Lightness in My Heart

An Interview with Sister Boi Nghiem

By Natascha Bruckner

mb57-Lightness1

Sister Boi Nghiem lives at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, one hour from Memphis, Tennessee. We spoke over the phone on February 24. She said she hoped we could “establish a bond of friendship while we’re having this interview—or let’s say be-in, to make it less formal.” Her gentle words and frequent laughter were delightful.

Question: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I’m twenty-seven years old. I’ve been ordained for five and a half years. I was born in Vietnam, and when I was eleven, my family moved to the United States. I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, and then I went to Plum Village when I was twenty-one years old. It was the legal age for people to go clubbing, but I chose to go to Plum Village instead.

My sister is also a nun. She’s now at Blue Cliff Monastery. She has been a nun for ten years. That was one of the main reasons that I know the practice, because of my sister. When I was a teenager, I was not so interested in the practice. I was just like any typical Vietnamese American teenager. I liked to listen to music and do other things that were quite fast-paced. I listened to ‘Nsync and Backstreet Boys. Whenever my sister sent videos of Plum Village to my house, especially performances of the monastics, I couldn’t sit and watch because everything was so slow. I would fast forward it. It made me so sleepy.

When I was nineteen, I started to go online and research and read Buddhism. The first book that I read was Thay’s Being Peace. I went to Deer Park for two weeks during a fall break in August 2004. I was able to see the simplicity of the monastics—to see them practice, and how happy they were, and the harmony they had. A beautiful image that I will always remember from Deer Park was that one time, I saw a young sister helping an elder sister to put on her shoes. The younger sister took the pair of shoes and placed it in front of the elder sister’s feet. How often do you see this kind of image in America? It’s very rare. When I saw that image, I was like, “Wow! It’s so beautiful how we can take care of each other in this simple and gentle way, with so much love.”

mb57-Lightness2

mb57-Lightness3

On October 20, I went to Plum Village. I only bought a oneway ticket, because I didn’t have enough money to buy a two-way ticket. Some Vietnamese people believed that one of the main reasons why you became a monastic was because your heart was broken or you had difficulties in your family. I didn’t have either of those, so I thought, “This is a great time for me to go, because if I wait until I’m older, I might suffer and it would be difficult for me to have a monastic life.”

Question: What inspired you to become a monastic, instead of remaining a lay person?

Sister Boi Nghiem: In Plum Village I was able to be close to the sisters, and was able to receive Thay’s teachings directly. For the first month, the question, “Should I stay or should I leave?” would arise almost every day. It was quite draining. I decided, “You know what? I’m going to make a decision right now. I’m going to sit next to the ping-pong table and write my aspiration letter.” That was it! I found my decision to become a monastic quite simple, compared to other people. I was able to see the transformation in myself and in other friends practicing. For me, living in a place where no one is smoking or drinking beer, that’s heaven!

Question: In the last five and a half years as a monastic, has the experience lived up to your expectations, or have you been surprised in any way?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I have been surprised in many ways. Before I became a monastic, I thought that the monks and the nuns were angels from above. I didn’t think that they would have unskillfulness or make mistakes. Of course, when you live with the sisters, you are able to see that they’re human beings just like all of us. Their speech can be unskillful; their actions can have a lack of mindfulness, and their words or actions can hurt people. At first I couldn’t accept this, because it was something that I didn’t expect from a monastic, especially someone who practiced for a long time. But then I realized that if I continued like this, I would not be so happy. Now I see that even though I’m a monastic, I also make mistakes. You have to allow yourself to make mistakes; you have to allow other people to make mistakes. What is different is that we have the practice, we have the precepts, and we are on the path of transformation.

Question: Apart from that quality of acceptance, how else have you transformed on this path?

mb57-Lightness4

mb57-Lightness5

mb57-Lightness6

Sister Boi Nghiem: When I was growing up, I was not aware of my thoughts, my mental formations, or my perceptions, especially the negative ones. But once I become a monastic, I started to feel uneasy with myself. I started to see the other side of myself that I didn’t see before. I asked myself, why am I like this? Why do I think like this? When I had these thoughts, I would lock myself in the restroom, look in the mirror, and talk to myself. It’s very nice if you have personal contact with yourself without any interruptions. Doing this day after day, I was able to accept and love myself more. I started to feel very light. Thay’s teachings are always with me, whenever I feel like this. Simple mantras, like, “I know you are there, and I am very happy,” or, “I am here for you.” I apply these mantras with myself. I know that I still have a lot of work to do, but I’m quite happy with where I am.

Before I go to sleep every night, I take two to five minutes to sit in silence. I make an aspiration. What is it that I want to practice tomorrow? I reflect back on what happened today; if I said unkind words, then I promise that tomorrow I will practice loving speech to my brothers and my sisters and those around me. This allows me to make the past beautiful in the present moment. This is something that I have done during the last three years, and it has had a great effect on my practice; it really makes me feel happier and the mind of love continues to grow and grow every day.

Question: I think a lot of people are surprised to find out that there’s a practice center in Mississippi. Could you share the story of how it came about, and describe what it’s like there?

Sister Boi Nghiem: Magnolia Grove Monastery is 120 acres. At this moment, there are thirty monastics living at Magnolia Grove. There are twenty nuns and ten monks. Ninety percent of our brothers and sisters were ordained at Prajna Monastery in Vietnam. All of us are under forty-five years old, so we are very young at heart!

In 2002, there was a peace walk in Memphis, Tennessee, with Thay and the Plum Village Delegation. At least 3,000 people joined that peace walk. It was the first time that Vietnamese Americans down in this area were able to see a large number of Americans practicing Buddhism with a Vietnamese Zen Master. The Vietnamese Americans wanted to help their children transform their strong emotions and their stress in their daily life. They also they wanted to help themselves. They wanted to establish a monastery down in the south. After that peace walk, a group of lay Vietnamese Americans went to look for a place, and finally they were able to find Magnolia. They purchased the land, and devoted lay practitioners came every week to help build the monastery. They constructed a meditation hall, a kitchen, a book room, and a guest dormitory, and donated it all to Plum Village.

In 2005, we officially accepted it as part of the Unified Buddhist Church. That’s when Thay came to Magnolia Grove [then Magnolia Village] with a delegation and officially accepted it as a Plum Village practice center. The Vietnamese Americans wanted to have monastics right away, but Thay said that at that moment it was not possible; conditions were not yet sufficient. He asked them to please wait a few more years, and then thirty monastics would come. And it’s true—five years later, we have thirty monastics. The patience that the Vietnamese Americans had, the love that they had for us, their devotion to the monastery—those are some of the reasons I decided to come to Magnolia Grove Monastery; it’s like an expression of gratitude to them.

mb57-Lightness7

mb57-Lightness8

Currently most practitioners that come to Magnolia Grove are Vietnamese. Sometimes friends from Memphis, Oxford, Alabama, Missouri, New Orleans and other states nearby come to practice with us. Every Sunday, we have a Day of Mindfulness and live Dharma talks. The monastery is near Oxford University—Ole Miss—which is quite well-known for their football team, I’ve heard. From time to time a group of students will come to our center because they have to write an essay or do a research paper, and they choose Magnolia Grove Monastery as their visit site.

We have a Vietnamese class for the young people because we want them to remember their mother language. We also have English classes for our brothers and sisters.

There are many beautiful birds down here. In the summer when you have breakfast, you will see dragonflies—hundreds and hundreds of them. Vietnamese people predict that when the dragonflies fly low, then it will rain. We just look at these dragonflies and predict the weather for that day. If they fly high, it means it will be sunny. They have fireflies at night. It’s beautiful. Mother Nature and the ancestors of the land support us and are always by our side. It’s a very peaceful place.

Question: Almost all of the monastics at Magnolia Grove were ordained in Prajna. They’ve come to a new country and a new culture; how are they doing?

Sister Boi Nghiem: I feel they are quite happy. I see that our brothers and sisters adjust to this environment quite well. Since we don’t have too many guests yet, the brothers and sisters take this time to practice, looking deeply and taking care of themselves. At first, there were some times of struggle with the language, but we are encouraging our brothers and our sisters to please learn English as much as they can. It’s not only for the benefit of Magnolia Grove Monastery, but in the future, it will benefit other centers as well.

Question: Is there anything else you’d like to share with people reading the Mindfulness Bell?

Sister Boi Nghiem: From time to time, during the day, ask yourself, “What am I grateful for?” Or, “What conditions of happiness do I have right now?” Don’t just ask this question when you feel sad or depressed, but also ask this question when you are happy and in a joyful spirit. For myself, it really makes my practice more joyful, I feel happier, and I feel there is this lightness in my heart.

Seeing all these things happening in the world—like the protests in Libya and Egypt—they’re going through a lot, fighting for their own freedom. Here in America, we have this freedom. The most important thing is the inner freedom we have. It’s important that we cultivate this inner freedom—free from hatred, enmity, afflictions. When a situation comes and we react, we are the final condition that determines if it will be beautiful or not. If someone comes to us and says unkind words, and we react with anger, then it is our fault. But if someone comes to us and says unkind words and we react with peace, gentleness, and love, then we make the situation manifest beautifully.

Please consider your breathing as your best friend, as someone always by your side helping you to overcome difficulties and cultivate that happiness. See your breathing as a Buddha helping you, as someone that you truly love. It’s amazing how much your breathing can help you. It’s priceless. It does not water the seed of anger. It does not water the seeds of jealousy or irritation. It’s very faithful to you, but how faithful are you to your breathing?

mb57-Lightness10

mb57-Lightness9To learn more about Magnolia Grove Monastery, visit www.magnoliagrovemonastery.org. Thay and the Plum Village delegation will lead a mindfulness retreat at Magnolia Grove, September 28 -October 2, 2011.

 

mb57-Lightness11

PDF of this article

Ancestral Insights

By Sister An Nghiem

mb57-Ancestral2

I sat here at this same lotus pond in New Hamlet just a few short years ago and wrote my letter of aspiration to become a nun. And here I sit again, this time writing a letter to Thay and my friends, a letter that shares what I will call an “ancestral insight.” During my time as a monastic here in Plum Village, many of my most treasured moments have been the realizations of these deep insights.

mb57-Ancestral1

In monastic life, form and conformity are an important part of our practice. One of the expressions of form is the mode of dress we assume. Luckily, we wear simple robes, and on occasion the nuns wear head scarves. I’ve always admired my dear sisters when I’ve seen them with the head scarves and robes as they are literally dressed head to toe in brown—the color of the earth and a reminder of our link to those who work the land and live a simple life. Their beautiful round faces glow with joyful smiles beneath heads wrapped in the earthen color.

Yet, when I looked in the mirror and saw myself with the same scarf, I didn’t see—I couldn’t see—the same beauty. In fact, what I saw was not beautiful at all. It was disconcerting, to say the least; I felt I looked funny and out of place. Of course, I continued to wear my scarf despite this view, and thought, “Well, maybe I just have to get used to the way it looks.” But after more than a year, my view didn’t change, and I couldn’t get used to the way I looked in the head scarf. I began to look deeply and ask, “Why do my sisters look so nice, but I don’t?” I tried tying it on in various ways in hopes of improving the look of it, but this didn’t seem to help either.

So I continued to ask this question, sitting and walking with it. And one day, when I looked in the mirror, a stunning answer came. I didn’t see myself; I saw Aunt Jemima! Aunt Jemima, just like on the maple syrup bottles and the pancake boxes of yore—that infamous trademark depicting a stereotypical African-American woman with her head wrapped in that bandana, smiling, with wide bright eyes. And the memories came flooding back, memories of days from my youth and growing up in the south, in Washington, DC. We were taught to have disdain for this cultural icon, and if we dared to wear a scarf like this as young girls, we were ridiculed and called “Aunt Jemima” in the most condescending way.*

We didn’t want to have anything to do with Aunt Jemima, least of all look like her! When I was a very young girl in the late ’60s and ’70s, there were clearly defined (though unspoken) ideas of what a young African-American girl should look like, and it definitely was not Aunt Jemima. We were somehow taught in silent ways that this important link to our history of slavery, racism, and discrimination in America was to be shunned. The mockery that was perceived when we were labeled or looked upon as icons such as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Tom, Stepin Fetchit, Uncle Ben of Uncle Ben’s rice, Rastus of Cream of Wheat, and others, only brought upon us shame and confusion.

As a young girl, I could only see the shame and “ugliness” of these icons. It is only with hindsight, the insight of mindfulness, and the daily practice that I was able to see the confusion, pain, and false sense of security which manifested as a result of this particular view. I realized in an instant, with that image of Aunt Jemima reflected back at me in the mirror, that we held what I know now to be a wrong view. Any view that causes us to see ourselves as separate is a wrong view. I realized that as a child, I had shame and fear about something I didn’t quite understand. Isn’t it interesting how our cultural icons affect us, without us ever really knowing it?

And in this wonderful instant of insight I embraced my Aunt Jemima: the Aunt Jemima in me and that is me. I exhaled, felt deep release, calm, stillness … and beauty. How could I have seen her as anything other than myself? Shunning Aunt Jemima was like shunning myself—no wonder I felt disconcerted and disconnected.

Today, I don’t deny the cavernous pain and suffering that these images and what they represent evoke in all of us, but I have learned the value of embracing them and the pain and suffering that lies in my very own DNA. I am embracing, accepting, and gradually transforming these for myself, my parents, my greatgreat-great-great-great grandma Mary who was a “house” slave, and my grandmother, Grammy Nanny, who worked as a domestic in an antebellum mansion in Millwood, Virginia, until very near her death at eighty-nine years of age just over twenty years ago. She cooked, cleaned, managed the household and raised two boys, who wept like babies at the funeral of their beloved Nana. For all of us and all of you, I share and embrace these memories and insights toward transformation and healing.

Thank you Aunt Jemima, Stepin Fetchit, and all the others. Thank you all for being there.Your stereotypes represent countless real people who, through perseverance, courage, and the sheer will to survive and live, did what was necessary so we—all of us, your descendants—could be free and here today. And with the art of mindful living, we can learn to embrace all parts of our ancestral history and ourselves, because in reality we are not separate but one, and part of the same continuum.

When I look in the mirror now, I sometimes still see my old friend Aunt Jemima. But with this powerful new insight, I know not to fear, not to hate, not to have shame. Instead I have awareness, smile, and say: “Hello Aunt Jemima! I know that because you are there, you are one of the conditions that made it favorable for me to be here today … wrapped in a beautiful brown robe, with a headscarf that frames a beautiful round brown face, glowing and smiling happily.”

*Wikipedia says it succinctly: “The term ‘Aunt Jemima’ is sometimes used colloquially as a female version of the derogatory label ‘Uncle Tom’. In this context, the slang term ‘Aunt Jemima’ falls within the ‘Mammy archetype’, and refers to a friendly black woman who is perceived as obsequiously servile or acting in, or protective of, the interests of whites.” [The term was used especially during the time of slavery and the “Jim Crow” era.]

Sister An Nghiem (Sister Peace) was born and raised in Washington, DC, arrived in Plum Village in June 2006, and ordained in September 2008. She currently lives in Plum Village. Her interests include reading, organizing retreats, and traveling with the Sangha to share the Dharma and “bring it on home” to where the rubber meets the road.

PDF of this article

A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian) 

mb57-AMonk1

I stepped onto the monastic path relatively late, although the seeds were present at an early age. At age fifteen, a group of friends and I meditated together. When that group disbanded, I continued (for the next thirty-five years) meditating twice daily. At age twenty, in 1978, I studied in Benares Hindu University, Varanasi, India. During my stay, I visited many holy Buddhist sites, though I found mostly ruins. I was looking for my Sangha all along, but I could not define it then.

I discovered mindfulness in 2006 at a psychiatric hospital in Paris where I worked. My introduction was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Total Catastrophe Living, which inspired me to practice some mindfulness techniques. Upon finishing the book, I received an email from a friend in the U.S. informing me that an eighty-yearold Vietnamese monk was coming to Paris to lead a peace walk. I wasn’t familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s name, but later discovered that Thay had written the preface to Kabat-Zinn’s book!

The Paris peace walk changed my life. As Thay and the Sangha began walking, I knew I had found my teacher and community of practice. I began attending the Paris lay Sangha and, two months later, attended my first weeklong retreat in Plum Village.

No grass grew under my feet. In 2007, I joined the historic tour of Vietnam with Thay. At Bat Nha monastery, I received transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Everything I did with the Sangha seemed inexplicably familiar, and I began to wonder whether monkhood was somehow in my future—but soon found obstacles.

I learned that the maximum age for monastic ordination was twenty at Bat Nha and fifty at Plum Village—and I had just turned fifty. Regretfully, I accepted that I would probably not become a monk in this tradition. I took consolation as an active member of the lay Sangha in France, and clearly saw the applicability of engaged Buddhism in my work at the hospital.

On my way home from Vietnam, I met a venerable Vietnamese monk who asked me why I had come. I told him that I had been traveling with Thich Nhat Hanh. He then predicted I would be wearing brown within two years. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but before I had a chance to inquire, he disappeared. Did he believe that I would become a monk? At Bat Nha Monastery? It all seemed like a dream, and impossible.

mb57-AMonk2

Back in Paris, a group in my Sangha started studying the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I found these precepts extremely inspiring. Half of us in the group decided to become aspirants for the Order of Interbeing (OI). Things were moving quickly, but I felt ready. In 2008, I asked for a sabbatical leave to attend a number of trips and retreats.

It still wasn’t a foregone conclusion that I would follow the monastic path. At the Dhamek Stupa in Sarnath, India, I heard Thay say, “It is now or never.” His words resonated with me, and I was ordained as an OI member on that trip. I did not necessarily see monastic life as the next logical step. The venerable monk’s prophecy that I would be “wearing brown in two years” was fulfilled with my OI jacket. During the 2008-2009 winter retreat, I often asked myself what more I could do for myself and for the world as a monk. The answer was not clear.

I sat with this question. It was my koan. It wasn’t something I could think my way through. Thinking about it seemed to drive me crazy. It was a matter of the heart. During this period nothing I initiated came about, yet conditions for things that seemed impossible, such as getting so much time off work and getting ordained so soon as a lay OI member, came together. This was a wonderful apprenticeship in non-pursuit and letting go.

The Bodhisattva Path 

Clarity finally came during a retreat in June 2009. I confided in a number of brothers, both monastic and lay, who served as mirrors for me and helped me recognize my fear. I took refuge in the Sangha, and practiced looking deeply and following my heart. By the end, I realized that there was no going back to my old life. I had already moved on, and my past now belonged to a former life. I spoke to a number of monastics about my intention, and found the courage to make the decision that would free me from all worldly obligations.

That decision took tremendous courage. I had never felt so afraid in my life, beyond all reason. But what was I so afraid of? Making a monumental error? Letting go? Inadvertently abandoning my right livelihood and personal bodhisattva path?

Giving up everything even at the great risk of not being accepted into the monastic Sangha? I loved my job, my Sangha, and my life in Paris. I had nothing to run away from, so why would I uproot myself in such a way? Most of the people I knew outside of my Sangha (and even some inside the Sangha) found the idea puzzling, if not mad.

Making the decision was the hard part. Once I did, there was lightness and ease as everything fell into place. Since ordaining, I have never doubted or regretted my decision and do not miss my former life. The great fear vanished. Fear is, after all, only a mental formation. It can be paralyzing, but mental formations that are not fed shrink.

Why did I choose to become a monk? This is my aspiration: I hope and intend to continue on the bodhisattva path of relieving suffering in the world, but I have much to learn in order to go beyond the horizons that I knew before, in my work and in my life. I also have to learn from my own experience of transformation at the base, for myself, my family, and for my ancestors. I have observed that the most credible and inspiring monastics are those who speak from personal experience and live their path. I probably could have studied the Dharma and transformed many of my afflictions as a lay practitioner, but now I am free to dedicate my whole life to it. I am confident that in time, my vocation of relieving suffering will take other forms, and I will be more effective, being solidly grounded both in the Dharma and my personal monastic experience. To my delight, I am feeling younger and younger since ordination, as if the fifteenand twenty-year-olds in me who wanted to embrace the Dharma have finally found what they were looking for, despite all obstacles.

I don’t know where the Dharma will take me and what the Sangha will call me to do. I don’t think much in those terms. I have faith in the Triple Gem, and know that I am on the right path.

Brother Phap Kinh/Dharma Meridian/Christopher currently lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village. He is French and American, was born and grew up in Juneau, Alaska, and spent most of his adult life in Paris. He loves hiking, singing, cooking, poetry, and the Dharma.

PDF of this article

Simple Living

An Interview with Brother Phap Trach 

By Sister Chau Nghiem 

mb57-Simple1

mb57-Simple2

Question: Thank you, Brother, for taking this time. Can you share some of your early childhood experiences of spirituality, Buddhism, or mindfulness? What experiences or conditions watered your seed of becoming a monk?

Brother Phap Trach: When I was little, my mother always took me to the temple. When I, my father, and my brother left Vietnam on a boat, we went to Hong Kong. My father was very religious, very active in the Buddhist Scouts, so he helped to start a Buddhist Scouts in Hong Kong for the Vietnamese refugees, and he always took us to the temple. It was a Chinese temple, but we’d do Vietnamese-style chanting. For three years, every Sunday, we took the bus and the train to the mountain, very high in the mountain. We had to climb a thousand steps. When you’re little the steps are huge. That was when I was about six, seven years old. In my childhood, there were always monks coming to stay in our house. I think they watered our seeds. When I looked at them they were very free. They didn’t have so many worries. I felt very inspired by them. I just liked the way they were. I had a thought when I was young: “Well, if I don’t do anything else, then I’ll become a monk.”

Question: How old were you?

Brother Phap Trach: I was twelve or thirteen. I thought, “If I’m not successful in life, then that’s the way I will go.” Yet there was a point when I said, “I will become a millionaire when I turn thirty.” You just let life carry you away, and you lose touch with your spiritual side.

After you’ve been through a lot and suffered, you ask yourself, “Is there anything else to do in life besides just having a family, being successful, going to work, and spending all your time and energy trying to be wealthy? Is there anything else?” You hit the point where you have suffered enough. There’s something wrong. Something is missing in life. You start to think there must be another way of doing things. There was a point where I gave up. I didn’t really have a path, a direction. I became depressive. On the weekend I partied or went to casinos. I was wasting my time and energy. I broke up with my girlfriend. She was concerned about me. I wasn’t happy with myself. So I escaped into entertainment, gambling, and unwholesome activities.

One day I ran away from home. I didn’t want to go home; I didn’t want to face my difficulties. My family was looking for me and called the police, trying to find me. They found me in a casino. My family suffered a lot with this situation. That was the turning point in my life.

After that situation, Thay led a retreat in Key West, Florida. My brother knew Thay and he knew the practice. He took me, and my brothers and sister also, to meet with Thay and the Sangha. I saw the monks and nuns, and many people practicing. They were walking very slowly. The environment was very calm and peaceful. I talked with the brothers, and they showed me how to practice.

Thay and Sister Chan Khong and the brothers and sisters were doing a skit about novices sleeping and inviting the bell for everyone to wake up. It was wonderful, a real family atmosphere. It really inspired me to consider the path, which had been watered since childhood. That experience made me want to change my life. I really wanted to change the way I was behaving and how I consumed things. It influenced my decision to become a monk. I tried to practice and it really brought peace and calm in me.

Question: Like sitting meditation?

Brother Phap Trach: I did sitting meditation, walking meditation. I read Thay’s books to water the positive seeds in me. And that really changed my mind. My body and my mind became more peaceful. I saw how the practice really works. I had learned many things about the Buddha and how he had all these magical powers. That really didn’t work for me. I wanted to learn more about the more human aspect of the Buddha, because this is what inspired me and made me want to become a monk.

I really wanted to do the practice. I hadn’t really aspired to do something in life before this. I see that in many people in society, who have nothing to do, who may be lost in life. Maybe they need a path also. I felt that if I went on the path I would have a chance in life, and then other people would have a chance, too—many young people who didn’t know what to do with their lives.

Question: What was the most difficult thing to give up when you became a monk?

Brother Phap Trach: The habit of looking for entertainment. Growing up in America, we’re always bombarded with entertainment—video games, movies, and things like that. I used to go to a movie every weekend. I think that energy was really strong in me, looking for entertainment. Becoming a monk, in my novice year, I always looked for entertainment. It’s still there, but it’s not strong. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, but you need to channel it into a wholesome direction.

Question: Which practices do you find the most natural and rewarding for you, and which practices do you find the most difficult and challenging?

Brother Phap Trach: Breathing and walking meditation are very basic, profound practices. The practice of being in touch with our body is so important. Wherever I am, I come back to my body. When I am able to do that, I can touch the present moment. It starts right there. At that moment, we have a chance to look at ourselves. We see our environment. We can release whatever is in our mind. We just come back to our breathing. It’s very profound to practice constantly dwelling in the present moment, being happy with that moment. Whatever will happen, or has happened, it’s not a big deal anymore when we’re with ourselves, when we’re with our body. It’s very nice, the feeling of being there, happy with being alive, happy with what we have. It’s very profound.

mb57-Simple3

Yet, the hardest practice is the simplest practice. I constantly have to remind myself, “You don’t have to look for something extraordinary, but just enjoy the ordinary.” This is the most difficult thing to do, because our mind is a monkey mind, always looking for something difficult and extraordinary. This habit can sometimes make us lose our mind; we lose ourselves. I always remind myself, “You have what you need right here. Doing what you’re doing right now is a wonderful thing.” Thay always reminds us to do that.

Question: In 2008, Thay asked you to come to the EIAB to be abbot of the brothers’ Sangha. How did you feel when he asked you to do this?

Brother Phap Trach: I like adventure, so I just try to accept whatever comes, and take it as a learning opportunity. “Abbot” is just a label for me. Someone needs to take that label on. It’s like someone gives us a name, and we take that name. “Okay, I’ll take that name, to be there.” But living in the Sangha, I can just be myself. I contribute whatever I can, whether that role is an abbot or just a brother. I do what I can do.

Question: You don’t feel some pressure inside that you’re the abbot and you have to do things a certain way? Do you feel it somehow constricts you?

Brother Phap Trach: It’s a challenge to take on that label, because even though I don’t expect much from myself, other people expect things from me, whether the expectations are said out loud or not. The practice is to hold those expectations and accept them as they are, and try to do the best I can to fulfill them. If I cannot do more, then I accept my limitation. That’s my practice. If I don’t have any challenges, then I will not grow. It’s good to have challenges.

As a monk, I have moved around a lot, always traveling, going here and there. Being an abbot helps me to settle, to stay. It’s an advantage and it’s a lesson for me. I enjoy it. It also makes my commitment stronger, to be in one place. It helps me to be more responsible in the Sangha, just to be here, to take that label. It drives me to do better, to learn more, to invest more into the Dharma, to help the young people.

Question: I’m wondering if there’s a time when you had something in mind that you wanted to do, just as Brother Phap Trach, but then because you’re also abbot, you decided to do it differently.

Brother Phap Trach: I really like to travel with the large Sangha, to be able to hop from monastery to monastery, and not stay in one place for a long time. It’s like when we want to do something, or go somewhere, and then we have to stay put. It really brings up challenges in our mind. Like, “I’m supposed to go; I deserve to go on that trip.” But just being, just staying, helps. We don’t have to go. We don’t have to be with Thay to be happy. We don’t have to travel to Asia to be happy. We don’t have to do the things that we think we need to do. We can be happy here, too. We can always find the present moment pleasant. When we accept something, then new doors open to our mind. We can enjoy the new things.

Question: What have you learned in the last three years at the EIAB about Sangha building and how best to support yourself and others on the path?

Brother Phap Trach: I think I’ve grown a lot in learning to be patient and accepting what comes. It takes a lot of time to adapt to a new environment, a new culture, new brothers and sisters. It teaches me to be patient; it tells me, “You have to let yourself adapt to the environment. You have to be patient with your brothers and sisters; they also need time to adapt to the new environment. They have difficulties to transform.You have to accept them as they are.” Everything takes its time to change, to adapt. It’s more like adaptation than change. Like ants—when their organization is disturbed, they need time to reestablish it again. In the beginning, we didn’t know what to do and how to structure our Sangha, but when we allow enough time and space things take care of themselves.

Question: What are some particular things that you’ve had to adapt to here in Germany, in the town of Waldbrol, in this big building, with its tragic past?

Brother Phap Trach: When we become a monastic, we want to live in a simple, secluded place. There was my idea: “Become a monk—simple place.” Coming here, my ideas changed. Even though I still live very simply, I learned that simple living is not dependent on the place we live. Simple living is more about our attitude and our way of being. Even though the building is very big and special, like a castle, and we are next to the city, it doesn’t make us more glamorous. To keep a simple attitude, a simple life, is challenging, but it makes our practice more solid to deal with the suffering that was here in the past. We come here and we slowly change the past. Monks and nuns are living here now. This energy is coming into that past, and it really changes people’s way of seeing this place. I think it’s very good. I think in the long run, we’re creating a wonderful, nice history for this place. It was bad at one time. But we re-create that part. Now it’s something wonderful, and many people benefit from us being here.

mb57-Simple4

PDF of this article

How Many Ways Can You Pray?

By Brother Phap Man 

mb57-HowManyWays1My aspiration is to make everything I do a prayer; as beautiful, wonderful, concentrated, full of love, and joyful as prayer. When I walk, when I eat, when I breathe, when I open the door, when I speak: prayer.

In our tradition at Plum Village we don’t use the word “prayer” much; we like “mindfulness” more. I think many people might not like the word “prayer” so much these days—it feels like a struggle, an obligation, or something irrational. But I think mindfulness is the energy of prayer. Can we restore our understanding of prayer as an act of love?

I don’t know if it’s just monastic life that is the life of prayer. I’m sure that married life and other ways of life can just as easily be lives of prayer. And who’s to say that making love is not a prayer? It must be a most holy prayer. Why have we monks committed not to celebrate this kind of prayer? Our celibacy is sacred. It seems that everything we do must become as sacred as making love, or even more sacred.

There is a place where all prayers become one prayer. We live our lives for that. Perhaps we abstain from this one, most sacred act of prayer, so that all of our actions can become as sacred as this. So that in every moment we give birth to the energy of love, to new bodhisattvas everywhere. Saving, healing. Offering that to each other, to everyone.

I see that there are so many young people searching for meaning, for beauty, for the sacred. So many are searching for meaning and fulfillment in sex. But modern people have lost the sacredness of sexuality. How can we bring it back? I want to tell young people, “It’s okay not to have sex.” I think that is essential if we want to really discover the miracle, the joys and the suffering, the life and the mystery, of our own sexuality. That is also part of my vow—to help others make life beautiful, to discover life. To find freedom from desire so that everything, even the most mundane things, can become holy.

I was walking along the path with a brother on the last day of the Winter Retreat. “What the heck is monastic life?” I asked. “I don’t know!” Came the reply. Exactly. We don’t know. We love, we don’t know, we grow, we abandon everything. We are pruned and cut back and burned by mysterious fires within us and around us. We feel pressure, strain, like stalks pushing to break through the soil. We pull each other, we push each other, we lift each other. Reaching for the light. It can be so joyful. It can be so painful. It looks different all the time. We cut through our perceptions, or we let them dissolve, waver, dance. Then suddenly, everything looks completely different. Monastic life is always changing. Like winter into spring.

Monastic life is not about “I.” It is “we.” “I” have a long way to go down this path of “we.” But there is plenty of time. Every day is a miracle. Every day is a chance to love, to look with eyes of compassion, to be broken, to be healed, to learn, to let go of everything, to learn new ways of being, to pray one prayer.

Brother Phap Man lives in Plum Village.

PDF of this article

Waking Up This Morning, I Smile

By Brother Phap Ho 

mb57-Waking1One day quite some time ago, I had a realization. It was like a sweet voice from deep inside, my heart’s song, my deep aspiration. The message was simple: I want to live a life and have a livelihood that make me happy to get up in the morning, every morning. This was long before I was introduced to the gatha, “Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment, and look at beings with eyes of compassion.”

The first time I had the idea of becoming a monk, I was practicing at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamsala, India, in the fall of 2001. I was staying at the Tibetan retreat center with a friend from Germany. We were helping to paint some of the retreat huts in the mountains outside McLeod Ganj. Our bodhicitta was strong and our inspiration to practice meditation was blooming. But still the idea of becoming a monk was just an idea, almost a joke.

Living Examples

Growing up in Sweden, I had no role models for living a spiritual life or practicing chastity, so to be around monastics was still very new to me. As I continued to practice during my travels in India, I found myself thinking, “If there is no life after this, I can just continue the way I live my life already, as I am happy enough. But on the other hand, if there is some kind of continuation, I might as well become a monastic in this life.” I studied and reflected about death and birth during my stay at the Root Institute in Bodhgaya. There was no answer, but I was grateful to have a path of practice to help me experience and look deeply into life.

The previous spring in Stockholm, I had struggled with this same question. I was in a committed long-term relationship, and my partner and I practically lived together. I felt that I had enough happiness living that life and that we could be happy together. There were challenges, but both of us were ready to help the other grow. One day, though, it was clear to me: Happy enough is not happy enough! A sense of urgency, a feeling of the vast potential of life came up, and I knew I had to continue this path on my own, not knowing what to do or where to go.

I remember that at the age of ten or so, I wanted to become an archaeologist. History was my favorite subject in school, thanks to an inspiring teacher. Then one day at a relative’s birthday party, I met a second cousin who was studying archaeology at the university. After talking with her for a while, I decided that archaeology seemed pretty boring and I gave up on the idea of becoming an archaeologist. Looking into my life in the past and present, I see the extent to which I draw from the living examples of people around me.

I eventually decided to study law. I remember the frustration I felt at times in law school and later when I was practicing law. Many days I did not feel happy to get up in the morning. There were elements that I really appreciated and treasured, but as a whole I did not feel at home in my studies and way of life; I was not arriving in the study and practice of law. I tried to make it work, to find a niche of law that was close enough to my passion in life.

mb57-Waking2

At one point, I did find a position at a nonprofit organization, helping people with different legal issues, people that did not otherwise have access to the rights and services they really needed. This position, the people working there, and the spirit of the organization were all very appealing, and you know what? I got the job. A week or so before I was due to start, though, the manager called me with some bad news. Due to budget cuts in the organization, the position that I was to step into had been eliminated. At the time, I really felt that this was terrible and that I had lost something, but looking back I recognize that had I been able to actually step into that position, it would have taken me much longer to get to the profession I really want to devote this life to.

I remember very clearly the day I first saw Thay practicing walking meditation. The voice from deep inside said, “I want to be able to walk like that!” A living example had once again spoken to me. I stayed in the Upper Hamlet of Plum Village for six months before my reasoning mind was ready to accept the idea of becoming a monk. Eventually it was time to step into freedom.

A Vocation That Brings Joy

In the Discourse on Happiness, the Buddha states that to have a vocation that brings you joy is the greatest happiness. After I had been living at Deer Park for about nine months, my brothers suggested that I become the work co-coordinator for the 2006-2007 Winter Retreat. I found much joy in this responsibility and enjoyed making announcements, leading gatherings, etc. But many mornings I was not very happy to wake up. I was receiving many ideas for projects from different brothers, and I did not see a way to realize many of them. I felt too responsible to let go of these projects. Today, four years later, some of them still have not manifested. When conditions are sufficient, things manifest.

You know what? In living and practicing, I feel that I am an archaeologist, discovering layer upon layer of habit energies, ancestors, joy, and peace. The path of meditation is a path of investigation and discovery. Living in the Sangha, we also walk the path of service, offering the opportunity for many people to come and practice, to discover their rights as human beings and their true nature of happiness and peace. Have any dreams of the past really been lost?

Before ordaining and as a novice, we were many times asked why we wanted to be monastics. This is a very good question. And you can keep asking it, because the answer keeps changing. I remember one of the brothers in my ordination family sharing that it simply was natural for him to be a monk. Today I could say the same. It is not destiny, but the conditions are sufficient for me to be a monk. People often ask, “Don’t you miss what you had to give up in becoming a monk?” I have not given anything up, but I have happily let go of many things along the way. Without letting go, how can we be open to receive something new? Our potential for joy and peace is so much greater than I could have envisioned during my time in India when I reflected on birth and death. If I had only one more year to live, I would still do what I am doing right now.

Writing this, I just came back from a five-day camping and hiking trip with nineteen of my brothers and sisters here at Deer Park. The first morning we had mixed feelings about waking up, because the night had been really cold and we had not slept much. Coming together in front of the fire, drinking a cup of tea, feeling the rays of the rising sun on our faces was so precious that morning, thanks to the cold and thick layer of frost of the dark night. So, on some days, “Waking up this morning, I smile” is a practice, and on some days it is a realization.

How can we express the sweetness of waking up?
The past, present, and future are the three wheels of my first bicycle,
my breath a reflection of all my ancestors.
Nothing has been lost, nothing is found, and yet all is present.

Brother Phap Ho was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972. He went to Plum Village for the first time in May 2002 and never really left. He ordained as a novice monk on February 8, 2003. Since February 2006, he has been residing at Deer Park Monastery.

PDF of this article

The Plum Tree

By Sister Trang Moi Len

mb57-ThePlumTree1

On a warm and beautiful spring morning, nature is cheerful, with birds singing a happy welcome to the sun that is somewhat shy on the eastern horizon. Flowers awaken from their sleep, and their petals start to bloom when the warm sunshine greets them. Dewdrops freshen the blades of grass, which sway beautifully.

A beautiful plum tree stretches her branches when the wind gently blows against her, as if to say “Good morning!” In her branches there are not just two or three but thousands of flowers. Bees are very happy as they dance and sing among the flowers of the plum tree. And the plum tree also sings and dances with the bees. All the people who see the plum tree stop to admire it; they breathe in mindfulness, and their joy waters the seeds of compassion and love in the plum tree.

The plum tree is always smiling and joyful because she has all the happiness she needs. She enjoys every happy moment. The love and compassion that she receives gives her spirit energy to endure a day that is full of challenges.

Until one day, when her petals start to fall. The plum tree is very sad and asks the flowers not to leave her, because without the flowers the bees will sing and dance no more and people will not stop to enjoy her beauty. The plum tree fears she will feel alone and people will no longer give her love and compassion. The plum tree does everything she can to keep the flowers from falling … but they just keep falling. The flowers are also very sad. They do not want to leave the plum tree, and they try to make her feel better by promising to come back again.

s the days pass, the plum tree becomes very sad and cries a lot, asking herself why the petals had to fall away and why the flowers could not stay forever. When the warm sunshine comes and the green leaves dance on her branches and the wind says hello to her, she tries her best to welcome them and enjoy their presence. But when the sun sets, the leaves fall asleep, and the wind says goodbye, she is sad again. She hopes the flowers will come back and make her beautiful so that she can be happy again.

Day after day, the plum tree smiles insincerely until one day a few children come close to play. They caress her trunk and sit upon her roots. They talk with each other cheerfully as they point to her branches. The plum tree didn’t realize until that moment that her leaves were wonderfully shady and that the flowers she grieved for had transformed into a sweet fruit. The plum tree smiles lovingly as she greets the leaves and fruit upon her branches. Aware of the beauty of the fruit upon her, she realizes that the flowers never left her, that the flowers are always with her, only now they have manifested in the form of sweet fruit. She realizes that the flowers were impermanent and, thanks to this impermanence, the fruit that she now bears has had a chance to manifest in the plum tree’s life. If the petals had not fallen, there would be no fruit present in her.

After this realization, the plum tree understands that the leaves, flowers, and fruit are not separate from her: they inter-are with her. All things that come and go throughout life offer beauty, if only we can open our eyes and hearts to see it.

mb57-ThePlumTree2Sister Trang Moi Len, True Rising Moon, lives in the New Hamlet of Plum Village. Before being ordained in Plum Village, she practiced with Bamboo Raft Sangha in Indonesia.

PDF of this article

Love Letter from Auschwitz

By Peter Kuhn 

Dear Friends,

Auschwitz, the site of the most notorious concentration camp in Nazi-occupied territory during World War II, may not sound like a vacation destination, but it is a powerful spot for retreat. Last summer, my wife Jackie and I joined the Zen Peacemakers for a five-day Bearing Witness Retreat at Auschwitz, followed soon after with a trip to the European Institute of Applied Buddhism (EIAB) where we joined the Living Happily Together Retreat with Thay and the Dutch Sangha.

Bearing witness is an attempt to see all sides with equanimity, surrender attachment and aversion, and embrace the seamless nature of all that is. There were no Dharma talks or teachers leading our experience in Auschwitz; rather, the idea was to be present and process the experience personally, arriving at our own conclusions. On most days there was a period of silent meditation and chanting the names of the dead, but other than that, the idea was to be fully present, to “listen” to the voices of the camp and to be open to whatever arose.

mb57-LoveLetter1

As we toured Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp that is now a museum, I practiced mindfulness to feel my emo-tions but not drown in them as we viewed the gallows, the torture chambers,  and  the buildings where experiments on women and twins were performed. I came back  to my breath as we clustered in a genuine gas chamber, holding those who had gone before us in our hearts as we said prayers for the dead. In stunned silence, I walked out past the large ovens in the crematorium room, opening to the inconceivable reality of what had transpired in that very place. I made incense offerings at various spots throughout the camp, inviting the buddhas and bodhisattvas to join in my own acts of healing, purification, and love.

Walking through rooms filled with artifacts, I tried to remain mindful of my breath and grounded on my feet. In truth, I was often numb as we passed through rooms full of suitcases, razors, hair brushes, shoes, and children’s clothing. One room was full of empty Zyklon B cans. They were not saved as souvenirs; the machinery of death was working so fast there was no means to get rid of all the evidence. These exhibits are stored behind glass and felt impersonal to me until I saw the mountain of human hair. Confronted with the relics of the countless dead, I broke down sobbing. Here were the remains of actual living beings, many of whom were my Jewish ancestors. The deep reality penetrated the walls of my defenses, and suddenly it was all very personal.

How Could “I” Do This? 

I wondered how “they” could do this. How could people ever perpetrate a Holocaust like this or allow it to happen? I heard the soft voice of our guide say, “All of this is because somebody thought they were better than somebody else.” His words chilled me. I realized I am guilty of that, too. I embraced that awareness and practiced coming back to my breath. I called on Avalokiteshvara. I breathed to soften my heart and cultivate some stability.

mb57-LoveLetter2

Moments later, leaving the buildings in a narrow hall crowded with visitors, I grew impatient and irritated with the people ahead of me. “What’s wrong with them?” I thought. When someone sneezed on me in the passing crowd, I became angry and indignant. Breathing in, I recognized the seeds of violence in me; breathing out, I realized that I was condemning another man, for nothing more than sneezing or slowing the line down. How could “I” do this?

We spent the next four days at Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau. The size of a small city, it housed upwards of one hundred thousand prisoners at a time during World War II. I was surprised by the lush green beauty surrounding the countless rows of ruined barracks. I expected bare, fallow ground, but instead, noticed birds, grass, flowers, and even deer in the ruins of the gas chambers and incinerators. Experiencing a moment of joy, I wondered how I could possibly find happiness in such a place. How could there be such beauty in a place of such horror? In a moment of penetration that reached to my bones, it struck me that nothing is either all “this” or all “that.” All dharmas are both this and that, defiled and immaculate, as our teachers the Buddha and Thay frequently remind us.

mb57-LoveLetter3

In the month prior to the retreat, I had sat with the Bat Nha koan that Thay had written, and continued to sit with it at Auschwitz. Meditating on the railroad tracks where incoming prisoners were unloaded and sorted for work or immediate death, I heard an ancient train whistle blow. I touched the part of me that is the Nazi officer, pumped up with arrogance and discrimination, lusting for power and domination, waiting for the next trainload of “sub-humans” to arrive. I touched the shadow of fear and shame as the crematoria were shut down every time a plane was flying overhead, for fear of discovery. I saw in this historic fact that even perpetrators who were convinced they were right knew the injustice deep in their heart.

I also saw myself as a Nazi camp guard, waiting for the same train with sadness and dread. I realized the Nazis were victims as well. Those who refused to serve were executed; many lived in fear for their lives and the safety of their families. Others were victims of ignorance, or were swept away in the collective consciousness of their time. The quiet voice of humanity was often drowned by blind obedience or the rationalized safety of conformity.

Seeing myself as a prisoner in a boxcar, I thought I would commit suicide rather than endure the degradation of the camp.

Then I realized that if I killed myself, I would destroy my capacity to help others and offer even the slightest comfort. I saw myself— the potential political, religious, or sexual prisoner—as both victim and potential victimizer. Succumbing to a survival instinct twisted by fear and greed, I could easily have become a kapo, a head of prisoners serving as informer and enforcer over other prisoners for favor, food, or the hope of another day’s life. I also saw my potential as a bodhisattva prisoner, sharing a crust of bread while starving, saying a kind word or extending a comforting hand, and offering dignity in the face of demoralizing degradation as so many reportedly did at that time. Deep in the shadow, I came to understand how exquisitely precious even the smallest act of kindness can be.

mb57-LoveLetter4

mb57-LoveLetter5

Unfathomable Love 

The last day at Auschwitz was a peak experience for me. As we walked across the consecrated ground of the camp, where every inch had been kissed by the ashes of cremated prisoners, I felt myself walking with all of you, my Sangha, at my side. I felt myself walking with Thay’s footsteps, and the Buddha breathed with my lungs, bringing peace in the midst of grief and sorrow. I walked with all my ancestors, with Poles, Germans, gypsies and Jews, with my spiritual ancestors, and with all of my descendants. With mindfulness and concentration, each step was a blossom of love and forgiveness. Each step was a moment of exquisite healing from the very heart of my practice, the fruit of our lineage, and the Plum Village tradition. I experienced unfathomable love in Auschwitz, the signature of my whole true self.

A week later, in a Dharma sharing group at the EIAB in Germany, someone asked, “Why would you go to Auschwitz?” I didn’t know how to answer. It became evident to me over the next few days: I went to heal. Out of the ashes, I came to realize that even what I found unacceptable or abhorrent was worthy of my compassion. Looking deeply into other, I saw self. Listening to the echoes and voices at Auschwitz, I heard small silent parts of myself. In my outrage, I greeted the tyrant within. In my anger at the atrocity, I saw the seeds of war in me. Holding grief with warmth, I grew in my capacity to love. Embracing intolerance, I watered the seeds of understanding and forgiveness. These insights allowed me to arrive at a new standard of tolerance and forgiveness. If my compassion could arise at Auschwitz, I could certainly offer the same grace at home, in the community, or to myself.

We live in the shadow of World War II. Even at the EIAB, we walk in the echoes of Nazi jackboots and clacking Gestapo heels, but thanks to our teacher, we can add our signature with each mindful breath and step, planting seeds of peace and harmony.

I see the war’s continuation in Vietnam, Bat Nha, Darfur, Tibet, Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Arizona, and in each of us. I aspire to hear the voice of judgment with soft ears of compassion instead of fear or arrogance. May I remember that in the diversity of the all is oneness and in the one is all.

mb57-LoveLetter6Peter Kuhn, True Ocean of Joy, lives in San Diego, CA. He coordinates “True Freedom: Prison Dharma Sharing (pen-pal) Practice” at Deer Park and is active with the Prison Meditation Project of San Diego. He practices with the Shared Breath Sangha in Donovan State Prison and the Still Ripening Sangha in Escondido.

PDF of this article

The Joy of Practice Cannot Be Contained

By Leslie Rawls and Carl Dunlap, Jr.

To our respected and beloved teacher, Thay Nhat Hanh, and to the stream of ancestral teachers who have preserved and transmitted the teachings, we offer an ocean of gratitude.

mb57-TheJoy1From Carl

December 5, 1988 was the coldest, darkest day of my entire life. I committed the vile act of murder and was eventually sentenced to life in prison. Taking a life never resonated well in my heart at all. Because I was raised a Baptist Christian, I knew that for forgiveness, I had to sincerely repent and draw closer to God. However, during my Christian experience, something didn’t feel complete. I began asking questions. Why are we the only ones that will be saved when this God comes back and destroys the entire earth? You mean to tell me that this great loving Creator gave us life and is now saying if you don’t believe in a certain way, he is going to destroy us and torture us in a burning hell forever? It sounded absurd. So I found the confidence to explore other ways of life and tried to find peace in my heart, while being someone who could make a positive effect on life.

That’s when I met a guy named Daniel, sitting outside, meditating. He looked so peaceful and serene. Several days went by, and I could not forget that look or the feeling I experienced when I encountered Daniel. I eventually approached Daniel and asked him what he studied and what his way of life was. He said Buddhism, and that he was in the process of trying to get a Sangha started here at Piedmont Correctional. I didn’t know what in the world he was talking about and asked if he had any information that would explain. He said, “I have a book that I want you to read. Read it and get back with me.”

The name of that book was Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. The book was incredible. Thay offered so many precious jewels of wisdom that were simple and liberating. I knew this was what I wanted to do. What really sold me is the fact that Thich Nhat Hanh says that his teachings are not to fight, kill, or die for. They are only a way to develop understanding and compassion. Thich Nhat Hanh says if his teachings are for you, then use them, and if they are not, then abandon them. Man, what humility, style, and grace.

mb57-TheJoy3

mb57-TheJoy2

After reading Being Peace, I asked Daniel how could I be a part of this Sangha and be filled with the teachings of liberation. Daniel said, “Next week we will be starting a Sangha here and Leslie will be coming in to teach.” I went to the meeting and was absolutely amazed at Leslie’s composure and sincere compassion about humanity. I wanted to cultivate that in my life and be a solution to suffering and be helpful as well as compassionate to every being I encountered.

After attending meetings for a little over a year, I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in a beautiful transmission ceremony. The transmission was very important to me. My family, friends, and peers noticed a very big change in my life and I owe it all to the practice. Being in the practice taught me to be mindful in all my actions, to be aware in each living moment. Because I practice, people see me as someone who strives to relieve suffering in myself and others.

Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine the effects of being mindful about how I ate, breathed, walked, sat, or lay down. It is an awe-inspiring experience. Now my daily life, as I practice, is filled with being aware and staying in the present moment, never worrying, just trying to be present, and taking care of each moment as situations arise.

In this dog-eat-dog world, people are motivated by many different things, which leads them to be suspicious of true kindness. For example, my job assignment here is commissary clerk in the kitchen. The job only requires for me to pass out food, be prepared for that day, and keep inventory on the stock. Well, one day, I noticed a big pile of pots and pans heaped around the sink.

My mind immediately went back to something Thich Nhat Hanh had said: “When we wash dishes, we are aware that we are washing dishes.” I said to myself, “What a perfect time to practice being in the present moment and be aware that I am washing dishes.” I poured myself into it and experienced the beauty of being there and taking my time to wash every pot and pan there, and the ones that continued to come.

About an hour and a half went by and the guy assigned to washing dishes came back, expecting to walk into a big load of work. To his surprise, everything was caught up and clean. He asked, “Which supervisor told you to do that?” I told him nobody asked me to do it and I did it on my own. He then asked, “Well how much do I owe you, because nobody does anything around here for free.” I smiled at him and said, “You don’t owe me anything,” as I walked away. Because for me, as I was there in the present moment, I imagined myself at Plum Village, serving with my brothers and sisters, washing dishes with a big smile on my face.

Aware that words are just labels and they don’t depict who we truly are, I don’t go around with a big sign around my neck saying that I am Buddhist. Therefore, it was quite refreshing to encounter my next experience. One afternoon, an officer approached me and asked me to sit in the infirmary with a man who was dying of cancer. The nurses were understaffed and they needed someone to just sit in the room with him, in case he tried to get up out of bed because he was so weak and he could not walk on his own strength without falling down. While sitting in the infirmary with him, I thought of impermanence. Old age, sickness, and death are certain to come for everyone. Also, I knew it was not a time for words so I just simply sat with him and occasionally, he would smile. When he spoke, I just listened and let him know that I was there for him.

My daily life consists of practicing the principle of dwelling in the present moment and staying mindful of my breath. Throughout the day, I smile and try to handle everything with the correct attitude. I’m not always successful, but just being aware of the process of unwholesome seeds when they are present helps out greatly. My appreciation for the practice is boundless. My teacher, Leslie, is a beautiful person who takes the time to teach me with compassion. I am truly honored, with much humility to be her student and dear brother.

From Leslie

Our Sangha has supported various inmate North Carolina Sanghas for years. For over a decade, the distances kept me from participating more than a few times annually. A few years ago that changed. Daniel, an inmate I knew from a mountain prison, transferred to Piedmont Correctional, about an hour away from me. And Daniel began to build a Sangha. I came only a few times before going to Plum Village to receive Lamp Transmission. When I returned, I was surprised to learn that Daniel had transferred out. But Daniel had started the wheel of practice. Our tiny inmate Sangha now meets every Monday, thanks to Daniel’s initial push, the energy of our practice, and the ongoing support of Chaplain Michael Haynes.

Thirty-nine-year-old Carl has been a Sangha regular since we began. Because he is serving a life sentence and North Carolina has abolished parole, we can expect that he may never be on the outside. Carl has told me that sometimes he wishes he could be outside, so he could visit Plum Village and practice with the Sangha. He also recognizes that his practice is very helpful to people right where he is.

In the years since the Sangha began, Carl’s practice has blossomed. I have seen tension lessen in his face, seen him walking mindfully and peacefully, and heard from those he lives with about how his practice affects others in the prison. One Monday when Chaplain Haynes was out, another staff member oversaw our small group. As we packed away our blankets and inflatable cushions, the staff member commented on how peaceful it had been to sit with us. (He had been across the room, behind a desk, trying to keep his chair from squeaking.) Then, he spoke about Carl, telling me that Carl is a source of peace to other inmates, guards, and staff. He too had seen the strength of Carl’s practice. Other times, I’ve seen Carl listen to Sangha members with a tender heart and respond with words of compassion and understanding. His practice offers a rare and sorely needed balm for troubled hearts.

A regular in our Piedmont Correctional Sangha has asked, more than once, why I come. I have no words to answer, and sometimes tell him, truthfully, that I don’t know. But my heart knows that it’s something like this: I come to the prison every Monday because transformation is possible through these teachings, because everyone matters, and because transformation, like happiness, is not an individual matter.

mb57-TheJoy4Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Enlightenment, is a founding member and the Dharma Teacher for the Charlotte, North Carolina Community of Mindfulness. She received Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh during the 2008-2009 Winter Retreat in Plum Village. She edited the Mindfulness Bell from 1996 to 2001, and currently serves on the magazine’s Advisory Board.

mb57-TheJoy5Carl Dunlap, Boundless Compassionate Heart of the Source, was raised in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He practices every week with the Extended Charlotte Community of Mindfulness Sangha in Piedmont Correctional Institute. He is the father of two and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

PDF of this article

Small Is Beautiful

Old Path Sangha Turns Ten!

By Valerie Brown

mb57-Small1

“Building a Sangha is very healing for the world.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

On a rainy, cloudy Saturday afternoon in October 2009, friends of Old Path Sangha (OPS) gathered for a Day of Mindfulness and to reflect on a milestone: the tenth anniversary of the founding of the Sangha in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The theme of our anniversary celebration was “Healing the World, One Sangha at a Time.”

Old Path Sangha began as Old Path Zendo, which was founded by dedicated Order of Interbeing (OI) members Judith and Philip Toy. The Toys followed the traditions of Thich Nhat Hanh and also had a strong and elegant sitting practice in the Rinzai tradition. I loved chanting the Heart Sutra in old-fashioned Japanese, a practice that has continued at OPS even to this day.

When the Toys decided to retire in North Carolina to be closer to their family, I vowed to keep weekly meditation practices going at the zendo. Without hesitation, I moved out of my home in a nearby town in western New Jersey and moved into the zendo, located in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse on sixty acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The next year was spent hauling wood from the woodshed to the living room to keep a fire going when the Sangha came for sitting practice, clearing cobwebs, dusting, scrubbing floors, and preparing snacks—all to make whoever showed up feel at home. It was simultaneously exhausting and gratifying.

During that year, I received a deep and profound lesson about “protecting the Sangha.” I learned to look deeply at, and to overcome, my resistance to being committed to the Sangha. I realized that commitment—staying with the good and the bad and accepting the way things are—was one of my biggest issues. I felt torn by the competing obligations of home, work, family, school, and the Sangha. In learning to be there for the Sangha, I learned how to be there for myself and others. I learned the joy of giving, and I also learned the necessity of sometimes saying “no,” knowing that preserving my energy was an act of self-love. Initially, I found this hard to do; my needs for space and rest seemed at odds with the Sangha’s survival. I realized, though, that I could be a better Sangha member and a healing force in the Sangha by respecting my limits and not judging myself; that self-love, at times the hardest thing, is the practice of love.

After a year of juggling graduate school, family obligations, and a full-time job as a lawyer-lobbyist, I moved out of the old stone farmhouse and back into my home in western New Jersey.

Finding Home 

Once I moved from the zendo, it was time for our group to transform. We took the name Old Path Sangha and began to look for a home. We found our new home in tiny St. Philip’s Episcopal Chapel, located next to a beaver pond and wetlands in the small artists’ community of New Hope. The chapel hosts an eclectic mix of groups, including the Beaver Pond Poets, AA, a Bible study group, and many others. Our relationship with St. Philip’s and the current vicar, Rev. Peter Pearson, is a living example of its motto, “Radical Welcome.” Once planted at St. Philip’s, our Sangha, a tiny seed of hope, slowly began to grow.

mb57-Small2

We come to the Sangha with our very busy schedules, family obligations, and full-time careers. Despite the ups and downs we have faced over the years—divorce, career changes, sickness, the deaths of parents and other family members, and the general stuff of life—we hold fast to the belief in the healing power of a community united by love. We recognize that we support the Sangha and that the Sangha supports us. We cherish the teachings, knowing that the fruit of the teachings is an open heart and mind.

We have relied on the practice of Beginning Anew to resolve small and large conflicts that threatened to tear the Sangha apart, promoting understanding, the root of love. We have studied the Five and the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings to develop our understanding of and compassion toward ourselves and others. At each Sangha sitting, we share Thay’s inspirational words from his many books, and find this especially helpful when one or more of us faces life challenges. As a Sangha, we have attended five-day, weekend, and day-long retreats, building community and togetherness. We have shared many, many Sangha potluck gatherings to strengthen our bonds of friendship.

Although we remain small, we have nurtured connections with area Sanghas, hosting days of mindfulness throughout the Delaware Valley. We are part of an interfaith community in Bucks County and have participated in interfaith events with other religious organizations. Some of our members have realized their aspirations to serve the wider Sangha by becoming OI members. The work of building the Sangha garden, much like cultivating a vegetable and flower garden, has been slow and steady, attending to the very foundations of the Sangha: understanding and compassion.

Over and over, we have agreed to recommit ourselves to the Sangha, to come together to practice understanding, peace, and compassion, not just in our weekly sessions, but in our jobs, with our families, and with others. Over and over as a Sangha, we have recommitted ourselves to live our daily life in mindfulness. That tiny seed has grown into a healthy plant with deep roots and vibrant green leaves that has sustained Sangha members, visitors, the New Hope community, and area Sanghas. We have transmitted positive seeds of our practice to all we come in contact with, friends and strangers alike.

The Buddha of the Twenty-First Century 

At our tenth anniversary celebration, Dharma Teacher David Dimmack remarked that a Sangha is “revolutionary.” OPS has indeed brought about a revolution in the way our Sangha members act, speak, and think.

OPS, like any family, has been through many changes. People have come and gone. There were times I thought our small, newly formed group would not survive. There were times when the Sangha felt too tiny to survive. I worried that my energy level and the energy of other members were not up to the task of sustaining a Sangha. I worried that the many competing obligations of family and work would overwhelm our desire to practice in community. Settling in the tiny artists’ village of New Hope, the Sangha seemed unlikely to find others interested in practice.

In coming to accept the smallness and fragility of the Sangha, I have come to understand those parts of myself that are similarly small and fragile. The effort of sustaining a small, fledgling community of practice has allowed me to look directly at my fears, my aspirations, and larger societal messages that say “bigger is better.” In tending OPS, a tiny Sangha in a tiny chapel in a tiny artists’ community, I have been nurtured in very big ways by the support of the Sangha.

Thay has said that the Buddha of the twenty-first century may manifest as Sangha. Our Sangha, a tiny yet dedicated core group of members, comes together to practice mindfulness as a community of love, peace, brotherhood, and sisterhood. Building a Sangha takes time. Ten years is just the beginning for Old Path Sangha. It is a lotus flower to our community and to the world.

mb57-Small3

Valerie Brown, True Power of the Sangha, is a founding member of Old Path Sangha in Philadelphia.

PDF of this article

Stretching Our Practice

Vancouver Prepares for 2011 Retreat

By Jeanie Seward-Magee

Vancouver is preparing for a truly historic event—our beloved teacher, Thay, along with forty ordained Sangha members, is coming to give a public talk and lead a retreat in August 2011. We are so excited! Situated on the west coast of British Columbia (BC), Canada, Vancouver is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. We truly feel blessed to host this special event in a city surrounded by so much natural beauty—mountains, forests, and the sea.

Thay was last in BC in 1987, for a small retreat in White Rock. His teachings were from the Heart Sutra, and led to his wonderful book, The Heart of Understanding. At that retreat, there were only eighty-five attendees. Thay was able to connect with his students in a far more personal way than he can do today. At our retreat this August, we shall be hosting over 800 residential guests at the University of British Columbia, with 2,300 attending Thay’s public talk. He will definitely not be able to come around and correct our sitting postures, as he did in White Rock nearly twenty-five years ago!

The Mindfulness Practice Center 

The Mindfulness Practice Center (MPC) of Vancouver was set up in 1998, after my husband John and I returned from the twenty-one-day retreat in Vermont. Thay asked attendees to go home and set up non-Buddhist MPCs. Vancouver’s was the second in the world, after Pritham Singh’s and Anne Johnson’s lovely center in Vermont.

Over the years, MPC has changed from a fairly structured, welcoming space in a nice residential area of the city to a casual, friendly drop-in group in the heart of our downtown East Side. This area is one of the poorest postal districts in the whole of North America. It’s where a large number of homeless folk live, many of whom are drug users and prostitutes. Because there appears to be such helplessness on the streets, it can be a frightening location for some people.

A number of Sangha members who used to come to our first, more suburban location, now no longer come, mainly because of their fears of perceived dangers of the new area. However Thay teaches us that 80% of our perceptions are incorrect! Personally, I do not have a problem with our new location, as homeless folk give me no reason to be scared. Often they ask for money, possibly wanting to purchase their next pack of cigarettes or a bottle from the booze shop. I never give cash, always offering instead to go and buy a coffee with a sandwich.

Having the Sangha meet in this area makes me much more grateful for all the gifts I have in my life: a solid, supporting family, a roof over my head, and food on my table. It helps reinforce one of my daily practices of gratitude, the first always being: “Today I am grateful for my life and breath.” Without these two gifts I could no longer be grateful for everything else in my life.

Growing Our Practice 

A very deep practice also comes with our preparation for the upcoming retreat, which requires a lot of hard work from a number of very generous and kind volunteers. When I was a very new Order of Interbeing member, a wonderful senior practitioner told me how family was her hardest practice. Well, my practice and our committee’s practice have been stretched, sometimes to the limit, as old habit energies come up—unfortunately the ones we don’t admire in ourselves. My volunteer family is stretching my practice and helping it grow on a daily basis. I have to thank all of my dear volunteers for this; they are indeed the flowers in my garden, helping me to pull out the weeds in my mind.

This process has been greatly helped by the kind leadership of several of Thay’s senior monastics. The main direction for our mindful decision-making has come from our liaisons with some amazing monks and nuns in Deer Park. We could never have done any of this work without their tremendous loving kindness! We have also received great joy and nourishment from the volunteers within our larger Northwest Pacific Sangha, and I give them a deep bow of gratitude.

For details about the Vancouver retreat, please visit  www.tnhvancouver2011.org.

mb57-Small4Jeanie Seward-Magee, True Virtue and Gratitude, B.S.W., resides with her husband John on Bowen Island, British Columbia. She is a writer of newspaper articles and books, and a Mindful Way Course presenter.

PDF of this article

Step into Freedom and Taste True Happiness

Five-Year Monastic Training and Service Program

When we train as a monastic we have the opportunity to find the root of our freedom, solidity, joy and happiness, and to help our society. When we ordain and wear the brown robe, we learn to cut through our illusions and our afflictions. We learn to transform our deepest suffering into a bright future and into an even brighter present. In this process of knowing ourselves and facing our difficulties, we will also learn how to change our society into one that is more compassionate, understanding, and happy. This is a natural process, because as we discover the root of virtue in our own life, we will also be able to help other people to stop creating suffering for themselves and for the world.

Five years of monastic training is a great chance for you to learn how to live your life meaningfully, to discover brotherhood and sisterhood, and to make possible right here and right now the social change we have always dreamt about. Tasting the simple life of a monk or a nun and cultivating your spiritual life, you will be able to assist your elder brothers and sisters in organizing retreats and events all over the world. You will be able to share your practice and transformation and help a great number of people. When we let go of the pursuit of wealth, power, and sensual pleasures, and put on the brown robe, we do not need to wait five years to be able to help people. Right from the first day, we inspire those around us by simply walking with mindfulness, solidity, and freedom.

Basic Requirements:

Age from 17 – 32. If you are under 18, you must have the consent of your parents.

Single or divorced. Your relationships with those close to you are settled, and your decision is in harmony with them, so that they will not be an obstacle to your training as a monastic.

No incurable disease or serious medical condition. Your mental stability and physical health should be sound enough not to be an obstacle for your training and for that of the community.

No debt or financial ties.As monastics we take refuge in the Sangha, and do not have debt or hold bank accounts and/or credit cards.

Commitment to study, practice, and serve. Our training is to flow as a Sangha. You commit to learn how to practice as a community and to follow the guidance of the Sangha, including attending all Sangha activities.

Letting personal possessions go. As part of your training you will be asked to release items such as laptops, cellphones, etc. and to come into the community with your hands empty.

Family visit. You can visit your blood family members for fourteen days after training for two years as a novice. You can keep in contact with them by writing letters and calling them from time to time.

Come to any of our centers in the U.S., France, Germany, and Thailand and practice as a retreatant for two weeks before inquiring about the program.

Please visit www.plumvillage.org for a more detailed description of the Five-Year Monastic Training Program.

PDF of this article

On the Road with Thich Nhat Hanh

A documentary about monks and nuns on tour with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh 

Twenty-five hundred years ago the Buddha walked the length and breadth of India, sharing the Dharma and the way of compassion and freedom. In 2011 the monks and nuns of Plum Village will take to the road with the same goal in mind, but this time using planes, trains, automobiles, social networking, and mobile phones.

Traveling to the U.S. with Thay and the monastic delegation, a team of filmmakers will experience the tour side by side with these monks and nuns, creating a unique feature-length documentary to share the real lives of monastics in the Plum Village Tradition: their stories as young people with aspirations, hopes, and dreams; their trials and challenges along with their joys in the practice. By following Thay and the monastics of Plum Village from large-scale public talks and retreats to personal encounters, we will gain a rare insight into the deep teachings of a true modern Zen Master.

From the natural beauty of sunny Southern California to the swamps of Mississippi, from the Rocky Mountains to Manhattan, this will be a road movie like no other! The film will be directed by Max Pugh, a young filmmaker with a track record of award nominated films. The making of the film and its content will be guided by Plum Village monastics.

The filmmakers want you to get involved! They are conducting a campaign to raise $30,000 to cover production costs. They are offering a unique opportunity to become part of this extraordinary film. To see all the wonderful things offered in exchange for your support, go to http://www.indiegogo.com/tnh.

mb57-OnTheRoad1

PDF of this article

Media Reviews

mb57-MediaReviews1One Buddha Is Not Enough
A Story of Collective Awakening

By Thich Nhat Hanh and the Monks and Nuns of Plum Village
Parallax Press, 2010
Paperback, 216 pages

Reviewed by Rasoul Sorkhabi

In August 2009, more than nine hundred people gathered at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado, for a five-day retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled “One Buddha Is Not Enough.” I was one of them. Many of us had read Thay’s inspiring books or heard his lectures, and we were looking forward to seeing and hearing him in person.

That first evening, we learned that Thay would not attend because he was hospitalized in Massachusetts, where he had led a retreat the week before. Many participants were disappointed, but they also appreciated the situation. Over the next four days, the retreatants as well as the coordinating monks and nuns made the retreat a delightful experience for all. Every day we listened to Dharma talks and chants, ate our food mindfully, and sat and walked in the silence of mindfulness. An account of our experience has been published in this elegant volume.

The book consists of an introduction about the Colorado retreat (“The Miracle of Sangha”), nine chapters by the monks and nuns (texts of their Dharma talks at the retreat), an excerpt from the hospital diary of one of the monks who accompanied Thay (“You Continue in Us”), two letters from Thay that were read to retreat participants, and a final chapter written by Thay (“We Have Arrived, We Are Home”). Reflections and remarks by retreat participants are included, giving a people’s voice to the book. Overall, this is a carefully crafted, absorbing read. Happily, the book preserves the sense of humor that was present at the retreat.

There is something profound about the title One Buddha Is Not Enough. “In order to save our planet Earth,” Thay has said, “we must have a collective awakening. Individual awakening is not enough. That is why one Buddha is not enough.”

mb57-MediaReviews2Colors of Compassion
Teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh

A film by Eloise de Leon
Running time: 50 minutes 2011

Reviewed by Angela Dews

Filmmaker Eloise de Leon promises Colors of Compassion will be a cinematic retreat. It is that. In this documentary that chronicles Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2004 People of Color Retreat, we walk with our teacher through Deer Park Monastery’s tawny landscape. The camera pans and then stops. We breathe. We hear a bell, a bird.

Thay says, “. . . the act of making a step is an act of freedom, an act of liberation. You liberate yourself, you liberate your ancestors. It’s an act of revolution.” Retreatants also connect the practice to freedom, and express their willingness to be present: “All you’ve got to say is Shakyamuni Buddha taught liberation and we’re there.”

Those who speak on camera identify themselves as Mexican, African American, Vietnamese, and mixed with other cultures and nationalities. They share why they came and where they came from: “We can feel that we know our parents and our ancestors, and still we ask the question, who am I?” “The color of our skin or what we are categorized as, it doesn’t make us. If we are not skillful, it can confine us.” “How to not abandon our communities and be a mindful social activist is the crucial question for our liberation.” Their stories also answer questions some might have about a retreat for people of color. Why do we need such a retreat? Why might someone like me need the Dharma?

The filmmakers skillfully balance talking and stillness in wonderful scenes: Thay teaches interbeing to a room full of brothers and sisters—some in robes and some not—in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall; and, at the end of the film, during an extraordinary celebration, many receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings and their Dharma names. Perhaps some will find their way through this film into practice, and others will appreciate the vibrancy of people of color, who may have been invisible until now, in their own Sanghas.

mb57-MediaReviews3The Ten Oxherding Paintings
Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh

Edited by Karen Hilsberg
Translated by Sister Dang Nghiem
Jasmine Roots Press, 2011

Reviewed by David Percival, True Wonderful Roots

The Ten Oxherding Paintings have helped Zen students conceptualize the path to enlightenment for almost one thousand years. Attributed to Kuoan Shiyuan, a Chinese Zen master, they depict a young child (the spiritual seeker) searching for an ox (the true self) and his eventual attempts to control it.

In this fresh look at familiar teachings, Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh doesn’t waste any time; he confronts us with the simple truth: “the joy, the enlightenment, the nirvana, all those things are already within us.” The ox is not somewhere else; it just appears that way to the confused child who continues to search. When I began practicing, I also spent too much time searching outside of myself—for teachers, retreats, books, etc. I didn’t understand about coming back to the beautiful island within myself. Only later did I discover the space of mindfulness that was always here in my body and my mind.

As he explains the Ten Oxherding Paintings, the Venerable gives us the immediate realization that we are already riding on the ox—we already are what we’re seeking. We simply need to stop, come back to ourselves, and realize our true nature of recognition and awareness. By cultivating mindfulness and living constantly with our true nature, we’ll recognize the impermanent and fleeting nature of our feelings and perceptions. Instead of being caught up in our mental stress, we’ll dwell in the beautiful space of emptiness, “no longer caught by the self or the ego.”

This beautiful book is an inspiration and a call for practitioners to dwell in the energy of mindfulness, and to understand that “the Buddha is right here in our bodies, in our sadness, and in our anger.”

There is truly nowhere to go and nothing to search for. Whatever we have been looking for has always been right here, inside of us. We can enjoy these profound teachings, enter the mind of our wonderful teacher, Venerable Thich Phuoc Tinh, and dwell in the Buddha nature that has always been within us.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: To Make Reconciliation Possible

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

European Institute of Applied Buddhism
June 13, 2013

Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha. Today is the 13th of June in the year 2013, and we are on the third day of our retreat, “Are You Sure?”

Are you sure that the best moment of your life hasn’t arrived? If not, when? I think one of the most wonderful moments of our life was spent in the womb of our mother. At that time, we didn’t have to worry about anything. We didn’t have to struggle to survive. And the place was so comfortable. It was very soft and the weather was perfect. Our mother breathed for us, ate for us, and drank for us. There was no worry, no fear, no anger. Without fear, anger, and worries, the moment should be a wonderful moment. The Chinese people call that place where we spend nine months or so “the palace of the child.”

mb64-DharmaTalk2

But when we were born, things were not the same. They cut the cord that linked us to our mother. You had to learn how to breathe in for the first time. You hadn’t learned how to breathe in yet. There was some liquid in your lungs. Unless you could spit it out, you wouldn’t be able to breathe in for the first time. It was a very dangerous moment for us. If we couldn’t breathe in, we might die. Fortunately most of us made it and survived. That was our first experience of fear—the fear of dying.

mb64-DharmaTalk3

We had been born but we were completely helpless. We had arms and legs but we couldn’t use them. There had to be someone to take care of us and feed us, otherwise we couldn’t survive. So that fear was not only the fear of dying but also the fear that you could not survive by yourself. At the same time that original fear was born, original desire was born, the desire to have someone to take care of you. There was the awareness that all alone you could not survive. You needed someone else to take care of you. That person might have been your mother or your nurse, but there had to be someone, otherwise you could not survive.

So our original fear was linked to our original desire. If today we’re still looking for someone, thinking that without that other person we cannot survive, that is the continuation of the original desire. If we believe that without a partner we cannot survive, that belief is a continuation of the original belief.

Peace Is Possible

Many emotions, like fear, anger, desire, and worry, have been transmitted to us by our father, our mother, and our ancestors. If we’re having some difficulties in our relationship with another person, maybe our fear, anger, and desire have to do with those kinds of difficulties. We want to reconcile with him or with her. We want to restore communication and bring about reconciliation. But the feelings of anger, fear, and desire in us may be an obstacle to reconciliation.

The last time Barack Obama visited the Middle East, he said, “Peace between Palestine and Israel is possible.” We want to agree with him. But we want to ask, “How?”

When I was in South Korea last month, I gave a talk about peace between South Korea and North Korea. I saw that it’s not enough to limit the development of nuclear weapons programs. We have to address the larger, underlying issue, which is the amount of fear we have in us. If there’s no fear, anger, or suspicion, then people aren’t going to use nuclear or any other weapons. It’s not the absence of nuclear weapons alone that guarantees two countries can reconcile and have peace. It’s by removing the fear, anger, and suspicion that we can make true peace possible. North Korea seems to be aggressive because it is testing nuclear weapons and threatening the South and other countries. But if we look very deeply, we see that all of that has its roots in fear. When you try to make nuclear weapons, it’s not truly because you want to destroy the other side, it’s because you’re fearful that they’ll attack you first.

mb64-DharmaTalk4

If you want to help North and South Korea, if you want to help Palestinians and Israelis, you should do something to help remove the fear, anger, and suspicion on both sides. Israelis and Palestinians both have the desire to survive as a nation. Both are fearful that the other side will destroy them. Both are suspicious, because in the past what they’ve received from the other side is violence, killing, and bombing. So to make true peace possible, you have to try to remove the fear, anger, and suspicion from both sides. Does Obama, as a politician, have a way to help remove the huge amount of fear, anger, and suspicion that exists on both sides?

mb64-DharmaTalk5

North Korea is deeply suspicious. The last time South Korean President Park visited Obama, North Korea thought it was an attempt to do something that could harm the North, even though President Obama and President Park may not have had that intention at all. Our fear, anger, and suspicion distort everything and prevent us from seeing the truth. If the South would like to help the North, it should be able to do something to help remove that huge amount of suspicion, fear, and anger in the North.

All of us have heard about the event in Newtown. A young man went to a school and killed a lot of children and teachers. After the event, Obama tried to make the kind of law that limits the right to buy guns. That can be helpful, but will not by itself resolve the underlying issue, which is the violence and anger in the people. Can Congress make some kind of law that can help remove the fear, anger, and violence in the younger generation?

I think people buy guns not because they genuinely like guns per se, but because they’re afraid and they want to protect themselves. So the main, driving issue is not nuclear weapons or guns, it’s fear. When the United States and South Korea put forth a condition for peace negotiations that says, “We will negotiate only on the condition that you stop testing nuclear weapons,” something is not right with that kind of policy. If Iran or North Korea are trying to make nuclear weapons, it’s not because they really like doing it, but because they have a lot of fear. To begin negotiations may help a little bit to reduce that fear. But I don’t think it’s helpful to put forth that condition.

In a relationship, if reconciliation seems to be difficult, it’s not because the two people aren’t willing to reconcile; it’s because the amount of anger, fear, and suspicion in each person is already too big. You can’t say that the other person doesn’t want to reconcile. She wants to reconcile, but it’s because she still has a lot of anger, fear, and suspicion that you haven’t been able to reconcile with her. According to our experience of practice, if you want to help someone reduce their fear, anger, and suspicion, you first have to practice in order to reduce the amount of fear, anger, and suspicion in yourself.

In Busan, South Korea, I gave a talk called “Peace Is Possible” to a crowd of eleven thousand people. The monks who helped organize the public talk asked me to announce a prayer ceremony that would happen in the month of September. They planned to have something like fifty thousand people attending this ceremony of prayer for the sake of reconciliation between the North and the South. I told the crowd that to pray is not enough. You have to practice, you have to organize a session of practice that might last a month or so in order to help remove the amount of fear, anger, and suspicion on both sides. That huge energy of fear, anger, and suspicion exists not only in the North, but also in the South. You should convene the kind of retreat to which wise people are invited to come and practice compassionate listening. You should allow people to come and express their suffering, their fear, their anger, their suspicion. We should look deeply into the block of suffering that we have in the South. Because of that amount of anger, fear, and suspicion, we have said things and done things that have given the North the impression that we want to be aggressive and take over the North.

The North has a huge fear of being destroyed, and they have the desire to survive. If the South can practice listening to her own suffering, fear, anger, and suspicion, then the South can transform that and heal, and will be in a position to help the North to do the same. Otherwise, everything you try to do to help the North will be misunderstood.

Suppose you want to send the North a large shipment of grain and other foods, saying that the North needs a lot of food for the poor people to survive. You are motivated by the good intention to help the population of the North not to die of hunger. But the North may see it as an attempt to discredit them, as saying that the North isn’t capable of feeding its own population. Anything you do or say can be distorted and create more anger, fear, and suspicion. Our political leaders haven’t been trained in the art of helping to remove fear, anger, and suspicion. That is why we have to call for help from those of us who are spiritual, who are compassionate, who know how to listen, and who know how to transform fear, anger, and suspicion in ourselves. When fear and anger become a collective energy, it’s so dangerous, and a war can break out at any time.

Deep Listening and Loving Speech

I was in the United States on September 11, 2001. My book, Anger, had just been published the week before. After the events of September 11th, I could feel the huge collective fear and anger in North America. I saw that the situation was extremely dangerous. If the American people were carried away by that collective energy of anger and fear, then there would be a war very soon. Four days after September 11th, I gave a public talk in Berkeley that was attended by four thousand people. In that talk I said that the first thing I would advise the United States to do is to practice the eighth exercise of mindful breathing: recognizing the fear and the anger and trying to calm down.

Not many days later, I gave the same kind of talk at The Riverside Church in New York. I said that the first thing the people of the United States have to do is try to calm down and not allow the collective energy of anger and fear to carry them away. Then they should sit down as a nation and ask themselves, “Why have these people done such a thing to America?” There must be something wrong in your foreign policy, something wrong in the way you interact with the Middle East. The United States should ask the question, “What have we done to make them so angry?” They must be very angry, very afraid, and full of despair to have done such a thing. The amount of fear, anger, and violence in them is huge. Otherwise they wouldn’t have done such a thing. But in the United States the suffering, anger, and fear was also huge. There was a lot of violence and feelings of injustice, anger, and fear within the American nation itself.

America has not had a chance to sit down as a nation to listen to its own suffering, fear, anger, despair, violence, and so on. In the public talk I gave in Berkeley, I proposed that the United States organize a session of deep listening to the American people’s suffering. They should invite people representing those who feel that they’re victims of discrimination, violence, anger, fear, social injustice, and so on, and give them a chance to speak out. They should invite the best American people, those who know how to listen with compassion, who have no prejudices, and who have the capacity to understand and to listen. They could organize several such sessions of compassionate listening. If need be, the session could be televised so the whole population could participate. If we don’t understand our own suffering, fear, anger, and despair, then we can’t help the other side to do the same. This was also exactly what I recommended to the people in South Korea last month. The South has to listen to itself and transform before it can listen to the North and help the North to remove fear, anger, and suspicion.

Then when the United States has listened and understood its own suffering, Americans can turn to the Middle East and use the kind of language called gentle, loving speech. They can say, “Dear people over there, we know that you are very angry with us. If you weren’t so angry you wouldn’t have done such a thing to us. We know that you too have suffered a lot, otherwise you wouldn’t be so angry, you wouldn’t have done such a thing to us. We suffer very much. We don’t know why you have done this to us. Have we said or done anything that gives you the impression that the United States has been trying to destroy you as a religion, as a civilization, as a way of life? We may have said or done something that has given you that impression. But in fact, we don’t have the intention of destroying you as a religion, as a civilization, as a way of life. Dear people over there, please help us and tell us what wrong we have done to make you suffer that much.”

That is the kind of language that in Buddhism we call loving speech, gentle speech. It’s not an expression of anger, fear, or suspicion; it’s an effort to try to understand. If you can speak with that language, and if you’re sincere, then they will tell you what wrong you have done to them. Then you have a chance to find out the roots of their wrong perceptions, and you will have a chance to offer them real information so they can make use of it to correct their perceptions. If they can reduce their suspicion and remove their wrong perceptions, then they can also remove their fear and their anger. The practice offered by the Buddha, of deep listening and gentle speech, aims at restoring communication and bringing about reconciliation and peace. It can be applied not only to couples and individuals, but also to nations and ethnic groups.

“Tell Me What Is in Your Heart”

Suppose a father is having a lot of difficulties with his son. Son has made father suffer a lot, and at the same time father has made son suffer a lot. The son doesn’t dare to go close to his father because he’s afraid he’ll have to suffer again. And the father doesn’t understand that kind of fear. He thinks that his son is trying to defy him or boycott him. So suspicion and wrong perceptions continue to build up every day.

If the son can see the suffering in his father—the existence of anger, fear, and suspicion—he may like to help his father. He knows that his father has suffered a lot because he doesn’t know how to handle the amount of anger, fear, and suspicion he has in himself. If the son has had a chance to listen to the Dharma and to practice and understand his own fear, anger, and suspicion, then he’s in a position to help his father. When he’s able to see the amount of suffering in his father, his way of looking at his father will not be the same. He no longer has anger when he sees his father; in fact, because he can see the suffering in his father, he’s motivated by a desire to say something or do something to help his father suffer less.

Since he has compassion in his heart, he can say something like, “Daddy, I know you have suffered so much in the last many years. I haven’t been able to help you to suffer less. In fact, I have reacted with anger and stubbornness and made you suffer more. Father, it’s not my intention to make you suffer. It’s just because I haven’t been able to see or understand the suffering in you. Please tell me what is in your heart, your difficulties, your suffering, your fear, your anger, so that I’ll be able to understand. I believe that if I can understand your suffering, I’ll be more skillful, I won’t say or do things to make you suffer like I have in the past. Father, I need you to help me because if you won’t help me, no one can help me.” That is the way we can begin to try to restore communication. The South can begin talking to the North like that; Israelis can begin to talk to Palestinians like that. The one who initiates should be the one who has tried to understand his or her own suffering.

In our retreats of mindfulness, the teaching of deep compassionate listening and loving speech is always offered to participants. In the first three days, practitioners are encouraged to go back to recognize and embrace the pain and suffering within themselves. By doing so, they’re able to calm down their feelings and emotions and come to understand the roots of their strong emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, and so on. When you can recognize and understood the suffering in you, it’s much easier for you to recognize and understand the suffering in the other person. That person may be your husband, your wife, your father, your mother, your daughter, or your son. On the fifth day of the retreat, during the Dharma talk, we always advise practitioners to put into practice the teaching of compassionate listening and loving speech to restore communication with the other person and reconcile with him or her. The miracle of reconciliation always takes place in our retreats.

On the morning of the fifth day, we say, “Ladies and gentlemen, you have until midnight tonight in order to do this.” If the other person isn’t in the retreat, then you’re authorized to use your portable telephone. The miracle happens everywhere—Thailand, Japan, Macao, Hong Kong, New York, Los Angeles, and so on.

I remember very well a retreat that took place about ten years ago in Oldenburg in the north of Germany. On the morning of the sixth day, four gentlemen came to me and reported that the night before they had used their telephones and were able to reconcile with their fathers. One gentleman told me, “Dear Thay, I didn’t believe I could talk to my father with that kind of language. I was so angry with him that I had decided never to see him again in my life. Yet last night when I called him up, I was very surprised to find that I could talk to my father that way.” He had said something like, “Father, I know you have suffered so much during the last five or six years. I wasn’t able to help you to suffer less. In fact, I have reacted in a way that made you suffer much more. Father, it was never my intention to make you suffer. It was because I didn’t see and understand your suffering. Father, you should help me and tell me about your suffering. Help me to understand your suffering so that I won’t be foolish and react the way I have in the past. I’m so sorry.”

mb64-DharmaTalk6

Then he said to me, “Dear Thay, when my father heard me say that, he began to cry. Then I had a chance to listen to him in the way you recommended. We have already reconciled, and the first thing I’m going to do after the retreat is to go and visit him.”

The process of the practice is simple. You have to understand your own suffering first. After that, you’ll be able to understand the suffering of the other person much more easily. Recognizing the suffering in him or in her, you are no longer angry at that person. And then you can very well use the kind of language that can help restore communication and make reconciliation possible.

Mindfulness of Compassion

We learned a lot in Plum Village when we sponsored groups of Palestinians and Israelis to come and practice with us. The day they arrived in Plum Village, they couldn’t look at each other. Both groups had a lot of suspicion, anger, and fear, because both groups had suffered so much. So for the first five days, the recommended practice was the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking to get in touch with their suffering and to try to calm their feelings down. Many of us who aren’t from the Middle East walked with them, sat with them, breathed with them, ate with them, and supported them in their practice of getting in touch with the wonders of life, to heal, to nourish, and to embrace the painful feelings and emotions inside.

When you’re a beginner in the practice, the energy of mindfulness that you generate isn’t powerful enough to embrace the huge amount of fear, anger, and suspicion inside you. You need the collective energy of mindfulness generated by the Sangha to be strong enough to recognize and hold the energy of fear, anger, and suspicion.

About ten days into the retreat we initiated them into the practice of listening with compassion and using loving speech. One group speaks and one group just listens. The group that practices compassionate listening is instructed to listen with only one purpose in mind—to help the other group to suffer less. That is the practice of compassionate listening. You give them a chance to speak out and suffer less. You play the role of the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening. Even if the other person says something wrong or provocative, you still continue to listen with compassion.

You’re able to do that because you’re practicing mindfulness of compassion. To practice mindfulness of compassion means that during the whole time of listening, you practice mindful breathing and remind yourself of only one thing: “I am listening to him with just one purpose, to help to give him a chance to empty his heart and suffer less. I may be the first person who listened to him like this. If I interrupt him and correct him, I’ll transform the session into a debate and I’ll fail in my practice. Even if there’s a lot of wrong information in what he says, I’m not going to interrupt and correct him. In three or four days I may offer him some real information to help him to correct his perception, but not now.”

If you can maintain that alive in your heart during the time of listening, then you are protected by the energy of compassion, and what the other person says won’t be able to touch off the energy of irritation and anger in you anymore. In that way you can listen for one hour or more. And your practice of listening will have a quality that can help the other person suffer less.

In fact, when one group listens to the other group like that, we recognize for the first time that the children and adults on the other side have suffered exactly the same kind of suffering that we have on this side. Before, we had thought that the other side didn’t suffer, that they just make our side suffer. But by listening like that, we now know that on the other side they are human beings just like us and they have suffered exactly the same way as we have. When you’ve seen that, you won’t look at them with suspicion, anger, and fear anymore, and you easily can use the kind of language we call loving speech.

We advise the group that has a chance to speak out, to use the kind of language that can help the other side to get all the information they need. The other group has a lot of suspicion and this suspicion has given rise to a lot of anger and fear. So the purpose of your speaking is to give them as much information as possible to help them to correct their perceptions of you. You should refrain from expressing your bitterness and anger; you should refrain from blaming and accusing.

During these sessions, many dozens of us who were not Palestinian or Israeli would sit there and lend our support and offer them our energy of mindfulness. We could see the transformation and healing going on in these sessions. Both groups now were able to look at each other with understanding and compassion, and they could sit down and share a meal together and hold hands while doing walking meditation together. It’s very beautiful. On the last day of the retreat they would always come up as one group and report to the whole Sangha about the progress they had made during the last many weeks. And they always promised that when they returned to the Middle East, they would set up a Sangha and organize the same kind of practice so that other people could come and practice and suffer less.

I think if political leaders knew the practice, they would be able to help both sides of the conflict to remove the suspicion, wrong perception, fear, and anger so that peace could truly be possible. The situation in the Middle East has been dragging on for so many years. And the same can be said about the situation of North and South Korea. But we know from our own experience in our retreats that five days are enough for you to transform yourself and transform the other person in order to bring about reconciliation.

Dear friends, this practice is found in the Fourth Mindfulness Training. The practice of the Fourth Mindfulness Training is recommended by the Buddha for us to be able to restore communication and reconcile with the other person. Let us go a little bit deeper into the study and the practice of this teaching. This practice not only is able to help reconcile two people in a relationship but also can reconcile ethnic groups and nations.

Edited by Barbara Casey, Sister Pine, and Sister Annabel (True Virtue)

PDF of this article

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

Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha,

One thing that amazes me about human beings is our limitless capacity to be creative in how we transform our suffering. We all suffer; we all live with craving, aversion, and delusion. Yet suffering takes unique forms within each of us. And remarkably, if we rise to the challenge, we are able to respond uniquely and creatively—to find our own personal means of making the compost that turns into flowers. There are wonderful tools that all of us can use, like mindful breathing and mindful walking, and yet the ways we apply these tools and invent new ones are as varied as our fingerprints.

The Mindfulness Bell is a place for recording these unique prints— for sharing how we have changed hardship into something nourishing or beautiful. Each story is new, never lived before. Yet all the stories shine a light. “Look,” they all say, “I found a way to use my trouble to learn love. If I did it, you can too.”

This issue shares potent examples of how people have creatively transformed their suffering. Our Sangha friends tell how they have worked with Lyme disease, schizophrenia, abuse, the trauma of war, and their own anger. They tell us the steps they took and the practices they applied, and show us how they realized understanding and compassion, how they flowered beautifully out of dire circumstances.

This issue also offers wonderful essays about the continuation of Buddhism in the young generation, as well as of travel and cross-cultural exchange. It is clear that our internal and external journeys are interwoven, and that, in transforming our inner world, we can bring beauty and joy to the world around us.

Our teacher’s Dharma talk, “To Make Reconciliation Possible,” is a powerful framework for these stories. Thay gives us keys for working with the suffering caused by difficult relationships between individuals, ethnic groups, and nations. He tells us it is essential to reduce the fear, anger, and suspicion underlying conflict and violence. He encourages us, once we’ve understood our own suffering, to say to our loved ones, “Please tell me what is in your heart, your difficulties, your suffering, your fear, your anger, so that I’ll be able to understand.” He counsels us to listen so deeply that “even if the other person says something wrong or provocative, you still continue to listen with compassion.”

Have you ever practiced this kind of deep listening? What have you learned? Have you found creative ways to turn your life’s rare blend of compost scraps into flowers of inner peace, of compassion? How did you do it? Please consider sending your story, your unique bouquet of insight, to the Mindfulness Bell. Or send your thoughts and feelings about the stories you read in these pages. We love to hear from you.
May these offerings be nourishing and healing for you and the entire Sangha body.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

PDF of this article

Letters

Dear Editor,

Thank you for publishing Joanne Friday’s interview in your Winter/Spring 2013 issue. I especially appreciated Friday’s comment on suffering: “There is nothing quite like it to help us to wake up.” This reminded me of Thay’s quote from Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: “We see the nature of suffering and the way out. That is why the Buddha called suffering a holy truth.”

These observations, in turn, gave rise to the following gatha:
Breathing in, I know suffering as suffering.
Breathing out: Yes.
Breathing in, I know suffering as a path. Yes.
Breathing in, I know suffering as a gift. Yes.
Breathing in, I know this gift as compassion. Yes.
Jim Egger
Wisconsin

mb60-Letters

Dear Editor,

Thank you for the articles about True Freedom, our prison Dharma-sharing project. When I was ready to commit to one day a month, I contacted the coordinator for the project (peterkuhnxx@ gmail.com) to fi out more about it and do some suggested reading while I was on the waiting list for a pen pal. Time passed. Then, over the phone, Pete read me a letter from one of two new applicants. As I listened, I heard my heart softening. Pete heard it too. A couple days later, I began correspondence with my new pen pal.

What do you say to a person, fresh from a suicide attempt for which he’s now in the SHU? That’s Secure Housing Unit, solitary confinement, The Hole.* Cut off from everything and everyone. A man sincerely seeking healing and transformation, in the Plum Village Tradition. Becoming keenly aware of the Buddha within himself. Realizing the Mind of Love.

And what an enriching experience to communicate with this person. For both of us. It certainly calls upon the cornerstone of Dharma sharing, namely, the fourth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Calls me to be sincere and honest with myself, to be so for others. Calls upon my understanding that we are not different in our capacity for pain and suffering, joy and peace. In a word, calls me by my true name.

This is a powerful Dharma door for those wishing to engage a long-term, solid practice, while nourishing those in great need of support and Sangha.

Be free where you are.
Gary

*In California prisons, a hunger strike occurred from July 8 through September 4, protesting inhumane conditions of long-term solitary confinement.

Editors’ note: If interested in requesting a pen pal, inmates practicing in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh may contact True Freedom at 2499 Melru Lane, Escondido, CA 92026.

PDF of this article

Scorpion Nature

By Sister Dang Nghiem 

mb64-Scorpion1

There is a story about a scorpion and a frog. One day, the scorpion needs to cross a pond. So the scorpion tells the frog, “Frog, my friend, would you please take me across the pond?” The frog replies, “Well, I want to be helpful to you, but what if you sting me midway? I will die.” The scorpion says, “Why would I do that? If I sting you, you’ll die and I’ll die too.” The frog feels reassured, so it says, “Okay, that is reasonable. I do not mind carrying you across the pond. You can jump up.” The scorpion jumps on the back of the frog, and the frog gets into the water and begins to swim. Everything is going well until, halfway across the pond, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog is in deep pain, and as it is drowning, it cries out to the scorpion, “Why did you sting me? Now I’ll die, and you are going to die, too.” The scorpion replies, “I know that, but I cannot help myself. It is my scorpion nature.”

When the scorpion stings the frog, it knows that it is going to harm itself and the frog, and yet it still does it; that is the scorpion nature. Do we have scorpion nature? What is our scorpion nature? Certain things we do and say, certain thoughts we have—we know that they are not going to help anybody, including ourselves, and yet we still do them. Why is that? It is because we cannot help it; we simply cannot resist it.

One time, Thay said to me, “It is not an issue whether you like it or not.” I did not understand what he meant, but I did not like what he said. However, out of total respect and confidence in my teacher, I received his teaching and kept it in my mind. After a few years, suddenly it came to me: when we like something or we do not like something, that is our habit energy, and it is already ingrained in us. “I like this color. I hate that color.” “I want this iPad.” “I want to sleep in, and I don’t want to wake up early in the morning to go to sitting meditation.” “I need another degree.” “I need another outfit.” There are things that we like and things that we do not like. There are things that we want and things that we do not want. These likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs are clearly defined in our minds. We can understand this as our scorpion nature, driving us to think, speak, and behave reflexively.

Our deeply ingrained instinct is to survive and to avoid death. The sense of “me” and “mine” is essential to the survival of the “I”—which is reflected in our likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. Our tendencies and habit energies have their roots in our animal ancestors, their aggression, and their primal fight-flight-freeze response. Through evolution, humans have also developed the capacity for self-awareness and inhibition. Unfortunately, many of us resort to our primal instincts more often than to our highly developed capacities, and we easily identify ourselves with our habit energies. For example, you can claim righteously, “That is the way I am! I can say whatever I want to say, and I can do whatever I want to do!” I used to say these things to my beloved friends. I said those things out of frustration, sadness, and restlessness, and still I justified them.

If we keep doing that, with time, people put up a wall to protect themselves against us. They are not open to be there for us and to listen to us anymore, and so we become more frustrated, our speech becomes harsher, and the vicious cycle continues. Before we know it, we are far apart as parents and children, as friends, as brothers and sisters. We are like separate cosmos because we think, “I am like that. This is how I am, and this is my nature. You are like that. This is how you are, and this is your nature.” If you look deeply, you will realize that this is the scorpion nature because it bites us and it bites our loved ones, severing us and killing us slowly.

In medical school, when I rotated through the hospital ward with patients with Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and other chronic intestinal problems, I was told that they could be the most irritable and needy patients. Now I can understand this phenomenon from an insider’s perspective. Chronic physical pain can cause a person to feel uncomfortable, restless, irritable, and reactive. When you are sick for a long time, your family members and friends become used to your illness, so they may not pay as much attention to you. It is easy to feel lonely, deserted, depressed, and needy as a result. If people say something insensitive or unskillful, you may replay their words a thousand times, harboring feelings of unworthiness, disappointment, resentment, and even hatred. All of these emotions are harsh and powerful, and they can cause your speech and bodily actions to be unpleasant and difficult for others to tolerate. Therefore, others avoid you, and your negative feelings are confirmed and strengthened, creating a vicious cycle. These fleeting feelings, if fed day after day, can become our attitudes and then our personality.

mb64-Scorpion2

From my own illness, I have learned to pay close attention to my likes and dislikes, wants and not-wants, needs and not-needs. For example, monastic brothers and sisters are preparing to go hiking. Usually I would not miss a chance to go hiking, but when my energy level is low, the thought of walking under the sun for a long distance feels repugnant, and the mind translates this feeling with conviction: “I don’t want to go hiking.” It even goes so far as to say, “I don’t like hiking anymore.” Aware of this thought, I breathe and smile, returning my mind to right view: “It is not that I don’t want to go hiking or that I don’t like hiking. I simply do not have enough energy to do that right now. Perhaps I will have enough energy to do it tomorrow or some other time.” When you are not well, you find yourself not wanting to do many things and not liking many people. It is important to recognize the reason behind your likes and dislikes and not to identify yourself with these feelings, which can mold you into a certain personality.

Transforming Scorpion Nature 

Mindfulness will help us to recognize our Buddha nature as well as our scorpion nature as they are. For example, you can have a beautiful flowerbed, but if a lot of tall grass grows, you will not be able to see the flowers. Once you are able to identify the grass and weed it, the flowers can reveal themselves more clearly. Earlier today, I was doing walking meditation with the Sangha. The heat was scorching, my headache felt worse, and I began to hear myself wishing that I were in a cool room. Then I touched the cone hat that I was wearing, and I felt grateful for it. I had a pair of sunglasses on, too. Otherwise, the sunlight would have been too bright for my eyes and worsened my headache, and so I was grateful for my pair of sunglasses. Then I heard the breeze moving through the trees, so I stood waiting for it to come and felt it brushing my cheeks with its coolness. In just a few seconds, my awareness and my gratitude cooled down the heat that was inside of me.

mb64-Scorpion3

Walking meditation is one of the practices that can help us to transform our scorpion nature. The scorching heat is there, but there are also conditions that we can be grateful for, like the cone hat, the pair of sunglasses, the occasional breeze, and the presence of the community. Mindfulness helps us to take care of our scorpion nature, which is complaining, “Gosh, it’s so hot! Why do we have to walk in the heat like this? I must be crazy. I want to be inside doing something better. Why do I have to be out here?” One of the characteristics of the scorpion nature is that it complains. Aware of our steps and breaths—one step at a time and one breath at a time—our mind becomes more focused, the inner chattering quiets down, and we become aware that many conditions of happiness are supporting us. Mindfulness helps us to recognize the negativity in our internal dialogue, be present for it, and quiet it down.

If we do not recognize the negativity as it is, then it goes on and on in our mind without our awareness. Suddenly, we can explode and yell at somebody, because the undercurrent has built up enough momentum to surface as a powerful wave. Therefore, it is important simply to recognize something as it is. We can say to ourselves: “Breathing in, I am aware that this experience is unpleasant. Breathing out, I am here to relax the tension in it.” Or: “Breathing in, I am aware that there is something unpleasant arising in me. Breathing out, I am here for you.” This practice of simple recognition helps us to face a situation or person with more stability and equanimity.

The cultivation of gratitude is essential to the transformation of our suffering. If a person is blind, what she wants the most is to be able to see. If a person is having an asthma attack, what he wants the most at that moment is to be able to breathe in and breathe out normally. If you are having chest pain or a heart attack, what you want the most is for the pain to go away and for the heart to function normally again. What conditions are we in right now? Can our eyes see? Can our lungs breathe normally? Can our heart function normally? Yet, we may not recognize or acknowledge them, and so we are not grateful for them. Instead, the scorpion nature will say, “I wish I could be here or I could be there. I wish I could have this or have that.” The wanting never stops, driving us to be restless and dissatisfied, which is the source of our suffering. We want things other than what we already have, but in the most critical moments, what we truly wish is for things to be normal again. Our practice is to recognize daily the positive conditions in our lives and to be grateful for them, so we don’t wait until they are gone and then yearn for them.

There is a practice called “tri tuc,” meaning you know that you have enough. “Tri” means “to know, to master, to remember,” and “tuc” means “enough.” Interestingly, this character “tuc” also means “feet.” You remember that you have enough and you master what you have. It also means you remember that you have feet, and you master your feet! In your daily life, do you have awareness that you have feet? When you walk across the parking lot or around your office, do you have mastery of your steps?

To know that we have feet—that is enough to make us happy. Therefore, our feet symbolize all the conditions of happiness that are available to us right here and right now. Without mindfulness, we take what we have for granted, and we feel forever impoverished. We can even take the mindfulness practice for granted; as a result, we are actually less fortunate than those who are sincerely seeking a spiritual path. With awareness of our steps, of our bodily movements, of the in-breaths and out-breaths, we train to dwell stably and gratefully in the present moment. This is also a concrete way to check whether we are practicing correctly and authentically or not.

mb64-Scorpion4

Learning to Be Grateful to Our Illness 

A teenager in a retreat shared, “I have asthma, and I hate it! I just hate asthma!” He said it with all of his conviction. Should we hate our illness? Hating our illness is our usual response. However, we can learn to be grateful to our illness. When I was in medical school, I was strong and athletic. From my school on 3rd Street, I could run through Golden Gate Park all the way to the ocean, which was near 57th Street. Then I swam in the ocean even though the water was perpetually cold. After that, I jogged back to my school. It was something fun and effortless to do. Then, I developed low blood pressure in my late thirties and contracted Lyme disease in my early forties. Right now, I cannot run as I used to. I even feel out of breath walking from the dining hall to my room at times. Yet, instead of feeling distraught about what I have lost, I am learning to be more grateful for what I still have. I am also more grateful for the moments when I am well.

mb64-Scorpion5

When you have limitations or discomfort in your body, you can practice sitting still and coming back to your breathing, or you can lie down and put your hand on your abdomen and say, “I am here for you. It is okay.” You learn to recognize the fragility of your body, feeling deeper love and appreciation for your body because against all chances, your body is often healthy and forgiving. Even if you stay up until one in the morning or even if you drink and smoke, your body still tries to heal itself. It will heal itself repeatedly so that you can wake up the next morning and function normally. It continues like that year after year, until one day it is not able to recover so well. You start to cough and feel tired walking up a hill because of the damage that has been done to your body. At every stage, we can recognize what is going on and what we still have. We can say “I am here” for the losses as well as for the gains of life.

Often I say “I am sorry” to myself. I did not know to say “I am sorry” to myself before. I just expected things to be a certain way, and when it was not like that, I felt frustrated, angry, or despairing. As a monastic practitioner, I have learned to be grateful and to be sorry for my own unskillfulness. It is a sign of true love when you can say “I am sorry” to your own body. You learn not to show off your body because it is beautiful, because it has nice clothes on, or because it is attached to a nice looking car or a cool phone. You learn to love your body because you realize that it is the best friend that you can ever have, and that it is the most forgiving partner that you can ever find. This is “tri tuc:” to know, to remember, and to master what you already have.

If you have a bell, you can invite one sound of the bell while you sit beautifully, with your back upright and relaxed. As you listen to the sound of the bell, scan through your body slowly and say to yourself:

Breathing in, I am aware of my head.
Breathing out, I relax my head.
Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, thank you, eyes. You are still in good condition. Thank you for allowing me to see the beautiful nature and the lovely faces around me.

Take time to scan each part of your body: the ears, the nose, the mouth, the hands, feet, the lungs, the heart, and all the other organs. They are always there for you, taking good care of you and forgiving your unskillful thoughts and deeds.

This Too Shall Pass 

When we experience something pleasant, we want more of it. When we eat an ice cream cone and it tastes good, we eat quickly while thinking about the next one. When we have a lot of fun, we wish it would last forever. However, in our practice we also learn to recognize that “this too shall pass.” This practice helps me to cherish deeply what I have in the moment and, at the same time, to release it from my grasping. Even when I am very happy being in the presence of a particular person—we can truly connect and understand each other—something in me whispers, “This too shall pass.” It is bittersweet, because you remember that everything is impermanent; it comes and it will go. Every so often I look at myself in a mirror and say, “My youth is passing by me right now.” It was yesterday that I was a child singing to myself on the street, and today I am already confronting early premenopausal symptoms.

When we listen to the sound of a bell, we simply stop to follow our breathing and we let go of our speaking, moving around, or doing things. Even if a thought or a feeling arises, we smile and release it with our out-breath. When impermanence becomes a concentration in our daily life, our capacity to let go deepens. Slowly and steadily, we train ourselves to be aware of the arising and the disappearance of the in-breaths, out-breaths, thoughts, and feelings, as well as all other phenomena. Even the most beautiful things we have to let go.

The awareness that “this too shall pass” helps you to be there, thoroughly and wholeheartedly, in that moment. You do not take the person in front of you for granted and think, “Oh, I will see him again,” or “This situation is always like that.” Then when the person walks away, or when the situation is no longer there, you will not regret. We only regret because we don’t touch the moment deeply. When we touch something deeply, it is always there inside of us, and we have access to it to nourish us in times to come. Therefore, the concentration on impermanence and the understanding of “this too shall pass” helps us to enjoy the present stage of our life. We do not have to regret the past or feel afraid about the future. This is it, and we are free from worries, fears, and grasping.

mb64-Scorpion6Sister Dang Nghiem received her Doctor of Medicine degree from UC San Francisco School of Medicine. She’s been a monastic practitioner for thirteen years. Her deep joy is to be with teenagers and young adults. She is currently at Blue Cliff Monastery. This article was adapted from a Dharma talk she gave at Magnolia Grove Monastery in June of 2011.

PDF of this article

On the Fifth Mindfulness Training

Nourishment and Healing 

By Nguyen Khoa Duc (Tam Thuong Son) 

mb64-OnTheFifth1

Her words punctured the still air and rippled through what had been a very calm Dharma discussion. She said repeatedly to the Dharma group, “There is no way I can do that, no way, I am not ready…not now.” I turned to her, somewhat taken aback by the raw emotion in her voice. The middle-aged lady from Brooklyn who had been mostly silent throughout several Dharma discussions was now full of life and expressing herself in ways only New Yorkers can.

The focus of the Dharma sharing had been on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, as several of us were preparing to participate in the ceremony to be presided over by Thay the next morning. The sharing had been somewhat subdued and uneventful until the last training became the topic of discussion. The lady disclosed to the group that she enjoyed red wine, sometimes lots of it. It had been as much a staple of her diet as food itself. She felt that receiving the Fifth Mindfulness Training would present a conflict with her continuing this habit—one that she was not prepared to give up.

It was October 2009, my first-ever visit to Blue Cliff Monastery. My family had been eagerly awaiting the opportunity to participate in the retreat led by Thay. People had come from everywhere to this quiet town surrounded by picturesque rolling hills. I still vividly remember our short time together, the tranquility and the bonding. Moreover, I was looking forward to the Five Mindfulness Trainings ceremony. Now this lady’s candor made me pause and reflect upon my own situation. I began to mull over what the Fifth Mindfulness Training meant to me; I found myself no longer present in the circle of my Sangha brothers and sisters. My mind started to drift away…to another time and to another place.

Foundation of Suffering 

Those of us who grew up in Vietnam during and immediately after the Vietnam War remember that millions of families had to struggle to cope with the physical and emotional hardships of the aftermath. Families were broken apart. Freedom was taken away. Fathers, husbands, brothers, and other loved ones were separated; those left behind did their best to carry on under a dark cloud of doubts, uncertainty, fear, and suppression.

Our family was no different. My father, just like hundreds of thousands of other men and women who were part of the South Vietnamese government, was sent to a concentration camp. I was nine at the time and had no idea why I suddenly had become fatherless. My mother found herself in the unfamiliar role of providing and caring for her four children while trying to keep track of my father’s well-being from afar. I missed him very much. I saw him once, one year after his imprisonment, and not again until our family was reunited here in Virginia in the early 1990s, fifteen years later. I remember many moments when I was alone, crying from missing him. I couldn’t understand why we were apart. Worse, I didn’t know if I’d see him again.

As the years passed, my friends who were in similar situations began to see their family members; one by one they trickled home. Our family was hopeful but was repeatedly devastated as the sparse news of my father seemed to indicate that he was actually being transferred farther and farther from home. My mother did her best to be the father figure to the four of us. She encouraged us to stay active with school and community events so we wouldn’t feel like outsiders, and continued to instill Buddhism in whatever form practicable amidst her own challenges. I sensed that she was overwhelmed with the many responsibilities that fell on her shoulders. Her health suffered from the great burden placed upon her.

In the late 1970s my mother began planning for me to leave Vietnam in search of a better future. I was in my early teens and keenly aware of her intent, but felt the sadness deepen inside me as I was about to be separated from another parent. I prayed that my attempts to flee Vietnam would fail, just so I could see her again. Then I’d regret the prayers when I saw the pain and disappointment on her face after each attempt failed. I finally made it out of Vietnam in 1980.

These experiences became the foundation of my teenage years and adulthood. The trauma and sorrows that peppered my childhood hardened me. I developed a fear of intimacy and trust, feeling that their fragile nature inevitably would create disappointment and sorrow. I began to feel detached from relationships. I yearned for love and envisioned my happiness in the presence of a companion, but I turned away when relationships became real. I feared that the emotional investment would let me down and hurt me, as it did when I lost my family during my earlier years. I struggled to sustain relationships; my insecurity, and as a result, erratic behavior, fractured relationships and ultimately drove those close to me away. I sought loneliness, reasoning that it was a safe haven free from suffering.

To substitute for substantive, meaningful feelings, I developed an insatiable appetite to consume information from the Internet, newspapers, books, magazines, and other sources. I became an avid sports fan; burying myself in somebody else’s world, real or fictional, provided me with with an outlet of comfort. My self-worth was no longer based on my internal being, but rather was dependent on artificial perceptions of the outside world.

mb64-OnTheFifth2

Without solidity, I felt a lack of purpose in my life and it was easy for me to develop negative habits as I grew older. I drank several cups of coffee a day to keep me alert; I also consumed large amounts of soda after exercising, which provided momentary relief from stress. I also became a workaholic, a habit I continue to try to transform today. These practices became the food I needed to survive emotionally, and I needed to continue consuming them in order to survive. I simply didn’t realize that I was sustaining myself on the wrong nutrients. I found my source of happiness everywhere but within.

Wake Up Bell 

In spite of the constant struggles with relationships, in my early twenties I met a wonderful lady whose enormous tolerance and boundless compassion has led me in a healing process. Twenty-one years later, she continues to walk beside me along the path. I remember that right after we had our first child, I became so submerged in work that one day my wife sent a calendar invite to my Outlook email; she merely wanted to request an appointment with me so we could catch up with each other. That was the wake up bell that, unfortunately only much later, I realized I needed.

I came to mindfulness practice about five years ago, through Days of Mindfulness with the Thuyen Tu Sangha. I began to slow down and learned the importance of healing. I learned how it’s okay to face and take care of pain, as that is the only way to transform suffering. While I embraced the concept of mindfulness, I initially found many activities within the practice—such as mindful eating, walking meditation, and deep relaxation—awkward and counterintuitive. I realized a key component of the practice was the support of the Sangha that provides me the strength and energy to help me recognize, embrace, and take care of my negative energies.

Even today, I find it difficult to invite in the sadness, despair, and regrets of my inner child so that I can touch them. I still don’t feel completely safe with intimacy but have begun to recognize the seeds of suffering within me. I realize that I have not reached the end of my journey on the path to healing; in fact, I feel as if it has barely begun. I also realize that the journey may take more than this lifetime. But now I don’t worry about the future or expectations, for I am resting comfortably in the present and in the presence of my Sangha friends. I continue to move forward in their arms.

Recently I reduced my coffee consumption to one cup a day, and that hasn’t affected my alertness or how I function at work and at home. I no longer depend on a pain reliever to get me through my daily runs; in fact, I’ve discovered that my dependence on the pain reliever was all mental. I still find myself eating lunch with one hand on the computer mouse, feverishly clicking, or with both eyes fixed on my iPhone, but that has lessened as I’ve become more aware of this unwholesome habit energy. Most importantly, the practice of bringing my mind and my breath back into the present has helped me restore my consciousness and the clarity with which I now look at life. The transformation is slow and some days I feel like it does not progress at all; however, I have begun to find—however temporarily—peace and joy sprouting from these seeds. I become more present with my wife and children, and our collective energy has begun to permeate the relationships among us and deepen our appreciation of each other.

The sound of the bell from the monastic leading the discussion brought me back to the present and to the circle of Dharma brothers and sisters. The sharing was about to end, and as everyone was slowly walking away, I caught up to the lady from Brooklyn. I smiled, “Dear sister, I, too, have had the same struggle, for different reasons, and although I am not completely sure, I think that as long as you are mindful in your alcohol consumption, and continue to practice mindfulness with your local Sangha, you will be fine. Taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings doesn’t mean our lives are 100% reflective of them. Being aware of them is a start. I hope to see you tomorrow morning.” She smiled at me, as if she appreciated my advice. Little did she know that my reassurance was directed as much to myself as to her.

This article was also published in the Spring 2013 Newsletter of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (www.mpcf.org). 

mb64-OnTheFifth3Nguyen Khoa Duc is a member of the Boat of Compassion Sangha in the Washington, D.C., area. He began the practice in 2008. This article was his presentation of the Fifth Mindfulness Training on a Day of Mindfulness, which was led by the Blue Cliff Monastery monastics in Virginia in March of 2013. Duc has been married to Lanh Nguyen for twentyone years. They have two children, Joey (14) and Sydney (12), and live in Vienna, Virginia. 

PDF of this article

Schizophrenia and Mindfulness

By Jack Bragen 

mb64-Schizophrenia1I am a self-taught meditation practitioner and I also suffer from a disease called schizophrenia. The teachings of Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others have furnished me with the basic guidelines for my meditative effort.

The meditation techniques I use involve looking inward, seeing what is on the inside, and making changes. When the meditation stops working, I know it is time to “begin anew” and reset my thoughts—accomplished through deliberately thinking that I am resetting my thoughts.

When I go out on my porch, the pale overcast sky and the chill air make the loss of my father more dismal. He unexpectedly lost his body last spring. Yet the unbearable pain is made less through mental exercises, which include reinterpreting or accepting painful emotions, pinpointing thoughts that trigger painful emotions, and other methods. My grief is lessened also by my realization that my father didn’t really go away. My father’s imperfect example of being a good person made me who I am.

At fifteen, I spotted a book about meditation on his dresser, and I wanted to read it. At nineteen, I read The Miracle of Mindfulness, and it ultimately helped change the course of my life. At times, I have been an angrier person than I ought to be. Yet the example I read of Thay, taking a deep breath to halt an angry response, has stuck with me. And this helps me a lot in all of my relationships. Today when I dealt with a telephone salesman who would not stop talking, I remembered to have a kind response even while in the process of hanging up.

mb64-Schizophrenia2When people embark on the journey of intentional spiritual growth, they must begin at the level of development where they are at the time. If the aspirant has a psychiatric disability, the obstacles against achieving some amount of attainment are more formidable. It is relatively rare for the psychiatrically disabled to be able to meditate.

I discovered meditation and journaling following my first episode of psychosis in 1982. I believed that meditation would enable me to cure my psychiatric illness and would help me deal with life situations. Journaling was something I did because I needed it. I thought that, over time, I would combine the two.

As it turned out, meditation in the absence of medical treatment wasn’t enough to cure my psychiatric illness. However, from meditation practices I ultimately gained some things that are much more valuable than a cure for the illness. I gained the ability to cope with and get through the difficult situations that kept coming up for me. Admittedly, some of these situations happened due to my lack of foresight and poor judgment. Other difficult situations came up because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or because someone believed I could be an easy victim.

Some of my situations were frightening. For instance, when I was at my cleaning job one night, I found myself face to face with an armed robber. I had been meditating on the job. When I saw the man, my first instinct was to be nice and kind. I pointed toward his revolver and said, “That’s a gun, isn’t it?” I was in shock. I credit this response with saving my life. Of the two armed robbers, one of them had some amount of empathy for me and knew that I was very frightened. The lesson of kindness, taught by Thay and others, is one reason why I am here and alive today.

I began my intentional spiritual growth from a place of despair and tremendous suffering. While my meditation hasn’t cured my schizophrenia, it has reduced the severity of some aspects of this disease. For example, I have learned to be gentler and more cooperative during a psychotic episode.

Furthermore, my meditation practice has given me valuable insight into the nature of my psychiatric illness and into “the human condition.” Various compartments in my consciousness seem to open and close at various times. When I am ignorant, I am unaware of that fact. When more light gets into my thoughts, I sometimes get frustrated that I have spent a period of time “unconscious.” Thay’s lesson of living in the now has helped me: I have learned to deal with the discomfort of the moment and to not try to “immunize” myself in advance of a difficult time.

Because I habitually look within and analyze the inside, I am more able to distinguish between delusional thoughts, which are created by a brain malfunction, and ordinary thoughts that may or may not be accurate. The technique that I use to deal with delusions has evolved to become very similar to the technique I use to deal with emotional pain. Both involve questioning the output of my mind.

Meditation, along with utilizing the painful energy of hardship as fuel for the meditative fire, has made me feel differently about life. I now look at my experience of life, despite it being the only thing I am aware of, as being a small part of a bigger picture.

mb64-Schizophrenia3Jack Bragen’s first attempts at meditation date back thirty years to a time shortly after he became mentally ill. He lives with his wife Joanna and  writes a column for the Berkeley Daily Planet. His book, Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia: A Self-Help Manual, is available on Amazon. 

PDF of this article

Medication or Meditation?

Changing the Foundation of Being 

By Elenore Snow 

Like many psychotherapists, I have a trauma history that informed my career path. I lived the first twenty-seven years of my life with trauma so deep that I had a day self and a night self who did not know of each other’s existence. This kind of “dissociative identity disorder” happens when trauma begins very early, is long term, and is of a scale of horror beyond what most people can imagine.

When I discovered that there was more than one of “me,” I was crushed. I found that I was losing time and that the dissociated response to trauma had left me vulnerable to abuse. During time lapses, I was continuing to be abused by my father and his cohort as I had from my earliest years.

I was used to not sleeping because of nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, and hyperarousal. My well-intentioned therapist did not seem comfortable with these occurrences. I think it wore on her to sit with me twice a week in this terrible state of anxiety. So she recommended that I see a psychiatrist for sedatory medication to induce sleep.

Thus began a seven-year de-evolution of a life in which my interiority, with its pain and wisdom and aliveness, was eclipsed by medical complications, such as seizures at bedtime, as the trauma was suppressed and suppressed and suppressed. My doctor’s counsel was to increase the dosage so that the dose increased one hundred times. Desperate to stop the cycle of dissociation, and the ways that losing time threatened my safety, I pushed and pushed myself to follow the dose adjustments.

I experienced, in due course, loss of short-term memory and, as written up in two consecutive years of neuropsychological testing, a diagnosis of “moderate cognitive impairment, multiple domains.” My days were spent in isolation, recovering from my nights. I had a new medication to add to the list, the Alzheimer’s medication Namenda, which the doctor prescribed to try to stop the seemingly inexplicable dementia onset.

Finally a neurologist advised me to get off everything and see what might change. It was not easy, but I was able to start over––not just with the practicalities of rebuilding a life but with the basic tools of feeling and grieving and being in relationship with my trauma history.

My Heart Could Love 

During this time of transition and loss, I spent hours in the library. Somehow I found my way to the Buddhist section in the back of the stacks. Running my thumb across the spines of books, I found You Are Here by Thich Nhat Hanh.

At age fifteen, I had heard an audio Dharma talk in which Thich Nhat Hanh told a story of an American soldier in Vietnam who had made bomb sandwiches, which he left on the edge of a village to avenge the death of his dear friend. Hiding behind a rock to watch the act of vindication, the soldier watched as children poured out of the village, delighted with the sandwiches until they began to writhe with pain. Many years later, he was still tortured by the horror of what he’d done. When Thay taught him to work with the breath and to practice service-oriented action, he began to experience some healing.

mb64-Medication1

Twenty-five years later in You Are Here, I came across the story again. The seeds that had been planted so many years before were watered and began to flower. I was living the daily reality of early dementia diagnosis because my brain had been injured by a toxic intolerance to medication. Despite or perhaps partially because of my severely diminished cognitive ability, it dawned on me that my heart could love even if my high IQ and ability to think were lost to me. Acceptance became a very intimate experience. I could do this––I could open my heart. I brought home a six-CD audio set of Thay’s, and his teachings bathed my essence in a way that was alive and true and transformative.

As Thay’s student, I strived to be as still and as present off the cushion as on, to water seeds of compassion, and to dampen the kindling of fear and reactivity. I learned to have tenderness and care for the “other me,” who saw the world as a trapped wild animal might. Those were brave and difficult days as she learned to integrate into me and I learned to hold space for all the ways terror informed her.

Thay’s counsel to practice with a Sangha prompted me to come out of my long season of loneliness. I walked into a room full of people that I sweetly felt I remembered. My “first conversations” were awkward as I allowed the slowest part of me to emerge into the world. Self-compassion and meditation practice were to be my mainstay in learning to move forward.

Woven Together 

I also researched everything I could get my hands on about helping a traumatized brain become a compassionate one. Eight minutes a day of loving-kindness practice could rewire the brain to a new, gentler worldview. Fifteen minutes a day of mindfulness practice could strengthen the parts of the brain that were most alive in advanced Buddhist practitioners with over ten thousand hours of meditation practice, whose world lens was that of true compassion.

Rewiring my brain into integration was, and still is, a humbling challenge. Many days I felt like Sisyphus, pushing a rock uphill only to have it roll back down, over and over.

I wasn’t just learning how to organize my own grocery list. I was learning how to feel, how to relate, how to grieve, how to resume the trauma healing that had been suspended by taking the many medications in my early days of recovery. Resilience, I learned, was not just getting back up again after being knocked down––it was also about making choices toward serving collective transformation that arose from the personal wound itself.

Two years into the healing process, through the most miraculous turn of events, I integrated my prior Hollywood career as a producer with my love for neuroplasticity and spirituality. I started to make a movie on transformation that offers a road map for all of us. The movie, Becoming Snow, is a documentary in which I interweave my own story of trauma and transformation with interviews with the key figures whose insights specific to healing trauma were seminal in my finding my way out of the darkness. In having let it all go, I was given back all of who I was and something more––an aspect of interconnectedness to what is good and beautiful and true, flowing beyond me and through me.

mb64-Medication2

One person I interviewed was a traumatologist, Dr. Robert Scaer (author of The Body Bears the Burden and Eight Keys to Body-Brain Balance). Dr. Scaer discusses the fallacies of trying to treat trauma victims with painkillers: “Pain in chronic trauma victims is phantom pain. And so, it is not due to tissue damage; it is due to memory. And so you are treating memory with a painkiller and that makes no sense whatsoever. You’re not treating the physical disability; you are treating the memory and further corrupting the memory. Medication will produce some analgesia, but it won’t effectively stop the pain and the emotional response to the pain, which is what keeps the kindling going.” He goes on to describe the thousands of patients he saw over twenty years, whose chronic pain was not helped by back surgeries and other intrusive treatments.

mb64-Medication3

Our most progressive researchers, such as founder of interpersonal neuorobiology Dr. Dan Siegel, have found that medications not only do not heal dissociation; they also suppress the integrative fibers in key places, such as between the right and left hemispheres (in the corpus callosum) and between the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain (reptilian/limbic and neocortex). A brain that is biochemically compartmentalized produces a consciousness cut off from itself.

Many of our war vets come home, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, and are only prescribed medications. Society’s failure to recognize their terror and trauma adds the wound of invalidation and expresses something terrible in our culture: the willingness to avoid and suppress suffering instead of healing the root by meeting it fully and compassionately.

Practicing discernment with the use of medication is crucial. In moderate doses, medication can help people stabilize enough to engage their own abilities to bring healing to their trauma. With bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, depression, and other illnesses, medication can save lives.

For me, overmedication obstructed my ability to learn healthy attachment and compassionate relationship with the unbearable traumatic events of my life. Thay’s teachings of turning up the thermostat of warmth in the cold of the pain itself, of holding our fear or anger like a baby, of staying with the breath, were simple and direct ways to transform the trauma in my consciousness. As I opened my heart to the part of me that bore the pain––with the greatest tenderness, quietest acceptance, and trust that love heals––I opened the possibility of transformation.

Sometimes we think that heavy trauma needs to be hit heavy to transform. It goes against mainstream thinking to meet such suffering with subtlety and softness. But water, with its gentle flow, is the universal solvent that carves the deepest canyons. So too, the flow of compassion can carve healing into the hard wiring of the deepest pain when healing is our heart’s true desire. When we can be in a depth of presence, mindfulness, and compassion to ourselves and to others, we are a great resource to us all.

Editors’ note: If you are taking medications and are considering changing dosage, please consult your doctor to minimize risk of harm.

Elenore Snow received her MSW from Smith College. She has a private practice specific to transformation, working both with rewiring the brain through neurofeedback and with a depth/intersubjective approach to healing the wounds of trauma in consciousness. She is a teacherin-training in the field of Applied Existential Psychology and co-author, with Dr. Betty Cannon, of The Spirit of Play. She is the creator/producer of the documentary Becoming Snow and its companion memoir, Letters to Tenzin.

PDF of this article

Beginning Anew at Two

By Lennis Lyon

mb64-Beginning1

“I kiss him to sleep,” I reply when my daughter-in-law asks me how I get my two-year-old grandson to take a nap. We read a story, I rub his back, I tell Mateus the names of people who love him, and then I say, “I will watch over you; I will keep you safe.” He is usually asleep by then. But if not, I plant tender kisses on his cheeks and forehead until he lolls to sleep.

With the birth of this grandchild, I saw an opening to heal my family and myself. I became a single parent when my son was a year old. My reaction to the trauma of a painful divorce was pervasive fear. I walked on eggshells of unspoken nightly terror and sought the urgency of distraction. I continually pursued social outlets and had difficulty focusing on my growing child. Now with the practice of mindfulness, I know that what children want is our presence, and what I want is to be there to truly enjoy Mateus. With gratitude to the Sangha, I know what being present feels like.

When Mateus comes to my house for the day, I get everything ready: the toys laid out, the diapers on hand, the lunch prepared, so that I can give him my full attention. During his visit I don’t wash dishes, clean the house, or wash clothes. I only answer the phone when it’s his parents calling.

I’m lucky because I have an ease of love for Mateus. At age two and a half, he has been coming to my house every Tuesday for more than two years. I haven’t shown anger; I haven’t raised my voice or used a less-than-friendly tone. So I am in shock when I have a sudden outburst of aggression toward him.

We are at my mom’s apartment. I am changing Mateus’ diaper as he lies on his back on my mom’s bed. Suddenly Mateus reaches up and bites me on my arm, something he has not done before. I instantaneously feel my hand slap him on the face. It is neither a gentle slap nor a strong one, but it must sting. Mateus dissolves in heaves of sobs. I understand that it is the change in our relationship, not the force of the slap, that hurts him so. I cradle him, repeating, “I’m so sorry, Mateus. I’m so sorry.”

When I bring Mateus home, I tell his mom, Tamara. She offers, “But he bit you.”

“Yes, but I did not want to slap him,” I reply. There is a softening, however, in my relationship with Tamara, as she tells me of the times she has felt frustrated as a mother and has regretted her actions.

At home that evening, I remember the teachings on Beginning Anew from Dharma teacher Lyn Fine. First, flower-watering: saying something true that is nourishing to the recipient. Second, expressing beneficial regret. Third, stating one’s intention to prevent similar actions. I write my letter. The next day I read it to Mateus:

“I like the powerful way you play the drums and sing to the music. I enjoy your drum concerts. I am very sorry that I hit you yesterday. I will practice taking good care of my anger so I will be gentle. I want you to be safe with Grandma. Please take good care of your anger. Please use your words when you are angry. I love you, dear grandson.” Mateus replies brightly, “Will you read it again?”

The next Tuesday when Mateus comes to my house, he asks, “Will you tell me when you are getting angry?” “Yes, I will.” When Mateus will not comply with some wish of mine, and I notice anger, I tell him, “I am beginning to get angry.” I expect him to do what I want. I try this several times until I have the insight: I am expecting a two-year-old to take care of my anger! I need to breathe in and out: “Hello, my anger. I see you are there.” I do my best to breathe and walk, or breathe and sit, until the feeling subsides.

It’s been three years since my outburst, and several times, Mateus has asked, “Remember when you hit me, Grandma?” “Yes, I remember,” I say. “I am taking good care of my anger.” I have kept Mateus safe. We have a meditation cave now, a raised closet in my bedroom with room for two cushions. Our paintings are on the closet walls. We have a bell. Either of us can go to the cave, and no one can bother us there. I do my best to notice my anger. I tell Mateus, “I need to go to the cave to calm myself.” I sit; I breathe for maybe ten breaths. When I return, Mateus sees a smile on my face.

Recently, as I was putting Mateus to bed during an overnight at my house, he told me, “Your whole body is in my heart.”

“I’m very happy to be in your heart,” I replied.

He continued, “And my whole body is in your heart.”

I can be present for Mateus because the Sangha is present for me and in me. Thay’s teachings show us the way. I cherish these gifts.

mb64-Beginning2Lennis Lyon, True Silent Forest, practices with Potluck Sangha in Oakland, California. She and Hac Nguyen recently started a Walking in Nature Family Sangha. She met Thay in 1995. 

PDF of this article

Conditions

By Hilary Bichovsky

mb64-Conditions1

Phenomena manifest when the necessary conditions are present. We humans are phenomena. With the removal of a single condition––oxygen, for instance––we cease to manifest as living, breathing beings. In his interview with Oprah in May 2012,* Thay reflected on the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., with the words: “The American people had produced King but were not capable of preserving him.” Sufficient conditions for his survival, which would have included the absence of an assassin, were not present.

Every single phenomenon––a birth, an assassination––is a flower of a thousand thousand conditions. These infinite fields of specific conditions, unique for each event, are too complex for our minds to hold. The Buddhist teaching on conditions has liberated me and I would like to share what I have learned. Thay’s teachings on conditions, and the steady presence of the Sangha I meditate with in Manchester, have helped me deepen these insights.

mb64-Conditions2

As a young woman I was sexually used, which is not so unusual. I was consumed unmindfully, with no more particularly malign intention from those who were consuming than it is malign to eat too quickly, with bad manners, lost in appetite.

Because this happened within my own family as well as outside it, the consequences for me lasted for years. In turn, I hid events, revealed them, attributed blame, took on the stance of a victim hoping for sympathy, withdrew in anger when that did not come, and in later years finally denied to myself that anything had happened.

But in fact the drive to attribute blame never really stopped in me. It churned on like background music, or like a train on a circular route always returning to the same stops. It was his fault. It was my fault. It was their fault. It came to me with my genes, with the Second World War, with the haphazard and bohemian sexual mores of the 60s. When people were not interested in my story or directly blamed me, I blamed them back. They were bad people interested only in defending their own status quo, they were selfish, and so on. At the lowest points, worn out with my failure to get a reaction, I blamed myself exclusively not only for everything that had happened but also for wanting some response. “If I hadn’t said, if I hadn’t done, if I hadn’t gone there, if I hadn’t wanted that.”

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that three decades of circling around on these blame tracks brought me little psychological relief. In fact I now wonder if much of my genuinely felt anguish over the years arose simply from a too crude and not-fitting-to-reality understanding of causality, a Newtonian one where X causes Y, no questions asked. This Newtonian view of causality infuses my society. Disaster? Who is to blame? Let’s have an enquiry so we can pin them down. There seems to be a belief that blame is of some intrinsic usefulness.

Events do have causes, of course. If I kick that ball, it will travel. But many other causes precede my kick, and limitless consequences follow it. A flower, a birth, an assassination, a mindless act of sex: these are not end points but nodes in an infinite web of interconnected happenings. There is no end of the line. When Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed in 1968, although it affected Thay so deeply that, in his own words, he did not eat or sleep for a while, he was determined to “go on building the beloved community.” Through this deep skillfulness he transformed his pain into a positive continuance, showing how even the deepest losses still leave us with a choice of how to go forward.

I remain free to wonder about my early life, but I have let go of striving to identify who the “really bad” people were in this story. This new openness ends a lifetime’s pointless efforts to sum it up once and for all. Deep peace comes from understanding that not knowing is not a weakness on my part, or a failure to shoulder the whole responsibility myself, but is in fact a true reflection of reality. The answer to my question, “Whose fault was that?” is: “No one’s and everyone’s.”

If you have any niggling concern about the way things have turned out for you, dwell deeply with this precious teaching of conditions, and let it dissolve any tightly structured stories of heroes and villains you may have constructed. Deep understanding of the nature of conditions brings a fall into the free space of no blame, an opportunity to really experience yourself as a flower manifesting in every breath, always new. The truth has a sonorous ring, like a bell, and is composed of endless ripples, like the waves of sound from a bell. Like these waves of sound, the expanding circles of influence which radiate out from every act themselves become conditions of the future.

*To see Oprah’s interview with Thich Nhat Hanh, visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxsUwFNBBvo

mb64-Conditions3Hilary Bichovsky practices with the Heart of Manchester Sangha in the United Kingdom. 

PDF of this article

Continuing the Path of the Buddha

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen 

mb64-Continuing1

The Plum Village Mindfulness Practice Center was established in 1982. Over the years, practice centers have been founded around the world in response to an increasing need from practitioners in many countries. These centers include Deer Park Monastery in California, Blue Cliff Monastery in New York, Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi, Entering the Stream Meditation Center in Australia, Plum Village International Meditation Center in Thailand, the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, and the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany. All practice meditation according to the Plum Village tradition.

Challenging Times 

In its infancy, Plum Village encountered many infrastructure difficulties. Most of the hamlets were purchased from farmers who raised cattle and sheep, and they lacked electricity and heating systems. Winter at Plum Village was extremely cold, and brothers and sisters had to bring their own blankets to cover themselves during sitting meditation. When Thay wrote his books, one hand held the pen while the other hand warmed over the fire. Water, equipment, utensils, and food were limited. As the number of practitioners at Plum Village increased, it became apparent the infrastructure needed to expand. When Lower Hamlet could not meet the requirements for operating a public center, it was closed down. This has also happened to Upper Hamlet and New Hamlet.

During these years, there were many times when Thay fell ill, and it was uncertain he would recover. Thanks to the support of the Buddha and patriarchs, Thay pulled through. In addition to the physical difficulties, the Sangha also experienced spiritual challenges. The 2009 tragedy at Prajna Monastery in Vietnam was a period of deep difficulty for Plum Village. So much suffering and fear poured on those young, innocent monks and nuns who no longer could take refuge in their own motherland and had to seek refuge across the globe. Fortunately, with the support of the Buddha and ancestors, brothers and sisters adhered to the practice of nonviolence and were able to overcome that painful time.

Plum Village Anniversary 

At the start of the 2011-2012 Winter Retreat, during a monastic day at the Hermitage, Thay and his students sat together around a glowing fire. Thay said, “Next year is the thirtieth anniversary of Plum Village and we will celebrate the whole year. We can organize in such a way that we celebrate in every retreat. If we practice to generate happiness in every day, we don’t need to celebrate in a grand and luxurious fashion in order to be happy. We only need to be happy with what we are doing in our daily life, right in this present moment. That is truly to celebrate.”

Following Thay’s suggestion, we organized six working groups to focus on celebrating this anniversary. The groups presented the history of Plum Village, set up an exhibition of Thay’s calligraphy, exhibited the Dharma tools Thay often uses while teaching, prepared an exhibition of Thay’s books, worked on Plum Village’s annual Vietnamese magazine, and organized performances. The hamlets were filled with enthusiastic and joyful discussions, which were enough to bring us happiness each day.

Over the next three months, we prepared to celebrate thirty years of Plum Village. The first exhibition took place at the end of March 2012, during the French retreat. We organized in a way that allowed everyone to fully participate in each Day of Mindfulness, as well as in two daily sessions of sitting meditation and chanting. Our free time was used to renovate, repair, and clean the hamlet. Nearly all the tasks were completed by the brothers and sisters on the organizing team. A few brothers and sisters volunteered to sing and play the guitar while we worked, adding an atmosphere of lightness and joy to our tasks. I prepared sweet soup for all the brothers to enjoy during break, and we would sit around the pot, enjoying the soup and stories that brought much laughter. One brother said, “People can earn a lot of money in their jobs, but do they have such light and happy moments like we are enjoying now?” At Plum Village, our salary is the happiness of lay friends who come to practice with us, and our nourishment is the brotherhood and sisterhood.

mb64-Continuing2

The thirty-year anniversary ceremony was celebrated twice during the Summer Opening. After a Dharma talk at Upper Hamlet, Thay lead the Sangha in walking meditation to Son Ha (Foot of the Mountain Temple), where we held the first ceremony. The path from Upper Hamlet to Son Ha passes through a valley of pine trees, which became more beautiful when decorated with pots of flowers to welcome Thay and the Sangha. Thay’s calligraphy—“I have arrived, I am home”—was displayed below the pots in eight different languages. One venerable from China said, “I really like the way brothers and sisters decorate. It is simple, but I can feel there is much love. It is very beautiful and Zen.”

On the grass lawn in front of Son Ha Temple, the Sangha enjoyed classical music performed by our Western brothers and sisters, as well as the lion dance performed by our Vietnamese brothers with the beat of the drums. After the lion dance and a few introductory words about Plum Village and the calligraphy exhibition, Thay was invited to cut the inauguration banner and lead the Sangha into the exhibition.

The second exhibition was organized at New Hamlet. The lion dance also welcomed the Sangha, and the sisters from both New Hamlet and Lower Hamlet gave a musical/dance performance. Everyone then enjoyed some anniversary cake, and Thay opened the exhibition on his Dharma tools and books.

In an opening speech for the calligraphy exhibition, we shared that it has taken us thirty years to come this far. Some people were very touched by this, because thirty years is a relatively long time for such humble development in terms of infrastructure. They could begin to understand how much simpler and more difficult life at Plum Village must have been years ago. Yet Plum Village does not aim to develop monumental buildings, but focuses on the practices so that it can benefit people all around the world.

mb64-Continuing3

The year 2012 marked thirty years of Plum Village, which is neither a short nor a long time. Confucius said, “By the age of thirty, one can be independent.” In other words, when he reached the age of thirty, he was able to stand on his own two feet. Looking back at our history, we dare not be so self-assured, as Plum Village is still very young. As children of the Buddha, we are aware that we should not just work and neglect our practice. We have to make full use of our time to develop our bodhicitta, so that we can grow and turn the Dharma wheel further. This is truly to repay the four debts of gratitude and grow up on our path of practice.

mb64-Continuing4

Integrating Buddhism into Daily Life 

To organize and lead retreats with the intention of integrating Buddhism into daily life is part of our service. Plum Village is open year-round to welcome retreatants from all over the world to practice. Each year, Plum Village offers three or four large retreats, with seven hundred to one thousand participants. Additionally, Thay and Plum Village Dharma teachers lead teaching tours in many countries. In odd-numbered years, Thay and the Plum Village delegation go on a three-month teaching tour in North America and/or Asia. In even-numbered years, Thay goes on a teaching tour in Europe. The Dharma teachers also lead retreats in the spring and autumn. Over the past thirty years, Plum Village has helped people around the world heal their wounds, transform their suffering, reconcile and re-establish communication with loved ones.

At a retreat in Rome, Italy, last autumn, a blind lady shared, “In the 1990s I discovered there was something wrong with my eyes and I could no longer see clearly. I was told that I would become blind within a few years. When I returned home and told my mother, she said it was a hereditary condition. I was very sad knowing I would be blind without a cure. Within the next few years, the state of my eyesight progressively worsened until I was considered blind. I suffered greatly with my condition, and wanted to return to a more spiritual life in order to learn how to live peacefully and harmoniously with this disability. In 1992, I was told that a Vietnamese Buddhist monk was visiting Rome to teach. I found my way to the teaching venue of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh. The first time I heard Thay’s voice I knew he would be my teacher. Thay’s voice is gentle, expressive, and full of compassion. I was so happy! At the retreat I learned how to practice mindfulness and was guided in living mindfully every moment. I learned to breathe and walk in mindfulness, learned ways to reduce tension in my body and calm my mind. Thanks to the practices of mindfulness, I was able to take care of myself in the basic things of my daily life. Even though I can no longer see Thay’s face, I recognize my teacher when I hear that gentle and compassionate voice. I am ever so grateful because he helped me to find myself in a period of life that was full of darkness.” Everyone was very moved by her sharing.

mb64-Continuing5

Transporting Buddhism into the Future 

Today, globalization has brought people more tension, pressure, worries, competition, and violence. In this world, people need a spiritual dimension to their lives more than ever. At Plum Village, we are always enthusiastic about creating fresh, joyful, and gentle methods of practice that will encourage young people to come and practice. Young people are open-minded and creative, with a high capacity to learn. They have strong life energy, a revolutionary spirit, and a huge “fire” of love and aspiration to serve (bodhicitta).

Thay and the Sangha always encourage and support the young monastic brothers and sisters to discover their talents and potential skills. These young monastics practice to transform themselves as well as to be role models and help lay friends to overcome their difficulties. Young monastics are the future and the continuation of the Buddha, of our teacher and spiritual ancestors. They transport Buddhism into the future. Thay has ordained more than eight hundred monastic disciples. Aside from these brothers and sisters, Plum Village also has “golden eggs,” commonly referred to at Plum Village as the “Fragrant Tea Tree” ordination family, with monastics from other Buddhist traditions or temples who have joined the Sangha. The number of monastics in this family has grown to one hundred brothers and sisters, and their presence has enriched Plum Village. Within our Sangha of nine hundred monastics practicing at Plum Village centers (in France and other countries), we have brothers and sisters of twenty-eight different nationalities.

In 2008, many young people attended the retreat in Italy. Aside from the retreat, we also organized a presentation and activities for about five hundred high school students near Rome. During Dharma discussion, we listened deeply to the young people as they shared the difficulties and blockages in their lives. Many felt lonely and alienated with no sense of life direction. Others carried deep wounds and suffering from their family and society. They didn’t believe in themselves and were unable to trust others around them. They were carried away by feelings and emotions, and consequently, their speech and actions were not wholesome.

Thay suggested we initiate a movement especially for young people. The Wake Up movement builds a healthy and compassionate society based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. It is a source of spiritual nourishment, a playing field especially for young people who seek to direct themselves towards a globalized spiritual ethic.

The Wake Up movement has become very popular, and each year Plum Village organizes several retreats specifically for this movement. Led by young Dharma teachers, these retreats take place around the world. At Trafalgar Square in London in 2012, nearly five thousand young people gathered to sit in meditation and listen to a Dharma talk given by Thay. This movement transcends all religious and national boundaries, inviting everyone to participate in activities that are refreshing, joyful, wholesome, and relevant to the youth of today. In many of the world’s major cities, Sanghas of young people participate in Wake Up activities. As a result, we have created a Wake Up website (www.wkup. org) where people can follow the latest news, practice together, share, and contact each other. The Wake Up movement not only encourages activities that are meaningful and create happiness, but also offers a wholesome context that connects young people from all over the world.

Plum Village has continued to develop methods for practicing mindfulness in ways that are most relevant and useful to modern people. Our Applied Ethics Program aims to integrate mindfulness practices into the education sector. Based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings, this program would be taught as part of the regular curriculum, with mindfulness being the method to put it into practice. Teachers of this subject must know how to practice mindfulness with happiness in order to be able to teach it to students. At Plum Village, we have a new program to train such teachers, and we have organized training programs for educators in many countries, including India, the U.S., Thailand, Bhutan, France, and Germany. At a retreat for American congressmen/women in Washington, D.C., in 2011, and at a lecture in the House of Lords in England in 2012, Thay addressed the issue of how to integrate the Applied Ethics Program into the education sector.

During the 2011 U.S. teaching tour, Thay and a number of brothers and sisters met with Jerry Brown, the governor of California. During that meeting, we addressed how to integrate the Applied Ethics program into California’s education system. Governor Brown welcomed the proposal, saying, “Currently, I manage two private schools, and we can try and apply this program in my two schools first.” During the U.S. tour, Thay also met with Senator Tim Ryan from Ohio and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley to discuss the program.

Monastic Life at Plum Village

Individuals with the aspiration to serve and to practice a monastic life of chastity may enter the five-year monastic program at Plum Village. After five years, these individuals may take monastic vows for the rest of their lives, or they can return to lay life and continue to practice as lay Dharma teachers. To join this program, individuals must be under thirty-five years old and have the aspiration to serve and to practice the life of a monastic. The program allows young people to serve in ways that are similar to serving in the army. Yet our true enemies are the “ghosts” of afflictions, like anger, hatred, violence, craving, jealousy, and discrimination. Young people learn the practices of mindfulness in order to recognize, embrace, and transform these ghosts. When we can embrace and transform these ghosts, we experience happiness and freedom. If we practice with good results, we can help our loved ones, society, country, and world become more peaceful and wholesome.

The “brown robe” family, our fourfold Sangha, is comprised of monastic brothers and sisters in brown robes, and laymen and laywomen in the Order of Interbeing. We are all active in teaching and in social aid/relief programs around the world. Created by Thay in 1966, the Order of Interbeing has grown from six to more than one thousand members who practice according to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. These disguised bodhisattvas go into the world to rescue beings. The Understanding and Love Program in Vietnam and India includes more than three hundred kindergartens, operated by these Order of Interbeing bodhisattvas who invest much of their time and energy in developing and serving. Without these bodhisattvas, we cannot give poor children a glass of milk and a meal for lunch.

The brown-robed bodhisattvas of the Order of Interbeing in countries like France, England, Holland, Italy, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Brazil, and Canada, all use skillful means to help Plum Village in its work to rescue all beings. Some translate Thay’s books; others help to print and publish his books or translate audio Dharma talks. Some compose music; others teach mindfulness in prisons; still others help to organize retreats. Additionally, some help with financial and administrative work, while others assist with fundraising or provide legal assistance. Each person is a precious jewel of the Sangha, and we are always grateful for each person’s dedication and presence.

Today there are many active Sanghas practicing according to the tradition of Plum Village, with most located in major cities around the world. Among the one thousand practicing Sanghas, eighty are in the UK, seventy are located in Germany, and more than five hundred are in the U.S. As the scope of our spiritual work is very expansive and not limited to France or Vietnam, we have always done the important work of a gardener (a monastic), to help people tend to the “garden of their heart” and to sow wholesome seeds. Through the rise of so many Sanghas, we see that those seeds have germinated and are now sprouting up everywhere.

The Continuation of Buddha

Over the past thirty years, the Plum Village Sangha boat has weathered many storms and challenges and has delivered many people to the shores of freedom, peace, and happiness. Thay is a solid captain, directing us in navigating the Sangha boat. His wisdom is like a great, ancient tree that continues to flower and produce fruits—an ancient tree in whom we can all take refuge.

We are very grateful to all those who have contributed to creating Plum Village, and to our predecessors who built and developed the Sangha. Stepping onto Upper Hamlet, we can see the shadows and the continuation of Brother Nguyen Hai in Brother Phap Huu, Brother Phap Trien, and many others. Arriving at Deer Park Monastery, we can see the continuation of Brother Giac Thanh in Brother Phap Dung, Brother Phap Hai, Brother Phap Ho, and many other brothers and sisters. When we think of the social relief program, we can also see the continuation of Brother Thanh Van and Sister Chan Khong through Ms. Xuan, Mr. Nghiem, Mr. Dinh, and many other people in the world.

As the younger generation, we are always indebted to our respected Thay, who has given his whole life for the benefit of all beings. Although advancing in age, he never ceases to renew the practices so that they remain relevant and appropriate to the times, especially for future generations seeking to take refuge.

Each of us is a cell in the Sangha body, a member of the Sangha boat. In a body, there are millions of cells. Each cell has its own function. Similarly, with the Sangha boat, we are the wooden planks, the nails, the boat captain. We are the boat. The planks have the function of keeping the water out of the boat, the nails keep the planks together, the captain navigates the boat to its destination, and the boat delivers people across the river. Thanks to the combination of these components working together, we have a solid boat to bring people to the other shore. In the same way, to continue the path of the Buddha is the duty and the collective expedition of the ancestors, of Thay and the Sangha, of all of us together. Each person gives a hand to the career of the Buddha, like one hand carries on from another hand.

Reviewing the past thirty years, we are ever so grateful for the support of the Buddha and ancestors. We are clearly aware that life is impermanent. Any doctrine, any country, any tradition will one day decline because waxing and waning is a never-ending process. But we vow to continue learning and practicing, to take more steps in freedom and solidity in order to offer another thirty years. Thay teaches us, “The first thirty years can go by slowly, but the next thirty years will pass very quickly.” Together, hand in hand with Thay, we can go as a river to climb the hill of the century. It is not a matter of time, be it thirty years or three hundred years, but we have to go in such a way that every minute can bring happiness, peace, and benefit for ourselves and for others. In doing so we can enjoy the inheritance and truly continue the career of the Buddha.

mb64-Continuing6Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the U.S. with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

PDF of this article

One Year as a Monk

By Brother Pham Hanh 

July 4, 2012—Independence Day, the day I became a monk—is now one year ago. What is a monk? Why become a monk? Is it the best way to live your life? Did this year really make a difference for me? Did I really transform?

I always have many questions. I remember the first question I wanted to ask Thay as a lay friend: How do you know if an answer you give to yourself comes from the reasoning mind or from deep wisdom? At that time, I thought Thay did not understand my question because, in response, he talked about which seeds you should help to grow and which seeds you should not water.

To Live My Aspiration 

I grew up in the Netherlands within a Jewish/Christian-based contemporary religious community. At age nineteen I’d finished high school and started working in the computer business full time while studying IT in the evening. Always very eager, hardworking, and looking for challenges, I made good progress. At age twenty-six, I was working for myself as an IT consultant and earned the money and got the fancy car I always thought I deserved for my efforts. But in 2009, after ending my second long-term relationship, I’d worked myself into a burnout and ended up in Plum Village, which drastically changed my life.

mb64-OneYear1In Plum Village, many of my questions were answered, about relationships, love, volition, and purpose, and I started dedicating more of my life to service by building Sangha and organizing Wake Up retreats. My life became simpler. I ended up selling my house and car and living on a small patch of land in a wooden hut. With a decent amount of money, I didn’t need to work anymore and had all the time in the world. So now I could do what I’d always wanted to do, but what was that?

Wake Up became the main focus in my life. I found out deep in myself that happiness is found not in having ideal conditions, but in having a healthy, free attitude. In order to be able to deeply live my aspiration, I needed to transform many things. The best way to do this was to train as a monk for five years, as this could lay the foundation for a deep, meaningful life, either as a layperson or as a monk for life.

Training in True Love 

What did I realize in this first year as a monk? First and foremost, I have cultivated more ease. I feel less eager to think that I should be the one doing things. Before, I thought that I knew better how to do things or wanted to have the attention. I now see that things are okay as they are. I do not feel changed or transformed; I just notice that I react differently. I don’t take things as seriously, and the need to change things immediately is much less strong. I just smile.

Being a monk at this point is a training. I look like a monk, keep the precepts, and try to apply the mindful manners, but mostly I try to be in harmony with the brothers and enjoy my own presence. My habit energies could easily make me behave un-monk-like, to be honest. But as I have committed to train as a monk, I do not follow those habit energies. The training helps me more and more to see the deeper roots of my thinking, habits, and feelings. I see my suffering in a different light and have a better understanding of why my relationships did not work out, why I struggle in work and with accomplishments, and why there was so often a feeling of pointlessness in my life before.

By not being involved in sex, drugs, alcohol, money, fame, and power, I more clearly see the effect of these influences, and my mind does not create excuses as to why they are not a problem. I look at couples, see their attachment and their craving, and remember the suffering that I also had before. I do not condemn it, but I see that in me there are still many seeds that need to be transformed in order to not create suffering in the future, if I ever have another romantic relationship. As a monk you are protected from such relationships, though living with the monks and being close to the sisters does not mean there is no love or intimacy.

I’m building up real friendship here in which I’m still free, but we have joy together. I do not get too attached, so I do not have to claim the other person for my needs. At the same time I see the brothers’ efforts to understand me and give me what I need. It is not always pleasant to hear what they have to say, because it might not be what I want, but it may be what I need. This understanding, friendship, joy, and freedom is real love and is not limited to one person.

For me, being a monastic is about learning true love in the safest way. It does not involve expressing sexual energy. This energy is so strong and deep that it is often destructive and addictive. I still have a deep wish to understand it, so it is not by chance that I received the name Pham Hanh, brahmacharya, Brother Holy Life,

or more simply Brother Abstinence or Brother Celibacy. Sexuality is a topic I discuss often with the brothers and I’ve learned so much about it. I’m not ready to make a commitment to never have a romantic relationship again, and it comforts me that I’m doing the five-year monastic program so I do not have to worry about that desire. I’m here to train with the desire because I have created enough suffering and I do not want to repeat my mistakes. But an intuition tells me that by practicing as a monk, I will be able to love and experience intimacy so deeply in every moment that the desire for sexual intimacy will be transcended. That is my aim, but I will take my time. If that happens, or I have enough faith that it will happen, I can be a real monk.

Just Enjoy 

How does being a monk help others? Just living freely, happily, and easily already helps others. When you cultivate those things, they naturally flow out of you. Just looking at a young child makes us smile, so how do we feel looking at a monk or nun? I’ve noticed that the most beautiful things we offer are mostly not the things we think we offer, so I do not worry about what I offer as a monk. I practice to be happy.

I see how fortunate I am with the roots and seeds I’ve received from my parents, my church, my country, my teachers, and the whole world. I recognize my ancestors in me and see that I continue their aspiration. As a monk I can honor this aspiration just by practicing. Plum Village is a wholesome environment where many good seeds are watered, and I can be lazy. When you learn to be mindful and you can relax, then you become less uptight and things flow naturally. That is the deepest meaning of laziness, allowing things to manifest without control. So now I just allow my questions to sink in. Maybe an answer will manifest, maybe not. By practicing and watering the good seeds, I transform my base and it does not matter if my question is transcended or not. We can just enjoy our life, just enjoy ourselves.

What I do not understand is why we’re not flooded with new monks. Sure, you need to step into the deep and let go of stuff and ideas (the ability to let go is what makes happiness possible in the monastery), but what you get back is so much easier to carry with you. I was afraid of losing my money when I had it. Now I just have the Dharma and I’m not afraid of losing that! My favorite question remains: What do you really want?

mb64-OneYear2

This article was originally published on the Wake Up website. Please visit wkup.org to learn more about the Wake Up movement, an active global community of young adults established by Thay in 2008. 

PDF of this article

A Magnolia Grove Remembrance

By Connor Figgins

mb64-AMagnolia1

I remember back to September 29, 2011, at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi. I clutched the hand of one of Thay’s monks, and we were walking together right behind Thay and the other children. As we walked into a big field, about a football field wide and a football field across, we noticed the long grass crunching beneath our feet as another monk put out Thay’s mat and cushion. Thay turned around, looked at all of us, and sat down. The field was sloped all around with one opening with walls about ten feet high. As Thay sat down he took out his bell, put it in his hand, bowed to it, lightly tapped it, and held it to wake it up. Then he rang it for all of us to hear and enjoy. Not just us, but all the birds around it, all the animals.

Once he was done with the bell, he reached his hand back for his tea, which another monk just poured out for him. The teacup was about three inches tall with an indent in it. As he slowly took a sip of his tea, a little cricket, or frog, it kind of looked like a mixture of both, jumped onto my lap, and then jumped right into his tea. As he noticed it, he picked up his teacup and angled it just enough so it could fall out. As he handed his teacup back, I noticed that another monk got out another teacup and took out a small teapot, enough to fill up just one cup. He opened it up and I noticed all of the crisp leaves in it. The monk noticed that there was no tea left. He took out a thermos from his bag and filled up the teacup and handed it back. Thay slowly drank his tea, but quick enough to make sure no cricket jumped in it again. When he was done with his tea, he leaned over and looked at the cricket, and he looked up at the two children in front of him and asked if it was okay. One of the children said, “Yes,” and he looked up and seemed happy for it.

After that, Thay slowly got up and noticed that one of the trees had a gust of leaves fly out of it. The leaves were purplish green color. As they fluttered down, we all waited and watched until every single leaf hit the ground. We walked slowly away from there, with me clutching one of the monk’s hands, and I felt good. It was nice to feel the soft cold grass beneath my feet. We walked out a different way from where we came. As I looked down, I noticed that there were leaves beneath my feet. The children in front of me were dragging their feet to make a rustling sound in the leaves. I slowly picked up my feet and put my feet down, trying to save as much natural beauty as I could. As I looked around, I noticed everything that was beautiful. The different colored trees, the different colored vines. Once we got to the end of the path, Thay turned left and walked into his hermitage. His hermitage was very nice. It was a log cabin with golden logs.

As I walked back by my mom and grandma, I noticed that everyone was watching him go into his hermitage with the two monks at his sides. I seemed to notice my grandma walking around, so I walked up to her and said, “Hey Grandma,” and she looked at me and said, “Oh, hey,” and I said, “Let’s wait for Mom.” So we both sat in the nice damp leaves and waited. And we finally found Mom and I told her how Thay went into his hermitage, and we started to walk toward the big white tent in the middle of the field for a Dharma talk with Thay. The Dharma talk was a very nice Dharma talk. It was about the mind of love. Thay excused the children early and had us bow to the Sangha, and we walked to our Magnolia Room. I remember that day of September 29, 2011, at Magnolia Grove Monastery.

mb64-AMagnolia2Connor Figgins, age thirteen, was eleven when he went on retreat with his mom and grandma. He especially enjoyed serving others at the beverage station during the retreat. Connor lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where he volunteers in his community and supports his family’s mindfulness practice.

PDF of this article

Poem: The Marching Band

mb64-TheMarchingBand1

For the longest time now
I’ve tried to march to my own drum,
Attempted to make music
From a lonely bumbumbum.
The sound was very timid,
Most days I forgot to play,
And there were even moments I thought,
“Sure I’ll throw this drum away…”

Until I met a wise man, he
Knowing more than I could understand,
Who said “Pick up your own drum there
And join the marching band.”
And in this band I found a sound
I’d never heard before—
The harmony of playing with
A hundred drummers more.
The peace of hearing a friend’s song
On days I forgot to sing,
The joy of finding music
In everyone and everything.
And I can keep my own tip tap
Still hear my bumbumbums,
But oh! The strength, the power, the love
Of a hundred thousand drums!

—Dairíne Bennett

mb64-TheMarchingBand2Dairíne Bennett, twenty-two years old, is from Dublin, Ireland, and has just completed her degree in English literature in Trinity College Dublin. She is currently working in The Irish Landmark Trust and hopes to be a writer. Through a series of wonderful coincidences, she came across Thich Nhat Hanh two years ago, and his teachings on mindfulness are having the most wonderful effect on her life. 

Editors’ note: This poem was sent to the Mindfulness Bell by Brandon Rennels, Wake Up Coordinator, who wrote: “I wanted to send along a poem that one of the Wake Up participants wrote during our weekend retreat in Ireland. Dairíne shared it during the tea ceremony at the end of the retreat. We all felt it summed up our experience quite well.”

PDF of this article

Next Generation Dharma Teachers

By Kenley Neufeld 

mb64-NextGeneration1

The location was the hidden valley of Deer Park Monastery near San Diego, California. This five-hundred-acre sanctuary provided the space for about sixty Dharma teachers to meet for five days in early June. The weather was perfect, the sharing intimate, the facilitation exceptional, and the practice grounded. The Dharma teachers came from Theravada, Ekayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and Triratna streams, bringing a richness of experience to our gathering and conversation. Though the gathering was located at Deer Park Monastery, it was organized and facilitated by a team of five Dharma teachers from each of these lineages. We felt much gratitude to the monastics of Deer Park for opening up their home for our practice. In addition, the retreat was offered with the generous sponsorship support of the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.

As active Dharma teachers in a tradition of Buddhadharma offering refuge in the Three Jewels, we gathered as a continuation of a similar retreat at the Garrison Institute in 2011. We came together to share our experience and to support each other as young Dharma teachers (born between 1960 and 1980) teaching Western Buddhism. The intent was to connect teachers for whom Dharma teaching is a (or the) significant life activity, whether through teaching retreats, guiding a Buddhist temple, or other format. Being together demonstrated that we are truly a community of teachers, neither independent nor separate because of our tradition. We need not teach in isolation and can support one another in our practice and teachings.

Our teaching experience ranged from one year to twenty-five years; we were lay and monastic teachers, those who live in community, and those who work full time outside of the Dharma practice; we represented Canada, Korea, the United States, and the United Kingdom. The gathering had a “conference” feel to it and we spent a great deal of time in dialogue rather than in meditation and practice.

Being a newer Dharma teacher, I arrived with my own nervousness about what to expect from being with sixty-plus other teachers. From the very first mindful mingling activity, I felt a connection and knew that I was in a community of like-minded Dharma sisters and brothers. We were ably guided by a group of four teachers who made it easy to participate and feel included. I came away with this word on my mind to describe the gathering: inclusive. Inclusive in terms of practice streams, voices being heard, needs being expressed, and topics being explored. We had many “open space” time slots to delve deeply into the topics that most interested us as teachers.

We used crowdsourcing, the practice of obtaining ideas by soliciting contributions from a large number of people, to determine the best ideas for group exploration. This was accomplished in two steps: first, each individual wrote a topic idea on a piece of paper. Second, we randomly moved about the room and exchanged the idea with another person, who then scored the idea before we moved around the room again to exchange ideas. In the end we used the scores to identify our top ideas for discussion. We co-created this gathering together.

After learning more about each other (such as age, lineage, years of teaching, etc.), we focused on these themes:

  • What are we grappling with as teachers?
  • Storytelling
  • Hard Dharma topics
  • Sustaining ourselves

Within each of these general areas, more specific topics emerged, such as patriarchy, privilege, ethics, teacher accountability, scholarship, dating, recovery, trauma, sexuality, race, faith, balance, gender, LGBTQ,* and teaching tips. One of the great tools used during the retreat was creating space for every voice to be heard. We met in large groups, small groups, triads, and pairs. Casual and small group conversations were thriving throughout the retreat.

The most significant work for me during this gathering was observing my mind. It is so easy to allow judgment to arise and to get caught by my ideas of how people “should practice” and how people “should teach.” These feelings were particularly acute because Deer Park is a second home for me, and yet many of our regular Plum Village practices were not recognized or used during these five days. All my ideas of how things “should be” came rapidly to the surface, only to be let go with each breath. If I can’t let go, there is a huge barrier that severely impacts my relationships with others. This retreat offered me an opportunity to grow in the area of group participation.

I came away from the gathering feeling supported, hopeful, inspired, and grounded. I have a deeper commitment to my teaching activities along with an awareness of the community of teachers outside my tradition that I can call upon, and learn from, throughout the years. I have a deeper understanding of what my brothers and sisters are doing and how we inter-are with each other. I also have hope for bringing this experience to the sixty-four active Tiep Hien Dharma teachers in North America.

* Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer

mb64-NextGeneration2Dharmacharya Chan Niem Hy (Kenley Neufeld) received the Lamp of Wisdom in 2012 and supports Sangha work from his home in Ojai, California.

PDF of this article

Calligraphy as a Mindfulness Practice

By Maureen Chen 

mb64-Calligraphy1

Three years ago I took an introductory class at New York City’s calligraphy guild, the Society of Scribes, where I learned to write the alphabet with a pen that has to be dipped into a bottle of ink. Because of the precise and skillful hand movements needed to use this pen, calligraphy is an excellent practice for developing mindfulness. Dipping the pen into ink after every few words is akin to repeatedly stopping for a mindfulness bell.

The word “calligraphy” consists of the Greek words kalli, meaning “beautiful,” and graphein, meaning “to write.” Calligraphy is writing that has been practiced to a high degree of skillfulness and created with great mindfulness, so that the result is a beautiful work of art. In contrast, one’s everyday handwriting is written quickly, out of habit, and is not meant to be art. Much painstaking practice was needed before my writing even began to look beautiful.

I became a member of the Society of Scribes, one of many calligraphy guilds worldwide, which has classes and events where I could improve my skills and meet other calligraphers. Volunteering at the annual year-end members’ exhibition motivates me to create work to exhibit. For the 2011 and 2012 exhibitions, I copied in calligraphy two of Thay’s gathas and the saying: “Don’t just do something, SIT THERE.” As I searched for texts that would have a calming effect on viewers, I inadvertently discovered that calligraphy can be a Dharma door.

Between exhibitions, I used calligraphy to make greeting cards and address envelopes. I made Thanksgiving cards for a local nonprofi to distribute to homebound seniors with their holiday dinners and addressed invitations for another nonprofit’s fundraising event. Thus, I found that calligraphy could be a means for doing social service.

Throughout the history of Buddhism, monastics and laypersons in various traditions have copied sutras as a mindfulness practice. A recent exhibition of sutras, mainly the Heart Sutra, copied in calligraphy and illustrated by contemporary Korean monastics and laypersons, inspires me to try this when my concentration is deeper.

Ultimately, the styles, techniques, and materials of calligraphy, which vary depending on time and place, matter far less than one’s mindfulness while practicing. In this digital age, while typing on keyboards and screens allows us to write at technology’s speed, practicing calligraphy provides the slowness needed to experience the miracle of mindfulness. Typing can be compared to putting the dishes in the dishwasher to get clean dishes. Calligraphy is like washing the dishes to wash the dishes.

mb64-Calligraphy2Maureen Chen is a co-facilitator at Morning Star Sangha in Queens, New York. As a consequence of pursuing calligraphy, she learned of Thay through Seattle calligrapher Gina Jonas, who quoted from The Miracle of Mindfulness in her article, “Calligraphy as a Spiritual Way.” The occasion of Thay’s calligraphy exhibition in New York City from September 7 to December 31 inspired Maureen to write this article.

PDF of this article

Discovering the Roots of Buddhism in Vietnam

A Journey of Healing, Hope, and Coming Home

By Anne Woods

mb64-Discovering1

We walked slowly, silently, mindfully in the moist morning heat, following the dirt path through the ancient gate to the sisters’ hall. Bowing to the Buddha, we found our relaxed and upright position on the brown cushions, grateful for the cool touch of the ceramic tiles beneath our feet and the light breeze offered by an occasional electric fan. We sat quietly, side by side with the sisters, as waves of powerful emotions washed through us. The video recorder clicked on…and there was Thay, his familiar voice saying, “You have arrived. You are home.”

Practicing with the brothers and sisters at our root temple, Tu Hieu, we enjoyed this deeply nourishing Day of Mindfulness on day six of an incredible twelve-day journey through Vietnam. On our first day, we had gathered together in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon to share our aspirations and apprehensions before venturing uncertainly into the Saigon traffic to pay tribute at the monument to Thich Quang Duc, who immolated himself in 1963 to call the world’s attention to the persecution of Buddhists under the Diem regime. This powerful and moving experience was just the first of many as we traveled together from southern Vietnam northward.

Twenty-one of us in all, including our beloved Dharma teachers Chu Chan Huy and Trish Thompson (Chan An Dinh, True Concentration on Peace), and our gracious and tireless guide Phuong, became the White Cloud Sangha. Even as we enjoyed morning sitting, exercise in the parks and Dharma sharing, we were skillfully guided through temples and pagodas, old and new, receiving both formal and informal teachings from Chan Huy on the temples’ connection to our lineage and their role in our traditions. Through Chan Huy’s gentle humor, insight, and skillful translations, the thread of our lineage tracing back through the centuries became real, tangible, and a part of us.

Aware that our tradition embraces both the teachings of Master Lin Chi (“nowhere to go, nothing to do”) and the practice of engaged Buddhism, Trish facilitated visits to centers where amazing work of healing and transformation is underway. We laughed and danced with the young clients at DAVA (the Danang Association of Victims of Agent Orange). We savored a lunch of fresh mushrooms grown and picked that morning by women at Mushrooms with a Mission, a program that works with disabled survivors of land mine accidents, with female-headed households, and with ethnic groups in Quang Tri province. We rolled up our pant legs in solidarity with new friends at the Mine Action Visitor Center as part of the “Lend Your Leg” campaign. We were inspired by the hard and loving work of so many to bring a brighter and more peaceful future to this beautiful country that suffered foreign occupation, oppressive rule, and war for so long.

Along the way, we experienced the deep peace of Tu Hieu, the exhilaration of reaching the summit of Yen Tu, the joy of singing the Heart Sutra at Truc Lam Tri Duc pagoda, the awe of standing in temples dating back to the early centuries of the last millennium, and so much more; but most of all, we experienced the love and support of one another, forever the White Cloud Sangha.

Anne Woods, True Collective Spring, practices with Quiet Harbor Sangha in Rye, New York, and with the brothers and sisters at Blue Cliff Monastery. She is a yoga and martial arts instructor and especially enjoys teaching karate to the brothers and sisters at Blue Cliff. 

PDF of this article