Hugging with True Love

Thay’s Presence in a  Mother-Daughter Relationship

By Bobbie Bosworth

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As many of us know, things can get pretty tense between teens and parents. That was the case with me (the mom) and our daughter when she was a teen. For various reasons, she became very unhappy and directed her unhappiness at those she loved the most. Our relationship became strained, and for a few years, I felt deep confusion about how to help her. It became hard to show love when I was getting messages like “stay away” or “leave me alone” from her. She also needed her parents so much at that time. How to build bridges and yet honor her wish for independence and separation? How to let her find her own way and yet support her when she was so depressed by the huge problems of this world?

One of our answers came from Thay in a very simple practice: hugging meditation. In hugging meditation, when my daughter and I were able to hold each other and breathe, as Thay recommended, there seemed to be an immediate lessening of tension and a recognition of our shared love. When we could drop out of conflict and allow ourselves to just hold each other, it always seemed to help. At times, she didn’t want to do it and neither did I. But if we just held each other, sometimes for a few moments, sometimes for quite a long time, something started to happen. We would relax and feel the warmth of each other. We would remember our basic deep love. We would sometimes cry. We often got to a deeper place with each other, to “big mind” or that to which we all belong. We would get beyond our little lives for a moment.

Happily, my daughter is now in her mid-twenties and is a wonderful mother. Our relationship has gotten much easier. We share so much now that she is raising a child. My daughter and I agree that most humans are starving for true love and connection. We both cannot get enough hugs from her son. We’ve also found that this practice, hugging meditation, is deeper than most people realize.

For me, hugging does not come easily, but I often think back on my daughter’s hard teen years and remember the simple connection we made through hugging with real love. I hug more now, as an expression of true feeling. To hug with intention, to hold another human (or animal) with love and best wishes, is a way to realize our true interbeing. It can be profound, and it certainly helped my daughter and me through a difficult time. We cannot thank Thay enough for his teachings, his writings, and his love for his Sangha and the world.

Editors’ note: To practice hugging meditation, you ask the other person if she would like a hug. If she agrees, following your breathing, take her in your arms and continue to be aware of your breathing as you hold her. You are 100% there for her and contemplate how wonderful it is that she is warm and alive. A hug should last for at least three long inand out-breaths.

Bobbie Bosworth, True Capacity of the Earth, and her husband live in a remote town in southern Utah. The natural environment is their Sangha. Bobbie was the first Buddhist chaplain in Salt Lake City.

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Breaking up as a Mindfulness Practice

By Octavia Baker

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For months, I was clinging to my relationship with my partner, thinking we could somehow stay together without my becoming a parent, although he wanted to have children. I thought my partner could adopt my best friend’s children. He could become a mentor, a big brother. He could co-parent with a yet-to-be identified lesbian couple. I was obsessed with finding a solution. On the cushion, yet another idea would pop into my head. I scoured the library, read Rebecca Walker’s book on alternative families, One Big Happy Family, and searched online for examples of co-parenting that could apply to a straight couple.

Finally, I decided to consider the possibility of motherhood and joined a twelve-week support group with six other women trying to make the same decision. We explored the sources of fear, craving, and delusion within ourselves. At the end, it only confirmed what I already deeply knew to be true—I do not want to be a mother. Mentoring two young women for seven years has satisfied my need to nurture. And although we live in the San Francisco Bay Area, the capital of non-traditional relationships, Arthur really just wants an old-fashioned nuclear family.

Growing up taking care of his dad, who suffered from a mental illness, Arthur has always yearned to experience the traditional roles of a father/child relationship. Although we discussed our differences when we first met, he was not ready to become a father then, so we decided to go ahead and explore a relationship with one another. And being with the most charming and attentive man I’ve ever met (and someone that my friends really admired), it was easy to continue year after year, with the parenting question hanging in the air.

Our relationship is hard for some people to understand, so we are often asked if we are wasting our time staying together. On the contrary, I think we have learned to savor our time together because we know it will not last. For the most part, we cultivate the four elements of true love—loving kindness, compassion, joy, and inclusiveness—and try not to take each other for granted. I have taught him to speak more truthfully in difficult situations and he has inspired me with his compassionate listening. At the same time, we have been able to avoid the landmines that might have broken up other relationships, like arguing over finances or an overbearing mother, because they didn’t really matter in the present moment. If we were not going to get married, we did not have to go to financial counseling, and I did not have to learn to live with his mom.

A Tender Crossroads

Our whole relationship has been based on not knowing, a six-year practice in being present and not planning for the future. We’ve attended ten weddings together, all the while trying not to imagine our own. But at age thirty-four, Arthur decided that he wanted to find a partner who also wanted to be a parent. At first, in some ways, the decision to break up was a relief. I could rest my busy mind and try to fully experience the teaching of nonattachment, to let go of someone I truly loved. But soon I started getting anxious. Should we break up before our seventh anniversary? Were we going to break up, then get back together again? Would I ever find someone else who would treat me nearly as well as he did? Could we still be friends? There was also my ego to contend with, the hope that he would change his mind and choose me over fatherhood. But his decision remained firm, so we agreed to see a therapist to figure things out and to craft a break-up plan.

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We scheduled an appointment with Ann Davidman, the therapist who ran the support group I attended to help people decide whether to become a parent. Arthur and I had both been dreading the end of our relationship, not knowing how or when to break up. With Ann, we talked about planning a goodbye period, weeks or months when we will say goodbye to each other and tell each other everything we’re going to miss. This will be the time to fall apart, to hold each other’s pain. Pema Chodron describes this “inbetween state” as a crossroads marked by anxiety, heartbreak, and tenderness. “This open-ended tender place is called bodhicitta. Staying with it is what heals.”

Talking to Ann gave us some hope about remaining in each other’s lives. If we give ourselves enough time to say goodbye, we hope to transition to a friendship that a future partner may be comfortable with. Of course, our intention is to remain friends, but there are no guarantees. So on our seventh anniversary, January 2, 2011, we plan to celebrate the day we met, and begin our journey toward a new friendship. At thirty-two, the age when a lot of my friends are getting married and having kids, it is hard to be starting over again. I have to trust that the voice deep inside me is right, as I step into the world—single again, but not alone.

I hold you close to me
I release you to be so free
Because I am in you and
you are in me
Because I am in you and
you are in me.
–Thich Nhat Hanh

mb56-Breaking4Octavia Baker is passionate about building community among people of color, creating healthy environments for youth, and eating well. She practices with The Hella Just and Compassionate Sangha in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Mindfulness in Marriage

By Lynda Bidlake and Lewis BrightHeart Headrick

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mb56-Mindfulness2I join my husband for a late lunch in a local restaurant. The waitress comes back again and again to refill our water glasses, even though we’ve only sipped. At our booth by the window, we are softly reading to each other. Transparently, the waitress is straining to see what title engrosses us. I recognize that hunger. Once I spied an elderly couple gazing at each other in open, unbounded joy and love. I knew I was eavesdropping on a private exchange, but I would have given anything to have someone with whom to share such a look. Now I’ve accomplished that vision, and this young woman sees the same caring exchange pass between my husband and me.

Seeing her clear interest, we start talking with the waitress; she forgets all about the water. We tell her that a good relationship requires both time and attention. “We’ve been married for five years, but we meet for lunch when our lives get busy.” She talks breathlessly and fast. She has almost given up hope for her relationship with her boyfriend of five years; it’s gotten tired and stale. He won’t even talk, much less read to her. She avidly asks, “What are you reading? What else do you do?”

 

Our Shared Practice

We tell her about our practice. Most mornings we get up at 5:30 a.m. She winces, but we jocularly point out that it’s important to find a time when nothing will distract us. Our spiritual life, interwoven with our relationship, comes first. Each morning we take our coffee into our small meditation room. Our altar has cards on it with the names of loved ones in need. An image of Avalokiteshvara hangs on the wall above it. We light a stick of incense and stand it in a small misshapen glass, made by my husband years ago. We light the candle in its salt cylinder, a wedding gift. We ring a bell. These rituals help remind us to be present. We sit, facing the window to the east, and quietly watch the first flickers of dawn.

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After twenty minutes, one of us rings the bell again, and we move to sit on our living room couch, between two of Thay’s calligraphies: “I have arrived, I am home,” and “I know you are there, and I am very happy.” There we read to each other. We pull a book off the shelf, letting it fall open where it will; it’s uncanny how often this provides exactly what we need.

The waitress pulls out her order pad and jots down the names of our favorite books, making a heroic attempt to spell Thich Nhat Hanh. We tell her we started with Teachings on Love, which we read at a pace of three or four pages a day. True Love has also been invaluable, providing precisely scripted words to say to each other, no matter the situation. In difficulty, just finding the passage and saying it aloud reassures us that we both intend to work on whatever has tripped us up this time. On easier days, it helps us express our love and appreciation.

Relationship-Building

We recall how we resisted Thay’s instruction to “make an appointment”: when one of you feels hurt by the other’s words or actions, you acknowledge the injury, then give yourselves time to look deeply at it. You make an appointment, say for the next Friday evening, to talk about it. At first we did not see how this idea could work. We were accustomed to talking about difficulties right away, and we feared that the tension would remain high if we waited for an appointment. But we tried it—and we found it very effective. In this way we have avoided making impulsive and possibly hurtful statements; and often by the time the appointment comes, we have already found new understanding and solutions.

We don’t tell her everything we do to nurture our relationship. We don’t tell her about the poetry (including Rumi) that we read to each other, or that we do Sufi and peace dances. We don’t mention retreats or community. We do tell her how difficult this relationship-building can be, and how much time and energy it takes. And that sometimes we slip away from our intentions. But she can see our deep and vibrant love. We wish her well.

mb56-Mindfulness4Lynda Bidlake, Wholesome Reunion of the Heart, recently retired from a career as a school psychologist. Lewis BrightHeart Headrick, Open Garden of the Heart, is working in mental health after receiving his bachelors in social work at the age of fifty-five.

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To Live In Freedom

Calming Sexual Desire

By Brian Kimmel

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mb56-ToLive2Several years ago, I spent three months at Deer Park Monastery during the winter retreat. It became very natural to go to the meditation hall and sit silently in front of the monks, with a most pleasant view of morning mists rolling up into the cliffs and into my own body/heart/mind. In one such session, I saw my parents in me. They divorced when I was four, after being unfaithful to one another. Soon after their divorce, mom married my first stepfather who, for six years, sexually abused me.

For many years, before the winter retreat at the monastery, I had attempted to unravel the deep hurt and betrayal of the abuse, particularly around sexuality, sexual desire, the feelings that often roared through me without control, and the memories stored in my body/heart/mind, unable to be released. I had looked deeply into the abuse, and into my relationship with my former stepfather, but I had not known, until the morning in the meditation hall, how much my parents’ divorce, feelings, and desires affected me.

I listened as my parents spoke through me. They spoke about their passion when they were my age. They spoke about their love for each other, the challenges of their marriage, and the difficult choices they made. They spoke about their guilt, their fear, their envy, and their remorse. They said, “Brian, we want you to be loved. We want you to love.”

I quietly observed the thoughts and feelings as they surfaced in many forms, and I asked my parents, “How can I love?” A deep sense arose: whatever my parents had experienced—their desires, habits, and views of love, sex, and marriage—are in me. I heard Mom’s voice. “I needed to find a husband to help support you kids. I couldn’t do it alone. I couldn’t be alone ….” I felt my father’s sadness over losing custody of my sister and me. I heard Dad’s voice: “If only I had been faithful to your mom, had known what would happen, had stayed ….”

The many feelings and desires I’d faced in my life were so similar to my parents’. At that moment, as I sat with the monks, with mists on the cliffs and the fresh air of Sangha, I felt that healing was possible. The desires I’d felt weren’t just my desires. Many of my feelings and habits concerning sexuality and love involved my parents; my parents’ experiences continued in me. And the fear and humiliation I often felt around the topic of sex continued the suffering of my former stepfather in me. It became clear that I had a choice. Transforming the habit energy of my parents, and healing the wounds of sexual abuse within me could, over time, gradually set me free.

“Breathing in,” I began, “I am aware of this sexual desire. Breathing out, I smile to this desire.” I continued, “Breathing in, I am aware of the many sources of sexual desire in me. Breathing out, I calm these sources of desire.”

The simple awareness of sexual desire was my first step. At times, during meditation, it was helpful to listen more deeply to the sexual feelings and sensations within my body as they arose, with the wisdom of knowing they would pass, and that whatever healing occurred in me would take place within my parents too. That was, and is, my gift to my ancestors in me, and the gift I also received. My choices offer many generations, and me, a chance to live in freedom, a chance to love.

Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, studies at Naropa University in Boulder, CO and is publishing a memoir on healing sexual abuse with mindfulness and love. He participated in the Plum Village Delegation to Indonesia in 2010. He was the first of his mother’s family to return since they left in 1962.

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Relationship as Engaged Buddhism

By Nathaniel Vose

Of the different forms of activism I’ve practiced in my life, the most transformative, perhaps, is the relationship activism I practice with my partner, Liz. Our partnership acts as a microcosm for our relationships with all beings. We practice to nourish not only the happiness of one another but also the happiness of the world. It is very real, engaged Buddhism.

My grandfather, an educator and Methodist minister, was a mentor to me. I once asked how he and my grandma had made it through fifty-five-plus years together. He offered me his sage counsel: “Every morning you can sit down at the breakfast table and look across to your partner and say, ‘Why did I marry her? She is not what I really wanted,’ or you can say, ‘Wow, how lucky I am to have her here to share this life with!’ The choice is yours.”

With mindfulness, I have realized that I do have the power to choose my own reality. When I was new to the practice, I focused on suffering. But I came to discover that suffering is only one of thousands of Dharma doors. Without sunshine, we will not have lotuses. Mindfulness gives permission to relish joy in relationship.

Liz and I practice Beginning Anew on each new moon. We practice hugging meditation in the morning and share appreciations before we go to bed at night. Our mindfulness rituals create a container for transformation and when we feel their fruits, we only want to practice more! That is why I see our relationship as a practice center. It brings us home to ourselves and we become each other’s mirrors and mindfulness bells.

Right Relationship with Sexuality

Mindfulness helps in practicing with sexual energy. I grew up feeling ashamed of my sexuality. In my experience, sexuality was often used as a weapon or status symbol. I remember walking down the halls of high school, being taunted with names like “fag,” and listening to guys talk about their latest sexual escapades. I went through puberty during the advent of pornography on the Internet. It fascinated and confused many of us young people. Luckily, other seeds were watered in me, and I was able to channel my energies into music, theatre, sports, and supportive friendships.

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Upon receiving the Five Mindfulness Trainings, sadly, I found myself condemning my sexuality as I tried to emulate my brother and sister monastics. My misunderstanding pitted me against my self, my body, and others. I’ve learned that committed relationship and the Mindfulness Trainings are manifestations of true love; both work to push suffering up to the surface so it may be healed. Inevitably, my mindfulness practice and relationship invited me to come into right relationship with my sexuality, embracing these intense energies with care. My partner, the trainings, and Sangha provided protection and antidotes to fear and confusion.

Although sexual energy contains no suffering in itself, my habit of contracting around it can create hell on Earth. Holding this energy with mindfulness, I feel a natural respect and love. Sexual energy puts me in touch with my capacities of generativity and creativity. How amazing that this energy of vitality and creativity is alive in me! “Breathing in, I recognize sexual energy as a wonder of life! Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I let it expand throughout my body, nourishing my cells with life. Breathing out, I relax.” Working with the energy in this way helps me give birth to my self, my ancestors, and future beings anew in the present moment. Mindfulness is the essence of true intimacy. Cultivating appropriate attention, I connect with the vital and creative source of life.

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mb56-Relationship3Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and female friends have taught me about masculine and feminine principles. This empowers me with a sense of inclusiveness. “Breathing in, I recognize I have both masculine and feminine within me. Breathing out, I feel solid and whole.” Both mother and father are in me; nothing is lost. Understanding this, I can relax and approach Liz with my wholeness.

Two Hands of the Same Body

I have found that true love has no limits. Partnership has taught me the necessity of cultivating self-love in order to love and nourish Liz. Similarly, it has taught me that love is more powerful than I am. Many times, Liz becomes prajnaparamita herself, and her love allows me to accept myself to an extent I did not know was possible. Gradually, I am able to love better. The wisdom of non-discrimination works like this. Liz and I are two hands of the same, greater body.

Recently, Liz and I decided to start a couples’ Sangha. The challenges our relationship brings to the surface made us realize that it is not an individual matter, nor is it a two-person matter! It is bigger than us. It involves the transformation of endless ancestors, causes, and conditions. That is why we need Sangha. Understanding relationship as engaged Buddhism, we honor its potential for individual and collective transformation. It is truly a potent and nourishing form of activism!

mb56-Relationship4Nathaniel Vose, True Land of Compassion, works as a chaplain and lives in Oakland, CA with his partner Liz Turkel, Radiant Commitment of the Heart.

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Touching the Master

By Aparna Pallavi

 mb56-Touching1“Go back and take care of yourself. The wounded child in you needs you. Your suffering, your blocks of pain need you. Your deepest desire needs you to acknowledge it.”

Each word touched my hurting heart like a tender dewdrop. My whole being ached with the desire to see the writer of these beautiful words—to see the radiant smile on the back cover of his book, Teachings on Love. It was the middle of the night. Unable to remain in bed, I got up, turned on my computer and opened the Plum Village website. And it hit my chest like a hammer, knocking my breath out entirely. Thich Nhat Hanh was coming to India! And to Nagpur, the city of my residence! Had ever a human wish been fulfilled so dramatically!

On October 9, 2008, in the huge marquee at Nagaloka Buddha Vihar, something beautiful happened even before I saw Thay. Sister Chan Khong, leading a team of monastics, was approaching the marquee. My daughter, then barely eleven, cried, “Mom, look what that beautiful grandma is doing!”

Through some misunderstanding, the women posted at the entrance to perform traditional Indian welcome rituals were trying to put flowers on the old lady’s feet instead of scattering them in her path, as is customary. It was a clumsy gesture, but the tiny old woman magically transformed it by bending down to receive the flowers in her hands and putting them on her head in a spontaneous, childlike gesture of joy and gratitude. I’d never seen a simple gesture radiate so much visible, felt beauty before.

When Thay appeared, I found myself leaving my seat and following him to the dais, pulled like a child to an ice cream cart. I stood within feet of Thay, my elbows on the dais, hoping the camera in my hand would help me look less foolish to the sedate audience.

A serene song of piercing loveliness, which I’d never heard before, started playing in my heart the moment I saw Thay. But coiled with it was a terrible, aching sense that this would be over, and soon. My practiced hands were feverishly snapping pictures. A part of me was madly determined to capture this moment for eternity. But the song was still strong, and when the monastics started chanting sutras, the melodies blended effortlessly.

For a long moment during the chanting, Thay very deliberately turned his gaze full on me, where I stood. My heart leapt, but at the same moment my hands, as if on cue, rose and poked the old camera at him. And just then, the camera folded up right under his gaze, its batteries exhausted. I was torn between intense ecstasy and intense anxiety, and now, in addition, an urgent sense of utter stupidity. Camera gone, there was nothing to do but to gather the blessing of that gaze, which miraculously stayed on me for another long moment, looking into my fragile human eyes, so inadequate to the task.

Then the disappointments began. When Thay spoke, I recognized the words from the books I had read. During the two-day workshop, I could hardly see or hear Thay through a throng of more than a thousand people. His translator, whom I knew, laughed at my request for a five-minute talk with Thay. On the last day, I cried in the bus back home.

I rationalised that it was stupid and sentimental to have hankered for a flesh-and-blood encounter with someone as busy as Thay, like a teenager for a movie star. It’s stupid to go to a guru at all. The truth is all in the books, so why bother? But a tender, trusting part of me was deeply ashamed and confused. Had my yearning been sentimental and stupid? What intangible quality had I been looking for in Thay’s presence? What had caused this tangible feeling of let-down that was eating away at me?

For weeks, a child inside me cried inconsolably.

For many months, I continued to read Thay’s books, and tried to practice walking, sitting, and eating meditation, and mindfulness. But given the old habits of my mind, progress was slow. I was frustrated that I had no master or Sangha to help me. I was torn between the desire to seek help and the fear of further hurt. If contact with a living master had failed to help me, how could I trust lesser mortals?

A Rare State of Being

Almost a year and a half after Thay’s visit, I chanced upon a book by a contemporary seeker, which described his efforts to be with his guru, not seeking his attention, but just absorbing his radiance from a distance. The book inspired me to confront my pain directly. Had I gone to Thay with the wrong expectations? What had I expected the brief encounter to achieve? The only time in my life I desired something with my whole being, my wish was fulfilled with near-miraculousness. And yet I was so full of secret misery.

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The more I tried to look deeply into these questions, the more the memory of that ethereal song knocked at my heart, the clearer my beautiful vision of Sister Chan Khong putting flowers on her head became. I was surprised at how fresh and flower-like these memories still were. I allowed myself to look at my memories full in the face, and one afternoon realization burst upon me. These memories had been the whole point of my yearning—the music that had throbbed through my entire being in the presence of Thay, the radiance of Sister Chan Khong’s simplicity that had touched my eyes like a benediction. In these moments, I’d been given the most precious gift. I’d had an opportunity to share the being of these two precious people. I’d been allowed a glimpse of a rare state of being, to see, to know for myself, beyond all doubt, that such a state is possible.

And how I’d fought against the gift! I’d nearly missed Thay’s living presence due to my preconceptions, my egoistic clinging. The only moment I’d been fully alive to the magic of his presence was the moment when my camera failed and I looked into his eyes. But for that, I’d have missed it altogether.

When this simple realization came, it was as if a huge block of stone embedded in my heart had been removed. Practice and life are much more serene and smooth when you wholeheartedly trust something than when you are carrying a pinprick of doubt. Once I allowed myself to fully trust that day’s memories, it became easier not to get carried away by the mechanical habits of my mind.

My progress is still slow, but steadier, as if my energies are flowing together instead of fighting each other. There are times when, in moments of deep calm, the memory of Thay’s penetrating look or Sister Chan Khong’s beautiful gesture (the latter framed in a kind of sunlit halo) come back to me, refreshing me, strengthening me, touching me with a benediction as fresh, as fragrant as the day when they really happened—perhaps even more so now, when I am fully present. My conflict about whether or not to seek a Sangha has been resolved in an unexpected manner. It has disappeared altogether, taking both the “to be” and the “not to be” with it. I am neither seeking nor not seeking. I am just practicing, as Thay puts it, with a rock, with a flower ….

mb56-Touching3Aparna Pallavi is a social activist, journalist, and organic farmer who lives in Nagpur, India, with her husband and daughter. She works for the environmental magazine Down to Earth.

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The Heart Pushup

By Peter Cutler

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I’ve begun doing a practice to transform suffering. It’s been very effective for me. The practice involves a combination of three Buddhist practices—mindfulness of suffering, tonglen, and metta. I call it the Heart Pushup. I often do it lying down the first thing in the morning, just after I wake up. It’s a wonderful way to start the day.

Mindfulness

Take any pain or suffering, and bring your attention to it. If it’s strong and immediate, this isn’t much of a problem. Now open your heart wider to accept this pain fully. Stop resisting it or wishing it would go away. This will quickly reduce the intensity of it. It’s usually the resistance that creates the most pain.

As you open to the pain, you will find yourself becoming curious about it. If it’s physical pain, notice the quality and texture of the sensations. Where do they start? Where do they end? Is it dull and throbbing or sharp? Is there a color or shape to it? The more we embrace our pain, the less intense and frightening it becomes. This occurs because of love.

Now we’ve reduced the intensity of our pain and come to know it very intimately. We’ve embraced it into our heart. We now know a great deal about this pain and about ourselves.

Tonglen

Now we begin the Tibetan practice of tonglen. Because we are part of the human family, many other people have pain that is similar to ours. Begin to visualize one of these people. You might visualize their pain as a dark black cloud. On your in-breath, breathe in this dark cloud. Let it flow into your heart, where you transform it into a bright healing light that can heal all pain. On your out-breath, breathe all your healing light into this person. On your next in-breath, do the same with a different person. Eventually, breathe in the pain and suffering of many people at once and breathe out healing to all of them.

Most people unfamiliar with tonglen think it is contradictory to healing. After all, we are the ones with the pain. Why shouldn’t we send healing energy to ourselves instead of other folks? But if you try it, you will begin to notice that your heart expands and you feel filled with compassion. You feel connected to all humanity, all beings, the whole universe, and you seem to have forgotten about your pain.

Metta

Now that our hearts are filled with all beings, we send all of them unconditional love. This is metta, or loving kindness. We wish only for their greatest good and happiness. As we do this, we can feel our heart filling with unconditional love. This energy radiates out and fills our entire body. It fills the room, the house, the neighborhood, touching and healing each person. It expands further to encompass the city, the state. It touches and heals everyone we know as it continues growing. It radiates throughout the country and then encompasses the world. It only takes our intention to love this way.

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At this point we are filled with love. The sensation of pain may still be there a little, or it may be completely gone. But mostly we are love. The interesting thing is that without the pain and suffering, the intensity of this practice would not be as strong, nor would the wonderful results. Some people say love conquers all. I try not to indulge in blanket statements, but I am partial to that idea. I do know that this particular practice seems to work wonderfully for me. May it bring peace, love, and joy to you as well.

mb56-TheHeart3Peter Cutler, True Sangha Virtue, practices with Boston’s Old Path Sangha. His Zen brush paintings can be seen at www.zen-brush.com.

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Fertile Ground

Indonesia Teaching Tour

By Brother Phap Lai

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Thay and the Sangha touched down in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, on September 27, 2010, having just said a wistful goodbye to our hosts in Malaysia, where we enjoyed a successful two weeks offering retreats and public talks. In Jakarta, we were greeted by warm smiles from a team of lay friends and monastics eager to take good care of us, introduce us to their homeland, and help us plant seeds of Thay’s teaching and practice.

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Indonesia is densely populated with 238 million people. Onehundred-twenty-million are concentrated on Java—the political hub of this archipelago of some 17,500 islands—where we stayed for two weeks. We were taken first to Ekayana Temple, our base in Jakarta and the home of Brother Phap Tu and Venerable Dharma Vimala, both of whom have spent long stays in Plum Village. We were then escorted by police for the three-hour journey to Kinasih resort near Bogor, where we were to offer a five-day retreat. Phap Tu said without the escort, he was not sure how we could have made our way through the thick traffic of Jakarta.

It is impossible not to be affected by the squalid conditions of the poor majority of this overpopulated city. However, we were lucky to have some time in more rural mountain areas. Evident on people’s faces and in their interactions was the simple reality that, even though people may be poor, happiness is possible once the wholesome conditions of having enough space to live, clean air, water, and nature are present. We saw families and communities living simply but happily together. Wherever we went, the majority Muslim population was friendly and courteous, happy to return the beautiful Islamic greeting “As-Salamu ‘Alaykum” (“peace be upon you”) with “Wa Alaykum As-Salam” (“and on you be peace”).

In Indonesia, the ethnic Chinese are generally Buddhist by way of family tradition. However, the Plum Village tradition is new and this was Thay’s first visit to Indonesia. We were touched by the openness of Ekayana Temple, and its associated temples outside Jakarta, to our tradition; they made the Sangha’s visit possible. Brother Phap Tu was the main organiser, and the fourfold Sangha of Ekayana Temple worked wholeheartedly with him to make this visit a huge success. In addition, previous Sangha building efforts made Indonesia a fertile ground for Thay’s teaching to take root. Thay Phap Kham made a number of visits, and in May 2009, Sister Chan Khong, along with a group of brothers and sisters, led a four-day retreat in Kinasih Resort for 400 people and offered Days of Mindfulness in Java and Sumatra.

Interfaith Understanding

With conditions so ripe, we should not have been surprised by how well the retreat was attended and how immediately the energy of practice established itself. There were nine hundred retreatants, of which a record three hundred were young adults. Such an inspiring number of youth wouldn’t have manifested without the outreach work of Brother Phap Tu, who offered a series of weekend retreats at universities in the months leading up to the tour. This outreach paid a wonderful dividend. (We hope to emulate this kind of outreach in the UK before Thay’s visit in 2012). Thay gave a talk on True Love especially dedicated to the young people, and they had lots of sincere questions to ask the monastics. The retreat went well for everyone, and over two-thirds of the people attending received the Five Mindfulness Trainings.

Some thirty Muslim practitioners attended the retreat. They formed a family for Dharma discussion, led by Sister Jina. Thay shared teachings of Buddhism that highlighted nondualistic thinking, nondiscrimination, and inclusiveness as central to Buddhist wisdom and insight. Thay talked on “the wisdom of nondiscrimination” as the fourth ingredient of True Love—upeksha, often translated as equanimity. Thay said Buddhists and Muslims can say to each other, “Because I love you and your God is Allah, I also love Allah as my God,” and “because I love you and your teacher is Lord Buddha, Buddha is also my teacher.” Thay shared that as Buddhists, we can very well understand Islamic proclamations from the Koran such as “Allah is God, there is only one God,” in the light of the Buddhist insight that the one contains the all. Thay said, “As Buddhists we should study Islam. Thay has studied and sees the five pillars of Islam can be compared with the Five Mindfulness Trainings.”

On the last day, Thay invited the Muslim Dharma discussion group to share with the whole Sangha about their experience and the initiative, following Thay’s request, to establish an interfaith group in Indonesia. One young Muslim lady shared that sadly, the country’s motto, “Unity in Diversity,” does not reflect the real situation. She shared that this retreat gave her hope and a way to contribute to making the motto something to believe in. Separately from this sharing to the whole Sangha, a Muslim lady shared with me about a transformation she experienced. “The ethnic Chinese, although a minority of twenty to twenty-five percent, use economic dominance to discriminate and this causes bad feelings among the Muslim community. But here it is clear everyone is good-hearted and I can relate them to as brothers and sisters on the path. I feel very at ease here.”

I had numerous conversations with our hosts, Chinese Indonesians and Malaysian Chinese, during the stay in these countries and discovered there is a lot of resentment regarding the many ways in which they suffer discrimination by the governments, which favour the Muslim majority. Underneath the occasional eruptions of violence that make the news, there is a pervasive tension among different ethnicities and religions of the Indonesian people. Poverty and overpopulation exacerbate the situation. Misperceptions and discriminatory behaviour fuel more resentment. It seems all the more important to find ways for the two communities to find common ground from which to build mutual respect and love. Conditions seem more favourable in Indonesia compared with Malaysia, where Muslims are barred by law from attending any Buddhist events. Under these kinds of restrictions it is hard to see how interfaith groups can form openly. Yet during the retreat it seemed everything was possible; indeed, understanding, love, and unity manifested palpably.

Back in Plum Village, Brother Phap Tu informed me that the interfaith group in Jakarta is meeting regularly, and Plum Village is to sponsor a Muslim practitioner from this group for a long-term stay in Plum Village.

Thay wrote to his children on the tour, “The Southeast Asia Tour is blooming as a beautiful flower. The flower has five petals. The first three petals are Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, and they have manifested elegantly. The happiness of the Sangha has been nourished by the happiness of the local Buddhist practitioners. As teachers and students, we have learned many wonderful things on this trip, being able to drop many of our preconceived notions about these countries.”

Brother Phap Lai is from the United Kingdom and is currently residing in Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, France.

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Magical Moment at Borobudur Temple

By Deny Hermawan

mb56-Magical1Thay’s marvelous teachings have been deeply etched in my heart for a few years. On October 7, 2010, his teachings became even more impressive and alive for me when he came to Java to visit one of the most magnificent Buddhist sites in the world, Borobudur Temple.

On that day I felt so excited because I was able to walk mindfully together with hundreds of people, including many monastics from Plum Village, led by Thay. Although I was not able to maintain my awareness at every step, the peace walk was incredible for me. I could feel the energy of peace, love, and compassion spread over the area, empowering the sacred monument that was built by King Smaratungga in 800 AD. The encounter of the great historical temple and a living bodhisattva was a significant and moving moment. Thay’s presence, the Sangha’s solidity, and the rainy weather created an unforgettable atmosphere that day.

It seemed like magic occurred. Right after we completed the peace walk, rain started falling heavily. It stopped just as Thay began his Dharma talk by saying, “I am happy because I’m able to be here and now, in the present moment. Therefore, I feel no anxiety; I feel free.” Later in the afternoon, just as the event was coming to an end and Thay was getting into a vehicle to leave, the rain started falling again, as if nature were grieving the departure of the legendary teacher.

Moments with Thay and the monastics from Plum Village and the Indonesian Sangha at Borobudur were truly amazing. Walking and sharing lunch with them were wonderful moments, and another moment that truly impressed me was the pindapatra, or alms round. I felt so lucky because I had a chance to put some food into Thay’s bowl. I felt his beautiful eyes see right through me, smiling, and I felt his wisdom strike my mind without words, perhaps like the story of the Buddha holding flowers and Mahakashyapa smiling.

I attended my first retreat with monastics from the Plum Village tradition in 2008 when Brother Phap Kham and others led a retreat in Indonesia for the first time. That retreat was the beginning of my journey towards true happiness and mindfulness. Before that retreat, I had already become a big fan of Thay’s teaching through reading his books. Being able to meet the writer and participate in mindful activities with him was absolutely amazing. I hope I can maintain the spirit of goodness of that day at Borobudur Temple so that I can contribute more positively to society and so that, finally, heaven on earth will become truly possible.

mb56-Magical2Deny Hermawan, Determined Light of the Heart, is a practitioner in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

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Living Dharma

By Miriam Goldberg

mb56-Living1For me, the Indonesian retreat closed with the sunrise meditation walk, Dharma talk, and formal lunch at Borobudur the day after the retreat officially ended.

We walked stone pathways lined with images depicting the Buddha’s life and all the sutras. Every curve of tree, leaf, person, and smile which hadn’t been damaged revealed the uniqueness of each carving, singular, nuanced, yet connected in the truth they described and the commitment of hundreds of artisans and visionaries who supported this creation over time. We sat atop this celebration of the Buddha, his Dharma, and Sangha while the sun rose and the world emerged from the mists below.

Sitting on a short platform, Thay gave a Dharma talk, a tree to his right, and in the distance, Borobudur, like a teeming city springing from the large stupa in the center: Buddha consciousness overflowing into the world. Thay spoke of real Sangha, the community that practices and lives the Dharma. He said that a Sangha is alive when it practices the Dharma. When the Sangha truly practices, the Dharma is alive. And where the Dharma is alive, the Buddha lives.

At lunch, Thay sat calmly with his and other monastics, brown robes by saffron and red. His brief introduction included: during formal lunch, enjoy the Sangha and enjoy your food. Just that is enough. Receive the mindfulness of the Sangha, the community that practices love and understanding, that dwells in the present moment free from the delusive mind’s preoccupation with better than, less than, and equal to, that knows the interbeing nature of existence. And be aware of your food. The living Dharma, simple, practical, accessible.

The Action of True Love

Thay’s Dharma talks at the retreat also revealed the simplicity of the living Dharma. In one talk, he described true love as an action, not a noun. He said, “True love never brings fear. It always brings understanding.” In very practical terms he revealed the four brahmaviharas—the qualities associated with true love—as actions for our lives.

Maitri, loving kindness, is the capacity to open and offer happiness, loving as a friend. Thay emphasized, “Intention is not enough. We need to know right action, how to bring love to another person and help them be happy,” through presence, being available, fresh, solid, calm, and spacious. As action, karuna, compassion, is the capacity to remove suffering and give relief. Thay said, “If you do not understand the suffering, you cannot help.” We need to look deeply and listen with compassion. Mudita, “the love (which) brings joy,” can be cultivated as we actively celebrate joy in ourselves and others. Upeksha, unqualified loving, is the non-discriminative wisdom of interbeing. “It is being willing to have the experience that your suffering is mine,” with no distinction between lover and loved. Thay’s own presence, soft, flowing, clear, embodied the inclusive awareness of Buddha nature, Dharma and Sangha, radiating the living Dharma which nourishes and offers true love to all.

Going as a Sangha

Reflecting on Thay’s words, I realized in addition to his example and teachings of living Dharma, I had witnessed many throughout the retreat, in monastic and lay practitioners. The living Dharma found a unique expression in the International Delegation (ID). This eclectic, disparate group of about thirty participants from five countries, spanned several generations, including a few Dharma teachers, long-time practitioners, and some newcomers who discovered the retreat on Facebook.

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Most of the ID landed in Jakarta the day before the retreat and bused together in hours of slow, rainy rush hour traffic. When we arrived, we shared flashlights and helped each other find our beds through the maze of buildings dedicated to retreat housing. The next morning, as we oriented ourselves to the facility and nearby town, Dharma teacher Peggy Rowe gently and consistently introduced the other Dharma teachers to us, so we could honor Thay’s lineage and its holders, blending respect and inclusiveness as we met each other.

The retreat was dense with practice: sitting, walking, silence, mindful exercises, Dharma discussions, and deep relaxation. We had to balance self-care within group activities. Peggy encouraged mindfulness of body wisdom, to honor when it needed to rest, to move, to relax. Gentle presence rather than rigid practice became the norm.

Gestures of offering Kleenex, sharing herbs, letting on where the nearest ice cream could be bought, and sharing smiles of recognition refl and generated kindness, compassion, inclusivity, and joy. An atmosphere of kind attention developed as members of the ID met irritation and cranky comments with deep listening and kindness, asked questions instead of ignoring silences, and demonstrated a willingness to meet others. Beginner’s mind became more available, the mind guided by freshness, not prejudices of the past or attachment to ideas. It encouraged spontaneous responses to who was participating, who was hovering, who was oblivious, who was suffering, who was joyful. We lived the inclusiveness of “going as a Sangha,” demonstrating that when we do that consciously, every moment becomes the living Dharma, filled with the actions of true love. With these ten days together, including the retreat and the half day at Borobudur, the ID Sangha body was well tended, warm, vital, and trusting, fertile soil for Sangha wisdom.

Dharma Rain

We boarded the bus for the stormy ride back from Borobudur to Yojakarta and tried to settle ourselves from the intensely full morning and the buzzing vendors who profited from our excitement. Peggy stood at the front of the bus with the microphone. She said, “We have just been charged by Dharma rain. It is vibrating in us and around us, like the rain falling here. We have an opportunity to sit together in silence and receive this nourishment. Deep into our bodies. To share it with our ancestors, without whom we would not be experiencing this moment. To offer it to the generations to come. To extend it to the world we live in in this moment. Absorb it deeply, and share it fully. Otherwise it will disperse through us in our old patterns of chatting, of shopping, of getting irritable and grumpy, of planning, of daydreaming, of depression, of distraction.” We breathed in and out. A quiet depth opened as our collective practice absorbed the gifts of the morning and shared their merit through interbeing and mindful presence.

An hour later, sitting in the front seats of the bus, we saw the effects of the continuing downpour: motorcyclists intently walking their bikes through thigh-high water; two men unloading garbage from the back of a small truck stuck in a hole while water swirled above its wheels; one-and-a-half-foot-high streams gushing down narrow cement streets. When we were invited to come forward and share with the group a Dharma moment, a child’s song, a joy to nourish the heart, the Dharma was expressed through each of us, both in heartfelt offerings and in deep listening. Attention was on love, not fear. The Sangha was living the Dharma, the Dharma was alive, and Buddha nature was present. I feel great gratitude to the Dharma lineage in the Order of Interbeing, and the gift of living Dharma shared by Thay, his Dharma teachers, and his Sangha.

mb56-Living3Miriam Goldberg, True Recollection of Joy, is a psychotherapist who lives in the Santa Cruz mountains with her husband and practices with Heart Sangha.

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A Great Horizon

Plum Village Sangha in Thailand

By Lynda Berry and Karen Hilsberg

In October 2010, Thailand welcomed the Plum Village Sangha warmly. An international delegation of about thirty-six practitioners from the U.S., England, Italy, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Germany, Canada, and Australia spent one week touring and one week with the Plum Village Sangha outside of Bangkok. Eighty to ninety percent of the Vietnamese monks and nuns from Bat Nha Monastery were there, plus new monks and nuns who were ordained in Thailand. Thay was reportedly very happy, and so were the Bat Nha sisters and brothers, to be reunited after being expelled and scattered from Vietnam.

Plum Village Thailand

On our second day with the Sangha, we went to Pak Chong to visit the land that the Sangha is in the process of purchasing. It is a picturesque setting among green hills. Within the next two years, the Sangha will build a new practice center there, conveniently located for people from Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. It will include a wing of the European Institute for Applied Buddhism. The first priority is to pay off approximately $750,000 owed for the land; then to build a meditation hall for 1,000 people, then two hamlets.

Meanwhile, 279 monks and nuns are staying in two private homes. The Sangha has built a huge, temporary, thatched roof meditation hall that seats 1,000. During our visit, it was full with monks and nuns who were present for a monastic retreat. We were all nourished by the ordination of novice nuns and monks and a lamp transmission ceremony for thirteen young monastics from Vietnam. There was an intense energy of mindfulness and beautiful chanting by Thay. He personally cut a lock of each novice’s hair during the ordination ceremony.

At the end of the lamp transmission ceremony, Thay shared the following with the new Dharma teachers and the Sangha: “As monastics we have a great horizon, high and wide. Keep the light and transmit it to the later generations. We are aware that the Buddha and the patriarchs are our roots. We vow to receive the wisdom, compassion, peace, and joy that the patriarchs have transmitted. We vow to transform our suffering and help people of modern times to transform their suffering and to open Dharma doors in new ways. We vow to look at each other as brother and sister in the same spiritual family. We vow to take care of each other so we can help each other. We vow to practice loving speech and deep listening. We vow to transform hatred and jealousy so we can go forward. Only when we do that can we be children of the Buddha and the patriarchs.”

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Not Seeking Anymore

A few days later, Thay gave a public lecture at Thammasat University Law School. There were at least three thousand people in the giant auditorium, including many monastics from different traditions. Thay’s presence attracted huge numbers of people in Thailand, which is primarily a Theravadan Buddhist country. He explained the differences and similarities between the native Buddhism and Zen. He did not mention the political situation in Bangkok, but his description of non-duality seemed appropriate. When you understand your suffering, he explained, and look deeply into the suffering of another you believe to be your enemy, you may develop compassion because you see your enemy as a human being who suffers the same way you suffer. He said that Theravada contains the Mahayana teachings and that Mahayana contains the Theravada teachings. He also shared about the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing and about the practices of deep listening and loving speech.

In the following days, Thay gave Dharma talks at MCU Buddhist University a few days prior to the family retreat. We all stayed together in the same hotel at the university, where a marquis in the lobby said, “Welcome Thich Nhat Hanh!” The family retreat took place at a resort outside of Bangkok, and at least 300 people came by boat and bus from Vietnam (a twenty-four-hour drive.) They had their own meditation hall with Vietnamese translation. Thay spoke about the Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing, the Four Mantras, and the Four Noble Truths. He taught the children how to be bellmasters. He also spoke about the sixteen exercises in the Anapanasati Sutra exercises and about the gatha, “This is it (on the in-breath), not seeking anymore (on the out-breath).” The Dharma talks were very fresh. It seemed that Thay was thriving in this Buddhist country.

On the last day of the retreat, the power cut in the middle of Thay’s Dharma talk, but he did not react. He sat and drank his tea while 1,600 people sat in complete silence. When the power came back on about five minutes later, he continued as though nothing had happened. At the end of the retreat, the monastics went up on stage and we all sang together. It looked as though Thay was holding hands with the Theravadan monks. It was a beautiful moment.

mb56-AGreat5Lynda Berry, Awakened Listening of the Heart, is from the United Kingdom and lives in Portsmouth. She took the Five Mindfulness Trainings at the Nottingham Retreat in August 2010. Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives in California. She founded Organic Garden Sangha in 2003 and mentors Order of Interbeing pre-aspirants and aspirants in Jasmine Roots Sangha.

mb56-AGreat4Plum Village Thailand

The Sangha is very happy to have found a beautiful location in Thailand to build a permanent home for monastics where they can practice the teachings of love and understanding under the guidance of our beloved teacher, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. The new land is about 190 km northeast of Bangkok. It has a spectacular view of Khao Yai Mountain in Thailand’s first and largest national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We envision two monasteries, one for 100-150 monks and another for 200-300 nuns. The site will also include an Institute of Applied Buddhism for the fourfold Sangha in Southeast Asia. There will be space for vegetable gardens where organic food can be grown. The total cost of the land is 24,583,000 Bhat (U.S. $819,434). A deposit of $152,767 was made on August 30, 2010. On June 30, 2011, the rest of the total amount will be due. The right to the land will then be transferred to the Thai Plum Village Foundation.

With your support, Plum Village Thailand will manifest as a reality. To make a donation, please make a bank draft or cashier check payable to “PV Foundation for PV Practice Center in Thailand” and send it to:

Plum Village Foundation.
399, Moo 9, Nongsarai Subdistrict
Pak Chong District
Nakhon Ratchasima 30130
Thailand

Or make a wire transfer with the information below:
Bank Account Name: PV Foundation for PV Practice Center in Thailand
Account No. 855-0-24898-6
Bangkok Bank, Siam Paragon Branch
S.W.I.F.T. code “BKKBTHBK”
Address: Ground Floor, Siam Paragon
991/1 Rama 1 Road
Pathumwan District, Bangkok 10330
Tel: 66-2-129-4318, 66-2-129-4319,
66-2-129-4320,  66-2-129-4321,
66-2-129-4322

If you have questions or need more information, please email niramisa@gmail.com.

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Springtime in Australia

The Birth of Nhap Luu Monastery

By Ian Roberts

In southern Australia, it takes time for winter’s wilder energies to let go. The powerful forces of wind and rain often dominate the youthful spring. Every now and then, spring bursts through with its brilliant blue sky and warming sun, but within minutes a wave of hail breaks overhead again, sending everyone running for refuge. If the sun is our heart, as our teacher wrote so beautifully, then so are the rain and wind and hail.

mb56-Springtime1These were the conditions for the first retreat at Nhap Luu (Entering the Stream) Monastery since the arrival of Sisters Thuan Tien, Luong Nghiem, Sinh Nghiem, and Can Nghiem as the first permanent monastic presence of the Or-der of Interbeing in Australia. Part of the energy of our mindfulness weekend was the arrival of Brothers Phap Kham, Phap Dung, and Phap Hai. They came to help create a new master plan for the monastery site, which was gifted in January 2010 by the Green Bamboo Sangha, after ten years of slow, steady development.

Nhap Luu is about 160 kilometres west of Melbourne—part of the state of Victoria’s Central Highlands, the location of a great gold rush in the 1850s, when Asian populations began to settle in Australia. Occasional hobby prospectors still fossick through the old gold diggings and mine shafts near Nhap Luu. But in the little, emerging, bush monastery, with its meditation hall and simple huts, searching has started to stop. We’ve started to realise that however basic the current conditions are, this practice centre is here, now, and it is full of all the gifts that can be found in the most established of monasteries.

The raw nature of the practice environment challenges and inspires us. Electricity only arrived a month ago, after the sisters and lay friends dug nearly half a kilometre of trenches. Some say that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither was Plum Village. We enjoy each step of the process. It’s easy to see at any moment that it will never be exactly like this again.

About sixty practitioners attended the mindfulness weekend—half of them Vietnamese Australians and half Westerners. Many had intended to camp, but wind and rain soon drove them into the meditation hall to unroll their sleeping bags. Some slept in their cars. Twenty of them covered the floor of the little twobedroom house next door, owned by a lay OI member. All slept easy with the rain beating on the old tin roof, even if the queue to the single toilet got a bit lengthy at times. But good-humoured mindfulness carried the Sangha throughout the weekend—even inspiring a poem:

This Morning
This morning can
not possibly be
any colder than death.
My heart can
not possibly burn
any brighter
than the sun.

The continuing growth of Nhap Luu seemed to be assured by the mindfulness weekend. Many retreatants have continued to return, including a number of the young people who warmed the hearts of everyone when they took the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Now the summer approaches with abundant wild flowers and warm days and sunny breezes bringing bountiful crops to the farmers … and hay fever to most of the Sangha. That’s just the way it is in Australia—wild flowers and hay fever, or as our teacher says, lotus and mud.

mb56-Springtime2Ian Roberts, True Enjoyment of Silence, was ordained as an Order of Interbeing Member at Nhap Luu in March of 2007.

Support Nhap Luu Monastery!

Nhap Luu welcomes your financial contributions. Email the Nhap Luu Office at streammpc@gmail.com to inquire about sending a donation.

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Media Reviews

mb56-MediaReviews1Healing
A Woman’s Journey from Doctor to Nun

By Sister Dang Nghiem
Parallax Press, 2010
Soft cover, 146 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy,
True Door of Peace

Sister Dang Nghiem’s story begins in Central Vietnam, where she was born during the Tet Offensive in 1968. She takes the reader with her to Saigon, to medical school in California, to Africa, to Plum Village, back to Vietnam with her teacher, to the late Bat Nha Monastery, and finally to Deer Park Monastery. Huong Huynh was the child of a Vietnamese mother and a U.S. soldier. At the behest of her beloved grandmother, who raised her until she was six, she made three vows: to raise her brother to be a good person as they journeyed to the U.S.; to get a good education; and to become a nun. As her life has unfolded, Huong Huynh, now Sister Dang Nghiem— “adornment with nondiscrimination”—has ultimately fulfilled all three vows and lived into her new name.

The victim of a torn family, sexual assault, racial taunts and gender discrimination, multiple foster placements, an unknown father, a wounded mother who disappeared when her daughter was but twelve, and a fi who drowned and whose body was never found, her strength in the face of immense suffering is the stuff of legend. Yet she does not tell it that way. She carves out a fearless inventory of her thoughts and actions as, growing up with great energy and determination, she moved from inner and outer war to a life of true peace. How she has honed herself, constantly beginning anew, is a profound teaching.

Reading her book is like having tea with Sister Dang Nghiem. We learn exactly who she is. Humbly, she recounts intimate stories of the horrors as well as the subtle joys, the small aggravations and the sweet triumphs of her pilgrimage through an extraordinary life. Nor does she paint her life as a done deal—more like a flowing river that inevitably hits the rapids. “I once was a river, a river falling in love with a cloud and chasing after it,” she writes. But after many years of practice as a nun, Venerable Dang Nghiem has realized she must release her attachments, because one day she will be left with only her “two empty hands.” She has realized that if she is truly present in the moment, she will see that her two empty hands hold the world.

mb56-MediaReviews2Fire Under the Snow
A Tibetan Monk – a spirit unbroken by 33 years of torture

A film by Makoto Sasa
Running time: 75 minutes
2008

Reviewed by Judith Toy,
True Door of Peace

Arrested in Tibet by the Chinese Army in 1959, the Venerable Palden Gyatso spent thirty-three years in prisons and labor camps for the “crime” of peaceful demonstration. Tortured, starved, and sentenced to hard labor, he watched his culture destroyed, and his teacher, friends, and family displaced, jailed, or killed. The film covers Palden’s birth in 1933 and follows him through the long nightmare that began with the Chinese invasion. It explores the escalating cycle of interrogation and physical violation that ended decades later with Palden’s escape from Tibet and a cathartic meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Just after his escape from Tibet in the 90s, I met Palden on a rainy country road in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, marching with a small group of monks and laypeople who carried the flag of Tibet. On our way home from a retreat, my husband and I happened upon the Free Tibet march launched in Washington, D.C., heading for the United Nations in New York City. I joined the march. Palden stayed at our home for five days, along with the late Thubten Norbu Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s elder brother, and Larry Gerstein, president of the International Tibet Independence Movement. What a joy it was to cook and serve them!

We were distressed by the tortures Palden described. Still, he laughed often and remained cheerful but resolute. All of his teeth had been shattered by a cattle prod placed directly into his mouth. He was hung by his thumbs. He ate dirt. One time, in prison, he vainly spit into the mouth of an infant to keep it alive. Tears came as I listened, and I asked him, “How did you survive?” “I became a monk when I was ten years old,” he replied, putting his arms around me while I cried.

Palden harbors no anger toward the Chinese. He has made it his life’s mission to bring to light the extreme human rights abuses of China that continue to this day, “so that it will stop.” In our home, in our sweet little breathing room on the second floor, Palden spent many hours composing The Autobiography of a Tibetan Monk, on which the film is partially based. Fire Under the Snow reminds me of the roots of the Order of Interbeing—mindfulness and inspiration in the face of unbelievable duress. For more information, visit www.fireunderthesnow.com.

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Dharma Talk: Make a True Home of Your Love

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Plum Village Upper Hamlet

December 26, 2010

Thich Nhat Hanh

Every one of us is trying to find our true home. We know that our true home is inside, and with the energy of mindfulness, we can go back to our true home in the here and the now. Sangha is our true home.

In Vietnamese, the husband calls the wife “my home.” And the wife calls the husband her home. Nha toi means my house, my home. When a gentleman is asked “Where is your wife?” he will say, “My home is now at the post office.” And if a guest said to the wife, “Your home is beautiful; who decorated it?” she would answer, “It’s my home who decorated it,” meaning, “my husband.” When the husband calls his wife, he says, “Nha oi,” my home. And she says, “Here I am.” Nha oi. Nha toi.

When you are in such a relationship, the other person is your true home. And you should be a true home for him or for her. First you need to be your own true home so that you can be the home of your beloved. We should practice so we can be a true home for ourselves and for the one that we love. How? We need the practice of mindfulness.

In Plum Village, every time you hear the bell, you stop thinking, you stop talking, you stop doing things. You pay attention to your in-breath as you breathe in and you say, “I listen, I listen. This wonderful sound brings me back to my true home.” My true home is inside. My true home is in the here and the now. So practicing going home is what we do all day long, because we are only comfortable in our true home. Our true home is available, and we can go home every moment. Our home should be safe, intimate, and cozy, and it is we who make it that way.

Last week I had tea with a couple who came from the United Kingdom. They spent two weeks in Plum Village, with the monks in the Upper Hamlet. The lady said, “It’s strange. It’s the first time that I’ve lived in a place where there are hundreds of men and no women, and I feel very safe in the Upper Hamlet. I have never felt safe like that.” In the Upper Hamlet she was the only woman, and she felt very safe. And if she feels safe, the place is her home, because home should provide that kind of safety. Are you a safe place for him or for her? Do you have enough stability, strength, protection for the one you love?

And the gentleman said, “The last two weeks may be the best weeks of my life.” That is because of the work of Sangha building. When you build a Sangha, you build a home for yourself. And in that place, you feel at home, you feel at ease, you feel safe. If you don’t feel safe within yourself, you are not a home for your own self, and you cannot provide your loved one a home. That is why it’s very important to go back to yourself and make it safe for you and for the ones you love.

If you feel lonely, if you feel cut off, if you suffer, if you need healing, you cannot expect to heal by having a sexual relationship with another person. That cannot heal you. You will create more suffering for him, for her, and for yourself. In the Third Mindfulness Training, we learn that sexual desire is not love. And without love, sexual activities can only bring suffering to you and to the other person. Loneliness cannot be dissipated by sexual activity; you cannot heal yourself by having sex. You have to learn how to heal yourself, to be comfortable within, and then you begin to create a home. Then you have something to offer to the other person. The other person also has to heal, so that she will feel at ease, and she can become your home. Otherwise, what she has to share is only her loneliness, her sickness, her suffering. That cannot help heal you at all.

Three Kinds of Intimacy

There are three kinds of intimacy. The first one is physical and sexual. The second is emotional. And the third one is spiritual. Sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy. They go together. And if spiritual intimacy is there, the physical, sexual intimacy will have meaning and will be healthy and healing. Otherwise it will be destructive.

Every one of us is seeking emotional intimacy. We want to have real communication, mutual understanding, communion. In the light of Buddhist practice, you have to listen to your own suffering. There is suffering inside of you, and there is suffering inside of the other person. If you do not listen to your own suffering, you will not understand it, and you will not have compassion for yourself; and compassion is the element that helps you heal.

The first thing the Buddha talked about is the suffering inside. Many of us are fearful. We don’t want to go back to ourselves, because we believe that we will encounter the block of suffering inside, and that we will be overwhelmed. Instead, we try to cover it up by means of consumption. We consume food, we consume music, we consume many other things, and we consume sex. But that does not help. That is why the Buddha proposed that we go home to ourselves with courage, in order to recognize and listen deeply to the suffering inside. We can use the energy of mindfulness, generated by conscious breathing and walking, to embrace it tenderly. “My suffering, I know you are there. I am home. And I will take care of you.”

There are times when we suffer but we don’t know the nature of the suffering. Our ancestors, our parents may not have been able to transform their suffering, and they have transmitted it to us. And now, because we have encountered the Buddhadharma, we have a chance to recognize it, embrace it, and transform it for ourselves and our ancestors, our parents. “Dear ancestors, dear father, dear mother, I have received this block of suffering from you. I know the Dharma, I know the practice. I will learn to recognize this block of suffering that has been transmitted to me, and with love I will try to accept and to transform it.” You can do it out of love. You do it for your parents, for your ancestors, because we are our ancestors.

According to the teaching of the Four Noble Truths, unless you listen to your suffering, unless you look deeply into your suffering,and embrace it tenderly with your energy of mindfulness, you cannot understand the roots of your suffering. When you begin to understand the roots of your suffering, suddenly the energy of compassion, of understanding, arises. And understanding and compassion have the power to heal. By embracing and listening to your suffering, you bring about understanding and compassion. And when the nectar of compassion is born in you, you suffer less, you feel less lonely. You begin to feel the warmth within yourself; you are building a home inside yourself. The Buddha recommends that we build a home inside, an island within ourselves. Be an island unto yourself. You’ll feel comfortable, you’ll feel warm, and you can be a refuge for the other person too.

When you have understood your own suffering, your own loneliness, you feel lighter and you can listen to the suffering of the other person. Your suffering carries within itself the suffering of your ancestors, of the world, of society. Interbeing means that my suffering is in your suffering, and your suffering is in my suffering. That is why, when I have understood my suffering, it is easier for me to understand your suffering. When you understand someone’s suffering, that is a great gift that you can offer to him or to her. The other person feels for the first time that she is understood. To offer understanding means to offer love. And understanding another person is not possible without understanding self. Home-building begins with yourself. Your partner too builds a home within, and then you can call her your home, and she can call you her home.

In the Upper Hamlet, we build a Sangha as our home. You build your family as a Sangha too, because Sangha means simply “community.” The most noble task is to build a Sangha. After enlightenment, the first thing the Buddha taught us was to look for elements to build a Sangha. A Sangha is a refuge for ourselves and for many people.

So we go home to ourselves, we listen to the suffering inside of us. We embrace our pain, our sorrow, our loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. And that kind of understanding, that kind of insight will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter, we begin to feel warmth and peace inside. And then when the other person joins you in building home, you have an ally. You are helping him and he is helping you. And together you have home. You have home in yourself, you have home in him, in her also. If that kind of intimacy does not exist, then a sexual relationship can cause a lot of damage. That is why  earlier I said that physical, sexual intimacy cannot be separated from emotional intimacy.

Between the spiritual and the emotional there is a link. Spirituality is not just a belief in a teaching; it is a practice. And the practice always brings  relief, communication, transformation. Everyone needs a spiritual dimension in his or her life. Without a spiritual dimension in our life, we cannot deal with the difficulties that we encounter. We should have a spiritual practice, a Dharma life. We learn how to put the Dharma into practice. With that kind of practice, we can deal with the difficulties we encounter in our daily life.

Your spiritual practice can help you a lot in dealing with your emotions, helping you to listen, to embrace your own suffering, and to recognize and embrace the suffering of the other person. That is why these two forms of intimacy inter-are. You know how to deal with a strong emotion, like fear, anger, despair. Because you know how to do that, you can feel more peaceful within yourself. That spiritual practice helps you build a home within yourself, for your sake and for the sake of the other person. That is why emotional intimacy cannot be separated from spiritual intimacy. The three kinds of intimacy inter-are.

Reverence for the Body

Sexual activity without love is empty sex. It is prevalent in our society and is causing a lot of suffering for our young people. If you are schoolteachers, if you are parents, you should help your children and your students to avoid empty sex. Empty sex is bringing a lot of damage to their minds and their bodies. Damage will emerge later on in the forms of depression, mental disorders, suicide. Many young people don’t see the connection between empty sex and these physical and mental disorders in themselves.

What happens in the body will have an effect on the mind and vice versa. Mind relies on the body to manifest and body relies on mind to be alive, to be possible. When you love someone, you have to respect not only her mind but also her body. You respect your own body, and you respect his body. True love should have the nature of reverence, respect. In the Asian tradition you have to treat your spouse with respect, like a guest. And in order to respect her, you have to respect yourself first. Reverence should be the nature of our love.

In my country, parents are proud to introduce their child to a guest. The guest will usually ask, “Do you love your father, your mother?” The child says, “Yes! I love my father, I love my mother.” The next question is: “Where do you put your love?” The child has been instructed to answer: “My love, I put it on my head.” Not “in my heart,” but “on my head.” When a monk is about to put on his sanghati, the saffron robe, for a ceremony, he’s holding his sanghati with reverence, the same as when handling a scripture. If you approach the monk and you bow to him, and if he does not find any decent place to put his sanghati, he will put it on his head because this is a noble place; it is like the altar. That is why in Vietnamese good manners, you should not touch the head of another person if you don’t know him or her well. This is one of the sacred places of the body, because the head is the altar to worship ancestors and the Buddha.

There are other parts of the body that are also sacred that you should not touch. It’s like inside the Imperial City, there is the Purple City* where the family of the king lives. And you are not supposed to go in that area. If you do, they will arrest you and cut off your head. In a person’s body there are areas that are forbidden to touch. And if you don’t show respect, if you touch that part of the body, you are penetrating the Purple City. When a child is sexually abused, she suffers, he suffers very deeply. Someone has violated her Purple City and she did not have the ability to protect herself. There are children who have been abused at the age of eight, nine, ten, and they suffer very deeply. They blame their parents for not having protected them, and their relationship with their parents becomes difficult. Then their relationship with their friends and their future lovers will also be very difficult. The wounds are always there.

Sexual abuse of children is overwhelming. It is said that in the U.S. from five to fifteen percent of young boys are abused sexually and from fifteen to thirty-five percent of little girls are abused sexually. That’s a lot. And when a child is abused like that, she or he will suffer all her life from many things, because her body hasn’t been respected.

In school, and in the family, we need to teach them to respect themselves, to respect their own body, and to respect the body of the other person. If you are religious leaders, if you are politicians, if you are parents or teachers, if you are educators, please think about it. We can learn from the teaching of the Buddha to organize our life in the family, in the school, in society in such a way that we can be protected and our child will be always protected.

Be Beautiful, Be Yourself

We said earlier that sensual pleasure, sexual desire, is not love, but our society is organized in such a way that sensual pleasure becomes the most important thing. To sell their products, corporations create advertisements that water the seeds of craving in you. They want you to consume so that you will develop a craving for sensual pleasure. But sensual pleasures can destroy you. What we need is mutual understanding, trust, love, emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy. But we don’t have the opportunity to meet that kind of deep need in us.

There are women’s fashion magazines that tell us that in order to succeed, you have to look a certain way, and use a certain product. Many young people in our society want to have cosmetic surgery in order to meet that standard of beauty. They suffer very much, because they cannot accept their bodies. When you do not accept your body as it is, you are not your true home. Every child is born in the garden of humanity as a flower. Your body is a kind of flower, and flowers differ from one another. Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh. If you can accept your body, then you have a chance to see your body as home. If you don’t accept your body, you cannot have a home. If you cannot accept your mind, you cannot be a home to yourself. And there are many young people who do not accept their body, who do not accept who they are; they want to be someone else. We have to tell young people they are already beautiful as they are; they don’t have to be another person.

Thay has a calligraphy: “Be beautiful; be yourself.” That is a very important practice. You have to accept yourself as you are. And when you practice building a home in yourself, you’ll become more and more beautiful. You have peace, you have warmth, you have joy. You feel wonderful within yourself. And people will recognize the beauty of your flower.

Mindfulness is the kind of energy that can help you to go home to yourself, to be in the here and the now, so that you know what to do and what not to do, in order to preserve yourself, in order to build your true home, in order to transform your own afflictions, and to be a home for other people. The Five Mindfulness Trainings are a concrete way of practicing mindfulness. In the Buddhist tradition, holiness is made of mindfulness. And mindfulness brings within itself the energy of concentration and insight. Mindfulness, concentration, and insight make you holy.

Holiness does not exist only with celibacy. There are those who are celibate but who are not holy, because they don’t have enough mindfulness, concentration, and insight. There are those who live a conjugal life, but if they have mindfulness and concentration and insight, they have the element of holiness in them. Sexual intimacy can be a beautiful thing if there is mindfulness, concentration, insight, mutual understanding, and love. Otherwise it will be very  destructive. A sutra describes the moment when Queen Mahamaya was pregnant with the Buddha. Mahamaya dreamed of a white elephant whose trunk was holding a lotus flower. The elephant touched her with the lotus flower and entered into her very, very softly, and she was pregnant with Siddhartha. That is the way they describe a sexual relationship, in the palace before Siddhartha was conceived: gentleness, beauty. Sexual intimacy should not occur before there is communion, understanding, sharing on the emotional and spiritual level. And then the physical, sexual intimacy can also become holy.

To practice Buddhism as a monk is always easier than to practice as a layperson. There is a Vietnamese saying: to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult. So to refrain from all sexual activities is much easier than to have a sexual relationship. To have a sexual relationship in the context of mutual understanding and love, you need a lot of practice. Otherwise you create suffering for him, for you, for her.

There is a woman doctor in Switzerland who came to practice in Plum Village. She had suffered several times because of relationships. Since she was young, every time she was asked to have a sexual relationship with a man, she felt she had to say yes even if she did not feel ready, because she was afraid. Many teenagers in our time feel that way. They don’t like it, they don’t want it, they don’t feel ready for it, but they do not dare to say no, because they are afraid to be looked upon as weird, as abnormal. They don’t want to be rejected; they want to be accepted. That is a psychological fact parents and teachers have to be aware of. We have to tell the young people that they can learn to say no when they are not ready, when they are afraid. Otherwise they will destroy their body and their mind. Please listen to the young people, be compassionate, help them. We have to help them find skillful ways to say no.

When she came to Plum Village, the woman from Switzerland learned skillful ways to say no. In her last relationship, she was able to say no. She said, “I need you, my beloved. We need to understand each other. I need your presence. I need someone to help me when I have difficulties, to understand me.” They spent one year and a half together without having a sexual relationship. And when we went to her country for a Dharma talk, she proudly introduced her husband to us. Their relationship was wonderful, very successful, because she was able to say no until she was ready, and together they could build the kind of relationship that is lasting.

* In China and Vietnam, the Imperial City contained an enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City.

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Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha

In March, my partner and I were fortunate to spend five days at Deer Park Monastery. One evening after dinner we noticed a group of nuns, monks, and lay friends playing volleyball. My partner, who played on a college team, wanted to join them. I agreed—in spite of my aversion to team sports and perception of myself as uncoordinated. Stepping onto the court, I was horrified to feel like my gangly junior high school self, terrified of the ball and my teammates’ mockery and derision.

Yet as we played, I noticed that the sisters and brothers on “my team” didn’t react at all when I avoided the ball or hit it askew. There were no shouts of judgment or praise, no competition, no ambition. Instead, I noticed laughter, silence, relaxed ease, and neutrality. The monastics were practicing equanimity in volleyball. Whatever happened, they genuinely didn’t mind. In their presence, I was able to acknowledge my fears, gently set them aside, and wake up to the present moment. I watched the ball fly back and forth. I responded naturally when it came to me. After the game I knew a very old wound had begun to heal.

“Live in joy and in peace even among the troubled,” the Buddha said. “Live in joy and in freedom as the shining ones.” Monks and nuns make a commitment to do just that. In a world overrun with trouble, they dedicate their lives to embodying and teaching peace and compassion. It’s no wonder their very presence fosters spontaneous healing.

In this issue on Monastic Life, ten sisters and brothers share candid and compelling personal stories. They speak of obstacles, epiphanies, and aspirations. Authentic and insightful, these writings are precious gifts from the vibrant heart of the Sangha body. If you are inspired by these stories and interested in monastic life, be sure to read the invitation to “Step into Freedom and Taste True Happiness” through the new Five-Year Monastic Training and Service Program (page 45).

In his beautiful Dharma talk, our teacher says that “to practice as a monk is easiest; to practice as a layperson is much more difficult.” Yet he offers wisdom for laypeople to build a warm, safe home within ourselves and to create relationships rooted in mutual understanding and love. Articles by lay friends show us that the joy of practice can blossom beautifully even in Auschwitz and within prison walls. In Thay’s eloquent words: “It is on the very ground of suffering that we can contemplate well-being. It is exactly in the muddy water that the lotus grows and blooms.”

May this issue be a dear companion and guide on your path of peace.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
Benevolent Respect of the Heart

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Twenty-Three Years as a Nun

By Sister Annabel

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As 2011 begins, I begin my twenty-third year of nunhood. I often think of myself as the continuation of my mother and father and all my blood ancestors. As far as I know, none of my blood ancestors were monks or nuns, though some of them have been fervent Christians who depended very much on their belief in God as a spiritual refuge.

When I was ordained as a nun, I did not tell my mother and father. Thay told me that if I did tell them, they would not understand and would only be confused because they did not have a true perception of what a Buddhist nun was. Two years after being ordained, I accompanied Thay on a teaching tour to England. I invited my mother and father to the retreat without saying anything about being a nun. My mother agreed to register; she had already been to Plum Village and knew a little about the practice, but my father was busy and could not come. I remember catching sight of my mother at the end of a hallway on the arrival day. I recognized her before she recognized me. As we drew closer to each other, she called me the name she had called me as a child. Poor mother! She was taken aback to see me in a brown robe and with a shaved head. The first thing she said was, “Thank goodness your father is not here. He would be shocked to see you with a shaved head.”

As the retreat proceeded, my mother felt more and more at ease. She saw how I interacted with the retreatants, leading the Dharma sharing and giving a presentation on the Five Mindfulness Trainings. She saw that the retreatants had respect for the nuns. She praised me for the way I facilitated the Dharma sharing. When Thay went back to Plum Village after the tour, he allowed me to go home to visit my parents and family. I remembered the words of my mother when she first saw me as a nun, and I did not dare uncover my head for the whole length of my stay. Later, if someone happened to take a photograph of me in Plum Village that I considered to be a good photograph, I would send it to my mother.

Now I can leave my head uncovered when I visit my parents’ house. There has been a shift in the direction of our ancestral stream. The Buddhist nunhood, which seemed so strange at first, has become a much more natural part of the life of my blood family. I would even say that my parents have become more monkand nun-like, and that my spiritual practice has helped them manifest differently than before. This is a ripening of seeds that lie in store consciousness.

Adventure in Vietnam

In 1992, four years after I was ordained, Thay suggested that I go to Vietnam. I went with a number of lay students, and we organized retreats and Days of Mindfulness at the historically sacred Buddhist sites in Vietnam. The most adventurous thing we did was to transmit the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Plum Village has a version of the Five Mindfulness Trainings that differs from the mainstream tradition in Vietnam, and many of Thay’s disciples in Saigon and Hue wanted to receive the Plum Village version. First we tried in Hue. Ni Su Dong Thuyen was kind enough to lend her temple. The transmission went unimpeded, but someone made a tape recording that the security police discovered, and we were summoned for a session with them. They told us that we had broken the law and that we had to leave Hue within twenty-four hours and leave Vietnam as soon as possible after that.

We went to Saigon and stayed in a Catholic hotel. We organized a Day of Mindfulness in the oldest temple in Saigon during the weekend, and the security police did not find out about it. Many people came to this famous temple to hear the abbot speak. They had an unexpected Day of Mindfulness with walking meditation. I enjoyed this adventure. We also transmitted the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the rooms behind a bakery on two occasions and no one ever knew.

I am very grateful for the connection with Vietnam that I have experienced as a nun. I have learnt its language, culture, and history, and this has enriched my life greatly. I began my life as a Buddhist practitioner in India and then went to Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhism is not Chinese Buddhism, as some Western scholars seem to think. Buddhism came to Vietnam across the sea from India, and only after Buddhism had become established in Vietnam was it refreshed by new waves coming from China.

Thay tells us that there will come a time when the Vietnamese monks and nuns will go back to Vietnam to look after the practice centres there. The centres in Europe and North America will be looked after by Western monks and nuns. So as Western monks and nuns, we have a responsibility to stick to the Sangha. It is like when Buddhism came to Vietnam from India: the Vietnamese monks had a responsibility to keep Buddhism alive when the Indian monks went home. If they had not done so, we should not have our Su Ong (teacher) today.

mb57-TwentyThree2Sister Annabel, True Virtue, was ordained in 1988. She is the translator of some of Thay’s books and is presently the Dean of Practice at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

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Touching the Blue Sky

The Story of Thay Phap An

By Thay Phap An

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Before I became a monk, I suffered from depression but did not know it. This created a deep need within me to look for something, although I did not know exactly what I was looking for. All I knew was that I wanted to search for some direction, some path. This longing began early in my childhood and it became dominant when I was fourteen or fifteen years old.

I looked for meditation books and pursued different types of practice, beginning in the ninth grade, and continuing after I escaped from Vietnam to live in a refugee camp and then in America. I was a very good student, but there was this sense of sadness deep within me. Often it lasted for days, and it paralyzed me, so that I could not feel the joy of life. However everything seemed very normal to me. Sometimes we suffer and we are not aware of our suffering, so we perceive it as something normal.

“Who Am I?”

When I graduated from college at age twenty-three, I felt a strong wish to become a monk. But my parents did not want this; they encouraged me to continue my studies. So I did. After graduate school, I began to work as a mathematical researcher for an oil company. At that time, I took up the practice of koans very seriously. A koan is a set of practices in which you raise your question and allow it to go deep into your consciousness. You do not look for an answer; any answer that comes to you may not be valid, because it comes from your intellect. It may be merely a set of perceived ideas, a projection. Later on, when the conditions are sufficient, your consciousness will offer its answer to you.

I practiced the koan, “Who am I?” Whenever I moved my hand, I asked, “Who is moving my hand?” Whenever I walked, I asked, “Who is walking?” Whenever I was about to go to sleep, I would ask, “Who is sleeping?” I continued to ask the question, “Who am I?” This question began to work very deeply in me and started to interfere with my work. When I asked the question, “Who is thinking?” my thinking disappeared. This created a problem. I had to think in order to solve problems for people and earn a living.

I fell into a very deep spiritual crisis. I did not know what the best path for my life was, but I knew that I wished to become a monk. However, I loved my family very much, and wanted to respect their wishes, so I could not yet take that step. I stopped working for the oil company and took a post-doctorate position in order have more time to practice meditation and look deeply into what direction I wanted to take for my life.

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I shared with my post-doc advisor my long-time wish to become a monk. He advised me, “For once in your life, you have to listen to your heart. Otherwise you will regret it.” He kindly offered me the option to try out being a monk, and if I didn’t like it I could return to the university and he would still have a job for me. Even now, when I talk about him, I feel very moved and grateful to him for giving me this advice. I collected all my belongings and sent them back home. On March 26, 1992, I left the U.S. to become a monk. I didn’t realize at that time what a shock and source of suffering this was for my family.

When I came to Plum Village, I practiced but did not have much joy. I listened to Thay’s teaching about the present moment, about cultivating joy and happiness, but a deep sense of sadness still hung over me. I tried my best to live in the present moment, in the here and now, and to cultivate happiness. But I could not touch the reality of happiness.

After practicing for three years, I began to lead retreats around the world. I invited people to practice being happy in the present moment. But I was aware that a block of sadness in the back of my mind prevented me from being truly happy. One time, I went to Russia to lead a retreat. A young woman served as my assistant. A few years later, she traveled to Plum Village before she returned home to Vietnam. She became a very close friend who shared openly with me. I remember one time she shared with me, “I have to be very honest with you. You gave a very good Dharma talk about happiness and being in the present moment. But it really puzzles me that you do not look very happy. You look sad all the time.” She meant to ask whether my practice was effective. I offered the teaching to cultivate happiness and live in the present moment, but I still had this block of sadness within me. That was six or seven years after I became a monk.

I had a lot of questions about everything in life. Did our lives have any meaning? Was there something called reality out there that I had to touch? Whenever I had an opportunity, I would ask Thay a question. Whenever there was a question and answer session, I would ask a question right away.

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Thay tried to help me to get in touch with the beauty of life around me. When I was attending Thay, he would say, “Look! Phap An! Don’t you see the beautiful blue sky?” He would pour tea for me when I was about to ask another question, and invite me to enjoy a cup of tea. During our walking meditation together, he would stop, point out a flower and teach me, “Look! Phap An! The flower is very beautiful.” Or he would point to a cloud and ask, “Don’t you see the cloud is beautiful?” He had a lot of compassion. He didn’t give me a jumble of thoughts or theories. He pointed me directly to the source of happiness and joy, because he wanted me to taste it for myself.

Touching Images from the Past

I struggled very much with my depression. There were moments during sitting meditation when I would invite my sadness to come up and embrace it. Looking at the sunshine through the window, tears would fall from my eyes. Sadness simply overwhelmed me. When I embraced my suffering, memories slowly surfaced and the roots of my sadness began to reveal themselves. One image led to another. In the midst of this stream of my past experiences, I continued to go back to my breathing and stay aware of my body. The wave of sadness returned, over and over, until it slowly calmed down. I continued to go back to the emotion, embrace it, and observe it. I saw many different images from my past.

I discovered that I had been wounded as a child in the war in Vietnam. I was born in a rural part of Central Vietnam. There, the war was very intense. Every night I heard bombing in the distance. There were people who lived around me who became mentally ill; the pressure of the war became too much for them. There were soldiers who took off their clothes and ran around naked. I remember a woman who screamed and cried every night. She lived next to our house. As I lay down to sleep, I listened to her moaning and screaming all night long in the dark. I felt a lot of love for her and also a lot of fear.

We lived next to an air force base, and fighter jets flew by in the middle of the night. They flew above the roof of our house as they took off. The sound was very loud, and my brother who slept next to me would sit up and scream along with the jets, in his sleep. He didn’t wake up. He simply sat up in the bed and screamed. I was one year older than him. I woke up because of the noise. Every night, when he sat up screaming, I gently pushed him back down to sleep. It happened almost every night.

I lived with a lot of fear and uncertainty. Once or twice a year, the communists would attack our village. Houses burnt down. We had to get out. One time, during an attack, my father was standing. Something fell to the ground; he bent down. Just as he bent down, a bullet hit the box behind him. If he had been standing, he would have been killed. Luckily the bullet missed him and broke the box behind him. In just one single moment he would have been killed.

From time to time, South Vietnamese soldiers would come to our parents’ pharmacy and shoot into the shelves of medicine. They held up a grenade and threatened to throw it if we didn’t leave. Then they broke into the cash register and took whatever medicines they wanted. There was no law around, so they came very often, to take money and medicine. They used harsh language. They shot anywhere they liked.

Slowly but surely, I went back to the past to touch all these images as I sat in meditation. Then I saw the image of myself as a little boy. I think that I was only four or five years old. I was hiding myself in a medicine cabinet. Looking out, I could see military men in the front of our house—Americans and South Vietnamese in camouflage uniforms. They were carrying all kinds of equipment, with many weapons of war, and setting up camp in the twilight and drizzling rain. As I looked out, I felt so scared.

In my meditation, I had a clear memory that that little boy said to himself, “There’s no future for my life and I don’t want to grow up. What’s the point? If I grow up, I’ll be like these men who carry guns around, and either I will kill someone or be killed by someone.” As I looked back, I asked myself: how could I have such a thought when I was so young, only four or five? This incident continued to affect me without my knowing it.

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At the age of seven or eight, I began to draw human faces. I would spend a lot of time in my room, looking at magazines and drawing the beautiful faces I saw in them. I drew like this for about five years, until the war was over. Deep within the mind of that little boy was the belief that humans were cruel and ugly. I sensed the dark side of human beings, so I drew beautiful human faces as a defense mechanism. I accumulated several books of drawings of faces, but because of the war we fled to the South and I lost all of them.

When I was in the fifth and sixth grade, every day at about sunset, from about five to six o’clock in the afternoon, I experienced a pain in my forehead, which I now understand was a migraine. I couldn’t stand it and my father took me to the hospital, but the doctor couldn’t figure out the reason for my chronic headaches. When the war ended, the migraines went away. Thanks to my meditation, I now understand what was happening. Around sunset, the military men came and camped in front of our house. That was also the first time I had the thought that my life had no future, that life had no meaning, and that I didn’t want to grow up. Whenever the sun set, this feeling was re-activated. My depression was triggered by the sunset.

A New Perception

I worked on this block of sadness and the tendency to withdraw for many years. Sometimes, it seemed there was no hope. Many times Thay told me that the sky was very beautiful, and the blue sky was indeed very beautiful, but I could not touch that blue sky. Many other young brothers and sisters came to Plum Village and lived without much difficulty. They could be happy and play with each other. But I could never taste such joy. Therefore, I felt quite lonely in the community. I was in that state of loneliness, with my own struggle, but I tried to embrace my sadness whenever I had a chance.

I learned to go straight to this primary perception. The sadness was due to the perception that there was no future, no point to growing up because life was very ugly. It was very difficult to embrace the sadness. At first I didn’t understand how to do it, but gradually, I learned. I had to balance my mind with the energy of joy and happiness before I could embrace this pain. Over the years, I have been trying my best to embrace my emotion and I have learned that it is inseparable from the perception that I had as a little boy, that there was no future for my life. After many years of practice, I have been able to purify and transform this emotion and am cultivating a new and more positive perception of life.

In Upper Hamlet, there is a walking meditation path, from which we can see the sunset. Many times when the sun set this sense of sadness would come up. I practiced walking meditation along this path in the middle of sunset, and tears would come. With each of my steps, I would tell myself, “This is truly beautiful. This is truly beautiful.” I would say, “I’m really happy now. I’m really happy now.” I trained myself like that. This exercise does not do violence to ourselves; instead, it is a training that tries to cultivate a new kind of perception. I tried to look at each flower on the road, to look at each stone, and say, “I’m really happy now. The war is over. I’m not living in a time of war anymore. It’s okay. It’s safe. There’s life. There’s a meaning to life. It’s very beautiful now.” I practiced this often, for many years. I tried to build a new perception to balance the child who saw no future.

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We have to train ourselves to develop a new perception. At the beginning, this new perception is weak. It’s just a skinny bone, a skeleton; there’s no flesh to it. Over the years we have to build new flesh, to build a thicker layer around our new perception. As I cultivated this new perception, I built new flesh around it. As I said to myself, “This is truly beautiful,” I tried to feel beauty and happiness. I continued to build layers of flesh so that I could balance the block of pain and suffering that I had gone through. Over the years, bit by bit, it worked.

In addition to transforming my perceiving, I also changed my way of eating. I noticed that around five or six o’clock in the evening, at sunset, I had trouble with my colon. I couldn’t digest food, and suffered from a lot of gas. It became very disturbing. My depression had come into my body and embedded itself into my colon. I decided to stop eating dinner. I did this for two to three years. Amazingly, as the colon healed, the depression also healed.

This transformation has to do with both the body and the mind. We cannot focus on the mind alone, because our sadness and depression have turned into a part of our body. We have to purify our body in order to purify our mental difficulties. It took me a long time, but I was able to transform this block of sadness and depression within me by looking deeply into my food, taking good care of myself, fasting, exercising, and building a new perception.

I Could Feel the Blue Sky

After seven or eight years of practice, during the springtime, I was in Thay’s hermitage. He organized a picnic day for the monastics; the brothers and sisters were playing volleyball, cooking, and having a barbecue. I was standing at the veranda, looking at my brothers and sisters playing joyfully. I didn’t join them but I stood near them. Then I looked at the poplar trees, with no leaves, standing against the blue sky in spring. I followed my breathing and practiced the mantra Thay taught us. “I’m here for you. Breathing in, I am aware that the poplar tree is there, that the blue sky is there. Breathing out, I’m really here for you.”

I followed my breathing for a long time, and remained in touch with the poplar and the blue sky. Suddenly, for the first time, I could feel the blue sky. Tears ran down my face. I just stood there crying. I was able to touch that moment with such deep joy and happiness, from the depths within me. The blue sky was so beautiful that day. The poplar tree was so beautiful. After seven or eight years of practice, I was finally able to touch all that.

Nowadays, I am more stable. My anger, my temper, my sadness and depression have transformed to a large extent. This year marks my eighteenth year of practice as a monk, and I have changed a lot. I have healed my body and healed my mind, for the most part. I do not get caught by anger much. I do not get trapped by my sadness and depression much. It is very important to identify the very beginning of a negative perception before it turns itself into a mental loop, a block of strong emotion. We can learn to embrace and understand it before it begins to affect our life and our relationships.

mb57-Touching6Thich Chan Phap An, True Dharma Seal, was born in 1963 in Vietnam. He was ordained into monkhood in 1992 and received Transmission of the Lamp of Wisdom in 1999. Since 2008, he has served as the Director and Dean of Studies at the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany.

This article is an excerpt from a Dharma talk given on January 29, 2010. It was edited by Thay Phap An, Sister Chau Nghiem, Charles Wheeler, and Natascha Bruckner.

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Orange, Maroon, and Brown

Please Call Me by My True Colors

By Brother Chan Phap Tu

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My precious master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Please call me by my true names.” This is a very interesting saying. When I look into myself, sometimes I don’t know which name is my true name! Currently my name is Brother Chan Phap Tu, which means “True Dharma Son.” Sometimes the brothers and sisters in Plum Village like to call me “Dharma Death” because “Tu” has that other meaning, “death.”

My other true name is Tenzin Donpal, a Tibetan name. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave me this name when I received novice ordination in Dharamsala, India, in 2008. Another one of my true names is Nyanabhadra, which was given to me by my first ordination master, Venerable Dharmavimala, in Indonesia in 2007. My master’s lineage is from both the Myanmar Theravada tradition and the Mahayana tradition from Guang Hua Monastery in Putian, Province of Fujian, People’s Republic of China.

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In Touch with Islam

I grew up on a small island near Sumatra, Indonesia. My ancestors came from Fujian Province in mainland China, so my blood is Chinese and my passport is Indonesian. I’m the seventh of eight children. Both of my parents passed away when I was four years old, and my elder brothers and sisters took care of me. My eldest brother had to continue my father’s business, and my eldest sister had to take over my mother’s duties in the kitchen. I remember my sister crying day and night; she was young and wished to continue her studies, but she could not. After completing high school, I pursued my bachelor’s degree in West Java. I was so excited to study more and more in order to repay my family’s kindness. I earned a diploma in Information Technology and a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science.

In Indonesia, the majority of people are Muslim. Naturally, growing up there, I had a lot of opportunities to be in touch with Islam. Even now I appreciate Islamic teachings so much. For me, the five prayer times that are part of every day are a kind of meditation. Whenever I hear the call to prayer from the loudspeaker of the mosque, I stop and breathe deeply at least three times to come back to myself.

In Touch with Buddhism

When I was in fourth grade, I encountered the teachings of Theravada Buddhism for the first time. I was so inspired by the story of Siddhartha sitting beneath the bodhi tree! I liked to read it again and again. The image of Buddha under the bodhi tree has been beautiful to me ever since I was small.

During my university period, I spent a lot of time working as a volunteer in a Buddhist monastery, where I participated in many retreats, seminars, Dharma talks, and workshops. I liked to read about, learn, and practice several traditions, such as Theravada, Zen, and especially Vajrayana. I keep my heart open to accept that these are all the teachings of the Buddha. I believe the Buddha never claimed himself as Theravada or Mahayana or Zen or Vajrayana, and I believe that he is made up of all these elements.

Working as a volunteer in the monastery watered the seed of monasticism in me, but this seed was not strong enough at that time, and I continued working as a computer engineer for almost six more years.

Encountering the Masters

Dagpo Rinpoche recommended that I go to Dharamsala to study Tibetan and Buddhist philosophy. Thanks to him and his guidance, I had the opportunity to be ordained by H.H. the Dalai Lama. During the ordination ceremony, His Holiness was telling us a few jokes and making us laugh, but at the same time, the jokes contained deep teachings. He said, “You are my student now, and you have to follow my instruction,” and he listed such instructions as keeping a calm demeanor, eating simple vegetarian foods, and wearing our robe properly wherever we went. Then he said, “Except in a very dangerous situation that threatens your life. For example, when I was fleeing from Tibet, I had to dress in such a way that nobody recognized me, so I could run out easily.”

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I spent almost three years in Dharamsala, the state of Himachal Pradesh, and the North of India. I was so happy to study and practice at one of the best Tibetan Buddhist institutes in Dharamsala. I received many different kinds of knowledge and practices. Whenever H.H. the Dalai Lama gave a teaching at Namgyal Monastery, the institute would declare a special holiday for us so we could attend the teaching.

In 2008, my first ordination master, Venerable Dharmavimala, asked me to go to Hanoi to attend the Engaged Buddhism retreat led by Thay and the Plum Village Sangha. I was reluctant to go because I liked Tibetan Buddhism, but I revered my master so much that I flew from India to Hanoi just to attend the retreat. During the retreat, our group facilitator, Sister Dinh Nghiem, arranged for us to meet with Thay, and he invited all of us to Plum Village.

I returned to Dharamsala to continue my studies. When Thay and the Sangha visited India in 2008, I had an opportunity to meet with Sister Chan Khong, and she wrote me a letter to help me obtain a visa to attend a three-month winter retreat in Plum Village. After attending the retreat, I knew that “nothing is more important than brotherhood and sisterhood.” I learned that on the path of practice, I should not be a superhero because I would surely evaporate without a Sangha supporting me, especially a Sangha that lives in harmony and practices mindfulness.

Now I have been in Plum Village for more than two years. Time has passed by so quickly! Last year, Thay and the Sangha were in Indonesia and conducted a five-day retreat in West Java and a peace walk at the world heritage site of Borobudur in Central Java. One evening at the foot of Borobudur, Thay said to me, “Thay Phap Tu, you have to kneel down and make a great vow to renew Buddhism in Indonesia.” I burst into tears but tried to wipe my eyes and hide my tears. I will always remember this vow in my heart. I know that not only are Buddha and Jesus brothers, but Buddha and Prophet Muhammad are also brothers!

My True Colors

If you really want to call me, please call me by my true names. I have to answer, “Yes.” Even though I’m a Buddhist monk, I’m fully aware that I’m made of non-Buddhist-monk elements. Yes, I’m a monk from a Zen tradition, but when I look into myself I see a Muslim; I see myself wearing an orange robe as a Theravada monk; I see myself wearing a maroon robe as a Vajrayana monk; and I see myself wearing a brown robe as a monk from Plum Village. From orange to maroon to brown, I’m not afraid of what color will manifest next because I have found my true color in the here and in the now. I hope you do too!

Brother Chan Phap Tu, True Dharma Son, lives in Plum Village.

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Lightness in My Heart

An Interview with Sister Boi Nghiem

By Natascha Bruckner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ancestral Insights

By Sister An Nghiem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Monk: To Be or Not to Be?

By Brother Phap Kinh (Dharma Meridian) 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bodhisattva Path 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Simple Living

An Interview with Brother Phap Trach 

By Sister Chau Nghiem 

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

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

Question: How old were you?

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Like sitting meditation?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Many Ways Can You Pray?

By Brother Phap Man 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brother Phap Man lives in Plum Village.

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Waking Up This Morning, I Smile

By Brother Phap Ho 

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

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

Living Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Vocation That Brings Joy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Plum Tree

By Sister Trang Moi Len

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Love Letter from Auschwitz

By Peter Kuhn 

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

How Could “I” Do This? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Unfathomable Love 

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

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

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

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

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

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The Joy of Practice Cannot Be Contained

By Leslie Rawls and Carl Dunlap, Jr.

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

mb57-TheJoy1From Carl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Leslie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Small Is Beautiful

Old Path Sangha Turns Ten!

By Valerie Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding Home 

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

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

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

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

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

The Buddha of the Twenty-First Century 

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

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

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

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

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

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Stretching Our Practice

Vancouver Prepares for 2011 Retreat

By Jeanie Seward-Magee

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

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

The Mindfulness Practice Center 

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

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

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

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

Growing Our Practice 

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

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

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

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

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Step into Freedom and Taste True Happiness

Five-Year Monastic Training and Service Program

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

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

Basic Requirements:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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