Joyful Art of the Heart

By Brother Phap Ho

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A Dharma sister of mine wrote a wonderful song about joy: “Your joy is my joy, my joy is your joy!” What makes you happy and joyful? For me art is one way of filling my heart with joy. So I will tell you a little bit about how art and joy interact in my life.

Joy comes to me when I become more aware of the colors and shapes around me: in nature, people, animals, plants — miracles of life. This awareness is significantly increased after I have spent time drawing, painting, or writing calligraphy. But already by sitting down, taking out the materials, I focus and sink into the moment. Nowhere to go, nothing to do…

A time to enjoy playing with colors and shapes; enjoying the breath and the flowing movement of the arm; expressing experiences and looking deeply into life — all these aspects are drops of joy. The good news is that we do not have to be a good artist, creating something important. If we feel inspired to play with pen, brush, and paper we just do it.

Sometimes when I look at something I have written or painted, a thought comes along: this is good. But as soon as I look up to see a bird, a leaf, a cloud, I feel humbled, I remember the awesome beauty that is everywhere.

Art as Meditation

At times I establish contact with a painful feeling, a perception, a difficulty inside. As I start drawing, I begin to recognize, embrace, and look deeply at the difficulty. Aha! Art becomes a meditation, a way to heal and transform. As colors and shapes manifest on the paper, I can feel that things are moving, circulating inside me. I feel alive.

Other times I establish contact with a wholesome, healing quality. For example this morning I used markers, a calligraphy brush, and watercolors to create some posters for our children’s program (our annual Family Retreat here at Deer Park Monastery starts tomorrow). Solid as a mountain, alive as the pond (our pond is one of the children’s favorite spots here at Deer Park), cool as nature — these qualities come alive, because at the same time as brush and colors helped shapes to manifest I brought my mindfulness to those qualities. The words on the paper are not only shapes and colors but expressions of each quality and those qualities in me were also strengthened.

Using the teachings of the Buddha, writing the words or putting shapes and colors to them, is a way I look deeply in order to understand better. Establishing a relationship with the five powers, non-self, and so on.

All these ways of playing with colors and shapes bring joy, ease and freedom to my body and mind. My heart receives good nourishment, continues to open. Joyful Art of the Heart! From this space of joy, freshness, and ease, I see the world and the people around me in a different light — less judgment, more freedom.

May all hearts be filled with joy!

Brother Phap Ho, Protector of the Dharma, was ordained in the Walnut family in February 2003. He has lived at Deer Park Monastery since February 2006.

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Dharma Rain

Practice as Inspiration for Artists

By Denys Candy

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Stonehill College, Massachusetts, August 2000

It is some ungodly hour of the morning, the room is already warm — it can’t be time to get up already? In the nether world between sleep and waking, I intone, “Twenty-four brand new hours!”

“Are you awake?” asks my Sangha brother Tony, who’s sharing the room.

“I think so.”

“I wasn’t sure if you were awake or just talking,” he says.

I roll to the edge of the bed and peer out the window into the half-light. Figures walk slowly by the trees and buildings, random streams of people converging — a sight I will recall later in the day as two lines come to me:

The scorched earth is waiting,
There’s a stirring in the trees.

Eventually, I manage to stumble into the procession toward the meditation hall. I slip off my shoes and stepping inside, I smile to the sound of the huge round air-conditioning tubes cranking up.

I’ve come to see Thay again — to be in his presence — to try to wake up a little. Once in a while during his Dharma talk I think I get it — I sort of feel what he is saying, like a smile in my body — impermanence — how beautiful — a fleeting moment — I’m really in it — I’m feeling it! Oops — it’s That’s okay. Thay says don’t worry about all of that. He says something like, “Soak it all in like Dharma Rain.”

Next day, a full verse emerges along with a melody, and after another day there’s a chorus:

People slowly walking, aware of any breeze,
They’re hearing a monk’s message — it’s simple and it’s plain,
Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.
Happy day today and every day
We dance in the Dharma Rain!
Celebrate the here and now — it’s simple and it’s plain,
Today’s the day we walk in the Dharma Rain.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, April 2004

Another early morning finds me walking slowly from the meditation hall to breakfast. It’s my birthday. I sense my mother’s presence and the stirrings of lyrics for another song:

I see the love-light in your eyes,
Your smile is mist upon the pine,
I miss you every single day,
As I continue on my way.

My friends of Laughing Rivers Sangha organize two retreats a year and Dharma teacher Chan Huy (True Radiance) flies in from Canada to support us. Today, connecting is not a theory. My senses can taste my relatives, feel their blood in mine. My body tunes in to a walk with my cousin Ailbe by the California coast — talking of our parents.

The ocean rain’s touch is fleeting,
Wild lilies bloom, kissed by the spray,
Your love is wind upon the bay,
It blows on my continuation day.

At breakfast, people are smiling at me and we are sharing little bows all over the place. Sometimes I think all that smiling and bowing is a bit much, but today it’s fine. I am dropping nicely down, increasingly aware of my feet on the ground and the aromas at the table.

As part of his Dharma talk, Chan Huy tells stories of his family. His kitchen and his wife and daughters come alive to us, while outside the window deer are nuzzling the ground for tasty morsels beyond the pines.

The scent of my parents is on the air. What is love without attachment? I wonder.

Another verse plays in my mind, and here comes the sun!

They shine, they shine,
They shine on our continuation day.

Estes Park, Colorado, August 2005

On my first retreat here two years ago, Thay reminded us we were on a “Dharma platform eight thousand feet high.” The Rockies held me entranced and the mountain-solid vistas inspired a rock beat, but I hadn’t brought my guitar. Luckily, the monastics lent me theirs:

I have arrived somehow, I am alive somehow,
I am solid, I am free in the here and now,
Back to my breath I did roam,
I have arrived, I am home.

This time my guitar is with me and the mornings have my dear friend Brother Phap Lai and me in a lullaby state of mind. Fiona, my beloved, a writer, takes in the sun nearby, keeping an eye on us to make sure we don’t succumb to too many clichés in our songwriting. I met Phap Lai in Deer Park Monastery the year before at a retreat for artists. Our shared experience of growing up in the same cultural orbit, me in Ireland and he in England, drew us together, along with our love of music. “What’s a nice Yorkshire lad like you doing in a place like this?” I wanted to know, as soon as I heard his voice.

Now we corral time to work on a song — a melody I’ve been messing with for several months has gotten hold of me. At the evening gathering, Phap Lai and I play together:

Ring that bell, soft sweet sound, ringing clarity.

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Claymont Court, West Virginia, October  2006

Fiona and I have come to feel part of the “extended family” that gathers from neighboring states to retreat in the rolling hills with Thay’s niece Anh Huong and her family.

Sometimes I am calm at retreats, other times on the edge of bliss. This time, however, I am emotionally wrought. The practice and the landscape — nearby Antietem and Charlestown evoking the unspeakably bloody battles of the American Civil War — combine to bring forth wisps of submerged sadness. I reach for my guitar and sit alone at the side of the building in the sun. Strumming, I think of the day’s passage — meditation facing a window at dawn, sitting on rocks and feeling paths taken and foregone, managing to stay present, ultimately grateful for all of it:

Dawn is grey upon the new day,
A West Virginia field reveals itself
As the sun comes up,
Morning light, sun is on the rocks,
Paused in time is a place for stopping,
A place for resting.

Glory, glory Halleluiah.

What I notice about Buddhist practice as refined by Thay is the careful attention paid to establishing the right environment. What is the most important thing to attend to if we want to live mindfully? “It’s the environment, stupid!” Thay joked at one retreat. Silence, mindful breathing, walking, eating — stopping, calming, resting — together lay the ground for an altered, more satisfying, and more real way of moving in the world. They also lay the ground for artistic practice. Vision and inspiration are as important to the artist as are the skills of a given craft. It is crucial to attend to how we feed our creative environment. “What are you feeding?” Thay asks. “Nothing can exist without food.”

At retreats, the artist in me loves to dive deep. It’s like swimming in the Irish Sea when I was a boy — I duck my head under, frolic, and float. Perhaps I should not be surprised at those times when, surrounded by noble silence, a string bean might reveal its true nature, available all along but finally witnessed, and I am moved by a seemingly distant melody that now arises — asking to be sung.

Denys Candy, True Mountain of Loving Kindness, practices with Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh, PA. You can hear his songs on the CD “Dharma Rain,” featuring his band and other Laughing Rivers Sangha members; available from Denys DMCandy@aol.com or Sangha member Patricia Redshaw redshaw@zoominternet.com.

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Sending the Buddha to Prison

mb49-Sending1By Carole Baker

Illustration by Robert E. Walls

Five years ago one of my teachers, Anh-Huong Nguyen, said to me, “Your daily practice seems to be going well, but the Order of Interbeing is the Bodhisattva Path. If you wish to walk this path, you must spread the Dharma.” I wanted to follow this direction and it was not so easy, as I am apparently the only Buddhist living in this rural county in south central Pennsylvania.

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Three months earlier, I had been contacted by Wakeel,* a Virginia inmate who was interested in starting a Sangha at Red Onion State Prison. This contact grew into a lively correspondence exploring Buddhist philosophy. He was especially interested in the practice of being with unknowing. We decided to “spread the Dharma” by forming a paper Sangha for inmates across the country and that Sangha quickly grew to fifteen inmates in prisons in eight states. We called it Spirit Sangha because the only requirement for membership was to sit “together in spirit” every Tuesday at 7:00 pm, Eastern Time. When I sit with the Sangha, I go into the smallest room in my house. It’s six feet by nine, the same as a prison cell. I am always aware that I am free to go in and out of that room or any room in my house.

I answer letters and send an informal newsletter three or four times a year. Spirit Sangha gives inmates a connection to the outside world and a sense of belonging. As with most forms of teaching, I have learned so much from the prisoners who reach out to me for information and advice, and my practice has become more solid with the responsibility. I share with them the road bumps in my own practice and they respond with compassion and good advice based on their experiences. I couldn’t ask for a more useful way of sharing the Dharma. Sharing goes both ways.

Hell on Earth

Last year for a short time I was privileged to work directly with prisoners in two Pennsylvania prisons, Huntingdon State Correctional Institution (SCI), three mountains west of me, and Houtzdale SCI, a two-and-a-half-hour drive west of Huntingdon. They have access to only one, two-hour meditation service per month. By contrast, Catholic mass is offered daily. Buddhist services are provided at only four Pennsylvania prisons. Books and magazines are available; otherwise the prisoners are on their own in developing their personal practices. Houtzdale is a fairly modern facility with air-conditioning, but Huntingdon is something else.

Huntingdon SCI, a maximum-security prison built as a juvenile boys reformatory in 1898, is a hellhole. It is the oldest prison in continuous use in the state. Local newspaper stories regularly raise the possibility of closing Huntingdon SCI. Instead, current plans are to continue its use and build yet another facility in Huntingdon. That will make three prisons contributing to Huntingdon County’s employment rates, which routinely are among the highest in the state. The cells I saw are tiny, with no windows and iron grates as doors. The only natural light comes from tall, narrow, iron-covered windows that are at least thirty feet from the cell block, which runs down the center of the huge, three-story hall. All the walkways and staircases are cast-iron grates. The three-story climb to the chapel is dizzy-making. Constant noise bounces off the hard surfaces and echoes through the buildings, twenty-four hours a day.

mb49-Sending3It is remarkable that anyone could produce art in such an environment, let alone sacred art, such as the luminous and beautiful, gentle Buddha that is the subject of this article.

While at Huntingdon SCI, I connected with a few of the fifteen to twenty inmates who attend the monthly Buddhist meditation services. There is not much time to get acquainted, as Catholic mass immediately follows Buddhist services and the inmates hungrily rush to gather up reading material that will inform their personal practices for the next month. A woman coming into this atmosphere is something of a rarity, so my heart was touched by how polite, respectful, and even protective the men seemed to be with me.

One inmate, Carlos, asked me about tai chi, which I used to teach. When I replied that tai chi is a form of meditation, moving meditation, Carlos exclaimed, “See? I tried to tell them!” Carlos had been put in “the hole” for practicing tai chi in the exercise yard. The shared experience of tai chi practice formed a bond between this inmate and me. It is wonderful how one common experience can be a bonding agent for interbeing. Carlos and I also share concerns for our children. He suffers deeply that he cannot give his children daily support and guidance like other fathers. He offered me sound advice for dealing with my children.

Prison is such a dehumanizing environment that when men find something, like meditation, that supports their true nature, they may become steeped in it. Meeting Kevin, I was impressed with how dedicated and focused he was with regard to the Dharma. He was completely serious and earnest about his studies and his practice. His practice fills the long days. I took Kevin, and all the other men as well, with me in my heart when I left that prison.

Birth of the Cell Buddha

In July, I completed the first cohort of Buddhist Chaplaincy Training Program conducted by the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care (zencare.org). It was a remarkably enriching experience, and quite demanding academically. One requirement was an individual, special project that manifested the student’s reflection on learning to care for others with close attention and compassion. One student made a collage, another wrote a poem. One student developed a workshop designed to train executives in leading with compassion, another wrote a manual for chaplains on ceremonies for dying patients and their friends and families at the death event.

For my special project, I chose to “spread the Dharma” by reproducing and distributing the artwork of a prisoner at Huntingdon SCI. Kevin expressed the initial idea. One morning, Kevin said to me, “Carole, the Christians get to have a picture of Jesus or Mary on their cell walls. I wish I could have a picture of the Buddha for my wall; but I really need a Buddha that I can take down and use as an altar when I meditate.” Kevin’s request stayed with me for months. Then, without very much planning, research or deep contemplation, I found a way to fulfill his need and produce a meaningful project for my chaplaincy training.

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I had pored over ten years of Buddhism magazines and several commercial import websites, looking for the perfect Buddha statue to use as a “Cell Buddha.” Then Carlos did something that touched my heart. He sent me a wonderful present for Mother’s Day, an original painting of the Buddha, drawn and painted by a fellow inmate on a square of cloth, similar to a Tibetan thangka. It is special when a prisoner finds a way, with the meager resources available, to practice generosity and compassion. I cherish the beautiful, handmade greeting cards I get from inmates. They open my heart. After shedding bittersweet tears of gratitude and sadness, I keep them near my home altar.

“Snail” Mail doesn’t fully describe the pace of communicating with people in prison. What you and I can do with one e-mail exchange often takes months in communicating with prisoners. I wrote to Carlos, Carlos talked with Robert Walls, the artist who created the painting, and sent me his name and I.D. number. I wrote to Robert Walls asking permission to reproduce and distribute his artwork. I felt it was important to request permission, as prison inmates have very few empowering experiences. I complimented Robert on his artwork and told him about Kevin’s request. I told him of my desire to have the Cell Buddha sent to the Spirit Sangha and perhaps to many inmates across the country and perhaps internationally. I said, “Robert, through your art, you have the capacity to bring peace of mind and joy into the cells of thousands of prisoners.” Robert replied with the following:

Yes you have my permission. I like drawing for other people. If it brings joy to others, then I’m doing my job and it brought tears to your eyes. I am glad you like it and you put a smile on my face. Your letter inside the card you sent made me smile for the first time in 18 ½ years.

It is my fervent intention to give Robert many more smiles in the future. He may not be a Buddhist, but he has earned a special, bodhisattva membership in the Spirit Sangha.

I spent several hours reducing and copying Robert’s artwork and cutting and folding the heavy photographic paper so an inmate can stand it up to use as an altar. I made two trips to the nearest copy center in Chambersburg. The Cell Buddhas and a short newsletter giving its background went to fifteen prisoners who are members of the Spirit Sangha. I had to reduce it to fit into a #10 business envelope in order to comply with mail restrictions in Virginia. Four-inch tabs fold back from the Buddha’s knees and interlock to make a stable, triangular base.

Several inmates have written thank-you letters and commented on the little Cell Buddha, including Kevin, of course. Herb, a fellow artist at Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, wrote, “This Cell Buddha is a brilliant idea!” Kris, a student of Kadampa Tibetan Buddhism in Maryland, said, “Thank you so much for the Buddha. He is sitting at the end of my bed right now.” And Carlos, whose friendship and generosity initiated the project, wrote, “You took me by surprise when you told me I was helping to bring happiness to thousands of prisoners. It blew my mind to read that. It made me feel really good about myself.”

I encourage you to go to www.prisonDharmanetwork.org and sign up to be a pen-pal to a prisoner. They have a list of prisoners waiting for someone to regard them as human beings, waiting for interbeing, waiting for your letters. The need is so great, and the rewards are unsurpassed. There are other organizations as well that conduct prison mission work. It doesn’t take too much time; it’s safe (just rent a Post Office box); and you will never regret opening your heart in this way.

My promise to Robert is that I will offer his artwork to several Buddhist organizations that conduct prison projects in hopes that his Cell Buddha can be distributed to prisoners throughout the world. Thank you, Robert; thank you, Carlos; thank you, Thay; thank you, Buddha.

Carole Baker, Healing Joy of the Heart, lives in Shade Gap, Pennsylvania.

*Last names of inmates were deleted because prison officials might object to certain types of communication between inmates. However, the author wants Robert Walls’ name to be printed in full, so he can get credit for his artwork.

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Music & Mindfulness Network

Thay writes in No Death, No Fear: “The bodhisatthva of wonderful sound,

Gadgadashvara, can use music, writing and sound to awaken people… Among us are many writers, poets and composers who are using the wonderful ocean of sound to serve the way of understanding and love by making the Dharma doors, which the Buddha taught, more accessible … Your artistic creations are not just to help people forget their pain momentarily but to water the seeds of awakened understanding and compassion in others.”

The Music & Mindfulness Network is an initiative to create connections amongst mindfulness practitioners in whose lives music plays a big part: musicians of all genres & styles, music therapists, teachers and others who work with music professionally or engage in music privately. Through communication online and hopefully in person at future music retreats we aim:

  • to water our seeds of joy, creativity, inspiration, understanding, healing, and love
  • to create a space for sharing our visions and projects, experiences and questions, diffi culties and successes
  • to support each other by sharing information and resources, e.g., recommended reading and listening, funding bodies, practical knowledge,
  • to come together in the context of mindfulness practice to play music in its many varieties and share our work
  • to explore possibilities of collaboration
  • to find ways to nourish and deepen our collective practice
  • to make a positive contribution to society through music

At this year’s Summer Retreat in Plum Village eleven people from Argentina, Italy, Germany, Scotland, the Netherlands, France, Ecuador and the U.S. held a first informal gathering: guitar, cello, clarinet, tablas, and flute players, pianists and singers who want to keep in contact. The next step will be to create an interactive website for the purpose of communication & sharing.

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Miracle within a Miracle

By Susanne Olbrich

Music was present in my life from early childhood on, and I loved every expression of it. I was termed “musical,” and the wide-ranging classical training I received from elementary class to university degree both gave me a solid foundation for what now is my profession, and it left bad bruises and paralysing self-judgment. In years of breathing, smiling and looking deeply, Thay and Sangha friends helped me to untie those knots, reclaiming joy and creativity in my music practice. Now, by sharing it with others through playing and teaching the piano, performing, composing and improvising music, I can see many lovely seeds being watered within and around me.

Deep listening is key and a source of delight, too: Listening inside as music arises to be discovered and shaped into a new composition. Listening to the subtle interplay of body, movement, and sound while playing. Fine-tuned listening to my fellow musicians so we can anticipate each other’s breath, playing truly together. Listening to my students, each one of them having their own approach to music and individual learning style.

In my own pieces, mindfulness practice has found different manifestations. “Just Clouds” is a jazzy waltz inspired by watching thoughts and emotions coming and going. Thay’s poem “Contemplation” I suddenly heard set to music while reading it. “Night is Falling” is a mantra-like love song to the Earth, “Beyond Gone” my cradling of grief after a friend’s suicide. Each piece feels like a mini Dharma sharing, reflecting deep moments of life.

Two years ago I was invited to share my experiences as part of the “Festival of Arts and Spirituality” in Edinburgh, which gave birth to the workshop “Sounding the Source: Deep Listening and Intuitive Music as Spiritual Practice.” In a church with beautiful acoustics a very mixed crowd joined me in sounding their voices and experiencing walking meditation and deep listening exercises as taught by the wonderful composer/musician Pauline Oliveros. Just as mindfulness produces miracles, sounding and playing music together in mindfulness is a miracle within a miracle!

Offering “Sounding the Source” workshops now has become part of my regular teaching. I find it very rewarding to help people

(re)discover the joy of music, as well as support musicians in bringing a spiritual and creative dimension to their music.

I would love to be in contact with other practitioners in whose lives music plays an important part. If you would like to water the seed of a Music & Mindfulness Network, please contact me!

mb49-Miracle1Susanne Olbrich, True Ever-Present Stability, practices with the Northern Lights Sangha in Findhorn, Scotland (www.myspace.com/susanneolbrich, creativepiano@yahoo.co.uk).

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Ko Un — or What?

 

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mb49-KoUn2Ko Un is Korea’s foremost living poet. After immense suffering during the Korean War, he became a Buddhist monk. His first poems were published in 1958, then a few years later he returned to the secular world and became a leading activist. In 2008, he received the Griffin Trust Lifetime Recognition for Excellence in Poetry. Parallax Press recently reissued a book of Ko Un’s “Zen poems” and drawings entitled What? (formerly Beyond Self).

mb49-KoUn3Thich Nhat Hanh writes in the Introduction about a meeting with Ko Un in 1995: “The more I learned about his life, the closer I felt to him…. When he was imprisoned by the military dictatorship for his efforts for peace, his deep Buddhist practice sustained him. Living mindfully in each moment, he knew what to do and what not to do to help himself and others as well.”

In this section we present three poems from What? along with some of Ko Un’s original drawings. In addition, we offer two brand new poems, as well as essays that two of Ko Un’s translators have graciously written for the Mindfulness Bell.

“As you read Ko Un’s poems,” writes Thay in the Introduction to What?, “allow the poet in you to hear his voice…. Enter deeply into the present moment, reflect on each word, and meet the poet Ko Un face to face.”

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A Stone Between Two Fields

Aha, real Buddha’s out of doors.
The future world
should be opening like this:
no distinction between inside and out.

And all the long long day
cuckoos chant prayers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Path

Take this path. It leads to Nirvana.

Excuse me.
I’ll follow my own path.
Over rocky crags or under water.

That’s the old master’s path, the corpse’s path.

 

Leaving Home

If leaving home is what a monk’s job involves,
then coming home
really
really
is what a buddha’s job is.

But surely you can only really come home
if you’ve really left home, can’t you?

Ko Un, What? 108 Zen Poems (Parallax Press, 2008). With a Foreword by Allen Ginsberg and Introduction by Thich Nhat Hanh. Translated by Young-Moo Kim and Brother Anthony of Taizé. Used with permission of the publisher.

 

mb49-KoUn5In a Street

Have you ever
been another person?
Have you ever been another person? Today
I have nothing but questions.
If you say you’ve never been someone else
since the day you were born, how will
a breath of the wind of this world
ever dare touch your hair?

 

mb49-KoUn6The Bell

As I sped down the highway along the East Sea
suddenly the sound of a bell reached my ears.
Between the waves endlessly booming,
at the crack of dawn the sound of a church bell
reached my ears.

Kwon Chong-saeng’s bell in a valley near Andong.

Oh, waking dream!
Not dream,
not reality,
oh, waking dream!

That distant bell rings in my ear …
Today
maybe
your poverty is paradise
oh, bell rung by Kwon Chong-saeng.

 

Translators’ note: Kwon Chong-saeng was a Korean children’s writer who’d spent his life in great poverty in the region of Andong. For a time his only paid job was to ring the bell of a small village church.

Poems by Ko Un SSN forthcoming in Songs for Tomorrow (Green Integer), copyright 2008 by Ko Un, Brother Anthony of Taizé, Young-moo Kim, and Gary Gach. Used with permission of the translators.

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Translating Ko Un’s Poetry as Spiritual Practice

1. By Brother Anthony of Taizé

The monastic community of Taizé, of which I am a member, has always been concerned to bring together in the love of Christ those who are separated, divided by differences of tradition and of discourse. To promote peace in reconciliation and trust is the aim of our lives.

Every human person is, we sometimes remind ourselves, sacred above all by their wounded innocence. The poet, whether Ko Un or any other, writes words that at times (at least) express both sacredness and wound. The translator’s task is to find ways of rewriting those words in another language, in such a way that the inwardness of the original text lives on across the great divisions of tongues and minds, histories and hearts.

My concern to be a servant of communion (say ‘sharing’ and ‘communication’) across boundaries of time, place and systems of thought or belief has brought me to translate Korean poetry. Ko Un is immensely prolific, writes in a vast variety of styles. As John Dryden once wrote of Chaucer, ‘Here is God’s plenty.’ The people whose lives are recorded and memorialized in the nearly thirty volumes of his Ten Thousand Lives are immensely precious by their wounded innocence.

By translating Ko Un, I am brought into a deeper communion with the people of Korea among whom I live and pray, and so with the human family as a whole. To allow the poet’s voice to speak through my translations, I am obliged to still my own inner voices until I reach the silence out of which the original poem arose. To allow another’s poem to shine out, the translator must become a sheet of transparent glass. This poem is not my poem. I am dispossessed in order that another may speak.

Born in Truro, in Great Britain, Brother Anthony is one of the foremost living translators of contemporary Korean poetry, with over twenty-six titles to his credit. He is currently Emeritus Professor, Department of English Language and Literature at Sogang University, Seoul, where he has taught since 1980.

2.       By Gary Gach

Translation can be a Dharma door. Translating, like all mindful writing and editing, asks for devotion to words as lotuses, buddhas to be, radiant texts waiting patiently to purify new realms.

Translating Ko Un answered a calling (and Dharma is also responsibility, an ability to respond). Ko Un’s work had been woefully under-recognized when I signed on board, in part due to a ban on his work until the 1980s that included even translation. So I saw an opportunity where I might make a difference. As you can see for yourself, his is a voice well worth hearing, speaking for the sake of all creation.

Ko Un’s poetry is Dharma fruit, and its translation invites Dharma teachings into my life. Having taken his poems through as many as a dozen different drafts, I’ve come to know many better than my own poems. They coexist with my life, a vital part of my personal commonplace book of passages from sacred literature, koans, gathas, epigrams, personal mantras, folksongs, colloquial exclamations, and so on.

Working with Brother Anthony and Professor Young Moo, a minimal Sangha of three, is a collaborative art. Collaborative arts–such as linked verse or singing together, dancing or cooking–are yet another way of stepping aside from the grasping sense of small self, of “me and mine,” and touching deeper. Engaging in the larger world, the world of liberation, the selfless.

In Ko Un’s poems, I’ve been grateful to learn more of the uniquely elemental, dynamic, invigorating, cosmic human wisdom and compassion that is Korean culture. I’ve been reminded of what writing teachers all say: only by being particular to one’s own experience can one be truly universal. Translating asks that someone else’s particularity become universal.

May Ko Un’s words bring nourishment to your own journey.May all beings be well.

Gary Gach, Joyful Spirit of the Source, is editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (Parallax Press; American Book Award) and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism (Alpha Books). He teaches Buddhism at Stanford Continuing Studies,and leads mindfulness meditation at the Church for the Fellowship of all Peoples in San Francisco.

The third translator, Young-moo Kim (1944–2001), was Professor at Seoul National University, and is well known in Korea as a literary critic and poet. He published three volumes of  poetry and together with Brother Anthony, he translated  and published poems by many of  the most respected and appreciated Korean poets of the 20th century, including Ko Un.

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Sangha News

Dharma Teachers Travel to South Africa and Botswana

From March 16 to April 2, 2008 three Plum Village Dharma teachers traveled to southern Africa: Sr. Chau Nghiem (Jewel) and her father Al Lingo, and Sr. Thuan Nghiem.

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The group first spent ten days in Cape Town, South Africa, where they visited and shared at University of Western Cape theology seminar and gave a public talk. Next they visited the Nyanga Township and Etafeni Day Care Centre Trust, a multi-purpose centre for children affected by AIDS and their caregivers. Then they led an Easter Holiday weekend retreat, “Touching Stillness, Embracing Ourselves, Our Ancestors and Our Community” for thirty-eight adults and children.

Next they visited with the Group of Hope at Brandvlei Maximum Security Correctional Facility. “This was one of our most profound and memorable experiences in South Africa,” wrote Sister Chau Nghiem in her report to Thay and the Sangha. “The men there are under maximum security because of crimes like murder or armed robbery. The Group of Hope began with the intention to raise awareness about HIV in prison, to help reduce the discrimination towards prisoners with HIV. They wanted to do something for prisoners dying of AIDS and so they began a garden to grow vegetables for them and would visit them in the prison hospital and send cards home for them. This care and desire to educate others about the realities of HIV led them to widen their horizons. Soon, they began to sponsor twenty HIV-positive orphans, who come to the prison to visit with them once a month, bringing them lots of love and joy.”

During seven days in Gaborone, Botswana, the Dharma teachers gave a public talk and then visited a high school and the University of Botswana where they shared with faculty, staff and students. Then they led another weekend retreat and visited the Infectious Disease Care Clinic (for treatment of AIDS), and the Baylor Center (for children infected with HIV from birth) at the Princess Marina Hospital, Gaborone.

“Buddhism is quite a new religion to most people,” wrote Sister Chau Nghiem. “When we visited the IDCC, one of the nurses said she had never seen a real Buddhist before, only on television. We shared a guided meditation with all the nurses at IDCC to help them to be in touch with their bodies and emotions. They are overworked and experience a lot of stress. We offered them one of Thay’s calligraphies to post in their resting room, ‘Breathe, you are alive.’

“The next morning we had a tour of the whole Princess Marina hospital, the main public hospital in Gaborone. We dropped in to do a five minute guided meditation (and a much appreciated shoulder massage) for the head nurse, a matron who is so passionate about her work. She said: ‘I’d like to learn how to meditate but do not convert me to Buddhism, I love my God! I don’t understand why you have shaved your head and become nuns, but from time to time please send me a spiritual message from France so I can continue my stressful work here.’ We also visited the Baylor Center, which cares for HIV-positive children. Like IDCC, it is on the grounds of Princess Marina Hospital. An American pediatrician gave us a tour of this beautiful center and explained to us the challenges facing the society, as a whole generation of children with HIV were maturing into adolescents and experiencing the normal rebelliousness of that age and refusing to take their medication as instructed. She said that all sectors of society — education, family, social work, medical care — must cooperate to address this new challenge. We met many wonderful people and were very nourished by their aspirations.”

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For recreation and renewal, they visited a local game reserve, to walk with elephants and to pet cheetahs. Sister Chau Nghiem wrote, “we had a very rewarding walk with elephants in the local Mokolodi game reserve. We walked with four teenage elephants who were orphaned as babies. Each of them weighs about three to four tons, and when they reach full maturity they will weigh five or six tons. They are so massive but so gentle to walk with. We walked alongside them and our feet made so much noise on the path, but the elephants walked completely silently. They taught us about walking meditation. Now I like to say, ‘Walk like an elephant.’ ”

In both regions the tour ended with a Sangha-building session to form a Sangha in Thay’s tradition. Racial inequality and the AIDS epidemic drew much of the group’s focus. Sister Chau Nghiem suggests that individuals and Sanghas can help with the wonderful work being done to address the AIDS epidemic in Africa by starting with these websites:

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The Constant Innovation of the Dharma

At times my practice is plain and mundane. It goes through a normal routine of ebb and flow. This is when I know my practice needs an injection of something new. From the latest book by Thay to a retreat at Deer Park Monastery. Somewhere in between these two options a little known option is available to everyone worldwide — DPCAST.ORG, a Dharma portal available on the Web that brings the Dharma to you, the twenty-first-century practitioner. The latest Dharma gift from DPCAST.ORG features the practice of beginning anew from Sister Dang Nghiem and Brother Phap An. I advise you to visit DPCAST.ORG and listen in.

The acronym stands for Deer Park Podcast.You can download media from DPCAST.ORG or iTunes straight to your iPod, taking it on the go or listening to it through your desktop speakers. Alone or with a group of local practitioners; this is just the beginning of the constant innovation that has marked the rise of Buddhism across the world.

This Dharma-casting straight into your home and iPods was born after a group of Dharma friends were listening to Venerable Phuoc Tinh of Deer Park Monastery. The number of people in the audience of the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall was considerably above average, yet I sighed at the fact that more people could not benefit from the wonderful teaching that day. Light bulbs also went off in Dharma friends Laura Hunter, Ron Forster, and Mike Guerena. A serious discussion followed and we formed an informal committee of sorts that has come to bear fruit with the support of the monastic community of Deer Park.

There are many barriers to learning the practice. Today, distance and location is not as great a barrier as it was in the time of the Buddha. Mike Guerena recalled his first visit to Deer Park Monastery as “stepping on egg shells,” due to his uneasiness from not knowing what to expect, not to mention the thirty-minute drive from his home in Fallbrook.

Thanks to innovation, the Dharma is available to you in the here and now; just as life is. Our practice is based on solidity and the most solid type of practice requires the involvement of Dharma friends. The most solid way to find Dharma friends is still at the monastery, face to face, shoulder to shoulder.

But failing that, come visit DPCAST.ORG! And give us feedback to contribute to the constant innovation of the Dharma.

— Nguyen Thanh Hoang (dpcast@gmail.com)

 

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Announcing a New Blog: Mindful Kids

Resources for sharing mindfulness with children and a place to share ideas (http://mindfulkids.wordpress.com/)

This is a four-fold Sangha resource and we need your help and participation. Plum Village monastics are currently posting the principal practices we share with children in the Plum Village tradition: practicing with the bell, pebble meditation, the Two Promises, Deep Relaxation for Children, Touching the Earth for Children, eating meditation, embracing strong emotions, walking meditation, etc. We will also include guidance on how to set up a children’s program or children’s activities for a retreat, day of mindfulness, or a children’s Sangha. We will post ideas for cooperative games and nature activities, as well as practitioners’ experience of sharing mindfulness with children as parents, teachers, children’s program staff, etc. (This is where we need YOU!)

Please register on wordpress.com and share with us your experience, your stories, your joy, your difficulties — share how and what you are learning from children. Share with us what activities work and what don’t work so well yet. We also encourage children to share their experiences with the practice. Feel free to send us art, songs and photos that we can post on the blog.

— Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

 

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Wake Up!

Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society (http://wkup.org)

Inspired by Thay’s recent teachings, young monks and nuns of Plum Village, along with lay friends, have started an international organization called Wake Up:Young Buddhists and non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society. According to the group’s mission statement, “Wake Up is a community of young Dharma practitioners who want to help their society, which is overloaded with intolerance, discrimination, craving, anger and despair.

“Their practice is the Five Mindfulness Trainings, ethical guidelines offered by the Buddha; the most concrete practice of true love and compassion, clearly showing the way towards a life in harmony with each other and with the Earth. If you are a young practitioner you are urged to join the Wake Up movement in your country. We may feel anger and frustration when we see the environmental degradation caused by our society and we feel despair because we don’t seem to be strong enough individually to change our way of life. Wake Up offers us a way to pool our energy and act in synchrony. Let us get together and form a Wake Up group in our own town. Our collective practice will surely bring transformation and healing to individuals and society. Let us get in touch with young practitioners from Plum Village, both monastic and lay, to get more support and information….

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“Buddhism needs to be recognized as a source of wisdom, a long tradition of the practice of understanding and love and not just of devotion. The spirit of the Dharma is very close to the spirit of Science; both help us cultivate an open and non-discriminating mind. You can join the Wake Up Movement as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, an agnostic or an atheist. The practice of maitri, of loving kindness, the practice of sisterhood and brotherhood, is at the foundation of the Dharma.”

— Thanks to Sister Viet Nghiem

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Book Reivews

mb49-BookReviews1Mindful Movements
Ten Exercises for well-Being

Thich Nhat Hanh and Wietske Vriezen
Parallax Press, 2008
Hardcover, ringbound, 61 pages
With DVD featuring Brother Michael, Thich Nhat Hanh, and monks and nuns of the Plum Village community, produced by Sounds True — 36 minutes

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

What a joy, this colorful new offering by Parallax! With its ringbound format, it lies open easily on a table or on the floor, so we can read what to do and see how to move. Thich Nhat Hanh developed these ten low-impact exercises as a comprehensive way to stretch between seated meditation sessions at his monastery. Like a simple, gentle yoga, they focus on the breath. Wietske Vriezen is a Dutch illustrator who has practiced with Thich Nhat Hanh; his full-color childlike illustrations appear on every page. A portion of the proceeds of every book sold goes to support nonprofit projects in Vietnam.

I’ve often enjoyed Thay’s ten mindful movements: outdoors while waiting for breakfast with the monks and nuns at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California; outside our “hermitage” with a Sangha of strangers in the sacred pre-dawn of the Rocky Mountains in Estes Park, Colorado; alone in our cottage in Black Mountain, North Carolina; in the zendo at a retreat at Southern Dharma Retreat Center in Hot Springs, North Carolina; and with my Dharma “family” in the bamboo grove in Plum Village’s Upper Hamlet. I bought this book for my ten-year-old granddaughter who plans a year-long peace project at her Montessori school in Charleston, South Carolina, to teach her classmates seated and walking meditation and mindful movements.

What an inspiration — to teach mindfulness to children and adults through movement! Thich Nhat Hanh tells readers, “The exercises are easy to do at home, by yourself, or with others… Do each movement four times before moving on to the next one. Have fun!”

The book begins with an introduction by Thich Nhat Hanh that explains mindfulness practice and its results, the “seven miracles of mindfulness.” A short, illustrated biography of Thich Nhat Hanh is

followed by a more detailed story, showing how Thay relates ancient wisdom to everyday life. The book closes with an illustrated poem by Thay, “The Virtuous Man.”

A sunshine-striped cat pads in and out of the pages of Mindful Movements, as does the occasional frog or bird or flower. People of various sizes with varying hues of skin and hair and clothing keep these simple drawings diverse and happy.

The bonus DVD tucked in the back of the book engages us in the ten movements with the monks and nuns of the Plum Village community. Brother Michael leads the movements in the first session on the DVD and Thich Nhat Hanh leads the second. The music is soothing and the movement therapeutic. Surely we all know someone who would benefit from receiving this book and practicing the ten mindful movements.

mb49-BookReviews2Hello at Last
Embracing the Koan of and Meditation

By Sara Jenkins
Windhorse Publications, Ltd.
England, 2007
Softcover, 123 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

Hello at Last is a literary memoir that focuses on the author’s friendships with several Dharma companions as they travel the path of practice together. What results is a book of insights into the nature of spiritual friendship that offers specific techniques such as Insight Dialogue, for engaged mindfulness with friends. Indeed, it is among friends that our right mindfulness and right speech are often challenged, and it is among friends and Sangha that we can learn some of our most profound spiritual lessons. Jenkins shows true courage by revealing herself — doubts and defeats, joys and triumphs— to tell the lessons she has learned.

“Deepen your relationships,” the author’s Zen teacher told her. A Zen student for over twenty years, Jenkins has edited numerous books of Dharma talks by Cheri Huber, who generally recommends that her students not socialize with one another — that they practice in silence. In reply to this koan from her teacher, the author asks herself, “How does one deepen one’s relationships and build Sangha in a Zen tradition that emphasizes silent practice?” The answers bring us lessons that can easily apply to practitioners of various traditions.

In the story about Jenkins and her friend Faith, Jenkins struggles with accepting spiritual guidance from an elder sister in the Dharma rather than from her root teacher. Yet she slowly acknowledges the capable teacher within herself who can offer guidance to her elder sister in a time of need. “Suddenly the dark hole of suffering that Faith and I had fallen into dropped away, and within us opened the understanding that, no, we were not and never would be who other people wanted us to be. And striving to be different from the way we are only creates suffering. Who we are is not only inevitable, not only tolerable, but just fine. Perhaps, in fact, for the simple reason that it’s

what is. It may sound exaggerated, romanticized, to say that we found ourselves then in a glorious field of open air and vast sky and infinite ease — we were, in fact, still talking on the phone — but that was my experience. It was as if we were embraced in the all-encompassing silence in which our friendship had begun, expanding outward in every direction.”

Throughout the book, which also chronicles the author’s journey to India, Jenkins plays with apparent contradictions. In this vein she notes, “Solitude is the ground against which companionship blooms most beautifully.” Finally, she recognizes how important it is in true friendship to leave other people to themselves.

“By that I mean letting go of the notion that other people’s happiness depends on us, or ours on them, and taking full responsibility for our own happiness and knowing that others can do the same.”

mb49-BookReviews3Love’s Garden
A Guide to Mindful Relationships

By Peggy Rowe Ward and Larry Ward
Parallax Press, 2008
Softcover, 177 pages

Reviewed by Philip Toy

In the heat of a household disagreement that’s not really about the conjured topic, my soul-mate wife proposes: “Do you want to listen to each other?” Here we stop to make ground rules: twenty to thirty minutes, one speaks while the other listens, no mixed-messaging body language and facial expressions, no groans or eye motions of assent or disapproval. Neutrality. Non-judgment. One of us pours only the water of self-revelation, the other simply receives. This

practice continues weekly for a long time and life happens, or more to the point, explodes.

What comes is the unfortunate return of a long-arrested life-threatening illness, coupled with the sudden death of my thirty-six-year-old son. I am rocketed to a realm of exquisite pain where all things became blindingly clear. The kettledrums of karma are deafening. I am forced to re-evaluate everything: my self-esteem, my thirty-year relationship with my wife, my lack of forgiveness, my Sangha leadership, my vocation. With much loving help from others, I am slowly returning. My son’s not here, but he continues in me. I am here, alive. My wife, too. And we are soothed by the many listening ears of the Sangha. Here is a garden of all things — seeds, weeds, insects, and disease! A garden of relationships in need of the tending methods so clearly addressed in this little book of sunshine by Larry Ward and Peggy Rowe Ward.

The Wards have indeed grown a garden: a colorful, eclectic, variegated anthology of quotes, epigrams, poems, and short essays to support basic teachings: the Four Immeasurables; the Nine Lovingkindness Prayers; Taking Refuge; Coming Home; Reflecting on the Hells; Befriending the World; Watering Positive Seeds. These are the compost and the tools they offer to help us cultivate the ground of mindful relationships.

As carefully organized as a textbook, Love’s Garden unfolds in three parts subdivided into chapters, twelve in all, with “practices,” exercises to guide readers in demonstrating what they have learned from the anecdotal material at the head of each chapter.

The Wards frequently remind us of the seeds of good practice, for example: self-care is a prerequisite to caring for others; forgiving oneself is the fertilizer for the fruit of forgiving others.

“Lovingkindness … practice is designed to uncover … light and love that dwells in each of us. This radiance is just covered up with ignorance, fear, anger and the red dust of life.

“We begin by befriending ourself, … talk kindly and sweetly … offer ourselves a blessing instead of a curse or a complaint….”

Wrapped as it is in glowing accolades from many sources, and launched by a nine-page foreword from Thich Nhat Hanh, this book lives up to its praise as a fine compilation of teachings. I pick it up, take a breath, jump in and shake off that “red dust of life.” If I am to heal, I must first be a friend to myself.

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Join Thay in India

mb49-Join1October 20-29, 2008

Over 2500 years ago in India, the Buddha found the path to liberate himself and help others to liberate themselves through their own practice. His teachings spread from North India to many other parts of the subcontinent. But by the thirteenth century, Buddhism in India had become virtually extinct. Suppressed by violent dictators, the followers of the Buddha emigrated to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China, Korea, and Japan but in the name of wisdom and compassion they refused to meet violence with violence. In 1956, Dr Ambedkar liberated many Dalits, formerly known as untouchables (the lowest caste in Hinduism), by converting them to Buddhism so that they could be equal to other citizens. Half a million untouchables were converted to Buddhism on one day, but unfortunately Dr. Ambedkar died very soon after this and had no time to train the newly converted Buddhists so that they could grasp the essential teachings of the Buddha. Therefore, today in the birthplace of Buddhism, Hindus and Muslims are numerous, but only a tiny fraction of the population is Buddhist, and many of them have not been able to receive the authentic teachings of the Buddha.

Thay Nhat Hanh’s trip to India is the fruit of many years of preparation by our friends Shantum, Gitu, and a number of concerned social activists, leaders, educators, businesspeople, and intellectuals in India. They wish to bring Thay’s wisdom, gentleness and depth, as well as the Buddha’s message of awakening, back to India. At his advanced age, this could be his last trip to India. We want to address the actual situation of India, sharing the message of transformation and healing with the rich and powerful as well as with the lowest of the low. There will be a half Day of Mindfulness for approximately 400,000 Dalit people in Nagpur. Thay will have the occasion to share with 700 school teachers in Dehra Dun in a 3-day retreat, with 800 medical professionals from all over India, with corporate leaders, as well as Parliamentarians in New Delhi. A large emphasis will be placed on sharing the practice with teenagers, and monastics will take time almost every morning of our trip to visit and make presentations at some thirty elite and government high schools.

The last ten days of the trip, from 20 to 29 October, will be a treat for all of us to be with Thay in a profound, traveling retreat, allowing us to encounter the same atmosphere the Buddha experienced before and after his enlightenment, with buffalo boys and many young children who had offered food to the monk Siddhartha, to experience Deer Park, where the Buddha gave his first teachings, and to connect with the energy of peacefulness and stability on Vulture Peak where the Buddha spent a great deal of time and gave many wonderful Dharma talks. Walking in the Buddha’s footsteps and touching this sacred atmosphere may stimulate our own awakening! Thay will also give Dharma talks throughout the ten-day pilgrimage and transmit the Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

Shantum, Gitu, and the Ahimsa Trust cannot pay all the traveling expenses for Thay and the delegation of thirty monastics who will join him on the trip. This is why we have organized contribution/donation for the trip. Additionally, to maintain security and fairness, we cannot allow friends not officially registered for the trip to join us in any portion of the pilgrimage.

Register to join Thay for the last 10 days in India and offer a financial contribution to help Thay and thirty monastics bring the Dharma back to India. Go to www.plumvillage.org or contact Bina Aranha at bina@buddhapath.com.

—Sister Chan Khong

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Dharma Talk: The Art of Suffering

Questions and Answers with Thich Nhat Hanh

mb65-DharmaTalk1mb65-DharmaTalk2These questions and answers are from the 2013 retreats at Blue Cliff Monastery, Magnolia Grove Monastery, and Deer Park Monastery. For video and audio of the 2013 teaching tour, including Dharma talks and Q&A sessions, visit www.tnhaudio.org.

Q: Why do people have to suffer?

A: Thay is breathing in and out to allow the question to go deep in him before he offers an answer. Why do people have to suffer? Because suffering and happiness are part of life.

Suffering and happiness have to be together. This is a very deep teaching of the Buddha. It’s like the left and the right. If the left is there, the right must be there also, and if there is no left, there cannot be a right.

To grow lotus flowers, you need mud. Suffering is the mud and the lotus is happiness. The mud does not smell good, but the lotus flower smells very good. If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow a beautiful lotus. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can create happiness. We need some suffering in order to create happiness, but we already have enough suffering. We don’t need to create more.

If we know the art of suffering, we will suffer much less; we will suffer only a little, and we will use our mud to grow our lotus flowers. Suffering is useful because when you look deeply at suffering, you understand, and suddenly compassion and love are born in you. So suffering is not entirely negative. It is helpful, like the mud. I hope that schools will teach the art of how to make good use of suffering to create happiness.

When you grow vegetables organically, you don’t throw the garbage away. You make it into compost to nourish flowers and vegetables. It is the same with suffering. You transform suffering into compost that grows the flower of happiness.

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Q: If you had a chance to live your life again, would you choose the same path or would you like to experience a new life?

A: I believe that I am not living just one life, I am living many lives at the same time. I am living the life of a monk, but also I live the life of a tree, of a bird, of a person in society, because I am in touch. When we have a retreat like this, many friends come and share with us their suffering and their happiness. In that sharing, we live their lives. Your happiness becomes my happiness, your suffering is my suffering. And when we do walking meditation, we get in touch with trees and rivers and flowers. When we eat, we get in touch with the cosmos.

As monks, we have more time to enjoy life. If I have to take care of a family, paying rent, having a car, I have to work hard. Not much time is left for me to enjoy being with nature or other people. As a monk, I have time not only for myself, but for my community, my disciples, my friends, and I can offer them my energy, my teaching, my time. That is very satisfying because when you can help other people to suffer less and to be joyful, you are rewarded with joy and happiness. I believe that to practice as a monk is much easier than to practice as a layperson. I chose the easiest way. [Laughs.] So next life, I will continue as a monk.

Q: What is the hardest thing that you practice?

A: Not to allow yourself to be overwhelmed by despair; that is the worst thing that can happen to you. When the war in Vietnam was going on, it seemed it would last forever. Young people asked, “Dear Thay, do you think that the war will end soon?”

It was very difficult to answer because if Thay said, “I don’t know,” then the seed of despair would be watered in them. So Thay had to breathe in and out a few times, and then say: “Dear friends, the Buddha said that everything is impermanent, so the war must be impermanent also. It will end someday. Let us continue to work for peace.”

During the war, we organized the School of Youth for Social Service, similar to the Peace Corps created by John F. Kennedy. We went into the war zone and helped wounded people, created refugee centers, and rebuilt villages that had been bombed. We gave people a chance to return to a normal life.

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There is a village not far from the military zone separating the north and south. It was bombed and completely destroyed, so we helped rebuild it. Then it was bombed and destroyed again. Our social workers asked whether they should rebuild it. We said, “Rebuild it.” We rebuilt it four times. We kept rebuilding because if you give up, it will create a feeling of despair.

The hardest thing is not to lose hope, not to give in to despair. Through two wars, we saw French soldiers come to kill and be killed, and young Americans come to kill and be killed. Fifty thousand young Americans were killed in Vietnam, and hundreds of thousands were wounded, both physically and emotionally. In a situation of utmost suffering like that, we practice in such a way that we preserve our hope and our compassion. If we don’t have a practice, we cannot survive. When the journalists asked us how we felt about young Americans coming to kill and die in Vietnam, we said that we didn’t hate them because they were victims of a policy based on the fear that the communists would take over Southeast Asia.

In 1966, Thay was invited to come to America and talk to people about the war. There was a peace movement opposing the war in Vietnam, but as people demanded peace and did not get it, they got very angry. Thay told these groups, “If you have a lot of anger in you, you cannot achieve peace. You have to be peace before you can do peace. You need to know how to write a love letter to your president and your congress, to tell them that you don’t want the war. If you write a strong, angry letter, they will not read it.” Thay was able to help end the war in that way. If you understand suffering and can help compassion to be born in you, you will be free from despair and anger, and you can help the cause of peace.

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Q: How have you detached from your strongest attachments in life?

A: I think meditation can help. When you look at the object of your attachment, if you see it is bringing you happiness and joy and making people around you happy and joyful, there’s no reason to remove that attachment. If you notice that the object of your attachment brings suffering to you and to the world, that kind of enlightenment will help you detach from it.

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Q: I lost my only son, Jesse, on December 14th at Sandy Hook Elementary School. I struggle with that every day and I’ve had some pretty bad days. There’s no way to describe the suffering, the heartbreak. I keep thinking, what could have prevented what happened that day? It wasn’t an act of war, it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t an illness. It happened for no reason, a horrendous act of violence and loss of lives. My question is, what could have prevented what happened that day? What changes can we all make to prevent suffering like that in the future?

A: I think that if we do not do something, that will happen again somewhere else in America and in other places. Young men or women will bring guns into school and shoot them. Your son is telling you and telling us that the person who did the killing was a victim. His parents and teachers did not instruct him how to handle the energy of violence and anger within him. When we look into a young person, we may see the possibilities of being loving and of being violent. Your son is telling us that we should do something to prevent that from happening again.

We should practice so we know how to handle the violence and anger in us. And we should transmit that practice to the younger generation. This is the purpose of these retreats: to learn how to be happy, how to handle our suffering, the violence, fear, and anger in us. Many of us are working with schoolteachers and parents to teach those skills, so they can transmit them to their students and children. I think your son is telling you to support us in this work. We have helped thousands of schoolteachers in India, America, and other countries. Governor Brown of California allowed us to experiment with this teaching in private schools in California. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to learn how to handle fear, violence, and despair in yourself, how to speak in a way that can restore communication and reconciliation. You don’t need to embrace a religion to practice this.

We suffer the same kind of suffering that you have experienced. But there is a way to suffer. With mindfulness and concentration and insight, we suffer less. The period of suffering might be shortened, and then we can develop our understanding and compassion. We can transform our suffering into something more positive and help other people, especially the younger generation.

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Q: Our daughter, Casey, was nineteen when she died from leukemia. I try very hard to remember that she is with me, that she is in every cell in my body. But still I feel waves of such deep sorrow and longing. I want to be with her. Is it possible to ever be truly happy again?

A: The other day we spoke about a cloud in the sky. When the cloud transforms herself into rain, it’s hard for you to recognize your cloud in the rain. You need to have the kind of eyes, the wisdom of signlessness, to recognize your beloved in her new form. But she is there. If you know how to look deeply, she is still with you. It is impossible for her to die. She just manifests herself in new forms. But we suffer if we can only recognize her in her old appearance. If we are open, if we can see our cloud in the rain, we can stop our suffering and we can restore our joy.

Before giving birth to me, my mother miscarried my older brother. When I was young, I often asked whether the boy she miscarried was me or another boy. It could have been me saying, “I don’t want to come out yet. I want to wait.” So maybe she really did not miscarry anyone.

One winter doing walking meditation, I saw many buds on a tree. It was warm at the time, so the buds came out beautifully. I said, “This new year, we will have flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” If you cut a few branches to bring into the warmth, they will blossom. But before I could cut them, there was a wave of cold and all of them died. So I said, “This new year, we will have no flowers to decorate the Buddha’s altar.” But later it became warm again and new buds appeared on the branches. The old buds that seemed to have died had not really died. Life is stronger than death. Are the new buds the same or different from the old ones?

If we are mindful, if we are concentrated, we can recognize our beloved one right here and now in her new form. We can restore our joy and happiness. She is always here, but she may not be just one, she might be in two, three, four, or five forms. If you come and live a few months with us, you will recognize her in this monastery, and you will have three, four, or five daughters instead of one.

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Q: Honorable Thay, dear Sangha, I think that the influence you had on Dr. Martin Luther King Junior is undeniable; one year later, he gave an important statement against the war in Vietnam. I have a heavy heart seeing that fifty years later, the United States is on the brink of yet another military intervention, this time in Syria. If you were the president’s spiritual advisor, what would you tell him?

A: President Obama has his own Sangha, his advisors and ministers and party. He may see the wisdom in what I tell him, but he may not be able to follow it because he is not operating on his own, he has to operate as part of a group. You might believe that a person like the President of the United States has a lot of power and can do what he wants. That’s not true.

What I suggested to Dr. King is that we’ve got to have a Sangha that has a lot of understanding, compassion, and brotherhood. Then a war will not be possible because advisors, collaborators, friends, and supporters will see things in the light of understanding and compassion. I think President Obama tries to do his best. Sometimes he practices loving speech very well. We need loving speech, we need deep listening, but we also need the collective energy of a Sangha to support us. Otherwise you are under pressure to do what the collective consciousness wants. The country still has a lot of fear and anger and you operate on that collective energy.

To transform the way of thinking in the country spiritually, you begin with your group. You cultivate seeing with understanding and compassion. You change your thinking so you are capable of being together in harmony. Organizing retreats like this helps promote understanding, compassion, and harmony. This is helping the president and helping the country.

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Q: I work for the United Nations, in the department of peacekeeping operations, as a disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration officer. I negotiate and prepare programs for combatants after conflict so they can transition to a civilian life. I spent the last month in Mogadishu and Somalia, mostly dealing with young men who are involved in armed groups. There are also groups such as Al-Qaeda asking them to join. People sometimes perceive this as a religious war, but I think they are appealing to very poor young people’s sense of being dispossessed. They have nothing and Al-Qaeda gives them something. They give them a little money, but they also offer for them to become a part of something. Even though it is a jihadi movement, the young people feel respected and perhaps feared; it is very hard to compete with that. How might we approach these young men? How might we design programs that convince them to put down their guns and join us in peace? We have so little means, and Al-Qaeda and others have more convincing arguments.

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A: Maybe we should begin by inviting some of them to come to a place where there are kind people, people who have compassion and understanding. These young people need to survive and they need some money, but one of the things we can show them is that you do not need a lot of money to live happily. Suppose they come to Plum Village and see that there is true brotherhood and sisterhood, and the feeling of being useful to society. There is the happiness that comes when you have compassion and understanding. They need to come and see for themselves. If some of them have a direct experience with this kind of living and serving, they will go back and tell the rest.

The practice of looking and listening to the suffering inside us and in the other person or group is very important. We can find ways to show them that not only we suffer, but the people we are about to punish suffer also. That is the practice of the precept regarding understanding suffering. You can recognize and understand the suffering in the world, even in the people you are told are your enemies or are representing evil. That kind of understanding of suffering will bring about compassion. Compassion helps us to suffer less. When you suffer less, you can help another person to suffer less. There must be a kind of strategy in order to really help people. Money is just a small part of it.

If you are surrounded by friends and co-workers who have the same kind of vision and understanding, you will succeed. You cannot do it alone. You have to have a Sangha behind you, supporting you, supplying you with the energy of understanding and compassion. Otherwise you will give up eventually. It is very important. If you want to do something, build a Sangha. If President Obama has a Sangha like that, he will be able to do a lot of good things. The same is true for all of us. If you want to achieve something in your life, you need a Sangha. The Buddha knew that. That is why after enlightenment, the first thing he did was to look for elements of a Sangha.

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Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I’ve had much suffering, observing and participating with the consumption here at the retreat. Many of the products we’ve been using and eating are not of the highest integrity, two of which are the toilet paper––no recycled content––and the food, much of which is not organic. One example of extreme concern is the bananas we’ve been eating, from a company called Chiquita, that’s known to have participated in genocide in Central America until 1988. The people who perpetrated these crimes were never brought to justice: they’re still free, they’re still wealthy. Many of the products were bought from places like Wal-Mart, which are known for human rights abuses, especially in Southeast Asian countries where their manufacturing takes place. We’re living in a time of economic warfare, with manipulation of currency and easy money flowing to these companies. I have spoken with monastics who are doing purchasing. One brother said the Sangha is limited in resources and money, and potentially limited in options to source higher quality, ethical products. This is the most common answer given around the world: “I can’t afford to eat organic food or to support local farms.” Is that an excuse? What do we do?

A: It’s not exactly lack of money but lack of understanding and love. When we organize a retreat like this, something very positive happens. No one eats meat or drinks alcohol for six days in a row. No one tries to insult or say angry words to another person. Everyone is trying to restore peace in their body and their feelings. That is very good. If we do this, we have more peace, we have more loving kindness. Then it’s easier to change other things, like buying toilet paper that is less polluting.

I have seen ecologists who are very angry. There’s a lot of pollution in them––anger, impatience, hate, and violence. They cannot serve the cause of the environment with those kinds of energies. The activist should change himself first; he should have a lot of understanding and compassion in his way of thinking and speaking. Then instead of criticizing and demanding, he can begin to help.

We have to recognize that we are making a lot of progress on the path. We have been refraining from eating meat, eggs, and dairy products for many years. In the monastic community, no one has a bank account, no one has a private car, no one has a private home. Everyone is sharing; this is very positive. We have to recognize these positive things. The most difficult thing is to live happily as a Sangha. If you have that, everything positive will happen. Use your time and energy to build a happy Sangha with brotherhood and sisterhood.

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Q: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, I am here with my daughter and my grandbaby. I am a new grandmother and my heart has gotten bigger and filled with so much love, and I feel a sacred responsibility to my grandchildren. I try to breathe and enjoy the beauty and the joy of these babies, and of this life, and of this world. I am also an activist and recently read your book, Love Letter to the Earth. The research on what is predicted for life on this planet is very painful, partly because I feel quite alone. I do take action and there are some positive changes happening, but I don’t feel like there are a lot of places where I can talk about this. I don’t want to be angry. I want to talk from my heart with others about how to make positive changes. How we can do that in the Sangha? It seems there is some attitude that talking about these things is too political or too social, and I feel alone in my suffering around this. Thank you.

A: Sangha building is very important work. Sangha means “harmonious community” and the main task of the Sangha is not to organize events; it is to build brotherhood and sisterhood. Through deep listening and loving speech, we should be able to communicate with each other easily, and as we share our ideas we can come to collective insight. Sitting in the Sangha you feel nourished, you feel stronger; that is real Sangha building. With a Sangha like that, everything is possible, because you don’t lose your hope.

In Sangha building we need a lot of patience, and patience is a mark of love. In Plum Village we spend a lot of time and energy building Sangha. We sit together, eat together, drink together, walk together, and share our ills and sorrow. We know that if we do not have enough harmony and happiness in our Sangha, it will not mean anything to get a lot of people to participate. Even a Buddha cannot do much without a Sangha. The Buddha was a perfect Sangha builder and spent a lot of time building his Sangha. It is not easy to build a Sangha, as the Buddha knew. But with compassion and patience, he was able to build a beautiful Sangha.

When the Buddha and King Prasenajit were both eighty, and were both traveling through the country, one day they happened to meet in the north. King Prasenajit praised the Buddha, saying, “Dear Teacher, every time I see the Sangha, I appreciate you more. I bow to you because you have such a beautiful Sangha. Once I went to a place with two carpenters who were your disciples. That night we slept in the same room and they turned their head to the direction they believed you were and they turned their feet toward me. They revered you more than they revered their king, so I know you are loved dearly by members of your Sangha.”

The Sangha is a jewel, and with a Sangha you can accomplish much in the world. With a happy Sangha, many people can come and take refuge and profit from the collective energy of peace and happiness and compassion and mindfulness.

With a Sangha like that, you can nourish your grandchildren. That is the safest place for your children. If our children are raised in such an environment, they will become instruments of peace. We have to believe that our children have Buddha nature; we need to focus our efforts on watering the seeds of love, compassion, and talent in them. We should offer our best to them, not worrying about the future. Invest all your energy into the present and nourish your children and grandchildren with the energy of hope, compassion, and insight.

Edited by Barbara Casey

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Letter from the Editor

mb65-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

While this issue was coming together, I spent an evening reading our teacher’s poetry on his experiences in war. Afterward, I dreamt that people in my community were drafted into military service and a war was going to break out within a few days. I was very conscious of the peaceful conditions of our lives. The sky was clear and quiet with-out bombers. No grenades were hidden in the fields. The children’s faces were innocent and happy. If war came to our community, I thought, we would look back on this day as a blissfully peaceful time, a day in heaven.

In our world, moments of peace are priceless. Too many people are living in the chaos and terror of war. Even when there’s no external violence, we can have a war going on inside us if the seeds of anger and hatred have been watered. War is never far away. My dream reminded me to cherish peace wherever I find it, and also to cultivate inner peace and use it to nurture harmony in my community.

Thay shows us the way of a bodhisattva, one who continually embodies and generates peace within the crucible of war. He showed us by his example in Vietnam. He shows us by embracing all of our suffering, by meeting one wound after another with the healing balm of compassionate presence. He shows us how places of conflict and suffering are the very places to birth peace.

This issue’s question-and-answer session is an example of Thay’s fearless welcoming of any kind of suffering in order to transform it. The volunteer who transcribed the Q&A shared: “This particular session was so moving that I had to take many breaks to soothe the emotions. I cried so often when listening to some of the deep suffering. Imagine being Thay, sitting there listening deeply to peoples’ struggles and then responding to each individual with such compassion and wisdom! May we all be a source of healing compassion and understanding to ourselves and others.”

Anh-Huong Nguyen, in this issue’s interview, encourages us to embrace our pain and to lean into the Sangha for support, because “sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.” Resting in the Sangha’s arms can give us the strength to practice the art of suffering—to engage with our difficulties and transmute them into gifts.

Also in this issue, young practitioners in the Wake Up movement share what it’s like for them to rely on the Sangha and to be transformed by the collective energy of awakening. Their exuberance, deep questions, playfulness, and freshness are inspirations to continue opening new doors in our practice. And practitioners of all ages share stories of their ever-deepening gratitude and compassion.

May these offerings nourish compassion and loving-kindness in us. May we nurture and share our inner peace to help transform war and amplify peace in the world.

With love and gratitude,

mb65-Editor2Natascha Bruckner True Ocean of Jewels

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Letters

A Bright Continuation

After years of reading Thay’s books and attending his public talks, I finally left the spiritual path I had been on and began practicing with a local Sangha (Organic Garden Sangha), becoming an “official” student of Thay’s when I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him in 2005. Before embarking on this journey, though, I had some concerns about what the practice/training would be like without regular direct access to the teacher, and what the practitioners and Dharma teachers would have to offer––what would Thay’s continuation look like?

One of the things I did was subscribe to the Mindfulness Bell. I remember when I received my fi issue in the mail. As I leafed through its pages and then began reading, I found myself on the edge of tears. I was so tremendously moved, reassured, comforted, encouraged, and inspired. I knew conclusively that I had indeed found my path, “my tribe,” as a friend of mine called it.

Years later, I still get excited and happy whenever the Mindfulness Bell arrives. I am deeply moved by it and grateful for its existence and for the skill and care that has gone into producing it over the years. The Mindfulness Bell is like a life raft to me, a huge gift, and I hope it will continue to be for me and for people like me for many years to come. Thanks to that first issue, I knew for certain that our tradition was strong and healthy, its future bright.

Thank you for your dedicated and loving efforts, so that people like me can still get that tingle of joy every time it arrives in our mailboxes. I truly appreciate it.

A beautiful lotus for you,
Alex Cline
Chan Phat Son (True Buddha Mountain)
Culver City, California

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No Conflict

How moved I was in reading Lennis Lyon’s recent article in the Mindfulness Bell [Autumn 2013]. The way she has practiced with her grandson is remarkably powerful. If all parents and grandparents would treat their children and grandchildren with so much respect and tenderness, there would be no conflict in this world.
Wendy Warburton
Rhode Island

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Telling Our Stories

We frequently read from the Bell at our weekly Northern Lights Sangha. Last month I facilitated, and we read Brother Phap Ho’s “Love Letter to the 1%” [Summer 2013]. Everyone loved it and we had a fantastic discussion afterwards. Not only that, but a few of us later that day went to a meeting of folk interested in Joanna Macy’s work, and people mentioned the article. It had an impact!

In the latest issue, the Dharma talk is a wonderful reminder. I often think of Thay’s proposal after 9/11 for compassionate listening sessions as a way to heal our own people first. People just need to tell their stories! That came out strongly at the recent Forgiveness Conference here at Findhorn. A consistent theme was the need for understanding as the first step to forgiveness and reconciliation.

Blessings to you and all the contributors for your good work,
Janelle Combelic
Scotland

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The Sangha Carries Everything

An Interview with Anh-Huong Nguyen

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Anh-Huong Nguyen has been practicing mindfulness in the tradition of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh for more than thirty years. She has led mindfulness retreats in the United States since 1988, and in 1992 was among the first students to be ordained as meditation teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh. She and her husband, Thu Nguyen, founded the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, Virginia, in 1998. The center offers sessions of mindfulness training and practice in a nonsectarian way. MPCF (www.mpcf. org) is located in the beautiful, secluded setting of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax in Oakton, Virginia.

In a phone interview with Natascha Bruckner for the Mindfulness Bell in September 2013, Anh-Huong shared these stirring Dharma teachings in a gentle but passionate voice.

The Mindfulness Bell: You’ve been practicing for many years in the Plum Village tradition. I’m curious to know how you started, especially how you first encountered Thich Nhat Hanh and what effect his teachings had on your life then.

Anh-Huong: I met Thay long ago, when I was still in my mom’s belly. My mom and dad came to Tan Son Nhat Airport in Saigon to say goodbye to Thay when he left Vietnam the first time, on a fellowship to study comparative religion at Princeton University. It was in the summer of 1961, when I had been in my mommy’s tummy for seven months.

When I was ten, while sitting in our living room, I picked up the book Hoa Sen Trong Bien Lua (Lotus in a Sea of Fire). On the back was a photograph of Thay pouring tea from a teapot. I felt very drawn to the photograph, so I looked at it for ten or fifteen minutes.

MB: What did you receive from the photograph? It sounds as if a transmission was happening.

AH: It’s hard to describe. I felt a sense of warmth and peace inside. I felt happy just looking at the photograph. It reminds me of Thay’s story about looking at the drawing of a Buddha on the cover of a Buddhist magazine when he was a boy.

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MB: When did you meet Thay in person?

AH: Our family escaped Vietnam in a small boat on February 14, 1979. We almost lost our lives several times on the sea because of high waves. We were moved around to several locations and finally settled in a big refugee camp on Pulau Bidong Island in Malaysia. Our family––my parents, my two younger sisters, and my younger brother––flew to Philadelphia on December 13, 1979. We were sponsored by a Catholic church and settled in Audubon, New Jersey.

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About six months after that, I met Thay. I still vividly remember him giving me my first lesson on mindful breathing. He said, “Lie down, my child. Put your hands on your belly, and breathe.” That’s all! Not even, “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in; breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”

I put my hands on my belly and began to feel my breath. My family was Buddhist. We prayed and chanted at home. Occasionally we went to the temple. But this was the first time I received direct teaching from a Buddhist monk. I found my breath. I was aware that something very important had just happened to me. The first lesson on mindful breathing stayed with me and sustained me from that point on.

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We all studied hard in school. After high school, I went to Rutgers University. I had learned English when I was in Vietnam but it was still hard to understand and to speak. So when I began at Rutgers, I took a tape recorder with me and recorded some of the lectures. I listened to them again at home and if there were things I did not understand, I would be the first student waiting to ask the professor for clarification. I was very enthusiastic. I wanted to learn and to do well because in my heart, I wanted to go back to Vietnam and other places in the world to help in any way I could.

But, after the first exam during my first year, I lost interest in studying. I looked at the textbook but nothing would sink in. Only in recent years, I realized that I had been in depression. I missed home so much; I missed my friends. And I knew that the suffering was still going on in my homeland.

In my heart there was an urgency to do something to help. I could not go back to Vietnam or to the refugee camp. I felt helpless and paralyzed. Despair built up inside me. But I still had to study. My parents were working hard to support us so we could focus on our studies. As the eldest, I had to set a good example for my younger sisters and brother. But my heart and my mind were still in Vietnam, which pulled me away from my desire to study. As I say these words, I have so much compassion for this nineteen-year-old girl in me.

A True Rebirth

MB: What got you through that time?

AH: Mindful breathing and writing letters to Thay and Sister Chan Khong. Sister Chan Khong shared with me how she sent packages to poor families in Vietnam, so I started doing that. I sent packages to the families of some of my friends, especially those whose parents were put into reeducation camps because they worked for the old government.

Thay wrote to me and gave me an assignment. He said, “Write down all your conditions for happiness, all the things that you still have.” I started writing, and to my surprise, I ran out of paper. I was learning not to be so caught up in what I couldn’t do for the people in Vietnam and in the refugee camp. I cried and cried. Tears of awakening. Even before I finished the assignment, transformation already happened inside of me. I felt more present, peaceful, and happy. In fact, that assignment is not to be finished.

So I continued going to school and sending letters and packages to poor families in Vietnam. Sister Chan Khong taught me to use different names when sending the packages, so the communists wouldn’t question why one person was sending so many packages to so many families. I would use the family name as the sender, as if I were a member of that family.

In my letters, I tried to water the good seeds in them and encourage and comfort them. I shared about my life in the U.S., both the challenges and the beauty of what I encountered. Sometimes I wrote in the voice of a woman who was twenty years older than me, sometimes in the voice of a younger sister or brother. This work and mindfulness practice made it possible for me to have the balance I needed in order to continue my studies.

Sometimes when a big wave of despair suddenly came upon me, I could not go to class. It happened less and less as time went on. But when it did, I would choose to miss the lecture and walk through the campus. I did not know that I was doing walking meditation, but I was breathing and walking. I felt more relaxed, solid, and calm walking among the trees and flowers on the campus grounds. Then I would go to the next class.

The teaching on mindful breathing that was transmitted to me nourished and sustained me each day. I was told that Thay and Sister Chan Khong fasted one or two evenings a week because they wanted to remember the hungry children in Vietnam. I also decided to skip one meal each week. Small things like that helped me stay connected with those who were less fortunate and keep my heart warm.

We had survived the perilous trip by boat. It was a miracle that our family of six could make it to the States, to this “land of freedom,” in my dad’s words. My parents said that they would sacrifice everything in order to free their children from the communist regime. But the transmission I received from Thay and Sister Chan Khong was the most precious gift of all. It opened my eyes and my heart. I was reborn.

I was happy and grateful to be reborn. My deepest wish is to share this happiness with others. What happened to me when I was at Rutgers was a true rebirth. And since then, I have been born again and again. Each day, I continue to receive transmission from Thay and Sister Chan Khong, and I continue to pass it on to family and friends.

Sharing with Others

MB: I’m curious how you have shared that with others. Have you helped people to experience that kind of rebirth?

AH: My desire to share this practice springs from a deep well of gratitude. I share through Sangha building; the Sangha is the place through which I can share all of my life experiences.

My story from Rutgers is about maintaining a balance between being present with the pain arising in you, and at the same time embracing the joy of being alive. When our deepest desire is to understand the suffering that is there, mindfulness practice is not hard work. Each breath or each step taken in mindfulness is a pure delight. It is in the places where there is suffering that the practice of mindfulness becomes clear and alive––whether it is the practice of cultivating joy or transforming suffering. True healing and transformation cannot happen without insights. When we practice together as a Sangha, the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration is steady and strong, which becomes fertile soil for the ripening of seeds of insights.

The Sangha helps us to be present with our pain and to nourish joy and happiness in a way that no one individual can. We may learn how to breathe, walk, release tension in our bodies and minds, how to cultivate joy, and how to be there for a painful feeling. But sometimes our mindfulness is not strong enough to hold the pain that arises in us. We need to lay this pain inside the Sangha’s cradle, so that it can be held by the collective mindfulness and concentration.

When I was in New Jersey, I did not have a local Sangha to practice with. Although Thay and Sister Chan Khong were in Plum Village, I felt their presence in me. I was nourished and sustained each day by the teachings that they had transmitted to me. The trees and the birds and my friends at school were also part of my Sangha.

We need a Sangha in order to practice. Sangha is our refuge. Our pain is not only individual pain, but also ancestral pain, collective pain. Without a Sangha, it’s very difficult to embrace and transform this pain alone. And when we talk about building Sangha, we talk about building brotherhood and sisterhood.

MB: What does building brotherhood and sisterhood mean to you?

AH: Brotherhood and sisterhood are the substance of a true Sangha. When we can listen deeply to the stories of our Sangha brothers and sisters, we may be able to hear their ancestors and ourselves at the same time. Their stories are never theirs alone. The joy and pain that we share in the Sangha are held by the entire Sangha. When the discrimination between my pain and others’ pain is not there, the false separation between me and others disappears. Struggles that are shared in the Sangha circle can help us touch the pain that lies deep within, and our hearts may feel tender for the first time.

When I take care of a brother or sister in the Sangha, I take care of myself. When my Dharma sister or brother is in pain, I want to be there for the pain. It’s not my obligation as a Dharma teacher or a senior member of the Sangha. Building brotherhood and sisterhood, taking care of the Sangha, is taking care of myself. It’s taking care of my mother, my sister, my family. It’s natural. I see myself as a small segment of a long bamboo, and the ancestral teachers’ wisdom and compassion flow through the entire bamboo. The energy that runs through me and allows me to serve the Sangha is not really mine. My practice is to keep my segment hollow so that water from the source can pass through easily.

MB: To follow up on what you shared before––are you still sending packages to Vietnam, or are you currently engaged in supporting people there?

AH: I stopped sending packages to Vietnam after I was allowed to visit when the Vietnamese government loosened their travel policy. I visited the orphanages and the poor families. Now instead of sending packages, I send money. With the help of a number of friends, we started a non-profit organization, Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam. People can send money to us, and twice a year we send it on to Vietnam to support several projects. You can learn more about the work we’re doing at www.crpcv.org. This work sustains me and sustains our Sangha. One member of our Sangha often brings vegetables from her garden to share, and the dana she receives goes to help the poor children in Vietnam.

MB: What helps you to sustain a connection with Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and the teachings?

AH: What sustains my connection with Thay and Sister Chan Khong as well as the Buddha and the Dharma is Sangha building. We are like trees that grow in the Sangha soil. Without the Sangha, we cannot grow beautifully and strongly. For me, the Sangha is everything. When I sit with my Dharma brothers and sisters, sharing stories, I feel all of our spiritual and blood ancestors are present with us. Whenever I take a walk or give a talk, Thay and my Sangha and all of my ancestral teachers are always with me.

MB: So there’s no reason to feel alone.

AH: I’ve never felt alone. Even in the most challenging times in our family and in the Sangha, I deeply trust that everything will be all right. We just need to allow ourselves to be carried in the stream of our ancestral teachers. I do not have to make any decisions or solve any problems alone. Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and all of our ancestors are doing everything with us. The Sangha is like a float. When we left Vietnam, my dad hung tires around our small boat. If he hadn’t done that, the boat would have sunk immediately as soon as we encountered high waves. For me, the Sangha is like those tires; it keeps us afloat.

The Sangha is a body. Some of us happen to be the head, some happen to be the belly, and some to be the feet. We are different parts of that body. A Dharma teacher is often perceived as Sangha leader, which can be a misperception. A Dharma teacher may belong to the head part of the Sangha body, but he or she does not have to be the leader. I or we do take care of the Sangha. But believing in the idea that there is an “I” or “we” who take care of the Sangha may take away the joy, freedom, and happiness of Sangha building. There’s taking care of the Sangha, but there’s no one who’s taking care of the Sangha.

MB: If someone has that perception of “I am taking care,” or “we are taking care of the Sangha,” how do you suggest that people work with that perception to open their minds?

AH: We are so conditioned to living, practicing, and helping in that way. When we walk in the mist, our shirt gradually gets wet. If there is one person in the Sangha who serves the Sangha without thinking that “I am taking care of the Sangha,” that spirit will penetrate into the entire Sangha. Building Sangha in the light of interbeing can bring us endless joy and freedom. People often say, “Oh, you’re an OI member, you have these responsibilities. You have to build Sangha. You have to do this and that.” Or, “As a Dharma teacher, you take on a lot more responsibility.” But I don’t feel that way because I never thought of myself as a Dharma teacher. [Laughs.]

Receiving Lamp Transmission from Thay or entering the core community of the Order of Interbeing can only help us feel more free and happy, because we are now entering the stream of our ancestral teachers. We should not let the “brown jacket” or the title “Dharma teacher” get in the way! If you’re happy, you are already a true Sangha builder. Responsibility is a wholesome trait, but when it is mixed with the notion, “I have to carry it,” then it becomes a burden, a source of unhappiness. We don’t have to carry anything. The Sangha carries everything.

Embracing Our Pain

The message I’d like to repeat is: Don’t run away from the pain, sadness, or depression in you. Sometimes there’s a voice inside saying that if you go back to your pain, you will die. This voice may tell you not to trust the Sangha, and that this practice can only take you thus far. I name this destructive energy “ill will,” which is present in each of us. It prevents us from taking deep root into the Sangha soil. It threatens and prevents us from opening our hearts to our Sangha. It instills us with fear and doubts. We don’t need to argue with or listen to this voice. You know the mantra I’ve been sharing with my friends in the Sangha? If you hear this voice, take a few deep breaths and practice this mantra: “Okay. I will die. I accept dying. If I die in the Sangha’s arms, that’s the best place to die. If I die in the Buddha’s arms, what could be a better place to die?”

mb65-TheSangha7Regardless of what happens, we are committed to showing up at our Sangha. I have a Dharma brother who carries deep suffering and old traumas. In the past, he didn’t come to Sangha when emotions arose because he wasn’t able to drive. Now, when that happens, he can take a taxi to Sangha. He shows up. Sometimes when old trauma returns, we suddenly do not feel safe coming to the Sangha. I suggest to him pinning a note on his shirt, saying, “Dear Sangha, I need your support so that I may rest in the Sangha today,” when he comes and lies down in the Sangha.

At the end of the day, when we are tired, we go home and rest. We can lie in bed, relax, and drop all our self-images. I wish that my brothers and sisters can find that same rest, that same comfort in their Sangha. Sangha has to be a place where people can feel safe so that they can close their eyes, relax, and enjoy their breathing. When Sangha becomes a safe place, we’re not just talking about being cells in the Sangha body, we’re living it. Brotherhood and sisterhood come alive when we go through difficult as well as happy moments together. Sangha practice weaves threads of individual practitioners into a Sangha blanket, keeping everyone warm and comfortable.

That’s why Thu quit his job as a software developer and I quit my job as a biochemistry researcher, so that we could devote our lives to Sangha building. During the first year of the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax, there were many days that the dana basket was empty. We lived on our savings. Our son Bao-Tich, who is now twenty, was still in kindergarten at the time. We wondered how the future of the MPCF would unfold. Many moments, we looked at each other and smiled, then looked up at Thay’s calligraphy on our altar: An Tru Trong Hien Tai (which means “Dwelling happily in the present moment”). We left it all in the hands of our ancestors and of the Sangha. We continued to share our lives and practice with friends near and far. We are happy.

Engaged Buddhism

MB: How do you define “engaged Buddhism,” and how do you practice it?

AH: Engaged Buddhism begins with being there for our pain. Not only our individual pain, but also our collective pain. We learn safe and gentle ways to pick up that baby of pain, to hold and soothe that baby with mindfulness. When our son was born, even though my mom had taught me how to hold him, and I had seen mothers holding their babies, I had to feel my way through. You have to hold the baby in your arms to bring alive that experience, not just intellectual understanding. With mindfulness and concentration, both mother and baby will be safe, comfortable, and happy.

For me, engaged Buddhism is like water. Water has no shape. When we put water in a square container, it takes on a square shape; in a round one, it has a round shape. The mindfulness practice center comes out of Thay’s brilliant idea to share the practice of mindfulness in a nonsectarian way. The Dharma takes no form, or any form. We would like to make the capital “B” of Buddhism into a small “b.” We do not need to have Buddha statues or burn incense. We do not need to bow to each other or use Buddhist terms. We learn to be present to the situation at hand and share the Dharma in a way that can help people feel safe, so that they can release tensions from their bodies and minds.

This explains why a Day of Mindfulness at MPCF begins with total body relaxation. People are so stressed. Guided meditation that is offered in the lying down position helps people to stop and connect with their bodies easily, especially for those who are new to mindfulness practice. Their minds become quiet and their hearts open. When we can be truly present, a new Dharma door will be open for that particular situation. So the format at MPCF comes from the needs of those who attend, not from us who facilitate.

Thay’s dream is to see a mindfulness practice center in every town and city. I have an image of mushrooms––centers sprouting up everywhere. Many Sangha brothers and sisters have already brought mindfulness into schools, prisons, and other places, without Buddhist form.

Once we are able to cradle the pain in our own hearts, understanding and compassion will guide us in every step along the path.

Edited by Barbara Casey and Natascha Bruckner

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Poem: Walking Meditation with Anh-Huong

mb65-Walking1I felt the silence of the wind
as we walked through woods
where autumn leaves fell—
as I wish to fall––gently.
Golden, brown and fire red
cleansing air, breath and me.
I walked with her, held her hand––
gently, like a leaf
I hugged my teacher and she shined
through October’s roiling clouds.
The trees bowed like Buddhist monks
and her smile sang itself into my heart.
More leaves slipped their moorings
and floated into my sadness,
fluttered, tickling the soul, and
I smiled, leaves like butterflies in my heart.

-Garrett Phelan

mb65-Walking2Garrett Phelan, True Shining Heart, practices with the Mindfulness Practice Center of Fairfax (MPCF) under Anh-Huong and Thu Nguyen. Garrett is the editor of the quarterly newsletter ofthe MPCF, “Along the Path.” A former high school principal and
longtime teacher, he is currently a teaching artist in the Washington, D.C., area.

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A Letter to My Brothers and Sisters in Baguio City Jail

By Sister Mai Nghiem

mb65-ALetter1Dear Brothers and Sisters,

It is 5 a.m. and I’m sitting on the roof of the Baguio Buddha Temple, looking out at your city and thinking of you. Are you up yet? What are you doing at this time? I wish we would’ve had more time to talk yesterday. Perhaps another time.

Thank you for our time together yesterday. It was my first time going into a jail, and before I entered, my mind was fi with questions and apprehension. I asked myself, “What do I know about their lives? How can I help? Who am I to help?”

As we spent time together, and as you shared your questions and difficulties, I realized something so simple that it may sound naive and a bit silly, something we all know in our heads, but which feels so different in our hearts. I entered the jail with the idea that “you’re you and I’m me,” the idea that you’re a young Filipino staying in the Baguio City Jail and I’m a young French nun staying in a temple in Hong Kong.

Thanks to your openness and your sharing through words, looks, and smiles, I emerged from the Baguio City Jail as quite a different person. I realized, “You’re me and I’m you.” The pain in your heart is also my pain and the smile in your eyes is also my joy. I realized that we have the same mind, that we are experiencing the same joys and suffering as well as the same need for understanding and love.

I realized that we’re who we are now because of our environment, our education, and the influences and impacts of the people in our lives. We’re who we are now because of the seeds we’ve watered in our lives, whether anger, fear, hatred, love, joy, despair, or forgiveness. If my father hadn’t helped me to change the environment I was engaging in as a teenager (an environment filled with drugs, alcohol, empty sex, and partying), I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wouldn’t have been able to meet all of you yesterday.

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I’d like to tell you a story. Our teacher did a retreat many years ago in America for war veterans. One of the participants was very fearful. He avoided the other participants, choosing to stay alone. After a few days, a group of brothers and sisters sat with him so he could share what was happening in his heart. And he told his story.

He was a soldier in Vietnam whose unit was killed by the Viet Cong. In revenge, he placed explosives in sandwiches, left them at the gate of a village, and hid nearby. After a while, a group of children came along, found the sandwiches, and happily ate them. As they ate, they began crying, their bodies twisting in pain as they called out for their parents. The American soldier knew there was nothing to be done. He knew the children would die.

When the soldier returned to the United States, images of the dying children haunted his mind. He couldn’t sleep or find any peace of mind. He became a very anxious and angry person and was unable to be in the same room with children.

So much guilt was in him and he could not forget. His mother was the only person with whom he spoke about what he had done. She tried to comfort him by saying, “This is what happens in war.” But her words didn’t help to release his pain.

When the soldier finished telling his story, our teacher said to him, “Yes, you killed a group of children. This is a fact. But how many children can you save today? How many children are dying right in this moment because of lack of food and medicine? Do not stay in your guilt and regret. Go out and help save children now.” And that is what the ex-soldier did. He started devoting his time and energy to saving children, and at the same time, he was healing himself.

When we experience a difficult situation, we are very lucky. Why? The difficult situation gives us a chance to understand deeply and to help other people who are experiencing the same kind of suffering.

If we have watered the seeds of anger, hatred, violence, and fear every day, and can see how these seeds, growing stronger and stronger, have brought so much damage and suffering to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to others, then we can make an aspiration in our heart. Whether we are in prison or not, we can take the time we have to reflect, to look deeply at our situation and into the situations of our children and our youth to see what we can do to create a better environment, a better place for our children to grow up so that violence, hatred, fear, and anger are not our daily bread. We can nourish ourselves and one another with joy, beauty, love, and understanding. And that doesn’t require money.

We can sit together, and as intelligent people, we will find ways to become community builders, creating a safe, healthy, and peaceful environment for our families and future generations. We have to use our time wisely. If we are in prison, we have plenty of time now to sit and look at ourselves, to sit together and share our difficulties and our insights of how to get out of these difficult situations. And we can always ask for help. There are many people around us who are ready to listen and to help.

I have much trust that you will be able to help many, many people through your own experience.

My dear brothers and sisters, thank you for being here, thank you for being who you are, thank you for being so beautiful. I promise I will use my time to breathe for you and to walk for you, because I know that my peace is your peace, and my joy is your joy.

Please pray for me as well, so that I may have your determination and your strength to face obstacles along my way. May God and all your ancestors be with you always, protecting you on your path.

Your sister, Mai

Sister Mai Nghiem (Sister Plum Blossom) ordained in 2002. She is living now in the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, helping with Applied Ethics and Wake Up programmes. She went with the monastic Sangha to the Philippines in October 2013, a yearly trip. The Baguio City Jail visit was an event organized by a Sangha member there.

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The Heart of Creativity

By Aleksandra Kumorek

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The work of artists, creative practitioners, and those working in the media has an impact on the collective consciousness. But which seeds are being watered? What would it look like to live and work according to Buddhist ethics? How can we be part of a wholesome, supportive community of creative practitioners?

“Together we are one,” reads a calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh. This statement became the motto of the first retreat organized by the Mindful Artists Network, which took place at Findhorn, Scotland, in June 2013. Fourteen dancers, musicians, actors, writers, and visual artists from Germany, Great Britain, and Canada came together at the Victorian retreat centre, Newbold House, in order to meditate, dance, celebrate, and practice creativity. Under the spiritual guidance of Sister Jewel (Dharma teacher in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh) and Sister Hai Nghiem, and with co-facilitation by the network founders Susanne Olbrich and me, this newly formed “tribe” spent a weekend enjoying the magical Scottish midnight sun.

In the opening ceremony, everyone placed an object or image on the “altar of creativity”––something that represented each person’s connection to his or her individual creative source. It was an act of consciously joining the great stream of our ancestors, inspirations, and influences. This marked the beginning of an intense weekend of shared joys and tears, dances and performances, deep reflection, and heartfelt laughter.

In addition to sitting and walking meditations, the focus was on creative practice. Sister Jewel introduced the InterPlay* method and dance meditation, which helped us connect deeply with ourselves and with each other. In the large, walled garden of Newbold House, groups created mandalas from natural materials and then gave impromptu performances. In small groups, we reflected on ethics and the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

An informal tea ceremony provided a frame for participants to present their own creative work: music, dance, painting, sculpture, performance, movies, photography, and poetry. One of the particularly memorable artists was a most uncommon “Zen” master: a clown who works with terminally ill children in hospitals and who made us laugh that night.

By the time we parted Sunday afternoon, we’d grown into a loving community that had brought Thich Nhat Hanh’s statement to life: Together we are one, indeed. We couldn’t resolve the world’s problems during this weekend, and living our lives lovingly and mindfully will continue to be a challenge for each one of us. We know we must not allow the seeds of greed, stress, and competition, which are so dominant in our society, to be watered. We must remain true to our way of compassion and non-harming in everyday work. But we know that we no longer walk this path alone.

The next Mindful Artists Network retreat is scheduled for July 17-20, 2014, at the Source of Compassion practice centre in Berlin. It will be guided by Sister Jewel. Please visit www.mindful-artists. org for information about the previous and upcoming retreats.

*InterPlay (www.interplay.org) is a creative practice that integrates movement, storytelling, silence, and song to unlock the wisdom of the body.

Amb65-TheHeart2leksandra Kumorek is a writer, director, and lecturer in Berlin. In 2012, she became a lay member of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing. She has practiced with the Sangha Source of Compassion in Berlin since 2005. She and pianist/composer Susanne Olbrich launched Mindful Artists Network at Plum Village in 2012.

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Calligraphic Meditation

By Maureen Chen

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From September 7 to December 31, 2013, Calligraphic Meditation: The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh––the first U.S. exhibition of Thay’s calligraphies––was held at ABC Home in New York City. Jointly presented by Blue Cliff Monastery and ABC Home, the exhibition had already shown in Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thailand.

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ABC Home sells elegant, responsibly sourced home furnishings. Its CEO and Creative Director Paulette Cole and COO Amy Chender both own Thay’s calligraphies and attended his NYC public talk in October 2011. Thus, when consultant Lorna Chiu proposed the exhibition on behalf of Blue Cliff, they were eager to host.

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In the store’s front windows, huge calligraphies were displayed with furnishings as they would appear in a home. The artwork featured two empty Zen circles as well as Thay’s aphorisms: look deeply, be beautiful be yourself, breathe, go as a river, and no mud no lotus. Occasionally, someone noticed them and even stopped to take photographs or watch the video of Thay doing calligraphy.

Just inside the entrance, breathe served as a mindfulness bell, inviting viewers to stop and become aware of their breathing. Then look deeply invited them to look at and buy Thay’s books and CDs displayed below the art.

A Sacred Sanctuary

Inside the store, the Deepak HomeBase gallery— created by Paulette Cole and bestselling author Deepak Chopra to present the work of visionary individuals—was transformed into a sacred sanctuary by the sixty-six framed calligraphies on its walls. These included more of Thay’s core teachings, such as peace is every step, this is because that is, smile, and the English, French, and Chinese versions of i have arrived i am home.

At a press conference held on September 5, a panel of fi e monastics––Sister Chan Khong; Sister Dedication, exhibition curator; Thay’s calligraphy assistant Brother Phap Nguyen; Sister Peace; and Brother Phap Chieu––shared their favorite calligraphies with members of the media. Brother Phap Nguyen explained that the Zen circle is a special symbol in the Zen and Plum Village traditions, and that it has multiple meanings, such as emptiness, the cosmos, and Thay’s concept of interbeing. Sister Chan Khong sang the poem “For Warmth” in her lovely voice.

Paulette Cole greeted the media by saying, “For us, it is a privilege to water positive seeds in New York City.” Deepak Chopra spoke about how one’s attitude, whether positive or negative, is infectious.

At the reception that followed, a classical string quartet of lay and monastic musicians performed for two hundred guests, including many family members, friends, colleagues, wellness experts, and artisans in the ABC Home community. Notable attendees included motivational speaker Gabrielle Bernstein, actor Edward Norton, actress Parker Posey, actress Amy Smart, and Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman.

After Paulette Cole and Deepak Chopra welcomed the guests, Thay gave a Dharma talk about mindful breathing and transforming suffering. “The practice of mindful breathing brings the mind home to the body and helps you to be fully present, fully alive in the here and the now. You can get in touch with all the wonders of life that are there, available in the here and the now for your nourishment and healing.”

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Introducing the “Namo’valokiteshvaraya” chant— honoring the bodhisattva of great compassion—by the monastics, Thay said, “If we allow our body to be in the here and the now, and allow the collective energy to penetrate into our body, then we can release the tension in our body and feel much better after a few minutes of listening. And if we have some fear, some anger, some despair in our heart, it is time for us to open our heart and allow the collective energy of mindfulness and compassion to penetrate and help hold the massive suffering in us.”

Following the uplifting chant, Thay talked about his calligraphy. “Calligraphy, for me, is an act of meditation, very pleasant, where I enjoy happiness, freedom, brotherhood, sisterhood. I always start my practice with a cup of tea. I have the habit of always mixing some of the tea in my ink, and when I hold the brush, I begin to breathe in. For making the circle, I breathe in mindfully.” Holding up a calligraphy of an empty Zen circle and pointing to the beginning of the brushstroke, he said, “You can see my in-breath in this circle. There is a calm, there is a concentration, there is a mindfulness, and there is love. When I come to this [halfway] point, I begin to breathe out, smiling. There is always a smile somewhere from here [halfway point] to here [end of brushstroke]. Making a circle like that, doing a line of calligraphy, always brings peace, concentration, joy, happiness, and love.”

After the ceremonial ribbon cutting by Thay, Paulette Cole, and Deepak Chopra, Thay gave a demonstration. Using Chinese ink mixed with tea, French and Japanese brushes, and rice paper, he made eight new calligraphies with complete mindfulness and concentration. Upon finishing each one, he affixed his red seal, which bears his lineage name and Dharma title, Trung Quang Nhat Hanh, and held up his work with a joyous smile. A video of the reception can be viewed at www.abchome.com/video-experience-the-meditative-art-of-thich-nhat-hanh-live/.

Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape

On the following day, a flash mob meditation organized by Wake Up New York was held at Union Square Park. Led by five monastics, about three hundred people sat on hard concrete and meditated to the sound of traffic and a persistent drumbeat. Sister Chan Khong then led the meditators on a four-block walking meditation to the exhibition. There she led the singing of “Breathing In, Breathing Out” and “For Warmth,” and gave a Dharma talk on taking care of one’s anger. She advised listeners not to speak when angry, but to return to the in-breath and out-breath. Paulette Cole closed the evening by thanking the monastics for their presence at ABC Home.

On October 10, a conversation on “Slowing Down, Finding Meaning: Mindfulness in an Urban Landscape” occurred in the packed gallery. The discussion was led by Ira Glass, host and executive producer of This American Life. Brother Phap Vu of Blue Cliff, Dharma teacher Joanne Friday, and Wake Up New York facilitator Zack Foley shared their personal experiences with practicing mindfulness and answered questions from the audience.

Much painstaking work by the entire ABC Home team, led by Paulette Cole, Amy Chender, Head of Events Paula Gilovich, and Visual Director Manena Frazier, went into creating and maintaining this exhibition and its events. Supporting Thay were many monastics and lay friends, the NYC Dharma teachers, consultant Lorna Chiu, and Blue Cliff staffer Stephanie Davies, coordinated by Brother Phap Vu, Sister Lang Nghiem, and Brother Phap Chieu.

Indeed everyone and everything in the cosmos came together in this exhibition: all who supplied materials for the calligraphies, books, and decorations; all who transported Thay, the calligraphies, monastics, guests, and viewers to the exhibition; everyone’s ancestors, including Paulette Cole’s great-grandfather, who founded the store; and many more elements too numerous to mention.

Mmb65-Calligraphic5aureen Chen, Radiant Opening of the Heart, of Morning Star Sangha in Queens, New York, deeply thanks everyone who helped with this article.

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To Draw a Zen Circle

By Maureen Chen

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“Calligraphy is a deep practice,” says Thay. To do calligraphy as a meditation practice, you do not need the ink, brushes, and rice paper that Thay uses. Any pen, pencil, or marker and any paper, such as the paper in your computer printer, will do.

To draw a Zen circle, first set the point of your pen, pencil, or marker on your paper where you want the bottom of your circle to be. As you breathe in, draw the first half of the circle. As you breathe out, draw the other half.

In this meditation practice, you can coordinate your drawing with your breathing so that you draw a complete circle in the duration of one in-breath and one out-breath. Whether your circle is perfectly round or not is unimportant, as long as you practice with mindfulness and concentration. Those who do Thay’s mindful movements will recognize this practice as similar to movement #4, making circles in the air with the arms, except that the circles are smaller and are made on paper.

You can choose to write a meaningful word or phrase in your circle. Still being aware of your breathing, write in your normal handwriting, mindfully taking the time and effort needed to make each letter beautiful.

While Thay’s exhibition is part of history, he has given us this new practice. Says Thay, “When you practice calligraphy, you can touch the insight of no-self, of interbeing, because you cannot be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with the whole cosmos. And that is why calligraphy can be a deep practice and why you do calligraphy. You get concentration, you get mindfulness, you get the insight of interbeing, the insight of no-self. It has the power to liberate us from fear, anger, suffering, separation, discrimination.”

For inspiration, see Thay’s video demonstration at www.thichnhathanhcalligraphy.org.

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Keeping the Flame Alive

By Brandon Rennels

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Last winter in Plum Village, a friend told me my first name can be translated as “Fire-starter.” At the time I had just begun my role as a coordinator for the international Wake Up movement. I was working alongside Buddhist monks and nuns to support young adults in practicing mindfulness and creating communities where they live. Wake Up had been growing steadily over the past few years, and many conditions had come together to allow me the opportunity to dedicate my efforts to the cause. I had been searching for a way to apply my business consulting background to support mindfulness practice, and this was it. It was a dream job—my answer to: “What would you pay to do?” I saw many opportunities to contribute, to support people, to get things rolling.

But fire, when uncontrolled, can be extremely destructive. Coming from a corporate background, I was used to pushing the limits of my mental and physical capacity in order to “get things done.” Once I transitioned to working with the mindfulness community, I naively thought these habits would drop away. I soon learned that working on mindfulness projects does not necessarily mean one is working mindfully. In addition to my old work habits, I encountered a new stress, a second arrow of frustration, when I felt overburdened. Most people in the corporate world will admit they’re stressed out by work, but in the mindfulness realm I thought I should be calm 24/7. So when things went awry, as they often do, I felt bad about feeling bad.

Even though I had found work that I truly cared about, my path had really just begun. To balance doing vs. being, engagement vs. rest, making a difference vs. taking care of myself, and to protect and nurture my internal flame—this was my true “job.” To protect this flame I have often relied on the other elements of air, water, and earth. All the elements are necessary for our survival, yet all have the potential to destroy. What’s necessary is a cultivation of them in balance. Fortunately, I’ve had some help from friends along the way.

Last summer I had the good fortune of being able to visit many different Wake Up Sanghas in the Netherlands. We started most meditation sessions with a weather report about how we were feeling in the moment, aided by the metaphor of the elements.

During my time in the Lowlands, I was able to touch, taste, and play with these elements in different ways, ultimately finding ways to sustain my internal flame.

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Air: I Am a Cloud

I had heard that the Netherlands is famous for its clouds. From my observations, I can see why. Big puffy clouds resemble something familiar, but when you turn away for an instant, the scene morphs, and the imagination has a fresh canvas to play with. Through the wind, air acts as an invisible force, shaping and transforming the outer landscape.

Air affects the inner landscape as well, in the form of the breath. Each Wake Up event starts with sitting meditation, following our breathing: full in-breath, full out-breath. I enjoy beginning this way. It really allows a person to arrive. (I went to visit a Wake Up Sangha in Belgium for a “Wake Up and Play” event, a gathering specifically designed to have no formal meditation, but after an hour everyone decided that we should sit! Sometimes you need to arrive before you can have fun.)

Air also carries sounds. Sound, like the wind, is an invisible force that can heal, seduce, enchant. During my fi weekend in the Netherlands, one of my hosts had a birthday party. At one moment we all lay down on the floor with our heads together, listening to the sounds, to our breathing, to one another. I was acting DJ for the evening and thought to put on a French electronic artist who just happens to be named “Air.” Shortly after the opening beat, one of the guys said, “Oh, nice! This is the perfect moment for Air.” I smiled to think that two people who grew up on different continents with different cultures and different life experiences could so easily be united by music.

As everyone was leaving, I realized that this constellation of people might never again be in the same room together. Impermanence. Just as the cloud changes shape, so does the fabric of each moment of our lives. I was grateful for the moments we shared.

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Water: Flowing Like a River

It’s easy to flow like a river when you like the direction in which you’re headed. During a lazy day in Amsterdam, I had the luxury of sitting (well, lying down, really) on the back of a paddleboat. It was a magnificent, sunny summer afternoon, and I had just peeled an orange and was savoring each slice while my toes skimmed the surface of the water. At one moment we started turning sideways, and after a few seconds I began to wonder, “Where are we going?” The two people paddling seemed to have been distracted. It didn’t matter. So what if we were off track? I was confident we would find our way.

While it’s one thing to keep this trust when you’re being chauffeured on a calm canal, it can be more difficult to maintain trust when the waters are high. At one point in my stay, there was a weeklong stretch that was quite packed. We had events almost every day in different cities, my work responsibilities had picked up, and on top of it all I wasn’t sleeping very well. Our final event for the week was about awareness of food waste, and although I was interested in the topic, I debated whether it would be better for me to just rest. We arrived the night before on a cold, rainy evening, and by the time we got to our host’s house it was well past my bedtime. Knowing how much work had been put into this event, I decided to flow with the river and join.

When we arrived at the event the next morning, judging by the number of teacups and tired faces, it seemed everyone had had a long week. A few people shared that they were tired, and we all listened, together taking refuge in the Sangha. Our next activity was a silent walk, but as people were slowly gathering their belongings, a new idea emerged. The organizers, sensing the energy level, switched the program to an interactive game. I was unsure if this would be a welcome change, but after a few minutes of laughing and stumbling into one another, the group’s mood had clearly lifted. Sometimes a simple adjustment can have a delightful downstream effect.

The events of that week provided an opportunity for me to reflect on how to balance “doing together” and “being together.” In the face of much to do, again I saw that the habit energy of rushing had, at times, gotten the best of me. That’s okay. It happens. But I knew I needed to observe this tendency deeply if I wanted to sustain the flame in the long run. The term “burnout” is often used to describe a metaphorical extinguishment of our internal flame. A surplus of air (impermanence) or water (flowing as a river) can create unstable conditions for fire, so to protect myself I can call on the solid foundational element, earth.

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Earth: Rooted as a Tree

Have you ever hugged a tree? It took me a while before I physically embraced my fi tree. The term “tree-hugger” conjured up a negative image in my mind, and this judgment persisted until I visited a national park in California. I saw someone wrapped snugly around a giant sequoia, and she looked happy enough. I tried it myself. Whoa! It actually feels great. Trees, like mountains, are metaphors of stability in mindfulness practice. In a storm the branches sway but the trunk is solid, stable, unmoved. While the Dutch claim that they don’t have much “nature” (as most areas have been developed), I found plenty of trees to take refuge in.

One stop on my trip was a Sangha meeting in Rotterdam. Upon entering the home where we would be practicing, I was immediately invited to share a meal with the hosts. This particular Sangha felt mature and stable, and as I was feeling a bit ungrounded that day, I was thankful to take refuge in them. As we all settled into sitting meditation together, I began breathing in their solidity, and soon the image of a tree appeared in my mind’s eye. It had brilliant brown bark with a wide trunk and roots that dug down deep. In the center of the trunk there was a door, and I found myself wondering what was inside. After a few more breaths the door slowly opened, and inside were my mother, my father, and me as a five-year-old child, all inviting me in. They welcomed me with open arms, gave me some space, and breathed with me. With each breath I felt recharged, encouraged, and free.

If there was ever an “island within,” I had found it. In this space I felt safe, and with each breath I was able to ground myself in the solidity of my ancestors and of Mother Earth. By the end of the evening I had rekindled the inner flame and given it space to burn brighter, like a torch guiding my way and igniting my deep aspiration to change myself, and by extension, the world.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

At the end of my time in the Netherlands, I had the honor of co-facilitating the Sangha meeting in Nijmegen. As I led the mindful movements and deep relaxation, I felt so comfortable, as if I was among old friends. Many of the people in the room I had gotten to know through numerous encounters within and outside of the Sangha meetings.

The Dharma sharing that evening was filled with a lot of emotion. There was the joy of a new baby, sadness of a pending death in the family, difficult jobs, new relationships… this was the real deal! We shared and listened, breathing together with what Jon Kabat-Zinn would call the “full catastrophe” of this shared human experience.

At the end of the evening we all gathered in a circle for a group hug. Looking around, I felt the entire community supporting me and knew I could handle whatever challenges lay ahead. The flame was burning brightly and it felt good. We sang one last song together, and it was a fitting way to end my journey:

Been traveling a day Been traveling a year
Been traveling a lifetime, to find my way home
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is
Home is where the heart is, my heart is with you.

mb65-Keeping5Brandon Rennels, True Garden of Faith, has been serving, living, and lounging within the Plum Village community for the last couple years. As a coordinator for Wake Up, he has had the privilege of interfacing daily with passionate young practitioners around the world. He has also logged enough time at the monastery to significantly improve his table tennis game. In a previous life he was a management consultant based out of Dubai.

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Wake Up

Young Buddhists and Non-Buddhists for a Healthy and Compassionate Society

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Nutshell

Wake Up is an active global community of young mindfulness practitioners, aged 18-35, inspired by the teachings of Zen master and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. We come together to practice mindfulness in order to take care of ourselves, nourish happiness, and contribute to building a healthier and more compassionate society.

We want to help our world, which is overloaded with intolerance, discrimination, craving, anger, and despair. Seeing the environmental degradation caused by our society, we want to live in such a way that our planet Earth can survive for a long time. Practicing mindfulness, concentration, and insight enables us to cultivate tolerance, non-discrimination, understanding, and compassion in ourselves and the world.

Practice: Essence

We follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are ethical guidelines that offer concrete practices of true love and compassion, and a path toward a life in harmony with each other and the Earth. These guidelines are the foundation of our lives and represent our ideal of service. Our practice is based on cultivating awareness of the breath and living deeply in the present moment, aware of what is happening within us and around us. This practice helps us to release the tension in our bodies and feelings, to live life deeply and more happily, and to use compassionate listening and loving speech to help restore communication and reconcile with others.

Roots/Inclusiveness

The Wake Up movement is inspired by Buddhism’s long tradition of wisdom and practices that help cultivate understanding and love; it is not based on beliefs or ideology. The spirit of our practice is close to the spirit of science; both help us cultivate an open and non-discriminating mind. We honor everyone’s diverse spiritual and cultural roots. You can join as a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, as an agnostic or atheist, or as a member of any other spiritual or religious tradition.

What We Do

We aspire to be a place of refuge, nourishment, and support for people with an aspiration to transform their own suffering and contribute to a healthy and compassionate society. We gather weekly or monthly in Wake Up groups to practice sitting and walking meditation, listen to a teaching, practice total relaxation, listen deeply to one another, and recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. We also organize mindfulness events and retreats, and visit meditation practice centers together to refresh ourselves and strengthen our practice. Many groups also organize music evenings, meditation flash mobs, picnics, hikes, and other special events or actions.

You Can Do It

If you are a young person inspired to cultivate mindfulness and compassion in your life, we invite you to join the Wake Up movement in your country. Wake Up offers a way for us to pool our energy and act collectively, to create the world we want to live in! You can get together and form a Wake Up group wherever you are. Please let us know what you are planning to do and what you are trying to achieve. We will do our best to support you.

For more information about joining a group, starting a group, attending a retreat, or connecting online, visit wkup.org.

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Building Happiness from Scratch

By Bas Bruggeman, Han Nguyen, and Felipe Viveros

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“Being young today, you have a world to invent. The old world has dead-ended, and a new reality is about to emerge. It is a moment of crisis and transition––full of danger and full of opportunity. And since everything starts as a seed, a thought in the mind, it is up to us what to cultivate. That is why we need to have a vision for the future.”
–Dr. Ha Vinh Tho, Program Director of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Bhutan, opening speech at the Wake Up GNH Retreat

Seeds were planted on a spring evening at the University of Cambridge during the first Wake Up University Tour in 2011. We were sitting with Brother Phap Linh, Sister Hien Nghiem, and a group of students. The room was filled with warm light, and the collective energy of mindfulness was vibrant. A circle was formed to contemplate these questions: “How can we keep the fire of our deepest aspiration alive? How can we, as the young generation, respond to the situation of our planet?”

Following our breath, we listened to stories of frustration about environmental engagement, and of how the social machinery was making us move further away from our initial aspirations, but also stories of transformation, showing that there was a way to align our inner aspirations with the external world. Toward the end of the session, Brother Phap Linh shared with us that the greatest obstacle was our fear and that only from a place of acceptance could we truly act. “How can we create an environment that cultivates the practice of mindfulness and non-fear in us, thus helping us sustain our inner fire?” This was among the burning questions that we kept in our hearts as we left this circle.

Five months later, we found ourselves in the School of Youth for Social Service (SYSS) in Saigon, practicing Touching the Earth and sharing a discussion with the first members of the Order of Interbeing. What a powerful experience it was to connect to our stream of spiritual ancestors and predecessors. We became aware of the present moment, the moment of being together. In this place, about forty years ago, amidst dogmatism, violence, destruction, and death, more than 10,000 young people came together to cultivate peace and find ways to relieve suffering by applying Buddhist practice in concrete actions that responded to the societal context. Feeling inspired, one of our friends asked the elders, “How can we continue the SYSS?” “As soon as you ask yourself this question, you have already started to continue the SYSS,” one of them responded.

Present Histories

Connecting the history of the SYSS to our present, we asked ourselves, “What is engaged Buddhism in the twenty-first century? What are our own sufferings and challenges as well as those of our contemporary society, and how do we learn to cultivate happiness and relieve suffering within ourselves and in society amidst these conditions?” Over the course of the last three years, our Wake Up team of seven young people from various countries in Europe (the Netherlands, the UK, Italy, and Germany) has been co-investigating this web of interconnected questions by practicing and working together to give rise to concrete projects in Europe and Asia. Project-based retreats or retreat-based projects, as we call our ventures, are inner and outer journeys to find ways to deepen our understanding of ourselves and one another, to build Sangha, and to unite the spiritual dimension and the working dimension.

An in-breath naturally leads to an out-breath. Filled with these aspirations and questions, we encountered Ha Vinh Tho, a Dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition, on our journey. About one year after our circle in Cambridge, Tho was appointed the Program Director of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) Centre in Bhutan. From the beginning, he has emphasized the common aspirations that the Gross National Happiness Centre and Wake Up movement share, and he mapped out possibilities of collaboration. The Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, being at the core of engaged Buddhist practice, formed an inspiring dialogue with the development philosophy of GNH, which measures progress in relation to the happiness and well-being of all living beings, and explores a way toward a paradigm shift in order to bring about equilibrium between mental and material wealth, human needs, and the needs of nature. Seeing the potential that lay in the cross-pollination of these two approaches, we have continuously looked for ways to connect them in our projects.

mb65-Building2From Aspiration to Realization

Tho has been very generous toward us, supporting us with his presence and wisdom during Wake Up Retreats at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism each year. After experiencing a wonderful intergenerational Wake Up summer retreat on “The Economics of Happiness” in Germany, we then teleported the economics of happiness back to the country where it emerged. In 2013, we helped manifest a twenty-one-day, project-based retreat for young people on the future GNH Centre site in Eastern Bhutan.

The first Wake Up GNH Program was born out of the awareness that our generation is growing up in a time of transition, with tremendous changes and challenges confronting our Earth, our society, and ourselves. Taking the practice of mindfulness as the basis, we retreated into nature for three weeks to reconsider how we live our lives, and to reflect on our impact on our society and planet. The intention was to create a mutual learning experience of living in community and nature, to learn new practical skills for our hands and hearts, and to start the collective process of developing a vision of how we can make a difference in our daily life and work. As we explored the relation between inner and social transformation through our daily activities, we contemplated how the philosophy of GNH could be of value to our lives.

Stepping on the wild territory of the retreat site during the preparation phase, we encountered questions like, “What do we need to be happy on a daily basis? How do we create conditions of happiness for community living in this environment?” These questions reconnected to the ones we had asked in Cambridge and Saigon, forming the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new phase in our practice.

Hermitage among the Clouds

We spent ten days turning the jungle into a retreat space, and by the time the rest of our group arrived, almost all the preparations had been completed. With the help of local villagers, we built from scratch a camp that consisted of a wood-fired kitchen, two dormitories, a compost toilet, and a bear-proof camping area. We tapped water from a nearby spring, and presto: our dreams were beginning to come true.

Twenty-five participants came from places as diverse as Alaska, Hanoi, Hamburg, and Thimphu, to live simply and focus on the practice. We engaged in basic activities such as cooking, cleaning, making fires, and boiling water in order to sustain the camp. Daily morning meditation was a great way to set an intention for the day and blend our different traditions. While TV and the Internet were introduced to Bhutan only ten years ago, Bhutanese youth are not immune to the global trends of materialism, substance abuse, and loss of cultural traditions. However, we could sense a strong faith among them, based on respect for the Earth and all sentient beings. Hence, Dharma sharing proved to be another infallible bonding method that helped deepen our understanding of one another and further our connection, as we discovered that we all had our strengths, weaknesses, and struggles as young people searching for a path.

Raising the Pole of Brotherhood

At the beginning of our retreat, we planned a Puja, a traditional Buddhist ceremony to remove obstacles and purify the land. This was also an opportunity to meet with the nomads, the elders, and the peasants who lived nearby. As part of the preparations for the ceremony, our first collective task was to search for, cut, and carry a fifty-four-foot tree that would be raised during the opening ceremony for prayer flags. The flags would carry our prayers and aspirations for all the people who were suffering on the planet to find well-being, happiness, and peace. Finding an appropriate tree for such a commendable job did not prove to be so difficult, since we were in the middle of a fragrant blue pine forest. The real challenge was to carry the fallen, quite heavy tree to the only clear space in the forty-six acres that constitute the GNH territory. With all our strength and might, ten of us lifted and then transported that precious tree––a real exercise in community building.

Our guests from the local community crossed the glacier-fed river to join the Puja ceremony. The burning incense smudging the air, the sounds of the bells, chants, prayers, and horns shifted something inside of us. We were opening up to new possibilities. After the blessing, we were ready to raise the pole with bright and colourful flags attached to it. This took a lot more than plain muscle. After several failed attempts to raise it by pulling the ropes that were tied to the pole and pushing it from beneath, we finally did it. The experience was a gift, showing us how we could bridge our many differences to raise a common prayer for the well-being of all and for the future generations.

Creating Possibilities

This retreat was a humble attempt to create possibilities of community living and to experience the conditions that create happiness. The participants––many of us at points of transition in our lives––were able to train and practice living in harmony in community. Living together in nature, we were able to be in touch with the conditions that make a more stable happiness. The participants left with a strong sense of community, with inner transformation, and with new answers and questions.

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Jacoba Harm, a participant from Hamburg, shared, “Right now, a few days after Bhutan, the sun is shining and it is raining. There is a very beautiful rainbow at the horizon that invites me to go forward and to trust. More great programs like this will follow, and I feel I really want to be part of the young generation wanting to move something in today’s society. During the hiking in the mountains of Bumthang, I decided to apply for a specific education in university and to bring GNH back home. We all live together on one planet and in one community. I want to give more people the opportunity to enter this sustainable and new way of behaving, living, and working.”

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This retreat was the manifestation of a painting we co-created with our thoughts, speech, and actions, and with our brotherhood and sisterhood. It showed us the miraculous interconnection between our inner and outer worlds, and was a priceless learning experience in community building.

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mb65-Building6Bas Bruggeman made it to a Plum Village youth retreat for the first time in 2008 and has been enchanted ever since. In 2013, he spent several months in Plum Village, joined the Wake Up tours in the US and UK, traveled to Vietnam, and organized Wake Up retreats in Germany and Bhutan. He wrote his master’s thesis in cultural anthropology on Plum Village practice and is currently the Youth Program Co-ordinator at the GNH Centre.

Han Nguyen, Precious Virtue of the Heart, is an active member of Wake Up Europe, based in Germany. She enjoys sitting, walking, smiling, drinking tea, observing the sky, and playing with children.

Felipe Viveros, True Fruit of the Practice, is a Chilean writer based in the UK. He shares his time between gardening, working on social and environmental projects that engage young people, and doing an MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College.

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Wake Up Spirit

By Brian Kimmel

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What is Wake Up Spirit? The intention to “wake up” beyond our usual notions of ourselves and our environment, to enter deeply into meditation and move out into the world, to celebrate and share our gifts with collective awareness, inclusion, and fun. It is a coming together of people of different ages to support the new generation in Dharma practice, and to apply mindfulness trainings to our intimate, daily lives with emphasis on personal transformation and collective action in the world.

In October 2012, four non-monastic and five monastic friends of Deer Park Monastery went on a sort of modern-day mission: we toured the Pacific Northwest offering workshops, retreats, and meditation flash mobs on college campuses and on city streets with mindfulness trainings, loving speech and deep listening, and fun! Washington State, the home of the Mountain Lamp Community, was our last stop. Three months later, three Wake Up Peer Facilitators––Maria, an OI aspirant and Wake Up Seattle member; David, an OI member from northern California; and me, an OI member from Boulder, Colorado––met with Dharma teacher and Mountain Lamp resident, Eileen Kiera, to discuss and organize a five-day Mountain Lamp Wake Up Retreat and Intergenerational Day of Mindfulness to be held at the end of June.

We three peer facilitators, along with Eileen and Jack, her husband who is a teacher in another tradition, wanted to organize a retreat based on peer-facilitated practices. We wanted to build upon the foundation offered to us from monastic-led retreats and mentoring. This was our gift back to our teachers and community.

We invited a group of young adults, ages 18-35, into the Mountain Lamp environment, a “Dharma family” that, for the past ten years, has practiced mindfulness and cultivated the land and themselves through daily meditation and loving work. Our aspirations were to explore present moment practice together and re-envision the stereotype that “kids these days” only know how to have fun, and to learn Wake Up practices within a mixed age community, where retreatants, residents, and we would essentially wake up together.

After six months of intense preparation, we greeted our first retreatants on June 26, 2013. In our opening circle, tears and laughter flowed with yearnings to heal and our need for physical and spiritual support to connect with what is vital and profoundly urgent to our own lives, and incidentally to the planet and society.

Each retreatant was offered the responsibility of inviting meal bells and reciting the Five Contemplations before we ate. Each was assigned a work duty during joyful working meditation, beginning with singing, dancing, and games. The bellmaster sounded the bell to remind us to breathe during work periods and to invite daily sitting and walking meditation. Retreatants shared that having Wake Up-aged practitioners guiding the retreat and being invited to facilitate parts of the retreat themselves, like inviting bells and guiding the Five Contemplations, made mindfulness practice real.

At least twice during the retreat we held formal meal ceremonies. The community gathered, recited meal verses, offered food, and ate in silence guided by sounds of the bell. In the times of noble silence throughout the retreat, we were able to suspend talking and dwell more fully with ourselves. During the Five Mindfulness Trainings transmission, the power of our chanting, touching the Earth, incense offering, and concentrated sitting practice offered a clear transmission of mindfulness to recipients of the trainings that day and to all of us.

If I were to describe the outcome of this retreat in a few words, I would say, “Each of us were as we were.” We shared activities such as Dharma art, daily Dharma sharing, canoeing, swimming, scooping goose poop, singing and dancing around a campfire, and open space discussion forums with “elders.” Mountain Lamp Wake Up proved that we of Wake Up age know how to have fun––AND that collectively with other ages, and individually, we can access a profound sense of how to live our lives awake, engaged, and resilient.

mb65-WakeUpSpirit2Brian Otto Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, age thirty-three, ordained as a core member of the Order of Interbeing at Plum Village in 2006. He took part in the East Coast, West Coast, and Pacific Northwest Wake Up USA teaching tours. He lives in Colorado, where he helps facilitate Wake Up as well as Young OI International and North America Skype calls.

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Joyfully Together

By Maria Y. Rodriguez

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I moved to Seattle, Washington, two years ago from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It took me a while to find a practice community, mostly because there is only one in Thay’s tradition and I lived quite far from it. When I did arrive at MCPS (Mindfulness Community of Puget Sound, the urban sister practice center to rural Mountain Lamp) a year later, I was happy to find such a strong, deeply committed community, but I wondered: Where were the younger folks?

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Practicing with elders is wonderful and incredibly enriching, but I also felt like I needed an opportunity to connect with people who identified as I did in the world and were going through some of the same life transitions––being a student, starting a career, building intimate relationships, understanding my own and others’ sexuality and sexual identity, understanding my own and others’ gender identity, etc.

As a person of color, I am aware that practicing with people who share my identities is a powerful gift, a chance to heal pain and suffering that might not otherwise be touched. In my experience, in order to breach the walls that keep people separated (walls of pain, fear, suspicion, loss, and heartache), it is important first to give ourselves strong, safe spaces for practice. We come together within our identities to remember our strength, resilience, and connection, and to fall in love with life all over again.

Sharing the Dharma

While living in Philadelphia, I had participated in some Wake Up events, and I was eager to continue exploring Wake Up’s healing spirit and energy. After a few months of practicing with MCPS, I was approached by the folks putting together the Pacific Northwest Wake Up tour and they asked if I could help with organizing. With the help of the People of Color and Allies Sangha of Seattle (POCAS), we secured a room for an event on the University of Washington campus.

MCPS also supported the Wake Up tour by offering the practice center, Dharma Gate, for a non-residential, weekend Wake Up retreat and to serve as a dorm for the tour facilitators. What a great experience! Singing, laughing, crying, practicing together helped shift so much pain and suffering in the hearts of the retreatants. There was so much joy nourished, so much happiness shared––writing about it makes me smile even now! The experience convinced a few of us that a Seattle Wake Up group was possible. A month or so later, seattle@wkup.org was born.

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Seattle Wake Up members wanted the chance to practice together with other Wake Up Sanghas across the Pacific Northwest in a retreat setting, so when I was asked to be part of a planning team to help put together a five-day retreat at Mountain Lamp, I readily agreed. My greatest aspiration is to share the Dharma with those who would like to receive it––those seeking comfort and spiritual nourishment. I was not about to pass up the opportunity to be of service. What I didn’t know was how much the experience would serve me.

Aspiring Together

Arriving at Mountain Lamp, I was awestruck: the hills rolled and the birds and butterflies sang for me. I was so eager to meet all of the retreatants and to practice with them in this sacred space.

Together, we laid out our goals. We wanted to:

  1. Create a format that would allow for mindfulness instruction but emphasize the fact that we were all on retreat together. Our peer facilitator format allowed for instruction without hierarchy, a central way of being within the Wake Up movement.
  2. Create opportunities for leadership development within the Wake Up Sangha. To encourage this, we focused on helping folks learn how to invite the bell as a central form of our practice; it was important for us to make sure everyone had the chance to invite bells for at least one activity if they wanted to, no matter what their level of experience had been before. After all, if you don’t start somewhere you won’t be anywhere!
  3. Make sure that retreatants had FUN! Sitting and walking meditation are wonderful, so we sought to have a strong practice schedule that left plenty of time to apply our mindfulness in activities such as swimming and canoeing in a lake, hiking, singing, dancing, and even a bonfire complete with vegan s’mores!

Surrendering  in  Sangha

During the fi day of the retreat, one of the retreatants and I began talking about our experience with the Fifth Mindfulness Training, specifi y around compulsive overeating. This is something that has caused me a lot of pain and suffering from a very young age. I have tried every book, every diet, every behavioral/cognitive trick, but have never been able to relieve the suffering or get help. My new friend shared some stories and literature from a twelve-step program that sought to help compulsive overeaters like me with a solution that works, one based on deep spiritual work.

The next day, as I was preparing for a trip to the lake, I stopped next to a beautiful old tree (I always turn to trees in my moments of greatest despair––their solidity and steadiness soothe me) and started sobbing. Huge waves of anger, resentment, frustration, loneliness, and despair welled up in me and moved through my tears. My new friend had shown me what my heart had been searching for. I needed the kind of help that came from connecting with others. I needed the strength of a power greater than myself. I needed a Sangha dedicated to the alleviation of the compulsion to overeat. I finally had a solution––I was ready to begin the process of surrendering my years of pain and isolation. What a relief!

The physical retreat ended June 30, 2013. I went to my first twelve-step meeting July 1. Since then, I have surrendered fifty pounds and am working, one day at a time, to surrender even more. I feel that the balance between formal practice and time spent in community is what helped make my transformation possible. My heart was able to open wide and let in the light and love of a kind friend in the practice. This balanced format, for me, is the epitome of engaged Buddhism––engagement with every moment, with each other, and most importantly, with ourselves.

My dis-ease, once hidden away in the darkest corners of my heart, was showered with the light of compassion and understanding generated from our sitting, walking, and sharing mindfully together. I have no idea what I would have done if this retreat had not happened––if I had not been invited to show up for others and gifted with the capacity to show up for myself. I’m grateful to all those who have supported Wake Up in the Pacific Northwest and throughout the world, because thanks to them, I do not have to find out.

May all beings be free from suffering. May they all be happy and healthy. May all beings be loved and cherished. May they all know peace.

Maria Y. Rodriguez, Compassionate Light of the Heart, is thirty and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing. She has participated in Wake Up events in Philadelphia and the Pacific Northwest. She is a Wake Up Ambassador for Seattle Wake Up, where she currently lives and works as a Ph.D. student in Social Welfare.

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Caring for Our Children by Caring for Ourselves

By John R. Snyder

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On the occasions when I slow down enough to actually think about it, it occurs to me that my job as a Montessori teacher is too hard for someone of my limited abilities––i.e., someone who is still dependent on food, sleep, and occasional recreation. The demands never seem to stop, and if they do happen to slow down from time to time, I have a huge backlog of practice-improvement projects to fill the gaps.

Parents sometimes ask with a certain awe, “How do you do it?” How, indeed? How does one not only keep going, but do so with good cheer, grace, a sense of perspective, and, more often than not, a calm presence in the classroom?

I am happy to share at least part of “how I do it.” I suspect that behind every successful teacher is a similar practice of self-care and reflection, although we seldom talk about these things with each other. Perhaps we should.

The crux of the matter is that less is more. At the center of the hurricane of teacherly activity, there must be a still center, a place of repose in the heart and the mind. This, I am convinced, can only be maintained through the regular, disciplined practice of stopping, paying quiet attention to one’s inner voices, and reconnecting with one’s highest self. One could call it a practice of prayer, or meditation, or affirmation, or self-reflection; the point is that it must be a regular period of quiet time, free from interruptions, an appointment one keeps with oneself.

I think of this quiet time both as a gift to myself and as a period of spiritual conditioning that keeps me emotionally prepared for whatever comes my way in and out of the classroom. Although the children do not know of my practice of reflection, I am certain they could identify which days I have failed to keep my appointment with myself.

My anchor, the backbone of my daily preparation for the classroom, is a practice found in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book, Teachings on Love. It is his version of a 1,500-year-old text from Sri Lanka:

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May I be safe and free from injury.
May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.
May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.
May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.
May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.
May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.
May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

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Just as a good weightlifting routine works all the major muscle groups, I find that these nine lines exercise all the psycho-spiritual “muscles” I need to strengthen for my work with children, parents, and colleagues. I start my day with these lines, and I keep a copy in the front cover of my lesson-planning book so that when I feel myself slipping away, I can read them to re-center and refresh myself.

May I be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.

I appreciate that this meditation starts with a clear statement of the desired state, the end result of the practice. Sitting quietly, following my breath, I can bring my body and mind back from their habitual agitation and anxiety to the place of peace, happiness, and lightness that is gradually becoming a habit through years of this practice. Like a tennis player mentally rehearsing her stroke, I can mentally rehearse, noticing the places of tension and disconnection in me and shifting them to calm connectedness. What could be more useful and important to someone working intensively with children?

May I be safe and free from injury.

I have come to realize over the years that every kind of progress in the classroom depends upon all members of the community feeling safe and free from injury. This line reminds me of that, and allows me to renew my intent to provide physical and emotional safety for myself so I can better provide it for the community. This hallows the many mundane things I do every day to insure the safety of the community, from giving lessons on the safe use of science equipment, to keeping the first-aid kit well stocked, to mediating conflict on the playground, to honoring the children’s efforts instead of their products. Looking a little more deeply, I also see that part of my practice is to know how to take care of myself and others when injuries do happen. Having the confidence that comes from being prepared, I believe, allows me to take appropriate risks on behalf of the community. So, far from being an invitation to always “play it safe,” this line stretches me and allows me to walk away from fearful states of mind.

May I be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.

It is so helpful to have such a clear list of the major obstacles I face in my relationships with children, parents, and colleagues. It is even more helpful to have time to envision myself free of these obstacles and look calmly at the roots of these problems. I can, for example, rededicate myself to my practice of noticing when anger and fear are arising in me and not acting on them until I have had a chance to calm myself and inquire into what the emotions are telling me. My experience has been that simply acknowledging the presence of anger, fear, anxiety, craving, jealousy, and the like, greatly diminishes the urgency and force with which they batter my body and mind. The function of these emotions is to call my attention to something I need to take care of, and when I calmly give them my full attention, their job is done and they can relax.

May I learn to look at myself with the eyes of understanding and love.

This line is priceless because it goes straight to the heart of so much self-inflicted pain, and it also helps to remove one of the biggest obstacles between me and the relationships that I need to build in a peaceful classroom. Behind this line is the wisdom that until we understand, accept, and love ourselves, we cannot adequately understand, accept, and love others. Indeed, whenever we think that other people are making us miserable with their foolishness and bad behavior, it is very likely that we are projecting onto them some self-criticism or fearful insecurity that has taken root in us. To our chagrin, we find those hypercritical, perfectionistic voices that chatter in our own heads speaking through our mouths to inflict harm on others. How wonderful to be able to practice stepping out of that cycle of injury by beginning to extend to ourselves the compassion that will allow us to connect compassionately with others!

May I be able to touch the seeds of joy and happiness in myself.

This line comes from a view of human nature as being like a garden in which are planted all kinds of seeds––each one representing a capacity of body and mind. In each of us are the seeds of great evil, suffering, and destruction, side by side with the seeds of great goodness, joy, courage, and the highest states of being. Some of these seeds we inherited; some have been planted by our culture and personal history. The seeds we water and tend, whether wholesome or otherwise, grow to crowd out the others, coming to dominate our internal gardens and our very lives. I find this outlook to be completely aligned with Dr. Montessori’s views on the richness and essential goodness of human nature, and the importance of the environment in the self-construction of the human being. The salient point in this line is that, although it is easy to lose sight of it when we are in the grip of some negative emotion, the seeds of joy and happiness are still there. We do not have to wait for our lives (or even just our classrooms!) to be perfect before we can be genuinely happy.

May I learn to see the sources of anger, craving, and delusion in myself.

Now we go beyond a clear intent to be free of anger, fear, and anxiety to search for the roots of these negative forces in our lives. Quietly, deeply, consistently looking at these things while not being carried away by them, gives us the chance to see the patterns, to understand the ways these things work in our particular minds. Seeing clearly, we have a chance to reorient our thinking and rebuild our habits into something more positive and free. To me, this line moves beyond intending and visualizing to doing something about the situation.

May I know how to nourish the seeds of joy in myself every day.

Continuing the metaphor of seeds and the intent to learn to view and treat ourselves with compassion, this line invites us to take concrete action on our own behalf. The positive seeds are there, so how can I water them? I have gradually developed a mental list of very concrete ways that I can touch the seeds of joy and peace in myself, and I try to do some of these things every day. Here are a few of my touchstones: taking a slow walk in nature; really seeing and experiencing a blue sky, a flower, a stone, or a child’s face; thinking of someone I love; enjoying a quiet cup of tea; giving my full attention to a great piece of music or art; holding my dog in my lap; reading a good poem or science magazine. Your list might be very different, but you can make one by noticing the things that give you joy. In particular, instead of reacting mindlessly out of anger, irritability, or fear, I try to stop and do one or more of my “joy things” to ground myself again in my best nature before responding to a situation.

May I be able to live fresh, solid, and free.

As a teacher, I often think of this line as a description of the opposite of burnout. Surrounded as I am by the freshness of children, may I be able to find that freshness in myself. May I be solid enough to withstand the winds and waves of experience, stable enough to provide the consistent strength of purpose it takes to build a good community. May I live as a free person, not a thrall to my faulty perceptions, fearful attachments and aversions, public personae, or life history.

May I be free from attachment and aversion without being indifferent.

Montessorians are passionate people, the idealistic followers of a passionate and visionary leader. We have great expectations and bold plans. We have strong feelings about many things, strong likes and dislikes, long lists of both shibboleths and taboos. And yet, these attachments and aversions are often our undoing, the very things that get in the way of our realizing our vision. This line, when regularly rehearsed, helps me let go of my certainties, both positive and negative, and helps me live instead with the kind of openness that Montessori herself exhibited; she allowed a group of young children from the Roman slums to completely change her culturally conditioned views of who children are and what they can do. It reminds me that the opposite of passionate attachment and ego investment is not indifference, but mindfulness: holding my perceptions and beliefs lightly and being fully present to whatever the moment brings.

Now for the best part. Having taken good care of myself, I take the time to traverse these nine lines again, but this time the energy is directed outward to the community.

May the children [or a specific child] be peaceful, happy, and light in body and spirit.
May the children be safe and free from injury.
May the children be free from anger, afflictions, fear, and anxiety.
Etc.

For me, this closes the circle, and I am ready to enter the classroom again to see what great good can be wrought from whatever raw materials the day brings.

mb65-Caring4John Snyder, True Precious Goodness, taught nine-to twelve-year-olds and was an administrator at Austin Montessori School in Austin, Texas. This article was written in 2008, when John was still teaching. He practices with Plum Blossom Sangha. You can reach him at jsnyder@pobox.com.

This work by John R. Snyder is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/.

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How to Live with Two Religious Paths

By Emily Hilsberg

I am seventeen years old, and I am Jewish and Buddhist. I study mindfulness at Deer Park Monastery. I have been going to Deer Park since I was six years old. This year marks my eleventh year being a part of the Sangha. I am also involved in my Jewish community. I am a member of Temple Beth Am’s youth group, and I have volunteered at many Jewish organizations. Every summer, I attend the family retreat at Deer Park and then I spend a month at Camp Ramah, a Jewish sleep-away camp in Ojai, California. When people ask me my religion, I say, “I’m Jewish and Buddhist.” Their reaction is always the same. They ask, “Why do you have two religions? You can only commit to one god.” This idea is false.

mb65-How1Thich Nhat Hanh has taught me so much since 2003. Thay says that you need to show compassion to others and that compassion is the basis for true happiness. Similarly, one of my Camp Ramah directors has had a huge impact on my life. He taught me to be a person who fights for change. Be that person who steps up and takes charge and is always trying to make the community a better place. I’ve also learned that lesson at Deer Park. For example, one year some developers wanted to build houses on the ridge facing the large meditation hall. The community fought to preserve the ridge and after many months, they earned enough money to save it.

Many people underestimate others. I was born with Asperger’s disorder, which affects my brain, and I’ve struggled socially and in school. People have often underestimated my capabilities. I’ve been beaten down by the speech and actions of others. Administrators at my elementary school had no confidence in my abilities and the so-called resource specialist often yelled at me and gave me answers to classwork without teaching me how to do the work myself. The principal did nothing to help me. My fifth grade teacher did not understand me and did not help me when other kids bullied me because she never caught them in the act. Kids can be so mean and they often harassed me! As a result of my life experiences, I want to make a change in the world.

I’ve learned so much from going to Deer Park and from the five summers I’ve spent at Ramah. I can be who I want to be and I can teach others to be active leaders. I recently attended Thay’s public talk in Pasadena. My mom was on staff and I decided to help out. I had a long talk with one of the brothers, whom I hadn’t seen in years. I told him that I’ve changed. I learned so much from Deer Park and appreciate how much it’s helped me. He was very impressed. Later that day, while my mom and I were driving home, I thought to myself, “I am proud to be both a Jew and Buddhist. Having both makes me stronger as a person.”

I consider Sister Ho Nghiem, one of the monastic sisters, to be my godmother. She’s known me since I was a young girl. Before the children’s program was started, I often spent time in the sisters’ hamlet. One year when she broke her leg, I visited her in her room to cheer her up and keep her company. For many years I helped her in the bookstore. When I saw Sister Ho Nghiem at the public talk, I was overjoyed. I can’t imagine my life without my brothers and sisters of Deer Park. The practice has grown on me, and I hope to teach it to my own children one day.

Buddhism teaches me to be more compassionate and understanding toward other people who are suffering. Judaism teaches me to be close to god and to be the person I want to become. In my mind, these lessons are very much alike. Both focus on ethics and the value of strong community. I am fortunate to have two very supportive communities to guide me on my path: my Jewish community and my Buddhist community.

Emily Hilsberg, Crystal Mountain of the Heart, lives in Culver City, California.

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Reverence for Life

By Evelyn van de Veen

During the Summer Retreat in Plum Village, I was asked to give a short presentation about how I practice with the First Mindfulness Training, “Reverence for Life.” While I was preparing this presentation, something funny happened. I was sitting with my notebook, thinking about the theme of not killing, of protecting the lives of people and animals, and how I have tried to integrate the practice of the First Mindfulness Training into my life. It was very pleasant, letting my thoughts roam and feeling in touch with the beauty of the aspiration of the training. The bell for the working meditation was invited, and my work happened to be washing lettuce. Within a few minutes I found myself dunking lettuces into white tubs filled with cold water and salt, drowning many tiny insects. In that working meditation, I faced the contrast between my lofty aspirations and the impossibility of fully living up to them.

Dealing with small insects has taught me an interesting lesson. I was brought up to take great care of the well-being of animals. In our house, pets were fed before people. But this care did not extend to small insects such as spiders and mosquitoes. I swatted mosquitoes and vacuumed spiders without thinking about it. After taking the mindfulness trainings, I decided this was one area that needed the focus of my practice. Instead of using the vacuum, I tried to entice spiders to walk onto a piece of paper so I could put them outside. Or I would carefully cup my two hands around them and carry them that way, feeling their legs tickle the palms of my hands.

And then I noticed something. I had never been afraid of spiders (at least not the smallish ones you find in Europe), but I didn’t particularly like them. I was indifferent about them. But treating them with more care created a connection. As I watch a spider scurry off after I release it outside, I get a wonderful warm feeling of satisfaction and tenderness. It is as if the tenderness with which I treat the spider is also tenderness toward myself. I discovered that by being kind to a spider, I watered my own seeds of happiness. Being nice to spiders is not only good for them; it’s also very good for me!

Not every small animal is safe with me. Occasionally, I swat a buzzing mosquito that keeps me awake at night and refuses to fly out the window. I use an organic spray to kill the lice that eat my plants. I drowned tiny insects so we could all eat clean lettuce leaves. And so the list goes on. However, making a small change in my behaviour has taught me a valuable lesson about the close connection between actions and feelings, and about the value of trying to put the mindfulness trainings into practice in daily life, however imperfectly.

When I first came across the Five Mindfulness Trainings, I felt it was pointless to promise to try to do things that I knew were impossible. But I have changed my mind about this. A manager of the London Underground once said in an interview that their policy was to completely eliminate the chance of fatal accidents.

When the journalist commented that surely that was impossible, the manager replied, “Of course it’s impossible, but we cannot do otherwise than strive for it anyway. You can’t have as an official policy that one death a year is acceptable.”

I have begun to see the mindfulness trainings in the same way. The goal may be impossible, but it’s not an option to have a goal that is less ambitious.

mb65-Reverence1Evelyn van de Veen, Shining Strength of the Heart, lives in Amsterdam and works as a teacher trainer in higher education. She visited Plum Village for the first time in 1999 and has been coming back ever since. She practises with the Amsterdam Sangha.

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Awakening to Life

Two Stories by Dzung Vo

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mb65-Awakening2Dzung Vo, True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen), lives in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, and practices with the Mindfulness Practice Community of Vancouver. As a pediatrician and adolescent medicine specialist, he practices engaged Buddhism by offering mindfulness to young people suffering from stress and pain.

Just One Thing

In 2013, I attended a five-day mindfulness retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh and the international Sangha at Deer Park Monastery. Mindfulness retreats are such a wonderful gift. Retreats are so important for me, to have time to free myself from my dayto-day habit energies, and to nourish my soul and spirit to bring the practice back home and to the world. Coming to Deer Park, or any of the other practice centers in the Plum Village Sangha, feels like coming home. I am deeply grateful to my teachers and the Sangha for this compassionate offering.

During a question-and-answer session at the retreat, Thay reflected on how to stay involved in social activism and positive social change, while at the same time not burning out or giving in to despair. He answered, “My name, Nhat Hanh, means ‘Just One Thing.’ Find just one thing to do, and do that with all of your heart. That is enough.”

When I heard this, I noticed my initial thought-response: “Wait a minute, Thay, how can you say that? You write books, you do calligraphy, give Dharma talks, lead retreats, organize an international Sangha, speak out for social change, meet with world leaders … you do so many things, not just one thing!”

As I looked more deeply into the teaching, I began to receive a different message. I saw that when Thay is giving a Dharma talk to the Sangha, he is fully there with us, 100%, unburdened in that moment by any of his other projects. When he is walking, he is just walking. When he is writing, he is just writing. I believe that this is one way he keeps his joy and compassion alive and protects himself from burnout and despair.

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Since returning to Vancouver, I’ve been trying to practice Just One Thing. That first Monday morning, as I was brewing my coffee, I felt a familiar pang of “back to work” anxiety as I began automatically running through my mental to-do list. I noticed it, breathed and smiled, and returned my full attention to the simple act of brewing coffee. The same thing happened again as I was cutting an apple for breakfast. And again as I shaved and brushed my teeth.

One challenge for me about mindfulness practice is that it demands constant attention, endless repetition, to be awake to life in every moment. One wonderful thing about mindfulness practice is that every moment is an opportunity to be awake, to be free. Every moment. This moment. This is it.

mb65-Awakening4Opening, Opening, Now

I decided to become an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing about three years ago, when I began teaching mindfulness to youth in an explicit and intentional way. I knew that I needed to strengthen my own mindfulness practice, and I asked for the guidance and container of the Order of Interbeing to support me. I wanted my practice to be as solid and compassionate as possible, in order for me to be able to offer something beautiful and healing to the youth.

I received the ordination on October 15, 2013, at the Deer Park retreat. Thay gave me the ordination name True Garden of Diligence (Chan Tan Uyen). Our ordination family name is True Garden, which I love because it is a reminder that practice is always organic and alive, and it needs continuous love and tending in order to produce beautiful vegetables and flowers. I feel that the name “Diligence” is a challenge––as if Thay were reminding me, “Don’t get complacent; don’t take anything for granted. Keep practicing, always!” During the ordination, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude. What a compassionate gift from Thay, from the fourfold Sangha that held us in a loving embrace, from my order aspirant teachers Jeanie Seward-Magee and Brother Phap Hai, and from all ancestral teachers. I felt that their greatest hope for us is to wake up to our true nature of interbeing, compassion, and mindfulness. The most I can do to repay that gift is to practice diligently and joyfully, and offer that to the world.

The day before the ordination, I practiced heart-opening in order to be fully present to receive the nourishment and support of the Sangha. My gatha with each step and each breath was,“Opening.” I wrote this haiku on the morning of ordination as I walked slowly to the Ocean of Peace meditation hall, feeling enveloped by and deeply connected to the vast universe of stars in the pre-dawn sky.

ordination day
opening, opening, now
universe is here

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In Gratitude

Support for a Nunnery at Deer Park Monastery

By Mary Gorman

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Driving up the winding road to Deer Park Monastery, you naturally slow down and pay attention to the curves in front of you. An open landscape of rocks and hardy desert plants unfolds and brings you into the present moment. You are entering high chaparral country where the ridges are 1,400 feet above sea level. Then the road descends and enters a canopy of oak trees, which thrives at the bottom of the hills. At last, you are greeted by a sign that reads, “You have arrived.” You know that you have come home. To the right is another sign that reads, “Clarity Hamlet.” This is the home of the nuns.

At Thay’s last retreat of his North American tour at Deer Park Monastery, the community was informed about plans to build a nunnery in Clarity Hamlet. Those of us who regularly visit the monastery had heard about the need for new living quarters for the nuns, but few of us knew much about their current living conditions. We learned that the sisters currently live in separated living quarters. Many of the nuns occupy changing rooms that were once part of an outdoor swimming pool area. Since these rooms were not meant as housing, they have no insulation or cooling features, making them cold and damp in the winters and terribly hot and dry during blistering southern California summers.

Fortunately, the monastery has plans to build energy-efficient straw bale dormitories for the nuns, as well as a new hut for Thay. The construction project was designed by Hubbell & Hubbell Architects, using a sustainable and environmentally friendly design. The rice straw bales will provide insulation and stable temperatures year round. The new buildings will have room for up to forty nuns and will be situated on a hill, where Thay’s current hut stands.

Our True Sisters

For the nunnery to manifest, the lay community will have to lend its support. Phase one of construction was scheduled to start in December 2013. Funds are needed to complete phases two and three in 2014. A committee is helping to raise funds for the nunnery, and we asked retreatants about their feelings regarding the nuns’ living conditions. People were very vocal and clear in their responses. “The nuns are like my mother and my true sisters. I love and adore them, and I want them to be safe,” said one retreatant. “The nuns are the core of the practice. We need to keep them safe in order to keep the practice going. I have received so much from them!” said another. Attendees who were familiar with the nuns’ living quarters were convinced that the environment was unsafe and unhealthy. “We need the nuns to have good health, to be safe and warm,” was heard repeatedly.

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There was also an outpouring of gratitude for the nuns. “The nuns provide so much for us. Deer Park and the Sangha have just about saved my life. I was going in the wrong direction. Now I have found my volition.” We heard over and over that the nuns do not complain. They serve and take care of everyone. “The nuns have embraced my children. They are my family. And they don’t ask for themselves; they don’t ask for anything.” Everyone felt strongly that the situation needed to be addressed soon.

A Vibrant Example

These comments made me think about why I felt such a strong need to take action. Sitting and looking deeply, I found myself acknowledging how dramatically my life has changed thanks to the nuns, monks, and lay practitioners of Deer Park. When I first arrived there, I was full of suffering—the kind of suffering that comes with life and the kind of suffering that we make for ourselves. I wanted to find a way out.

Arriving at Deer Park, I felt that I had come home. I met wonderful monastic and lay practitioners who were role models. With these examples and Thay’s clear directions, it was possible for me to develop a personal practice, use that practice in real life, and obtain insights that transformed my relationships.

The years following my early visits to Deer Park have been wonderful. Life is good and my deep aspiration leads me. I visit Deer Park as often as possible, taking refuge in the Sangha. I am very grateful. Gratitude and compassion are the feelings that move me to write this article—gratitude for the happiness that has been brought to my family, and compassion for the generations that follow me. The Deer Park community is a living, vibrant example of Thay’s teachings. I want the Deer Park community to be here, strong and well, and to help others as I was helped.

So, with gratitude and compassion in mind, I am considering what kind of financial contribution to make to support the nunnery. As I write this article, the holidays are approaching, and there will be expenses for family and friends. Reflecting on the cost of gifts, I wonder what material gift could equal the gift of happiness that I have received. No iPhone or sweater or dinner out with the family could provide a fraction of the benefits that I have received from the practice. Dollars cannot be compared to the gifts I have received from Deer Park over the years.

How about you? Is this the right time for you to consider the value of Deer Park, or of your local practice center, in your life?

mb65-InGratitude3Mary Gorman, True Ever Lasting Ocean, lives with her husband in Los Angeles. She wrote this article with the assistance of Vivian Hermiz, Serene Awakening of the Heart, of the Deer Park Nunnery Committee.

mb65-InGratitude4Join in Supporting a New Nunnery

If Deer Park is your closest practice center, whether you live in the US, Mexico, or Canada, we hope that you will take a personal interest in supporting this effort. There are so many ways you can help. If you are a member of the international Sangha, please consider the needs of your local practice center and find ways to support your community.

Ways you can help:
  • Make a personal donation to the nunnery Make your check payable to the Unified Buddhist Church, and be sure to write “Deer Park Nunnery” on the check. Send it with gratitude in your heart to:
    Deer Park Monastery
    2499 Melru Lane
    Escondido, CA 92026
  • Donate via the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation website at deerparknunnery.org. Click “Donate Now,” and then select “Deer Park Monastery Nunnery” from the gift designation pull-down list.
  • Talk with your local Sangha and raise awareness of the urgency of this Many practitioners do not know about this opportunity to support the monastic Sangha.
  • Encourage your local Sangha to hold a fundraiser, such as a Day of Mindfulness or a silent auction.

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Grandma, Do You See the Palm Trees?

By Sandi Simons

When I was asked to write an article for our Sangha’s newsletter on the topic of “Ripening Practice: Gifts along the Path,” I thought my upcoming trip to Deer Park Monastery would be the perfect time to reflect. Little did I know the wonderful gift I would receive.

I watched out the window of the shuttle all the way from the San Diego airport to Deer Park Monastery. I had never been to California before and wanted to take in all the sights. There were so many buildings and highways, but what struck me most were the palm trees; they were taller than a lot of buildings and I could easily see them on the skylines above the city. With their straight trunks and spray of fronds on the top, they reminded me of natural fireworks.

Seeing these trees sparked a memory in me from long ago: I was sitting with my grandmother, Irene, in her living room; we must have been watching a TV show with a setting far from Montana, where we lived, because she said, “I wish I could have seen a palm tree in real life.” When this memory came up, many emotions did as well.

Memories of my grandmother: her laughter; her slow shuffling walk; the never-empty pitcher of orange Kool-Aid; the bottomless candy drawer kept always within a child’s reach; her patience and her ability to forgive. When I went to the University of Montana in Missoula, I lived with her; it helped me save money and gave her some company, since my grandfather had passed away shortly before that. After I moved away in 2000, I regretted that I hadn’t spent more time with her and done more for her. There always seemed to be something more important to do. I felt ashamed that I put my needs first and was frustrated and impatient with her so many times.

In 2002, while living in Glasgow, Montana, I was alerted that she might not live much longer so I drove down to Missoula to spend time with her. I wanted to apologize to her, but it never seemed like the time was right. Two weeks later, I was back home and had a feeling I should call her. We spoke on the phone for some time but then visitors came to her room and our conversation was cut short. Again, I didn’t tell her my regrets. That night she passed away.

I felt then that there would be no way I could resolve these feelings, that I would just need to “get over it,” but the feelings persisted and surfaced whenever I thought of her. I broke one of her mixing bowls some years after she passed, and cried for hours. Pat, my husband, couldn’t understand what was wrong and I couldn’t tell him because I didn’t understand either.

I carried these regrets and feelings until 2007, when I started sitting with Open Way Sangha in Missoula and learned of Thay’s teachings. I began to understand these emotions, or internal knots, and how to slowly loosen them through mindfulness, loving kindness, and the teachings on interbeing. The knots grew weaker as I practiced but I could still feel them when I thought of her.

The sight of palm trees brought all these memories to mind along with sadness that she was never able to see these wondrous plants. As I walked up the hill in Deer Park past the meditation hall, I slowed to a stop where the road branches off to the dining area. A group of palm trees grew there and as I walked up to them, a smile started at my mouth and traveled up to my eyes, which, like my grandmother’s, are brown. She was the only grandparent with brown eyes, and she passed them on to my dad and he on to me. The sadness and old regrets fell away with the wisdom of interbeing, the knowledge that I am a continuation of my ancestors and that at this very moment my grandmother was seeing the palm trees, too. I felt her presence, and that of my other ancestors, throughout the retreat and during the ordination ceremony. I knew they were all present in me.

The knots of regret and sadness haven’t resurfaced since I returned from Deer Park. That is one gift of many that this practice has given me. It has given back to me the sweet memories of my grandmother.

Smb65-Grandma1andi Simons, True Flower Garden, lives near Bozeman, Montana, with her husband, Pat, and  two four-legged teachers, Doc and Cisco. She sits with the Bozeman Zen Group and participates in retreats with Open Way, Flowing Mountains, and Open Sky Sanghas. When she’s not working, you can find her gardening, hiking, volunteering at the local animal shelter, or curled up with a book.

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The Fifth Child

Supporting Thich Nhat Hanh’s Legacy

By Lorri Houston

Thich Nhat Hanh has been transforming suffering into joy around the world for many years through his mindfulness teachings and loving practice. Thay has helped millions of people transform their feelings of loneliness, despair, anger, and emptiness into joy, peace, love, and understanding.

As a practitioner, you are already a part of this transformation. You have helped by practicing mindfulness and by being an example of peace to those around you. Loving practitioners like you can bring Thay’s message to thousands more with a bequest gift to the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.

mb65-TheFifth1One of the beloved members of our fourfold Sangha recently told us that she is including the Foundation in her will. As a mother of four children, Jeanie Seward-Magee was inspired by Thay, who lovingly refers to our monastic sisters and brothers as his “spiritual children.” Jeanie considers her bequest gift for Thay’s community as a way of taking care of her fifth child, and she has chosen to bequest a portion of her estate equally among her five children.

Twenty years ago, Jeanie experienced a series of tremendous personal losses over an eighteen-month period. Her beloved father-in-law was killed in Northern Ireland; her eighteen-year-old nephew died in a car accident; a favorite uncle passed away; and her mother’s three sisters––the aunts who had cared for and loved Jeanie since she lost her own mother––also died. She was experiencing difficulties in her marriage at the time, and her eldest son had left home to go to a university three thousand miles away.

As a consequence, Jeanie experienced what she now refers to as her “biggest loss.” She had lost herself completely. Jeanie had been caring for everyone else but herself, while also trying to cope with the loss of so many loved ones. She became clinically depressed and knew she had to do something. Jeanie decided to take a year off to travel with her husband John. It was during visits to Buddhist countries, Jeanie said, that she found a great peacefulness in the people living and practicing  Buddhism.

In 1997, Jeanie went to her first retreat in the Plum Village tradition. She found herself singing “Breathing In, Breathing Out” afterwards, and it planted a seed. But Jeanie knew a lot of work would need to go on after that, and she began practicing diligently, attending more retreats, and deepening her practice.

Jeanie remembers that at a 1998 retreat, Thay encouraged the establishment of practice centers. Inspired, Jeanie and John started the Vancouver Mindfulness Practice Center. Subsequently, Jeanie established a mindfulness community in Bermuda (where she lived for seven years), and spent summers at Plum Village, assisting with children’s programs. She worked as the lead volunteer of the steering committee for Thay’s Vancouver retreat in 2011.

In 2000, Jeanie was ordained into the Order of Interbeing, and she received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma teacher in March 2012. Last year, Jeanie volunteered for Thay’s North America tour and lent a helping hand with everything from staffing the Foundation tables to washing pots! Being of service and taking care of others remains deeply meaningful to Jeanie; however, through Thay’s teachings and in deepening her own mindfulness practice, Jeanie has learned to include taking care of herself, too. Her aspiration when ordained was to teach other women the importance of taking care of themselves fi so that they are able to help others. The practice has brought Jeanie immeasurable joy, and she is returning it tenfold to our beloved community.

Lorri Houston, True Tao Garden, serves as the Community Liaison for the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation.

If you would like further information, visit www.ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org or email info@ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org

YOUR LEGACY

Please consider leaving a lasting, meaningful gift in your estate plans to continue sharing our practice with the world. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation would be happy to be of service to help honor your legacy of compassion. Contact us if you would like further information. If you have already included the Foundation in your bequest, please let us know so that we may have an opportunity to express our gratitude and ensure that your gift intentions are honored. Thank you for your beautiful practice.

“Late last year I was getting ready for an extended trip and decided to set up a trust for my business and also revise my will. Thay’s message has had such a profound impact on my life, and the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation is providing much-needed resources to leverage his teachings, so I named it as a beneficiary in my will.” – Spence Davis

“Practicing in the Plum Village tradition has brought a deep sense of well-being and joy into my life. To contribute to ensuring that this practice tradition continues beautifully in the future,  and to honor Thay’s seventy-one years of extraordinary service, I decided to include the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation in my will. It makes me smile to know my material resources will continue working for peace after I pass.” –Laurie Brewer

“Making a provision now to leave a legacy to the Foundation makes wonderful sense, to support Thay’s children of the future.” –Jeanie Seward-Magee

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Media Reviews

mb65-MediaReviews1The Art of Communicating

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Hard cover, 166 pages
Harper One, 2013

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

The Art of Communicating contains a wealth of practical teachings and clear instructions about how to enhance relationships using thoughtful and intentional communication. In an era dominated by texting, emailing, tweeting, and posting, Thay suggests that many of us spend our time not actually communicating, and that the growing array of electronic devices (mobile phones, tablets, e-readers, etc.) is no assurance that effective or meaningful communication is taking place.

In a Dharma talk at Deer Park Monastery during the 2013 North America tour, Thay mentioned he hasn’t used a telephone for thirty years, and he happily reported that his communication with his friends and students is nonetheless rich and meaningful. Thay enjoys rich face-to-face contact and communicates through letters (not email), Dharma talks, and calligraphy. He explained that when his students are following their in-breath and out-breath and practicing mindfulness (sitting, walking, eating, deep listening, and loving speech), they are nonverbally connected to and communicating with him, because he is engaged in the very same activities.

Thay’s teachings in this book hone in on nourishing and healing communication and include specific instructions for how to reconcile with others using deep listening and loving speech when difficulties arise. My favorite chapter describes the Six Mantras of Loving Speech. These mantras “are six sentences that embody loving speech and let people know that you see them, you understand them, and you care for them. …They’re a kind of magic formula. When you pronounce them, you can bring about a miracle, because happiness becomes available right away.” Many of Thay’s students will be familiar with the fi four mantras: “Darling, I am here for you.” “I know you are there and I am very happy.” “I know you suffer and that is why I am here for you.” “I suffer, please help.” The two new mantras are: “This is a happy moment,” and “You are partially correct,” or as I’ve heard Thay say, “Yes, dear, you are right, but only fifty percent right.” In The Art of Communicating, Thay explains these new mantras and how to use them effectively.

Thay believes mindful compassion and loving communication have the power to heal us, heal our relationships, and heal the planet. He explains that love, respect, and friendship all need food to survive. He shows us how we can produce positive thoughts, speech, and actions that will feed our relationships and help them to thrive. The Art of Communicating will be a much referenced and extremely valuable how-to manual that readers can use to heal their relationships.

mb65-MediaReviews2Moments of Mindfulness
Daily Inspiration

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Paper over board, 160 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Gary Gach

Whenever I begin a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, I never know when I’ll be done. Sometimes years later. Sometimes never. Maybe you’ve had similar experience? You read a paragraph and––wow!––time to lay it down and ruminate. Digest. Contemplate. Understand. Make it real for yourself.

Moments of Mindfulness places Thay’s masterly way with words under a magnifying lens. It serves up fifty-two compact, fresh, nourishing, breath-sized Dharma morsels. Seven to seventy words, no two are alike. Peace is every word. All in all, they whisper, nudge, sparkle, startle, sing, embrace, liberate. Peace, too, is in the spaciousness surrounding the words.

On the cover and throughout, the book is illuminated by patterns of movement and growth drawn by Jenifer Kent. At the outset is a poem that’s also a guided meditation, nurturing the compassionate, correct view necessary at the beginning of the path. It’s followed by eleven pages by prolific Rumanian author Richard Reschika, outlining the rudiments of mindfulness. This preface includes a gatha by Thay, encapsulating the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. At the back, there’s a built-in notebook. In the center: Thay’s fifty-two gists and piths.

A single breathful of mindfulness can overcome the absentmindedness of 10,000 forgettable moments. It doesn’t take a wheelbarrow––sometimes just a thimbleful will do. Remember ancestor Hui Neng’s enlightenment, on the spot, hearing but one line from the Diamond Sutra. As contemporary, daily inspiration, such diamond-bright moments can provide the clarity that lends consistency to your conscious living and loving. As you approach a new obstacle or threshold, the reminders, landmarks, celebrations in this book can help see you through.

Mindfulness is more than calming: its compassion awakens insightful, transformative wisdom. Given the cynical and painfully dwindling attention span of our times, it’s an effective homeopathic remedy. Thay’s mindful moments are succinct postcards from our true home. We’re already in the divine kingdom, the pure land. Nirvana isn’t on the way. It is the way.

This book is a gift for the preservation of all beings, including adepts, those just setting out on the path, and those who don’t yet know it is available. The initials of the book spell MOM. These mindful moments give birth to us all.

mb65-MediaReviews3Everybody Present
Mindfulness in Education

By Nikolaj Flor Rotne and Didde Flor Rotne
Soft cover, 141 pages
Parallax Press, 2013

Reviewed by Sandra Diaz

Everybody Present: Mindfulness in Education is a how-to manual designed for teachers who want to bring mindfulness into the classroom. It begins by briefl recounting the story of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, and the response of a monastic who lived near the school as a child. He explains: “As a community we need to sit down and learn how to cherish life, not with gun-checks and security, but by being fully present with one another, by being truly there for one another.”

Given the myriad challenges currently facing our educational system, how can educators create the conditions for a healthy classroom environment that can nourish our children and our society? The book aspires to answer the question of how teachers can fulfil “their ideals without being crushed by them” in order to “show the next generation a path toward a good future.”

Since experiencing mindfulness is key to understanding it and teaching it to others, the book contains basic practices for educators to become more mindful. Once educators begin to realize some of the benefit  themselves, they can begin to introduce the concepts in their classrooms. The book contains examples of practices for children, such as paying attention to their breath, walking meditation, and sharing gratitude. One of my favorite practices, called “eating the raisin,” encourages students to trace all the people involved in the making of a raisin, then draw a picture of one of the people in the cycle, and end by mindfully eating their raisin.

The book’s appendices will be helpful to those who like to know the science behind mindfulness. Topics include the physical symptoms of stress, how to manage heart rhythm in order to decrease stress, how different parts of the brain react to stress by releasing hormones, and how our neurons help to connect us to other beings.

mb65-MediaReviews4Everybody Present weaves children’s stories, neuroscience, social science, case studies, and practical exercises for educators and students. The authors emphasize the need for teachers to cultivate their own inner peace in order to manage their classrooms wisely and compassionately. As Thay has said, “Happy teachers will change the world.” Everybody Present provides tools that can assist those in the field of education to work through the daily and larger systemic challenges found in many classrooms and schools, and to cultivate stillness  and  grace  that can serve as an example to other teachers, principals, parents, and children.

mb65-MediaReviews5Room to Breathe

Produced and directed by Russell Long
Sacred Planet Films, 2012
DVD, color, 55 minutes

Reviewed by Ambrose Desmond

Room to Breathe is an inspiring new documentary about bringing mindfulness practice into schools. The fi follows Megan Cowan, a trainer and the Program Director of Mindful Schools, as she works with one San Francisco middle school class. Room to Breathe begins by exploring the classroom and the academic and behavioral challenges of the students in that class. Through interviews with the teacher, the students, and their parents, the film profiles the particular challenges of a few individual students.

At the beginning of the fi the portrait is not a hopeful one. Parents and teachers are trying unsuccessfully to motivate the students toward better behavior and engagement at school. The film clearly shows what a challenge it would be to make a significant impact in the lives of these students.

When Cowan arrives in the classroom, her first visit is nearly a failure. She is white, while most of the students are African-American and Latino, and the cultural distance is glaring. Many of her early struggles in connecting with the students seem to result from a lack of cultural competence. Yet over time, she builds authentic relationships with most of the children. One of the real strengths of the movie is that it presents a realistic picture of the challenges associated with trying to create change in a difficult classroom. During one scene, Cowan asks the students, “Who doesn’t want to participate in the mindfulness practice?” Most of the students raise their hands. However, through creative classroom management and truly admirable persistence, that dynamic undergoes a profound shift.

By the end of Cowan’s time with the class, most of the children seem engaged in the mindfulness practices. Some of them describe how they use mindfulness practice to control their impulses and make better choices. While this program is not portrayed as a panacea, it’s clear that some of the students have been profoundly affected by mindfulness practice and have integrated it into their lives. Because the film does not shy away from Cowan’s difficulties, it makes her obvious impact on the children even more inspiring. Room to Breathe is well made and highly engaging, and I believe that anyone interested in how mindfulness can transform society would enjoy watching this film.

Room to Breathe is available for community screenings and house party screenings. The filmmakers wish to encourage post-film discussions as a first step toward implementing mindfulness in schools. For information about hosting a screening, visit roomtobreathefilm.com.

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Dharma Talk: Life is a Wonder!

By Thich Nhat Hanh

On May 10, 2008, during the “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” retreat at the Kim Lien Hotel in Hanoi, Thich Nhat Hanh answered questions from retreatants. Here are a few of those questions and answers.

Thich Nhat Hanh

A Beautiful Continuation

A written question: My father is retiring after fifty-five years of leading companies. He has decided that unless he can remain a very important person by having a high position or being affiliated with a prestigious institution, he is “irrelevant.” As a result he does not want to live. He has said he cares about no one and has no interests left in life. I’ve tried watering his good seeds and spending time with him. But his anger is very deep and his manas is 72 years strong [laughter]. How can I help him?

We might help him by telling him to learn to look deeply into his own person, to understand himself. We are usually caught in our notion of self. We are not aware that a self is made only of non-self elements, just as a flower is made only of non-flower elements. Sometimes we notice that we have certain talents and skills, but we should know that these talents and skills have come from our ancestors. When you know that your own talents, as well as your suffering and your happiness, have come from your ancestors, you are no longer caught in the idea that all these things belong to you.

In the Buddhist tradition when we Touch the Earth we make the gesture of opening our two hands to show that we have nothing in us. Everything has been transmitted through our ancestors. There is nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to be proud of. We inherit many things from our ancestors. In that light we can release everything very quickly. The insight that self is made up of nonself elements can be very liberating. Then it will be possible for us to see ourselves in our children and in our friends.

We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean our end — we always continue! We continue beautifully or not so beautifully, depending on how we handle the present moment. If in the present moment we can produce thoughts of loving kindness, forgiveness, and compassion, if we can say inspiring words, if we can perform beautiful acts of compassion, then we will have a beautiful continuation. We have sovereignty over the present moment.

If your father has access to that kind of insight he will change and he will suffer less. He will have joy in living. He will see that he is in you and that you will carry him into the future. All his talents and experiences are not lost — you will continue to have them, and you will do your best to transmit these qualities into the future through your children and grandchildren.

A Deep Grievous Longing

A lay woman asks: My husband and I have been trying to conceive a child for a long time. My sister and her husband have recently had a pregnancy loss, so we’ve both been experiencing a lot of suffering. One of my highest aspirations is to experience the miracle of having a child. Sometimes it’s very intense emotionally, the intensity of life wanting to continue itself, it causes a deep grievous longing. I work in a clinic that practices Chinese medicine to help couples with infertility. So it’s very difficult not to water those seeds of suffering. It is my most sincere intention to nourish my healing practice and my patients’ healing from the heart of my own experience. It’s from here that I ask for your guidance.

Someone said that happiness is something that you don’t recognize when it is there. You feel that, once it is gone, you have lost it. Happiness can occur in different forms. We might focus our attention on one thing and we call it the basic condition for our happiness. If we don’t have that thing then we don’t have happiness. But there are many other conditions for happiness that are present in the here and the now, and we just ignore them. We think that only the other object is a true condition for happiness, which now we don’t have.

Someone looking at you may recognize all the conditions of happiness that he does not have. That person may wonder why with plenty of conditions for happiness like that you do not enjoy your life and you are looking for something else. So the practice is first of all to say that happiness can be found in many forms.

Looking deeply into the human person we see that the human person wants to continue long into the future. We want to have children and grandchildren; we want to last a very long time. That is also the nature of animals and vegetables. Every living thing wants to be continued long into the future, not just human beings.

Someone like myself, a monk, also has the desire to last into the future, to be continued. That is very normal — every human being wants to be continued, and to be continued beautifully.

We know that there are those who have children but who are not happy with their children. They say if they had not given birth to these children they would be happier. You have to take into account all these things.

I myself do not have blood children but I have a lot of spiritual children and they make me very happy. They carry me into the future and I am very satisfied! I do not need to have a blood child.

Transmission can be done in many ways. You want to transmit the best thing you have into the future. You can transmit yourself genetically or spiritually. When you look into my disciples and friends and spiritual children you can see me.

We are not blood children of the Buddha but we feel that we are real children of the Buddha because we have inherited a lot from the Buddha. He has transmitted himself to us not genetically but spiritually. If you take into account these different modes of transmission you will see that we need not suffer because we cannot transmit ourselves genetically into the future.

But who knows?! Enjoy the conditions of happiness you actually have and one day you may enjoy that happiness also. But I think that if you enjoy this you may be completely satisfied. Every door is open. Good luck!

Treating Depression

Sr. Tung Nghiem speaks: Dear Thay, we had a few friends who wrote to Thay after Thay spoke about depression and how nothing can survive without food. They wrote either from their own experience or the experience of a loved one or a client if they wrote as a psychotherapist. They shared their belief that there’s also a physiological aspect causing depression and some people truly need to take medication. The friends who wrote were concerned that Thay’s teaching could be misunderstood by the people who still need to have medicine and who may stop taking their medicine if they think they only need to stop consuming those things that are harmful to their mind and that’s enough. So they ask Thay to clarify.

In the teaching of the Buddha the biological and the mental inter-are. They manifest based on one another. Our emotions and feelings are very connected to the chemicals in our bodies. Our emotions and feelings can produce chemicals that are toxic or that inhibit the production of certain chemicals like neurotransmitters, and create an imbalance in your body. The mental can create the biological and the biological can have an effect on the mental. We don’t reduce the importance of one side.

All of us have the seed of depression, all of us. All of us have the seed of mental illness. We have received these genes from our parents and our ancestors, and we know from science that genes don’t turn on by themselves. They are turned on by our way of thinking, our feelings, our perceptions, and our environment. It is the environment that helps turn on the negative and positive genes. The genes are equivalent to the bijas, the seeds that we talk about in the teachings of the Buddha.

Neuroscientists ask the questions: Is it true that the brain produces the mind? How could the activities of neurons bring about the subjective mind? But the brain and the mind inter-are. This is because that is; this is not because that is not. It’s not that the body produces the mind or the mind produces the body, but mind and body are two aspects of the same thing. The mind always relies on the body to manifest. It’s like a coin — there is the head and the tail. Without the tail the head cannot exist and vice versa.

The seed of depression that now manifests may have been transmitted to us by many generations of ancestors. There may have been generations when that seed did not manifest. But now, because of the new environment, that seed has a chance to manifest. That is why we have to take into account the element of environment.

The environment is an object of consumption because elements of the environment touch and turn on the genes in us. That is why the teaching of the Buddha on food is very important. We consume not only edible food but also what we see, hear, feel, and touch; sensory impression is the second kind of food. The third kind of food is intention, our volition, the deep desire in us. The fourth kind of nutriment is consciousness; we consume consciousness. If we live with a number of people around us, we consume their collective way of thinking and perceiving. For instance we may see something as not beautiful but because everybody around us sees it as beautiful, slowly we also come to see it as beautiful. We are influenced by the collective thinking around us and that is also consumption. Our depression has to do with all these sources of nutriments.

Medication can help but don’t rely on medication alone. You have to change your way of life and your environment, and one day you’ll be able to stop taking medication. If you don’t change your way of life and you continue to use the medication, at a later time it will not work because your body gets used to it.

Scientists know full well that it is our environment and our attention that turn on the seeds in us. There is a practice called yoniso manaskara, appropriate attention, where we focus our attention only on things that turn on the good seeds in us. For example, when we hear the sound of the bell, if we are a practitioner we naturally stop thinking and go back to our breathing and enjoy the present moment. The sound of the bell helps with appropriate attention, to turn on the good seeds.

We should create an environment where the good seeds and genes in us have many chances to turn on. If you are in a bad environment you know that even if you are taking medication it will not be a long-term solution. So go on and take the medication that you need but you should do something more. Change your way of life. Look at the source of nutriments you are using to feed yourself. Look at your environment to see if it is turning on the negative things in you. And if possible, just change your environment — even if you need to live in a smaller house, drive a smaller car, have a meager salary. If you can move to a better environment do not hesitate to do so because your health depends on it.

Why Are We Here?

A lay woman asks: What is the purpose of life?

That is philosophy! [laughter]

No, but there must be a reason! Why are we here?

This is a chance to discover the mystery of life. Very exciting! [laughter] You have something to discover, something very deep, something very wonderful. That practice of looking deeply can satisfy your curiosity, and that is one reason to be alive — to discover yourself, to discover the cosmos. This is a joy.

You might like to focus your question on “how” and not be caught always in the “why”. Life is a wonder! We are here to experience the wonder of life. If you have enough mindfulness and concentration, you can have a breakthrough and get deep into the reality of the wonder.

Life is a wonderful manifestation. Not only is the rose wonderful, not only are the clouds and the sky wonderful, but the mud and the suffering are also wonderful. So enjoy touching life; discover the mystery of life. And don’t spend your time asking metaphysical questions! [laughter]

Defusing the Bombs in the Heart

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha, before I came to Vietnam I had the privilege to spend several weeks in Laos where I was able to meet with many people who had been affected by the war. As I stood in fields that still had a lot of unexploded ammunition, sometimes forty or fifty bombs in a small field, I felt overwhelmed with sadness and anger. Speaking to people who continue to be affected, whether it’s friends or family who are killed by the unexploded ammunition, or a poor farmer who had his arm and his leg blown off at a young age, plunging his family into further poverty, I felt very sad. This young farmer said to me that this experience was his luck. I find it hard to accept that such experiences can be luck! Is this karma? And is this a time when we can be righteously angry? What is the mindful way to deal with these intense emotions?

Many social workers we trained in the School of Youth for Social Service died because of bombs, guns, and assassination. Some lost one foot, one arm. A young lady got more than 300 shards of metal in her body, from a type of bomb called anti-personnel bomb dropped by the American bombers. The doctors helped to extract many pieces of metal but there are still hundreds of them in her body. When she was in Japan for treatment she could not use an electric blanket because of these pieces of metal in her body. And they are my own students, my disciples.

I know that there are many unexploded land mines and bombs in Vietnam and in Laos, that continue to kill people. We need to get the attention of people in the world and ask them to help remove these engines of death. There are dedicated professionals who are helping. What is essential is to learn how to do it with compassion because that amount of violence is part of our legacy, our heritage. We should make the strong aspiration not to repeat that kind of action from now on.

But the bombs are not only embedded in the land, they are in the hearts of many people today. If you look around you see that many people, even young people, are ready to die and are ready to punish others.

How to defuse the bomb in the heart of man is very important work also, how to remove the hate in the hearts of so many people. So far the war on terrorism has not diminished the number of terrorists. In fact it has increased the number of terrorists, and each of them has a bomb inside his or her heart. Terrorists want to die for a cause, they want to punish others. That is why cultivating compassion and helping these people to remove their hatred and anger is also very important work. That is also to defuse the bombs.

You can see that the situation in the Middle East is very difficult. Not only are there bombs that explode on the land but there are bombs in the hearts of very many people. Compassion is the only answer.

As we help to defuse the bombs, whether in the land or in the heart, we should keep our compassion alive. I admire those of us who continue to help removing those death engines from the soil, but I also urge my friends to practice in order to defuse the bombs in the hearts of many people around us. We pray to the Buddha, to Jesus Christ and all our spiritual ancestors to support us in this compassionate action. We should think of our children and their children, and we should clean the Earth and our hearts, so that our children will have a better place to live.

Thank you for reflecting on this.

An Inoculation of Suffering

A lay woman asks: Dear Thay, dear Sangha: Yesterday you taught us that we should never give the negative seeds a chance. I agree with just 90% of that. [laughter] Ten percent of that is this question: there are young people who grow up in a very loving and supportive environment but when they go to big cities or other countries to study or to work, they will face some really negative pressure and the challenge is so big that they cannot deal with it. My suggestion is that we should vaccinate their mind and we should give them a bit of challenge when they are still young, so that their immune system is ready. What do you think of this? [laughter]

Thay says sometimes that each of us needs a certain dose of suffering. Remember? Suffering can instruct us a lot and help us cultivate compassion and understanding. So the art is to give each person an appropriate dose of suffering. [laughter] With too much suffering people will be overwhelmed and their heart will be transformed into stone. That is why parents and teachers have to handle this with care and intelligence.

In fact we cannot grow without experiencing suffering. When we say we should not give the negative seeds a chance we are referring to the teaching of Right Diligence. This means first of all that when positive seeds are present we should keep them alive as long as possible. One example of a positive seed is compassion. We should keep the seed of compassion alive in our hearts and our minds. One way to keep this seed alive is to be aware of the suffering. The practice of Right Diligence secondly means that we do not give negative seeds like hatred and anger a chance to increase by watering them everyday. If you are experienced in the practice of mindfulness you can complete the practice of Right Diligence by the practice of embracing strong emotions.

From time to time there is a mental formation that refuses to be replaced, like a CD that plays over and over. Even if you have a strong intention to replace it, it is too strong. If you are a skillful practitioner you will not try to change the CD. You will say, “You want to stay? It’s okay!” [laughter] You accept the CD; you accept the feeling, you embrace it tenderly and look deeply into it. That is also the teaching of the Buddha, to recognize the painful emotion, not to fight it but to recognize and embrace it in order to get relief. Look deeply into its nature in order to find all the roots of that feeling or emotion, because understanding is the way of liberation. Mindfulness and concentration lead to insight that is liberating.

Suffering exists in the context of family and school. There should be collaboration between parents and teachers, between parents and children, between teachers and students, to teach them how to handle their suffering. This is very clear in the tradition of Asia. When you come to learn from a teacher, what you have to learn first is how to behave – how to behave with others and with the teacher. You learn ethics first. And then after that you learn to write, to read, to study literature, history, mathematics, and so on. It is possible for us to do that in the context of family and school.

Making a living is important but that is not everything. Parents should show their children that although they are busy making a living for the whole family, they also devote enough time to make sure that harmony and happiness exist in the family. You can bring home a lot of money but that is not enough. You have to be there for your partner, your spouse, your children.

Their happiness depends on your way of being around them. The same must be true with school teachers. Not only do they need to transmit technical knowledge so that students will get a job later on, but we have to transform school into a family, into a Sangha. We should devote enough time to just being together. If there is deep communication between school teachers and children, the atmosphere of school will be pleasant. This helps the learning process to happen easily. So we have to offer retreats to parents and school teachers so they can take better care of their families and their students.

And that is part of Engaged Buddhism.

Transcribed and edited by Janelle Combelic, with help from Barbara Casey and Sr. Annabel, Chan Duc.

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

Letter from the Editor

mb50-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Today is Martin Luther King Day here in the United States. Tomorrow we inaugurate a new president, the first black man to serve in that post. Along with what seems to be the whole world, I rejoice in the dawning of a new era.

Perhaps we are truly approaching what Thay mentions in his New Year’s letter (see the Mindfulness Bell website), what Martin Luther King called the “beloved community.” At least I dare to hope so, though I know that much will be required of each one of us for it to become a reality.

In my own life the political excitement of the last few months has been overshadowed by the illness of my sister-in-law, dying of ovarian cancer. For much of that time she lived in our home and we were blessed with the presence of many

angels, including hospice staff and volunteers and friends. Now she has moved to a nursing home where she receives better care. By the time you read this, I suppose, her body will be ashes.

How can it be that the person I know and love will no longer be here? Of course, in the ultimate dimension, she’s not going anywhere. As Thay says in this issue’s Dharma talk, “We know that the disintegration of this body does not mean the end — we always continue!” I have been with other loved ones as they died, and a palpable energy is released that fills the room with love and enters the heart like grace. Still, the wrenching away, the physical loss of a loved one is ever so painful and the grief is as sharp as a sword.

In this issue Lauren Thompson shares her transformation as she journeyed with a Sangha sister during a terminal illness. She writes that “through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing.”

Glimpses of interbeing can not only guide us through personal loss but may be critical in solving global issues. “Unless we are aware,” said Angela Tam in a powerful talk at the Vesak Conference, “of the connection between our habits and the planetary problems we have, nothing will change.” Her solution: interbeing, mindfulness, Sangha. Brother Phap Lai similarly points to a spiritual solution for the complex problem of overpopulation: “We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community.”

As Martin Luther King wrote fifty years ago, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

May the vision that Martin Luther King lived and died for become reality here on earth. May the Buddha-to-be that Thay has foreseen be born in each of our hearts. May we practice with diligence, wisdom, and compassion so as to bring about the beloved community of all living beings.

Blessings to you all,

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Letters

Dear Ones,

I was very inspired by the letters from people who are incarcerated that were in the Autumn 2008 issue of the Mindfulness Bell. Those letters jogged my memory of visiting the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Bedford Hills, NY, as a law student over twenty years ago. It is a maximum security prison for women. I vividly remember how sad the inmates seemed to me. The crimes committed by the women were very serious. But such crimes were often provoked by the need to defend themselves in a life-or-death situation. I also learned that many of the women had young children who were now being raised by others. I remember feeling heartbroken by the circumstances of these women.

My dear teacher, Lyn Fine, was having a birthday in November. I decided to send a subscription of the Mindfulness Bell to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Lyn’s honor. I feel so grateful to be able to share the Dharma through the joy of the Mindfulness Bell with the women at the prison in Bedford Hills.

There are many opportunities for us readers of the Mindfulness Bell to share the precious gift of the practice with others. I wanted to share my experience of the ripple effect of reading the Mindfulness Bell, to wanting to celebrate the birthday of a very special person, manifesting in a subscription of the Mindfulness Bell going to the shelf of the library of a prison that I visited for a day many years ago.
Kathleen Cahill
New York NY

U.S.A.

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Dear Janelle,

My mother passed peacefully on October 19th. We were joined in complete oneness in a tunnel of gold, with eyes locked. I was smiling hugely and nodding at her, with my head on her chest, and my hand on her heart as it beat for the final time. I want to express to you how amazing it was to get the Mindfulness Bell a few days later with your article and the one on the still Christian mind. I was able to use the bell meditation for Molly’s witnessed cremation, as she was an engaged Christian. Many members of Plum Blossom Sangha were there, and we sent Molly’s body into the flames with New Baby and Sandy, the stuffed dog in her arms. Thank you Thay, Thank you Janelle.
Carlene South
Austin, Texas

U.S.A.

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Dear Mindfulness Bell,

I really enjoy reading the Mindfulness Bell. I only recently became a subscriber, but since then have also collected all the back issues I could find. And have read them cover to cover. I have especially enjoyed features on Thay’s trips to Vietnam. Something I missed, however, was a general overview or summary of these trips. A letter like the one attached [about the India trip] might offer this kind of information to readers.
Claire Venghiattis
Mannheim
Germany

Editor’s reply: Thank you for the suggestion. Your letter is printed in the Sangha News section, and we’ve also included an overview of Thay’s retreats in Vietnam last year, in an essay by Loan To Phan on page 11.

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In this issue we feature photos of the newly finished Togetherness Meditation Hall at Blue Cliff Monastery by Tasha Chuang, Peaceful Calling of the Heart, who practices with the Morning Star Sangha in Queens, NY. She writes about one day being “completely astonished with the beautiful reflections of the sunlight diffused through the meditation hall, which morphed into interesting layering images with colors, shapes, and texture, from the forest and the architecture interweaving. They captured the essence of how I feel sometimes when I meditate in that spacious meditation hall surrounded by nature.”

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Return to Vietnam for Vesak

May 2008

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In the Autumn 2008 issue of the Mindfulness Bell, we published several articles on the biannual United Nations Day of Vesak, which was held for the first time in Vietnam. We are pleased to continue our coverage of that historic event.

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Inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s lifelong teachings on Engaged Buddhism, the conference explored “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic, and Civilized Society.” Five thousand Buddhist monastics and laypeople from all over the world participated. Thich Nhat Hanh was the main keynote speaker and many of Thay’s students made presentations on various panels. Four of those talks are reproduced here.

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Before the conference Thay gave a series of retreats, culminating in a seven-day retreat in English at Golden Lotus Hotel in Hanoi. Four hundred people attended; in this issue we offer reflections from two of the retreatants.

FromVietnam several monks and nuns traveled to Hong Kong, where a strong Sangha has developed in recent years. Sister Hanh Nghiem shares her thoughts about the Buddha’s Enlightenment Retreat, where “Mindful breathing was our peace, joy, and freedom.”

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Retreating to My Roots

By Loan To Phan

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I am a Vietnamese-born Australian citizen. While attending a winter retreat at Plum Village in November 2007, I got in touch with my ancestral roots on a level that over the last twenty-three years has been unacknowledged and unexplored, almost foreign. “Boi dap goc re, khai thong suoi nguon” (nourishing our roots, clearing our streams) were the themes at Plum Village that awoke a deep gratitude and curiosity about my blood ancestors. I realized that my existence came from a life force that runs through my parents, grandparents, and continuing back and back through many generations before them.

Growing up in a generally individualistic society has distanced me from my roots. Ironically, this has created a blank space that allows me to bring a beginner’s mind to explore and understand myself through knowing my ancestors. What better way to find answers to these questions than a trip to Vietnam?! And what better conditions than Buddhist retreats — with opportunities to deeply contemplate myself and hence my ancestors in me?! It was particularly meaningful to be able to do this with my parents.

Dharma Rain at Bat Nha

The first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh or Thay (Vietnamese for Teacher) was a five-day retreat at Prajna Monastery in Bao Loc, Lam Dong province. The spacious monastery and temperate weather of the green highlands near central Vietnam were ideal conditions for practice. In total there were approximate 3500 people of all ages attending this retreat. I was surprised to see so many young people there, some as young as fifteen — students and young people working in business, film industry, social work, health, etc. They all shared a search for meaning as well as relief from the difficulties faced in their increasingly demanding and pressured  environment.

Vietnamese people really enjoy socializing; in particular they like to be lively and vocal. However, during meals together and walking meditation all one could hear were the click-clacking of plastic cutlery and crockery, or the melodies of bird songs and rustling of leaves.

Thay spoke lovingly to the young people about having ideals and purpose in life, recounted funny love stories, and explained how having values or guiding principles as outlined in the Five Mindfulness Trainings can help restore and improve the quality of our relationships. He urged the young people to be determined and diligent in their practice of returning to the present moment by focusing on their breathing as they go about daily tasks. He explained how to listen deeply to cultivate understanding and Beginning Anew, a practice of reconciliation and expressing hurt in a constructive way. Brother Phap An gave a compelling account of his personal experience in dealing with a block of suffering he had gained during his childhood as a result of the war. Brother Nguyen Hai’s explanation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings contributed to inspiring about a third of participants to take the commitment to study and practice the Mindfulness Trainings and take refuge in the Three Jewels.

The regular afternoon exercise time came to life with traditional Vietnamese games such as bamboo stick jumping and Vietnamese hacky-sack, singing songs of meditation and joyful practice, or just walking around the beautiful gardens of Prajna.

The question-and-answer session contained some queries about forming and maintaining a Sangha for young people.

As a Viet-kieu I was impressed at the openness, depth and wisdom my young Vietnamese friends had drawn from their experiences. For some, Thay’s Dharma talk was a confirmation of their hard-earned life lessons, while for others the retreat planted a seed of curiosity about what it means to live engaged Buddhism.

The pouring monsoon, symbolising Dharma rain, came down generously as we shared deeply our experiences of life’s challenges and successes during Dharma discussion groups. The tents that we slept in became soaked but it didn’t dampen our spirits. We just rolled up our sleeping mats and joined the snoring choruses of the “young at heart” participants in the main meditation hall. In fact, the hard floor, lack of sleep (because it was colder than expected so some of us could not get good sleep) actually made our memories of the joy and peace in newly found friendship even more memorable!

Retreat for the Young People of Hanoi

Continuing their tour to the north, Thay and the Plum Village delegation held another four-day retreat for the young people of Hanoi, at Bang Temple, Hoang Mai province. Bang Temple was still under construction when over a thousand people crammed into its grounds, overtaxing its already limited accommodation and sanitary facilities. I was particularly moved to see elderly women bent over from their hard laboured life as well as young people from well-to-do families determined to receive the Dharma so much that again, the wet weather, hard floors, simple meals did not deter them from fully participating in the mindful practices.

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My Dad, who only attended the last session and lunch, was moved to tears by the collective energy of the four-fold Sangha eating mindfully. The walking meditation through the narrow local streets brought curious faces to the doors, preschool children offering their joined palms in respect and bright smiles as the river of Sangha flowed past, silent and reverent.

A highlight of this retreat was the session between young people and young monastics of Western and Vietnamese background. There was lively singing that accompanied eager questions about monastic life and faith. These questions illustrated the young people’s collective responsibility through concerns about their future as a generation facing the challenge of living in a society with increasing materialism and consumerism, corroding morality, and where Buddhism is a religion rather than a way of life and practice. The question-and-answer session with Thay was also dominated by questions from young retreatants about monastic aspirations and how to deal with the tribulations of romantic love.

Busy Hotel to Tranquil Monastery

There couldn’t be more of a contrast between the last two retreats and the twelve-day retreat titled “Engaged Buddhism for the Twenty-First Century” held at the Kim Lien Hotel in central Hanoi. This included the UN Day of Vesak 2008 and a three-day conference on the theme “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civil Society.”

I went from a traditional incense-perfumed, spiritual environment with austere facilities to a relatively affluent, Western, secular hotel in downtown Hanoi. From sleeping on the floor and using squat toilets to serviced beds in air-conditioned rooms — I realised how attached I am to Western creature comforts! I am amazed at how in both of these environments the mindful practices can create wonderful and joyful energies, which confirms the universal nature of the Buddha’s teachings.

I am blown away at how a few simple collective practices of over four hundred participants from forty-one different countries can transform a busy worldly hotel into a tranquil monastery (not that there are any real differences in the ultimate sense!).

This retreat was special in that there was an ordination ceremony for the Order of Interbeing with over fifty people committing themselves to living the Fourteen Precepts, and close to one hundred taking refuge in the Three Jewels and Five Mindfulness Trainings.

After a week of solid practice one young person felt glad to call the hotel “home” after spending a day out in the hectic streets of Hanoi. Other under-thirty-five-year-old participants reported that their discussion groups provided an open, safe, and honest context where young monastics were accessible to lay friends, and together we listened and shared deeply our inner suffering, challenges, and experiences in living the Buddhist teachings. These were precious moments where we felt connected and supported to express ourselves; we could practice being the change we want to see in our lives and relationships with others.

The whole Sangha really flowed and practiced as one body as we did walking meditation around the beautiful Hoan Kiem (Returning Sword) Lake. Physically we must have looked quite impressive, all wearing the uniform grey robes or brown of the monastics, walking with each step contemplating the gatha: “Life is every step. Healing is every step. Miracle. Freedom.”

We ate together in silence and stayed within the hotel compound to preserve the wonderful collective energy, which was contagious as the hotel staff reciprocated our calm and respectful manners.

In his Dharma talks Thay warmly and humourously talked about the Four Noble Truths, Seven Factors of Enlightenment, Four Practices of True Diligence, and Three Doors Liberation. His presentation was always captivating, down to earth, and relevant to the current times, so that we could see daily applications.

Equipped with a week’s solid practice and new-found friendship and connectedness we attended the UN Day of Vesak 2008 with a strong and wonderful collective energy that moved and inspired other conference participants.

May all find a Sangha and flow as a river of clarity and freshness.

Loan To Phan, Tam Tu Hoa (Loving Harmony of the Heart), lives with her parents in Brisbane, Australia. She practices with the Solid and Free Sangha (Vung Chai Thanh Thoi) while working as a psychologist in a mental health service.

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The Journey Home

By Van Khanh Ha

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In May, Van Khanh Ha traveled to Vietnam with her daughter Lauren and her friend Karen Hilsberg. Here are excerpts from the journal she wrote to her loved ones back in the United States.

3 May — Returning Home Again

Yesterday morning our plane landed in Hanoi smoothly. My heart was filled with joy and peace. As I walked out, I was welcomed by so many sweet familiar faces and warm and humid air. The memories of war and its destruction are fad-ing. Hanoi today is alive more than ever.

I stopped and breathed deeply to the fact that, yes, I’m returning home again, after thirty-seven years.

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5 May — A Dream Come True

Hanoi impresses me with its beauty and wonderful culture. I’m taking each step, each breath with deep gratitude to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Lauren and I are happy here. Everyone is wearing the temple robe — ao trang — Lauren is so cute in this outfit.

We continued to explore the historical sights of Hanoi: Chua Tran Quoc, Den Ly Thai To, the botanical garden, and the water puppet show. As I listened to the classical opera, I felt as if Papa was there listening with me and embracing  me  with  his tender love.

This was a promise that I made to  him  before  his death — that some day I would return home to his beloved village of La Chu, to visit his ancestors’ tombstones. And now this is it. My dream has come true for myself and for my dear Papa.

Last night we had our orientation with Thich Nhat Hanh. There were four hundred retreatants from more than forty different countries.  I  looked  around the  room filled with people, as this small, simple, and humble monk talked. His Dharma talk was deep, lovely and with a great sense of humor. He gave wholeheartedly and I received his words with gladness, with joy and tears. The theme was “dwelling happily in the present moment.”

9 May — Peace in Ourselves, Peace in the World

The Golden Lotus Hotel where we are staying has 450 rooms and only two computers for guests to share. So it’s a challenge and we are learning to be very skillful with our time.

The retreat here with Thich Nhat Hanh is wonderful. Early every morning, we start our day with walking meditation. Thay walks mindfully with each step and we follow him with our breath and our smiles. Outside of the hotel, the streets are crowded with people going to work. The sound of silence is mixing with the sound of cars and motorcycles to become an orchestra of real life.

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After breakfast is the Dharma talk. Imagine a big room filled with hundreds of people and it’s quiet except for Thay’s voice. His voice is gentle, yet his message and his mission for peace are very powerful: “With deep listening and loving speech, we can transform our suffering. Peace in ourselves, peace in the world.”

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Last night Lauren woke me up to say: “I love Hanoi, I enjoy Vietnam so much. Thank you, Mommy.” At that moment, I knew deep inside my heart that I’ve made a good decision — for both of us to return to our roots, to our ancestors, and to discover Vietnam together. We are very grateful to be here and to receive the beautiful teachings of love and compassion from Thay with many of our friends.

12 May — Friendliness to Foreigners

The retreat ended, leaving a great impression on me and many others — looking at this gentle monk in his eighties who puts out so much energy for mankind with one simple wish: that the world be a better place to live for all beings.

Today is the beginning of the UN celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. The theme this year is “Buddhist Contributions to Building a Just, Democratic and Civilized Society.”

Yesterday Lauren, Karen, and I went to the One Pillar Pagoda, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Temple of Literature. Again, we went to our favorite Indian restaurant. We also had a chance to have ao dai [the traditional long silk tunic] made at the tailor shop; they are going to be so beautiful!

Despite the crowds and noise, Lauren and I embrace Vietnam with the connection to our ancestors. This trip has made me appreciate even more the old values and virtues of Confucius. I still see the happiness of the people, and the friendliness they offer to foreigners, even Americans. Life is difficult for most of the people here, but they accept and find peace in their lives.

16 May — Wholesome Seeds of Compassion and Peace

Today is the conclusion of the United Nations Day of Vesak Celebration 2008. The last three days have been so amazing. Being here helped to water and cultivate the wholesome seeds of compassion and peace in me. Many representatives and guest speakers from over sixty countries came together for one purpose — to promote peace in the world. We are united as one to bring happiness and love to all beings on this Earth.

I feel so blessed to witness such a sacred event. This is the first time for Vietnam to host this special event, and the organization did a wonderful job. Every meal, we were served with a banquet of delicious foods, desserts, and fresh fruits. The entertainments were excellent — a combination of old and new — from traditional music and songs to modern dance.

Tomorrow we go to the Avalokiteshvara Cave, Chua Huong and then to Ha Long Bay for two days.

18 May — Ha Long Bay

Today we went to Ha Long Bay. It’s so beautiful. We visited the caves and walked up to the mountain, the scenery is unbelievable. Every moment living in Vietnam made me appreciate the beauty of this land even more. Lauren and I are sharing a room with ocean view.

People here are simple and so loving. They are glad to know that I’m Vietnamese. I thought after living in the U.S. for most of my life, I had lost touch with my own roots but the first step in Hanoi, I know I’m home, with my own brothers and sisters.

20 May — Proud to Be Both

We are in Hue now. It is much more quiet and tranquil, even though our hotel is located in the heart of downtown. Meals are served with many types of special dishes. The dining area is on the balcony of the top floor overlooking the city and the Perfume River. It’s so nice, especially at nighttime.

Yesterday we went to Tu Hieu Temple. Thay with his gentle steps on the ground of his root temple brought tears to my eyes. This trip is more meaningful for us because of the practice and of his teachings. I’m forever thankful.

In the afternoon we visited preschools in the remote areas of Hue. The children sang songs and danced for us. They live on small boats or on stilt homes by the river. The living conditions are very poor but they are full of laughter and big smiles.

Last night we went on a boat to celebrate Vesak. We chanted and then released fish back to the river under the light of the full moon.

This trip continues to nurture my deep connection to my homeland and its beauty. I treasure my time here and just like Papa said: “You should be proud to be an American, but never forget your roots and your values.” He’s a wise man and I know in my heart that I’m proud to be both.

24 May — Visiting Ancestors

Yesterday Lauren and I went to visit my parents’ birthplaces near Hue with my relatives Chu Phu and Cu Chau’s children that I have not seen for over forty years. We went to La Chu, my father’s village, then later to Vi Da where my mother was born ninety-three years ago. Being by my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ graves, I felt the deep connection to them, even those I never met.

Early in the morning we walked on a narrow dirt road leading to my grandmother’s last resting place. Both sides of the road were rice fields ready to be harvested. The wet roads were so slippery, Lauren almost fell into the ditch. We burned incense and touched the earth three times to each of the tombstones.

Later, we went to Nguyen Khoa cemetery where my maternal grandparents are buried. I knew that Lauren and I are the continuation of our ancestors. There is no birth and no death. They are in us, in our every cell, and in every breath we take. And I could feel their love sent to us from above.

Central Vietnam is hot, with humid weather, and we were dripping with sweat. But we looked forward to being with our ancestors, so we just smiled and embraced the moment.

Today we visited the Emperors’ tombs and the Forbidden City. When Chi Hoa, Mu Chuc’s daughter, found out that we were here, she came to visit us in the hotel. She told us many stories about my family and she warmly greeted us with deep true love.

1 June — Memories and Gratitude

After Hoi An we went to Da Nang, where I spent most of my childhood and where I finished my education from elementary to high school. It brought back many warm memories — of family, friends, and the beautiful beaches. My Papa often took us to the ocean so my sisters and I could play in the water.

Lauren and I took a tour to the Cham Museum. It has artifacts that are thousands of years old. Then we visited my beloved math teacher’s home — Mr. Bui passed away years ago but his lovely wife welcomed us warmly. I sat there holding her soft hands, and her heartbeat and mine became one. We did not say much, but deep inside our love was interconnected. It was a hot, humid day, and our visit was sweet. I was touched by her tranquility and her kindness.

After that, we stopped to see my high school, Phan Chu Trinh. I used to walk with my friends to class; we shared our teenage years with so much laughter and silly jokes. Another stop was the courthouse where my father worked as a judge for twenty years. I could not find our old home in Da Nang because it’s now an office building.

The last stop in Da Nang was My Khe beach. Lauren and I were so happy when our feet touched the white sand and warm water. It was a perfect day, the sky was blue with patches of white clouds. Warm summer breezes caressed our faces softly. I picked up some seashells and feathers on the beach. I took a few deep breaths to treasure my youth, and my presence in the here and the now.

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) three days ago. It’s a lovely break: we called our time here are our “lazy days” — great food, and nice times spent with my brother’s family. We also visited with Uncle Tu’s children, Aunt Dieu Phuong’s daughter, and my dear friend Thuy Anh that I have not seen for forty-five years.

Lauren and I feel very fortunate to be able to take this trip together. Vietnam has helped us to open our hearts and our souls, to be touched by the kindness of many people and to be proud of my homeland’s natural beauty.

I’m looking forward to being back in America soon. May all beings be at peace.

Van Khanh Ha, True Attainment of the Fruit of the Practice, left Vietnam in 1971 to study in the United States, where she married and had a daughter, Lauren Mai. Her father, who had been a federal judge before the war, and her mother were able to come to the U.S. and live with Van in their old age. Van practices with Sanghas in Maryland and Virginia.

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Deepening Dharma in Hong Kong

By Sister Hanh Nghiem

The mind can go in a thousand directions,
but on this lovely path I walk in peace.
With each step, a gentle wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.

This is a gatha, a practice poem that was sung in the hearts of the monastic and lay practitioners at the seven-day retreat in Hong Kong. The Buddha’s Enlightenment Retreat took place May 24 to 30, 2008 with Brothers Phap An and Phap Trach, and Sister Hanh Lien and myself from Plum Village, along with Brothers Phap Tu and Trung Hai from Vietnam.

We came to the retreat, held at the Kadoorie Agricultural Research Centre of Hong Kong University, to learn about Buddhist psychology. (From the program: “Zen Master Thuong Chieu of Vietnam in the thirteenth century said that our practice would become much easier once we had a better understanding of its process. The teaching of Master Vasubandhu on consciousness will be used as the foundation for the retreat. We will briefly investigate the philosophical atmosphere in the pre-Buddhist period in order to understand and fully appreciate the enlightenment of the Buddha. We will … then trace the historical development of the Yogacara School, which leads to the teaching of Master Vasubandhu as given in Ch’eng Wei-Shih Lun. The key teachings of the Thirty Verses will be discussed and applied to the daily difficulties of modern life. The basic practice of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and other practices will also be emphasized as foundation for a deep  transformation.”)

We wanted to have a better intellectual grasp, but we came home with a practice to heal our hearts and understand our mind. We were given the tools to live with freedom, more mindfully, in our daily life.

In a city that hustles and bustles from the moment it awakes till it falls asleep, it wasn’t easy for people to get off seven days to come to practice as a Sangha, study the Buddha’s teachings, and realize the Dharma of his or her life. Each of us figured out a way to be present at the retreat or what was called camp. Some of the eighty retreatants had to leave for a night to go work and then they would return to the retreat. Others couldn’t leave their families, so they had to commute every day in order to be able to attend the retreat.

We knew our priority was to learn, study, and practice the Buddha’s teachings, so that is what we did. Most of the retreatants were older in age because the topic for the retreat was quite advanced, but the few young folks sure did bring character and spice to the retreat!

The first few Dharma talks by Thay Phap An were dedicated to the basic practice and a brief history of Buddhism, and then remaining days were devoted to Buddhist psychology. Still, the basic practice was highlighted to take home.

The retreat was organized by the local Hong Kong Sangha from A to Z. The monks and nuns made the schedule and helped lead the activities, but the smooth flow of the retreat was thanks to the Hong Kong Sangha. Every morning we heard the mini-bell invited to wake us up and the bell was also invited before each activity by the lay practitioners. We also had other bells of mindfulness to bring us back to the beautiful environment surrounding us, such as the croaking of the bull frogs, the buzzing and biting of the mosquitoes, the luscious green vegetation, and the peace and quiet. This particular section of H.K.U. was donated by a family with the intention to promote more understanding of the environment and a way to preserve and develop the vegetation that already existed in the area.

The heavens treated us well because every day it rained, but nonetheless when it was time to do walking meditation, the sky cleared up for us. In the East rain is an auspicious sign that heaven is happy and the celestial beings are coming down to hear the Dharma being pronounced.

We also had the opportunity to practice chi qong every day for nearly two hours led by Thay Phap An. It was a great success and very healing for a number of people.

The Beginning Anew presentation and practice were carried out very elegantly by Brother Phap Trach. The contribution of the retreatants brought much enlightenment to our being together. They would go into the center of the circle to pick up the flower and then bring the flower to the person they wanted to share with. Many people shed tears of happiness because they were so touched by the kind calm words that were being spoken to them.

One unusual occurrence during the retreat was that the chief cook hurt her arm and couldn’t cook, so they ordered us pizza. The misfortune allowed us all to enjoy a very pleasant picnic dinner together outside and to bond a little closer before the retreat ended.

We left the retreat with an understanding of how to live our life rather than bury ourselves ten feet underground with the question, what is the meaning of life? We could breathe, because we are alive. Mindful breathing was our peace, joy, and freedom.

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

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The Buddha’s Medicine

By Larry Ward

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Many of us understand the Buddha as a doctor who shared and continues to offer his medicine of the teachings and practice to us. This great offering is to help us in healing and transforming our individual and collective suffering. One can say the medicine of Buddhism is truly deep and lovely. It is the medicine of waking up the good within our hearts and minds.

Something today is different. And I’m kind of slow so it takes me a while to figure things out. What I finally realized is that for thousands of years the question of salvation has been “What must I do to be saved?” This is the central question of our spiritual traditions. But you and I live in the first moment in history in which this question is now expanded to “What must we do to be saved?” And by “we” I mean the whole planet. I mean every person, every race, every tribe, every nation, every organization and wholesome spiritual tradition. I am aware that this is a challenging way to describe the salvation question. However, it does not leave behind the question of individual liberation but dares us to remember our deep Bodhisattva vows.

It is not only humans and institutions who are asking this question of salvation. The snow-capped mountains and the deep blue oceans are asking the question. The trees and the land itself are calling to us: “What must we do to be saved?”

Opening Dharma Doors

We have been experimenting in the Plum Village Sangha with ways of opening Dharma doors in response to this question. I want to name a few of the doors for you so that you might get a fresh idea on a door you might open where you practice, where you live, and where you serve the Dharma.

Recently I was involved in leading a retreat for an organization in Canada that is committed to working with AIDS in Africa. The retreat was designed to help those involved in the aid work to be nourished and not to burn out or to be overwhelmed by the grief they experience every single day that they give their lives to the service of the children and the women and the men suffering from AIDS.

A few years ago we had a wonderful retreat for individuals involved in law enforcement and criminal justice — police officers, lawyers, parole officers, and social workers. We engaged that group of people in exploring what it means to be a Bodhisattva, what it means to engage mindfully in their work in the world. We offered the Five Mindfulness Trainings to many who desired to practice them in the context of their daily life and work.

I can tell you that the retreat, which was attended by several hundred people, was a transformational experience. I am sure that the communities and institutions they went back to serve found that the quality of kindness and thoughtfulness and compassion had been nourished and grown.

We’ve offered a retreat for individuals connected to the entertainment industry — filmmakers, artists, writers, and poets. It was held at Deer Park Monastery in Southern California, not far from Hollywood.

In the fall of last year we participated in a conference for people who are therapists and psychiatrists, called Mindfulness in Psychotherapy; 1800 people showed up at UCLA. Their capacity to embody mindfulness while they care for and serve their clients increased in wholesome ways.

We now offer annual family retreats for couples and for families with children. Young people are getting together for camps — songs, art, poetry, yoga, and meditation practice; this is a very successful annual gathering of young people. Students have had special retreats designed to introduce them to the benefits and principles of mindfulness practice.

Over the last few years we have offered “people of color” retreats in the United States for minorities to support these individuals and groups in the practice of mindfulness. This effort is enabling the teachings to go with people back to the neighborhoods, communities, and local institutions. I can report to you that there are schools in the United States where the classroom morning begins with the sound of the bell. I can report to you that there are young people in difficult situations who come to class and enjoy meditation and the tea ceremony.

Thay has already mentioned the work at Plum Village with Palestinians and Israelis, but you should also know that many of our colleagues are creating special initiatives on their own that are taking place every week, every day, to build peace and to foster reconciliation.

We have had gatherings of business people to talk about mindfulness and ethics and what it means to be a business person who practices mindfully. This includes mindfully developing products and mindfully managing their profit. The Buddha did not complain about business people, the Buddha only wanted to make sure that we made money the right way, without causing suffering, and that when we made it, we spent it the right way, without causing suffering.

We’ve had veterans’ retreats in the United States, for many years offered by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. You may have already encountered the tremendous transformation and healing of some of the veterans of many wars, including the Vietnam War.

What We Are Learning

What we are learning through the process of offering so many different kinds of retreats and mindfulness days to so many different people and professions is three-fold. First, the post-modern mind or soul is seeking an experience of transformation and healing more than an explanation of transformation and healing. If an explanation comes along after I’m healed, or while I’m getting healed, it’s deeply appreciated.

The second thing we are learning is that offering the medicine of our tradition is not a matter of conversion. It is not a question of religious roots but rather a question of generating authentic aspiration. This is a matter of offering the Buddhist teaching with clarity and practical relevance through humble sincerity.

The third aspect is that this way of transmitting the teachings is about application and translation. Depth scholarship is certainly important but we must find new ways it can be applied to the suffering that is pervasive in our time and space. This is crucial if we are to untie the internal and social knots that block us from our best selves and best societies.

Seeds of a New Society

So the true value of the teaching is not trapped in the form of its delivery. Skillful means is one of the fundamental teachings the Buddha has given us to help living beings to relieve their suffering. The practices that we have been given by the Buddha and all of our teachers after him can be applied in every kind of situation — if we apply them without attachment to form.

In the midst of these very concrete retreats and mindfulness days we have found that sometimes the Dharma Gates of Liberation open wide. While sharing the practices of sitting, walking, eating meditation, deep relaxation, Dharma talks and discussion, deep listening, and loving speech, people find themselves not only healed but transformed.

If you look and listen closely, you will see that we are in the midst of a new kind of society. But the kind of society that you and I would be happy living in, and most people I know on this planet would be happy living in, is not yet here. The seeds of it are here. However, the new society that is just, democratic, and civilized can only take place on the ground of a new spiritual sensibility. And, brothers and sisters, we are that ground — the ground of that fresh spiritual sensibility of the post-modern age.

You may ask where the Buddha is in all of this. Master Lin Chi reminds us that the Buddha is not a statue. Other ancestral teachers remind us if we are going to find the Buddha we should look close, close to where we are, close to our heart, close to our own mind, or we will not find him, or we will not find her.

In closing I offer you a poem from this week’s experience:

We engage through our love,
opening 10,000 Dharma Doors
with a true mind and a true heart.
What do we call this urgency, this Buddhism?
It matters not.

The sun rises and the moon shines without confusion.
Listen to the frogs — do they remind you of anyone?
The bamboo chimes dance in the wind without clinging.
Our chants sing out beauty
like the birds greeting the morning sun.

We are here to be engaged, to remember the promise
we made, many lifetimes ago,
the promise not to leave anyone behind,
the promise not to ignore the suffering of any being.
The promise to remember our noble calling —
It has not changed.
It is still: Wake up, wake up, wake up.

Larry Ward is a Dharma Teacher in the Order of Interbeing and he is currently pursuing a doctorate in Religious Studies (Buddhism) from Claremont Graduate University in California. He is co-author with Peggy Rowe-Ward of  Love’s Garden: A Guide to Mindful Relationships (Parallax Press, 2008).

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War, Conflict and Healing

A Buddhist Perspective

By Ha Vinh Tho

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According to the first of the five precepts (panca sila) given by the Buddha to his lay disciples (upasaka):

“Lay students of the Buddha refrain from killing, put an end to killing, rid themselves of all weapons, learn humility before others, learn humility in themselves, practice love and compassion, and protect all living beings, even the smallest insect. They uproot from within themselves any intention to kill. In this way, lay students of the Buddha study and practice the first of the Five Mindfulness Trainings.” (1)

Even though all religious and spiritual traditions agree to condemn the destruction of life, and although the precept “do not kill” is one of the most universally recognized ethical rules, war and violent conflicts remain an ever-present reality in the history of mankind. For this very reason, it is of utmost importance to reflect on ways to prevent conflicts, to alleviate suffering once conflicts have occurred, and to facilitate reconciliation and healing in post-conflict situations.

The Preamble to the Constitution of UNESCO declares that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

The objective of this presentation is to show how the practice of Engaged Buddhism can contribute to the construction of the defenses of peace in the mind.

Developing the Great Compassion

I work in the field of humanitarian action; I train young people to help civil populations, war prisoners, the wounded and the sick in situations of war, armed conflict, and natural catastrophe.

Although neutrality and impartiality are the very guiding principles of true humanitarian action, it is often difficult to maintain this attitude when confronted with the harsh reality of violent conflict. To refuse to take a stand and to maintain an attitude of neutrality can be perceived as a lack of courage or lucidity. Indeed, how not to take sides for the weak against the strong, for the victim against the perpetrator?

I will argue that meditation on the universal law of interdependence, on non-self and on the nature of suffering, is the foundation of the Great Compassion which allows us to develop an attitude of neutrality which is not cowardice and of impartiality which is not indifference.

In the current world situation, characterized by the confrontation of cultures, religions and civilizations, it is more than ever necessary to develop non-attachment to opinions and to wrong perceptions. The Buddha teaches skillful means allowing lifelong learning, and an attitude of tolerance and authentic opening.

I recently acted as a mediator in a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, and one of the participants explained:

“Our problem is that there are two competing narratives for one and the same situation.”

Not only is there a competition over land and resources, but there is a competition over the interpretation of reality. Each party is convinced, and wants to convince the world, that his story is the true story.

Each time one is confronted with violent conflicts, one can observe this phenomenon — the two sides have competing narratives, competing stories. And each side sees itself as the “the good guys” versus the other side perceived as “the bad guys.” Most armies are called “Defense Forces”; for instance the German army during the Second World War was called “Wehrmacht,” German for “Defense Force,” and on the buckle of the belts of the soldiers was written “Gott mit uns”: “God with us”, or “God on our side.”

I don’t know of any state that calls its army “Aggression Forces” — the aggressor is always the other side. The demonizing of the other side is a recurring phenomenon in any conflict; otherwise, how would it be possible to kill and maim the so-called enemy, if each one was fully aware that the other is just like oneself?

To give another example, during the Rwandan genocide, the actual physical violence had been prepared through intense radio propaganda by the “Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines” (RTLM) that was broadcasting slogans like: “Kill all the cockroaches,” referring thus to the moderate Hutus and to the Tutsis.

These few examples show clearly that “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.”

But how can we build these defenses?

The Reality of Suffering

In his first teaching, “The Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma,” Lord Buddha began by explaining the Four Noble Truths, and the First Noble Truth is the truth of suffering (dukkha). Because of this, some people who do not understand the deeper meaning of the Dharma think that Buddhism is a pessimistic world view that emphasizes suffering over joy, and only sees life as a burden best gotten rid of. But this is a very superficial view; the Buddha acknowledges suffering in the same way a doctor acknowledges illness: in order to cure it.

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Suffering can be a powerful way to develop compassion and in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing, the Fourth Training addresses this reality:

Awareness of Suffering— Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help me develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, I am determined not to avoid or close my eyes before suffering. I am committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so I can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace and joy. (2)

I would like to share an experience that I had some years ago, and that helped me understand in a more concrete way the reality of this Mindfulness Training. During a peace conference, I heard a lady from Northern Ireland tell how her sister had lost her son in a terrorist attack, and how, soon after, the man who had killed her nephew had also been shot dead. The mother of the young man who had been killed decided to visit the mother of the one who had killed her son, not in order to seek revenge, but to console her. She said:

“Only a mother who has lost a child can understand another mother who has had the same experience.”

These two women started a powerful peace movement in Northern Ireland that was instrumental in bringing about the Good Friday Peace Agreement that stopped a violent conflict that had been raging for decades.

In the same way, in Israel and Palestine there is a movement called the Parents’ Circle; all members of this circle have lost a son or a daughter in the conflict. I have had the privilege to facilitate meetings of the Parents’ Circle. It is a deeply moving experience to see how these people have transformed suffering into compassion. They have been able to overcome the natural striving for retaliation and revenge and to come together, united by their common experience of a terrible loss, to share a message of peace and reconciliation. When they meet, they share their stories, the memories of their lost children, but out of this grief they draw strength, energy of love and compassion, and a strong will to bring an end to war and to violence. Whoever listens to them can only be deeply moved because they speak from the depth of an experience that no theory or abstract ideal can match. They have discovered through their own suffering the reality of the Buddha’s saying:

“Hate is not overcome by hate; by love (metta) alone is hate appeased. This is an eternal law.”

The Realization of Interdependence and Non-Self

From the point of view of conflict prevention and peace building, interdependence and non-self are the most important tools that Buddhism has to offer. What I have called the problem of competing narratives is always based on the false assumption of a radical, unbridgeable difference between me and you, between my community and your community.

At first sight, good and evil, right and wrong, victim and perpetrator seem to be completely separated realities; we may think that if we get rid of the negative, only the positive will remain. But interdependence or, as Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls it, interbeing, is the realization of the interconnectedness of all life. The more we become aware of the reality of interbeing, the more we realize our shared responsibility for the state of the world. On one hand, this can seem like a burden; on the other, it makes us conscious that we are not passive onlookers, but that we can do something to bring about transformation and healing. I would like to quote venerable Thich Nhat Hanh who shared a powerful example of this insight:

“One day we received a letter telling us about a young girl on a small boat who was raped by a Thai pirate. She was only twelve, and she jumped into the ocean and drowned herself. When you first learn of something like that, you get angry at the pirate. You naturally take the side of the girl. As you look more deeply you will see it differently. If you take the side of the little girl, then it is easy. You only have to take a gun and shoot the pirate. But we cannot do that. In my meditation I saw that if I had been born in the village of the pirate and raised in the same conditions as he was, there is a great likelihood that I would become a pirate. I saw that many babies are born along the Gulf of Siam, hundreds every day, and if we educators, social workers, politicians, and others do not do something about the situation, in twenty-five years a number of them will become sea pirates. That is certain. If you or I were born today in those fishing villages, we may become sea pirates in twenty-five years.”3

If we awaken to the reality of interbeing and non-self, we awaken to the wisdom of non-discrimination. This is the wisdom that can break the barrier of individualism; with this wisdom we see that we are the other person and the other person is ourself. The happiness of the other person is our own happiness, and our own happiness is the happiness of the other people, plants, animals, and even minerals.

This is not only true on a personal level; it is also true for communities, countries, religions, and civilizations.

“Buddhism is made only of non-Buddhism elements. If we look deeply we can see that the elements of non-Buddhism have made Buddhism… It’s exactly the same as a flower. A flower is made from non-flower elements; the sun, the clouds are not flower, soil is not flower, water is not flower. The self is made of non-self elements. It is the same with the other religions.” (4)

The more this insight can become not a mere theory, but an actual experience, the more we can realize that the so-called enemies are always part of a common interdependent reality. And if we strive for the freedom, the peace and the happiness of our own community, the only way to achieve it is by protecting the freedom, the peace and the happiness of the other community. This is true between Israelis and Palestinians, between Americans and Iraqis, between Tutsis and Hutus, between Tibetans and Han Chinese.

This is also the key insight that helps us to be neutral and impartial without being indifferent. I have personally struggled with this dilemma more than once, and I would like to share an experience that had a transformative effect on me.

The first time I visited a detention center, I went to meet with security detainees in a military prison. I spent most of the day having interviews with the detainees and met with dozens of men. I was listening to one story after the other, stories of violence, of fear, of injustice, of hatred, of despair. Taking all these stories in my heart, it was easy to feel a lot of compassion with them and, on the other side, to feel anger arising against the soldiers who had all the power, the weapons, the authority. At some point, I was taking a short break in the courtyard, resting from the intensity of the encounters, from the stench and the claustrophobic atmosphere in the prison cells, when a young soldier came to sit next to me. I felt he wanted to talk to me. He was very young — most soldiers are very young, war is always about elder men sending out young men to do things that they would not do themselves. I asked his age and he was several years younger than my own son. He began to tell me about his life before the military, he told me about journeys he had taken, countries he had visited, and he also said that he was active in his community, helping teenagers who had problems with their families. He told me that after the army, he wanted to study education and do something useful for the youths. I felt he wanted to show me another side of himself, he needed me to see beyond the uniform he wore and the machine gun he carried. After we had talked for a while, he suddenly asked me: “Do you think I am a bad person?”

The question touched me deeply. I realized how easy it is to perceive only the soldier, the one having the power and oppressing the prisoners. In a flash, I realized that if the causes and conditions had been different, I could have been the one with the machine gun and he could have been the humanitarian worker. And I could not be absolutely sure that if I had been the one with the weapon, I would have not been more cruel and harsher on the prisoners than he was. So I told him very sincerely: “No, I don’t think you are a bad person, I understand that you are in a situation that is not easy, just try to do the best you can. ”

Meditation and Mindfulness

True insight into the nature of suffering, interdependence, and non-self can bring about peace, reconciliation, and healing, but it cannot come from intellectual reasoning alone. It needs to be nourished by life experience, by mindfulness in everyday life, by meditation.

Meditation is not about turning away from reality and dwelling in an illusionary inner peace, ignoring the suffering that so many people and other living beings experience day after day.

Meditation is looking deeply into reality as it is, both in us and around us. It is training ourselves not to react immediately with sympathy or antipathy: I like, I dislike, I want, I don’t want, I grasp, I reject.

But rather to create an open space, free of judgment, free of notions and preconceived ideas, allowing reality to unfold and reveal itself in our heart and mind. By doing this, insight and compassion arise naturally, effortlessly, for they are the very nature of our deeper being.

  1. Upasaka Sutra, Madhyama Agama 128
  2. Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press
  3. Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life, Thich Nhat Hanh, Bantam, 1992
  4. Dharma talk given by Thich Nhat Hanh on December 4, 1997 in Plum Village, France

mb50-War3Ha Vinh Tho, Chan Dai Tue, is half-Vietnamese, half-French. With his wife of thirty-eight  years, Lisi (both Dharma teachers ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh), he founded the Eurasia Foundation for the development of  special education in Vietnam. Tho is the head of training, learning, and development in a humanitarian organization whose mission is to protect the lives and dignity of  victims of  war and internal violence.

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