Discovering Levels of Deep Listening

By Ian Prattis

The adventure with my teenage son in Glasgow’s drug world brought home to me that when all else fails there is still mindfulness. And it can work miracles. As I spent time with my son in his rambling apartment, inhabited by a shifting population of punks, drug users, and dealers, I knew that I needed support from all the tools of mindfulness I had—particularly deep listening—in order to remain steady and clear and not be drawn into judgment and discrimination.

Late one night, after teaching my son and some of his friends how to do walking meditation in a park, we all sat on a bench, fresh with morning dew, and they began to talk to me. I entered stillness and said very little. As I listened to my young friends pour out their hearts and stories, I encountered a level of deep listening within myself never before experienced. I felt an all-encompassing energy embrace me, my young friends, the park, the lights, and the night sounds of Glasgow. This experience totally changed my understanding of deep listening, a mindfulness practice I was very familiar with, but never before at this level. On later reflection I could see that I had journeyed through several distinct levels of deep listening in my practice of mindfulness. The first level of coming to know the practice of deep listening was intellectual, whereby I scrutinized Buddhist literature on deep listening, gaining a conceptual grasp of what it meant within the corpus of Buddhist teaching. Although this was the least significant level of understanding, it was a starting place, which enabled a window to open for me.

As time went on, I began to realize that deep listening is not just an intellectual exercise, but is a fruit or consequence of mindfulness practice—my second level of deep listening. The simple insight that deep listening could not be there alone was a key. I experienced a distinct improvement in my capacity for deep listening, as my practices of walking meditation, mindful breathing, and mindful eating grew stronger. I realized that they were the necessary ground out of which deep listening could arise—as a flower growing from fertile soil. When such a ground was not there, my focus was largely on my own agendas and assumptions, and I would not be listening carefully to what was being said to me. This understanding deepened as I investigated how it directly affected my life—the times I suffered from not being heard, as well as the suffering I had caused when I was not able to deeply listen to the concerns of those speaking to me, especially my children.

On this evening I encountered for the first time, a third level of deep listening. As I was deeply present with my young friends, my carefully constructed sense of self dissolved and the “I” of me disappeared. “I” became particles of energy, touching and engaging with the particles of energy in everything there—my friends, the grass, trees, park bench, city lights and sounds, and beyond to a vastness that I cannot find the words to express. In that stillness, the vastness of energy touched deep seeds of consciousness in my young friends as they trusted me with their confidences and secrets. We stayed there for hours, frequently silent, and walked home just before dawn. From the smiles and embraces that were exchanged I knew that something had changed in all of us. I had discovered within myself a level of deep listening I had never thought possible. My young friends and son had nurtured long forgotten seeds of hope within themselves.

mb38-Discovering1We talked about our experiences the next evening. My new friends had shown great consideration for me, turning down their heavy metal music and not dealing drugs in my presence. The kitchen even got a cursory clean. I thanked them for their consideration and said that I was aware of every acid hit, every cocaine use, every moment of their despair, anger and selfdestruction, as I felt the energy of it all in my body and that it hurt like hell. A long, thundering silence ensued, filled with healing and open-heartedness. Before leaving, I did many walking meditation exercises with each one of them in the nearby park. I spent time listening deeply to them and learned a great deal about the angst of alienation amongst young people, about how they intuitively understood the interconnection of all life, but that they were simply lost.

Thanks to my young friends, my journey and practice of deep listening had deepened, from an intellectual and personal appreciation to an instrument of transformation. Interbeing was no longer a concept or just a good idea—it was a direct experience of reality. If the Divinity we quest for cannot be found everywhere, including with these alienated young people, then it is doubtful if it will be found at all. When we come home to our true nature, we discover that we are all interconnected—even with situations we do not readily understand. But if we can stop discriminating against others, we can know wholeness.

Ian Prattis is a Dharmacharya living in Ottowa, Canada. This essay is excerpted from a chapter in his forthcoming book “The Buddha at the Gate.”

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Healing Through Listening

by Margaret Kirschner

If we feel there is someone we cannot help, it is only because we have not yet looked deeply enough into his or her circumstances.
—Thich Nhat Hanh(1)

mb38-Healing1I was feeling a deep and discouraging helplessness about the suffering of a loved one when a dear Sangha friend, Mary, was able to hear my despair Her calm nonjudgmental listening opened the door for me to pour out my helplessness, and I had the strange sensation that I was pouring out my loved one’s pain as well. Through this experience, I gained a new understanding of how to listen. Always before, I had tried to deepen my listening skills by being the listener. This time, I was given a better understanding of what one needs in a listener by truly being heard.

My experience that day was that Mary stepped aside and let me solve my own problems. Her eyes held my pain and soothed me like a gentle mother. They gave me space to acknowledge my mistakes and to find solutions. Here are some things I noticed:

  • It was helpful that she didn’t say “I understand” when I didn’t understand
  • It was helpful that she gave no advice so that I could discover my own
  • It was helpful that she said little, permitting my thoughts to flow without
  • It was helpful that she remained calm in the midst of my chaos, offering an environment in which I could
  • It was helpful that she didn’t give the impression that she knew the answers that I didn’t know

In that listening I began to remember the times when I had not felt helpless, the times when my loved one and the many others who sought my counsel, responded positively. They were the times I kept my balance, when I maintained the nourishment of my positive seeds. As my breathing calmed with my recall, I stopped crying and returned to mindfulness. I began to feel the stability gained through my own suffering. I could recall the Buddha’s trust in our inner awareness and joy, no matter how much pain hides it. I now understand that it is necessary for me to maintain that same trust whenever I am listening deeply. I wrote the following in tribute to Mary:

Listening is what I need
when my thoughts are so tangled
they have no beginning nor end.

Listening is what I need
when my heart despairs
into molten tar.

Listening, your silence tells me what I need to know.
Listening, your eyes show me I am loved.
Listening, your hugs free me from my own judgment.

You listen and awareness untangles my thoughts
You listen and a peaceful path beckons to me
You listen and your compassion overflows my heart.

Thay teaches us to listen with only one purpose: to offer someone an opportunity to empty his or her own heart. If you are able to keep awareness and compassion alive in you, then you can listen even if what the other person says contains a lot of wrong perceptions, condemnations, and bitterness. You can continue to listen because you are already protected by the nectar of compassion in your heart.

With our listening we offer confidence that the suffering person can find his or her way through. Thay suggests that at some later time we might give a word or two to suggest a better way, warning that “Truth heals, but it should be released in small doses over time, like a medicine. If you force the other person to drink all the medicine at one time, he will die.”(2) The nonjudgmental attitude that allows people to be where they are and the freedom to understand in their own time is essential. The trust in each person’s inner awareness without judgment and often without our understanding is why Buddhist psychology is the most effective approach I’ve found to a happy, healthy life.

My heart expanded with joy the day that Mary listened to me. And I know hers did too.

Margaret Kirschner, True Silent Sound, lives and practices in Portland, Oregon.

  1. Thich Nhat Hanh, Transformation at the Base, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press, 2001, p. 41
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, “Cultivating Compassion, Responding to Violence,” Mindfulness Bell, (September 13, 2001) p. 8

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Moments of Communion

By Connie Nash

mb38-Moments1For years, I’ve been hearing and reading about parents –– mostly struggling mothers and other family members –– talk about their beloved children or loved ones who have ended up behind bars. There are all kinds of reasons given for the arrests and imprisonments along with, in some cases, a parent’s confidence his or her child could not be guilty. Some of the unfortunate were in the wrong place at the wrong time; some had committed an awful act under the influence of drunkenness, drug use, despair, guilt, or in a moment of terrible anger. Some were in prison for an act due to post-traumatic stress from fighting America’s terrible wars in Vietnam or Iraq I.

Several years ago I was attending the National Coalition Against the Death Penalty and was listening deeply to a sister of a death row prisoner whose DNA test proved him innocent of the crime he was convicted of, yet he was still not free. Her life was filled with many complications because of this difficult situation. Although I’d been a friend to family members of inmates for years, all at once it struck me deeply that these same events could occur to anyone, even to my family.

My husband and I adopted three magnificent sons who were fourteen, eight, and four years old when they entered our family. The two oldest had experienced disrupted lives filled with poverty, violence, and loss of parents and friends in Africa, followed by many adjustments to life in the southern United States. The youngest had experienced seven different homes and all manner of other abuses in his early youth. We also have a lovely daughter with an artistic temperament. Whenever I would bring up my concern about how our children would succeed in life, my husband would give me all the reasons our kids would survive unscathed. He made it clear he didn’t think our children had special needs.

Listening at this conference brought up my deep fears and panic about my children’s future, and I began crying. At some point I found myself receiving the balm of deep comfort I had been needing for years from a human rights activist I barely knew. This man just stood there in front of me, completely tuned in, unrushed, undistracted, listening so well. My concerns became his for those few precious moments. His eyes seemed to reflect not only my words but my heart’s agony. He seemed able to feel what I couldn’t articulate. As he listened, I could feel my despair slipping away. It felt like magic.

After I calmed down, he shared that his mother was the inspiration for his deep dedication to human rights and the plight of so many behind bars. Then he expressed confidence that my own mothering would help bring about fruit in each of my children, to help them survive no matter what came their way. He offered me a comforting and healing embrace before we each went our way.

I still wonder often, what will become of all our children, particularly those who are traumatized? Yet, because of those few moments with someone so adept and willing, I am less frightened than I’ve been in years. That experience continues to water my faith and encourages me to work hard for the well-being of all children.

I know many who carry deep pain and are afraid to let it out for fear there would be no stopping the tears. Yet I know that I now have greater empathy and strength for my suffering friends, because my own agonizing fears were expressed and heard.

How many more sons and daughters might we raise who do not turn from fear and pain? Mothering –– even with my four children now out of the nest –– has become ever more urgent and important to me. My desire for a just peace has become my very sustenance, as has my need to work for healing, the abolition of the death penalty, and the ceasing of all war. Not least among that which strengthens me is the power of a few moments of communion, and of feeling truly heard.

Connie Nash is relocating to Asheville, North Carolina. As a disciple of Christ, she has been enriched by the teachings of Thay Thich Nhat Hanh and the deep listening of practitioners.

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Deep Listening: A Sangha Exercise

By Bill Williams

mb38-Deep1Recently, the Greater Hartford Sangha practiced a deep listening exercise during our Day of Mindfulness, held in a cozy home overlooking a beautiful lake in rural Litchfield, Connecticut.

First, I shared briefly from Thay’s teachings about the importance of deep listening. Deep listening is a high compliment to the person who is speaking because it means that I value what you’re saying, I care about you and want to hear your pain, distress, joy, and sorrow. In the Fourth Mindfulness Training we read, “Aware of the suffering caused by…the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating…deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others and to relieve others of their suffering.” Because we have cultivated a strong tendency to judge, compare, interrupt, advise, or change the subject, we must practice to become empty and open to each other.

In this exercise, four people sit facing one another in a small circle in the middle of the room while the rest of the Sangha watches and listens. One of the four tells a story of deep personal meaning, while the others listen carefully. Then the first responder repeats the facts of the story, the second describes the emotions or feelings conveyed and the third relates the values involved. After that round, a second person tells a story and so on until each person has played all four roles.

The four participants included three men and one woman. Stephen told us how he met his wife; Rickey described a disappointing turn of events when she was producing a TV news segment; Nick recalled a reckless escapade when he was a newly licensed sixteen-year-old driver; I recounted events surrounding the death of my wife in 1998 from breast cancer.

When we finished, we went around the circle giving feedback about the experience, and then invited other Sangha members to do the same. Several themes emerged. There was general agreement about the importance—and the difficulty—of deep listening. It does not come naturally. Good listening is a skill that must be cultivated with patience and practice. We realized how hard it is to repeat the facts of a story, even minutes after hearing it. And it’s not always easy to sort out emotions and values. Variously, the four stories conveyed feelings of embarrassment, sadness, disappointment, fear, love, pride, and frustration. The values included forgiveness, courage, acceptance, commitment, determination, and trust.

Stephen initially was reluctant to take part in the activity, saying he was fearful of being judged and afraid he would not remember the facts of a story. But once we began, he felt at ease, secure in the embrace of the Sangha. Rickey liked the intimacy that was created. Nick found it valuable because he loves to tell stories but believed he was an awful listener. He was touched by Sangha members expressing that his parents were wonderful in showing such loving concern about his safety after he destroyed a family car driving recklessly. I was moved by the validation of hearing others reflect back to me the feelings and values important to me in my story.

Doing the exercise increased the intimacy, sharing, and connectedness between Sangha members. In our Dharma discussion later in the day, one member, a therapist, said she listens to people all the time in her work, but does not often get the chance to be heard. The long-term challenge is to carry the practice of deep listening into our daily lives in encounters with family members, friends, and colleagues. Continued practice with the Sangha will support us in this aspiration.

Bill Williams, Peaceful Friend of the Heart, is a host of the Greater Hartford Sangha, in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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A Key to Peace: Listening To Myself

By Peggy Lindquist

mb38-AKey1Kwan Yin sits on my dresser. Although she has twice taken a fall and there are chips from her veil, her eyes are half closed/half open, listening to the pain of the world. She pours from her bottle a river of endless compassion. I can enter it at any time.

Since autumn of 2002, I have belonged to the Yahoo group “Deeplistening.” Inspired by Thay’s urging for us to listen deeply to the pain of the world, we share our sorrows, our frustrations, even our rage at times. We report when we are able to be calm and when we can listen to people with views different than ours. We encourage each other not to despair and to listen to the birds singing or notice the flowers blooming even when we read of injustice or of the great damage of war.

But only recently did I understand the value of listening deeply to myself. At the winter retreat in Deer Park, I was able to notice when voices arose in my consciousness. The voices were critical, fearful, anxious, doubting. They are with me all the time and have been probably since I was a child, but I have been in the habit of pushing them away. They are uncomfortable––not how I want to feel and not how I want to think of myself. They get in the way of my goals.

Reminding me of voices of children who aren’t getting the attention they need, they repeat themselves again and again and again, getting louder and louder and finally doing something destructive, or becoming silent and withdrawn. With the loving support of the Deer Park Sangha, I began to listen to the voices rather than push them away. I began to ask, “What is it?”

What I heard were stories tucked away in my consciousness from years ago, accompanied by fear, doubt, and anger. Most of these stories were so simple I found that I could just listen. For example, I discovered that when I am in a group, I am sometimes afraid of being left out. I learned that my petty criticisms of people

I don’t know often come from a fear that I am not good, smart, pretty, or likeable enough.

I have also learned to listen when I don’t feel comfortable with a plan and when I just need to stay still and quiet. Sometimes I have recognized a fear and just allowed it time to be. I have been able to be patient and let conditions for a particular course of action arise naturally without forcing them because I listened to my need to move slowly. And I have heard anger arise in me and have been able to take care of it rather than take it out on someone. (Not every time, mind you.)

These discoveries have been very rich, not frightening as I supposed they would be. The inner voices are not those of boogey men or monsters—they are more like uncertain children with something interesting to say. I have gotten to the point that, when I feel an upsetting emotion start to arise, I look forward to the journey of listening and discovering.

Thay says that in order to create peace we must listen to the suffering in the other person. He also teaches that peace begins with each of us. I am finding that deep listening is the key to creating peace within myself and that inner peace and respect create the ground for moving toward peace in the world. As I learn to listen to myself as Kwan Yin does, with an open heart of compassion, I hope I will be able to listen to the suffering of others and take part in their transformation.

If you are interested in joining our discussion, go to yahoogroups.com and register for the deeplistening group.

Peggy Lindquist, Gentle Forgiveness of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing and practices with the Joyful Refuge Sangha in Portland, Oregon.

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Poem: Form, Formlessness

My one small life is formed
from more than a hundred
million breaths. In, out

I am still breathing. Even
as I count
the only breath
is now.

This heart that is
my only heart pulses
without a break
thousands of times a day
whether I am grateful or not.

Thank you heart.
Thank you breath.

Songbirds ecstatic, clouds
swirl like feathers. Multiplying
cell by cell
I dissolve.

Gratitude is nothing, a breath
nothing
you can keep.
Neither a heartbeat.
Neither this moment, formless,

more powerful than all
our lives. In one
fleeting sigh
a simple feeling
washes through me. Hello
Love, I recognize your face.

By Janet Aalfs

mb38-Form1

Janet Aalfs is the poet laureate of Northampton, MA (2003-2005) and the director/ head instructor of Valley Women’s Martial Arts, Inc. She pays attention to her breath in everything she does.

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Poem: How the Dog

is dog white. How he opens himself
to the world each day—every morning

the same—empties himself, then drinks.
How his black pads and variegated claws

click the pavement
exactly in time with the barefoot version

of Ode to Joy and he means it. How in the dignified
winter of his life he’s so willingly

your child. How the dog recovers. How his
heart is an unsealed document and he

writes upon it daily. How inside his small body
is a great hall, a library of smells in which

you’ve been permanently shelved. How the dog
forebears, how the dog goes about doing

the work of dog. How the dog unmirrors you.
How the dog is dog quiet, sprawled

on a pile of clothes. And how the dog allows,
hears violin when you throw yourself

across the bed for effect
whimpering again in that strange

human accent you have. When you’re down
there, trying to tell the dog about your life

how the dog’s best music
is listening.

mb38-How1

By Kelly Parsons

Kelly Parsons practices with the Mindfulness Community of Victoria, B.C. and the Mountain Lamp Community in Washington.

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Plumeria Tree Buddha

From a Dharma Talk by Eileen Kiera

November 6, 2004

mb38-Plumeria1

There are an estimated ten to the thirty-seventh, that’s ten with thirty-six zeros after it, molecules in a cubic inch. And within our bodies there are how many cubic inches? There are an inconceivable number of molecules in our body. There are two things about atoms and molecules, the basic stuff that makes up our bodies; first, there are so many of them, inconceivable numbers; second, they are very long lived. They go on and on and on and on. So when I tell a story about a past life of the Buddha, we can see that the molecules that made up the Buddha are still circulating. And who we are will manifest in many, many different forms. It’s maybe not our idea of who we are, but something essential about us will continue to manifest.

So we can see that when the Buddha was speaking about his many lives before he was manifest as the body of Shakyamuni, there is some literal truth there, at some level. In traditional Buddhist cultures they speak about reincarnation very literally, about how this body becomes another body. But the Buddha taught that that doesn’t happen because there isn’t an individual, separate self. Of course we’re not going to manifest again as a self, because there’s no self there to begin with. But the likelihood of everyone in this room having atoms that once lived in the body of Buddha is very, very great, very likely, because they are constantly being mixed up and they keep going on and on and on.

So this story is about Buddha as a plumeria tree. If you’ve ever been to Hawaii you’ve seen plumeria trees. They sometimes have pink flowers, sometimes white flowers, and they’re very velvety, with five or six petals, tinged with a little yellow, and with an absolutely heavenly fragrance. When they’re blooming in the summer, Hawaii is filled with the fragrance of plumeria. One of Buddha’s lifetimes, as probably one of our lifetimes, was as a plumeria tree.

The story the Buddha told of his lifetime as a plumeria tree was that he lived next to a very beautiful lotus pond, filled with fragrant flowers, and not far from him was a very muddy little pool that was filled with shrimp and crab, even a couple of fish. A heron came to that area once, and the heron saw all the life in the muddy pond and thought to himself, “Oh, I would like to eat that life. But if I just go chasing after them, they’ll all hide.” So, being a smart heron, he went over and waded into the pond and he said, “Little fish, little shrimp, don’t be afraid. I’m here to carry you over to that beautiful lotus pond. You can get in my beak and I’ll take you there.”

Because the shrimp and the fish and the little crab were fairly smart, they said, “Oh, we don’t believe you. You just want us to jump in your bill so you can swallow us whole.”

But the heron said, “No, no, I’m not a heron like that; you can really trust me. You can trust me so much that I’ll take one of you over to visit the lotus pond and then you can come back and tell everybody what it’s like.”

None of the animals were willing to do that, except for one very old fish, who had heavy, thick, tough scales and very little meat. Bony, old, ancient fish. And that fish said, “You can take me over to the lotus pond,” because he knew that if he got eaten then nobody else would go. And he knew that he didn’t have very long to live anyway, and besides that, he would not be tasty.

So the heron picked up the fish in his bill and flew over to the lotus pond and let the fish go. The fish swam around the lotus pond and indeed, it was very beautiful; the waters were cool and fresh and there was a lot to eat. It was lovely being in the lotus pond. After he had spent some time there, he came back to the shore and said to the heron, “You can take me back to my pool now.” So the heron took him back to the little muddy pool and let him go.

And the old fish said, “Indeed, the heron did take me to the lotus pond,” and he described the lotus pond to everyone. And he said, “But you should still use your own judgment about whether you want to take that journey or not.”

But needless to say, all the little shrimp and fish lined up and said, “Take me, take me.”

And so the heron picked up the first shrimp and took it over and landed beneath the plumeria tree and proceeded to eat the shrimp and spit out the shells, the carapace of the shrimp. When the plumeria tree saw this, he felt so terribly sad. He said, “This heron has lied. He has not only lied, he has manipulated, he has broken the trust.”

But the Buddha then was a plumeria tree, and could only stand there and feel really sad; he couldn’t change the situation. And after the heron finished the first shrimp, he went back, and got another shrimp and ate him under the plumeria tree. And every time he went back, he would assure the other shrimp and fish that those in the lotus pond were very happy, that he was willing to take them all over, not to worry. And so, one by one, he took all the shrimp and all the fish underneath the plumeria tree, and ate them.

And the Buddha standing there, fragrant flower plumeria Buddha, was so sad, that he could feel tears running down his bark. But standing there as a tree, there was nothing he could do.

Finally the only one left in the pond was crab. The crab was feisty and said, “I don’t entirely trust you. So if you take me, I don’t want to be in your bill, I want to ride with my claws holding onto your neck.”

And the heron thought, and said, “That will be okay.”

So the crab put his claws on the heron’s neck and they flew. When they flew over the plumeria tree he could see all the shells and the bones of the shrimp and the fish, and he knew that the heron had eaten them all. So he tightened his claws on the neck of the heron and said, “You have been lying. You’ve eaten all my friends.”

And the heron chuckled. But when they landed, the crab pressed his claws tighter and tighter on the heron’s neck, until it broke. The heron died and the crab went into the lotus pond.

The Buddha was standing there, just watching it all happen with his full attention. And what the Buddha realized was that when we feel helpless, it is very important to strengthen our intention to practice: to transform suffering, to be a source of kindness and peace. And as a plumeria tree, the Buddha vowed that whenever he had an opportunity to manifest peace, to make a difference, to change something, to transform some suffering in the world, he would do that. And his intention to practice became very, very strong.

mb38-Plumeria2Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, lives with her husband and daughter at Mountain Lamp, a rural retreat center in northern Washington. A Dharma teacher for almost twenty years, she is a beloved guiding influence to Sanghas throughout the Pacific Northwest.

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Nothing is Lost

A Response to the Recent U.S. Election from Thich Nhat Hanh

November 7th, 2004

For those of you who voted for John Kerry, we must look deeply to see the John Kerry elements in George Bush. In this long and difficult campaign, Bush has learned many things from Kerry and those who voted for him. We have to see that they inter-are. If there had been no election, Bush wouldn’t have questioned his positions or his approach. He would have been able to assume that his way is best. But he almost lost the election, and he is aware that at least half of the American people don’t believe in him. Now, because he almost lost, he is more humble and must realize that if he doesn’t listen to the other half of the American people, there will be a big disturbance in the country. So we have to see that now all of us are in him. Those of you who didn’t vote for him are in him, are a part of him after this very close presidential race.

We have to help our government so that a president elected by fifty-one percent of the population will not serve just that fifty-one percent but the whole country. We need to keep speaking out, daily letting our government know what we want, expressing our insight and understanding. We need to be very present, very firm, and constantly let the government know we are here. We can support them in our own way, through being present, calm, lucid, and compassionate. Being compassionate doesn’t mean we surrender and give up. It means we see clearly that our country, our government is us and it needs our help. Compassion means acting with courage and deep love to help manifest what we know our country is capable of.

Historically it has happened that the agenda of the left has been realized by the right. We have to speak out and keep speaking out, and it is possible that the Republicans will accomplish what the Democrats, what the left, had hoped to realize had they won. We also need to remember that even if Kerry had been elected, he would also have had to partly realize the wish of those who voted for Bush, and it is not certain that he would have been able to stop the war in Iraq.

Nothing is lost because we are in President Bush. There is a loss only if we respond with anger and despair. We have to continue on, to continue our practice, and remain strong in our role as bodhisattvas, helping the other half of our country by our firm, clear, and compassionate action for peace—the kind of peace in which both sides win because there is mutual understanding.

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Toward Mindful Politics

By Nathanial Cordova

mb38-Toward1We are encouraged not to shy away from suffering, to take a clear stand against oppression and injustice, to behave responsibly as citizens, and to work for the well-being of all living creatures. But how does our involvement in politics integrate into our practice?

In our tradition a direct admonition regarding the political comes in the Tenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing, Protecting the Sangha. This training reads:

“Aware that the essence and aim of a Sangha is the practice of understanding and compassion, we are determined not to use the Buddhist community for personal gain or profit or transform our community into a political instrument. A spiritual community should, however, take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and should strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts.”

But how do we advocate for certain political positions if we do not engage in partisan conflict? Don’t we run the risk of remaining ineffective if we do not stake out clear positions that align us with certain political orientations?

Not necessarily. Refraining from partisan conflict does not keep us from identifying with particular political orientations or having a standpoint. There are many ways to be politically conscientious and active without partaking of what often passes for political activity, but is actually conflict in disguise. For example, we can look deeply into the roots of the perceived conflict and division. As Thay has noted in Creating True Peace (Free Press, 2003), our enemy is misperception, and right action stems from right understanding. We can work at developing skillful means that allow our voices to be most effective. This begins with internal transformation.

For me, the issue of same-sex marriage has been a compelling way to begin this internal change. On a daily basis I challenge myself to be more understanding of the values, belief systems, and fears that drive those who oppose same-sex marriage. I’m also challenged to be more aware of the fears of those who support it, and how that fear shapes our responses, attitudes, and assumptions about those who disagree with us.

In controversial political issues it is easy to demonize the opposite side, disregarding their concerns and fears as unwarranted, silly, or full of malice. Such an approach increases polarization and anger. Instead, I try to maintain an invitational rhetoric that engages opponents of same-sex marriage.

Not Turning Away

It is also important not to let our fears or a pious concern over the “purity” of our practice or beliefs, lead us away from the political fray. On the contrary, we can seek to transform the political with our compassion and mindfulness. We can employ mindful abiding, looking deeply at the roots of suffering, and careful contemplation of skillful means to water seeds of lovingkindness.

What about the frustration and anger that frequently accompany our forays into the political arena? How do we protect ourselves from the toxicity of politics? A strong and consistent practice allows us to develop the energy of mindfulness so we can embrace such feelings when they arise. Educating ourselves about the political process and political events also means carefully nurturing a good sense of how and where we can be of service, and where we need to step back.

Anger and frustration are normal human emotions, and as they arise they can serve as mindfulness bells bringing us back to ourselves. What is important is how we respond and manage those feelings, and how we work to transform them. Mindful politics is at its best when we understand that the change we seek is greatest when motivated by love and compassion. We must remember to care for ourselves before, during, and after we enter challenging arenas. That is why developing healthy Sanghas within which we can find support, joy, and continued strength is an integral part of mindful politics.

Nathanial Cordova, Spacious View of the Heart, practices with the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon. He is an Assistant Professor in the Rhetoric and Media Studies Department at Willamette University.

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Now is The Time for Engaged Buddhist Practice

By Larry Ward

mb38-Now1At this very moment, American society is full of anger, fear, confusion, and reactivity. The recent loss of our perceived psychological safety and physical security has removed the veil of material success as our great protector. With this curtain of affluence and influence torn away the depth of our suffering is fully revealed.

In these disturbing times full of apathy, fear, dispersion, and hope we find ourselves in a state of spiritual emergency. Some of our people of every race and class find themselves seduced by radical extremes of material, religious, and ideological fundamentalism in an attempt to respond to this emergency. In such a time nothing is more important than cultivating our capacities for mindfulness, understanding, and compassion.

As our teacher has said on many occasions, “Meditation is to be aware of what is going on––in our bodies, our feelings, our minds, and in our world.” True meditation is not running away from ourselves and our world but rather the courageous act of coming home. This is not a grim process, however sobering it might be. Acknowledging and embracing our suffering and the suffering around us is really challenging. But coming home to ourselves and our world is also touching and being touched by the wonders and mystery of life.

I know that many of us feel powerless and overwhelmed by the situation and behaviors of American society today, and we wonder how our meditation practice can help. It can help a great deal because as we personally heal and transform, our society heals and transforms also. If we dare risk deepening our practice of stopping and calming ourselves and deepening our practice of looking and seeing, we can witness miracles in ourselves and our world.

America’s Karma

I invite all of us as individuals and Sanghas to meditate on America’s karma. There are many notions of karma that have been handed down to us through centuries of spiritual practice. We often refer to karma as historical or divine retribution that we will receive by some power at the end of our life.

Thay’s description has been most helpful to my mindfulness practice. Karma is the living reality of our actions of body, speech, and mind that flows through time and space, having our unmistakable signature. Through my daily practice of the five remembrances I try my best to stay aware that “I inherit the results of my actions of body, speech, and mind. My actions are the ground on which I stand.”

This living reality continually shapes my being and my becoming, and as it does so it shapes the being and becoming of my family, my community, and my society. The living reality of karma is my continuation and the continuation of my ancestors at every moment. No activity is more important right now to the well-being of our world than our capacity to inquire deeply into the true nature of our actions, individually and collectively.

The Process of Deep Inquiry

Inquiring into America’s karma is not easy. It must be done with stability and compassion. It is easy to get caught in judgment, assigning blame to others and regret to oneself. It is easy to be tempted by despair, for America is so big and we are so small.

During this depth inquiry it is important to remember to breathe and smile. This inquiry is not an intellectual or philosophical exercise. It is a real invitation to practice, to touch life right here, right now.

To look into America’s actions at this moment of history is to encounter many emotions, pleasant, unpleasant, and mixed. In order not to be overwhelmed we must use the tools we have received from Thay. I have found it important to enjoy a mindful walk or cup of tea in Noble Silence, and not to try to take in too much at once. I have learned that if I make such an inquiry without practicing concentration and awareness of emptiness, signlessness, and aimlessness, it is very easy to get trapped by wrong views. I have discovered that the best place to begin a meditation on America’s karma is with me. Since America is the place of my most recent blood ancestors, I have been deepening my awareness of America’s karma inside of myself. What seeds of thinking, speech, and action are resident in the storehouse of my consciousness? What perceptions of America reside in my mind? What individual and collective nutriments water these seeds?

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We have come through another Presidential election season. I find that seeds of fear, confusion, power, and divisiveness have been profoundly watered in us all. Engaged Buddhism is not zendo-only Buddhism. It is the continuous act of coming home to ourselves and coming home to America. Regardless of the outcome of the recent elections, if our individual and collective actions remain without enquiry, the path of our destiny will not be altered.

In an effort to participate in American society, many of us simply substitute the most familiar or latest politically correct ideology. Sometimes we protest the warlike behavior of America with a sense of our own rightness while we remain at war with ourselves, our families, our Sanghas, our communities, and our country.

Bringing Home the Flag

Four days after our national independence day my father passed away. As is a custom for veterans, an American flag was placed on his coffin during the funeral. I have never been comfortable with the flag, especially as an African American, based on how it has often been used and abused.

But I had an insight during the funeral services that this is my flag, the flag of the land of my birth. I brought the flag home and placed it on an altar in my office to remind me of my connectedness to America. While America has negative qualities, she also has positive ones. It is my responsibility to manifest her hope and promise in my own life and the life around me. It is my opportunity to look into her suffering and the causes of her suffering in order to find relief.

Shortly before he passed away, my father shared with me his reflections on war as a WWII veteran. He said, “Please remember that nobody really wins.” So we must go deeper than mere politics in order to heal and transform America’s karma. We must not leave out the political realm but bring deep practice to it. We must bring our Buddha mind, our Dharma mind, and our Sangha mind to our collective life and destiny.

The trees outside my window are turning brilliant colors as they let go of their summer’s disguise. We too must let go of outdated disguises of opinions, positions, judgments, and habits in order to free ourselves to give America true understanding, true peace, and true love.

Larry Ward, True Great Sound, is a Dharma teacher living in North Carolina. This article is from notes on a book he is writing called America’s Karma. He and his wife, Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe are also developing a curriculum for the Bodhisavatta Mystery School of the Lotus Institute, which will include retreats and an on-line learning community, beginning in 2005.

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Poem: Buddha in me

Sometimes I see the Buddha in me
a phrase, a touch, something I see

It touches my heart
And awakens in me
A memory of how to be free
A memory of how to be me

There’s a time the Buddha in me
Comes to surface
As if to say
Remember, life will pass you by
If you forget to stay alive
In this moment
In this place

There’s a time
The Buddha in me
Comes to the surface
As if to see

If I remember

Ariel Blair

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Towards a Mindful Politics

For the past year, citizens of the United States and people throughout the world have been deeply involved in and affected by the Presidential election. How do we “take a clear stand against oppression and injustice and … strive to change the situation without engaging in partisan conflicts?” (from the Tenth Mindfulness Training of the Order of Interbeing). How do we keep from falling into the mindset of “us and them?”

Fortunately, our teacher, and several brothers and sisters offer comfort and help us understand through their articulate and compassionate sharing. The message from Thay lifts us from the small view of events and helps us to see that both the wonders and the difficulties are as present today as they were before the election. Our call to practice is more vital than ever.

In this section we are also invited to meditate on America’s karma and to practice deep inquiry; we are offered suggestions on how to practice the Tenth Mindfulness Training; we gain insight from a story of the Buddha’s life as a plumeria tree; and we are offered a deep practice of letting go. We are invited to nourish ourselves through watering seeds of love and understanding in us, and to step forth as a healing force in our wounded world.

Nothing is Lost: A Response to the Recent U.S. Election from Thich Nhat Hanh

November 7th, 2004

For those of you who voted for John Kerry, we must look deeply to see the John Kerry elements in George Bush. In this long and difficult campaign, Bush has learned many things from Kerry and those who voted for him. We have to see that they inter-are. If there had been no election, Bush wouldn’t have questioned his positions or his approach. He would have been able to assume that his way is best. But he almost lost the election, and he is aware that at least half of the American people don’t believe in him. Now, because he almost lost, he is more humble and must realize that if he doesn’t listen to the other half of the American people, there will be a big disturbance in the country. So we have to see that now all of us are in him. Those of you who didn’t vote for him are in him, are a part of him after this very close presidential race.

We have to help our government so that a president elected by fifty-one percent of the population will not serve just that fifty-one percent but the whole country. We need to keep speaking out, daily letting our government know what we want, expressing our insight and understanding. We need to be very present, very firm, and constantly let the government know we are here. We can support them in our own way, through being present, calm, lucid, and compassionate. Being compassionate doesn’t mean we surrender and give up. It means we see clearly that our country, our government is us and it needs our help. Compassion means acting with courage and deep love to help manifest what we know our country is capable of.

Historically it has happened that the agenda of the left has been realized by the right. We have to speak out and keep speaking out, and it is possible that the Republicans will accomplish what the Democrats, what the left, had hoped to realize had they won. We also need to remember that even if Kerry had been elected, he would also have had to partly realize the wish of those who voted for Bush, and it is not certain that he would have been able to stop the war in Iraq.

Nothing is lost because we are in President Bush. There is a loss only if we respond with anger and despair. We have to continue on, to continue our practice, and remain strong in our role as bodhisattvas, helping the other half of our country by our firm, clear, and compassionate action for peace—the kind of peace in which both sides win because there is mutual understanding.

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Letting Go and Being Happy

By Ben Matlock

mb38-Letting1Seven members of our Sangha volunteer as Buddhist chaplains at a large, local hospital. We visit Asian and Western Buddhist patients, consult with staff, and lead a weekly meditation in the hospital chapel, mostly attended by staff members.

I have noticed that much of the suffering I encounter in the hospital is created when the patients and staff cling to the image of the patient’s formerly “well self.” Much sadness arises in patients who see their illness as changing them permanently, and much energy is spent by staff trying to restore that state of supposed wellness for the patient, often in vain.

My personal practice includes exploring the areas of belief where I try to hold on to my ideas and perceptions at all costs. I wrote the following guided meditation while traveling on the subway to lead a session at the hospital. Somehow during that journey, the implications of continuing to hold on for dear life to the very things that make me unhappy became much clearer to me than they had before. I realized that I even had to convince myself from time to time that I actually wanted to be happy.

We used this meditation at Sangha on the Wednesday before the presidential election. We each agreed to spend the following week looking deeply and becoming friends with one of our attachments. Then we envisioned what life might be like were we to let go of that attachment. The third step was to investigate with compassion what is keeping us from letting go. In sharing this guided meditation with you, I hope you find this process of deeply looking freeing and transformative.

Guided Meditation On Letting Go

Breathing in, I see the need I have to control my life.
Breathing out, I let go of the need to control my life.

Breathing in, I see that control is an illusion.
Breathing out, I relax in my inability to control.

Breathing in, I see how critical I am of myself.
Breathing out, I let go of the need to be critical.

Breathing in, I see all the goodness in me.
Breathing out, I relax in the knowledge of the goodness in me.

Breathing in, I see the many ambitions I have for myself.
Breathing out, I let go of the many ambitions I have for myself.

Breathing in, I see that I am sufficient in all ways.
Breathing out, I relax in knowing that I am sufficient in all ways.

Breathing in, I see that I crave many things.
Breathing out, I let go of the need to crave many things.

Breathing in, I see that I have enough.
Breathing out, I relax in the knowledge that I have enough.

Breathing in, I see that I am too busy.
Breathing out, I let go of the need to be too busy.

Breathing in, I want a less hectic life.
Breathing out, I relax in the quiet of this moment.

Breathing in, I see that letting go can make me free.
Breathing out, I am free.

Breathing in, I see that by being free I can be happy.
Breathing out, I am happy.

Ben Matlock, True Equanimity of the Sangha, lives in Roxbury, Massachusetts and practices with the Boston Old Path Sangha. An administrator at Episcopal Divinity School, he is the father of Adam, a nineteen-year-old college sophomore, and was married this summer to Ted Todd, also an Order of Interbeing member.

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Mindfulness & Mathematics

Teaching as a Deep Learning Process

By Richard Brady

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During the June, 2004 Feet of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, a group of retreatants gathered to discuss ways of sharing mindfulness practice with young people. This prompted me to begin thinking freshly about my high school mathematics teaching.

My students learn new algebraic methods in a day and new topics in a month. At the same time, there is deeper learning in process that will continue for the rest of their lives. This learning is about things such as perseverance, taking risks, and communicating with others. Ultimately it is about understanding themselves and the world.

Returning home, I pondered how my Plum Village experience could help me grow as a teacher. An insight that grew out of a conversation with Sister Jina helped me answer this question. I stayed at Plum Village for two weeks after the retreat ended, after most of my friends had left and the full schedule gave way to lazy days. I began to feel lonely, so I made an appointment with Sister Jina to talk about this loneliness and my practice at Plum Village.

Environments

At Plum Village feelings such as loneliness are more accessible to me because my usual busyness doesn’t keep them at bay. Also, fellow retreatants exemplify how to be in touch with and share their emotions. The safety and trust I feel comes from the quality of mindful listening and responding that I receive in Dharma discussions and other interactions. I really feel heard there.

The Plum Village environment often provides the context for deep learning, learning that changes my understanding of myself or of some aspect of the world. This is a significant ingredient of the learning process. As an educator, I place a high value on the consequences of the thinking that goes on in my classes. Though thinking occurs at the level of mind consciousness, Thay tells us that the origins of most behavior are found in the store consciousness. So deep learning occurs as the result of changes in the store consciousness. Such change can come about when a great deal of thought is given to a particular issue, but direct absorption by the store consciousness is a much more economical process. In this kind of learning, environment is a key factor.

I ask myself, “How can I create an environment in my competitive, college preparatory math classes spacious and safe enough for all of us to be in touch with our feelings and deeper questions? What can I do to promote mindful speech and deep listening in my classroom? For example, how might it affect the classroom environment if we sat in a circle some of the time as we do in Plum Village for Dharma discussions?”

Relationships

During my appointment with Sister Jina, a special moment occurred when she remarked, “There’s one thing I don’t understand. You said that everyone you’re close to has left the Upper Hamlet. That’s not true.” I scratched my head and waited for her to continue. After a pause, Sr. Jina said, “You are still here.” I can’t describe how I felt at that moment, but I recognized that I had just received a teaching that would continue to work inside me. Like a Zen koan, it is something I can sit with, practice with, and let ripen until, over time, a transformation can occur. How does a teaching have the potential to set this deep learning process in motion?

Sister Jina continued. “As a young person I was blessed to always be close to myself. However, I wasn’t aware of this until a time came when I lost it. I eventually recovered this closeness, and I have treasured it ever since.” This sharing of Sister Jina’s connected us at the heart level, helping me to open and receive it more deeply. I wonder how in teaching I can become more aware of what students are touching in me and teach from that place?

When Thay gives a teaching, each person in attendance understands the teaching differently, depending on his or her experience of life and of mindfulness practice. Those same differences occur in my students. Since much of our class time is spent working cooperatively in small groups, I’ve borrowed an idea from Thay, who once gave us stickers that said, “I walk for you” to put in our shoes. I give my students stickers that say, “I learn for you” to put on their textbook covers. Each student was having a different experience of cooperative learning through the year, but each time they opened their books, they were invited to be aware of whatever their current understanding was.

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At the end of a school year, a student told me that it had taken him the entire year to understand the meaning of that sticker. The unfolding of the unique learning experience of each of my students is fundamentally a mystery. How can I do a better job of honoring and supporting it?

Practices

After receiving a teaching, the process of learning continues. It’s up to the student to integrate it into his or her life, which may or may not happen. Last spring I advised an algebra student to slow down and do the math just to do the math, not to try to get it finished in order to go on to the next thing. Intellectually she understood what I was saying. She wanted to follow my advice, but her habit energy of rushing was very strong, so she kept doing her work in the same way. In retrospect I see that she needed a concrete way to focus her mind as she worked so that she could develop new habits, some kind of practice. Perhaps it would have helped her to move a pebble from one pile to another and breathe in and out three times before starting each new problem.

My new insight about practicing being close to myself brought to mind the practice of chanting to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. I began doing this chant when the monastics invited the retreatants to join them during the closing of the retreat. My experience was so powerful that tears came to my eyes. I began to understand that watering the seed of my compassion is a way for me to be close to myself.

The store consciousness provides the internal environment for deep learning. When a teaching connects with well-developed seeds in the store consciousness, as Sister Jina’s did for me, the learning process unfolds in an organic way. Much of my students’ internal environment is unknown not only to me but also to them. I wonder how I can support them knowing themselves better so they can learn to draw on their own wisdom.

Obstacles

At Plum Village I continued sitting and walking, and chanting to Avalokiteshvara. I was aware of being in touch with myself more deeply. I brought my chanting practice home and continued trying to do it. However, e-mail, phone calls, a curriculum writing project at school, chores, and relationships began to overwhelm me. After several days spent with my extended family, I completely lost touch with myself.

During the retreat Thay told us that transformation comes about as the result of conditions that nurture the positive seeds in our store consciousness. It also comes about as the result of obstacles. Obstacles can become the basis for learning if we become aware of the misperceptions that have produced them. Obstacles are another ingredient of deep learning. Brother Pháp Tuê pointed out to me that when we feel stuck, there is an implication that this feeling is recurrent and that each time it seems as if it is the same feeling. However, actually the situation is constantly changing. We can see this if we look deeply, but we tend to avoid looking deeply because there is pain in the situation we don’t wish to face.

Being vs Doing

Through meditation and the support of friends who listened to my turmoil, I began to see what was happening. During my time in Plum Village, especially the last two weeks of quiet and solitude, I’d begun to get in touch with a young, tender part of myself, a flower nourished by my being-nature. Once home, all the old stimuli set my doing-nature in motion. My inner flower wilted. Losing this new experience of my being-nature was painful.

Looking deeply, I saw that my problems did not stem from all that I have to do but from my planning/reviewing habit of mind, a prominent characteristic I also see in my mother. When this part of my mind quieted down in Plum Village, I got in touch with the flower of my vulnerability. At home my planning and reviewing heritage shields me from these things. This defense mechanism is a part of me just as my vulnerability is. Embracing them both with great compassion is now my path of practice. I continue invoking Avalokiteshvara to water my seed of compassion so that it will be strong enough to hold both my vulnerability and my defenses.

When my students encounter obstacles, their first impulse is usually towards one of two extremes: they try to overcome them or they give up. The approach of welcoming obstacles, sitting with them, and seeing what gifts of understanding they have to offer is foreign to my students, yet it is one that could serve them well in life. I ask myself how I can do a better job of modeling this way of relating to difficulties in the classroom. I realize I can begin by curbing my impulses to diagnose and suggest remedies for students’ problems, and learn how to just be with the students and their problems.

I feel good about the direction my questions are taking me and look forward to practicing in the classroom. I’m aware that so much of my students’ lives are spent in ways that do not promote awareness. At best I can help them water their seeds of mindfulness for a brief time and trust that this will make a difference.

mb38-Mindfulness3Richard Brady, True Dharma Bridge, is a Dharma teacher with the Washington Mindfulness Community. He is a founding member of MiEN, the Mindfulness in Education Network.

Readers interested in MiEN and its listserv can get information on the MiEN Website www.mindfuled.org.

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Bowing

An Exercise for Young People

By Terry Masters

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Note: What you might say is in boldface. The answers to questions in parenthesis are the answers our children gave us.

Materials Needed:
Colored felt-tipped pens

Bowing is a deep form of communicating. A bow may mean hello, thank you, goodbye, or excuse me. But it is not just a way to be polite. It is a way of recognizing and honoring the Buddha Nature in each of us.

We put our hands together carefully to form a beautiful lotus flower. Then we look at the eyes of the person we will bow to and smile. We say to ourselves, “A lotus for you, Buddha to be!” and bow at our waist. Then we straighten, look at the eyes of the other person and smile. Isn’t that an easy gift to give someone?

Please practice with a friend.

Allow each child time to bow to a friend.

Instead of a lotus, you might want to give something else to a friend or someone in your family. Maybe you will put your hands together, look at the eyes of your friend and say to yourself, “An apple for you Buddha to be.” or ”A sunny day for you Buddha to be.” or “A smile for you Buddha to be!” and then bow.

Give enough time for each child to practice bowing with a different child and with you, “giving” whatever gift they choose to give (a lotus, those suggested above or one of their own choice).

How does it make you feel to bow to someone’s Buddha Nature?

(happy, like I’m watering the seeds of my friend’s happiness)

How does it make you feel when someone bows to you?

(happy, grateful, loved)

When you can, please practice bowing with the people in your family, too.

With the colored pens, invite children to draw simple faces on each other’s thumbs. The “thumb people” can practice bowing respectfully. The “thumb people” might also have conversations with each other or sing to each other.

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Three Poems for Thay

The Flower of Calm

Looking deeply
Into the heart of the bud,
I adjust my lens.
Like the flower I
photograph,
I am opening up.
My eyes blossom with calm.

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Bees Being

Listening deeply
To the nature of my anxiety
I hear the warm,
swarming sound
Of bees being above me.
They are buzzing
happily, unbusily,
As they circle around
the sweetness
That rests
Inside my being.

Smiling Form

The clouds today
Are floating in my tea.
They wet every line
Of my poetry.
Every word soaks
Up the ink of the sun
So that I may offer you
This smiling form.

By Jamyson Clair Vining

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Building Our Orange Blossom Sangha

By Rhoda Reilly

During a Dharma talk at the winter retreat, my ears perked up when Thay said, “It is the duty of every Order of Interbeing member to set up a Sangha.” Thay instructed us, “We need to be a Sangha builder; the Sangha is our refuge, our home.” I intuitively knew at that moment the causes and conditions were ripe to build a Sangha.

My husband and I opened our home, set a date, put up flyers, announced our intentions to other followers on the path at Deer Park and trusted our Sangha would evolve. The first evening, one person attended. It was intimate and nourishing. The second week two more people attended. During the course of the next two months, people came and went, but a small, devoted group of six continued to come to practice. Recently, we celebrated our Sangha with a tea and Sangha naming ceremony. We had grown to eleven members (one who practices with us in spirit from afar in Alaska.) We named our Sangha “Orange Blossom Sangha,” in part due to the symbolism of our blossoming together as well as for the beautiful orange trees surrounding our home.

It has been a joy to watch our Sangha grow and develop, to witness the dedication of our members in cultivating understanding and love on this beautiful path Thay’s teachings have provided. In the middle of a busy and hectic work week, we come together to take refuge, to renew, and re-energize like a drink of cool water on a hot summer’s day. We nourish the seeds of happiness in ourselves and support the challenges we encounter working through negative mental formations that cause us suffering. We gain strength from one another and from the collective wisdom of our Buddha natures.

Thay has emphasized that without a Sangha, it is very difficult to practice. Reflecting on the past few months, I can feel my practice strengthening through the support, respect, and love of our Sangha members. When I feel unbalanced and stressed from the demands of my work and daily activities, the sitting and walking meditation calm my mind and body, bringing me back to the present moment. The words of the Refuge Chant now have new meaning to me, “The loving and supportive community of practice, realizing harmony, awareness, and liberation, to the Sangha I go for refuge.” I cherish our Sangha and am grateful to Thay for encouraging us to be Sangha builders.

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The following poem was inspired from the various potential names we came up with for our Sangha:

Our Sangha,
Joyfully together,
Blooming as a lotus,
Sweet as orange blossoms,
With mindful and joyful hearts,
Our Chi flows peacefully.

Rhoda Reilly, True Attainment of Fruition, lives and practices in Escondido, California.

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Book Reviews

mb38-BookReviews1Journeying East:
Conversations on Aging and Dying

By Victoria Jean Dimidjian
Parallax Press, 2004

Reviewed by Lois Schlegel

For as long as I can remember I have been afraid of death. Even as a child I wrestled with this unknown. At night, when the house was quiet I lay awake trying to figure it out, trying to touch the mystery of it somehow, trying to understand.

None of the conventional answers satisfied me. I searched and questioned and suffered for years, as both my parents died before I was twenty-five and I witnessed the fragility of life from a mother’s perspective when my own children were born.

So, it was with a sense of kinship I read Victoria Jean Dimidjian’s outstanding collection of interviews on this subject. She too was touched by death as a child and her experience seems to shape this far-reaching book. Devoting her entire sabbatical from teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University to this project, Ms. Dimidjian traveled the globe to bring us insight from many of today’s prominent philosophers and death and dying practitioners.

Journeying East includes conversations with Ram Dass, Thich Nhat Hanh, Michael Eigen, Norman Fisher, Joan Halifax, Sister Chan Khong, Frank Osataseski, Rodney Smith, and John Wellwood. Each interview is at once intimate and transcendent, as if we too have been sipping tea with these masters and come away not with answers, but insight; not knowledge, but peace. As Rodney Smith so aptly tells the author when she asks him about his own fear of death, “You live it consciously; you live it actively; you live the open question of death. We access the true spirit of Buddhism by living the question of life.” This book is an invitation to that awareness and practice. It offers ways to tolerate and even find joy in the mystery of death.

Fill your life with music! Sing your blues away!
2 new COMPACT DISKS

Rivers & Oasis
Available through the Deer Park Monastery Audio Visual Department

Reviewed by Barbara Casey

www.deerparkmonastery.org/shop_online.htm

Wonderful new songs and chants are available as a gift from the fourfold Sangha. Through the direction of Sr. The Nghiem, monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen have come together to produce a CD of twenty-seven practice songs called Rivers. These songs clearly reflect the personal practice of the participants, watering seeds of peace, freedom, lightness, and joy in the listener.

For those who love singing and are looking for fresh songs to enjoy and to share with your Sangha, Rivers is the CD for you! There are fourteen songs in English, nine in Vietnamese, and four in French. Included in the English songs is the popular, In Gratitude, which many of us have learned. Most of the others were new to me, and a complete delight. My personal favorites include Alone Again, adapted from Thich Nhat Hanh’s poem, Recommendation, and put to music by Christian monks; and No Wait, an acapella, two-voiced song encouraging self-reliance, which makes me cry with happiness every time I hear it. There is also a wonderful talk-story song by Sr. Chau Nghiem, called Peace is the Way. The CD’s name comes from a lovely song featured first, and also reflects the many sources that came together to form the beautiful music which now flows out to all of us.

Oasis is a compilation of some of the chants we already know in fresh arrangements, plus some new ones. By far the most notable is the Discourse on Love, which I am now listening to as part of my daily practice. I have always wanted to memorize this wonderful sutra, and by putting it to music, I am learning it without effort. I find that listening to and singing this beautiful chant is watering seeds of deep love and happiness in me. I look forward to experiencing this chant with the worldwide Sangha. I hope we will all learn and enjoy it.

Best of all, you can sample these musical offerings online, at: www.deerparkmonastery.org

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Poet, Peace Advocate, & Goodwill Ambassador Dies

By Norman R. Brown

For Our World*

We need to stop.
Just stop.
Stop for a moment…
Before anybody
Says or does anything
That may hurt anyone else.

We need to be silent.
Just silent.
Silent for a moment…
Before we forever lose
The blessing of songs
That grow in our hearts.

We need to notice.
Just notice.
Notice for a moment…
Before the future slips away
Into ashes and dust of humility.

Stop, be silent, and notice…
In so many ways, we are the same.
Our differences are unique treasures.
We have, we are, a mosaic of gifts
To nurture, to offer, to accept.

We need to be.
Just be.
Be for a moment…
Kind and gentle, innocent and trusting,
Like children and lambs,
Never judging or vengeful

Like the judging and vengeful.
And now, let us pray,
Differently, yet together,
Before there is no earth, no life,
No chance for peace.

mb38-Poet1The internationally acclaimed poet, peace advocate, and Muscular Dystrophy Association National Goodwill Ambassador, Matthew Joseph Thaddeus Stepanek, or “Mattie” as he’s nationally known, died on June 22, 2004 in Washington, D.C. He had been hospitalized since early March with complications related to the disease that impaired most of his bodily functions.

Stepanek, of Rockville, Maryland, had dysautonomic mitochondrial myopathy, a genetic disease that impaired his heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and digestion, and caused muscle weakness. Mattie was hospitalized many times over the years. He navigated around his home in a wheelchair he nicknamed “Slick,” and relied on a feeding tube, a ventilator, and frequent blood transfusions to stay alive.

Mattie was the author of five volumes of poetry, three of which reached the New York Times’ best-seller list. He became a beacon of hope to the millions of adults and children who have been inspired by his words, making him one of the best-selling poets in recent years. His admirers include Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, and former President Jimmy Carter.

Despite his physical condition, the effervescent and playful philosopher was upbeat, saying he didn’t fear death. His work was full of life, a quest for peace, hope, and the inner voice he called a “heartsong,” which he explained as “our inner beauty, our message, the songs in our hearts.” He explained, “My life mission is to spread peace to the world.”

After the September 11, 2001 tragedy, Mattie wrote the poem to the left.

Mattie advised that, “Poetry is a great way to express your feelings and life experiences so that others can understand and get through the same situation. We all have life storms. We need to celebrate that we get through them, instead of mourning and waiting for the next one to come along and wipe us out again. Remember to play after every storm. Celebrate life no matter how bad it seems. Life is a gift, and there’s always something beautiful that you can find. We have to make the best of life and do what we’re meant to do. Everyone has a special song inside their hearts. If you believe you can be happy, then you, too, will hear your song.”

Mattie was thirteen years old at the time of his death. He was the recipient of several awards, including the 2002 Children’s Hope Medal of Honor and the 2002 Verizon Courage Award. President Carter, in eulogizing Mattie, said, “I have known kings, queens, presidents, and prime ministers. But the most extraordinary person I have ever known was Mattie Stepanek.”

Contributions in Mattie’s name may be made at: www.mdausa.org or sent to MDA Mattie Fund, P.O. Box 66002, Tucson, AZ 85728.

Go to: www.mattieonline.com for links to purchase his poetry.

*For Our World copyright, April 2002, “Hope Through Heartsongs,” page 49, ISBN 0-7868-6944-5, Hyperion Book.

Norman R. Brown, Disciplined Patience of the Heart, belong to the SDGLBT Buddhists Sangha in San Diego. He is event coordinator and registrar at Solidity Hamlet, Deer Park Monastery.

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Poem: Zadie’s Manifestation

By Clay McLeod

mb38-ZadieTo my ears,
Your cries give voice to the sorrows
of the whole world.
To my eyes,
Your smile gives light to the darkest
places imaginable.

Your dark eyes hold so many promises
To the world not yet revealed.

I waited my whole life to meet you,
And yet I cannot imagine a time
without you.

You are my continuation,
Yet you are so much more than me.

You are the manifestation of love and hope.
With your life, you will unfold
A tapestry of joy and sorrow,
Each moment a sunrise,
Each breath a miracle.

I cherish your arrival;
welcome to the world.

Clay McLeod lives and practices in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada, with his wife Meaghan, his daughter Zadie and the students he teaches.

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New Seth Family Member

By Shantum Seth

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We are happy to inform you of the birth of our daughter, Anamika Maitri, at dawn on the seventeenth of September, in New Delhi. She arrived exactly three and a half years after her sister Nandini was born.

Anamika Maitri means “one who cannot be defined by name (and hence contains the virtues of all names) and offers love and friendship.”

Her sister, Nandini, wants to continually kiss and caress her, and her parents and both sets of grandparents are enjoying her miraculous presence.

With love and smiles,

Gitu and Shantum

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Please Help to Complete Thay’s Temple in Saigon

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Dear Friends,

Last November the Vietnamese government gave Thay permission to teach an audience of any size in any temple in Vietnam, but not in a theater or stadium. To accommodate the expected audiences, we have been rebuilding the Phap Van temple in Saigon, with your help. We are so grateful for your generous donations, following our first appeal in the Mindfulness Bell. We have received $18,870 in US dollars, and $67,660 from friends in Europe

Now we ask you to help to complete the temple construction. We need $5,000 to add 900 seats outside the lecture hall to the existing 800 indoors seats. We also urgently need twenty-four toilets costs $150 each. Building each square meter of Phap Van Temple costs $130.

Please send your donation Attn: Phap Van Construction to: GMDC, P.O. Box 182, Hartland Four Corners, BT 05049, USA or Sr. Chan Khong in Plum Village.

I have summarized below the status and remaining needs of the various spaces.

A house for Thay, which will become a library in the future: Has been completed thanks to a $20,000 donation from a friend in France. Thay has named it the “Together Again” house (“Nhà doàn tu”)

  • A three-story building, sixty by fifteen meters, including:
  • A strong foundation: Completed (cost: $14,000).
  • Ground Floor: A large lecture hall; a kitchen; a storage area; a sanitary block with 20 toilets. The lecture hall has supports and walls in place, and the concrete floor has been laid, but there are no doors or floor tiling yet.
  • Second Floor: Ten dormitories, four by twelve meters, each housing up to eighteen people; one dining room; and a study room for monks. The walls are all done; but no tiles, toilets or showers yet.
  • Third Floor: Meditation hall, balcony, and garden – nothing has been done yet except the floor. Cost of work completed so far on Ground Floor and Second Floor: $87,488 from your contribution and $27,500 from a no-interest loan.
  • With thanks and see you in Vietnam!

SOS Help for Hungry People in Tay Nguyen

Five Provinces on the Highlands of Vietnam

Dear Friends,

We have received an SOS appeal from the Buddhist Youth Association of Vietnam Gia Dinh Phat Tu – GDPT in Tay Nguyen to help 8,700 families who will have nothing to eat by March 2005.

Currently, Plum Village is helping our GDPT friends bring fifteen kilograms of rice per month per family for 150 families. We need to help them for seven months, until the next harvest in July.

With a contribution of $35 you can help one family survive. Please make your donation to Unified Buddhist Church, Deer Park Monastery, attention: hungry people in Tay Nguyen Highlands, Sister Tuc Nghiem will send a thank you letter confirming your tax deduction for your generous donation.

With thanks.

Sr. Chan Khong

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Dharma Talk: True Happiness

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

Thich Nhat Hanh

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is the twenty-third of June, 2005 and we are in the Lovingkindness Temple in the New Hamlet.  

Happiness is a practice. We should distinguish between happiness and excitement, and even joy. Many people in the West, especially in North America, think of excitement as happiness. They are thinking of something, or expecting something that they consider to be happiness, and, for them, that is already happiness. But when you are excited you are not really peaceful. True happiness should be based on peace, and in true happiness there is no longer any excitement.

mb40-dharma2Suppose you are walking in a desert and you are dying of thirst. Suddenly you see an oasis and you know that once you get there, there will be a stream of water and you can drink so you will survive. Although you have not actually seen or drunk the water you feel something: that is excitement, that is hope, that is joy, but not happiness yet. In Buddhist psychology we distinguish clearly between excitement, joy, and happiness. True happiness must be founded on peace. Therefore, if you don’t have peace in yourself you have not experienced true happiness.

Training Yourself to Be Happy 

You have to cultivate happiness; you cannot buy it in the supermarket. It is like playing tennis: you cannot buy the joy of playing tennis in the supermarket. You can buy the ball and the racket, but you cannot buy the joy of playing. In order to experience the joy of tennis you have to learn, to train yourself to play. In the same way, you have to cultivate happiness.

Walking meditation is a wonderful way to train yourself to be happy. You are here, and you look in the distance and see a pine tree. You make the determination that while walking to the pine tree, you will enjoy every step, that every step will provide you with peace and happiness. Peace and happiness that have the power to nourish, to heal, to satisfy.

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There are those of us who are capable of going from here to the pine tree in that way, enjoying every step we make. We are not disturbed by anything: not by the past, not by the future; not by projects, not by excitement. Not even by joy, because in joy there is still excitement and not enough peace. And if you are well-trained in walking meditation, with each step you can experience peace, happiness, and fulfillment. You are capable of truly touching the earth with each step. You see that being alive, being established fully in the present moment and taking one step and touching the wonders of life in that step can be a wonder, and you live that wonder every moment of walking. If you have the capacity to walk like that, you are walking in the Kingdom of God or in the Pure Land of the Buddha.

So you may challenge yourself: I will do walking meditation from here to the pine tree. I vow that I will succeed. If you are not free, your steps will not bring you happiness and peace. So cultivating happiness is also cultivating freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom from the things that upset you, that keep you from being peaceful, that prevent you from being fully present in the here and the now.

One nun wrote to Thay that she has a friend visiting Plum Village. Her friend did not take the monastic path; instead she married, and now has a family, a job, a house, a car, and everything she needs for her life. She’s lucky because her husband is a good man; he does not create too many problems. Her job is enjoyable, with a salary above average. Her house is beautiful. She thinks of her relationship as a good one although it is not as she expected; sure, you can never have exactly what you expect.

And yet, she does not feel happy and she is depressed. Intellectually she knows that in terms of comfort, she has everything. Many of us think of happiness in these terms, as having material and emotional comforts. Not many people are as successful as that friend, and she knows that she is fortunate. And yet she is not happy.

We Are Immune to Happiness 

We have the tendency to think of happiness as something we will obtain in the future. We expect happiness. We think that now we don’t have the conditions we think we need to be happy, but that once we have them, happiness will be there. For example, you want to have a diploma because you think that without that diploma you cannot be happy. So you think of the diploma day and night and you do everything to get that diploma because you believe that diploma will bring you happiness. And you forecast that happiness will be there tomorrow, when you get the diploma. There may be joy and satisfaction in the days and weeks that follow the moment you receive your diploma, but you adapt to that new condition very quickly, and in just a few weeks you don’t feel happy anymore. You become used to having a diploma. So that kind of excitement, that kind of happiness is very short-lived. We are immune to happiness; we get used to our happiness, and after a while we don’t feel happy any longer.

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People have made studies of poor people who have won lotteries and have become millionaires. The studies found that after two or three months the person returns to the emotional state they were in before winning the lottery. From two to three months. And during the three months there is not exactly happiness; there is a lot of thinking, a lot of excitement, a lot of planning and so on––not exactly happiness. But three months later, he falls back to exactly the same emotional level as he was before winning the lottery. So having a lot of money does not mean you will be happy.

Perhaps you want to marry someone, thinking that if you can’t marry him or her, then you cannot be happy. You believe that happiness will be great after you marry that person. After you marry, you may have a time of happiness, but eventually happiness vanishes. There is no longer any excitement, any joy, and of course, no happiness. What you get is not what you expected. Then perhaps you know that what you have attained will not continue for a long time. Even if you have a good job, you are not sure you can keep it for a long time. You may be laid off, so underneath there is fear and uncertainty. This type of happiness, without peace, has the element of fear and cannot be true happiness. The person you are living with may betray you one day; you cannot be sure that person will be faithful to you for a long time. So fear and uncertainty is present also. To preserve these so-called conditions of happiness you have to be busy all day long. And with these worries, uncertainties, and busyness, you don’t feel happy and you become depressed.

So we learn that happiness is not something we get after we obtain the so-called conditions of happiness: namely, the material and emotional comforts. True happiness does not depend on these comforts; nothing can remove it from you. When we come to a practice center, we are looking to learn how to cultivate true happiness.

The Buddha’s Teaching on Happiness 

When I was a young monk people told me that the teachings of the Buddha could be summarized in four short sentences. I was not impressed when I read these four sentences. People asked the Buddha how to be happy and he said that all the Buddhas teach the same thing:

Refrain from doing bad things
Try to do good things
And learn to subdue, purify your mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas. (1)  

Very simple; and because of that, I was not impressed. I said, “Everyone agrees that you have to do good things and refrain from doing bad things. To subdue and purify your mind is too vague.” But after sixty years of practice I have another idea of the teaching. I see now it is very deep, and that it is a real teaching of happiness.

Let us consider together. The gatha I learned is in Chinese, in four lines, and each line contains four words.

The bad things, don’t do it.
The good things, try to do it.

It does not seem to be very deep: nothing spectacular about it. Everyone knows, the good things you should do and the bad things you should not do. You don’t need to be a Buddha to give such a teaching. So I was not impressed. The third line and fourth lines are:

Try to purify, subdue your own mind
That is the teaching of  all Buddhas.

Now I understand that the bad things you should refrain from are those that create suffering for you and for other people, including other living beings and the environment. But how can you recognize something as good to do, or as bad to do? Mindfulness. Mindfulness helps you to know that this is a good thing to do and this is a bad thing to do; to know that if you do these bad things you bring suffering to you and to the people around you. So the bad things bring suffering to you and others. This is a very simple and yet precise definition of good and bad. And of course, the good things are the things that bring you joy and true happiness. Anything that is good, try to do it. That means anything that can bring peace, stability, and joy to you and to other people. It is easy to say, it is easy to understand, but it is not easy to do or to refrain from doing. The first two things depend entirely on the third thing: to purify, subdue your mind. The mind is the ground of everything.

The Most Special Thing in Buddhism 

If there is confusion in your mind, if there is anger and craving in your mind, then your mind is not pure, your mind is not subdued, and even if you want to do good things you cannot do them, and even if you want to refrain from doing bad things you cannot. And that is why the ground, the root, is your mind.

When you refrain from doing bad things you are practicing compassion, because refraining from doing bad things means not bringing suffering to you or to other people. Practicing compassion is practicing happiness, because happiness is the absence of suffering. And then:

Try to do good things: karuna, maitri. This teaching is the practice of love, of compassion, and of lovingkindness. When you understand, the first two sentences have a lot of meaning. You practice love, you practice compassion, you practice lovingkindness and you know that practicing love brings happiness. Happiness cannot be without love. The Buddhas recommend us to love, and the concrete way is to refrain from causing suffering and to offer happiness.

You can do this easily and beautifully only when you know how to subdue your mind, how to purify your mind. This is very special. If you ask the question, “What is the most special thing in Buddhism?” the answer is that it is the art of subduing your mind, of purifying your mind. Because Buddhism gives us the concrete teaching so that we can purify, subdue, and transform our mind. And once our mind is purified, subdued, and transformed, then happiness becomes possible. With a mind that still has a lot of confusion, anger, craving, and misunderstanding, there can be no love and no happiness for oneself and for the world. So the most important thing you should learn is the art of subduing and purifying your mind. If you have not got that, you have not got anything from Buddhism.

T.S. Eliot was a poet, playwright, and critic, born in Boston in 1888. When he grew up he went to Europe and he liked it there so he became a British citizen. His poetry is a kind of meditation; he tries to look deeply and many of his poems are like gathas presenting his understanding. He said that he always tried to look deeply; those are the words he used: to look deeply, to understand the roots of suffering. He found out that the mind is the root of all suffering; our own mind is the foundation of all the suffering we have. That is exactly what the Buddha said. The suffering we have to bear and undergo all comes from within our mind, a mind that is not purified, that is not transformed and subdued. But T.S. Eliot only said half of what the Buddha said. The Buddha said that all suffering comes from the mind, but also that all happiness comes from the mind. All happiness too. So the mind that remains unsubdued, untransformed, confused with hatred and discrimination, brings a lot of unhappiness and suffering; but the purified and subdued mind can bring a lot of happiness to yourself and the people around you.

When you walk from here to the pine tree you begin with one step, and you train yourself in such a way that that step has within it the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight. If you really practice walking meditation, you will find out that every step you make can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, bringing you a lot of happiness. Because the three elements–– mindfulness, concentration, and insight–– purify and subdue your mind and bring out all the goodness of your mind. When you walk like this, you are first aware that you are making a step: that is the energy of mindfulness. I am here. I am alive. I am making a step. You step and you know you are making a step. That is mindfulness of walking. The mindfulness helps you to be in the here and the now, fully present, fully alive so that you can make the step. Master Linji said, “The miracle is not to walk on air, or on water, or on fire. The real miracle is to walk on earth.” And walking like that––with mindfulness, concentration, and insight––is performing a miracle. You are truly alive. You are truly present, touching the wonders of life within you and around you. That is a miracle.

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Most of us walk like sleepwalkers. We walk, but we are not there. We don’t experience life, or the wonders of life. There is no joy. We are sleepwalking through our own life and our life is a dream. Buddhism is about waking up from your dream. Awakening. One mindful step can be a factor of awakening that brings you to life, that brings you the miracle of being alive. And when mindfulness is there, concentration is there, because mindfulness contains concentration. You can be less or more concentrated. You may be fifty, sixty, or ninety percent concentrated on your step, but the more concentrated the more you have a chance to break through into insight. Mindfulness, concentration, insight: smirti, samadhi, prajna. Every step you make can generate these three powers, these three energies. And if you are a strong practitioner then these three energies are very powerful and every step can bring you a lot of happiness, the happiness of a Buddha.

Mindfulness and concentration bring insight. Insight is a product of the practice. It is like the flower or fruit of the practice. Like an orange tree offers blossoms and oranges. What kind of insight? The insight of impermanence, of no-self, and interbeing.

Happiness Is Impermanent 

Impermanence means that everything is changing, including the happiness that you are experiencing. The step you are making allows you to get in touch with the Kingdom of God, with the Pure Land of the Buddha, with all the wonders of life that bring happiness. But that happiness is also impermanent. It lasts only for one step; if the next step does not have mindfulness, concentration, and insight, then happiness will die. However, you know that you are capable of making a second step which also generates the three powers of mindfulness, concentration, and insight, so you have the power to make happiness last longer. Happiness is impermanent; we know the law of impermanence, and that is why we know that we can continue to generate the next moment of happiness. Just as when we ride a bicycle, we continue to pedal so that the movement can continue.

Happiness is impermanent but it can be renewed, and that is insight. You are also impermanent and renewable, like your breath, like your steps. You are not something permanent experiencing something impermanent. You are something impermanent experiencing something impermanent. Although it is impermanent, happiness is possible; the same with you. And if happiness can be renewed, so can you; because you in the next moment is the renewal of you. You are always changing, so you are experiencing impermanence in your happiness and in yourself. It’s wonderful to know that happiness can last only one in-breath or one step, because we know that we can renew it in another step or another breath, provided we know the art of generating mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

The Insight of Interbeing

Happiness is no-self, because the nature of happiness is interbeing. That is why you are not looking for happiness as an individual. You are making happiness with the insight of interbeing. The father knows that if the son is not happy then he cannot be truly happy, so while the father seeks his own happiness, he also seeks happiness for his son. And that is why the first two sentences have a wonderful meaning. Your mindful steps are not for you alone, they are for your partner and friends as well. Because the moment you stop suffering, the other person profits. You are not cultivating your individual happiness. You are walking for him, for her, you are walking for all of us. Because if you have some peace in you, that is not only good for you but good for all of us.

With that mindful step, it might look as though you are practicing as an individual. You are trying to do something for yourself. You are trying to find some peace, some stability, some happiness. It looks egoistic, when you have not touched the nature of no-self. But, with insight, you see that everything good that you are doing for yourself you are doing for all of us. You don’t have a self-complex anymore. And that is the insight of interbeing.

If, in a family of four, only one person practices, that practice will benefit all four, not only the practitioner. When that person practices correctly, she gets the insight of no-self and she knows that she’s doing it for everyone. Just as when she cleans the toilet, she cleans the toilet for everyone, not just herself.

When a feeling of anger or discrimination manifests, the practitioner recognizes that to allow such an energy to continue is not healthy for oneself or for others in the world. The practitioner practices mindfulness of breathing, of walking, in order to recognize the feeling of anger, to embrace the anger, to look deeply into the nature of the anger, and to know that practicing in order to transform your anger is to practice happiness for yourself and other people. If you don’t practice like that, anger will push you to do things or say things that will make you and others suffer. That is not something to do, but something not to do. And when you practice looking deeply into the nature of your anger, you are doing it for yourself and you are doing it for the world and you have the insight of no-self.

With the insight of no-self you no longer seek the kind of happiness that will make other people suffer. The insight of impermanence will help bring the insight of no-self. And no-self means interdependence, interconnectedness, interbeing. This is the kind of insight that can liberate you and can liberate the world. With that kind of practice you subdue your mind, you purify your mind. A mind that is not purified or subdued contains a lot of delusion. And that is why practicing looking deeply to see the nature of impermanence and no-self means to take away the element of ignorance and delusion within yourself. That is to purify yourself. When the element of ignorance is no longer there, the element of anger will be transformed. You get angry at him or her or them because you still have the mind of discrimination. He is your enemy. He makes you suffer. He is to be punished. All these thoughts are no longer there because you have already touched the nature of no-self.

Purify Your Mind 

To purify your mind is to transform your way of perceiving things, to remove wrong perceptions. When you are able to remove your wrong perceptions you are also able to remove your anger, your hate, your discrimination, and your craving. Because if you crave something, it means you have not seen the true nature of that thing. If you think of happiness in terms of fame, profit, power, and sex, it is not a correct idea of happiness, because you have seen people who have plenty of these things but suffer so much from depression and want to kill themselves. Understanding that you have wisdom within you frees you from craving. In the teachings of the Buddha, our mind can be intoxicated by many kinds of poison: the first is craving, the second is hate or violence, and the third is delusion. The three poisons. To purify your mind is to neutralize and transform these poisons in you. You neutralize these poisons by the three powers: mindfulness, concentration, and insight.

When your mind is purified, it is so easy to do good things and to refrain from doing bad things. But if your mind is still unpurified––filled with hatred, anger, delusion, and craving––you have a hard time doing good things and refraining from doing bad things. That is why this is the ground of every kind of action that benefits you and benefits the world.

We have invented many types of machines that save a lot of time. We can do wonders with a computer. A computer can work a hundred, a thousand times faster than a typewriter. In farming, it used to take several weeks to plough the fields; now you can do it in a few days. You don’t have to wash your clothes by hand anymore, there’s a washing machine. You don’t have to go fetch the water, the water comes to your kitchen. We have found many ways to save labor, and yet we are much busier than our ancestors were. Everyone is busy; that is a contradiction. Why is that? Because we have acquired so much and we are afraid of losing these things, so we have to work so hard to keep and maintain them. That is why even if you have a lot, you still suffer and become depressed.

Manufacturers of medicine will tell you that the kinds of medicine we consume the most in our society now —tons and tons––are tranquilizers and antidepressants, sedatives. The whole world is under sedation. We need a lot of tranquilizers because we have created a world that has invaded us. We can no longer be peaceful and happy, and that is why we want to forget ourselves. You want to protect yourself from the world, you want to protect yourself from yourself, and that is why you take tranquilizers, antidepressants, sedatives. We are not capable of touching the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha, the wonders of life that have all the powers of healing and nourishing. We have brought into ourselves so many toxins, poisons. The world we have created has come into us. We cannot escape anymore. Not even in our dreams, in our sleep. And the drugs we take are to help us forget the world we have created for a few hours or a few days. When we go in this direction we are no longer civilized, because we are not going in the direction of peace, of solidity, of awakening. The drugs help us not to be awake to reality, because we want to forget reality–– the reality of the world, and the reality of the confusion, the craving, and the violence in us.

Peace and happiness are still available, once you are capable of seeing that the conditions we think are essential to our happiness may bring us the opposite of happiness—depression, despair, forgetfulness. And that is why we have to listen to the Buddha. We have to begin with our breath. We have to breathe in mindfully to know that we are alive, that there are still wonders of life around us and in us that we have to touch every minute for our transformation and healing. We have to use our feet to learn how to walk in the Kingdom of God, because each step like that will be transforming, healing, and nourishing. It is still possible.

So from here to the pine tree, I wish you good luck. Make a step in such a way that mindfulness, concentration, and insight can be generated, so that you are capable of being in touch with the here and the now, of touching the wonders of life. Forget about the conditions of happiness that you have been running after for a long time, because you know that once you get them, you will still be unhappy, and then you will have to use the drugs that other people are using. Buddhism is about awakening. We should be awakened to the fact that the situation of the world is like that, and we don’t want to go in that direction. We want true life, true happiness.

Translated from Vietnamese by Chan Phap Tue; edited by Barbara Casey. 

(1) This translation is from the Chinese version of the Dhammapada.

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Poem: Full Moon Festival

By Thich Nhat Hanh

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This poem was written in response to Vietnamese Dhyana master Lieu Quan (1670–1742), whose poem of insight has this sentence: “If I had realized that the lamp is fire itself, the rice would have been cooked for a long time already!” The insight poem was presented to his teacher, Master Tu Dung, in 1708.

What will happen when form collides with emptiness,
and what will happen when perception enters non-perception?
Come here with me, friend.
Let’s watch together.
Do you see the two clowns, life and death
setting up a play on a stage?
Here comes Autumn.
The leaves are ripe.
Let the leaves fly.
A festival of colors, yellow, red.
The branches have held on to the leaves
during Spring and Summer.
This morning they let them go.
Flags and lanterns are displayed.
Everyone is here at the Full Moon Festival.

Friend, what are you waiting for?
The bright moon shines above us.
There are no clouds tonight.
Why bother to ask about lamps and fire?
Why talk about cooking dinner?
Who is searching and who is finding?
Let us just enjoy the moon, all night.

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Letter From the Editor

mb40-LetterFromEditor1To Our Readers

It’s mid-August, and I’m just beginning to feel the change of seasons, even in the ninetydegree temperatures. A new coolness in the mornings and evenings, a softness in the color of the darkening sky: I find happiness in the impermanence of the seasons, and I feel my heart turning to gratitude for the bounty in my life.

By the time you read this, Thich Nhat Hanh will have completed the U.S. tour, and many of us will have been renewed by spending days with our teacher and our Sangha. For those of us who were not able to attend a retreat, we offer this magazine as a mini-retreat, to inspire and comfort you with the presence of the Sangha.

As I write, I am looking forward to seeing many of my brothers and sisters at our root temple, Deer Park, and to the possibility that eight friends from my region will be ordained into the Order of Interbeing. Could there be a better gift to all of us, than for these dear friends to commit to a life of mindfulness and Sangha building?

Returning from Vietnam, I knew that the fruits of that journey would continue to manifest for months and years to come, and you are invited to share those fruits in this and future issues. The stories and poems reflecting precious moments on the journey, and the reports on transformation and building long-term connections through humanitarian efforts, bring us all closer to our spiritual ancestors. We have new, expanded responsibilities there too, as Sister Chan Khong reports: two monasteries need our help, so they can respond to the needs of the many people touched by Thay’s visit and now offering their lives for monastic practice.

In Thay’s featured teaching on cultivating true happiness, the question is posed: What is the most special thing about Buddhism? The answer given is: The ability to subdue and purify your mind. My deepest gratitude is for the teachings and examples of the Buddha and my spiritual teachers who have given me a way to create a path through the brambles and toxic swamps in my mind, to clear the brush and allow light into the dark places of fear and hurt. Through the simple practice of bringing mindfulness to my daily actions, of formal sitting, and of spending time with my teachers and the Sangha, my mind has cultivated another way to be. It is a gentler way of living; a way that allows questioning my own attitudes and perceptions, of not clinging to my long held patterns of trying to control outcomes and of reacting with hurt when not feeling understood or acknowledged. A way of dwelling in peace and open-heartedness. Slowly I have found that most days my heart spends more time open than closed.

The tools of mindfulness, concentration, and insight have allowed me to begin forging this new path through the jungle of my mind and emotions. I have learned that there is no path to follow, no formula I can apply to find my way to clarity.

Rather, my teachers have given me the well-honed tools to make my own way, to create a light-filled pathway of beauty and peacefulness.

May we all take to heart the teachings and examples offered by our teachers, our ancestors, and our Sangha friends. May we all practice with ease and diligence so our lives become pathways of light for ourselves and others. We have everything we need: the instructions, the generous guidance of our teacher, and the enjoyment and comfort of our Sangha companions. In this season of the harvest, our cornucopia of love overflows.

In gratitude,

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In the Footsteps of My Teacher

By Tran Kinh Tam An

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Sitting at the feet of my Teacher
Seeing the rose held in two hands
Visualizing the cosmos in the rose
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

My Teacher speaks about transformation
All is in me; realization is the goal
Transform garbage and suffering into beauty and Nirvana
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Moon shining light on pitfalls on the path
Moon casting shadows to the left and then to the right
Moon, the Sangha guiding my steps on the path
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Standing in awe on the hilltop
Gazing at the twinkling city lights below
With a calm, peaceful heart and mind
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Sitting, calm and smiling
Peacefully concentrating on nature around me
My teacher turns and quietly watches me
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Gently picking up an insect crawling on my leg
Gently putting him down in the grass
Smiling, listening deeply, speaking lovingly
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

My teacher is beautifully present by my side
Waiting quietly, patiently to hear my pain
Knowing my need for empathy
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

I bow my head, while joining my palms
Acknowledge my weaknesses and strengths
I am in my Teacher; my Teacher is in me
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Simultaneously dwelling in the historical and ultimate dimensions,
Intellectual thinking moves from head to heart.
Faithful to my true self—interconnected with the universe,
I walk in the footsteps of my Teacher.

Tran Kinh Tam An, Peaceful Respect of the Heart, lives in Portland, Oregon where she practices with the Thursday Night Sangha and aspires to join the Order of Interbeing.

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Poem: It Is Enough

By Emily Whittle

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This apple by itself
would be enough—
its crisp white center
bearing just the right balance
of tart and sweet,
garnished with the faint scent
of flowers.
But there is more!
There is the music
of water
cascading over rocks.
There is bee balm and mountain laurel.
There is a cool breeze
playing with the trees,
sending shape-shifting clouds
speeding across the sky.
Next to me,
facing the river,
is my beloved,
eating the other half
of the apple.
Far away,
barely audible,
the low rumble of thunder
warns of an approaching storm.
Savor,
savor this moment.
It is enough.
It is more
than enough.

Emily Whittle, True Wonderful Happiness, lives and practices in Red Springs, North Carolina. She is a frequent contributor to the Mindfulness Bell.

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Monks & Nuns: Behind the Projections onto the Robe

Part One

By Lori Zimring De Mori

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On a quiet summer morning in the French countryside near the village of Thenac, several hundred people sit patiently in the boxy, light-filled room which serves as Upper Hamlet’s main meditation hall in Plum Village. Children are at the front—some squirming, some with their heads in a parent’s lap, a few sitting still and straight as little Buddhas-to-be. The rest of us are crowded onto cushions, meditation stools, and chairs which spill out of the hall into the summer sunshine.

Monks and nuns begin to file in from opposite sides of the room. They have the shorn heads of those who have renounced the material world in favor of a life of the spirit, and walk in the measured, unhurried way of those who have spent a lot of time with Thich Nhat Hanh—utterly without false piousness, but as if every step were the final destination. Their robes are the warm brown color of loamy soil and hang straight from their shoulders to the ground.

They assemble themselves into several rows, monks on the left, nuns on the right, facing us and holding song books. Everything about their dress and demeanor expresses the intention to de-emphasize the self-absorbed “I” whose hungry ego obsesses with the mundane vanities of fashion, hairstyles, and superficial beauty. They look composed though not solemn; cheerful but not chatty; eminently likeable and unintimidating. Some of the nuns have covered their heads with brown kerchiefs knotted at the nape of the neck. A few monks wear woolly brown caps. Mostly there are bare scalps over bony skulls. And faces. Western ones, Asian, some wizened and a great many fresh and smooth as plum skins.

I find myself studying them carefully. I’m trying to imagine what they were like before they’d taken their vows, when they were living in the world like the rest of us. Wondering what made them leave that world for one of silence, service, and vigilant mindfulness.

A bell rings clear and high, like a single note from a songbird. We scramble to our feet as the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh enters the room. He seems to move in slow motion, or as if he were inhabiting some other dimension (or more likely, fully inhabiting this one)—and his gaze, should you happen to catch it, is a compelling mixture of vibrancy and stillness, so alive as to be startling.

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Thay embodies the Buddha’s instruction to “make of yourself a light.” He combines the moral authority of Gandhi and Martin Luther King with a resolute steadfastness of purpose and unwavering patience and kindness. His impeccability as a teacher and a human being is inspiring, and more than a little intimidating. There is still so much work to do—so many habits of mind to recognize and transform; so many petty thoughts, self-obsessed fears, and hollow vanities to let go of; so many ways to be more kind, more patient, more generous.

Thay sounds the bell and the monastics begin to chant the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. Some sing phonetically from song books, others from memory, but all of them know the words by heart in one language or another. In English the chant is slow and melodic, one word flowing into another in a river of sound. This version is deliberately monotone, each syllable distinct and staccato, rhythmic as a chisel hacking away at the rough husks around our hearts. “Listen Shariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form is not other than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form.” What does this mean? The words are plain enough but to gnaw on them with the everyday, rational mind yields little or nothing.  I imagine they can be understood with the wisdom mind—the “heart mind” that looks courageously into the true nature of things, and is nurtured by a steady diet of mindfulness and compassion. Thay calls this “watering our seeds” of kindness, compassion, and mindfulness through how we walk, eat, listen, speak, consume (or don’t), do virtually anything and everything. It seems a good way to live well. If an understanding of emptiness eventually comes with it, all the better.

The next chant is a heartfelt wish for happiness: “May the day be well and the night be well. May the midday hour bring happiness too. In every minute and every second may the day and night be well.” The words wash over us like blessings and we lap them up like hungry puppies. In any other context the world-weary cynic in me might reject the chant’s simplicity of expression. But somehow these voices, this place, and our shared aspiration to live life as a conscious journey make it feel as if our efforts actually could generate happiness. Not the impossible happiness of a life without pain or loss or disappointment, but the happiness that comes from being open to this life, at every moment, whatever it has to offer.

Coming from the monastic community the words have an added potency. We spend our days with the nuns and monks—both inside and outside the meditation hall. We share meals, conversations, slow morning walks to neighboring hamlets, and cups of tea. There are little moments—waiting in line for a meal, beginning to eat, washing dishes—when I can tell they are reciting gathas, the short mindfulness verses that help bring awareness to even the simplest actions. But they also run (barefoot, robes flying) after soccer balls with the teenagers, strum guitars and bang out rhythms on African drums, rehearse plays with the kids, and wrestle with sophisticated sound and computer equipment.

Their generosity towards us has a quality of effortlessness to it. Their practice doesn’t feel dogged or forced. To put it simply, they seem happy and joyful—not in some sort of mystical, blissed-out way, but in a most ordinary one. On some level this surprises me. I’d always thought of monastic life as requiring a noble and unnatural giving up of things: ego, wealth, possessions, sex, marriage, children. I’d expected there to be at least a whiff of teeth-gritting renunciation; a spectral air of deprivation; something other than the bright radiance of people whose lives seem to agree with them.

It is unfair and unwise to project one’s own imaginings onto the monastic robes. Things are so rarely what they seem. Yet it seems legitimate to wonder, and ultimately to ask what brings a person—especially a young one—to choose monastic life over the “go-to-college-get-a-job-get-married-raise-a-family” paradigm that propels so many of us. I posed the question to four young monastics—two I’d met on retreats, two I hadn’t known at all. What I found were four unique human beings whose individual life paths have intersected in a place called Plum Village. These are their stories.

mb40-Monks3Phap Xa

Phap Xa came to Plum Village from Holland and took his monastic vows in 2002. He is twenty-nine years old, tall and lanky, with clear green eyes and an angular face brightened by a great, flashing smile. Like all monks ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh he carries the name Phap. Xa—“equanimity” in Vietnamese—is his given name. “Thay gives us the name he thinks most suits us. It is meant to be a door to practice, either reflecting a quality or pointing to one to be developed.”

How does one become a monastic in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order?

You can’t just show up at Plum Village and ask to ordain. First you practice with the community. If you decide you want to ordain you write a letter to the Sangha saying that you aspire to become a monk. The community meets to consider whether they feel you would succeed as a monastic. If the answer is yes, you become an aspirant and live—together with other aspirants—with the monastic community for at least three months before ordaining.

Did you always want to be a monk?

[Laughter] No! It feels like my decision is a miracle. While growing up I never imagined I’d become a monastic. I was raised on a farm in Holland. My family was Protestant—we went to church every Sunday, said prayers before and after meals and read from the Bible before dinner. My interests were pretty typical: I loved soccer, hanging out with friends at bars, girls. I wasn’t a social activist. I cared a lot about myself and my own comfort.

The shift was actually a very slow process. When I went to university I had to become more responsible. I started looking for a better way of taking care of myself, of facing difficulties. My older brother was practicing transcendental meditation. My parents weren’t happy about it, but the idea seemed interesting to me. When I was about twenty I became fascinated with Eastern thought and life—especially Taoism and martial arts. I began studying kung fu, moved on to tai chi and finally to chi gong. As I kept moving to softer forms of martial arts I was always inspired by my teachers’ way of living.

When did you begin meditation practice?

When I was twenty-five I started practicing Zen meditation with some other university students. I remember feeling strange and awkward the first time I sat. Eventually I wanted to practice formal zazen so I attended a sesshin with a Dutch teacher. My practice at this point was centered around sitting in groups and by myself. I was dedicated to it but I didn’t really have any Dharma friends.

What brought you to Plum Village?

I began reading Thay’s books—they made me want to practice with someone who had great authority. I came to Plum Village for a week. I was so happy on that first retreat. I shared a room with people who had come for three months. It inspired me that they made the time to stay. One of them had a book called Stepping into Freedom that Thay had written for monastics. I ordered it.

A year later I came back for another week. I was inspired by Thay’s writings about right livelihood and I began to feel that mine was “not that right.” I wanted my work to have meaning, to help lessen suffering or bring happiness. Working at an engineering firm wasn’t going to do that. I decided to return to Plum Village for three months in the spring.

What appealed to you about Plum Village?

The Sangha—the community of people practicing together. Thay was such a great inspiration and I looked up to him so much as a teacher but I also began to see that practice wasn’t only about a teacher. There is great value in a Sangha. I feel that what I can accomplish by living in a Sangha is so much greater than what I can accomplish by myself. Back home I felt alone in my practice and my life ideal. At Plum Village there were all these people with a similar life ideal, guided by the same teacher whom I love so much.

At what point did you decide to become a monastic?

During the first weeks of those three months my determination to practice became very strong. I’m a bit shy, but there was a Vietnamese Dutch monk I felt very comfortable around. I asked if I could speak with him, ask him a question. We found a quiet place to talk and I couldn’t remember what I wanted to say. He just looked at me and said, “Do you want to become a monk?” The question went straight to my heart. I knew it was what I had wanted to talk to him about and the feeling grew stronger every day.

How did your family react to your decision?

It was a very difficult time for them. I was so happy but my parents were skeptical and concerned for me. They thought the whole thing very strange and were not happy, not supportive. I returned to Holland for six long and difficult weeks, gave most of my belongings away and came back to Plum Village with only a few things.

Were you ordained right away?

No. Thay ordains monks two to four times a year. I lived at Plum Village for six months before being ordained as a novice. As novices we take ten precepts. At full ordination (three years later)

monks take 250! The people you ordain with are like a family. There were eighteen of us all together—thirteen brothers and five sisters. As aspirants we were each assigned a Dharma teacher to mentor us—mine was the Vietnamese Dutch monk.

How has life changed now that you have ordained?

Being ordained is like a rebirth. Monastic life has been very good for me. I’m a bit shy—I need time to feel comfortable with people, to create a space for myself to feel free. I’m beginning to feel more and more at home, to build relationships, to live harmoniously with the Sangha.

My doubts are less and less, and my practice has become deeper, more stable.  My aspiration has always been strong, but at the beginning I was still ingrained with the ideals of happiness I grew up with: being successful, having a beautiful wife and children. For awhile I still had the habit of looking at women as potential partners but that has lessened. Now I feel a part of the Sangha—loved and supported by it like a family. I see more and more clearly that the life that was expected of me wouldn’t bring me the happiness that monastic life brings me.

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Tue Nghiem left Vietnam by boat with her family when she was nine years old. I first met her on a retreat with Thay in Rome where she helped run the children’s program. She is now thirtyfive years old and has been a nun for twelve years. My daughter was smitten with her playfulness, quiet wisdom, and lightness of spirit. We all were. Nghiem is the name carried by all nuns in Thich Nhat Hanh’s order. Her given name—Tue—means wisdom and understanding.

Were you raised a Buddhist in Vietnam?

Yes and no. My family was Buddhist but we didn’t practice the way we do here at Plum Village. We went to the temple on the full moon and every New Year. My older siblings were in a Buddhist youth group. I was the youngest of five kids. My father died when I was young but I grew up feeling very protected by my family. The values I grew up with were very much like the five mindfulness trainings given at Plum Village, but they were taught to us as life values rather than Buddhist ones. There was more faith than formal practice.

What do you remember about leaving Vietnam?

I lived in a big village about fifteen kilometers from Hue. There was a lot of fear and uncertainty—people’s freedom was restricted, their property taken, education had become an indoctrination in Communist thought. Many people left by boat—they left because they felt there was no future. My family wanted us to have one.

We went on my uncle’s boat. I didn’t know we were leaving. I was only told I had to go somewhere with my sister. The rest of the family split into groups and left the village in different directions. We met in a remote seaside village that night. When I saw the rest of the family I was afraid. They were acting so secretive. We had to hide under bushes and not say a word.  A man helped us onto the boat. By the way my oldest brother hugged him I knew we weren’t coming back.

There were about twenty of us on a small open boat, a third of us children. We were on it for a week. I wasn’t sad—it felt like an adventure, but I could sense my mother’s fear. We arrived in Hong Kong and lived in a refugee camp for a year. I loved that time—we were all crowded together having fun, playing.

Where did you go from Hong Kong?

My uncle asked a Protestant church to sponsor us to go to America. A couple from Oregon sponsored us—when I went back to Vietnam for the first time in 1999, they came with me. We went from Oregon to Stockton where we had family. My mom worked on a farm and took English classes in the evenings. I started school in the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. I was a good student so I was transferred to the regular English classes. I wasn’t happy because I didn’t understand English and my friends were still in ESL, but I felt I was in school for a good purpose and I studied hard and ended up enjoying myself.

Did you have any sort of religious practice at that time?

There was a network of Vietnamese temples in Northern California. In Stockton we went to the temple every weekend. It was not so much a place to practice as a place to connect to our roots. There were Buddhist youth groups at the temple where young Vietnamese kids would come to learn the language, history, and Buddhist teachings.

When I was fourteen I went on a one-week Buddhist youth retreat and met Thay. Watching my breath, walking slowly, the idea of being mindful was all very new to me. At the retreat I felt like I wanted to live in that way—though not necessarily as a monastic. For the next few years three friends and I would spend our summers living at the temple in Stockton. I realized that before I hadn’t really been suffering but I was a bit lost, had no path. Adolescence was difficult—my mom supported me with all her heart but she didn’t really know how to help me understand what was going on with my body, my mind, school. I was balancing two cultures and not completely accepted by either.

Why did you feel you weren’t accepted by the Vietnamese community?

The problem wasn’t with my friends—they were mostly Vietnamese from the Buddhist youth group and temple. The conflict was between the Vietnamese who arrived in the states as adults and those who arrived as kids. We were the first generation of boat people to go to college. They were traditional, had a restrictive view of women, and thought many of us were too Americanized. I was young, playful, loud, and outspoken—and I was going to the University of California at Davis to study psychology and education. I was criticized because I was going to college. They felt I thought I was better than they were because of my education.

I stopped going to the temple because I no longer felt supported there. I decided I wanted to work with problem kids from Southeast Asia. I took an internship where I counseled kids who were having difficulties. Sometimes I’d go to their houses to meet with the parents. There was a tremendous culture, language, and generation gap between the parents and their children.

What brought you back to practice?

In my second year of college my brother became a monk (instead of going back to college to get his masters as he had planned). He didn’t tell us until he had already taken his vows. My mom and sister were so upset. They’d dreamed a dream for him which he wasn’t going to live.

When I graduated from college my brother sent me money to come to Plum Village for a month-long retreat. For the first time I felt so at home. I’d never felt like that before. My brother wanted me to come back with my mom for a three-month retreat in the fall. We did. Thay was teaching Buddhist psychology. I learned so much—so much more than I’d learned during my years at college. At college it felt like what I’d studied had nothing to do with me. These teachings felt so deep. So related to me. I was finally learning how to take care of my own emotions and I felt I could be so much more helpful counseling kids if I had a better understanding of myself. I liked the practice so I decided to stay at Plum Village—as a layperson—for the year before starting graduate school.

What did you like about the practice?

The sutra that really struck me was the Establishment of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness—body, feelings, perceptions, and objects of mind—the Satipatthana Sutra. I thought, “It can’t be this easy. It can’t be the Buddha who said this. It must have been Thay.” Of course it wasn’t, but because Buddhist psychology was so much more complicated, I couldn’t imagine that these simple, straightforward teachings also came from the Buddha.

When did you decide to become a monastic?

Toward the end of the year, before the summer retreat, I knew I had to make a decision to return to my studies or become a nun. It was a huge decision. I was so nourished by the practice and the place but I was also judgmental, resistant, stubborn, and wounded by the trouble I had with my temple in California. The nuns—there were only five of them at that time—were very supportive. So was my brother. During that year at Plum Village we would bike, take hikes, and talk. He helped me overcome my resentment.

I made the decision to become a nun only after I left Plum Village. I chose this path so that I could be myself, accept myself as I was and grow from there, never being discouraged simply because I was a woman. When I returned to the States I was struck by the amount of consumption I saw, the carelessness towards the earth.

That October Thay taught a retreat at a Vietnamese monastery in California. My brother was with him.  One afternoon I was having tea with Thay and I just blurted out, “Thay, I want to become a nun.” He didn’t say anything! After awhile he said, “Look at the sunset.” When my brother and another monk came in Thay sent us off to have dinner. I didn’t know if his answer was yes or no. I almost wished it was no. It was very scary—I felt like I was swimming against the stream. I returned to Plum Village in November—not knowing if it was to become a nun or stay as a layperson.

Three friends picked me up at the train station. They gave me a hug and I knew Thay’s answer. We all ordained together. We are so much closer now as monastics than we ever were as lay friends. I feel tremendously supported by them.

Was the transition from layperson to monastic difficult?

In a way. I had extremes of emotions, a strong, outspoken personality, and a lot of resistance to the idea of conforming. I’d do little acts of defiance—wear bright socks, mix the colors of my robe and pants, knit myself a colored hat. I was afraid of losing my identity, of not being unique anymore. I liked the practice though—sitting, walking, working wholeheartedly—and everyone was supportive.

And now?

I’ve realized I can never be like anyone else. The idea of conformity was an illusion. It doesn’t matter anymore how I look on the outside. Who I am is so much more than how I wear my clothes or what people think of me. I’m happy. My happiness used to be so dependent on exterior conditions. I couldn’t find it in myself. Now I feel a kind of inner path—my own—not even created by Thay. Seeing that path brings me a happiness not so dependent on exterior things. There is a continual sense of understanding and self discovery. Even now. Always.

I don’t know where I got the courage to become a nun. I’ll never regret the decision. It’s funny. I never wanted to have my own family and kids—my dream was to have a small house with lots of trees, take care of my mom (who is a lay resident at Deer Park in California) and have lots of friends over on weekends. In a way, that’s what I have here at Plum Village.

You’ve become a Dharma teacher by the Lamp Transmission. What does that mean?

The Lamp Transmission—given five years after full ordination—is one of the deepest ceremonies. All the elders are there and Thay officiates, but he is really holding the ancestral energy and passing it down. At the ceremony we give a short Dharma talk and are encouraged to fulfill the role of teacher, to be a lamp, a light to all beings.

Do you like teaching?

I’m nervous if I speak from my intellect, but if I speak from what Thay calls the store consciousness—from deep knowing— then teaching and sharing become easy. You feel lighter when you speak. Your ego is not involved. I think that is how Thay speaks.

mb40-Monks5Lori Zimring De Mori, Integrated Awakening of the Heart, lives with her husband and three children in Tuscany. She is a food and travel writer.

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To Be Ready

Though many of us accompanied Thay and the monastic Sangha to Vietnam, it was not possible to understand all that was happening, right before our eyes. In this section, we get to hear Thay’s own words, fresh from returning, on what were the most notable events during the trip, and the possible future impact on the Vietnamese government as well as the monastics and lay practitioners there. In Thay’s articulate and practical style, Thay offers the government a six-point plan to begin to transform their limited way of perceiving Buddhist practice, and to use the strengths of the past to solve current problems.

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We also witness more threads continuing to be woven between our spiritual home and our Western roots. Poems, stories, and reports of humanitarian projects all bring us closer to claiming our heritage, not as an Asian or as a Westerner, but as a Buddha-to-be.

Shortly before returning to France from Vietnam, Brother Phap Huu said, “I’m ready to return” [to Plum Village]. I have thought about the words “to be ready.” Am I truly ready? If I am truly ready then I should feel at ease to either stay in Vietnam or return home. If I do not feel at ease, then I am not ready. The three months in Vietnam were very long and very deep. We need a long time to digest what we experienced, so it can nourish our bones and muscles and become part of us. We need at least six months to digest the experiences of this trip.

Before going, I felt I was ready to return to Vietnam. I knew there would be a lot of unexpected situations and difficulties, but I was ready to face them. I had already prepared the fifth mantra. An American lay practitioner devised a fifth mantra, for times when his wife has an idea and if he doesn’t agree with her, there will be discord in the family. So he created this fifth mantra: “Yes Madam. Yes Ma’am.”

We thought we would encounter a lot of obstacles in Vietnam because there are many people in power who are in conflict with each other. Going to Vietnam was like rowing a boat on the ocean, trying to steer skillfully to avoid the waves and sea monsters. We didn’t want to be upset or angry because of the obstacles, so we had to learn how to accept what occurred. When you encounter something that is difficult to accept you say, “Yes Ma’am,” and it becomes easier.

I also had faith that the ancestors, the spiritual patriarchs, had arranged everything, and they would show me the way. I went with a pure heart, a heart that has no plans, no intentions, no desire for gain or authority. If your heart is pure the patriarchs will guide you to do the things that need to be done, and to not do the things that don’t need to be done. I hope you will also have this faith because it helps you when you encounter difficulties. No matter how big the difficulty, you just entrust your whole being to the patriarchs. When you have a pure, clear heart without hidden motivations or a secret agenda, then everything will happen beautifully. This is what happened on the trip.

Accepting the Unexpected

Sometimes we think it best if everything goes according to our plan. But in truth, it is not so. For example, when we were in Hanoi, we asked the government’s permission to use large venues that hold up to six thousand people. We thought that speaking to as many people as possible would be the most effective way to share the practice. But the government would not allow this. At first, they only wanted us to speak within temple grounds. But because of protests, petitions, and requests, they allowed us to speak in a venue that held from three to five hundred people: a tiny amount. However, this turned out to be crucial, because the people who attended the talk were influential in the society: scientists, scholars, and people from important sectors of the government. Having three hundred people of this status and influence was more effective than having a crowd of thirty thousand. If we had tried, we could not have arranged to have such an audience.

For many, it was their first time receiving such helpful and wholesome teachings. After one talk, a popular Vietnamese scholar said that he thought Buddhism was a type of asceticism, that the practice was to just suffer, suppressing your body and mind. But his mind was changed when Thay talked about ways to bring happiness into your life.

What we taught responded directly to the deepest needs of the people. Their eyes and hearts opened. For the first time in history, the Dharma talk in Hanoi ripped through the curtain of delusion and spoke to the leaders of the country, and showed them a new direction. The talk changed their lives and the direction of their future. Perhaps if we had spoken to thirty thousand people, the benefit would not be as great.

During the trip, there were a lot of seeds sown into fertile earth for the first time. Once the seed is sown, it will grow into a beautiful, healthy tree. The Buddhists who listened to the talks were very happy because they need a Buddhism that will help them resolve their daily difficulties. In China and Vietnam now, the practice of Buddhism is mostly prayer and offering incense, the devotional aspect. Only a few people know of the most important aspect of Buddhism, the tradition of wisdom and insight. Venerable monks and nuns who had been practicing for sixty and seventy years, touched the joy and happiness of the Dharma for the first time and experienced real insight. We should praise them for their efforts to try to keep Buddhism alive for the next generations, but they were drying up. Also, the teachings to the young people have not been satisfying; but hearing our new teaching, they became joyful and enthusiastic.

Difficulties Created by the Government

There is a faction of people in the government that is oppressive, scared, and discriminatory, and they can create a lot of anger and division. They didn’t want Thay to return home; they accepted it only through pressure to improve their human rights record. They were determined to restrict Thay to only speaking to the old people. Many police belonged to this group.

For example, when Thay spoke at Thien Mu temple,1 one of the most beautiful temples in Vietnam, nine thousand people attended, sitting in the rain. But the police and government officials had told schoolteachers they must take their students camping that day, as a ploy to keep the students away from the event. This type of manipulation occurred from south to north, arranged by the opposing group within the government. If there was a greater attendance than expected at an event, they tried to curtail the event. In the past, the government oppressed the monastics and lay practitioners, not allowing them to have meetings. A government task force on “religious security” created a lot of wounds and division within the Buddhist community.

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But there were also people who wanted Thay to return, who saw that his presence would be beneficial for the country. They hoped those opposing would see that Thay was not a threat but a help to Vietnam, that our presence would reduce their fear and discrimination. I knew that if I came home with a pure and virtuous heart, we could touch the people directly and give them faith. But I knew it would be difficult. There were also people in the government who supported Thay very much, but they could not speak out without risk to their careers.

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The same happened in Hue, in Binh Dinh, and in Saigon. All together, there were eight talks for government workers and politicians, people we had never been allowed to be in touch with. Their openness was so beautiful. At the end I met President Tran Duc Luong and I suggested six points for the Communist regime to study and practice. I suggested that a Vietnamese Communist is someone firmly rooted in Vietnamese culture, and Buddhism plays an important role in the culture. It has shaped the people and played a decisive role in the governments of the former dynasties when Vietnam was becoming a united people. Buddhism has been in Vietnam for 2,000 years; it is not only a religion, it is an essence that has gone into the blood of the people. Vietnamese Catholics and Communists still have Buddhism within them.

Lighting incense on an ancestral altar in your home is part of Vietnamese culture, not superstition. It is a tradition of insight to acknowledge that you have roots in your ancestors. Buddhism is not something outside of you but inside, and everyone should have a spiritual dimension. Buddhism should not be put under surveillance; we have to let people have freedom.

Many spiritual cultures have entered Vietnam, including Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. They have combined to become the ethnic and ethical heritage of Vietnam. The government officials who are Buddhist know they need to renew Buddhism and offer Buddhist insight to respond to the needs of the people. The leaders of the country need to step forward and respond to the immediate needs of the people without being dogmatic. If both sides are able to do that, then the Communists and Buddhists can hold hands and go forth in the same direction, working together so that Vietnam will have a future.

If you speak out opposing Communism, there will be no communication, only more struggle and war. We were able to discuss difficulties with the government because we didn’t condemn or judge them; instead, we opened a door to communication and development.

So the people in Vietnam also have a lot to digest and contemplate. It could take the lay practitioners and the monastics five years or more to understand and practice the new teachings. Consider how much longer it will take the government.

Walking in Freedom

After thirty-nine years of exile from my homeland, my only true desire was to walk with real steps of freedom. But if I were not ready, then my steps would not be free. Over the years, as I walked throughout the world, I trained myself to walk peacefully. Taking steps in Vietnam is the same as taking steps here in France; and here, I am still walking in Vietnam. It all depends on whether or not I am ready. A free step in Vietnam is a free step in Europe or America. So my homeland comes home with every step. There are no separate places; with one step you touch home in all places.

In Vietnam, people said, “Thay, you’ve just returned after forty years and you’ve been here for only three months. Why don’t you stay here with us?” They still discriminate. If I had not been in Europe for forty years, then what value would the three months have? Through distance and time we could see more about the country and the people, so that when we returned, we were actually much closer than before.

1 Thien Mu Pagoda is also known for having staged pro-democracy demonstrations in the recent past. Their abbot has been in jail, though is now released. And the site holds the car-relic of Thich Quang Duc, the monk who drove the car to Saigon and immolated himself in protest during the war years under the Diem regime.

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The Six Points Suggested by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh

on the Openness of the Vietnamese Communist Party

  1. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease with the cultural traditions of Vietnam and is determined to live in such a way as to make it more beautiful day by day.
  2. The Vietnamese Communist is aware that trees have roots, water has its sources and that ancestors are one’s origin, from which one has received many insights, experiences, and good and beautiful ways of
  3. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease while wearing the national dress and while offering incense at the shrine of King Hung, at their home’s ancestral altar, and at memorials to deceased The shrine of King Hung, the ancestral altars, and the memorials to deceased soldiers are symbols of gratitude towards and respect and love for one’s origin. They are not the objects of a deity faith. (The Ho Chi Minh Memorial is also a symbol of origin and gratitude.)
  4. The Vietnamese Communist understands that religious beliefs are not the essence of The essence of Buddhism is the source of insight that transcends perceptions of being/non-being, mind/body; that has the capacity to embrace, to cultivate brotherhood (love and compassion), and to transform hatred and discrimination. The essence of Buddhism is a wealth of concrete practices which help one to untie internal knots, to reestablish communication, and to bring about reconciliation in oneself, in one’s family and in society. This source of insight and these practices, if applied properly, have the capacity to rebuild peaceful and happy families, villages, and cities free from social ills such as crime, violence, drugs, gangs, and debauchery. This tradition of love and understanding has helped build a gentle and peaceful way of life, helped create many centuries of peace and prosperity, and has become the character of the national culture. This character is in the blood of every Vietnamese, including those who do not consider themselves Buddhist.
  5. Even when seeing those who consider themselves Buddhist but who only know to worship and to pray for favor, the Vietnamese Communist still feels at ease, and does not discriminate against He or she is aware of being more fortunate, of having had the chance to study and to utilize the insight of Buddhism in order to develop a profound internal life, to have more strength to overcome difficulties, to create sympathy and happiness in his or her family, and to organize and to succeed swiftly in his or her career.
  6. The Vietnamese Communist feels at ease living together with all traditions (including those introduced into Vietnam long ago or just recently) that incline to become nationalized traditions and thus a part of the people’s The brotherhood among these nationalized traditions is a fact that does not need to bear the title of religion, race, doctrine, or ideology.

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Poem: Thien Mu

By Larry Ward

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Around the bend of the Perfume River
Our Dragon Boat took time
Above steep ancient stone steps
Stood a golden pagoda constructed by an Emperor,
Silently resting on the earth
Seven levels reaching for the sky

Surprised with its simplicity, grace, and beauty
The grounds, the temple, the sound of the big bell still
echoes in my heart
Touching the earth three times
In touch with my breath
In touch with my heart
In touch with my devotion

The old blue Austin that Thich Quang Duc rode
That day in Saigon 1963
A vehicle for offering his life
Engulfed in flames perfect peace, lotus in a sea of fire
Compassion speaks

The Bonsai trees laugh at my notions of age
Surrounded by the living graves of ancestors
The Temple and pine trees,
Thousands had gathered here for a day with Thay
A striking view of Hue
A red tea house peaks at me through the jackfruit trees
A gentle smiling monk

I make this pilgrimage three times
Who knew?
I would be So moved
By quiet love

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Poem: A Walk with Thay

By Larry Ward

Walking meditation through the thick green jungle
Sights and sounds of war revealed
Fear, confusion, sorrow, and anger
What are we doing here?
Dying

Deformed bodies, still rising from the womb
Of mother earth
Scorched by the ideas of war
Easy to forget, so far away
We continue to create suffering

Babies’ cries fall on the deaf ears of companies and courts
Agent Orange harmed even our own
Too busy to remember
Hidden from view
Our depression comes from reality

Eyes of hope and forgiveness
Look at me through child ancestors of war
Orphanage visit shocks my heart
Into life
What am I doing now?

The jungle opens to a great space
A crowd of a thousand comes into view
Bowing with joined palms
Silence is thick
Smiles and tears

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

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School of the Beloved

By Janelle Combelic

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On this rainy day, Sister Chan Khong has led the lay delegation into the shiny, sodden, impossibly green countryside around Hue. She is exposing us to the social service work of the Order of Interbeing sponsored by Plum Village—a life-giving well dug for a farmer, a vibrant preschool, a small temple and school built among the rice paddies. We end the day at an extraordinary place run by an extraordinary woman, Sister Minh Tanh’s school for disabled children.

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The Beloved School is unique in Vietnam, a place where children with moderate to severe handicaps, both mental and physical, receive education, food, and love. Some of them, who in the West would have been treated long ago, get medical care and surgery.

The school was founded in 2001 by Sr. Minh Tanh, Dr. Ha Vinh Tho and his wife Lisi of the Eurasia Association and Dr. Alan Sandler. It receives considerable support from the Dutch Sangha, among other sources of funding. On our visit we were fortunate to have with us Rochelle Griffin and Jantien Lodder, from Heerewaarden, Holland, both passionate sponsors of the school.

“In Vietnam there is no money for any kind of special care for medical procedures or for education for disabled people,” says Rochelle. “They feel left out of society, shame for their handicap, guilt for their bad luck and the extra trouble that it creates for their family; and because of their poverty, they experience a great deal of helplessness and hopelessness.” The school gives them a place to go during the day, transporting them by cyclo (bicycle taxi) if necessary. That way both parents can go to work.

As an American, I was shocked to learn that many of the children’s handicaps are due to Agent Orange, the defoliant dropped by the tons on this region of Vietnam during the war more than thirty years ago. Sadly, some 500,000 children have been born with birth defects attributed to the dioxin that contaminated the soil and water. For them, the war is not over.

Sister Minh Tanh, director of the school, radiates kindness and efficiency. She has devoted her life to improving the quality of life for handicapped children and poor families. (There are over 150 disabled children in the village.) Abbess of Long Tho Temple

in Thuy Bieu Village, she is also treasurer of Tu Hieu, our root temple in Hue, and coordinates all the funds collected through Plum Village and other organizations.

The school is financed entirely by donations. In addition to medical care for the children, this includes paying the teachers’ salaries and health insurance, purchasing food and supplies, and providing additional assistance to the poorest families.

Since 2001, when Rochelle and Jantien first traveled to Vietnam, they have been energetic fundraisers for the school. Rochelle, an American who has lived in Holland for many years, was disabled in a car accident in 1980 and suffers from chronic pain. She often used a wheelchair during the trip, powered by the tireless Jantien. Rochelle directs the Vuurvlinder Foundation, a center for people confronted with serious illness and other kinds of loss and change who are looking for inspiration and quality of life.

The Beloved School is close to Rochelle’s heart. “Becoming involved in this project,” she says, “is helping me to heal many wounds, some stemming from the American-Vietnam war that I was so angry about in the 1960s. It’s also been a means of honoring my mother who was a pioneer in the field of special education; she integrated disabled children in a vocational program into the public school system in the 1980s. And it allows me to help other disabled people.”

During our visit a dozen children sang a song for us. Some of them were shy and withdrawn, some bursting with enthusiasm. All of them touched our hearts.

Janelle Combelic, Sweet Wisdom of the Heart, lives in Loubes-Bernac, France, and practices at Plum Village. She is a contributing editor to the Mindfulness Bell.

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Airplane Dharma: No Birth , No Death

By Christian Bergmann

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We flew one night with the Sangha from Hue to Hanoi. Half the airplane was filled with monastics and lay Sangha. Over an hour into the flight we were told that bad weather conditions were preventing us from landing in Hanoi. Now we were heading for Haiphong, a town by the sea two hours’ drive from Hanoi, and would take a bus from there back to Hanoi. As we approached Haiphong, we could see that the weather there was not much better. It was so foggy we could barely see our own wings, much less any city lights below.

As we got close to the ground the pilot switched off all the cabin lights. We sat in the blackness, flying slower and slower, expecting to touch down any minute but with no idea how close to the ground we actually were. Time seemed to stretch forever sitting in the dark plane.

Suddenly the airplane was thundering, the engines going full blast, as the pilot pulled the plane sharply up. It was very loud in the cabin. I wondered if this would be my last minute in this life. I expected we might hit a building or the trees at any second.

My wife, Angela, and I held hands, saying that we loved each another, just in case these were to be our last words. I trembled.

My legs were shaking, my heart was beating fast and hard, my breath was choppy. Fear of death captured my mind.

It was a powerful teaching. Being a hospice nurse, I had fooled myself into believing I had accepted the impermanence of life. But when that reality got personal and real, I saw that I have a long way to go in my understanding! I was not willing to let go of this life.

So we sang some spiritual songs as I tried to focus on my breath. What brought me the most calm was chanting Avalokiteshvara’s name and visualizing the Buddha’s and Thay’s smiling faces.

This experience was a great mirror in which I saw that my practice has yielded only partial success. And it was a great inspiration to practice wholeheartedly, and to live each day as if it may be the last. As we gained altitude, we flew back to Hue. After refueling, we reboarded the plane for another try.

Christian Bergmann, Joyful Gratitude of the Heart, lives in Berlin, Germany and practices with the Source of Compassion Sangha.

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Healing Old Wounds

By Paul Davis

In Vietnam this year, as I walked mindfully on the earth that had experienced such destruction and suffering during the American war, my mind returned to the Vietnam of 1965. At that time, I was often part of a team searching for land mines. In many ways, that was also mindful walking, but the seeds being watered were fear and anxiety and the psychological ground was ignorance. Now, walking with the support of Thay and a loving and compassionate Sangha, I was able to breathe in the suffering of war and breathe out peace and compassion to all those killed or wounded and for those who killed or wounded others. The psychological ground had been transformed from ignorance to awareness and the seeds from fear to compassion.

Paul Davis, Authentic Connection of the Heart, sits with the Eastside Sangha in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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Poem: Alms Round Tu Hieu Temple, Hue, Vietnam

By Beth Sanchez

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Again the loaves and fishes multiply
on this morning with no time for
breakfast
the road to Tu Hieu thickly lined with
common folk
draped in robes like so many gray
doves

We file down the road, we
foreigners
we brothers and sisters, members
of one body
slow steps
deep breaths
soft smiles
we are here to show the homeland
that their practice is worth it

We ease past kitchen tables, pulled
onto the street
and loaded up with presents
here are bags of cooked rice and
mushrooms
cheery tangerines
leaf swathed sweets
Chinese candies throughout

The old women flash black teeth
their eyes pale with age
and memories of war
the babies in silk suits
and hands of all sizes folded at the
heart
pair after pair after pair
the givers queue as far as the eye
can see
they offer the lotus bow
and sneak in a dumpling
this one gives a peanut candy, that
one a bean cake
another slides round to slip a box
of juice
into a sister’s bag

All at once their eyes grow bright
something in the air sings out
I turn to look at the river of monks
serenely flowing
our teacher flanked by attendants
trying to contain
the rush of givers
the reverse pickpockets of his own
beloved town

He steps
One
Small
Brown
Clog
and then the next
a new heart cracked  open
step by monumental step
starting with my own

Suddenly everyone is giving
everything to everyone
I give a yogurt
I get a cake!
I offer a box of milk
And a whole meal appears
The fruits are flowing everywhere
The mind of love is here

The smiling nuns are weighted
with the fullness of this love
a monk uses his upturned hat as a
receiving vessel
he can barely carry the cornucopia
he smiles
he breathes
he walks
through the land of milk and honey
wondering
knowing always
that the giver, the receiver,
and the received are one.

Beth A. Sanchez, Seeds of  Awakening Sangha, Louisville, Colorado.

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The Maidens and the Crone

By Janey Gieber

We traveled with Sister Chan Khong and the monastic brothers and sisters in Quang Tri province to visit schools and projects supported by the Order of Interbeing.

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Turning off the main highway, the driver took us down a small country road as the sun was just beginning to rise. He pulled over and parked. “Where are we going?” I wondered. “There is only jungle here.” We filed off the bus and began to stride mindfully down a narrow, muddy trail, dutifully following Sister Chan Khong. It was raining torrentially. The blue plastic raincoat I’d bought in Hue at an outdoor market was keeping the wet off my clothes but not out of my shoes. I looked down at my trudging feet, ensconced in mud. At that moment I understood the meaning of, “Present moment, wonderful moment.” I felt completely alive in every cell of my body, and understood more fully the unifying energy of going as a Sangha.

Gongs and drums began to sing loudly, and we were drawn into a clearing where a beautiful temple and schoolhouse stood. Villagers greeted us with huge smiles. We entered the little schoolhouse and the children sang “Breathing In, Breathing Out” with angelic voices, their hands making the accompanying gestures. As Sister Chan Khong explained that we were in the village of Thay’s mother, tears came to my eyes as I remembered my own mother, who had died only a few months before.

I remembered the jewelry made by a Sangha sister, Carrie, from our Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington. “Maybe I should get it out now to give to the children,” I thought. I noticed a dozen young ladies standing beside me. I tapped one girl on the shoulder and motioned for her to step toward me. I handed her a bauble of green and pink beads with a dragonfly pendant. She giggled and gasped as I attached the pin to her blouse.

After I had handed out the last one, I noticed a flurry of energy at the back of the crowd. An old woman pushed to the front to join the circle of maidens. Dark eyes boring into me, she unfolded her hands toward me, placing them inches from my chest. This four-foot ten-inch, hundred-pound crone commanded my attention!

Deep-set, wizened eyes with a glint of wildness were set in a tiny wrinkled face. Her hair, surprisingly brown with just a touch of gray at the temples, was tied in a peasant scarf. She smiled at me, her mouth filled with blackened teeth, some missing. “I don’t have any more. I gave the last one away,” I said regretfully, knowing she couldn’t understand English. Once more she poked a girl’s jeweled chest with her finger, then my chest, and finally her own. I panicked. Then I caught a glimpse of the mala bracelet of amber-colored beads on my right wrist, the one I’d received during the ceremony in which I’d expressed my aspirations to join the Order of Interbeing. Receiving the mala had touched me so deeply that I hadn’t taken it off since. Taking her hand in mine, I rolled the mala from my wrist and gently placed it on hers.

She lifted her hand, looking at the mala, looking at me, looking at the maidens. Then she stretched out her arm, bent her wrist and displayed her bracelet to the maidens and villagers watching. Spiraling playfully in a circle like a princess revealing royal jewels to her audience, she embodied both the maiden and the crone.

As we prepared to leave, the crone followed me to the bus, standing at the door to hug me and kiss my hand. I looked into her eyes and saw her love and gratitude. I kissed her hand in return, grateful that she had helped me transform a piece of my grief from my mother’s passing and led me to a deeper understanding of the nature of interbeing.

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Janey Gieber, Inclusive Intention of the Heart, practices with the Braided Way Sangha in Battle Ground, Washington.

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Poem: Ancestors

By David Percival

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Walking through clouds descended like a lush wet blanket
Impermanence hangs heavy in the saturated air.
Trails and lanes climb over hills through the neighborhoods of Hue
Past homes, gardens, lush undergrowth, bamboo, tall pine trees,
Neighborhoods where graves and tombs sit serenely on the hills,
next to homes, in rice paddies,
Some cared for, some abandoned or forgotten.
Our ancestors are everywhere.
At Tu Hieu we walked and sat amidst the tombs,
Contemplated hundreds of graves
And achieved a oneness with these spiritual ancestors I had never dreamed of.
Interbeing settles on me like the mist falling on my clothes
And penetrates into my very bones.
Now I know I will bring this penetration with me
To my land of disposable people, broken families, life extending pills and potions, plastic surgery.
A place where I didn’t think too much about my ancestors
Yet in Hue they are in my mind daily.
So in the hot dry desert air where I live
I can see clearly our responsibility to those who have departed
And I celebrate our global community of ancestors
And the peace and compassion of interbeing.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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Walking Meditation Song

by Laurie Rabut

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Every step I have arrived, touching joy to be alive.
Touching peace with every step, touching truth, no birth, no death
And our smiles as the water fresh and clear.
It’s good to walk with you, my dear.

As we walk upon the land, Mother Earth holds out her hand
As we walk in peace, with grace, seeds of joy on every face
And our smiles as the flowers fresh with dew.
It’s good dear friends to walk with you.

This song came to me while traveling with Thay’s delegation in Vietnam. It is dedicated to Thay, the delegation of monastics and lay Sangha members and to all the beautiful Vietnamese people with whom we practiced walking meditation. During the trip I received many gifts and I was deeply moved. This song is my gift in return. It brings me great joy to share it with the Sangha.

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