowardice, the fear of being shamed.

Sports, “play fighting,” violent entertainment, and bullying are integral parts of this culture today—all serving as tests of a boy’s manliness. The largely unspoken, deeply disturbing truth is that we, the adult men and women of America as well as many other societies, feel that we need our boys to be ready to fight our enemies. When we ask why our boys become so violent and cruel, perhaps it is because we think we need them to be this way.

When we look at ourselves deeply, we confront our deepest fears. To look at violence in others, we must see the seeds of violence in ourselves. We must see that our children are acting out our fears, and that we and our enemies are interconnected. Only then can we begin to help our boys and girls find a better way to be.

We need to plant and nourish seeds of nonviolence and compassion in our boys and girls. Men and women need to model how to face our fears in a peaceful way. We need to show our children how to be empathetic to all beings ––how to see ourselves in other beings, even in the perceived enemy. We need to talk about our own mindfulness trainings practice, and demonstrate how we attempt to put peace and compassion into practice, moment to moment.

One concrete way to facilitate discussion of this topic is to read aloud novels with a peacemaking theme, and to discuss the feelings and actions of the characters with our children. Boys and girls can learn from the modeling of peaceful heroes in children’s literature, and the discussion of alternative responses to conflict situations is a concrete way to nurture peaceful behavior in us all.

For example, the hero of Kathe Koja’s novel, Buddha Boy, is tormented constantly by some of the football players in his high school because of his shaved head and Buddhist practices. His friends urge him to get even –– the traditional response to bullying. He refuses to do this, saying: “…if I tried to get even, I’d be worse than he is, I’d be more wrong than he is. Because he doesn’t know. But I do.” “Know what?” “That we’re all gods,” he said, “gods inside, all of us. Him too.”

Crash, by Jerry Spinelli, has two differing role models for how to be a boy. One is Crash, the football player who loves physical sports and the thrill of competition, and who uses some of his aggressiveness to torment his neighbor, Webb. Webb is a peace-loving boy, who has the courage to be different. It is Crash’s concern for his beloved grandfather after he suffers a stroke, which begins his “softening” and the development of his natural empathy. He begins to appreciate the strength and courage of Webb’s way of being a boy.

In the novel, Charlie Pippin, by Candace Dawson Boyd, the heroine, Charlie, becomes curious about her father’s experience in the Vietnam War, which he refuses to talk about. As part of a research project for school, Charlie attends peace rallies, reads books about the war, talks to veterans, and finally, visits the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. When she brings back rubbings from the Memorial with the names of two men who fought with her father and died in the war, her father is finally able to share his extreme grief and bitterness about the war.

In using these books for reading and discussion, some children immediately identify with the peacemaking heroes and heroines in these books. Others disagree with the actions of the characters, but still can consider and discuss the effectiveness of using nonviolent alternatives in these situations.

It is not enough to simply tell our children not to kill or act violently, and not to play at violence. We have to show them ways of being strong, brave, and heroic without hurting others. We have to offer them stories of peaceful and creative alternatives to violence. Most important, we have to be models of mindfulness, living our teachings in our daily relationships.

Terry Miller is a professor of education at St. Cloud State University. A member of the Compassionate Ocean Dharma Center Sangha in Minneapolis, Minnesota, his Dharma name is Lamp of True Joy in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition.

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Youth Transformation in Urban America

by Jina Jibrin

I am currently working at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, managing a youth leadership program for black and Latino youth from housing developments in the Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan communities. The Fuerza Leadership Program is a prevention-based, leadership development, and community-organizing program which allows young adults a space to voice their opinions, experiences, and concerns about pressing issues in their communities. The goal of the program is to promote healthy behaviors, and to prevent substance abuse and HIV in communities of color, by engaging youth to think critically about the roots of social, racial, and health inequities.

If you ask any of the youth how they view themselves, they will say, “I’m a thug,” or “I’m from the ghetto.” They come from extremely challenging personal backgrounds—single parent families, often accompanied by a lack of any familial support. Most of their family members are in jail, have been in jail, or are on the run from the police, and are actively using crack; and, all of them unfortunately attend lowperforming public schools where violence is much more rampant than academic performance.

When I started the group sessions with five young adults, I introduced passages from Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, Peace Is Every Step. I was unsure of how they would respond to the teachings. I asked them to read a passage a day and to come ready to discuss it. Many of them wanted to discuss the sections on anger, so we read these passages aloud in the group. One of the sixteen-year-old girls started crying as she was reading aloud—telling how her mother is using drugs and verbally abuses her, how her mother doesn’t work but makes her work to pay the bills. She said that she had a lot of anger towards her mother, and that she always screamed at her mother, calling her the same names that her mother called her. I was amazed by the visual transformation in her –– from urban hardness to openness and honestly displaying her emotions.

Another member who has been in the Department of Social Services (DSS) began talking about how angry she is all the time, and how she always gets in trouble in her group home because she lets anger control her. As she continued to speak about her anger, other group members began giving her suggestions on how to care for her anger, based on what we had just read. I asked them if they felt that what they had read was realistic and applicable to their lives, or whether they just saw it as something nice to read about. One of the guys spoke up saying that he definitely thought the words were relevant to urban people in America. He talked about how cold and unfriendly our daily interactions are in urban America and about the need to recognize our connections to each other. He told me that he’s started doing little things, like saying hi to a bus driver when he takes the bus to community college every day.

The words from that book have really touched these kids. I have noticed visible improvements in all five of the members in the past few months. Not only have they been reflecting on their own actions, they are also caring for one another––they are building community.

Our community college student almost made the dean’s list last semester with the assistance of some tutoring and support of Fuerza volunteers. Two other members will be applying to college next September. Another recently joined her school’s basketball team with more confidence in herself and her abilities, and our youngest member, who has been in the DSS system, recently brought me a copy of her report card—four As and three Bs, a marked improvement over her past efforts. Because of the empowering change they have experienced by being a part of Fuerza, they have begun to motivate and empower themselves outside the group. I am expanding the group to about twenty young adolescents and I intend on bringing more of Thay’s teachings to our overall work. I know that it will impact their sense of community and will allow them to begin exploring new levels of personal change and social activism. These young adults are hungry for mental spaces of peace, which they can use to strengthen themselves to better face the daily wars with which they continually battle.

Jina Jibrin runs the Fuerza Youth Leadership Program, working with urban youth in Boston addressing issues such as HIV, poverty, homelessness, violence, and substance abuse.

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Thich Nhat Hanh Responds to Young People

At the Colors of Compassion Retreat

In March, 2004, at the Colors of Compassion retreat, Thich Nhat Hanh addressed questions from two participants who are part of the group described in the article on page 23.

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My name is Aaron, I’m from Boston, Massachusetts, I’m seventeen. Where I’m from it’s a more urban setting, and a lot of us kids are faced with feeling like we’re hopeless because a lot of problems that we have seem to just badger us and don’t go away. Everywhere you turn there’s a negative. Your friends peer pressure you to smoke weed or they might ask you: “Hey, I got problems with somebody, can you help me beat ‘em up?” And where I’m from, due to the facts of the streets, it’s almost a responsibility you hold for your friends. But you got so many negatives coming at you from each side, how can you use mindfulness and Buddhism to turn those negatives into a positive?

I think the first thing you must do is to create a place where people can feel safe. This is the work of Sangha building. You create a community where people know how to practice mindful breathing, mindful sitting, mindful walking; where people know how to handle their emotions and feelings. When that Sangha meets regularly and practices together, then you can invite other people. And when they come they feel safe, they feel that there is something beautiful and peaceful. They calm down and begin to see more clearly. The Sangha must help us get a taste of peace, of joy, of brotherhood through the practice. Then we can choose to go in the direction of peace.

You use drugs when you don’t know how to handle the suffering inside you. When the despair, the anger, the anxiety comes up, you get some drugs or alcohol in order to forget. Instead we can offer a Sangha of practice, and teach people how to handle the blocks of suffering inside. In the practice center we learn how to take care of our body by the practice of mindful eating and mindful drinking. We learn how to take care of our feelings and emotions when they manifest.

In the Sangha there should be people who have really mastered the practice, like a Dharma teacher or a long-time practitioner. Then we invite people over for tea and for a discussion, and they will experience the atmosphere of peace and safety. In Boston the young people who know how to practice can start a Sangha for young people. My answer is Sangha-building.

I’m also from Boston, Massachusetts. I came here to learn more about Buddhism and how you live your life here. I see now that it’s so beautiful, everybody welcomes everybody. Where I come from there’s not a lot of that. There’s a lot of negativity and discrimination. I’m eighteen, and teenagers my age go through so much in Boston, and most don’t know about Buddhism. They don’t know how to deal with their suffering. Is there a way that I can talk to my friends and help them understand this practice?

The living Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, is a way of life that radiates peace, understanding, and compassion. That is why it is very important to show people the living Dharma and not just the Dharma in a book or a tape. People have made the teaching of the Buddha complicated, but in fact we can talk about it and we can show it to friends in a very simple way.

Thanks to the true practice, we can radiate the energy of gentleness, peace, and compassion, and others will feel it right away. That is the best way to introduce the Dharma to them. We have learned to touch the nobility in ourselves, the seed of understanding and compassion that exists in everyone. And when we talk to people, we can touch the seeds of compassion, joy, and understanding in them. Then these seeds will manifest as energies that help them feel much better. We need to train ourselves a little bit in order to do that.

In the teachings of the Buddha it is very clear that what is valuable in a person is not their race or caste, but their thought, speech, and action. You are noble not because of your race, but because of your way of thinking, your way of speaking, and your way of acting.

According to the teaching of the Buddha, everyone has the seed of equanimity within himself or herself. Equanimity means nondiscrimination. If we are able to touch our own seed of equanimity, the wisdom of nondiscrimination will manifest, and we will not suffer and make others suffer. Everyone has the seeds of joy and compassion in them, and if you know how to touch them you transform them into energies that make you feel happier, more joyful, more compassionate. The practice of watering seeds can bring such results right away.

You know the other person has the seed of joy and compassion in her. Suppose you talk to her in such a way that you touch those seeds, and half an hour later she becomes a different person. This is possible. You also know that she has the seeds of sorrow, despair, and jealousy in her. So you refrain from watering those seeds and you only recognize and water the positive seeds in her. In no time at all she becomes more pleasant, happier. This is not only for her sake but for our sake, and we call this the practice of selective watering.

I see young people who come home from a retreat transformed. Thanks to their true presence, which embodies the Dharma, the same aspiration and energy is born in their parents, and they embrace the practice and change themselves. Then the family is completely transformed. This is what I call the living Dharma. You can embody the living Dharma through this practice.

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Trainings of the Mind in Diversity

by Larry Yang

from Friends on the Path, edited by Jack Lawlor and published by Parallax Press

The practice of these trainings is an opportunity to begin the journey towards narrowing the experience of separation. As humans, we all participate in the harmful behaviors that these trainings are addressing. We all have been the perpetrator and victim, at one time or another. These trainings are for all of us, not just for any particular group or community. And in our conjoint practice is the vision, hope, and possibility of both cultivating non-perpetration of oppression and increasing the compassion in how we live our lives and understand each other.

Entering into the trainings can be done in many ways. They can be used in contemplative meditation practice and as themes for inquiry in individual practice. If used in a Sangha, they can serve as guided meditations and intentions, or the beginning of mindful conversations. Related to this is the possibility to use one or more of these trainings as guiding principles during critical discussion, conflict resolution, mediation, or other sacred dialogue.

The Trainings

  1. Aware of the suffering caused by imposing one’s own opinions or cultural beliefs upon another human being, I undertake the training to refrain from forcing others, in any way ––through authority, threat, financial incentive, or indoctrination ––to adopt my own belief I commit to respecting every human being’s right to be different, while working towards the elimination of suffering of all beings.
  2. Aware of the suffering caused by invalidating or denying another person’s experience, I undertake the training to refrain from making assumptions or judging harshly any beliefs and attitudes that are different or not understandable from my I commit to being open-minded and accepting of other points of view, and I commit to meeting each perceived difference in another person with kindness, respect, and a willingness to learn more about their worldview.
  3. Aware of the suffering caused by the violence of treating someone as inferior or superior to one’s own self, I undertake the training to refrain from diminishing or idealizing the worth, integrity, and happiness of any human Recognizing that my true nature is not separate from others, I commit to treating each person that comes into my consciousness with the same loving kindness, care, and equanimity that I would bestow upon a beloved benefactor or dear friend.
  4. Aware of the suffering caused by intentional and unintentional acts of rejection, exclusion, avoidance, or indifference towards people who are culturally, physically, sexually, or economically different from me, I undertake the training to refrain from relating to people of similar backgrounds as myself and from being only with people who make me feel I commit to searching out ways to diversify my relationships and increase my sensitivity towards people of different cultures, ethnicities, sexual orientations, ages, physical abilities, genders, and economic means.
  5. Aware of the suffering caused by the often unseen nature of privilege, and the ability of privilege to benefit a select population over others, I undertake the training to refrain from exploiting any person or group, economically, sexually, intellectually, or I commit to examine with wisdom and clear comprehension the ways that I have privilege in order to determine skillful ways of using privilege for the benefit of all beings, and I commit to the practice of generosity in all aspects of my life and towards all human beings, regardless of cultural, ethnic, racial, sexual, age, physical, or economic differences.
  6. Aware of the suffering caused to myself and others by fear and anger during conflict or disagreement, I undertake the training to refrain from reacting defensively, using harmful speech because I feel injured, or using argument to justify my sense of I commit to communicate and express myself mindfully, speaking truthfully from my heart with patience and compassion. I commit to practice genuine and deep listening to all sides of a dispute, and to remain in contact with my highest intentions of recognizing Buddha nature within all beings.
  7. Aware of the suffering caused by the ignorance of misinformation and the lack of information that aggravate fixed views, stereotypes, the stigmatizing of a human being as “other,” and the marginalization of cultural groups, I undertake the training to educate myself about other cultural attitudes, worldviews, ethnic traditions, and life experiences outside of my I commit to be curious with humility and openness, to recognize with compassion the experience of suffering in all beings, and to practice sympathetic joy when encountering the many different cultural expressions of happiness and celebration around the world.
  8. Aware of the suffering caused by the cumulative harm that a collective of people can impose on individuals and other groups, I undertake the training to refrain from consciously validating or participating in group processes, dynamics, activities, decisions, or actions which perpetuate the suffering that these trainings describe on a familial, social, institutional, governmental, societal, cultural, or global I commit to exploring, examining and eliminating the ways that I consciously and unconsciously ally myself with forces that cause harm and oppression, and commit myself to working for the benefit and peace of all.

(c) 2004 Larry Yang

Larry Yang is a psychotherapist and consultant in cultural competency living in northern California. He is a contributor to Dharma, Color, and Culture, a book being published by Parallax Press this month.

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The Dharma has Come to the West

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During a cultural sharing night at the People of Color retreat, one Native American man stood up and, holding his large, round, shallow drum in his hand, offered a chant to the Four Directions. We sat on the floor looking up at him, with his long black hair and his beautiful, earth-toned, multi-colored vest. After a moment of silence, he began chanting to each of the directions. When he turned to the altar, drumming and chanting, a thought hit me: the Dharma has come to the West.

It was a confluence of the new temple with its soaring lines above us, the rapt attention of the group caught in the hypnotic sound, his invocation of the voice and heartbeat of the land’s ancestors, the full presence of meditators of all cultures and ethnicities in witness, and his uplifted face gazing at the altar, that made the moment what it was.

Canyon Sam, Bouquet of the Heart, lives in San Francisco. A student of Thay’s since 1987, she is a writer, activist, and performance artist.

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Poem: Fathers and Daughters

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I traveled on a bridge to your creative side today
after thinking you didn’t have one
noticing the interwoven stitches that are you
for a change
giving attention to your brightly colored aura
and your story telling hands
finding meaning in the pauses between your
speech
and the comfort of now
I didn’t travel alone
this time
as our ancestral footprints and the bridge
were one and the same
I asked for help
for a change
and found value in the awareness of bridge
walking
and the patience of bridge building
embracing your inner child
and mine
we left the pain on the other side
this time
as we gave priority to the family
for a change
I found refuge in your subtleties
and let go of expectations of what creativity looks
like
realizing that our potentials
are one and the same
we sat and created a painting as wide as the
bridge
that I traveled on

—Karla Broady,
Awakened Honesty of the Heart

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Poem: Decline to State

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Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
Declined to state
What is your ethnicity?
A little box in front of me fails
To see the complexity of my identity

In the face of this bureaucracy
The confusion of my whole life
Follows me
And it bothers me
It really bothers me
That only one category is acceptable

Anger, shame and sadness come up
As the complexity of my identity stares me in
the face
Challenging me from behind the linear lines
One box to represent the multiplicity of my
history
Check one and only one
And it’s there’s only one right answer
And you are not it
“Half breed, mongrel, mixed girl”
“You don’t exist
You shouldn’t exist”
There’s no room for you
on this piece of paper

Decline to state
Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
What is your race?

Well I was
Conceived of colonization
father India married his fate to
Royal mother England
Creating me
Part British part Indian
Wholly human
Yet the ancestry of my motherland
Claims I should not be born
While in India I was the half hidden little secret
My father kept from his family
Were they ashamed of me?

His mother died on her way from India to
Britain
Coming to see me
And I’ve held the guilt of responsibility for her
death
Believing my blood hold divisions she could
not bear to see.
So we moved to the United States
The land of hope, equality & opportunity
Seeking inclusion, prosperity
And respite from firebombs little
British boys were dropping in living rooms
Of mixed raced families

What is your race?
Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
Declined to state

Well, I am Indian, and now I am an American,
but
Somehow, the American Indian box just isn’t
quite right
And Asian isn’t right
Because Indians are barely Asians,
And I being half Indian, well it’s just to far to
stretch

And no way in a million years would I check
the white box
Submit under this form to the same
Annihilation of my identity?
You must be joking

Too many years of wishing
Too many years of thinking
White was what I desperately wanted to be
Only

None of the other boxes apply
And even if they give me an “other” option
What kind of race is “other” anyway?
And decline to state feels like a cop out
Two minutes too late
I know like you know that you have already
locked me down & judged me
based on what you think you see

Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
Declined to state

Pen shaking in my hand, angry;
What’s your race?
Declined to state
Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
& the inadequacy of my identity is the reality
of my privilege
guilt comes rolling up like waves washing
British ships upon Indian shores
The story of my family tree bringing me
Closest to the Asian category

Asian? How can I benefit from 400 years of
oppression
I barely feel the taste of?
How can I claim a history my Indian father
taught me
to disown?
What’s your race?
Declined to state
They’ll let you blend in if you
Don’t state
They’ll let you be a normal part of this state
Of affairs

I am inclined now to think outside the box
to redefine this narrow history
and tell a different story on this
piece of paper in front of me
pull the box wide open ‘cos these racial
categories
intend to conveniently erase my identity
perpetrate colonization on me again and
again
every time I

Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
Decline to state
What’s your race?
& I decline to submit to this state of affairs
and proudly,
as thee mixed girl I am
I check off, quickly,
Every single box on the page
Black, Native American, Latino, White, Asian
I state ‘em all, even the “other” box
Watch me
& if there’s a space to write
in my race
I fill in “human”
Declaring unity
& equality
for all to see

I leave no trace of my identity
Make if harder to process me
Into neat little categories
Since love, life, family, my ancestry
Are much deeper than the space
One little box can afford me

It’s about time we set ourselves, humanity
& the little boxes free
about times we
take the matter of the complexity of identity
into our own hands

‘cos where I want to be
it’s all about interconnection & unity
all of us connected
one blood
one people
one love
humanity
no distinctions necessary

‘cos the way I see it
tho’ we may mix like apples & oranges
or appear to be different fruits totally,
we all grown from the same family tree
& that’s human, completely,
you see?

—Susanna Barkataki

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“Mitakuye Oyasin”

Monks’ Experiences of the Ancient Stone People Lodge Ceremony

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Immediately after the Colors of Compassion retreat, on the first of April, fifteen monks participated in an ancient ceremony of the Indigenous Peoples of this land—a Stone People Lodge ceremony. It was a historic event, in that we had the opportunity to experience firsthand the joining of Buddhist and Native spiritual traditions, from Vietnamese and Lakota lineages. Plus, it was a sacred meeting of representatives from several cultures: Vietnamese, French, English, Spanish, Swiss, Portuguese, Swedish, Filipino, African American, Canadian, American, Chinese, and Lakota. Truly, a United Nations meeting of the heart, a meeting of spirit.

Built on Kumeyaay land on the Viejas Reservation (east of San Diego), the lodge is a simple structure made from willow saplings. The Inipi (from the Lakota language) / Stone People Lodge ceremony is a means for purifying and renewing our mind, body, and spirit. This sacred Indigenous spiritual practice allows us to shed manifestations of ego as we sit inside the lodge—the womb of our Earth Mother, Maka Tizi—and pray for all beings. The prayer “Mitakuye Oyasin”—To All Relations/We Are All Related—encompasses this understanding of inter-being, inter-dependence and inter-connectedness with all life. Through all the preparations––covering the lodge, selecting the stones, building the fire, making the prayer bundle offerings––every step, every action is part of the prayer of the ceremony.

The experience in the Stone People Lodge is an immersion into another realm of reality, into a realm beyond time and space, where our prayers for health, peace, and the planet have a particular potency. This ceremony feels as ancient as the red hot Stone People who are sitting with us in the center of the lodge. Sitting in the lodge, touching the Earth, we begin anew with our Earth Mother and with all our sisters and brothers of the Earth. The lodge ceremony reaffirms and strengthens our connection to the sacred hoop of life, to the Sacred Mystery, to all our ancestors, and to the ancestors of this land, Turtle Island (the American continents).

Once inside the lodge, embraced by the steam—the breath of Earth Mother—and enveloped in the sacred black light, we dissolve into the black light and the stillness, as ego, distinctions, definitions, discriminations, and thoughts fade. A shift from the visible to the invisible takes place. The sacredness all around us and within us, inter-connectedness, nondiscrimination, and non-separation are experienced very directly.

It was a great honor to facilitate this lodge ceremony for our brother monks. It was an amazing and deep experience which affected each of us profoundly, and sent ripples into the world and into the cosmos. In the days following the ceremony, the participants wrote about their experiences. With deep respect and gratitude we offer some of these writings to you.

Mitakuye Oyasin / To All Relations / We Are All Related,
—Chan Tue Nang, Joseph Lam Medicine Robe

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Hello to grandmother earth
Hello to the stone people, my ancestors
Hello to father sun
Hello to the fire, my ancestor
Hello to the air that I breathe
Hello to the steam and water I drink
All of you are my relations
I bow to you
We are one
Sitting in the beginning
Looking at the black light
I am in the womb of the earth
Mother’s breath penetrating into me
Spirit radiating out into the cosmos
—Chan Phap Ngo

Stone People Lodge

Four hours cooking in a willow branch hut. Too small to stand, sitting close, no room to move, next to each other, sixteen brothers, in a circle, around the red hot stone people, embraced by the steam, breath of the earth, grandmother earth, mother’s love in this womb. Together in the heat, in love, in water, with brotherhood and grandfather spirit, in blackness—there we sat to renew, to purify, rebirthing, allowing ourselves to burn, to die, but not to sleep, not to dream.

Touching the Earth, we sat on the ground—a circle of brothers, a circle of life, a cycle of ages—heritage passed down to keep us in touch with all our relations—Mitakuye Oyasin. Offering our prayers for peace, for transformation, for healing. In preparation we gathered wood and placed so mindfully the stones one by one—one to the west, one to the north, then east, then south, in line with the colors black, red, yellow, white on poles on this ceremonial site, this land within a land within a land. An expanse of flat land, with bare black burned trees, a circle of mountains made our horizon, and blue for above, green for below.

Lighting the fire, a line of energy now alive between the fire, altar and into the door through which we crouched to go inside a blacked out space—the willow branch lodge. In preparation we generated mindfulness, brotherhood, and more and more concentration. Aware, sensing, in touch with each other. Strings of prayer bundles for all beings in the entire cosmos and one for our own family and close ones. Circumambulating the lodge and the fire with my string of seven prayer bundles, I brought to mind all those who have made me, shaped me, nurtured me, neglected me, hurt me, loved and supported me, taught and guided me—with my breath I brought them into my body and those ancestors I do not know and children of cousins and children not yet born—I took them all with me into this so small space.

And so this lodge becomes a house with many mansions containing past, present, and future. We all shared deeply of our aspirations and fear and suffering—we gave thanks for this ceremony and expressed regret for past wrongs of peoples to peoples. I shared of being in touch with the suffering of my father and his brothers when one of them took his own life, and of a brother or sister who was lost before birth. We chanted in the intense heat and in the blackness. I saw a nothingness to my personality and life—what did my fear mean in that black?—and yet a sense of trust was also there.

In gratitude, Mitakuye Oyasin
—Chan Phap Lai

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Black Light Night

It was a night in which the sun disappeared and, then, reappeared in the blazing wood people who transmitted their red hot energy into the stone people so that the earth men could be purified.

It was a night in which mother earth embraced all her sons, collecting them into the half sphere lodge, all her sons from all around the globe.

It was a night in which brothers huddled together, bundled their prayers for all beings in the universe as well their own individual blood families, sharing their aspirations and gratitude.

It was a night in which brothers from all over mother earth gathered to chant and send energy of the Native American and Buddhist bodhisattvas to all beings.

It was a night in which the Lakota Shaman guided his young bald headed brothers, plus one not so young, through their anxiety, uncertainty, unknowing—in the Black Light Heat—to a deeper realization and consciousness of their oneness, their interbeing with each other and all beings.

It was a night that ended with the brothers being soaked with the blessings of the cosmos, sopping wet and dripping gratitude.

—Chan Phap De

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A Hut

A hut made of willow branches,
like a mother’s belly
directed to each planet,
in the center, a hole in the ground.
An altar, made of soil and stones, the moon.
The sun of fire embraced by a half-circle,
a wall protecting from the winds.
Simple blankets cover us up,
the brothers sitting in the hut are listening
to the fire, the air, the steam.
In the belly of our Mother Earth,
listening to the Mystery.
Dear Grandfather,
in gratitude for that love
that surrounds us,
for this opening and the little more abandoning,
I thank you for teaching me the confidence
of being in the here and in the now,
enriched by love and at the same time even more poor.
I thank you for being more conscious too.
On the path of celebration
in gratitude for our teacher Thay.
Discovering the Eye who sees
simple joy of being together.
Time has disappeared.
The rain is blessing the earth.
The stars are joining us.
Fire, master fire, Thay fire,
who shows us how to love,
how to respect the right distance,
without fear.
The red stones in the center of the earth
filled with the light of the stars.
The clear water perfumed with sage,
the steam which envelopes us and penetrates us.
A chant from the Buddhist tradition,
A chant from the Native Indian tradition,
one breath, one heart.
A deeper and more subtle release.
Joy of being here and now,
in the Mother’s arms, in the Father’s arms.
Mystery of an invisible Presence,
Free hands offered,
each cell offered as flowers.
In gratitude —Chan Phap Tap
The hot air brought me close to my fear, my panic of losing it totally.
Let me meet with courage the most difficult state of mind, so I can live freely, without shadows of doubt and fear.
May we all be free from our mind shadows.
May we come out to the light and stand freely there.
May compassion embrace the whole of our minds and hearts.
—Chan Phap Son

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Stone Presence Lodge

There is a grace to stone that weathers centuries.
Infused with the heat of joy fire
we offer this stone to the womb of the willow.
Imbued with the tumult of sky
we offer this grace to the womb of our body.
The moon at the zenith, waxing our limbs
we offer what is to the womb of the awakened.
In time unborn we rest here
Enfolded by vapors
The sweat runs unchecked off the bulk of our baggage
To flay bare the unspoken
To fuel this still yearning
To release the stuck remnants of past altercations
For the call of the eagle,
The caress of the soil,
For the presence of stone heat enlodged in our membranes.
For the space where all going and coming is done for
and rest poised in vision subdues all desire.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the current which guides us from known to unknowing
and blesses the soil it carries with laughter.
Mitakuye oyasin.
For the clan of the spirit that moves us as one mind
and perfumes our abode with fragrance of silence.
Mitakuye oyasin.
Let the oceans bring rain.
Let the charred stems bear branches
to bear witness to rumor, this fine simple offer.
Let this kinship of blood, sweat and steam forge a vision
of the exotic here, of unprecedented now
Casting down what with measure would ream the unbroken
And take him to the view we of old have forecasted.
Let the holy find ground
In the temple of the wishless.
—Chan Phap Luu

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Finding the Sacred in the Secular

Revelations in a Secular Retreat

by Lynette Monteiro

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With the explosion in the use of mindfulness as a psychological intervention, questions are arising about the implications of using a secular mindfulness practice outside a sacred (religious) context. Against this background, the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic ventured with two Buddhist Sanghas to offer a secular retreat on mindfulness skills to the health care community. What transpired was a rare opportunity to observe the power of concepts and the resilience of practitioners.

The theme was “Why meditate? Three perspectives of Mindfulness Meditation.” Dharma teachers Chan Huy and Joseph Emet spoke on mindfulness and the growth of wisdom and creativity. In my role as psychologist, I was asked to explore “Healing Meditation.”

Defining the form of the retreat was a challenge. As a clinical organization, the issue of religious form was the central obstacle. As the planning developed, I found myself becoming obsessed with words: can we say “Buddha,” “Dharma,” “Sangha”? I became focused on the structure: can we have a statue, incense, an altar? Do we bow? Do we prostrate? Do we use the bells?

Slowly, the form of all the retreats I’d ever attended began to dissolve. Daily, I sat with the discomfort of deconstructing the familiar. Mountains were no longer mountains. Rivers ceased to flow in a way I had come to take for granted. The finger pointing to the moon was fully on the grid of my perceptions and I was about to dissect it. Paradoxically, the act of beginning the dismantling was firmly grounded in the faith (the first pillar of Zen) that my practice was resilient in such inquiries. In fact, my personal and professional practice demanded such openness to risk.

What emerged was recognition that my professional discomfort with signs and markers guided me, and protected me from attachment to external objects that can become obstacles to an engaged life. Great Doubt is the second pillar of Zen: the willingness to question every object, every action of body, speech, and mind.

No Dharma Teacher, No Dharma Talk

Designing the talk presented the next obstacle. For almost two decades of academic studies and ten years of professional practice, I have been over-trained in the presentation of data-based scientific papers. Charts, graphs, and Power Point presentations are the rituals of the religion of science. Once more, the sword of understanding sliced through these attachments and what remained was a determination (the third pillar of Zen) to throw myself off a 100-foot pole into the true nature of faith in myself.

The talk explored the skills of stopping, accepting, and taking responsibility. The Serenity Prayer formed the framework, with the story of Angulimala as the central parable of taking personal responsibility to stop. Buddhist mythology flowed easily into psychological theories of awareness, acceptance, and commitment to change. Not being a Dharma teacher, I found myself internally chuckling that I was giving a no-Dharma talk and thus fulfilling my aspiration to no-form.

The outcome was powerful. Participants shared their understanding that we suffer when we cannot accept what we cannot change. To accept the things we cannot change requires stopping; like Angulimala, it is a personal choice to stop one’s suffering. With the clarity of mindfulness, we can see what can be changed. Serenity grows out of allowing our concepts to be dissolved, sitting with the distress of no-form, and opening to the liberation of true emptiness.

Blessing the Sacred in the Secular

The retreat closed with a transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Though I would have preferred a secular ceremony, we agreed to conduct a Buddhist ceremony and invited the non-Buddhist participants to support those who had chosen to commit to a path of ethical, engaged living. During the ceremony I felt an intense, rising joy seeing my spouse take the vows again in community. He had received his transmission from Thay at a secular retreat in Wisconsin and wanted to express his commitment with his home Sangha as witnesses.

I had intense feelings of discomfort through the ceremony’s religious forms. But when I recognized that we are always vulnerable to our perceptions, sacred and secular became again the mountain and rivers in a blink of the mind’s eye. I may not be ready to merge the secular and religious in a single retreat. However, I have come to value the sacred in the secular as it focuses my attention on the moon, which at this moment shines brightly, fully, and wonderfully through my window.

Lynette Monteiro, True Wonderful Fulfillment, is a founder of the Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic.

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Making a Commitment with the Five Mindfulness Trainings

Text of the Nonsectarian Ceremony

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Mindful sitting in silence: twelve minutes. Those who wish to receive the trainings sit facing the brothers and sisters who have come to support them.

Spokesperson: Noble community, let us celebrate our togetherness by singing two times, “I have arrived, I am home.” Now let us practice the Opening Procedure.

Opening Procedure

Question: Has our whole community assembled?
Response: Our whole community has gathered.

Question: Is there harmony in our community?
Response: Yes, there is harmony.

Question: Why has the community gathered today?
Response: The community has gathered today to give support to those who are making a commitment with the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Brothers and sisters, today, the _____   of _____ , has been chosen as the day when a commitment with the Five Mindfulness Trainings can be made. The community has gathered at the appointed time and is ready to make the commitment in an atmosphere of harmony and therefore the matter can proceed. Is that correct?

Everyone: Correct. (bell)

Today we have gathered to give support to our brothers and sisters who are going to make their commitment to keep the Two Promises and to live according to the Mindfulness Trainings. We shall all follow our breathing when we hear the sound of the bell to help us be truly present for each other. The sound of the bell is the voice of our true selves calling us back to our true home.

Optional: Those who are making the commitment can now stand and place a flower in a vase in front of them, and then return to their seats. The flower is a symbol of the newness and freshness of the mind of those who are making the commitment.

The brothers and sisters who are going to make the commitment to keep the Two Promises and to live according to the Five Mindfulness Trainings, please be mindful of your feeling of gratitude. After each sound of the bell, please dwell peacefully in the feeling of gratitude, following your breathing. Would the whole community please practice mindful breathing too, so that we may be fully present to support our brothers and sisters.

  • Being mindful of our parents who gave us birth, making our life possible, we breathe in and out three times in (Bell followed by silence for at least three in and out breaths).
  • Being mindful of our teachers who show us the way towards peace and happiness, we breathe in and out three times in (Bell followed by silence for at least three in and out breaths).
  • Being mindful of all beings in the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds who support our life and make it beautiful, we breathe in and out three times in (Bell followed by silence for at least three in and out breaths).

Brothers and sisters, we have seen that everything is moving on, that nothing in life is permanent, and that safety, happiness, and well-being cannot be gained by money, fame, or possessions. Our practice of mindfulness has shown us that it is possible to live the present moment with peace and joy. Therefore we wish to declare our confidence in that which enables us to live the present moment in peace, joy, and contentment.

Brothers and sisters, this is the concrete expression of the Three Declarations:

  1. I have confidence in the capacity of all beings to attain great understanding, peace, and
  2. I have confidence in the practice, which helps us to walk on the path of great understanding, peace, and
  3. I have confidence in the community, which is committed to the practice of understanding, peace, and love.

Noble community, please join our brothers and sisters in expressing commitment to the confidences by repeating after me:

  • I have confidence in the capacity of all beings /to attain great understanding, peace, and (bell)
  • I have confidence in the practice/ which helps us to walk on the path/ of great understanding, peace, and love. (bell)
  • I have confidence in the community/ which is committed to the practice /of understanding, peace, and love. (bell)

Brothers and sisters, you have formally declared your confidence in the mindfulness practice. This will help you to discover mindfulness in your own heart and bring it constantly into your daily life. Beginning today, with the support of the whole community, you will apply your mind to learning about and practicing the way of understanding and love, which means to nourish the ability to love and understand within yourself. You will attend days and retreats of mindfulness and recitations of the Mindfulness Trainings in order to keep your practice of mindfulness alive.

Brothers and sisters, this is the time for the children to solemnly make the Two Promises in the presence of the great community.

Please, brothers and sisters, join the children in repeating after me the First Promise:

I vow to develop understanding/ in order to live peacefully with people/animals, plants, and minerals.

In the presence of all of us, do you want to make this promise with yourselves and with the community? Please say, “Yes, I do.” Please enjoy breathing two times. (bell)

This is the Second Promise:

I vow to develop my compassion/ in order to protect the lives of people/animals, plants, and minerals.

In the presence of all of us, do you want to make this promise with yourselves and with the community? Please say, “Yes, I do.” Young people, understanding and love are the most beautiful things in life. If we do not make an effort to be open to understand the suffering of other people, we will not be able to love them and to live in harmony

with them. We should try to understand and protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals, and to live in harmony with them. If we can’t understand, we cannot love. Understanding is love itself. Please do your best to keep the Two Promises to bring peace and happiness to yourselves, your family, school, and society. (bell)

Now is the time to make the commitment with the Mindfulness Trainings. These trainings have the capacity to protect life and make it beautiful. They encourage us in the direction of peace, joy, liberation, and awakening. They are the foundation for individual happiness and the happiness of the family and society. The Mindfulness Trainings help us avoid making mistakes which create suffering, fear, and despair. Practicing the Trainings, we are able to build peace and happiness in ourselves and in our family, and joy and peace in our society. The wholesome collective energy of the community will support you and bear witness in this moment for you to make the commitment to live your daily life in the direction shown by the Five Trainings.

Representing the community, I will now recite the Mindfulness Trainings one by one. Please listen carefully to each Training with a calm and clear mind. Please say, “Yes, I do.” every time you see you have the willingness and the capacity to receive, study and live according to the Mindfulness training read.

Sisters and brothers, are you ready?

Answer: Yes, we are ready.

The First Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivate compassion and learn ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined to try my very best to avoid killing, to prevent others from killing, and not to support any act of violence in the world, in my thinking, and in my way of life.

This is the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Do you make a commitment to study and practice it?
Answer: Yes, I do. (bell)

The Second Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivate loving kindness and learn ways to work for the well-being of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am committed to practice generosity by sharing my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in real need. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others. I will respect the property of others, but I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of other species on Earth.

This is the second of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Do you make a commitment to study and practice i t?
Answer: Yes, I do. (bell)

The Third Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivate responsibility and learn ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without love and a longterm commitment. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I am determined to respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct.

This is the third of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Do you make a commitment to study and practice it?
Answer: Yes, I do. (bell)

The Fourth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivate loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and relieve others of their suffering. Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I am committed to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

This is the fourth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Do you make a commitment to study and practice it?
Answer: Yes, I do. (bell)

The Fifth Mindfulness Training

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

This is the fifth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Do you make a commitment to study and practice it?
Answer: Yes, I do. (bell)

Brothers and sisters, you have made a commitment with the Mindfulness Trainings which are the foundation of happiness in the family and in society. By practicing them you will be able to help others. If you can recite the Trainings often, at least once a month, your understanding and practice of them can grow deeper every day. You can organize a recitation in the mindfulness practice center or at home with friends. You can recite them on your own but the effect is much stronger when you recite them with others.

Brothers and sisters, I will now read the certificate of commitment. (Hearing their name read, the brothers and sisters come up to receive their certificates.) Let us conclude our formal gathering by singing together, “Happiness is here and now.”

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Thich Nhat Hanh on the Abuse of Prisoners of War in Iraq

May 18, 2004

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What is the Buddhist perspective on the abuse of prisoners of war in Iraq?

Recent news about the abuse of prisoners of war provides us with the opportunity to look deeply into the nature of war. It reveals the truth that has been hidden to many of us about what actually goes on during war and conflict. This is an opportunity for us to be more aware. This is not new; everywhere there is war, these kinds of things happen.

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Soldiers are trained to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible. Soldiers are told that if they don’t kill, they will be killed by the so-called enemy. They are taught that killing is good because the people they are trying to kill are dangerous to society, and that they are demons, that our nation would be better off without them. Soldiers are trained to believe they must kill the other group because they are not human beings. If soldiers see their “enemies” as fellow human beings just like them, they will have no courage to kill them. Every one of us should know the way soldiers are trained in order to see the truth about war. It is important not to blame and single out the U.S. in this kind of situation because any country would do the same thing under the same conditions. During the Vietnam War atrocities were committed by both sides also.

The statement President Bush made that the U.S. just sent dedicated, devoted young men, not abusers to Iraq shocked me, because committing acts of torture is just the result of the training that the soldiers have already undergone. The training already makes them lose all their humanity. The young men and women going to Iraq were already full of fear, wanting to protect themselves at all cost, so they are pushed to act quickly, being ready to kill at any moment.

Why would the soldiers torture the Iraqi prisoners?

When you are engaged in the act of killing, aware that fellow soldiers on your side are dying every day and that it is possible for you to be killed at any moment, you are filled with fear, anger, and despair. In this state you can become extremely cruel. You may pour all of your hate and anger on prisoners of war by torturing and abusing them. The purpose of your violence is not only to extract information from them, but also to express your hate and fear. The prisoners of war are the victims, but the abusers, the torturers are also the victims. Their actions will continue to disturb them long after the abuse has ended.

Even if the superiors of the individual soldiers have not directly given orders to mistreat, abuse, or torture, they are still responsible for what happened. Preparing for war and fighting a war means allowing our human nature to die and the animal nature in us to take over. We should never be tempted to resort to violence and war to solve conflict. Violence always leads to more violence.

It is possible to achieve peace through peaceful means and there are many examples of this in history.

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Lamp Transmission

In February, Tony Mills and Pritam Singh were among those chosen to receive the lamp transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh and become Dharma teachers. During the ceremony, they each offered an insight gatha, and received one in response from Thay.

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Tony Mills’s Insight Gatha
I walk the great southern land holding your hand.
Each time the kookaburra laughs I hear you calling.
You have lifted the veil from my heart
See how it shines like a diamond.
Deep in the forest the compassionate moon
Awakens every leaf.
A beacon shines on the ocean of suffering.

Thay’s Transmission Gatha to Tony
The clear bright moon shining on the forest stream
The silent planet contemplates the cosmos
The three thousand worlds are standing in stillness as
The auspicious flower is blooming pure white

Pritam Singh’s Insight Gatha
For countless generations
I looked through my mother’s eyes
filled with sorrow and regret,
until a gentle rain washed away the tears.
This morning, holding the hand of my dearest friend,
I walked in the mountains
along the old path.

Thay’s Transmission Gatha to Pritam
My original vow is to protect and support the Sangha.

The whole mountain is now illuminated by the sunshine, and I can already see the pink cloud floating lightly on it.

When we realize that our Suchness, our true mind, our true nature, is without the idea of more-or-less, empty-or-full, the energy of great compassion in us can be transformed into thousands of eyes and thousands of hands in order to help relieve the suffering in the world.

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Soymilk Sangha

by Susan Hadler

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After dinner I walk to the kitchen to check on the soymilk we’ve made today. It should be cooling by now. Later, after evening meditation we’ll put it in the refrigerator, so we can have fresh soymilk for breakfast. The clean-up crew fills the kitchen with activity carrying racks of dishes, washing pots, and mopping the floor. I am surprised to see my soymilk teammate Gary standing at the stove spooning okara, the thick soybean residue, from the huge pot of soymilk into a basin. Normally the okara is filtered out by a machine. What happened to the soymilk?

Phap Do taught the seven of us on the soymilk team how to make soymilk for the 350 retreatants of Solidity Hamlet. Making soymilk is a day-long process that reminds me a little of taking care of a baby. After supper we measure fifteen cups of soybeans into a large plastic tub. We wash the beans three times and soak them overnight. The next morning during working meditation the little round beans are mixed with water and ground between two stones in the grinding machine. After that we pour the thick white liquid into the mouth of another machine we affectionately named “The Great Silver Dragon” whose belly is a filter bag. The machine whirls the soymilk, filtering out the okara, until milk runs out of the spout into a big stainless steel pot. Several times during the filtering process we empty the soft foamy okara from the filter bag into a basin. The okara is mainly used for compost. Later in the afternoon we cook the soymilk for two hours in huge pots double boiler style. When it is cool, we return to the kitchen and tuck it away for the night in the refrigerator.

Soon after learning how to make soymilk, I begin to identify with the little soybeans. We are both seeds in the womb of Mother Earth, constantly changing. I too, am soaking, soaking in the collective mindful energy of the retreat. My tough outer shell softens, my heart opens. I don’t need to protect and defend myself here. I feel safe.

Like the soybean, I am ground up together with the other retreatants and we slowly become a community. My protective edges wear away in the room I share with five other women as we bump up against each other and learn to live together in this intimate space. The aloneness I brought with me loosens and dissolves when I am helped over a rough spot by new friends. I feel supported by the people here and I give what I can. We live and work together mindfully day after day. We walk as one body during walking meditation. We eat our silent meals. We sit in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall in the morning and in the evening. We harmonize our voices to sing and to chant. We walk slowly up and down the mountain without speaking. Separateness is ground away until we become a Sangha river flowing in the Great Hidden Mountain.

Next we are filtered and refined. We let go of suffering, noticing obstacles to happiness, changing old habits. With Thay’s help I see that I’ve carry my beloved grandmother’s despair inside of me for all these years. Her despair is part of my mind. I take Granny for a walk in the hills and she enjoys it so much, the hills, the flowering trees, the birds and the sunshine. She is content now and so am I. I see something else; the way I try to save everyone and end up losing myself, a painful old habit that leads to exhaustion and feelings of imprisonment. It is thick and heavy like the okara we filter out of the soymilk. I see this when our soymilk team runs into trouble.

The seven of us meet with Thay Phap Do. For the first time I realize that my overactive sense of responsibility affects my friends adversely. It let go of every notion and experience great joy! I find out that he is right when I experience a deep wordless connection with this mountain, with the rabbits and squirrels, with the full moon, with the Sangha. There is enough time and space to enjoy every moment.

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Gary answers my question as I walk over to the stove. “The filter bag leaked and okara filled the milk. It was too thick to drink and wouldn’t be very tasty.” My first thought is, Why did the filter bag leak? My second thought is, What about tomorrow when we make soymilk again?

Thay Phap Do comes into the kitchen, looks around, and suggests that we use the metal colander and a big pot. He brings forth a nylon curtain to use as a strainer. I watch him line the colander with the curtain and then I speak. “Phap Do, I think I know what happened to the filter bag.” He doesn’t respond. Then I ask, “Will we have to strain the milk this way every day?” This time Phap Do answers. “Just do it now. Use this curtain to filter the milk now.” I feel a little embarrassed and rebuked, having wanted to impress him by figuring out why the filter bag leaked. I walk

is my habit to arrive early on the days we make soymilk and begin to set up the equipment. I run around the kitchen collecting spoons and pots and basins, thinking how nice it will be for my friends to arrive and have everything already set up. But wait, something is changing. Thay is teaching us to become businessless. I notice that my ancestors’ “businessfulness” appears in me. During our meeting several of my teammates express feeling rushed and left out. My heart thumps in my chest and my breath races. I have never before realized that when I act in that extra-responsible-businessful way I take up my teammates’ space and obstruct us from experiencing the ease and leisure that makes deep connection possible and enjoyable. I happily leave my businessfulness in the filter bag. At the end of our meeting Thay Phap Do asks each of us, “What does a cow say?” “A cow?” “Yes. A cow. You know the cow that gives milk. What does a cow say?” Each of us replies and then Phap Do asks us to repeat the sound all together. “Mooooo!” we bellow and laugh. We’re becoming nourishment for the Sangha, light enough to flow freely like a delicious stream of soymilk. We begin our working meditation now with a cup of tea and a long “Moooooo,” the joyful sound of the soymilk team.

And then we cook. We cook the soymilk in the afternoon and the Sangha cooks slowly and continuously in the pot of mindfulness. I feel myself growing more fresh and wholesome as I listen to Thay’s Dharma talks. He tells us that we can find happiness at any moment. He teaches us to transform our suffering and he shows us that we can into the hall behind the kitchen and feel tears spring into my eyes. And then I smile. Oh! I get it. No past. No future. Only now! No blame. No right. No wrong. No theories or notions. Only now!

I walk back into the kitchen and feel so happy as Gary and I strain the soymilk heavy with okara through the curtain. We pour the fresh soymilk into giant pots and store it for breakfast. Friends from the clean-up crew offer to help carry the pots and mop the floor. Just as we’re finishing up, Phap Do reappears and places a new filter bag on the table.

One morning I sit in the dining room that overlooks the temple and the blue hills. I eat breakfast in silence, concentrating on the oatmeal and the soymilk. Gary sits across the table. I hear a rhythmic sound and look up. Gary points to a red-headed woodpecker in the tree outside the window. We sit silently and watch. Phap Do appears on the path beneath the window. His body is completely still as he stands gazing at the tree and the bird. After several minutes he looks in the window and smiles a Buddha smile. Everything is all right. I no longer need to worry about food or cold or anyone or anything. This moment is enough. I am alive. I am here.

Susan Hadler, Transformational Light of the Heart, lives in Washington, D.C. where she practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.

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Six Contemplations on the Awareness of Eating

by Denise Ségor

These words arose in me while walking along the Springwater Trail in Portland, Oregon, early one spring morning. They came from a chorus of bird song; from the scent of fresh rain on flowers, leaves, bark and earth; from the coolness of air on skin; from the firmness of ground beneath footsteps; from gray and white clouds low in the sky; from trees, bushes, and grasses holding steady and still; from muscles contracting and releasing with the flow of movement; from the swish, swish of swinging arms; from breath entering coolly and exiting warmly; from eyes moving consciously from forward and outward seeing to lowered and inward seeing and back again; and from the quiet volcano hidden in this moment by clouds but visible and erupting always within my heart. They also come from a continuing practice of looking deeply at the nature of my own suffering.

Denise Ségor, Mindful Smile of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing, practicing with the Joyful Refuge Sangha and the Community of Mindful Living in Portland, Oregon.

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This food and I
We are sisters in the cosmos,
We are the universe.
And the earth, sky, air, water, fire,
space, energy and consciousness
of the universe
All are in us.
May we gently, with mindfulness and concentration,
Invite our sister food into our body
So that our transformations
may nourish our collective joy a
nd stability.
May we transform our unskillful states of mind
the knots of panic and fear
the bottomless pit of craving
And learn the Middle Way,
With heart and courage easing the constrictions and
control
Thus releasing freedom and peace into our body and the
world.
May we take in the nourishing
and life-affirming elements
Of our sister earth, Encouraging positive seeds
To take root and grow strong within us
So we may give back to the earth
compassion and healing.
May we bring awareness
To the continuing transformation
Occurring in every moment
As our sister food moves through,
fills and becomes one
with every space and cell of our body
And then permeates us out
Through our skin, our tears, our sweat,
our voices, our movement, our breath and our excrement
. . .
In every moment reminding us of the fullness of emptiness
And the nature of no self.
May we commune with her
In a pure and grace-filled way
So that easily and with peace
We may realize
The Path of Understanding
And the Mind of Love.

—Denise Ségor

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One Small Bowl

A Commentary on Eating Meditation

by David Percival

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At Plum Village and Deer Park, the food is delicious, nutritious, and abundant. During the first week of the Summer Opening at Plum Village, I was sitting outside waiting for everyone in my family group to arrive before starting to eat. In front of me was a large plate piled high with food, a large bowl full of food, and a bowl of soup.

In the wonderful silence before starting to eat, I became aware that many of the monks at our table had just one bowl in front of them. Across from me was a slender, trim, happy monk with one small bowl of food; I had enough food to fill four small bowls. Some of the other retreatants at our table had equally impressive quantities of food. Over the next few days, I continued to observe that most monastics used only one bowl when serving themselves.

On the table was a small folded piece of cardboard with the important words I have been repeating for years, but somehow overlooked at this meal:

This food is the gift of the whole universe—
the earth, the sky, and much hard work.
May we be worthy to receive it.
May we transform unskillful states of mind,
especially the habit of eating without moderation.
May we take only foods that nourish us and prevent
illness.
We accept this food to realize the path of understanding
and love.

As I sat there, the Fifth Mindfulness Training played in my mind. What am I doing with this much food? By the time we began the meal, I wasn’t very hungry and I couldn’t eat it all. I waited until everyone had finished so I could steal away and discreetly put the remainder in the compost bucket. A wasteful but useful experience.

That evening during walking meditation I further contemplated this experience. Later, in Stepping into Freedom I read about the monastic eating bowl. Thay states that “…the monk’s eating bowl is often called ‘the vessel of appropriate measure’. It should be big enough to hold a suitable amount of food, but not too big as to encourage greed.”

Food portions served in restaurants at home seem to be escalating. I thought about the plague of obesity, eating disorders and addictions, diabetes, heart disease, loss of self-esteem, and other illnesses caused by being overweight. Reports suggest that two-thirds of adults in the

U.S. are overweight. There are untold numbers of diet plans, hundreds of books on how to lose weight, and millions of people desperately struggling to change. Food is a major attachment and can cause great suffering.

In this sea of suffering and despair is there a diet of mindfulness we can have with us always? Can we practice the Fifth Mindfulness Training at every meal?

The key is to practice as a monastic: wherever you go, keep your bowl carefully stored away in your consciousness. When you can, get used to using one small bowl or a salad plate for your meal. At home I have a Deer Park bowl as the centerpiece on our table and I look at it each time I sit down to eat.

When you can, serve yourself just what you need or perhaps a little less. Then practice walking meditation to where you sit, even if it’s just a few steps in your kitchen. Sit with your back straight, and practicing mindful breathing, recite the Five Contemplations. Bring yourself into the present moment so you can touch your food, your family, and your community deeply. Thay tells us that “eating in mindfulness nourishes your happiness, and you feel as though you are sharing a meal with the Buddha and his disciples in the Jeta Grove.”

Discussing the First Novice Precept, On Protecting Life, Thay says, “When a novice practices this precept, he or she learns to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion and thereby transforms the seeds of violence and hatred and nourishes the seeds of love. Violence and hatred cause boundless suffering. While a novice walks, sits, stands, lies down, works, speaks, eats, or drinks, she does not forget that all species are suffering. Protecting life is the first practice of someone cultivating her bodhichitta, her mind of love.” We can bring this teaching into our life by choosing a vegetarian diet.

My practice of eating moderate amounts of wholesome vegetarian food combined with exercise is a practice of love, compassion, and happiness. I begin to realize that craving for food is not an element of happiness. When I started this practice, I thought that I would need to give up many things. But over time I understood that when I let go of craving and attachments, I haven’t lost anything. Instead, a beautiful space opens in my mind as I become free from my food cravings and attachments. As Thay said at the Winter Retreat at Deer Park in March 2004, “Live in such a way that there is beauty in each moment—all our actions are our continuation (our karma). Do not wait!” And, never forget your bowl.

References:

Thich Nhat Hanh, Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1997. Thich Nhat Hanh, For a Future to Be Possible – Commentaries on the Five Wonderful Precepts, Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1993.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico and is the subscription manager for the Mindfulness Bell.

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Three Full Moons

by Jerry Braza

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Last winter, for the first time in my life, I had an opportunity to stop long enough to witness three full moons come over the mountain at Deer Park Monastery. Taking a sabbatical from my university teaching position, and with the support of my wife, Kathleen, I attended the Winter Retreat to experience the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh with several hundred monastics and lay practitioners.

Before I left for Deer Park, as the first moon of 2004 was waxing, my mother celebrated her 100th birthday, and moved from her apartment to a nursing home. In a Dharma talk Thay said, “Some people live to be 100 and never really deeply touch the present moment.” My mother has lived for more than 1,200 full moons. The moon was always there for her. Was she ever there for the moon? How many of her moons reminded her of the preciousness and impermanence of each fleeting moment?

Living in the rural environment of Deer Park, I became much more aware of the moon and its phases. I walked mindfully each evening to the outdoor pay phone to call Kathleen, and would check in with my friend, the moon. Where are you, dear moon? Are you waxing or waning? When will you be full again? The moon became a gentle reminder of the cyclical nature of my being and the temporary nature of all phenomena.

During the first full moon at Deer Park, my son Mark announced his engagement to Preety, a lovely woman from India. Later, my daughter Andrea and her husband Eric shared news of the upcoming birth of another grandson. New moon, new loved ones to cherish. Oh, moon, teach me about change so that I may model your gifts for those I love.

During these three full moons, a friend of thirty years was incarcerated for spousal abuse. I wonder how and when the first blow was struck. Was it in words? Was it a lack of awareness of the other’s suffering? Can my friend see the moon in his “grey wall monastery”? How many moons will offer him comfort during long bleak nights filled with doubt and self-recrimination? Will this time of rehabilitation offer him the light needed to illuminate the sacredness of life?

One night, as I viewed a waning moon, Kathleen shared the news that two good friends were getting a divorce. What caused the light to go out of their relationship? How many moons did they celebrate in happiness? in darkness? Could awareness of the nature of the moon have guided them in more healing directions?

As the new moon emerged in February, we celebrated Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. We prepared for Tet through a process of inner and outer spring cleaning, attempting to let go of unfinished business and open more deeply to the present moment. How can we celebrate the New Year, new beginnings, if we are still hanging on to the legacies of the past?

During these three moons, Rick, a longtime colleague, died of a heart attack at his desk after teaching a class. When did he see the moon for the last time? Did he, by chance, ever stop and look deeply at the moon one day with the awareness that this may be his last time seeing it? The moon can be a reminder of the cycle of birth and death and the importance of dwelling deeply in the present moment since it could very well be our last moment.

During these three moons, the Deer Park Sangha took several moonlight walks with our teacher. As the moon guided each footstep through the hills, thoughts of weddings, births, and life events were replaced by gentle reminders that happiness is found in the present moment. Enjoy the moon tonight in its brightness and realize its impermanence. Let the moon become your teacher of change, of mindfulness, of impermanence, and the preciousness of life.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a Dharma teacher living in Salem, Oregon. He affiliates with the River Sangha and the Oregon Sangha. He is a Professor of Health Education at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon.

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In the Shoes of the Buddha

by Angela R. Vuagniaux

One Saturday after morning meditation at Deer Park, I looked at the sidewalk surrounding the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall and had the urge to sweep. The desert earth had been tracked in and smeared red all over the new white concrete. It looked messy. Although it wasn’t my assigned working meditation, I knew the next day many guests would be coming for the Sunday public Dharma talks and I wanted the hall to look like the Pure Land it was meant to be. No one else was there, so I invited myself to a session of sweeping meditation.

Days before, while clearing the leaves from the paths of the garden in Solidity Hamlet, a young monk had taught me to sweep. My movements had been brisk, trying to accomplish the task as quickly and neatly as possible. I viewed sweeping as a menial chore to be gotten done. After about a half hour, in the quietest way, a young shining-faced monk took the broom from my hands. “Let me show you,” he said kindly. He then swept the earth as if he were giving a slow gentle massage. Until that moment, I had not even realized that I had been completely wound up and oblivious to the present moment. “It’s a meditation,” the monk reminded me with a smile. As I began to sweep more mindfully I saw how often we are praised for making a good, thorough, and quick job of any task. Now, here was someone showing me that I didn’t have to work for love or approval, that it was all already wonderful. This small lesson brought tears to my eyes, and that day I became a novice sweeper.

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Thoughts came and went as I calmly swept the walkway around the meditation hall. When finished, I opened the door and looked inside. I saw that the cushions and mats had been cleared away, and that the wood floor needed sweeping. I was happy to continue my meditation inside, and found the appropriate dust mops to do so. When I swept around the altar and the platform where I knew Thay would be sitting, I felt more respectful, even reverent. Soon I began to see everywhere as a place not only for Thay to occupy, but for the Buddha as well, and all of us Buddhas-to-be. I imagined the whole world, all space and time, filled with the Buddha…and I was a Buddha too. I continued sweeping like this—wonder-filled. Inside and out were no different.

In one corner of the hall, Thay’s white straw sandals for walking from the door to the platform were kept. When I saw them, I felt a surge of energy inside me—I wanted to walk in those shoes! I slowly leaned over to pick up the sandals, my heart pounding. I looked around: no one in the hall but me. First one foot and then another went into Thay’s slippers. They fit! I looked up, half surprised that no lightning struck me down. Soon I was walking across the meditation hall, just like Thay! For a moment, I thought that maybe the shoes had the power to make me glide across the earth like that. I imagined myself being Thay and immediately felt light and free, floating across the temple floor. Then, I imagined myself as the Buddha, the Buddha in the teacher’s shoes. Filled with a new exuberance, I picked up the dust mop and pushed it around the meditation hall, sweeping like the Buddha. Just as the new rays of morning sunlight came over the mountain and flooded the meditation hall, I felt flooded with light and love. I was the Buddha, in Thay’s shoes, sweeping in the light of the morning sun, in the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall.

Eventually, I grew a little nervous. I did not want to be disrespectful, so I took off the white sandals and put them gently back in their proper place beside the door. Of course, I knew that I did not need Thay’s shoes to be a Buddha, and I knew that I could access that same lightness and joy anytime I wanted. I did not need the shoes, just my own mind and breath. Thay had taught me that. Lesson complete, I put the dust mop away, and bowed gratefully at the door. The place was shining.

When people ask me about my time at Deer Park Monastery, I tell them that my brief training in mindfulness with hundreds of others was the most nourishing thing I have ever done. I hope to have the opportunity to practice with teachers like Thay and many others again, each of us wearing our own shoes.

Editor’s Note: According to the Asian tradition and our practice of fine manners, it is not accepted practice to wear the garments belonging to the teacher.

Angela R. Vuagniaux, Blooming Lotus, is a poet and newcomer to the Order of Interbeing. She lives in Great Barrington, MA and is practicing with the Berkshire Mountain Sangha.

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The Kids’ Sangha

by Bruce and Karen Hilsberg

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Shortly after the Organic Garden Sangha began meeting at our home last October, our children Emily, 7, and Ben, 4, said that they would like to start a Sangha for kids. “What will we call it?” I asked. “The Kids Sangha!” Emily replied. The Kids (and Family) Sangha meets on the first Saturday of each month. It is very informal and a joy for the families that participate. The older children lead the group in mindful walking, inviting the bell, mindful gardening, petting the cat, singing, and mindful eating.

In honor of the Buddha’s birthday, we bathed the baby Buddha in our green turtle “swimming pool.” We offered flowers, leaves, and gravel (representing chocolate chips!) from the garden and ladled gardenia-scented water over the Buddha. Emily read us the Two Promises; then we sang a song and enjoyed apple slices. After, the children played together while the parents socialized.

Our three-year-old friend Caitlin Kelly said her favorite part of the event was the Buddha’s bath. Emily’s favorite part was picking flowers, and Ben enjoyed pouring water on the Buddha and eating apples. Our favorite part is sharing our mindfulness practice with families with young children.

Bruce Hilsberg, True Commitment of the Heart, and Karen Hilsberg, True Serenity of the Heart, are OI aspirants who practice with their children Emily, Serene Sunrise of the Heart, and Ben, Joyful Spring of the Heart, in Culver City, California.

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Fatima in the Garden

by Rena Rubin

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The New York City school where I teach seventh grade art has inherited a community garden a few blocks away. An unsolicited slice of community life is generously offered through the open windows of the apartment buildings cloistering that space. Ujima Garden existed in a state of abandoned neglect until our science and art departments became the custodian at the end of last summer. Though skeptical at first, my assignment was to have the students paint a mural on one of the walls adjoining the garden.

When we began going to the garden every art/science day, I spent most of my time observing my kids in this new environment. Predictably, the destructive ones threw rocks and broke a couple of gardening tools; some kids sat or stood as far away from nature as possible; but some, who I least expected, dug and planted with a passion.

The twins, Catrima and Fatima, were totally engaged in cultivating the soil for the vegetable plot. In other classes, their chronic attitude has established a somewhat contentious relationship between us. But watching them in the garden was an epiphanous experience, reminding me to suspend all judgment made in the context of a NYC public school classroom.

Fatima’s class was first period. As the students were turning soil in their designated area, an enormous earthworm was uncovered, followed immediately by earsplitting screams of shock, curiosity, and revulsion. As I saw one student reach down to scoop it up, I cringed, thinking the poor little guy doesn’t have a chance. I remembered stories I had heard in Dharamsala, about the Buddhist monks breaking ground for a new building: they would gently and painstakingly sift through the soil with their hands to remove all earthworms from harm’s way before the workmen began digging the foundation. Before I could intervene, the little creature was being passed around from student to student, until it ended up in Fatima’s hands, which extended to receive the earthworm as if it were a sacred offering.

There are moments one never forgets, and this was one for me. Fatima cradled this creature in her palms with such tenderness, compassion, and love, that she instantly became the most radiant being on the planet. I wasn’t sure who was more blessed –– Fatima, the earthworm, or me.

The next day I passed Fatima’s class, lined up in the hall. I stopped to tell her that I wished I’d brought my camera with me so I could have taken her picture holding the worm so gently—she looked absolutely beautiful! I was rewarded by a smile so large, it could transform the world.

Rena Rubin, Radiant Jewel of the Source, practices with the Brooklyn Sangha in New York. She is a musician, artist, and art teacher who says, “The students, hands down, have been my biggest teacher.”

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Book Reviews

mb37-BookReviews1Dharma, Color, and Culture
New Voices in Western Buddhism

Edited by Hilda Gutiérrez Baldoquín
With illustrations by Mayumi Oda
Parallax Press, October 28, 2004, 200 pp; $16.00 (paper)

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

A Soto Zen priest in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, the editor is the founder of the People of Color Sitting Group in San Francisco. The book is a compilation of writings by people of color in various Buddhist traditions, and includes such notable writers as Thich Nhat Hanh, Alice Walker, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

Structured around the teachings of the Four Noble Truths, this book focuses on both the suffering and the path to the transforming of suffering encountered for people of color and for all people dedicating their lives to an investigation of the Dharma. It takes us into the issue of needing to find a way for people of color to feel at home in the primarily white Western Buddhist Sanghas; and then brings us full circle by reminding us that the Dharma has no color; that when you think you have found the Buddha in a form, you have lost the Buddha.

Dharma, Color, and Culture is an important book for everyone to read. For this white girl, hearing the voices of people of color, especially those with Western roots, gently expanded my view of practice and of the richness, depth, and diversity of the greater Sangha, the Sangha in which I take refuge every day.

mb37-BookReviews2The Hermit and the Well
A Skipping Stones 2004 Honor Award Winner

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Illustrations by Vo-Dinh Mai
Parallax Press, 2003, 34 pp; $15.00 (hard cover)

Reviewed by Lois Schlegel

Based on an event in Thay’s life as a boy in Vietnam, The Hermit and the Well reminds young readers to fully experience the journey of life, rather than hurrying towards a goal.

This is the story of an outing Thay took with his classmates to the top of a mountain, where they expected to meet a wise hermit. They were excited and ran all the way, ignoring the beauty all around them. Thay writes, “There were many beautiful trees and rocks along the path. But I did not stop to look at them because I wanted to reach the top of the mountain. I ran past flowers and trees. I rushed past the bright blue sky.”

By the time the children reached the hermit’s hut they were tired and thirsty and the hermit was nowhere to be found. But Thay did not give up. He continued searching, hiking deep into the forest. Finally, he discovered a beautiful spring and drank it in: its beauty, its sound and its taste. In that moment, the boy who was to become our teacher, realized, “I felt completely satisfied. I did not need or want anything at all…”

Thay had met his hermit. He had found peace. Near the end of the story he writes, “You too may have met your hermit. Maybe it was a rock, a tree, a star or a beautiful sunset. The hermit is the Buddha inside of you.”

In this simple, beautifully illustrated book, Thay recounts, in the form of a story, the core message of his teachings: enjoy and be present in each moment and you will find the Buddha within.

A reviewer from the award-winning multicultural magazine, Skipping Stones, says about The Hermit and the Well: “I would like to give this book to every child I know in order to acquaint them with moments of spiritual awakening.”

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Help Rebuild Thay’s Temple in Saigon

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Saigon May 30th, 2004

Namo Shakya Munaye Buddhaya

Dear Brothers and Sisters of the Order of Interbeing in every corner of the world, and friends who love Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings:

Forty years ago, in the midst of the Vietnam War, our beloved teacher Thich Nhat Hanh founded the Phap Van Temple (The Dharma Cloud Temple) in a suburb of Saigon. Here Thay established the School of Youth for Social Service, training young people to enter the war zones to help relieve suffering.

Thay’s priority was to spend money helping the poor and the war victims, so the temple we built in 1965 was a very simple thatched-roof structure. Here Thay began to develop engaged Buddhism and set up the Sangha of Interbeing for his first six students who wished to be fully engaged in a life of practice and service. Included were Sister Nhat Chi Maik, who immolated herself for peace on June 16, 1967; and our eldest sister Chan Khong, who works ceaselessly from Plum Village to raise funds to help hungry children and adults who suffer in Vietnam.

Now we have thousands of friends everywhere in the world, sharing the Buddha’s teachings as transmitted by That. In Vietnam, thought, we are only forty OI members, both monastic and lay, who have continued the work. Most of us have been students of Thay since 1965, working without pay or with very little pocket money to serve undernourished and uneducated children, destitute people, lepers, students, and elders. We always try to bring the spiritual dimension into our work by sharing the practice of mindfulness and being peace with our schoolteachers and social workers.

Thirty-eight years have passed without Thay’s physical presence, but we continue to feel his support for us and for all Vietnamese people, including the most destitute. In June 1996, for the first time, Thay offered us a Dharma talk via telephone. He asked us to take good care of our brotherhood and sisterhood and if possible to use the temple as a practice center. Thay did not know that the original thatched roof collapsed twenty-five years ago, and was replaced with tiles. There is a simple Buddha hall, with no safe living space for monks, no kitchen, and no proper washrooms or toilets. The eighteen monks residingh ere live in an almost-collapsed hut with a tin roof. The beams are full of termites and when it rains, water leaks inside the room. The next storm could collapse thee roof and crush the inhabitants.

It is a great fortune that Thay may return to Vietnam in January with monastics and lay practitioners. We would like to use this occasion to rebuild the temple. The plan is to build a lecture hall of 660 square meters, large enough for Thay to offer a public talk to one thousand people, on the ground floor. On the upper level we hope to build room for monastics, guest rooms, and a mediation hall. We also wish to build a little house for Thay and his attendants next to the large building.

The cost may come to $145,000 for the large building and $20,000 for Thay’s house. When Thay is not staying at the temple, we will use his house to exhibit his books, CDs, and DVDs in several languages so visiting students can feel Thay’s presence here through his teachings.

Every day, more people come to the temple wanting to practice. Last week, three monastics from Plum Village offered a five-day retreat for four hundred people. Toilet facilities were a problem, and the monastics had to stay outside the temple.

We urgently need your help so people can come and enjoy the compassionate and effective teachings of Thay. As in many socialist countries, there is a great need for spiritual teachings here. The Buddhism currently taught in Vietnam is not the practical, engaged Buddhist methods offered by Thay. In the West we have had the tremendous fortune to attend retreats with Thay with sufficient and comfortable living conditions. We hope that we can also provide this opportunity for our sisters and brother in Vietnam.

With Thay’s spirit we will continue to use material resources to help relieve the suffering of the poor and needy and to build our temples, modestly and appropriately, to respond to the real needs and aspirations of the people. May thee merit of this work spread to all living beings to benefit the wonderful teaching we proclaimed by our beloved teacher. May all of you dwell in peace embraced by the love of all the Buddhas and bodhisatvas.

The Sangha of Interbeing brothers and sisters in Vietnam

Please mark donations for Phap Van Temple and send to:

North America:
Sister Thuan Nghiem
Green Mountain Dharma Center
Box 182, Hartland-Four-Corners, BT 05048, USA
Payable to: the Unified Buddhist Church
Tel (802) 436-1103
Email mfmaster@vermontel.net

In Europe:
Sister Than Hghiem
New Hamlet
13 Martineau, 33580 Dieulivol, France
Payable to: Eglise Bouddhique Unifee
Tel (35)(5)56616688
Email NH-Office@plumvillage.org

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Dharma Talk: The Power of Visualization

By Thich Nhat Hanh

From talks given June 11 and June 14, 2004, at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat, Plum Village

Thich Nhat Hanh

mb38-dharma3In June, 2004, Thich Nhat Hanh offered teachings on the nature of consciousness at The Feet of the Buddha Retreat in Plum Village. Expounding on the material published in Transformation at the Base, Fifty Verses on the Nature of Consciousness (Parallax Press, 2001) Thay offered methods of practice that will deepen our understanding of ourselves and of reality. 

Here, Thay speaks about the practice of visualization, explaining how it can enhance our mindfulness through such diverse examples as recent information from nuclear science and a marvelous story about the mother of the Buddha. 

Also included in this section is Learning to Speak the Truth, an excerpt of a talk given at the same retreat by senior student and Dharma teacher, Thay Phap An, who shares stories of some of his difficulties as a young monk in the early days at Plum Village. 

The practice of visualization is very important in Buddhism, but practitioners of other disciplines need imagination and visualization too. In order to learn, in order to create, we need the capacity to imagine and to visualize. For example, studying mathematics takes a lot of visualization. If your power of visualization is weak you cannot learn a kind of mathematics called projective geometry. If you are an architect, you have to visualize in order to create new forms of architecture. Many scientists have to visualize a lot, because they have to see molecules and atoms with their mind, since they cannot see them with their eyes. Theories concerning the elementary particles of the cosmos come from visualization.

While scientists use instruments and tools to empower their vision, practitioners use visualization to purify their minds so they can look deeply at the nature of reality.

Visualization While Walking 

Using the techniques of visualization during walking meditation can bring us love, wisdom, and joy. When we study the levels of consciousness, we see that the sixth––mind consciousness, also called the gardener––has the power to imagine, to visualize.

When you make a step, you might visualize that your mother is taking the step with you. This is not difficult to do, since you know that your feet are a continuation of the feet of your mother. As we practice looking deeply, we see the presence of our mother in every cell of our body. Our body is a continuation of our mother’s body. When you make a step you might say, “Mother, walk with me,” and suddenly you feel your mother walking with you. Perhaps during her lifetime she did not have a chance to walk in the here and the now, and to enjoy touching the earth like you have. So, suddenly compassion is born in you, because you can see your mother walking with you. Not in your imagination, but as a reality. You can invite your father and other people you love to walk with you, and you feel they are present in the here and the now. You don’t have to be with them physically in order to touch their presence.

If we know that all our ancestors are fully present in every cell of our body, then when we make a step, we know that they are all taking that step with us. Your mind can see the feet of all your ancestors, millions of feet, making a step with you. Using visualization in that way will shatter the idea that you are a separate self. You walk, and they walk too.

Our Perceptions are Mental Constructions 

There are many incorrect things on the screen of our consciousness, and if we know how to focus we can erase them. We bring our wisdom to that view of illusion projected on our screen, and we recognize it as an illusion. Then we press on the mouse, and it is erased from our screen.

When illusion is erased, something appears. The disappearance of ignorance (avidiya) helps the light, the wisdom to arise. So when you use your mind to erase the illusion, the truth appears. Thanks to our practice of looking deeply, we know that what appears in our consciousness is the collective construction of our mind. With practice, we are no longer sure of our perceptions. We become more careful. We know that what is perceived is very much the collective construction of our consciousness.

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Parakalpita means collective mental construction. In the past, when we did not practice, we believed that the world of mental construction is a solid, objective world. But now as we begin to practice, we learn that what we touch, what we see, what we hear, is only a collective mental construction. We begin to understand that what we perceive is very much the construct of our consciousness. To recognize parakalpita as a mental construction is a step toward wisdom. And our practice will help us to see that the nature of the world as we see it is the nature of parakalpita, the nature of mental construction.

So with the practice of mindfulness you become more alert. Anything you hear, you touch, you see––you know that it has the nature of mental construction, and you do not consider it as reality. The world of representations may carry some substance of the world, of things in itself, but it mostly consists of representations. And it is collective in nature; for example, the person sitting next to you will see and hear almost the same things that you see and hear. Because you are made similarly, you perceive in the same way.

The Process of Seeing and Hearing 

We know that the images we see are projected onto our retina, and our brain translates them into electrical impulses, which forward them to the center of sensation in the occipital lobe. We don’t see with our eyes; our eyes only receive images which are translated into the language of electrical signals. And an image does not come as a whole; it comes as millions of dots, received and processed by more than thirty different regions of the cortex.

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The same happens with sounds. A sound is received and translated into electrical signals, then goes to an area just below the occipital lobe, and then is transferred to many areas of the cortex, and finally sent to the parietal lobe. Then we become aware of it.

Whether it is sound or image or touch or smell, all are translated into electrical signals so that the mind can receive and process. It is very, very complicated. That is why the teacher Vasubandhu said that the processing of store consciousness is not something that mind consciousness can access. And that is why we agree with what the Buddha said in the Diamond Sutra: All conditioned dharmas are like a dream, are like magical performances, are like water bubbles, are like reflected images, are like a drop of dew, are like lightning. The Buddha said, “Dear one, you have to train to look at them like that.”

Because of what we know, we don’t believe that what we perceive is objective reality. It is the mental construction of our consciousness, and we know that is the nature of our perceptions. What we conceive to be personalities, people, atman––what we conceive to be entities, dharmas––are just mental constructions. They are evolving in many ways, but they are all manifestations from consciousness. That is the first verse of The Thirty Verses on consciousness, offered by Vasubandhu.

Touching Interbeing

Knowing that we live in the world of parakalpita, we should practice looking deeply in order to discover the nature of interbeing, because if we look deeply into the world of mental construction, we can touch the nature of interbeing, the nature of paratantra. Paratantra means “leaning on each other,” depending on each other in order to manifest. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with everything else.

For example, a flower has to rely on many non-flower elements in order to manifest. That is why when we look at a flower we don’t see a separate entity. If we see a flower as an entity, then we are still in the parakalpita world. And when we see another person as an atman, a separate self, then we are still in the world of parakalpita. That is why using mind consciousness, we are not focused on these so-called selves and dharmas in order to discover the nature of paratantra. Empty inside, empty as a self, empty as an entity: for that you need the energy of mindfulness and concentration. You live your day mindfully. You look deeply at anything you come in touch with, and you are not fooled by appearance. You are not caught in a world of parakalpita; you are capable of seeing that those you meet are devoid of any solid entity, any solid selves.

Looking into the son, you see the father and the mother and the ancestors; you see the son is not a separate entity. Looking into yourself––your suffering, your happiness––you don’t see you as a separate self, you see a continuation. This is to learn how to see everything in the light of interdependence, interbeing. Everything is based on everything else in order to manifest. Slowly the notion of one and of many vanish.

Training to See the True Nature of Reality 

The nuclear scientist David Bohm practiced looking deeply, and he said that an electron is not a separate entity; one electron is made of all the other electrons. He seemed to understand that the one is made of the all, and just touching the one deeply, you touch everything.

So touching the nature of paratantra, we understand that there are no separate entities. There are only manifestations that rely on each other to be possible, like the left and the right. The right is not an entity that can be by itself. Without the left, the right cannot be. Everything is like that.

The first verse of Vasubandhu’s thirty verses is that the metaphor of selves and dharmas are evolving in several ways. They are creations of consciousness, mental creations. The sixth, the seventh, and the eighth levels of consciousness create.

The Buddha offered us the insight of impermanence and the insight of no-self, as tools for us to touch the world of parakalpita so that we can discover the nature of interbeing, the nature of interdependence, which is devoid of any solid, separate self. One day the Buddha told his beloved disciple, Ananda: “Whoever sees interbeing, that person sees the Buddha.” If we touch the nature of interdependence, of interbeing, we touch the truth, we touch wisdom. We touch the Buddha.

During the day, while walking or sitting, eating or cleaning, you dwell in the concentration of paratantra, so that you can see things as they are, not as selves, not as entities, but as mental constructions that rely on each other in order to manifest. This is the process of training. And finally, when the training is complete, the nature of parinispanna will appear, will reveal itself entirely, and what you touch is no longer a world of illusion, but the world of thing-in-itself. These are the principles of the practice.

First of all, we should be aware that the world in which we live is being constructed by us, by our mind, collectively. That if we look deeply, if we know how to use mindfulness and concentration, we can begin to touch the nature of interdependence. And when our practice is deep, we can erase the illusion of parakalpita so the true nature of reality can be revealed: the nature of parinispanna.

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Visualizing Before Touching the Earth 

Visualization can be very helpful. When I was a young novice in Asia, this practice was taught to us, but most of us could not do it. We memorized very well, we chanted very beautifully, but we could not do this visualization for the first ten or fifteen years. The moment you can do it, you feel wonderful. You can erase the notion of self through this practice.

mb38-dharma6If you are an intelligent practitioner, you do not touch the Earth with the intention of begging the Buddha to give you something, or to forgive you for having done something. That practice is still based on the notion of separate selves: the belief that you and the Buddha are different; that you are almost nothing, and the Buddha is everything; that you need him to give you a little bit of wisdom or happiness. With that kind of intention, you still live in the world of parakalpita. So before touching the Earth before the Buddha, you have to visualize that you are empty of a separate self, and also that the Buddha is empty of a self. The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty. It’s difficult to find another tradition with a similar practice. For instance, you cannot stand in front of the deity you worship, and say, “You, my God, you are empty!”

Before you bow, you say something like this: “Dear Buddha, I am bowing to you, but I know deeply that I am empty and you are also empty, because you are in me and I am in you. When I am touching the Earth before you, it may look ridiculous. But looking deeply, I see that I bow like this in order to touch you in me, and so that you can touch me in you also.

Then you visualize countless Buddhas appearing, like the image of Indra’s net. This is a net made of jewels, and in each jewel you see reflected all the other jewels. Looking into the one you see the all. Suppose you build a hall made of mirrors, and then you enter holding a candle. Looking into a mirror you see you and the candle, and when you turn around you see that each mirror reflects you and the candle in the mirror too. You just need to look into one mirror to see all the reflections of you and the candle. Countless yous and countless candles are reflected in just one mirror.

So you are standing there, about to touch the Earth and get in touch with the Buddha. And you have to visualize countless Buddhas appearing around you, and in front of each Buddha there is one you who is touching the Earth. You touch the Earth in such a way that the barrier between you and Buddha is no longer there. You use the tool of your mind to erase the distinction between you and the Buddha, so that you can touch the nature of interbeing, and you can be free of the notions of one and many, the same and different. And that is the purpose of visualization––to erase the duality between you and Buddha. Before you can wipe out that kind of separation, the practice of bowing is not deep. You have to see the nature of interbeing between you and Buddha before the bowing can bring a deeper result.

So touching the Earth before a Buddha is not an act of superstition. You develop your wisdom by doing so, and you realize freedom. You transform your suffering, your loneliness, by this kind of practice.

The Mother of the Buddha

In the Avatamsaka Sutra there is a delicious portion describing the young man Sudhana looking for the mother of the Buddha. Sudhana’s teacher is the great boddhisattva Manjushri, who encouraged his disciple to go and learn from many people. Not only old teachers, but also young teachers; not only Buddhist teachers but also non-Buddhist teachers. And then one day he was told that he should go and meet the mother of the Buddha, that he would learn a lot from her. So he looked hard for her, but he couldn’t find her.

Then someone told him, “You don’t have to go searching, you just sit down and practice mindful breathing and visualization, and then she will come.” So he stopped searching. He sat down and he practiced. Suddenly he saw a lotus with one thousand petals come up from deep in the Earth. And sitting on one of these petals he saw the mother of the Buddha, Lady Mahamaya, so he bowed to her! And suddenly he realized that he was sitting on one of the petals of the same lotus, and then each petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals.

You see? The one contains the all. The lotus has one thousand petals, and Lady Mahamaya was sitting on one petal when suddenly that petal became a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he saw himself sitting on one petal. And suddenly he saw that is petal had become a whole lotus with one thousand petals. And he was so happy. He joined his palms and looked up, and a very nice conversation began between the mother of the Buddha and the young man Sudhana. Lady Mahamaya said, “Young man, do you know something? The moment I conceived Siddhartha was a very wonderful moment! There was a kind of bliss that made my whole body and mind feel wonderful. The presence of a Buddha within yourself is a wonderful thing! You cannot be happier than that.

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“You know something, young man? After Siddhartha came to my womb, countless boddhisattvas coming from many directions came and asked my permission to pay a visit to my son in my womb, to make sure their friend was comfortable in there. And before I had a chance to say yes, they all entered my womb. Millions of them. And yet I had the impression that if there were more boddhisattvas who wanted to come into my womb, there was still plenty of room for them to enter.

“Young man, do you know something? I am the mother of all Buddhas in the past. I am the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And I shall be the mother of all Buddhas in the future.”

That is what she said. Beautiful, very deep. And that is the work of visualization: to show you the nature of interbeing, to show you the truth that one contains the all. The smallest atom can contain the whole cosmos.

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We all Carry Buddhas Within 

You know that the human body is made of cells, and now science has declared that cloning is possible. From one cell they can duplicate the whole body. How is it possible? Because one cell contains the totality of the genetic heritage of that person. If not, how could we, from one cell, bring the whole body into full manifestation? So current science has proved not only in theory but in practice that, in the one you touch the all.

And we all have all our ancestors fully present in every one of our cells. We carry all of them while we walk, while we eat, while we do things. Without visualization you cannot see it. That is the power of the sixth consciousness, called the gardener.

Who is Mahamaya, the mother of the Buddha? Is that someone outside of you? Or is she you? Because all of us carry in our womb a Buddha. Mahamaya is very careful because she knows that she carries a Buddha within. Everything she eats, everything she drinks, everything she does, every film she watches––she knows that it will have an effect on her child. The Buddha Shakyamuni said, “You are a Buddha. There is a baby Buddha in each of you. Whether you are a lady or a gentleman, you carry within yourself a Buddha.” We also carry a Buddha but we are not as careful as Mahamaya in our way of eating, drinking, smoking, worrying, projecting and so on. We are not responsible mothers of the Buddha.

Like Mahamaya, there is plenty of room inside of us, not only for one Buddha but for countless Buddhas. We can declare, like Mahamaya, that we were the mother of all Buddhas in the past. We can be the mother of all Buddhas in the present. And we shall be able to be the mother of all Buddhas in the future. Mahamaya is hope. Is she outside in objective reality or is she inside ourselves?

So if you visualize like that, all negative feelings, all complexes will vanish. All doubt that you can behave with the responsibility of a Buddha’s mother will disappear and the Buddha in you will have a chance to manifest for yourself and for the world. And that is why visualization is a very important tool of meditation, of transformation. With a mind that is polluted by greed, by anger, you cannot do it well; that is why the purification of our thinking, of our mind, is very important. The practice of the Mindfulness Trainings, the practice of mindfulness of walking and sitting, the practice of samadhi to help purify the mind and to bring the fire of concentration to burn away the ignorance, the delusion. Through these practices, we erase all the wrong perceptions in us so that reality can reveal itself very clearly to us.

When mind has become true mind, when mind has become beautified in true mind, the world parakalpita is no longer there. Instead, the world parinispanna reveals itself completely. There is no longer any fear, any craving, any sorrow, any anger, because all these have been created by our wrong perceptions and our complexes.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; 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

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It is a rich blessing to be sitting here, receiving treasures of the practice from all over the world to share with you in the Mindfulness Bell. During the months of developing the material for an issue, I go through many changes. At first, I am inspired to create a new weaving of insight from the material I have waiting and from the transformation happening in my own life; and I am also a little anxious that I won’t receive enough material (that’s the part of me who thinks I am in control).

Then, inevitably, the river of insight flows forth and so many of you offer wonderful teachings. My confidence becomes strong and my appreciation for this wonderful path of practice deepens as I work with each piece, watching how each one becomes a beautiful thread in the overall design, both lovely and strong.

Because we have been in such a tumultuous time with the recent U.S. Presidential election, I wanted to address how to practice with politics and how to engage without becoming embroiled in partisan conflicts. Being quite involved in the campaign, I had a chance to look daily at this issue. I saw that first of all, I needed to stop. I needed to stop feeding my prejudices and judgments about others, and to start every day with an open curiosity about each person I would meet. I needed to listen deeply, both to the stories in my head and to what I heard from others and from the media. I had to look for the truth, and to learn to let go of all the rest. I had to have confidence in my own true nature and in the foundation that my practice has built for me to rest on. I had to take refuge in myself, in the strength of my spiritual and blood ancestors. I needed to nourish myself every day, with the presence of supportive and loving friends, and in the beauty of nature. And I had to work every day, to uproot my limited views and to open my heart to life in this moment.

The morning after the election, as I went out to retrieve all the political signs from my front yard, the neighbor dog ran over to greet me, wagging his tail in great happiness. In that moment I realized that to him, this morning was just as new and full of possibility as was the morning before. I realized that I needed to renew myself by spending time with the trees and the deer, with the moon and the stars.

The teachings in this issue speak of these practices. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us the power of visualization and gives us ways to explore the nature of our minds. Four lay sisters share stories of taking refuge in their spiritual and biological roots. A group of practitioners encourage us to go further with the transformative practice of deep listening. Thay and other wise teachers offer views on the political situation and our place in stepping forward as mindfulness practitioners. A guided meditation helps us to learn to continually let go.

Perhaps the most important personal result of my participation in politics over the past year has been the establishing and deepening of friendships, resulting in strong community-building. Acquaintances became friends as priorities shifted and people stepped forward to live their highest good.

May we all rest in the net of Sangha, offering one another the power of our mindfulness and deep faith in the beauty of life as it is.

In gratitude,

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Learning to Speak the Truth

From a Dharma Talk by Thay Phap An

June 13, 2004
Upper Hamlet, Plum Village

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Respected Thay, respected brothers and sisters, and the whole community: Today is June 13th, 2004. We are in Dharma Cloud Temple in the Upper Hamlet.

In the last two weeks, we have learned that we can depict our consciousness as a circle with two parts. The lower part is called store consciousness, and the upper part is the mind consciousness. In our store consciousness there are many seeds––seeds of joy, seeds of happiness, and seeds of tolerance. But there are also seeds of anger, of frustration, and of jealousy. Our practice is to water the positive seeds so they will manifest and try our best not to invite the negative seeds to come up into our mind consciousness.

The Early Days at Plum Village

When I first came to Plum Village I had many ideas about the practice. I had ideas about the Buddha from books I had read. I had ideas about how a teacher should be and ideas about what monks and nuns should be like. At first, the Sangha was very small. There were only four monks, and there was a lot of work. My perception was that life in Plum Village was not well organized, so I volunteered to be the work coordinator, and I worked very hard, trying my best to organize Plum Village.

I had the idea that my teacher should be available to me, giving me affection when I needed it, and spending a lot of time talking with me. One time in 1993, when I had been a monk for about a year and a half, I went to America to lead a retreat. I missed Thay a lot and I hoped that when I saw Thay again, he would ask me, “How are you doing? Are you doing fine?”

Upon my return, Thay visited the Upper Hamlet, and he walked by the temple office where I was standing, waiting patiently to see him. I joined my palms and bowed to Thay sincerely and with respect, and Thay continued his practice of walking meditation. He didn’t even look at me! And I felt very sad. I said to myself, “Well, it seems that Thay doesn’t have any sense about the student-teacher relationship.” [Laughter.] “He doesn’t seem to look at me at all; he just continues walking and disregards his student.” At that time most of us were new to the practice, so our understanding was still very weak.

I had so many ideas about how monks should be. When an elder brother would do something different from my expectation, I would feel sad and want to leave Plum Village. The seed of wanting to run away is very strong within me. Thay used to call me Hungry Ghost, because I have a very big seed of hungry ghost within my consciousness. Growing up in America, I was trained to be judgmental and critical.

Often we do not have much opportunity to touch the goodness and beauty that is around us. When our practice is weak, we continue to allow the seeds of frustration, anger, and judgment to come up from our store consciousness into the mind consciousness. And if our mindfulness is weak, we allow ourselves to be carried away by those energies.

Learning to Speak the Truth

In the summer of 1994 I made a big mistake while preparing for the great ordination ceremony. I was the work coordinator, and it was a difficult job because the Sangha was small and we had to do all the cooking, and we also had to be attendants for many elder monks and nuns who were coming for the ceremonies.

There was one elder brother who had been a monk for many years. He had studied in India and then went to Holland; gradually he left his path as a monk. But that spring he had come to Plum Village and was to be ordained as a monk again. I respected him a lot, but I also had a lot of ideas about him.

During our planning meeting he volunteered to organize the Full Moon Festival. I was very happy, because it is difficult to find someone to do this during the summer retreat. But the next day as I was washing my dish, he came up and said, “Well, I’m not going to organize the Full Moon Festival because the monk who did it last year refused to help me by passing on his experience.”

I said, “ What?! You promised that you would organize the Full Moon Festival, and now you won’t do it? How can you do that to me? Everyone already has jobs, so who’s going to organize the festival? Nobody can do it. Will you please do it?”

But he refused again.

A few days later, under the linden tree, we had a Sangha meeting to water the positive seeds within ourselves before the retreat. Thay gave a good talk, watering the flowers of everyone in the Sangha. Then he asked, “Are there any questions?”

I raised my hand and said, “Yes, I have a question.” I stood up and asked, “How can we organize a summer retreat when someone here refuses to take the responsibility of doing his work?” [Laughter.] Right in front of the Sangha, I continued explaining and complaining.

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In this meeting, Thay had tried his best to bring all of the good seeds from our store consciousness up to our mind consciousness, and then I turned around and invited all the negative seeds up. The whole Sangha became very tense.

Thay was not very happy. He said, “Sit down and shut up!” [Laughter.]

I was very upset because I thought I was only speaking the truth and had asked for help. I didn’t realize that I had watered the negative seeds in everyone’s consciousness. When the meeting was over, I went and bowed to Thay and said, “Thay, please forgive me. I have made a mistake, but I don’t understand what I did, because I was only speaking the truth.”

Thay said, “What you spoke was not the truth. Truth is something that has the capacity to reconcile, to give people hope, to give people happiness. That is truth! When you speak and it causes damage, even though it may be correct, it is not truth.”

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I come from America, where we are taught that we should be honest, direct, and straightforward. So if I don’t like something, I want to say it directly. But sometimes you need to use skillful means to speak, and that skill for me is truth. Truth has the capacity to reconcile, has the capacity to bring harmony and peace.

Slowly I began to learn that some of my perceptions were not in accord with the practice. I needed to learn new ways of perceiving. I needed to learn to look at things positively.

The Secret of Plum Village Practice

Many people come to Thay and talk about issues that come up in the community, and they are earnestly looking for answers from Thay. But being a Zen master, usually Thay doesn’t respond directly. Instead he helps that person to return to his or her practice, to touch what is beautiful in that moment. And that is the secret of the practice of Plum Village.

If we do not have happiness within ourselves, if we do not have peace within ourselves, whatever we do is only a reaction. Action is based on joy and happiness; reaction is based on suffering and pain. Slowly I learned to act, and not to react.

Many times I have said, “Well, Thay only talks about breathing in, breathing out, year after year––water the good seeds––he has nothing new to talk about with us!”

But after five years of listening to Thay’s Dharma talks, I understood what he meant when he said that life is a miracle and it’s possible to touch joy and happiness in the here and now. It’s possible to see the beauty of the blue sky, and to be able to have deep joy in the present moment.

In every single retreat Thay tells us that when we walk, we should not talk. And when we talk, we should stop and be truly present to each other. But as soon as we leave the Dharma hall, we continue walking and talking at the same time. So we listen only with our ears, not with our heart. And we are not able to really practice.

When I have a problem, when I have sadness, I approach Thay. He listens to me, then takes my hand and we walk into the garden. He points out the beauty: “Hear the sound of the creek, see the bamboo, the blue sky, the flower.” To go beyond the net of our thinking and to touch the Ultimate dimension is the essential teaching of Zen practice. To touch life deeply in the here and now. When Thay teaches us about the Four Noble Truths, he first teaches us to water our positive seeds, to get in touch with the positive element around us. He teaches that it is possible to be happy in the here and now, regardless of how much suffering we have. And then, once we are strong enough, that tiny bit of happiness and joy is the ground on which we will stand when we begin to look into the big block of suffering that’s in our store consciousness. Without this ground of happiness and joy, it’s very difficult to touch our suffering. Without it, we will be carried away by our suffering, and we will have no chance to recognize it, understand it, and transform it. So the foundation, the first stone we put our feet on, is our tiny bit of joy, our tiny bit of happiness, before we can go farther.

So don’t hurry to jump into the suffering within you and the block of suffering in the world around you. We need to touch the joy and peace within ourselves, to make ourselves strong before we dive deep into our suffering. The practice of Plum Village is to touch the Ultimate Dimension, to touch the peace and the joy, regardless of how tiny it is. And that is the ground from which you will transform the big block of suffering within yourselves.

mb38-Learning4Thay Phap An is a Dharma teacher and senior student of Thich Nhat Hanh, currently living in Plum Village.

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From Sicily with Love

 

Finding My Family

By Concetta Troskie

“In Gratitude, I bow to all generations of ancestors in my blood family. I see my father and mother, whose blood, flesh, and vitality are circulating in my own veins and nourishing every cell in me. Through them I see all four of my grandparents whose expectations, experiences, and wisdom have been transmitted from so many generations of ancestors. I carry in me the life, blood, experience, wisdom, happiness, and sorrow of all generations. The suffering and all the elements that need to be transformed I am practicing to transform.

I open my heart, flesh, and bones to receive the energy of insight, love, and experience transmitted to me by my ancestors. I see my roots in my father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, and all ancestors. I know that I am only a continuation of this ancestral lineage. As a continuation of my ancestors, I bow deeply and allow their energy to flow through me. I ask my ancestors for their support, protection, and strength.”

—Touching the Earth, Thich Nhat Hanh

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“Margherita.” My mother’s name means daisy, and she is indeed as delicate and as beautiful as that flower. Born into a large family in Sicily in 1950 during an economic depression, she was introduced to the dark demon of abandonment at an early age. The Puzzo family had three boys and two girls, and was not able to financially support them all. Knowing that the boys could provide income for the family by working in the fields, the family gave their two little daughters to the local orphanage, “Il Boccone dei Poveri” –– roughly translated: “A bite of bread for the hungry.” At just four years old, my mother was alone, scared, and without a family.

Four years later and six thousand miles across the Atlantic, Mary Bilello had just finished burying her forty-five-day-old son who had died of pneumonia in Brooklyn, NewYork. Overwhelmed by grief, yet still full of the desire to love and to nurture, Mary and her husband, Joseph set about organizing an illegal adoption for an orphan child. At eight years old, my mother found herself on a boat with a lawyer, headed in true United States-immigrant-style for the Statue of Liberty.

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Unable to overcome the loss of her first child, my grandmother, although still yearning to be a loving mother, treated her adopted daughter with anger and resentment. If Margherita misbehaved, she was reprimanded with such comments as, “You are not my real child, anyway.” Or, “Is this the thanks I get for taking in a rejected orphan?” This lack of nurturing and the concrete garden of the Brooklyn sidewalks made it difficult for my mother to blossom into the beautiful flower she was born to be.

As the years passed, the communication between my mother and grandmother did not improve. At twenty-two, my mother left my grandmother’s house in Brooklyn for an apartment in Manhattan where she spent a year working at Saks Fifth Avenue and enjoying financial freedom for the first time. It was then that she met my father, who was traveling from South Africa on business. At a party of a mutual friend, Albert and Margherita got drunk on red wine and fell headfirst into what they both thought was love. My father returned to South Africa, but after telephoning and writing each other for six months, they decided to get married. Seeing this as an opportunity to begin anew, my mother flew to South Africa with visions of creating a secure and loving family of her own. She invested her idea of happiness into her marriage and two years later, in a small clinic in a suburb of Johannesburg, I was born.

It was a turbulent marriage from the beginning, as my father had a restless heart. On his frequent business trips he met many women who were responsive to his good looks, quick wit, and irresistible charm. After eight years of marriage and the birth of my brother Joe, my parents divorced.

My mother’s world was shattered as she confronted the ruins of her broken dream with two small children. Filled with anger, the three of us returned to the United States. She did not tell my father that we were leaving, and forbade us to ever speak to or see him again. “He is the ruination of our home,” she would often say. “If I ever find out that you love him, or that you speak with him, you no longer have a mother.” At four and six years old, my brother and I took these words to heart, and promised our mother that to us, our father was as good as dead.

Starting My Healing Journey

As the years passed, I began to feel an undeniable longing to know my father. As this longing grew, so did anger and resentment towards my mother. Though she worked hard to give my brother and me everything we asked for, and though there was always delicious home-cooked food on our kitchen table, we were emotionally starving. My mother’s inability to forgive my father was poisoning us all. I began to feel a strong compassion for my father. I knew that he had attempted to contact us children many times, but that my mother had prevented it. I understood how my father must be suffering, feeling rejected and abandoned by his own children. At age sixteen, I began to communicate with him secretly through letters and telephone calls. Initially, he resisted my attempts to get to know him. He felt hurt, and believed that my brother and I hated him. He had constructed a wall of guilt, sadness, and confusion. It took several years of loving and compassionate listening to earn back my father’s trust, but today I enjoy an open, loving relationship with him, though our communication is infrequent and he still lives far from me in South Africa.

Ironically, it is the parent I lived the closest to geographically with whom I felt the most distance. The anger I had built up for my mother was insidious; it grew and disguised itself so well that I did not recognize its true face until one day, I found myself with no desire to speak to or see her. I left home at sixteen, eager to leave New York City and my mother’s biting resentment. For ten years I traveled around the world searching for a place I could call home. At age twenty-two, just like my mother, I found myself in a foreign country, engaged to be married. But several months before the wedding, I became very ill. I developed a severe hormonal imbalance, producing seven times the amount of male hormones normal for a woman, and three times the normal amount for a man. My subconscious rejection of my mother and my own feminine self was physically turning me into a Superman! Sometimes not able to leave my bed for days, I fell into a deep depression––vomiting, crying, and yet praying constantly. The wise insight of my body told me that I was not ready to provide my partner with a stable love and home. One month before the wedding––dress made, invitations printed––I broke off the engagement. Although I desperately wanted to stop traveling and to plant my roots somewhere, the anger that festered in my heart against my mother prevented me from being able to love myself fully. I knew that in order to be able to settle into my own skin, I’d have to deal with my internal rage. How could I ever expect to be a loving mother if I could not love my own?

Four years have passed since the onset of my illness. I can now see that my anger at my mother for not being able to let go and forgive my father was part of my problem. However, my own inability to forgive my mother mirrored her difficulty and prevented me from feeling compassion for her and for our relationship. I am tired of fighting with my anger, and am ready to forgive. When my grandmother passed away three years ago, my mother yelled and cursed at her until the last breath left her body on her deathbed. I do not want to repeat this.

My spiritual practice is helping me to dig into my dirt, to unearth the brittle and withered roots of the maternal and the Goddess within me. Today I celebrate the eightyear-old Sicilian orphan girl who still dances in the music of my mother’s laughter, basks in the sunshine of my mother’s eyes. I embrace this little girl as the same uprooted little Concetta taken from her home in South Africa. Breathing in, I smile at the wounded Sicilian cells within me. Breathing out, I prepare myself for the road of practice which lies ahead.

I know that I need to go to my mother’s village in Sicily to look for the family that she believes has forgotten her, in order to start this healing process with her. I have only the family name and the name of the village. So I go forward, step by step, with forgiveness in my heart and love as my guide. I try to remember the uncanny parallels in my mother and in myself, both in our internal and external lives. I trust that the daisy-bud within me, the precious Margherita, has already begun to blossom, and that one day I will be able to pass this beauty on to a small flower of my own.

Traveling to Sicily

It’s seven in the morning, and already the blistering eighty-degree weather has filled the hotel pool with several guests and their children. It’s one of the hottest summers in Southern European history, and Sciacca, a popular tourist destination in Sicily, is filled to capacity. I’ve ended up at the only hotel room available, at the five star Hotel delle Terme––way beyond my budget.

I pick up my knapsack, slip on my Birkenstocks, and head down to the bus stop, in front of the Franciscan monastery at the piazza in the center of town. I’m armed with only my mother’s last name and the name of her village. Deep breath. I’m on a mission to find my family. I’m in God’s hands.

After a pleasant walk through the bird-filled central park, I arrive at the modern, bright blue bus parked with its doors closed. In front of it, smoking a Marlboro light, stands a young guy. With his stylish haircut and sunglasses and his golden chain glistening over his dark curly chest hair, he looks stylishly out of place in this antiquated little town. He smiles as I approach him, and I find the strength to mutter my pieced-together question: “Scusi, ma voglio andare a Montevago. Cuando parte il pullman?”

He takes off his sunglasses and looks at me with kind blue eyes and a big smile. He tells me that the bus leaves in twenty minutes, and asks me where I am from.

“New York.” I say.

“Me too!” His response surprises me, but immediately I can see him blending in with the Brooklyn Italians that hang out every day at Sal’s Pizzeria on my corner. His name is Vito and he was born on Grove Street in Ridgewood –– the same street where my mother’s high school still stands, the same sidewalks that my mother walked on to school for four years. We are both amazed at this coincidence, and immediately he becomes a sacred ally on my mission. I confide that I am going to Montevago to look for my mother’s lost family, but have no information other than her last name. He asks me her name.

“I know everybody here and there is only one Puzzo left in Montevago, my friend Guiseppe’s girlfriend Maria’s father, Vincenzo. All the others left for other parts of the world, or died.”

Vito assures me that if my family name is Puzzo, then this Vincenzo will know something about them. Maria works at Guiseppe‘s flower shop on the outskirts of Montevago, and he says that he’ll take me there directly. The monastery bells chime eight o’clock and Vito turns to open the bus doors.

Finding My Family

On the ride to Montevago, I notice how the landscape of Sicily is a beautiful balance of masculine and feminine. In between rugged lines of jagged brown stones sprout bushels of bright green prickly-pear fruits and deep purple grape vines. The horizon is vast, open, and welcoming, yet the valleys run deep and feel in places desolate and abandoned. I can feel the appropriation, the subjugation, and the violation of this island’s history embedded like ancient seeds in its soil. Simultaneously, its resilience, pride, and commitment to survival spring forth in every flower blossom and luscious ripe melon.

The big blue bus pulls around in front of a tiny yellow storefront. “Maria!” Vito yells, while honking the horn. “Maria!” Again, I am instantly transported back to Brooklyn.

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“Che? Che?!” A tiny yet tough female voice calls out from behind the plants and trees lining the bright stone storefront. A few seconds later, peering nervously from behind the tinted bus windows, I see a short girl of nineteen or twenty sprint from behind the green jungle and walk defiantly towards the bus. “Si, whaddya want?” Her gait and her energy are feisty and strong, though physically she is very skinny and delicate.

Vito tells her that I am here looking for my family. Maria’s expression changes to one of profound curiosity. I feel my mother’s fiery energy coming from her. Even her eyes radiate my mother’s temperament. I can feel my blood in her. My heart beats faster.

Maria boards the bus cautiously, peering in at me. “Are you Theresa’s daughter?” Maria asks me, studying my face carefully. Theresa is my mother’s sister, and I know that I have found my cousin.

“No, I am Margherita’s daughter.”

A space of silence hangs heavy in the humid air of the bus before Maria’s big brown eyes begin to well with tears. Overwhelmed by relief and disbelief, my heart is swollen and sits heavy in my heaving chest. Maria and I stare at one another, speechless.

“Mamma mia….” Vito’s deep voice breaks the weighted silence, and Maria and I turn to see him taking a handkerchief from his shirt pocket to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks. Vito seems to be both a man and a very old woman. I recognize him as my angel, my divine charioteer.

Vito’s reaction brings Maria’s composure back, and, wiping her eyes, she snaps back into her old self. She remembers that my mother’s brother is about to have one of his life-long wishes fulfilled––to reconnect with the sister he never knew. Grabbing my hand, she looks me squarely in the eye. “Come on, let’s go. My father will want to meet you…what is your name?”

Deep breath…my mother has finally come home.

Sharing with My Mother

My short time in Montevago was filled with love, joy, tears, stories told over espressos and home-baked Italian pastries. Pictures were taken, gifts given, and lots of spaghetti was eaten. However, it was the anticipation of my return home to my mother in New York that filled me with the sweetest delight. I was eager to share with her the pieces of her past that I had found, and to see how she would respond. I knew that this was a sensitive part of her life, and I was curious to see if she would open to it.

Returning to New York, my mother seemed overjoyed at my journey, willing to receive what I had brought back. Sitting at the dining room table, I spread out the pictures of me with her brother and her aunts. I placed the rock I had taken from the rubble of what was once the house she was born in on the table, and shared stories of each wonderful family member I had met. “They love you so much, mama. They miss you so much.” She looked at each picture carefully, curiously fingering the outline of her brother’s face. “I don’t have his nose, thank God.” She laughed. There was a precarious joy in her, an awakened inquisitiveness, still too new to be understood or defined. “I’m going to visit them.”

A few months later, my mother left for Sicily. She stayed a week with her brothers, met the townspeople, and traveled, seeing everything as if for the first time.

The meeting with her family was not one of carefree joy and celebration. With hearts still heavy, heads still carrying years of confused stories and misunderstandings, my mother’s return home was wrought with anger, confusion, and many unanswered questions. Upon her return to the States, she said that although she may never return, she felt that she had fulfilled a kind of duty and for that she is happy. Though she may never fully understand exactly what happened, she knows that a bridge has been re-built, a severed root re-connected so that new stems may grow––and in their own season, bear bright new blossoms.

Concetta Troskie, Compassionate Source of the Heart, lives in Boulder, Colorado, where she feels she has finally arrived.

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Reflections While Sitting in a Catholic Church

By Starr DiCiurcio

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.
— From The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings

mb38-Reflections1Recently I was sitting in an old Catholic church for the funeral of a dear friend’s father. The massive stone building reminded me of the church I attended every Sunday as a child. Memories came up from the familiar smells of incense, candle wax, and dampness. I began reflecting on the intertwined relationships of religious institutions, the larger experience of spirituality, and culture. I am an American Buddhist, a member of the Order of Interbeing. I am also a Christian. The first fifty years of my life were spent as a Catholic, if not always a happy one. There was a certain discomfort with the institutional church that came early in my life, leaving me feeling such a lack of identity with the community that participation became rote and empty. In Buddhism, I have found the spiritual home that I had lost in Catholicism, but I do not reject that great wisdom tradition that formed so much of my spiritual life. Many parts of the church might reject me today, but I do not feel any impulse to reject in turn.

As I sat sharing my friend’s grief, I thought about all I had learned as a teacher of English as a second language to students transitioning to America. I repeatedly told them to value their homelands, their roots, their heritages. Now I was telling myself the same thing. There is no need for me to dismiss the great teachings and beauty of the Church of my youth in order to embrace my new spiritual life.

My Real Jesus

Jesus is real to me, but the Jesus I love is not the one many others profess to follow. I love the Jesus whom I understand to be Buddha’s brother—full of compassion and all inclusive in his reaching out in love to the world. He is not the Jesus known to some as a judge, a strict interpreter of right and wrong. Nor would he condone his followers becoming judges of others in his name. It does not matter to me whether Jesus rose from the dead in a physical sense; whether he was immaculately conceived; or whether he walked on water. It does matter to me that he gave the Sermon on the Mount to help inform my life, and that he reached out to everyone around him, even the lowest of the low. The Jesus I know was a great reformer who came from the fringes of society. He prayed in solitude before performing his public work. He was alone, and he was also in community. This Jesus called on all his followers to live lives of lovingkindness, above all else.

In the quiet of the church the vibrant jewel tones of the stained glass windows shone even on that gray, rainy morning. I looked at the old statues around the sanctuary that some artisan lovingly and with great devotion sculpted. I felt unmoved. But as the elderly priest came in and prepared the altar, compassion arose in me. This is not an easy time to be a priest. Certainly over the years this man has witnessed many of his contemporaries’ departures from the priesthood, through choice, accusation of misconduct, and death. Few young men have joined these communities and the priests who are left in the ministry commonly experience declining respect and great loneliness. As he genuflected before the altar and put flowers in a vase before the Blessed Virgin, I remembered that in my youth a priest would never have performed this simple task of flower arranging. Where are all the ladies of the Altar Society? They are part of a lost culture.

Embracing the Gifts of My Root Faith

mb38-Reflections2This faith of my youth is an encompassing culture that has defined much of me: my sensitivities, my values, and my spiritual awareness. It has brought its great history and scope to my days and, in turn, I have given back through devotion, study, and teaching. This is the faith experience of my early childhood when I knelt at Mass alongside my rosary fingering, Irish father who was one of the most faith-filled people I have ever known. This is the faith experience that rejected my mother’s belief system – also Christian but of another church. This is the faith experience of my college life and studies, and also the faith experience that guided my teaching of theology. This is the faith experience I have passed on to my children who came to us through Mother Teresa. We know nothing of their birth parents except that they chose to leave their children with the sisters, and that is a connection full of meaning and import that we, as a family, continue to honor.

This Catholic Church has all the earmarks of culture––art forms, language, rituals, and belief systems. Gregorian chants can lift me emotionally and spiritually and remind me of robing with my college classmates to sing Benediction every Thursday. Their Latin brings back my earliest profound experiences of prayer. The structures of European cathedrals inspire and call to mind spiritual ancestors who labored to place stone upon stone until they erected something far greater than the sum of each daily effort. Entering many churches, old or modern, grand or modest, can be conducive to reflection, meditation, prayer, and spiritual opening. As a mother, during rough times I have always found comfort in contemplating Mary and her extraordinary experience of motherhood. I also take refuge in Avalokiteshvara, but Mary holds a special place in my heart since she was a mother figure for me through my formative years. It is interesting that statues of Mary and Avalokiteshvara have been used interchangeably in times of persecution of Asian Buddhists and Catholics. Shouldn’t that teach us all something?

For those of us coming to Buddhism later in life, it can be refreshing and nourishing to reflect upon the earlier lessons of our spiritual lives. As we open our hearts and minds to the past, we create a wholeness within that allows us to enter the present fully, with our entire being. This is an acknowledgment of the nonduality of existence that can be gleaned and nurtured within us as we mature. Being inclusive of the differences within ourselves is helpful as we try to be inclusive of differences in the larger contexts of our world. Our compassion as Buddhists is transcendent. It includes that which we have appeared to have left behind on our journey. It shows us ways to incorporate old practices we wish to retain with new practices we have come to love. Perhaps that is one of the richest opportunities for spiritual growth––embracing what in our past religious or spiritual practice has disappointed or wounded us, as well as what has enriched us. If anger is there, instead of pushing it down or away, we can embrace it and learn as we heal.

Practicing Interfaith Dialogue

Thay has taught us that the most basic principle of interfaith dialogue is that it must begin within ourselves. It may take time to look deeply at all the aspects of our spiritual histories and the institutions that have attempted to hold them. But like so much in life, it is the challenging nature of this quest that brings great fruit to the practitioner. If we understand the major wisdom traditions as dynamic and living entities, we realize that this is an ongoing process. Bringing the practices of deep looking and deep listening to interfaith experiences can lead to greater understanding and progress for peace. But first one needs to establish that understanding and peace within one’s own being.

Over the ages we have seen borders drawn, walls erected, families splintered and wars fought over religious differences. Over and over, we witness people claiming to know the best, or even the only true way to spiritual fulfillment. Misinformation, stereotyping, deep prejudice, intolerance –– all abound. More than ever, the stake in these dangerous human games is the very existence of humankind. Our reasons for fighting are discouragingly unchanged over time, but the instruments of battle evolve in more and more far ranging and catastrophic ways.

A Call to Step Forward

For the practitioner who has a deep experience of more than one spiritual root, there is a real call to step forward and create opportunities for healing. It seems all too common in religions institutions to find extremists who are counterproductive to helping create a peaceful world of true brotherhood and sisterhood. Isn’t it wiser to look at all spiritual life as a mere glimpse of the Ground of Being, the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land? How blessed is the person who gets to really see through more than one of these lenses! And with that blessing comes a responsibility to use the enlightenment of the resultant understanding to help others come together – not just in tolerance, but in true appreciation of the great depth, beauty, and opportunity offered by each tradition.

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Many spiritual leaders have understood this need for healing and have had keen appreciation of paths outside their own. What is desperately needed today is to take that understanding out of our individual spiritual lives and into religious institutions. Thay has modeled this brilliantly in his own life, and in the life of his community. The first several of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are beacons of hope for the world. They call us to practice openness, truth, freedom, compassion, and understanding. They warn us against judgment, intolerance, rigidity, and self-righteousness. As we support one another in our Sanghas we can bring this healing to each other, our communities, and to the world; we can be peacemakers all, taught by the Buddha, his brother Jesus, and our other precious spiritual ancestors.

mb38-Reflections3Starr DiCiurcio, True Understanding of the Sangha, lives in Schenectady, New York and practices with the Kingfisher Sangha.

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The Scent of Oranges

By Nancy Hom

Note: this article comes from Spoken Like a True Buddha, a compilation of stories about mindfulness practice in everyday life, edited by Carolyn Cleveland Schena and Sharron Mendel.

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Death, and the notion of aging, has always hung over me like a heavy cloud. I have sought ways of avoiding the topic, such as staying away from hospitals, funeral parlors, and nursing homes. But here I find myself visiting my mother, recently confined to a home. All around me, I hear death hissing through the clang of bedpans and squeals of wheelchairs, through the endless drone of catatonic dining companions. Amid the vacant eyes of childlike faces, the tired bodies draped before the dinner trays, my mother sits facing me. She glances at the gift of oranges I have brought her and nods her approval.

I have come 3,000 miles to be with her, but silence forms a wall between us now. Advanced Parkinson’s has already claimed her voice. Her legs, long withered, dangle uselessly. I wheel her into her small room, still stupefied by the disease that chains us both to these white walls away from life.

My mother’s eyes are luminous, glistened pearls. Once they flashed indignantly at the thought of being in a nursing home, then accusingly, then beseechingly. Now they simply look at me with resignation. Sometimes they stare into a far off place.

I watch her helplessly as the minutes tick by. My mind races to fill the space taken up by silence. I think of meetings missed, the dinner not yet eaten, the bus and train I have to take in the cold windy night. I think, If only she had been diagnosed earlier, if only I didn’t live so far away. Then hope, not guilt, would be a visitor. I remember the warmth of her back when she carried me, my small arms wrapped around her like a shawl. How, when I was red with fever, she rocked my blistered body until I fell asleep. The hot nights on the rooftops of Kowloon eating watermelon seeds and watching the neon lights twinkling in the streets below. The first days in America, when I clung to her like a shadow. The dark times, too, when I cowered in a corner before her wrath. These thoughts I hold onto like photographs in an album, stilled images of the mother I no longer have access to.

She points a gnarled finger at the orange I had left on her table. I peel it carefully, glad to have something to do. A spray of citrus fills the air and her eyes widen like a child anticipating sweets. I hand her a slice, which she grasps unsteadily. She brings it painstakingly to her mouth and sucks with soft smacks. I eat my slice too, squeezing the little beads of juice with my teeth until the flavor bursts over my tongue like a rainshower.

Oranges were always around in our house when I grew up. They cleansed the palate after every dinner; topped pomelos on New Year’s altars, were the calling cards of visitors who always brought the fruit as a gift to the host. To me they were heavy sacks of obligation during holidays and weekends, when my mother and I wended our way through tenement buildings to visit fellow immigrants from China. The tables were littered with melon seeds and orange peels as I waited impatiently while my mother and her friends chatted; conversations I found hard to relate to, preferring instead to bury my head in a Nancy Drew book while they reminisced about the old village.

Now this bright leather-skinned fruit is the only bridge between us. We eagerly suck the memories the piquant flavor evokes. The tart vapors tickle our nostrils. I can see from my mother’s twitch of a smile that she remembers, too. She chews slowly, savoring each bite, as if the thoughts will fade away as soon as the orange is eaten and more slices of her life will peel away.

We finish the whole orange. She belches in satisfaction. I wipe her chin; then we sit and gaze at each other. There are so many words that will never get spoken; dreams that will stay unfulfilled; regrets that are etched in our skins like birthmarks. But in this moment it does not matter what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. There is only the room, the faint scent of oranges, and us, breathing in unison.

If I cease my mind’s constant chatter and look deeply, I see that she is still here, still my mother. She is different and she is the same. She will be here after her body has deteriorated. She will be in the air I breathe and in the earth I touch. Her brightness will shine through her children’s eyes, and those of their children. Although I have a long way to go with my practice, this fleeting insight becomes stronger whenever I stop my thoughts long enough to see my mother as she truly is instead of what I want her to be, what she used to be, or what I fear she is becoming. We sit and breathe together. In this moment is the whole of our lives.

Nancy Hom lives in San Francisco. Her experiences as an immigrant, a mother, a community leader, and spiritual seeker provide the framework for her visual and literary pursuits.

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A Sweet Reunion

Transcending Birth and Death

By Beth Howard

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I first heard Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings on transcending birth and death in August of 2002, while on retreat at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. My father had just been diagnosed with terminal chronic lymphocytic leukemia. I was fortunate to have many months to help my father and to live with these teachings until he died on May 5th, 2003. The following September, I attended another retreat with Thay and the teachings really came home to me.

Up early one morning, at the YMCA of the Rockies, I lit a candle and dressed in its small circle of light. Leaving the room, I joined the others in the chilly, pre-dawn darkness, in the parking lot outside the building.

Hundreds were gathered as the monks and nuns began gracefully and wordlessly leading us in mindful movement –– humans moving powerfully, silently like the wind. I could see the power of the practice shifting and sweeping away old paradigms so that new thoughts might take hold and grow. This movement through consciousness is as dramatic as a forest fire destroying old growth. At first, it is the loss that is most obvious, but quite soon the new growth becomes apparent.

The group began walking meditation, moving as a human river, flowing down roads and walkways, pooling into a field for sitting meditation. We faced northeast, embraced and surrounded on all sides by mountains. In this cold darkness, we anticipated the light and warmth of the sun before its arrival, reminding me of the Sanskrit term, anahata, meaning unstruck, as in hearing the sound of the un-struck bell.

In this pre-dawn stillness, my father came to sit with me. I was so warmed by his presence that my eyes filled with tears. I held my left hand with my right hand, imitating how I had held his hand often at the end of his life. I thought, “It’s good to sit with you again.”

He replied, “You know what I remember best about you?”

“Yes,” I answered, “the time I held your hand all night and you felt the life flow back into you.” He’d remembered this to me many times at the end of his life. Only this time, the energy flowed into me, with his presence as the channel. I received deep love and peace, a blessed gift. My heart filled with gratitude for this sweet reunion.

The sky lightened. The group stood and began walking in silence, moving out of the field and into our day. This new energy would carry me back into the fullness of life.

Later that morning, during the Dharma talk, Thay held up his left hand and said, “This is your father’s hand, for your father lives on in you. If you are ever missing your father, hold your left hand with your right hand and know you are holding your father’s hand.”

I was struck by the powerful confirmation of this message so soon after feeling the fullness of my father’s presence.

These are the messages of mindfulness that remain with me: That which is part of you can never be lost. You may, however, have to find and feel it within you. Also, Something can never become nothing. This is the principal teaching of the Buddha in order to overcome fear. The energy of one you have loved remains. The challenge is to look deeply, to be quiet, aware, and willing to find and feel the energy in a new form. Once you discover this, you will begin to understand that you can never lose someone you love. You will only begin to find them again in a new form.

mb38-ASweet2Beth Howard, Living Dharma of the Heart, lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming and practices with the Bird & Bell Meditation Group at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Cheyenne. Beth is an artist, weaver, and yoga teacher and she enjoys writing.

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