Where Is the Observer?

By Svein Myreng

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When I was a student, almost thirty years ago, I went through a time of despair. Meeting scientifid and existentialist thinking wiped out the religious belief I once had. I found myself in a meaningless universe of dead matter, where consciousness and life seemed to be just a coincidence. This triggered a great fear of death in me, and engendered heavy questions about the meaning of life.

The first crack in my faith in science came when I listened to a lecture by Isaac Bashevis Singer, who had received the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years earlier (in 1978). With his background in traditional Judaic culture, Singer’s writing is a beautiful door to deeper mysteries in life. He argued eloquently that science cannot give all the answers, and in fact, we humans know very little. Holding up his fountain pen, he said, ”If this pen is the whole of reality, our knowledge is only the little ball on its tip.”

Somewhat later, I came in touch with the writings of D.T. Suzuki. He described Zen as “acquiring a new point of view for looking at things,” beyond the conceptual divisions between inner and outer, self and others. Instead of proposing another set of beliefs, as I felt other religions did, Suzuki pointed the way to an entirely different way of experiencing reality. Most importantly, he suggested that you could seek this new way of experience yourself, beyond words and theories. For me, this was the start of meditative practice, which changed my life forever.

Science vs. Religion

My meeting with Singer and my encounter with Zen enabled me slowly to break out of the straitjacket of scientific thinking as I knew it at the time — almost entirely reductionistic and materialistic. Science has shaped the lives of everybody in the affluent world to a larger extent than we tend to realize — through technologies that have made life much more comfortable, advances in medicine, and so on. In fact, in the 1970s and 1980s in Norway, the belief was strong that science would soon replace religion completely, making the world’s faiths a thing of the past.

Therefore, it’s interesting that new discoveries in science seem to validate meditation and similar practices, which many scientists scoffed at not that long ago. From what I understand, studies have confirmed that there is a clear connection between meditation and higher activity in areas of the brain connected to happiness and well-being, and that meditation can actually change the physiology of the brain — something which goes completely against scientific belief of just a decade or two ago. As science has developed more powerful tools for investigating brain activity, it can find correlates between certain activities in the brain and certain sense activities, emotions, and so on.

Still, there seems to be some scientific arrogance when it comes to valid and invalid ways of finding knowledge. I couldn’t help chuckling a bit when I read the following quote from one scientist commenting on the happiness research: “We have all seen those Buddhists, who seem to be so relaxed and happy. Now, we actually know that they are relaxed and happy.” Apparently, happiness is not a fact before it shows up on a brain scan.

When I look at a little blue flower, though, I see a blue flower and not electrons jumping around in my brain. For the time being, there seems to be no place for my personal experience in brain research. To quote B. Alan Wallace, a scientist and a long-time student of H.H. the Dalai Lama: “Strictly speaking, at present there is no scientific evidence even for the existence of consciousness! All the direct evidence we have consists of nonscientific, first-person accounts of being conscious.”(1)

Looking at the Mind

A denial of the subjective seems to come from the old ideal in science that the observer should be as separate from the object of study as possible, with only the object side of the subject-object relationship falling within the scientific field of knowledge. This has allowed science to understand the “outer” world to a tremendously larger degree than ever before in the history of humankind, but leaves it far behind in understanding the mind.

These sharp subject-object distinctions have, however, been challenged in fields as different as quantum physics and the social sciences, where the role of the observer has turned out to be crucial. In the study of consciousness, which cannot be measured as a “thing in the world,” the subject’s perspective is even more important. This is where the great contemplative traditions enter.

An important part of what a long-term (or not so long-term) meditation practice teaches us is to look at functions of the mind in ever more subtle ways. Thoughts come and go, feelings constantly change; even the subtle impulses that come before we move a hand or foot can be seen clearly when the mind is still. We can notice how a sense perception arises when an impression, for example a sound or a bodily sensation, comes together with a sense organ, for example our ability to hear or to sense with our body.

All thoughts, feelings, impulses, sounds, forms, smells, etc. can be objects of our consciousness, but can the subject become an object? Where is the subject? What does it mean that I experience something? Where is the mind located? In an appendix to The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Shantideva’s Siksasamuccaya:

“Mind cannot be apprehended, inside, or outside, or in between both. For mind is immaterial, invisible, non-resisting, inconceivable, unsupported, and homeless. Mind has never been seen by any of the Buddhas, nor do they see it, nor will they see it.… ‘where there is an object, there mind arises.’ Is then the mind one thing, and the object another? No, what is the object, just that is the mind. If the object were one thing, and the mind another, then there would be a double state of mind.”(2)

This quote, which has fascinated me for years, does not deal with philosophy. It is about something that is observable. My own meditation practice is not yet strong enough to go as deeply as I would like into its implications. Still, I can offer a few glimpses.

Manas at Work

When we take for granted that there is a me, an observer separate from what is observed, we aren’t looking closely enough. The impression of the distinct observer may be due to other sense impressions located in the body, or to the incessant, semi-conscious thinking that says “I am like this, this is me, this is mine.” (Manas in the vijñanavada model of consciousness.) As an example, if you have a sense impression of a tingling in your foot, do you actually experience it in your foot, or in your head? How does thought make it “my foot tingling”?

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The belief that consciousness has its origin in the brain may support the illusion of the independent observer. Thây strongly challenges this view: “We shouldn’t say that consciousness is born from the brain, because the opposite is true: the brain is born from consciousness.”(3)

In my youth, I felt separate from other people, almost as if separated by a glass wall. This was probably a rather extreme feeling, and it was very unpleasant. Only a subtle separation between observer and observed, however, is enough to rob us of the greatest joy in life. Even if the barrier between me and my surroundings is ever so subtle, it’s still a barrier. When the barrier disappears, if only for a short time, the world appears completely different — sacred, beautiful. As layman P’ang in old China said, “Wonderful snowflakes, each one falls in the perfect place.”

  1. B. Alan Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity (California: Oxford University Press, 2000), page 3.
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (Boston: Beacon Press, 1975). The Siksasamuccaya is translated by Edward Conze; I have exchanged “mind” for Conze’s “thought.”
  3. Thich Nhat Hanh, “The Four Layers of Consciousness” in Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Summer

Svein Myreng, True Door, is a senior dharma teacher who lives in Oslo, Norway and practices with the Sangha of Floating Clouds. He thanks his wife and kalyanamitra (spiritual friend), Eevi Beck, for help with this article.

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Letter From Thay

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Plum Village
Le Pey 24240 Thenac
France
8.8.2006

Honorable George W. Bush
The White House
Washington D.C., U.S.A.:

Dear Mr. President,

Last night, i saw my brother (who died two weeks ago in the U.S.A.) coming back to me in a dream. He was with all his children. He told me, “Let’s go home together.” After a millisecond of hesitation, i told him joyfully, “OK; let’s go.”

Waking up from that dream at 5 am this morning, I thought of the situation in the Middle East; and for the first time, i was able to cry. I cried for a long time, and i felt much better after about one hour. Then i went to the kitchen and made some tea. While making tea, i realized that what my brother had said is true: our home is large enough for all of us. Let us go home as brothers and sisters.

Mr. President, i think that if you could allow yourself to cry like i did this morning, you will also feel much better. It is our brothers that we kill over there. They are our brothers, God tells us so, and we also know it. They may not see us as brothers because of their anger, their misunderstanding, their discrimination. But with some awakening, we can see things in a different way, and this will allow us to respond differently to the situation. I trust God in you, i trust the Buddha nature in you. Thank you for reading.

In gratitude and
with brotherhood

Thich Nhat Hanh
Plum Village

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A Call for a Collective Awakening

Speech to UNESCO in Paris, October 7, 2006

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb44-ACall1Ten years ago, I was asked by the director of UNESCO, his Excellency Federico Mayor, to write a manual on the practice of peace and nonviolence, and I readily accepted the work. For me, writing this manual was an easy thing to do, because in Plum Village where I live and practice, we do nothing but practice peace and nonviolence — all year round. There are about three hundred monastics and lay people who live together in Plum Village, and what we learn everyday is to be peace and to do peace. Our center is also open to friends from all over the world to come and practice, and about five to ten thousand people come every year to learn to be peace and to practice peace and nonviolence. That is why I was ready to accept the work of writing the manual, which took about one year to finish with the help of the Dharma teachers in Plum Village.

When you come to Plum Village, you learn how to breathe so that peace, happiness, and freedom are possible; how to walk so that you can enjoy every step, and so that every step can be refreshing, healing, and nourishing; how to sit so that peace, understanding, and wisdom become possible. We also learn to eat our breakfast and do our dishes in way that makes freedom, peace, brotherhood, love, understanding, and joy possible; and the practice is continuous.

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We have offered the practice of peace to many different kinds of people including children, students, parents, school teachers, police officers, ecologists, psychotherapists, business leaders, and others. The children who come to Plum Village practice very well, and they are capable of being peace and practicing peace. We offer different kinds of retreats to serve different kinds of people in their desire to practice nonviolence and peace.

We once offered a retreat in the United States of America for police officers and for corrections-center administrative personnel. You can picture those police officers now, practicing mindful breathing and mindful walking while patrolling the streets. Those police officers are now capable of using loving speech and deep listening in order to restore communication between themselves and their families. Everyone can practice, including politicians. We have offered a retreat for members of Congress in Washington, D.C. and there are now congressmen and senators who practice walking meditation on Capitol Hill. They know how to do walking meditation from their office to the place where they cast their votes. We have also offered the practice for people who are in prison, and there are now practitioners in prison enjoying breathing, sitting, and walking, and they suffer much less. Also among the people who come to our center to practice are many school teachers, and they are able to bring the practice to their classrooms to help their students suffer less.

Proposal 1: An Institute for Peace

Over the years, we have trained more than f ive hundred Dharma teachers in the practices of Plum Village, and they can offer the practice of peace and nonviolence in a non-sectarian way. If UNESCO wants to set up a school for the practice of peace, we can afford to offer teachers — both monastic and lay — and we don’t need any salary.

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The peace manual was completed several years ago and it was published as a book by Riverhead. We have added a number of anecdotes and stories in order to make it pleasant for our readers, but it is essentially a manual for the practice of peace and nonviolence. We know that there is violence within us, and that there are also fear, despair, and anger in us. We should know how to recognize, embrace, and transform the violence and anger within. In Plum Village, we don’t just speak about nonviolence and peace — we try to do it. Once we have been able to transform the violence in us, we can help other people around us to do the same. We can help other people recognize, embrace, and transform the violence and suffering in themselves, and these are very concrete ways to practice.

Over the years, we have sponsored many Palestinian and Israeli groups to come to Plum Village to practice with us. In the beginning, it is always very difficult for the two groups to look at or speak to each other, because everyone has a lot of fear, anger, despair, hate, and misunderstanding. Therefore, their practice during the first week is just breathing and walking mindfully, so they can calm down and recognize the energy of anger, fear, and violence in themselves, and they can get a kind of relief. After about ten days, we introduce them to the practice of deep, compassionate listening. In this practice, you listen with all your heart in order to give the other person a chance to empty his or her heart. There is a lot of suffering within the other person, and maybe no one has ever been able to listen to him or to her. One hour of listening like that can bring a lot of relief to the other person. The group of Israelis sit quietly in order to listen to the Palestinians and vice versa. You have the right to say what is in your heart, but you should use the kind of language that will help the other person or the other group of people to get the message, and this kind of language is called loving speech. You are not supposed to argue, condemn, or blame, but you can tell everything, with the condition that you use loving speech.

Practicing like that and speaking like that can help restore communication. When you listen like that, you have an opportunity to realize that the other group consists also of people who have suffered exactly like you have. Their children, their men and women have suffered tremendously like your own people, your own children. If you see that they have a lot of wrong perceptions about themselves and also about you, you tell yourself that later on, you will have time to help them correct their perceptions by offering them the kind of information that they need in order to do so. If while listening, you realize that you too have wrong perceptions, then you have a chance to correct your own perceptions. It is only when you are able to see the other person as a human being who has suffered as much as you have, that you can begin to look at him with the eyes of compassion. Looking at him or at her like that makes you suffer less, and it makes him or her suffer less at the same time.

After the second week of practice, the two groups are able to share a meal together and hold hands to do walking meditation together. We have witnessed this kind of transformation in our community. Before they leave for the Middle East, they always come up as one group and report to us about the fruits of their practice. They always promise that once they go back home, they will organize activities that will allow other Palestinians and Israelis to join them in the practice so that they too, can suffer less.

Regional Peace Institutes

I propose that as religious and spiritual leaders, you establish an institute for the practice of peace and nonviolence in your own home country — whether you are Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, or Christian — because teaching and practicing peace is not confined to any one religion. The practices in our peace manual are nonsectarian. As a monk, a priest, a minister, a rabbi, or a school teacher, we are in touch with the grassroots, and if we know the art of making and practicing peace, we can help our own community. That is why my first proposal today is for UNESCO to set up such an institute for the practice of peace and nonviolence, and for all of you to also think about establishing such an institute where you live. That way, people like parents, school teachers, business leaders and even political leaders can come and learn how to practice peace.

We know that UNESCO has circulated Manifesto 2000, with its six points of practice for the culture of peace and nonviolence.(1) I know also that more than 70 million people have signed Manifesto 2000, including heads of state; but most of us, after having signed the Manifesto, do not have a way to put the six points into practice. That is why I would like to urge all of you, my friends, to organize yourselves in order for the practice to be possible.

In the Buddhist tradition, we recite the five precepts, the ten precepts, or the 250 precepts every fortnight, and we look back on the past two weeks and ask ourselves whether we have practiced them well or not. We also hold discussions to learn how better to practice the commitments we have made. It is very important that we organize ourselves as communities to recite the six points of the Manifesto and try to practice them in our daily life. The institute for the practice of peace and nonviolence would have the role of helping and supporting that kind of practice.

Proposal 2: Middle Eastern Summit

The second proposal that I would like to make today, is that UNESCO sponsor a summit gathering for Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders somewhere in France, perhaps in the Abbaye Royaumont. I know that the violence in the Middle East has the element of religion in it, and Mr. Osama bin Laden actually believes that Christianity and Judaism are trying to destroy Islam as a religion and a way of life. Of course, violence has its roots in fear and hate; but fear, hate, and despair are born from our wrong perceptions. If the groups of Israelis and Palestinians practicing in Plum Village could come together as brothers and sisters, it is because they had a chance to spend several weeks in Plum Village, living together and practicing together. It is my conviction that if these Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders could come and live together for at least twenty-one days — eating together, walking together, breathing together, listening to each other, doing everything together — they will help each other remove a lot of wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of hate, fear, and violence. After that summit, they will issue a call for the cessation of hostility in the Middle East. A Dutch documentary film called My Life Is My Message tells the story of the practice of our Israeli and Palestinian friends and you may like to watch that film.(2) Parallax Press has also issued a book called Peace Begins Here that is about the fruits of the practice of the Palestinian and the Israeli groups.(3)

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Proposal 3: Global No-Car Day

The third and last proposal that I would like to make today, is for UNESCO to sponsor monthly No-Car Days. We know that global warming is our common concern. We are polluting the world. We are making our Mother Earth suffer too much. We have to take action, and that is why I would like to propose that UNESCO, our leader in education, science, and culture, mobilize for global No-Car Days for the whole planet.

In Plum Village where we live, as well as in our Deer Park Monastery in the United States of America, we have adopted a No-Car Day once a week. We have decided to reduce our gas consumption and usage of cars by 50 percent, and only one week after we decided to do so, four thousand friends who are affiliated with us pledged to do the same. So I would like to propose that UNESCO embody the practice and that UNESCO, as a community, practice a No-Car Day once a month and call for the practice of No-Car Days across the globe, to increase awareness about the situation of our planet. “Buddha” means an awakened person, Buddhism is about awakening, and we need collective awakening. UNESCO should be the continuation of the Buddha, and you, my friends, should also be the continuation of Lord Buddha.

Since the day we adopted the practice of No-Car Day, we have gotten a lot of joy and happiness because we know that we can already do something. We do not want to be victims of despair, and we are trying our best to help. Our message is first and foremost not a verbal one; our message is our own action. That’s why it is my desire to propose to all of you who are present here to call for the practice of No-Car Day in your respective communities — if not once a week, then once a month — so that we can draw the people’s attention to the dangerous situation of our planet. We are so busy in our daily life that we need the Buddha every week, every day, to remind us to live in a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children. I believe that we are not being very kind to our children because we are leaving behind us a planet that is deeply wounded.

It is time for us to wake up together in order to do something to change the situation. That is not only for the Buddha; that is for our children and for the children of our children.

  1. For the text of Manifesto 2000, go to http://www3.unesco.org/manifesto2000/uk/uk_manifeste.htm
  2. My Life Is My Message, produced by the Buddhist Broadcast Foundation of The Netherlands, buddhistmedia.com.
  3. Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace Begins Here: Palestinians and Israelis Listening to Each Other, (Berkeley, California: Parallax Press, 2005)

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Walking for Peace in Paris

By Christian Bonnin

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On Saturday, October 21, 2006, Thich Nhat Hanh and the monks and nuns of Plum Village traveled to Paris. Some of them spent the day seeing the sights of the city, guided by members of the Paris Sangha. That evening Thây gave a public talk at the Théatre de la Maison de la Mutualité entitled “Less Anger, Less Violence,” and on Sunday another talk, “How to Transform Our Fears,” both to a full house of several thousand people.On Sunday morning, October 22, Thây and the monastics led a peace walk through the streets of Paris. One participant writes about his experience.

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The sky was overcast as a large crowd gathered little by little along the edge of the Luxembourg Gardens. Some people knew each other or had crossed paths at Plum Village; others arrived in groups. Everyone seemed moved and happy to be here — to walk for the first time behind Thây in Paris, to walk in silence in a large pulsating city. Slowly things got organized and people handed out bumper stickers — “La paix en soi, la paix en marche, célebrons la vie!” (Peace in oneself, peace on the move, celebrate life!)— which was the agenda for the morning.

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Thây gave us a few instructions and then the crowd calmly set in motion. At first I was disappointed that we didn’t receive a permit to walk in the street. Wasn’t peace worth disturbing our Sunday morning driving habits, just a little? But then I understood the advantage of using the space reserved for men and women rather than cars — this allowed us to be in the midst of people trying to make their way among us, and the contact was stronger.

For those of us meditators accustomed to walking in peaceful places, this experience was valuable because it forced us to concentrate on ourselves, to not be influenced by the restless mob, and to share our calm with passing strangers. Yes, I was carrying my inner island and so was each one of us — a sangha walking together! I didn’t know what passersby would take away from this — doubt, surprise, bother, or indifference — but for us it was an unforgettable experience.

We ambled slowly down the sidewalks of the Rue Saint Jacques toward Notre Dame, our destination. Eventually, because of street crossings, the group stretched out so that we looked more like a procession and less like a massive demonstration. But later I would learn that we were several thousand people (perhaps four thousand). As we walked we became aware of the efficient organization involved and the hard work by members of the Order of Interbeing and all those who invested their time for months to make this weekend a reality. I would like to thank them and share my gratitude. This walk showed me that a large sangha can work together, in the same direction — for the peace inside each one of us that leads to peace in the whole world.

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When we arrived at Notre Dame I was impressed by the size of the crowd, especially since I was toward the back of the group. The sky was with us as well because by now the weather was gorgeous and we were flooded in sunshine. I wasn’t able to see the end of the walk and it was impossible to distinguish the meditators from the tourists; a lot of people were taking pictures to capture this moment.

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I have only one regret — the information spread by the news media was not up to the event. We definitely live in an era full of contradictions; everyone says they want peace but when a teacher like Thich Nhat Hanh shows us the way how many people take the trouble to notice? It’s really a shame. I hope that next time the media will take heart and broadcast the message far and wide.

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Looking again at the bumper sticker handed out that day, I can’t help but believe that “peace in oneself, peace on the move, celebrate life!” is an indispensable mantra for all those who work for peace in the world. Something for all of us to meditate on for a long time.

mb44-Walking7Christian Bonnin, Harmonie Spirituelle du Coeur (Spiritual Harmony of the Heart), lives in Massy, south of Paris, where he practices with Libre Nuage (Free Cloud) Sangha.

Translated from the French by Janelle Combelic

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On Karma

By Barbara Casey

mb44-OnKarma1For over six years Barbara corresponded with a prison inmate named Claude. He had been convicted of aggravated assault, which means that he did someone serious harm. In a letter to her, Claude asked Barbara for insight about karma, and she asked some dharma teachers to respond as well.

Barbara, there is something that I’ve been wanting to ask you concerning Buddhist teachings and I find this to be a good time to do so. I just hope that you’ll not think my question somewhat ignorant.

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According to karma, as I understand it, if a person is unruly during his lifetime he’ll suffer as a result in some future life. It is my understanding that if someone causes a horrible death to another human being, he’ll also experience a similar death sometime in his future. My question is, if this is true, and I’m not sure that it is, if this person who committed the horrible crime is to experience something of the same, how is it to come about? In other words, and I use myself as an example, let us say that I committed the horrible deed and am supposed to experience the same. Is the person who causes me to experience the same type of death held responsible for doing so?

— Claude

Dear Claude,

It really touched me when I read your question about karma. First of all, I have to say that I don’t think there is such a thing as an ignorant question – I think that ignorance only happens when someone has a question but doesn’t ask.

I don’t think that karma works simplistically; that is, if you do something, the same thing comes back to you in the same form. I think it is more a matter of energy and intention and resources. For instance, if your training from childhood is to use violence when conflict arises, then it is logical that what will happen in your life is violence. So what we have to do is to train our minds first of all, and from our thoughts come our speech and our actions. Thây has said that choosing to live peacefully is a radical act. We have to re-train ourselves almost completely, letting go of self-protective mechanisms that are genetically bred in us. It’s a big job! Every time we take a breath or a step in mindfulness, we are changing. Every time we choose to let go instead of react in anger or ill will or revenge, we are changing that pattern. So we don’t just do it for ourselves, we do it for all of humanity.

I remember hearing of a Vietnam veteran who was overtaken by guilt because he killed five children during the war, killed them in a horrible way, because the Viet Cong of that village had killed his buddies. Thây told him: you killed five children, yes, that is very bad. However, you can choose to live the rest of your life in guilt about that, or you can choose to help children for the rest of your life. Now that former soldier has helped thousands of children throughout the world.

I know when I do something I regret, there is a strong determination in me not to do it again, and that energy helps me to move toward the good. A very small example is one time I was at a retreat, and I was so tired of standing in line that instead of waiting to wash my dishes after a meal, I just left them on the table. I felt really bad about it, and from that shame grew determination. I spent the rest of the retreat picking up dirty dishes that other people had left around; they were everywhere!

The definition of karma is action. Karma is not just past action, it is present action, happening right now. You create your future in this moment, and you can even change your past through determined intention for the good right now. It is always possible to heal. Thây has said that you can send a good thought out like an arrow and it catches the bad thought of the past and transforms it.

There is also the story of Angulimala. Briefly, he was a terrible fellow living in the Buddha’s time, killing for sport and wearing a necklace of thumbs to display his killing abilities. One day the Buddha was walking on alms round when Angulimala came up behind him and demanded that he stop. The Buddha kept walking. He demanded again, and the Buddha replied, “Angulimala, I have already stopped, it is you who must stop.” The Buddha went on to explain the Dharma to Angulimala, who gave up his killing and became a monk. I think this story is for all of us who regret things we have done, giving us hope that it is always possible to stop our harmful behavior and to heal and transform.

So that is a little of my experience and understanding. I also asked some dharma teacher friends to respond to your question, and here are their responses.

From Mitchell Ratner

In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Thây notes that in the Ekottara Agama the Buddha lists four things that can neither be conceived nor explained, one of which is the notions of karma and consequence. So it certainly wasn’t an ignorant question!

During the Feet of the Buddha retreat [2004], Thây said some wonderful things about karma. We are always producing it through our speech, thought, and deeds. In the present moment we can always transform the karma that comes to us.

My notes from the June 20 question and answer session include the following exchange. Thây’s full answer was wonderful; I will give you a summary in my own words.

Question: How do we deal with regrets at the end of our lives?

We all make mistakes, especially when we are young. With mindfulness we can recognize the unskillful things we have said and done. The ground of the action was our mind. Now in the present moment we can do something to neutralize the bad karma. Developing the willingness to act, to continue, in a beautiful way can be done every day.

Suppose you said something not nice to your mother, and now your mother is dead, but the wound is still there. You must recognize the wound in you. Say, “Sorry mother, I am determined not to do it again.” Your mother inside you will hear that. [Claude, this is something you can do every day, to the person you wounded.]

The past is still there, disguised as the present moment. The moment you are determined not to do it again in the future, the wound is healed. A new life is in front of you.

While past actions did create karma, present actions create karma as well. It is possible to transform the ‘bad karma’ through our present actions. What is important to understand, I believe, is:

  1. what you did,
  2. why you did it,
  3. what were the consequences for others and yourself, and
  4. how to develop an inner determination not to cause that type of harm

From Jerry Braza

In my personal experience working with inmates within the Oregon State Prison system, your question regarding karma is a common one. I have had many inmates reflect deeply on the possible impact of karma in the suffering surrounding incarceration. In my own reflection on this topic, I have gleaned some insights from several Buddhist teachers, including our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, who has experience with the prison population.

One of the more prominent teachers working with inmates is Bo Lozoff, the creator of both the Prison-Ashram Project and the Human Kindness Foundation. His foundations offer numerous books and resources at no charge to inmates. The beauty of Bo’s writings is that he makes complex principles more “user-friendly” for those in the prison system.

In his book We’re All Doing Time Bo shares: “One of the main rules we need to appreciate is called the Law of Karma. In the Bible, the way it is put is ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’. The way it’s said in prison is ‘what comes around goes around’. “Every thought, word, and deed is a seed which we plant in the world. All our lives, we harvest the fruits of those seeds. If we plant desire, greed, fear, anger, and doubt, then that’s what will fill our lives. Plant love, courage, understanding, good humor, and that’s what we get back. This isn’t negotiable; it’s a law of energy, just like gravity.”

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Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield in his book A Path with Heart shares: “The heart is a garden, and along with each action there is an intention that is planted like a seed. We can use a sharp knife to cut someone, and if our intention is to do harm, we will be a murderer. We can perform an almost identical action, but if we are a surgeon, the intention is to heal and save a life. The action is the same, yet depending on its purpose or intention, it can be either a terrible act or a compassionate act.”

The Buddhist teachings regarding karma are encapsulated in Thây’s teachings, and in understanding karma it may be helpful to review the concept of consciousness. According to Buddhist psychology, we all have a mind consciousness and a store consciousness. Our store consciousness includes everything that we have experienced during our life, metaphorically stored in the form of seeds (it also contains the seeds from the lives of our ancestors). Positive and negative seeds are planted through the thoughts and actions of our past. Our mind consciousness contains the present activity of the mind. Our mind and store consciousness are like gardens where we have activated, planted, and watered the seeds of our feelings and experiences.

The practice of mindfulness helps us look deeply to know which seeds to water and how to transform the negative seeds that arise in the mind consciousness. Our practice reminds us that every moment offers us an opportunity to be aware of how our thoughts, feeling, perceptions, and mental formations are constantly affecting our actions and subsequent karma.

We all have accumulated negative seeds in our consciousness. For example, if a person has been emotionally abused in the past, the seeds of anger, sadness, and grief may be buried in their consciousness. When these seeds are activated intentionally (in meditation) or unintentionally in daily interactions, we have the opportunity to transform this suffering through various gathas such as “breathing in I am aware of my anger, breathing out I embrace my anger.” Mindfulness and concentration make it easier to transform the negative seeds so they are not passed on through further actions that can contribute to negative karma.

Thây’s concept of “interbeing” helps us to understand the significance that each one of us has on the lives of others. Aware that we are connected to all beings including animals, plants, and minerals, it seems clear that every action has the potential of affecting the lives of many others. If our thoughts are negative, these seeds are watered and most likely behaviors and actions will follow and karma continues.

Finally, in a public talk in Vietnam last year, I recall Thây offered a beautiful way to personalize and realize the impact of karma in our life. To paraphrase, “Every one of our actions is like putting our signature on everything we do.” This makes every day, every moment, every thought, feeling, perception, and mental formation significant. This is so easily forgotten in the busyness of life. Our practice offers us a powerful means to live our lives in ways that have the potential to break the karmic cycle.

The Path of Transformation

So Claude, these are some insights on karma.

I hope this helps. Claude, over the past six years (has it been that long?) what I have seen in you is a sincere, good, and dedicated individual – dedicated to transforming yourself and to helping others. This is excellent karma! I know that if I let my anger take over, I feel really bad afterwards and sometimes I feel like I have done damage I cannot heal, but then I take faith in the Dharma, and I know that this is a long path we’re on, this path of transformation. We are graced with some small insight, which leads us in the right direction, and that is all we need. We don’t need to judge where we are, we just take the next step in mindfulness, the next breath in freedom, and we’re already there.

Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the former editor of the Mindfulness Bell.

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Jail Cell, Monk’s Cell

By Judith Toy

Bending to enter the conference room where we held meditation at Countytown Prison in Pennsylvania, Joshua darkened the doorway. He didn’t stand; he loomed. Joshua was a scary-looking six-three or six-four, over three hundred pounds, with a blue anarchist tattoo etched into his shaved scalp. It was a Thursday evening in the second year of our weekly visits to Countytown. A Zen master’s warning flashed in my mind: “Don’t leave a drunk or a bum outside the monastery gate; you might be excluding Lord Buddha.”

We didn’t ask about his jail time. It wasn’t until much later, standing in my living room in North Carolina with Josh, that I learned he was a sex offender. Not long after he began his prison sentence, the doctors had diagnosed him with schizophrenia and placed him on anti-psychotic drugs. Perhaps because of the heavy drug dosages, he was a mouth breather, adding to his sinister aura.

Forgiveness Too Late

For two and a half years, my husband Philip and I took our practice every Thursday evening to Countytown Prison. Thanks to the collected strength of the inmates in the prison sangha, my initial fears of walking into the prison were quelled. This was the very place where Charles Grand, the murderer of three members of my family — my sister-in-law Connie and my two nephews, 16-year-old Allen and 14-year-old Bobby — had been held prior to his trial. Some of these young men had known Charles.

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After becoming Thây’s student and after practicing mindfulness for five years, through looking deeply, I came to forgive Charles. Still, I was afraid to face him, and I did not tell him of my forgiveness. He had confessed to the crime and was convicted for three consecutive life sentences without parole. One day it was too late for me to tell him “I forgive you.” Charles took a laundry bag and hung himself to death in his jail cell. I deeply mourned his passing. Now, at Countytown Prison, I had a chance to give to the living what I owed to the dead.

What I’ll never forget from one of those early nights is the flower. A dear friend had brought us a fresh gardenia as an offering for our home altar. On a whim, we took the perfect blossom with its leaves like wax and laid it on the table in the small, pie-shaped conference room where we met with the men. Its fragrance served as both candle and incense; no fire was allowed.

One of the guys was nicknamed Fiji. Fiji had a voice like a cement mixer. He shared with us during dharma discussion that he was a Vietnam vet, that he had committed multiple atrocities in the war. Because of this he had suffered deeply and continuously in the years since, often becoming obsessed with the urge to kill himself or to kill another.

“I wanna put the war behind me and find peace,” Fiji said.

All of us accepted the prison sounds — metal clanging against metal, the public address system, the frequent shouts — as the ground of our meditation. Each moment unfolded into the next. As Philip and I prepared to leave the room, we noticed the men’s intense interest in the gardenia. They passed it around the room, inhaling its sweet scent, touching its creamy petals and leaves. I keep a mental snapshot of Fiji with his nose in the flower: Fiji and the Buddha, Fiji and the Christ.

Grace of Hugging Meditation

Hugging practice became a ritual. Since inmates are ordinarily prohibited the luxury of human touch, I wondered how many of them attended meditation just for the motherly, fatherly hugs that

Philip and I enjoyed with each of them before saying good-bye each week. We practiced hugging meditation to be truly present to each other through three complete shared breaths. Afterwards, we bowed with our palms joined in a lotus bud. It was not we who initiated the hugging, either; it was the men, these streetwise youngsters whose personalities morphed the moment they walked out the door of the conference room and returned to the prison halls — their street. Out would pop the exaggerated swagger of boys who hadn’t been properly fathered, the street jive. Thus I began to look deeply at some of the peer pressures on these men. As I got to know them as real and vulnerable and even innocent, my fears abated.

Still there were days when a prison destination was not high on our list of evening recreations. The recliner and a good book beckoned. Or after a long day my eyes wanted to close. On the outside, I often noted my resistance to the strict routine of the metal detector or being subjected to the hand-held detector, arms outstretched, making me feel like … a criminal! Hmmm.

En route to the prison Philip and I sometimes bickered. Yet without fail, once we settled into seated meditation and walking meditation with the men, our moods lightened. Without fail, by the time we gave and received our good-bye hugs, Philip and I were walking on clouds.

We were supported by a friend from Old Path Sangha. Steven was a devotee of the Indian avatar Sathya Sai Baba and an observant Jew. When we told him that the late father of one of the men in our group, Deepok, had been a disciple of Sai Baba’s, Steven asked to join us on Thursday evenings. We were deeply grateful that he was able to stay on, continuing to practice with the men when Philip and I moved away to North Carolina in 1999.

Genuine friendships developed between the two mindfulness groups — our Old Path Zendo Sangha in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and the sangha at Countytown. We continued the custom of taking a flower and passing it around before saying good-bye. Deepok developed a habit that led to the naming of the prison sangha: as we passed the flower around to the men each week he’d pinch off a petal or a fragment of a petal and file it away in his pocket. He stowed the sweet-smelling bits in his cell as reminders of our times together, as a token of Mother Earth. Later we learned that they were seized as contraband by the guards during a lock-down. They were certainly mistaken for drugs! Deepok told us the lockdown was worth it, and he continued to pinch petals. Such was his longing for what these small fragments symbolized — earth, its flowering, peace, acceptance, new life. We couldn’t find it in our hearts to deny him the petals.

Thus the prison group was named by the men: Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

The Making of a Hermitage

At the close of the first year at Countytown, four inmates were growing solid in their meditation and mindfulness practice. Big Joshua was one of them. Others would come and go, some out of choice and some because they were reassigned or released. They consciously dedicated their practice to the folks at Old Path

Sangha, and we of the Old Path Zendo Sangha sat twice weekly on behalf of Serene Lotus Petal Sangha.

We did not ask what their crimes were, whether they were guilty or innocent. We just sat. We enjoyed our breathing. We practiced silent walking meditation, in peace. We smiled. We hugged. We beamed out our love.

Over the months that Joshua attended weekly meditation, I watched with deep happiness as he took to the practice like an eagle to air, making of his jail cell a monk’s cell. He asked deep questions, ordered books on Buddhism and read them cover to cover, recited the Four Noble Truths and the Heart Sutra, studied the five skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or habit patterns, and consciousness). Josh was an open vessel, filling, filling.

“I ordered books from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Parallax Press, Zen Mountain Monastery, Richard Gere’s Foundation, and from Bo and Sita Lozoff of the Human Kindness Foundation and the Prison Ashram Project,” he told us at the prison. “The meditation practice makes me look forward to every day,” he said, “breathing in and breathing out, working on my form and lack of form. I’ve found a way to discipline myself, a way to counter the chaos.”

“Minds innocent and quiet take [prison] …for a hermitage,” wrote the English poet John Lovelace. Josh’s typical prison day began at 4:30 or 5:00 when he sat in meditation for 45 minutes and practiced walking meditation like a cat, pacing the limited confines of his cell. Then he chanted sutras. At 8:00, he went to work in the commissary warehouse, a coveted minimum-security-status job that Joshua attained only after three years of good behavior. After work and dinner in the prison cafeteria, he routinely sat in meditation again for fifteen to twenty minutes. Then he would read from his growing Buddhist library and go to bed.

But it had not always been a monk’s cell and minimum security for Joshua. “I started out my prison time right away getting into trouble for fighting. There was this new guy on the block. He must’ve figured you start with the biggest man and work your way down, because he picked a fight with me. So I just lifted him up with one hand and split his temple with the other. For that I got 28 days in the hole.”

“What’s the hole?”

“Well, it’s a four-by-nine-foot cell that holds a bed, a desk, a toilet, and a sink. The guards take you out every other day for a shower. You have contact with guards only. The officers were actually pretty cool with me.”

“What would you do if that inmate picked a fight with you today?” I asked him.

“Nothing,” Joshua quietly replied.

An Unexpected Visit

About a year after Philip and I bequeathed the prison sangha to Steven and moved south to North Carolina to found Cloud Cottage Sangha, Joshua phoned us to say he was out of jail. We’d stayed in touch, and now he had an important request.

“I want to receive the Five Mindfulness Trainings,” he said.

“We’re hosting a dharma teacher from California, Lyn Fine, in North Carolina this September, Josh,” I said. “If you can get yourself here you can stay with us, and we can arrange a ceremony to have Lyn and the sangha offer you the precepts.”

It took a huge effort on Joshua’s part to make the journey. First he secured permission from his halfway house to go on leave for religious reasons. Then he got the okay from his supervisor to take a leave of absence from his job. Finally, he needed money for bus fare; his grandmother complied with a loan, and we set a date for his arrival.

On the long Greyhound ride, Joshua wrote untitled poems:

Impermanence is the
only constant.
Change is the one true
quality.
Suffering, joy, hate,
love, these too
shall pass. Sitting still
I center,
Quiet my mind,
Rest in the joy of
my breath.

Josh’s Greyhound bus arrived on time. Back at Cloud Cottage, which is truly a cottage in size, Lyn slept on the futon in the den and Joshua put his giant body down on our living room couch.

“I have to talk to you,” he said. “I have a question. Can someone who’s a sex offender receive the precepts? I…I’m not sure I can do this because of my crime. And Judith, I don’t even remember what I did! I was blacked out on drugs!”

Ironically, just at that moment into our back door came a sangha member who had been repeatedly sexually abused as a child. Just as she walked in, bearing a gift of soup, I was answering Joshua, “Of course you can receive the Trainings. Your past doesn’t matter.” My mind raced in quick succession to Charles Grand raping my sister-in-law Connie and murdering her, of the Buddha accepting a penitent mass murderer as one of his monks, of Jesus eating with prostitutes.

Fortunately, our friend with the soup at the back door escaped hearing any of this conversation, or it might have made her dinner difficult. Just then, Lyn Fine came out of the other room to join us, and I introduced her to my friend. We served my friend’s carrot soup with a hearty bread. There we were, an unlikely gathering, teachers, perpetrators, victims — no self, no other — gathered for a mindful meal, a true Zen Eucharist. In this way, we practiced interbeing.

One Dharma Journey

Lyn led the retreat that weekend, in a friend’s house set on a vast, tree-dotted lawn in a mountain cove. On a crystal autumn day of marigolds and maple leaves, we held the ceremony for the transmission of the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Tearfully, I watched as Joshua brought his massive body down to touch the earth, receiving each of the Three Refuges:

I take refuge in the Buddha,
the one who shows me the way in this life;
I take refuge in the Sangha,
the community that lives in harmony and awareness;
I take refuge in the Dharma,
the way of understanding and love.

After the ceremony, Lyn gave Joshua his lineage name, Peaceful Light of the Source, linking it to mine and Philip’s, also given by her — Clear Light of the Source and Shining Stream of the Source.

Our linked names mean so much to me, for it was Josh who had transformed my guilt and regret at never having contacted Charles, to say in person, “I forgive you!” It was five years after the murders that I was able to forgive the boy who killed my family — five years of daily meditation and mindfulness practice. But before I’d been able to tell him so, Charles killed himself. Might I have saved his life by telling him of my forgiveness? Perhaps.

I saw on Joshua’s ordination day that Joshua’s journey was my journey. Joshua and I inter-exist. Despite a long and bumpy ride, I, too, was learning to “rest in the joy of the breath.” Like Josh, I was unfolding my heart to the perfect understanding that transforms hatred and degradation into love and forgiveness.

In the chaos of prison life, Josh had longed for peace. There, he had come to discover his inner teacher, his true self. Back home in Souderton, Pennsylvania, after entering the stream of our Buddhist tradition, he founded Dharma Rain Sangha.

“I met one of the Countytown guards on the outside who told me, ‘I knew you didn’t belong in there,’” he said. But maybe he did belong in there. How else for this gentle giant? How else would Joshua’s dharma journey have begun?

Judith Toy, True Door of Peace, practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, North Carolina. This article is an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Minding the Fire, Zen Stories of Forgiveness. Other essays from her book can be found in Best Buddhist Writing 2006, published by Shambhala, and in the new Buddhist quarterly, Right View.

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No-Bake Prison Brownies

By Ricky

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Ingredients

20-24 cookies (any small chocolate cookie with a vanilla or chocolate icing in the middle, such as Oreo, Chocolate Crème, or Double Fudge)
1 Hershey Bar (plain or with almonds)
Chocolate syrup

Preparation

  1. Separate the icing from the middle of the cookies and put it in a small bowl. You will need it later.
  2. In a mixing bowl crush the cookies as finely as possible.
  3. In the same mixing bowl break the Hershey Bar into small pieces. Stir the candy bar and cookies together.
  4. Add chocolate syrup (a little bit at a time) to the mixture and stir evenly. To thoroughly blend contents, use a spoon and press the mixture down into the bowl. There should be enough chocolate syrup so that when you roll the mixture into a ball it holds together without being too wet.
  5. With the mixture rolled into a ball, form the brownie into a small cereal bowl.
  6. Set the bowl on a fluorescent light or another warm surface for 2-3 hours. This will heat the brownie and melt the chocolate chunks inside.
  7. Take the cookie icing and add a small amount of warm water (about a teaspoon) and stir thoroughly. You want the consistency of cake frosting. Spread evenly on top of the brownie.
  8. Enjoy!

Brownie Meditation

Let’s enjoy our brownie together.

Pick up the bowl and hold it in your hands. Take a nice long look at your brownie and smile. Take your time, we’re in no hurry.

Notice the color and texture of the icing. Smell it and notice the sweetness.

Now, cut out a small piece, or use a spoon and scoop out a little bite. Again, look at it and notice the colors and texture.

Do you see the chunks of chocolate inside? Let’s think about the chocolate for a minute.

Think about the cocoa beans that were used to make it. Maybe they grew in Brazil or Columbia. Think how the sun shined down on them, and the rain fell to help them grow. The earth nourished them from the roots so the beans would be just right.

Consider the farmer who picked the beans. He or she has a family and a village of people who know him, who know her, and because we have received these cocoa beans, we’re connected to them, too.

Imagine the boat that delivered the beans. Maybe they came by truck. Consider the driver. I wonder what his name was, what her name was.

What about the gas and oil the boat or truck used? Perhaps it came from Iraq or Saudi Arabia. That’s halfway around the planet from where we’re sitting right now.

Let’s think about the processing plant where the chocolate was made, and all the people who work there. Think about the sugar that was added to make the chocolate sweet and the milk from a cow somewhere.

Even the scientists who invented the preservatives to keep our cookies fresh in the package — they’re involved in this whole process, too.

It’s as if the entire cosmos has come together to provide us with this brownie that we’re enjoying. It was all done for our pleasure. We are connected to everything and everyone in this vast universe in which we exist. Let’s thank them all and smile.

Now, let’s take a bite. Just let it sit in our mouth for a few seconds before we begin to chew. Notice how our mouth begins to water as it receives the bite of brownie. Do you taste the chocolate or the icing first? Slowly begin to chew and notice how all the flavors blend together for our enjoyment. We can’t help but be grateful.

Continue to chew slowly until it completely dissolves, and then swallow.

As we take another bite, let’s wish happiness for ourselves. Let’s think about our body as it digests our brownie. Let’s thank our body for all the miracles that take place inside it every second of every day.

When we take our next bite, let’s offer it to all beings everywhere throughout this world and beyond. Let’s wish them all peace and happiness. We can continue to feel the interconnectedness and to hold that loving-kindness in our heart as we go about the rest of our day.

Truly, life is a precious gift. Deep bows to all.

Submitted by Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, from Austin, Texas, where she leads a sangha at the Lockhart Community Justice Center. She writes, “Ricky is famous in the prison for his Prison Brownies. He brought some to our meditation the other day and I offered Thây’s eating meditation. I suggested he share the recipe. So the next week he brought the recipe — and the meditation he wrote.”

“Ricky experimented for years with the ingredients and the procedure for preparing and ‘cooking’ the brownies. The ingredients are hard to come by. Each prison has a concession; prisoners can work to earn a little bit of money at the prison — things like sweeping or cleaning the toilets — or their families can send them a little money. Inmates then must earn the right to visit the concession, which in some prisons is open only from 3 to 4 a.m. Ricky purchases all the ingredients for his brownies at the concession. He ‘cooks’ the brownies on the fluorescent lamp in his cell because that is, of course, his only source of heat. He says he adds love with each ingredient, with each step of the preparation. Then he shares generously.”

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Poem: No Windows

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Are there still beautiful birds of various kinds,
Whose song and colorful display delights the mind?
Is the spacious sky still a magnificent blue,
A colossal canvas of awesome art that
Stirs the spiritual within you?
Do the numerous rivers still rush and flow
Throughout mountains and ravines,
Slicing the deserts and softly
Murmuring alongside lush meadows?
Is the moon still a magical lamp,
A comforting light amidst the dark of night,
Setting the mood for stories told at camp?
Are the flowers still infinite,
Decorating the landscapes and perfuming
Homesteads with their lovely scent?
Is the precious grass still green,
A thick and soft carpet so perfect
For picnics and daydreams?
Is the rain still refreshing,
That cool downpour or sprinkle,
Watering and waking the land,
Giving the barren a blessing?
Are the stars, on a moonless night,
So conceited in their constellations,
Spectacular to the sight?
Do cool breezes caress weary souls,
When workers are bone-tired and
Field laborers feel a hundred years old?
Are the snowcapped mountains majestic,
And the ocean waves that crash upon
Sandy beaches ever so fantastic?
Is that wondrous world still out there?
Please tell me that it is,
Because…
There are no windows in solitary confinement.

Malachi Ephraim
Arizona State Prison
Florence, Arizona

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Heart to Heart

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on an assignment that Thây gave to the sangha at the Breath of the Buddha retreat in June (see the Autumn 2006 issue): to write a letter to a potential suicide bomber.

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Letters to a Suicide Bomber

Dear Beloved One,

I see your face, so fresh and full of energy, before me. I can see that you love this life, your mother, father, and family, and your culture, religion, and country.

I think that probably every day you have been taught that I am your enemy, and that given the chance, I will destroy everything you hold dear.

And even to me, a white American woman almost sixty years old, it looks this way. How else could you feel about me?

It seems that possibly the only alternative we both have to annihilation is, for one moment, to stop and just look into each other’s eyes. Can you see the great sorrow I carry for all the terrible harm my government has caused your people? Can you possibly forgive me?

I want you to have a long life filled with beauty, joy, and accomplishments. I want to offer you a way out of the one-way path to suicide you are on. The only way I know to do this is to show you my breaking heart.

There is so much pain and suffering in life, and there is also so much beauty, peace, and love. Can you and I choose to begin with one step by seeing each other not as “other” but as fellow human beings, each wanting fulfillment and happiness for ourselves and our loved ones?

I know that you are my beloved because I see the preciousness of my life in your face. Can you see me too?

With love and hope,

Barbara Casey
True Spiritual Communication
Jacksonville, Oregon, U.S.A.

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Dear Friend,

I want you to know that your anger and sense of powerlessness at the erosion of your culture and beliefs — I have known these too.

For a long time, I wanted to find a way to fight back at the forces of capitalism and consumerism that were eroding the culture that I love and the society that I hold dear. I envied those who were prepared to die for their beliefs but felt too disempowered to join them.

Then I found a better way than dying for my beliefs. I have learned instead to live for them by living by them. This seems to make a stronger statement than my death could — by showing my love for my society and my culture rather than leaving them forever.

I have learned to live deeply in the present moment, not overwhelmed by the anxieties about the future, or difficulties in the past. By taking good care of the present moment and finding peace in it, I influence my life, my society, and my country for the better.

I know that this path is available for you in the teachings of your faith and I urge you to consider this before you destroy the peace and happiness of those you love and many other precious human lives through your death.

Violence always leads to more violence, until someone has the courage to break this cycle. May you be given the strength and happiness to take this step to end the violence.

Yours sincerely,

Murray Corke

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Dear Sirhan,

It has taken me thirty-eight years to become willing to write to you. Learning how to love by practicing with Thich Nhat Hahn has gradually opened my heart. Right now, today, I love you and look deeply to see your suffering.

When I knew you in college, I enjoyed your company. We were always happy to see you when you came to class. You were fun, joking, smiling, polite, and very smart. You enlivened our classes.

We were part of a group of pacifists. We were dismayed by the war in Vietnam. One of us was an Israeli conscientious objector. You and he were especially close because you both suffered over the treatment of the Palestinians. I knew you were a Palestinian refugee.

I did not know about what had happened to you and your family as a result of your displacement.

I didn’t understand, none of us understood, how much you were suffering. Later, we found out that your sister had died of cancer at Los Angeles County Hospital. You thought that her medical treatment had been inadequate because your family was so poor. When she died, you were heartbroken.

You decided to call attention to the condition of Palestinian refugees by killing Bobby Kennedy. When I saw you kill Bobby on television, I was shocked. I was hooked by my critical discriminating thoughts against you. You had chosen violence, murder. I closed my heart.

At this present, wonderful moment, I see you again as my dear sweet friend, Sirhan. The Mindfulness Trainings of my teacher give me openness, nonattachment to views, and freedom of thought
space to breathe and open my I smile to you. We have both been strongly attached to our views. I wish you the freedom, peace and happiness I have found.

In friendship,

Dollie Laura Meyers
True Recollection of Loving Kindness
Marina del Rey, California, U.S.A.

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Dear Brother, Dear Sister,

Please believe me when I tell you I want with all my heart to know you, to know your feelings, the reasons that motivate you to offer up your life for a cause you believe in.

My first thought about your motives is that you feel you are doing a noble, heroic act for Allah, for your families, for the wellbeing of all and that you will be rewarded in heaven. Is this true? I also believe that the goodness you are seeking may not be so different from the goodness I am seeking. I wish for a peaceful life for all, where our nations respect one another, and no one is hungry or without shelter, where no one has to live in fear of war-torn violence, and where all have the freedom live their lives and to practice their beliefs without coercion from other nations.

Do you have other motives also? Do you suffer from not having enough food to eat? Or watching small children suffer from hunger, or cold, living in fear, or bearing the loss of their parents who have

been killed by our bombs? Or the many other injustices that happen when countries fight one another?

It is my wish that you can have a good life, be free to live with your faith, without our country’s attacks. The only way I see this can come about is that you and I understand each other better, know one another’s needs, hopes, and dreams. Deep understanding of one another will help us promote peace and develop compassion so you won’t have to sacrifice your life. Sometimes it requires more to live in order to promote peace.

Can you hear my need to know and understand you? To be able to change in the ways I need to change, in order to bring about the things we both want and need? I need you to understand me in a new light.

Above all, we are brothers and sisters. I pray we can live together as a family.

With love and compassion,

Margaret  Kirschner
True Silent Sound
Portland, Oregon, U.S.A

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Dear Suicide Bomber,

This may surprise you. I am a suicide bomber, too. The bombs I make explode inside you and cause you to want to make the bombs that explode outside of you. My bombs explode in your heart and in your mind.

When my country supports governments, ideals and people that hurt you, oppress you, and cause you to suffer, I detonate a bomb in your heart.

When my government works to undermine your country’s leaders because we fear your political, religious, or social ideologies, I detonate a bomb in your mind.

When the businessmen of my country take unfair advantage of your country to get goods and labor cheaply, I detonate a bomb in your soul.

In doing these things to you, I have violated values and precepts that I aspire to live by. In doing these things to you I have failed to practice deep listening and mindful speech. I have stolen not only your resources, but also your joy. My actions have killed your spirit and your will to live. But I have been too intoxicated by my lifestyle to hear your cries of pain, anger, and grief.

My bombs make you despair of living. They make you want to kill yourself and take others along with you. Looking deeply I can see that when my bombs explode in you, I die also. When you die, I die.

I know that for you to want to kill yourself and others, you must feel very helpless and angry. I feel helpless too, and I don’t know what to do. So I continue to live my life in such a way that you are hurt by my selfishness and greed.

Inside I am very angry and frustrated by the situation we are in together. Whenever I don’t know what to do, I have learned to breathe deeply and try to understand. So that’s what I’m doing. And as I breathe in and out, I can see you there in your country, also breathing in and out. I can feel your anger and frustration. And in this moment I know what I want to do. I want to soothe and comfort you. I want to remove the cause of your suffering so you don’t have to be in pain. I sincerely and genuinely want you to know peace in your heart and relief in your mind. I want you to be happy, whatever that means to you.

I know that you will find it difficult to forgive me and my country for the damage we have done to you. I know we have hurt you deeply and I want to listen as you tell me how we have hurt you.

I also find it difficult to forgive the damage done to my people. I am so sorry to have made you do such terrible things to get my attention. I was not able to hear. Well you have my attention now. I’m listening now. And isn’t that what you have really wanted all along?

Maybe now that we know that we are both suicide bombers, perhaps we could get to know each other. Then maybe you wouldn’t have to kill yourself for me and I wouldn’t have to kill myself for you. Maybe we could find a way to share our planet and its resources as equals. Maybe instead of bombing each other we could live peacefully together. I’d like to try.

Michael  Melancon
True Recollection of  Light
Seattle, Washington, U.S.A.

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Dear Friend,

I heard about you from a friend. She said you lost your husband and your son. Your grief and despair were so great you no longer wanted to live. You wanted to die and you wanted the people who hurt you so deeply and destroyed your family to suffer in the same way that they made you suffer. So you made the only decision you could — that your last action would be as a suicide bomber. And now you are gone — taking others with you. And all the grief, despair, hopelessness, and powerlessness you felt when you made your decision continue to spread out into more and more people’s lives.

Oh, how I wish I knew you — had been there with you when your husband and little boy died. How I wish I had been there to hold you, to comfort you, to help you to hold all your pain that was too much for one person to hold alone. How I wish I was there talking to you, letting you know you are not alone, and that even though this pain and grief are so intense and consuming, life can go on. The pain can be transformed — it will change. And the anger and hatred can be released in a different way. In a way that can put an end to suffering, instead of creating more suffering for others and for ourselves.

I also have known such pain and despair. My family — grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, altogether maybe twenty-five people were killed in a war before I was even born. My father somehow survived, and somehow continued his life. And I was born. How grateful I am to him, that he didn’t kill himself! All my life I missed my roots, my family so much, without even knowing them. And there was deep despair in my heart — without even being able to name it.

How I wish I was there to tell you — let us do this together, let us hold this pain and despair together, and find a way to continue living. Find a way to live that can really heal this suffering which is not just ours, but all humans. Together learn to see what the true source of this suffering is.

I know if I grew up as you did and had the same experiences, I also could do the same as you did. And if you had some of my childhood and experiences you could be alive now. And you could say this to me — Dear Friend, people are not the enemy. It is the hatred, anger, and pain that we do not know how to handle that is the enemy, that tortures us and hurts us the most. You are not alone in this. For generation upon generation we humans have continued to try to heal our pain by inflicting more pain on others. And so it continues until now.

But what if someone in your family had been able to find another way to heal their pain, to find a way of understanding and being with the pain that could transform it to compassion and love? Then you would have a different chance in your life. And what if you were that person in your family? And instead of being a suicide bomber, you and I together explored, learned, practiced, and found another way? Then you would still be alive now, and you would perhaps have more children and teach them how to handle their pain so that compassion and love could be born. Together we could spread this understanding, compassion, and love out into more and more people’s lives. And maybe one day, there would be peace on this earth, peace in our hearts, and we could be truly happy.

Oh, how I wish I was there with you, dear friend.

Anne Speiser
True Jewel of  Understanding
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.A

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On the Way Home (part 3)

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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In this series of essays, Sister Annabel, one of Thây’s most senior students, shares memories and insights from her life at Plum Village—and the path that led her there.

The Lower Hamlet of Plum Village somewhat resembled the farm where I grew up. It had barns, muddy lanes, fruit trees, no heating except for wood stoves, stone walls, and a vast star-filled sky at night. Maybe that is one of the reasons I feel at home there. One day when I first came to the Lower Hamlet we were practicing slow walking in the Red Candle meditation hall. My eyes turned to the stone walls and suddenly I felt those stones were old friends and relatives; I had found the home that I had missed for so long. Then we went outside and I looked up to the hills of the Dordogne and I felt as if I had lived there long ago. Now I had come back.

Lower Hamlet was a place where I could walk on my own or with Be Tam. Be Tam was the third of the four children of the Vietnamese family that lived in Persimmon House. When I arrived in Plum Village Be Tam was five years old. He was entrusted to my care when his mother was busy. During our walks he would hold my hand and lead the way. In the blackberry season, he would take me to all the blackberry bushes near the house. He ate one blackberry from each bush and told me whether it was sweet or sour, good or bad. If it was sweet he would encourage me to eat one from the same bush. Be Tam believed that if one blackberry on a bush was sweet, then all the blackberries would be sweet. We never ate more than one from any bush and then we picked all the ripe ones. Actually the degrees of sweet and sour were very subtle because he ate each blackberry with mindfulness. Every blackberry does indeed taste different when you eat slowly and mindfully. Every blackberry is a miracle of earth and sky.

Be Tam was born in France but at five years old he had not had contact with French society, so he was more of a Vietnamese boy than a French boy. In the kitchen we had a washing machine. It had a transparent glass door so that you could see the water and the soap and the clothes as the machine washed them. Be Tam enjoyed watching this process very much. Whenever he came into the kitchen and someone was washing clothes, he would bring a chair and place it right in front of the washing machine. He would sit still, watching the process from beginning to end. It made me think that in previous life times he had not met a washing machine. I do not know what was happening in his mind as he watched but I remembered that as a child I had looked into a kaleidoscope; the miracle of its changing shapes and colors never grew stale. Maybe the washing machine was a kaleidoscope for Be Tam.

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Biscottes for Breakfast

In those days in Plum Village we were not rich. The doors were opened once a year for the summer family retreat, from July 15th to August15th. During this time we hoped to receive enough donations to last us throughout the year.

During the first summer opening we just had biscottes and tea for breakfast. [A biscotte is a commercially packaged bread, toasted to a crisp golden brown. Editor] The reason we had biscottes was because the owner of a biscotte factory was a lay practitioner of Plum Village and he donated them. We were never hungry, though. When I came to Plum Village I learned to eat in mindfulness. Eating in mindfulness I appreciated Vietnamese food. I learned to see how precious food is. For someone who has known real hunger each mouthful is very precious.

During my first weeks at Plum Village, I was sitting next to Thây one day at lunch. At that time I had the habit of not eating every grain of rice on my plate. Thây said to me: “Thây sees that you know how to use the chopsticks well and could pick up every grain of rice on the plate.” Eager to please, I did just that, although I did not know why Thây was telling me this. Then Thây continued: “In Vietnam the mothers always tell their children that if they do not eat every grain of rice in their bowl, in the next life they will be born as ducks and need to go around picking up every grain of rice that they had thrown away in this life.” It is not only because we are aware of what hunger means that we do not want to leave a single grain of rice. We also understand through our practice of mindfulness that cultivating rice is not an easy matter. Much effort and some suffering goes into the making of every grain of rice.

One day Thây picked a large quantity of blackberries and asked me to make jam with them. I did not need much encouragement to make jam. My mother and grandmother had always made jam at home: blackberry, damson, apple, marrow and ginger, raspberry, apricot jam with the kernels—a few floating on the top of each pot—and bitter orange marmalade. I felt very at ease making jam and when the plum trees were mature enough to produce their first fruits, I made plum jam; there were not enough then to dry and make prunes. The wild blackberries and apples were made into jelly and on the walking meditation path there were quince trees. The Lower Hamlet had the most delicious apples, which we stored for the winter months.

A Sacred Place

The simplicity of Thây’s way of life has always been apparent. Although Thây has not always been able to live in a monastery, Thây’s place of abode always has the simplicity of the truly monastic way of living. The hermitage where Thây has been based since the founding of Plum Village now serves as a cloistered environment for the monastic sangha. It is a large house with a large garden. Before Thây lived there it was the home of a school mistress. From the outside the house does not look very special. It withdraws a little from the narrow road, secluded by old trees.

The extraordinary ambiance of the house comes from the practice. Everywhere there is a restful feeling, a freshness. Thây has planted deodara cedar trees, a bamboo grove by the stream, and other shrubs. There is a very fragrant old rose that Thây has named Elizabeth, after the previous owner of the house. The part of the garden furthest from the house is planted with poplar trees; their straight trunks are a place to suspend hammocks. The deodara trees, whose wood is used in India to make statues of the gods, are the object of Thây’s particular care. These trees frequently practice hugging meditation with Thây and his disciples.

The hermitage is not grand or luxurious but it is a place that is loved. Thây has loved this place with every footstep and every breath. Sister True Emptiness [Sister Chân Không] has loved it with her commitment to helping others by sending letters and parcels, or making telephone calls to those in need. When a place is loved like that, it becomes lovely. Just as a person who is loved and understood can blossom, so a place—a garden and a house—can become a sacred place.

Lessons from Ants and Prayer Wheels

At Lower Hamlet, I was enjoying Sister Thanh Minh’s help in the vegetable garden.

There were two other reasons that made me happy for Sister Thanh Minh’s arrival. One was that she was vegetarian and the other was that she was always ready to teach me to speak Vietnamese. She would point out to me the different objects and call them by their Vietnamese names.

When you learn a language, you also learn a culture and a way of life. Thây said that Sister Thanh Minh was very Vietnamese; she had had virtually no contact with the European way of life. Looking at her I was looking at someone who was no different from the people who were living and had lived all their lives in Vietnam.

Sister Thanh Minh came in May and it was still quite chilly at night. When she complained of being cold, I thought that the problem would be easy to solve. I gave her more blankets. She told me that the weight of the blankets stopped her from sleeping. My first reaction was to think that this was a little absurd, because I had grown up in a cold bedroom where the thick woolen blankets were piled on top of us in the winter. To me this was something perfectly natural. When I reconsidered, I saw that in south Vietnam a bed consists of a rush mat, a thin covering on the coldest days, and a mosquito net. Even one woolen blanket could feel unbearably heavy.

Plum Village is a multicultural community; many of us are people of two or more cultures. It is easy to judge what is different as incorrect. And it is wonderful to learn how not to react to what is different as being incorrect. When I was a child and spent summer holidays in France and later when I lived in Greece and then with a community of Tibetan nuns in India, I had opportunity to learn to be open to other ways of life. Learning languages and how to live in different cultural situations was something very enjoyable as long as I did not feel threatened by the difference.

It had been a challenge when I lived in India. The first thing I had to learn was always to keep my feet tucked in under me when I was sitting. Then as a lay woman I could never sit or stand in a place that was higher than a monk or a nun. If a nun wanted to go under our hut, which was on stilts, to fetch something, I would need temporarily to leave the hut. I should never say, even as only a supposition, that something bad might happen, because the very saying of it would make it more likely that that event would occur. I should never wear someone else’s shoes or allow someone else to wear my shoes. Seeing a dead mouse or rat was a bad omen; this never seemed to be so in my own case but as far as the Tibetan nuns were concerned, whenever they saw a dead mouse or rat, something went wrong for them. I should recite the sutras in Tibetan (because the English was not available), and even though I did not understand a word of what I was reciting, it would be very beneficial for my practice. One time when an ant was crawling over the sutra text I was reciting, I was told that this encounter of the ant with the written word of the sutra meant that the ant would be in touch with the Buddhadharma in a future life.

The prayer wheel was something else that I did not understand. The entrance to the monastery across from us on the other side of the valley had a gate like a turnstile that was in effect a prayer wheel. In order to enter the monastery by this gate you had to turn the prayer wheel. As you did this a bell hanging above would sound and the words om mani padme hung would make one turn inside the prayer wheel.

In order for me to incorporate om mani padme hung into my own way of life, rather than recite the syllables, I tried to sing them. I sang them to the music of the hymn “The King of Love, my shepherd is.” One day I was surprised when I stopped singing that the words came back to me as if from the horizon of the landscape around me. I began to appreciate the mantra more after that. It had helped me clear my mind and be in touch with all that was around me.

Only now do I appreciate the sweetness of the prayer wheel and the ant crawling over the sutra and reciting words that in your mind consciousness you do not understand. Now I see that every little event can contribute to the awakening that is taking place in the deepest levels of the individual and collective consciousness. In the Lotus Sutra there is a chapter that tells us that even a child playing in the sand who draws a stupa is laying down a cause for enlightenment. When a pilgrim walks along, turns his prayer wheel, and recollects the words om mani padme hung, the seed of those syllables associated with Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, are being strengthened in the unconscious mind.

My rational mind, fashioned by European culture, was somewhat aware of how the conscious mind works. But it had no inkling of the workings of deeper levels of consciousness.

My Mother’s Hands

One day Thây gave us a writing assignment whose title was “Washing Clothes.” I could not think what to write about if I wrote about washing clothes in the machine. If we had asked Be Tam to share about that no doubt it would have been very interesting. On the other hand there was much I could write about washing clothes in India. It was a day’s outing to the river or stream. You could almost call it a lazy day, when there was no other schedule. We could enjoy the clear water that came from higher up in the Himalaya and the rhododendron bushes that flanked the stream. There were the smooth stones in the water that you could use to rub the clothes on. There were the large rocks where you could stretch the clothes to dry.

When I was a child my mother had to wash clothes for us four young children. It was hard work. At one time my father bought her a washing machine. It was a relief for her but it was not a very sophisticated machine and she still continued to wash many clothes by hand. Today she says that washing clothes by hand, when she does not have many to wash, is the work that she enjoys most. Many people use a washing machine, not because they have an overwhelming amount of laundry, but because they feel that they can be doing something much more worthwhile than washing clothes. To such people it would seem a little crazy to bring a chair up in front of the washing machine to watch the soap-clothes-and-water kaleidoscope.

In the monastery everything that is done in mindfulness is worth doing. When I ask my mother why she likes washing clothes by hand she tells me that in the past she had to wash so many clothes that it made her tired. Now she only has to wash a few clothes by hand and does not need to feel tired. She sees that washing clothes is something wonderful that she can enjoy. I rarely use a washing machine. When I am washing clothes I see my mother’s and grandmother’s hands in mine and I am happy to continue my mother in mindfulness.

mb44-OnTheWay3Sister Annabel, True Virtue, is abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Poem: Wisdom of the Elders

Old growth Douglas Firs,
their roots near a meander
of the Little Blackfoot,
know not that Dharma’s
being taught
in the old lodge
of  woodpeckered walls
a quarter mile away.

Their special transmission
is outside scripture,
with no dependence on words.

Wide trunks fissured and charred
from fires of centuries,
they practice Upright Being
with mute profundity,
keeping the beat
of countless seasons,
a timbered symphony
of earth, water, sun, and sky,
two hundred feet high,
and a chorus
of myriad smaller beings
teaching the Dharma of Just This
to the ten thousand things.

Jonathan Matthews
Peaceful Mountain of the Source

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Deadlines, Hanging Out, and Spiritual Practice

By Charles Suhor

mb44-Deadlines1It wasn’t until late in my career that I saw connections between my spiritual practice, deadlines, and deep listening to colleagues and friends. It wasn’t until retirement that I linked all of those things to what’s commonly called “hanging out.”

In the Workplace

My job was a traffic jam of timetables for meetings, reports, and publications. There was always something overdue and a dozen things that seemed unlikely to be completed on schedule. I was deputy director of the National Council of Teachers of English, a group with 70,000 members and a staff of about eighty. Part of my work was absorbing discontent for the boss and interpreting both sane and silly organizational policies for constituents and staff members who had questions or problems. It wasn’t a rat race, but it surely was a race.

But the work was enjoyable, and it was solidly in the realm of right livelihood. This was a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving teachers and improving classroom instruction. Daily meditation and contemplative reading helped to bring mindfulness to the everyday clutter of work. Thich Nhat Hanh’s words were instructive: “During the moment when someone is consulting, resolving, and dealing with whatever arises, a calm heart and self-control are necessary.”

Even so, in the rush of things I often sensed a lack of easeful presence when working one on one with colleagues. When a co-worker came to my office, I often had a vague feeling that something else was looming on the horizon. I felt a need to address the matter at hand with intelligent dispatch so we could both move on to other tasks, like talking to someone at a party and being tempted to look over their shoulder to see if anyone more important was in the room.

This habit was broken when we got a new CEO. He would stop whatever he was absorbed in when I came to the door, invite me in, and sit for as long as I needed to talk through the matters at hand. More importantly, his relaxed demeanor gave the impression that nothing was more urgent than discussing my concern. Even when rejecting a proposal, he did so with a full sense of presence and no hint of a dismissive attitude.

This helped me question a deeply ingrained idea in our culture, the notion that my train of thought will be irretrievably broken if interrupted.

Ego alert! How important to the rumblings of the universe are my treasured ideas? And how hard is it, really, to get back into the flow of paperwork if I put it aside to talk to a real human being? I was surprised to find that it wasn’t all that difficult. You just do it. The idea of my train of thought was just another habituated mental shackle to avoid acknowledging that I didn’t want to be disturbed. With right effort I could simply stop the train and reboard it after talking to a colleague.

As it turned out, when I set the work before me aside I was happy to be released from it for a while, and I welcomed my colleagues wholeheartedly. I felt better, and the good feeling resonated with them. I moved from a sense of forbearance during these visits to feelings of freedom and loving kindness. And I was reminded of something I already knew. I liked these people, and I hadn’t been fully participating in the pleasure of their company. I could rest in the insight of Taizan Maezumi Roshi: “Deadline after deadline? There is no deadline! Each moment is a beginning as well as an end, not a goal or deadline set up by someone else.”

mb44-Deadlines2In Retirement and at Leisure

Obviously, “hanging out” isn’t a technical term. We all recognize it as something like open-ended conversation with others in a leisurely setting, either with no agenda or a general intention to talk about things of common interest as they occur.

For decades a busy family and professional life left me with little time for the kind of hanging out (except within the family circle) that I did in college and my early working years. Yes, there can be some grand, stolen moments and hours during the work year. You book a no-agenda lunch with a close friend and enjoy the spiritual high of intensive talk. You hang out with colleagues at the hotel after a twelve-hour day of conventioneering and unwind with friendly banter.

My leisure time in retirement opened new opportunities for hanging out. Conversations can go on, loosely knit, with no inclination to glance at the watch or mentally rehearse the next appointment. This isn’t limited to spending time with family and friends. If you’re a hobbyist, it’s hanging out at your favorite store and getting deeply into your common interests with a stranger. Or it’s the simple wonder of meeting someone new in a coffee shop, striking up a conversation, and learning something about a topic you didn’t think would interest you. I came to recognize that the camaraderie in these chance encounters resembled the feeling of welcome in office visits and the after-hours hanging out with colleagues during my work years.

Hanging out is not the same as “frivolous speech and idle chatter” that the Buddha cautioned against. When conversations are vain and superficial, our inner state is at first discomfiting, then painful. But the airy content of hanging out isn’t mere vacuous banter. Hanging out, like all talk in which compassionate engagement is the starting point, is experienced as a kind of background music for metta, the sending of loving intentions. With mindfulness, you become readily aware if the conversation drifts towards gossip, competition, manipulation, or other dissonance that unsettles the noble intention of right speech.

A Householder’s Skillful Means

The Buddha distinguished between the regimens of the monk and those of the householder, whose practice also embraces family life, livelihood, and interaction in the larger society. As Bhikkhu Bodhi says, “Lay persons will have more need for affectionate small talk with friends and family, polite conversation with acquaintances, and talk in connection with their line of work.”

I believe that hanging out is a householder’s skillful means, similar to a balanced work ethic, creative sex, and serious engagement in public discourse. The peace of connecting with each other through verbal interchange at work and at leisure is worthy of lay people’s special attention and cultivation. Granted, as householders we’re less likely to be able to associate daily with devotees and other guides to spiritual development. On the other hand, when we hang out we can look for, or often trip upon, the center of transcendence in a stranger. If that sounds unlikely, pull up a chair, friend, and we’ll talk about it for a while.

Charles Suhor lives in Montgomery, Alabama, “a place well-suited for the practice of engaged Buddhism,” and where he convenes a weekly meditation group at the Unitarian Universalist fellowship.

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Zen Noir: Mindfulness in Moviemaking

By Marc Rosenbush

Zen Noir began about thirteen years ago, when I was sitting in a Japanese Zen temple in Chicago. It was about 4:30 in the morning, and I was facing a row of fellow meditators and watching their heads bob up and down as they tried not to fall asleep and slide off their cushions onto the floor. Just then, a strange thought suddenly occurred to me. “What would happen if one of them just keeled over, dead?”

Of course the literal answer to this was that we’d all rush over to see what happened and then call an ambulance. But at that moment, for whatever reason, I found myself thinking in non-literal terms, thinking about the Buddhist view of death and how it differs from the way we usually think about death in the West. Here we’re taught that death is fundamentally unnatural, something that may happen to other people but is certainly not supposed to happen to us. So we obsess about youth and undergo painful plastic surgery and hide our old people away, all to avoid having to face our own mortality.

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There it was, the germ of an idea. I’d write a movie about a Westerner who has to confront the reality of death. And that was when the second idea suddenly popped into my head: why not make him a detective?

At last it all clicked: I’d write a mystery that takes place in a Zen temple, in which the detective must solve a koan that can’t be solved with logic or reason or any of the detective’s traditional Western tools. Instead of a murder, he’d have to solve the mystery of death itself.

Deep stuff. But it would also be funny. I’d adapt some traditional Chinese dialogs between Master and Student, which always felt like comedy routines to me anyway…

Student: Help me. Do something. Help me still my mind.

Master: Okay. Give me your mind.

So I started writing, and at first it went well. The characters were interesting, the jokes were working, and the message was…

Hmm. I stopped writing. For nearly four years. Something was missing. I knew I had a great, funny, intellectual idea for a film, but I kept feeling there was something more I could bring to it.

And that was when three things happened that changed my life forever:

  1. I got divorced.
  2. I lost a lot of money on a large project.
  3. I discovered the books of Thich Nhat Hanh and came to Plum Village for the first time.

The divorce and the financial loss had left me in a deep depression, but Thây’s teachings and the simple but powerful practices I learned in Plum Village changed me in some very profound ways:

  • A conversation with Sister Annabel helped me understand how to fully engage with my own suffering and see that it was something I felt, but that I was not that feeling.
  • Thây’s dharma talk about flowers and garbage helped me to better understand that the cycle of birth and death and transformation are all part of a single endless process that’s to be celebrated, not feared.
  • A story in Sister Chân Không’s book Learning True Love helped show me what living in the present moment is truly all about (this story even ended up in Zen Noir in a modified form, but you’ll have to see the movie to find out which story I’m talking about).
  • An older monk whose name I never learned helped me put my own suffering in perspective and become more aware of suffering in the world.

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Back home, as I began to incorporate the practice more deeply in my daily life, I found myself happier, more grounded, easier to be around, and less likely to get upset about the challenges I encountered.

And I began to write Zen Noir again.

The suffering I’d experienced and the transformation I’d undergone brought a much more personal, emotional flavor into the writing, and helped me discover what the film would really be about: impermanence and how Buddhism helps us understand and deal with it.

I won’t bore you with the long, slow process of getting the film made and distributed (independent filmmaking is a koan in and of itself), but suffice it to say the process was a constant test of my own mindfulness practice and required a lot of stopping and breathing as chaos swirled around me. In any case, many years and film festivals and awards later, Zen Noir is finally out in the world, doing what a movie is supposed to do, making people laugh and cry and learn and grow.

I’d like to share one last story to give you an idea of how Thây’s teachings and the lessons I learned at Plum Village are affecting people through the film.

At the Rhode Island International Film Festival, a woman in her seventies came up to me after the screening. She touched my arm and told me that she knew nothing about Buddhism, but that her husband had died just a few months earlier, and somehow watching Zen Noir helped her feel better about it. She then hugged me and thanked me and went on her way.

I’d like to pass that hug and that thanks on to Thây, Sister Chân Không, Sister Annabel, the monk whose name I never learned, and to all my friends and teachers at Plum Village, Maple Forest, Deer Park, and elsewhere. You are as much the authors of Zen Noir as I am and I bow humbly in appreciation.

Zen Noir opened in select U.S. cities in September 2006, and the DVD will be available in early 2007. For screening dates and locations, or to join the mailing list, visit www.zenmovie.com.

Marc Rosenbush, Elucidation of the Source, is an independent filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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Caring for My Anxious Mind

By Sandra S. Murray

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A few years ago, anxiety was beginning to dominate my waking, and sleeping, world. I have a personality that pays great attention to detail, checks everything at least twice, tries to anticipate problems and solve them before they occur, organizes everything for efficiency, works to deadlines. These are great skills for an editor and proofreader, which is how I have earned a living for many years, or for anyone working in a business environment in our Western culture. However, when these methods of approaching the world began to rule my personal life also, when they applied themselves to me rather than me applying them skillfully to the task at hand, I could see I had a problem. Eventually, even I knew I was acting crazy, and not just irritating my friends and husband. But how to stop?

I would wake up at night from a bad dream or just wake up anxious. I would get up, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, read. During the day I would check my workstation three or four times when I left, sometimes re-climbing the stairs from the entry. I was especially concerned about fire—stoves, candles, matches, hot light bulbs. Sometimes during the day a thought would start that something bad was going to happen, and that it would be my fault. These feelings compounded as I tried to hide them from others, fearing people would become impatient with me or mock me. Not only was I afraid, I felt wrong in being afraid. And I feared that no one would understand.

I sought professional help, and my naturopathic physician was most concerned about the sleep deprivation, which was part of my menopause process. We were able to improve the amount and quality of my sleep. The symptoms diminished. But they did not disappear, and on occasion would surface dramatically.

Time to Really Wake Up

One night this past year, I woke from sleep about 3:00 a.m., my heart pounding and racing. I remembered a gatha from Robert Aitken-roshi’s book, The Dragon Who Never Sleeps:

When wakeful at two in the morning
I vow with all beings
to light incense and sit upon my cushion—
it’s time that I really wake up.

So this time, instead of turning on a light and reading, I practiced walking meditation for almost a half hour. Walking with my anxiety reminded me of Thây’s advice to care for our strong emotions like a precious baby—and when I was an infant, my mother walked me for hours to get me to sleep! When I felt stable enough, I stood behind my cushion and practiced touching the earth. Standing, I felt the strength of my body as a tree trunk, solid; bowing down, I released my anxiousness to the earth for care. Standing, I breathed in deeply the peace and quiet of the night; bowing down, I rested against the ground in surrender.

When at last I felt some calmness in my body and knew I could sit with my fears, I took to my cushion. Breathing in and out, I could feel my heart and belly still slightly trembling. For the first time, rather than pushing these feelings away and disowning them (“What do you have to be anxious about? Quit acting so fearful!”), I turned my gaze inward in compassion and just said to myself, “It’s very hard to feel so scared. I have lived this way for a long time. I won’t leave you alone feeling so bad.”

After a little while of sitting and being present with the feeling of fear, I looked closely at how the fear actually felt in my body: the faster heart, the tight stomach, the longing to cry in my throat. With focused attention I breathed more deeply and slowly into my belly, and consciously relaxed my stomach and throat. As my body calmed, my mind calmed also. Finally, I could just rest quietly in meditation, at ease with my body and mind. When I returned to bed, I slept well.

This experience demonstrated to me the power of our mindfulness practice, and it showed me once again how Thây’s teachings can help me with these foggy fears that are shapeless and pervading. In other meditation sessions, I looked deeply at how I fed these fears: with stimulants like coffee and TV crime shows; with contributing emotions like suppressed anger and self-induced pressure to be perfect; with my own self-judgment.

The process is not over—is it ever? I still have anxious times, although fewer than before. One big difference is that I know how to help myself when I feel these feelings. I am more open with my sangha about my imperfections, and my sangha’s patience, humor, and acceptance support me. I can even ask, “Am I worrying too much?” and my dharma sister will say, “Yes,” or “No,” and that helps me.

Tips for Overcoming Anxiety

Anxiety seems to pervade our society, from vague free-floating fears to a concerned reaction to current events. If you know someone with a lot of anxiety, or if you sometimes feel this way, maybe my experience will help. These are guidelines that I’m working with now:

  • I do not try to work with these fears rationally, because they are not rational in For someone to say, “Well, did you unplug the toaster?” and for me to say, “Yes, I did,” does not make the anxiety go away.
  • Make sure I rest Go to bed at a good hour. If I can’t sleep at night, then I try to take a nap during the day or use deep relaxation to care for myself.
  • I focus on the physical level first, practicing walking meditation, touching the earth, tai chi, chi gong, yoga, or mindful Activity performed with focus and coordinated breathing helps calm my body, and my mind follows.
  • I look into the nutriments that are feeding the I make better choices.
  • I do not malign or reject myself for feeling I accept myself as a sensitive person who detects imbalance in my life through this mental formation as well as others.
  • I water the good seeds by regular practice at home and with

Sandra S. Murray, True Mountain of Light, is a founding member of Flowing Mountains Sangha in Helena, Montana. She is happily writing a novel, short pieces of nonfiction, and poetry.

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Thây Goes to Hollywood to Produce a Collective Awakening

By Karen Hilsberg

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At the Cannes Film Festival in May 2006, Dr. B. K. Modi and Thich Nhat Hanh announced the making of a film on the life of the Buddha. Based on Thây’s novel Old Path White Clouds, the film is planned to premiere at Cannes in 2008.

Dr. Bhupendra Kumar Modi, an Indian businessman and chairman of the new MCorpGlobal, has offered $120 million USD to finance the film. Upon signing the contract in Cannes earlier this year, Dr. Modi announced that Thây has donated the rights to his book with the understanding that part of the proceeds of the film (two percent of the net profits) will be used to help “needy children around the world.”

In September 2006 MCorpGlobal organized a luncheon at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills to announce the film project to the Hollywood community. Thây and His Holiness the Dalai Lama were invited to bless the project on the fifth anniversary of the events of September 11.

The private event began with a memorial service, in which each person present placed a candle in a fountain containing 2,973 pebbles, one for each victim of the World Trade Center attacks. The monastic sangha then chanted “May the Day Be Well” and the invocation to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

During the luncheon, Thây shared the letter he had written to President Bush and previewed the talk he would be offering at UNESCO on October 7 [see pages 14 and 15]. Thây described Old Path White Clouds as a “manual for the practice of peace” and stated that he supports the new World Peace Through Cinema Initiative, of which this film will be the first offering. “Awakening must be collective in order for the world to be saved,” Thây said.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama also shared his hopes about the film. He said that Hollywood has the power to affect the world through cinema and a film about the life of Buddha has the potential to inspire compassion, something sorely lacking but needed in society. He also emphasized the Buddha’s universal message of inter-dependence and inter-connectedness. He added, “From Buddha’s life story, maybe you’ll get inspiration. Our intention is not the propagation of Buddhism but helping the world.”

Dr. Modi said, “We intend for ‘Buddha’ to be a major film event across the globe. Acquiring the rights to world-renowned Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Old Path White Clouds is the first step in making this happen in a fashion that remains true to the extraordinary life story of Buddha. We’re con-

fident this will be every bit the exciting epic Hollywood film we envisioned from the start.” Among the guests present were Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone, Chris McGurk, Carol Mendelsohn, Laurence Fishburne, Victoria Principal, and Robert Downey, Jr.

The press is reporting that “Buddha” is a large-scale commercial movie biography for mainstream audiences worldwide that will be shot in the U.S., Japan, China, and Thailand as well as India. Casting for the film, which will be in English, will begin immediately, with producers currently considering a short list of A-list stars for the lead roles. Principal photography is slated to begin in 2007 for the film to be ready for worldwide release in 2008. The producer Michel Shane has officially signed on to the project, as has Oscar-winning screenwriter David S. Ward.

A few days later, in his talk at Deer Park Monastery, Thây commented, “We want the film to be an instrument helping to produce a kind of collective awakening because the world now is full of violence and despair. A lot of us have become awake and know what is going on — about global warming and the killing of each other every day. But so many people live in forgetfulness. We don’t have a lot of time to save ourselves and our planet. We continue to consume in a very dangerous way. We are so busy with our small problems; we don’t care about our earth and each other. If we continue like this, our earth and our civilization will be destroyed. We have to produce a collective awakening, otherwise hundreds of millions of people will die. Our civilization will be destroyed.”

“Each of us should work for a collective awakening in the kingdom of God — awakening translated into action. Each of us should live life in such a way for a future to be possible for our children and for our children’s children. Do the things that should be done to help with the collective awakening. Do something, and then the miracle will happen.”

The “Buddha” film is meant to be one vehicle for effecting this collective awakening. As Thây remarked in Cannes, “The Buddha has suffered far too much deification over the centuries. This film might help in making him human again. The idea is to make the Buddha relevant to everybody so that the world can become a better place.”

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, lives and practices mindfulness in Southern California.

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Book Reviews

mb44-BookReviews1The Garden at Night
Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life

By Mary Rose O’Reilley Heinemann
2005
Softcover, 96 pages

Reviewed by Richard Brady

In case she’s not already known to you, it’s my happy task to shine the light on one of Buddhism’s hidden Dharma teachers, Mary Rose O’Reilley. O’Reilley is a poet, a teacher of English and rhetoric, and the author of books that include The Peaceable Classroom, Radical Presence, and the autobiographical The Barn at the End of the World. Her new book, The Garden at Night: Burnout and Breakdown in the Teaching Life, is in reality a series of four very personal Dharma talks on engaged practice. In this short gem of a book O’Reilley calls on the wisdom of teaching from Thây, the Bible, and a panoply of writers and friends to inform her practice as an English department member in a Midwestern America parochial college. As the title suggests, Garden is a book written in response to suffering, suffering brought on by departmental meltdown, deaths of students, and inhospitable working conditions.

The lessons O’Reilley works with are ones that will be familiar to mindfulness practitioners. Each person constructs his or her reality. Your awareness of your authentic self is easily lost in busyness and your struggle to do it right in the workplace, even just to survive. Receive whatever comes your way as an opportunity for practice. Don’t get caught in characterizing your experiences as “good” or “bad”; they’re just your experiences. Change your relationship to time: live slowly enough to encounter life with mindfulness. This makes freedom possible, your one true freedom, which is to be authentic.

In my experience, these changes are easy to articulate and challenging to accomplish. O’Reilley agrees. She receives a great deal of support from regular times of retreat and from spiritual friends. When the next suffering comes along, hers or that of someone close, to test these lessons, her supports make it possible for her to remain present to the suffering. And it is particularly in the contemplation of suffering that O’Reilley finds the impetus for personal transformation and prophetic witness.

For readers who wonder how to grow in the absence of major suffering, O’Reilley describes practice with some of her personal koans and questions. Searching for guidance on how to carry on in her profession, she ponders the tension between Jesus’ advice to “Be therefore wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16) and the imperative to be herself. Recognizing her inability to control or even truly understand what her students are learning, O’Reilley asks herself the “painful” question, “What did I just learn?”

Suffering is suffering. So whether or not you’re an educator, you’ll likely resonate with the reality O’Reilley describes. This is the book to share with friends who wonder what mindfulness practice has to do with life. More than that, it’s a wonderful reminder and teacher for us all. Approach this book with an open heart. Its humor, its humility, its poetic truths will water your seeds of compassion and hope.

mb44-BookReviews2Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life
Collected Talks 1960-1969

By Alan Watts
New World Library, 2006
245 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Our beloved hippie icon, the late Alan Watts, is back. Thanks to his son, Mark Watts, keeper of the family archives (see www.alanwatts.com), a new compilation of his radio and TV broadcasts and recorded public lectures is out in book form: Eastern Wisdom, Modern Life, Collected Talks 1960-1969. With its vintage excess of language and Wattsian wit, this is another exciting collection from the British-American philosopher and theologian who beguiled multitudes of flower children, setting many of us on the Buddhist path with manuals such as The Spirit of Zen, Square Zen Beat Zen, and The Way of Zen.

As a small child, I remember losing sleep one night because I was imagining the “forever-ness” of death. I envisioned eternity as a scary, endless corridor of doors where one door always led to another. One of the great things for me about reading Alan Watts as a young adult was that he knew his young readers still harbored such fears. From the new collection:

The idea of nothing has bugged people for centuries, especially in the Western world. We have a saying in Latin, Ex nihilo nihil fit, which means “out of nothing comes nothing.” It has occurred to me that this is a fallacy of tremendous proportions…. It manifests in a kind of terror of nothing, a put-down of nothing … such as sleep, passivity, rest, and even the feminine principles.

And from another essay, “Our fascination with doom might be neutralized if we would realize that every new doom is just another fluctuation in the huge, marvelous, endless chain of our own selves and our own energy.”

He persistently sees the universe as a deep and harmonious whole. Calling on his complex knowledge of history and quick deductive reasoning, Watts reassures:

But to me nothing—the negative, the empty—is exceedingly powerful… [Y]ou can’t have something without nothing. Imagine nothing but space, going on and on, with nothing in it forever. The whole idea of there being only space, and nothing else at all is not only inconceivable but perfectly meaningless, because we always know what we mean by contrast.

mb44-BookReviews3Where to begin?! I was like a kid in the candy store with his new book. His subject matter covers the gamut from “Divine Alchemy” to “Religion and Sexuality,” frolicking through “Philosophy of Nature,” “Swimming Headless,” and “Zen Bones.” Although these essays show only a handful of the talks Alan Watts gave in the sixties, they embody the whole, highlighting a distinguished career that reflected the counterculture of the sixties and paved the way for the Western flood of interest in Far Eastern traditions that has not abated since.

mb44-BookReviews4Buddha or Bust
In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All

By Perry Garfinkel
Harmony Books, 2006
Hardcover, 320 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

In an inquiring-mind style that Perry Garfinkel calls Zen journalism — “a kind of karmic random access, driven by Google…ramped up by coincidence and luck, inspired by jazz improvisation, necessitated by an incurable case of procrastination” — he circles the globe looking for manifestations of engaged Buddhism. Expanded from a piece for National Geographic, this book describes the author’s nine-nation pilgrimage with visits to major Buddhist shrines and dharma teachers, including Thich Nhat Hanh.

Through the internet, Garfinkel locates Order of Interbeing’s Shantum Seth, who becomes his tour guide in Bodh Gaya, India, where Shakyamuni Buddha found enlightenment. At Bodh Gaya, the sensory bombardment he describes is like a synthesis of Garfinkel’s whole trip: “The deep voices of a hundred Tibetan monks, their chanting amplified by tinny speakers, …wide-eyed American neophytes, …stern Japanese Zen priests, …curious Indian Hindus, …ebullient Sri Lankans.” Surrendering to his senses, Garfinkel does find peace in Bodh Gaya.

Some of the koans he carries with him around the world are: Why the meteoric rise of Buddhism in the west? Why now? How is it that monks can enter politics and Buddhists be at war in Sri Lanka, “a country hemmorrhaging from within.”? What would the Buddha think of the Taco Bell TV ad touting “enchilada nirvana,” the Madison Avenue-ization of the dharma? As compelling as these questions are, the author’s honesty is equally so. He tells of the headiness of being granted a one-on-one interview with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He compares the austerities of Japanese “marathon monks” to the asceticism rejected by Buddha. He wonders if ritual as practiced in some Buddhist cultures may cancel out its original meaning.

At a Vietnamese-speaking retreat at Plum Village, where he felt “like a fish out of water,” Garfinkel managed to sit with his “mishigas,” fall in love, and have a sudden gestalt of compassion through listening to a Vietnamese victim of war torture. Finally at Plum Village, the author has a revelation when he asks Thây, after a dharma talk on relationships, “Aren’t there more important issues to discuss than relationships?” Thay answers rhetorically, “Such as war, violence, death, economic problems, terrorism?” Misunderstanding, explains Thây, begins in the microcosm, between two people. It creates fear, and fear creates violence in the world at large. “Peace in myself, peace in the world,” is indeed a Plum Village mantra.

Does the author find truth, meaning, happiness? Yes and no. Summing up his fantastic voyage, Garfinkel ironically quotes eighteenth-century Japanese poet Ryokan: “If you want to find the meaning, stop chasing after so many things.”

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Letter from Sister Chân Không

Thây and all of us in the monastic sangha would like you to join us for the second trip to Vietnam. You are invited to help us heal the last wounds of the Vietnam war and to support Thây in renewing Buddhism with the engaged practice that Thây has been offering us for the last thirty years in the West. At this time,Vietnam is entering its thirty-second year without guns and bombs.

Thây will be offering three Great Ceremonies of Chanting, in Hanoi, HoChiMinh City, and Hué. It is our hope that we can undo the injustice of thirty years of violence by chanting for those who died under bombs, under torture, by murder, by drowning as boat people at sea, or in the re-education camps after the war. The govermment of Vietnam, for fear of angering conservatives, has asked us not to mention the American, Australian, or Korean veterans who died during this war but to focus only on deceased Vietnamese. However, if you have a non-Vietnamese relative who died during that war, you can ask for the high monks and Thây to chant for their liberation, too.

In addition, Thây will also give a daily dharma talk, with translation available in English, French, and German.

Segment 1
February 19 to March 14
You will spend most of your time in south Vietnam with its fertile Mekong delta and its fruit groves, its highlands of majestic waterfalls, and its springtime weather. You will see where the revolutionary monk Thich Nhat Hanh started his career — Dalat, the tribal highlands (as recounted in Thây’s book Fragrant Palm Leaves), and Saigon. Then you may participate in a five-day retreat with 385 newly ordained monastics practicing engaged Buddhism in the style of Plum Village. During the monastic retreat you are invited to take part in all activities including sitting, eating, and walking meditation, as well as dharma discussions with lay dharma teachers. However, the dharma talks will be reserved for monks and nuns, as Thây will deal with delicate issues appropriate for the monastic sangha. During that time if you do not feel inspired to join the monastic retreat, you are free to organize trips to the Mekong delta or to the beautiful beach at Mui Ne. Around Bat Nha (Prajna) Monastery, you will have a chance to visit many preschools and meet children that you have supported.

Segment 2
March 14 to April 1
For the first nine days in HoChiMinh City, there will be the Great Chanting Ceremony with southern Vietnamese religious music. In addition to dharma talks by Thây every day, there will be dharma talks for intellectuals and politicians (high Communist Party members) at the National People’s Committee for Vietnam. On March 23 we will fly to Hué, the imperial city. This is where Thây spent his novice years with his beloved dharma teacher Thanh Quy Chon Thiet. There will be many activities including a promenade on a dragon boat to ritually free fish, a visit to preschools supported by us in Thua Thien, a five-day monastic retreat where you can participate in all activities except for the dharma talks to monastics. On the last day of this segment there will be a traditional alms round with more than 1000 monastics, where you can offer food to the monks and nuns.

Segment 3
April 1 to April 19
The Great Chanting Ceremony in Hué will be dedicated to the hundreds of thousands who died here during the war; it will feature traditional chanting of Hué as infl       by imperial music. There will also be distribution of food for the poor and visits to preschools supported by you in Quang Tri. Then the whole sangha will move by bus to DaNang to visit surprisingly beautiful temples in caves and the historic Cham site. We fly to Cam Ranh on April 13 to enjoy the white sand at Cam Ranh Beach, then fly to Hanoi on April 16, where we listen to Thay give two dharma talks to governing  politicians.

Segment 4
April 19 to May 9
You will experience the Great Chanting Ceremony in northern Vietnamese style, and we will distribute food for the poor. We will visit the oldest stone cathedral in Vietnam and the multicolored Bat Trang pottery market; we will tour beautiful Ninh Binh with its rivers, caves, and rocky mountains. We will listen to a talk for intellectuals and politicians and another one for business people. We may possibly visit Na Mountain, where the eleven-year-old boy Nhat Hanh wished to see the hermit on the mountain and the hermit transformed himself into a beautiful well.

Cost
Cost includes three meals per day, housing in hotels with two per room, private shower and toilet (better than Plum Village), and transportation by bus. The daily rate will be $45 to $47 USD or 36 to 37.5 Euros per day. You are responsible for your own round-trip transportation to Vietnam as well as internal flights, which cost around $55 to $60 USD. In Segment 3 you will need to buy three internal flights, which come to approximately $160 USD extra.

An additional note: you will not be bothered by beggars like in other poor countries.

Practice Notes
To support Thây in his offering of the practice to Vietnam you are requested to observe the Five Mindfulness Trainings during the trip, especially the Fifth: please refrain from drinking wine or beer and from eating meat, including fish. But don’t worry, the vegetarian food prepared for us is very good.

Additionally we ask you to wear the Buddhist grey robe when traveling with Thay [one will be made for you after you register, Ed.].

Please sign up at www.plumvillage-vn.org or for more information write to tnhvntrip@earthlink.net.

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Help for Victims of Typhoon Xangsene

Plum Village — October 24, 2006

Dear Friend,

The 11th of October 2006 was the 80th birthday of our teacher Thây Thich Nhat Hanh. Each year around this day we, the monastic sangha of Plum Village, call Vietnam to buy fishes and birds to be liberated on Thây’s behalf and we send money to be given to the poor, transferring the merits to Thây for his longevity. But this year, when we called on October 3, the sisters of Plum Village living in Vietnam reported that they need to bring urgent relief to thousands of victims of the typhoon.

Typhoon Xangsane (“elephant” in Lao) slammed into the coast of Vietnam on October 1, carrying away thousands of houses in Thua Thien (Hué City). In our Tu Hieu Root Monastery a big tree crushed the temple’s toilet block. It is reported that in Quang Nam and Da Nang the damages are even heavier. Even in safe areas where the typhoon did not hit, the water rose and flooded houses. In stormy areas the wind pulled up tens of thousands of house roofs.

If you would like to offer gifts for people without shelter and without food on behalf of yourself and on behalf of Thây Thich Nhat Hanh’s 80th birthday, we will distribute them all.

In gratitude,

Sister Chân Không

On December 30, Sister Chân Không sent this update: “After Typhoon Xangsene, there was another one called Durian, stronger and unexpected, that turned around and blew into six provinces along the coast of south Vietnam. Again it damaged thousands of houses, including many in my home province of Ben Tre. Another typhoon threatened on December 8; fortunately it veered out to sea (we prayed a lot!).”

To Donate

If you would like to take a tax deduction for your gift, please send your donation (check or credit card) to: UBC c/o Sr Thanh Nghiem, GMDC, P.O. Box 182, Hartland Four Corners VT 05049.

So that we can follow the project, please inform Sister Chân Không about your donation by writing to NH-Office@plumvillge.org, attn: Sr Chân Không.

If you live outside the U.S.A. or do not need a tax deduction, you can send your donation directly to:
Beneficiary: Miss NGUYEN Thi Minh Huong (Sister Thich Nhu Minh Huyen)
Bank name: Via Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam, Hué Branch
Bank Swift Code: BFTVVNVX016
Account number: SoTai Khoan -016-1-370195918
Postal address of the bank: 46 Hung Vuong road, Hué City, Vietnam
E-mail of the bank: vcbhue@dng.vnn.vn and of the Sister: minhhuyen61@yahoo.com
Mention: FOR TYPHOON VICTIMS in Thua Thien Quang Tri, Quang Nam and DaNang

In Europe please send money to:
FR76 1330 6003 4242 9011 9901 196 AGRIFRPP833
Banque Crédit Agricole, 304 Bd President Wilson, 33076 Bordeaux, France, earmarked for typhoon victims

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Dharma Talk: Sitting in the Wind of Spring

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Here is the first Dharma talk that Thich Nhat Hanh gave on his recent tour of Vietnam, at Phap Van Temple in Ho Chi Minh City on February 22, 2007. This excerpt presents the last part of the talk, including questions from the audience and Thay’s answers. Later in this issue we offer a story of that day along with photos from the journey. To hear this talk in full, go to www.dpcast.org and look for “Mindfulness and Healing in Vietnam.” 

Thich Nhat Hanh

While we’re sitting still, sitting peacefully, there are three elements that we need to harmonize. The first is the body, the second is the mind, the third is the breath — mind, body, and breath.

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Sometimes our body’s there but the mind has run off somewhere else. It runs off to the future, to the past. It is caught in worries, sadness, anger, jealousy, fear. There is no peace, no stillness. If we want to sit still we have to bring the mind back to the body.

How can we bring the mind back to the body? The Buddha taught in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing that we need to know how to use the breath. When we breathe in, we bring the mind back to the breath. I am breathing in, and I am aware that I am breathing in. Instead of paying attention to things that happened in the past, things that might happen in the future, we bring the mind back so that it can pay attention to the breath.

This sutra has been available in Vietnam since the third century. Zen master Tang Hoi was the forefather of Vietnamese Zen and this is one of the most basic sutras in meditation practice. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out. This is the first exercise of the sixteen exercises in the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing, which I have translated from Pali to Vietnamese and from Chinese to Vietnamese; it has been published in many languages.

The day I discovered the Sutra on Mindfulness of Breathing I was so happy! It is a wonderful sutra for our practice of meditation. If we practice wholeheartedly, in a few weeks we can bring peace and happiness back to our bodies and to our minds.

The Practices of the Buddha

In Plum Village we have a gatha, a short poem that we memorize. It has only a few words.

In, out.
Deep, slow.
Calm, ease.
Smile, release.
Present moment, wonderful moment!
The first one, “in, out,” means breathing in, I know that I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I’m breathing out.

The second one is “deep, slow.” Breathing in, I see that my inbreath has become deeper. Breathing out, I see that my out-breath has become slower. In the beginning our breath is very short, but if we continue to follow our breathing for a while, naturally our in-breath becomes slower, deeper, and our out-breath also becomes slower, more relaxed.

This is our practice. Just as when we want to play the guitar, we have to practice every day, or if we want to learn to play tennis, we have to practice to be a good tennis player, we also have to practice our breathing. After one hour of practice we already feel better. Then slowly we’ll be able to sit still like the Buddha, and be worthy to be his disciples.

Perhaps for a long time we have been going to the temple only to do offerings. But that’s not enough. We have to learn the teachings of the Buddha, the practices that the Buddha wanted to transmit to us.

Breathing for Our Mothers and Fathers

We practice not to be happy in the future; we practice to be happy right in the present moment. When we’re sitting, we should have happiness as we are sitting. When we are walking, we should have happiness as we are walking. We sit with our breath so that the body can be calm and the mind can be calm; that is called sitting meditation. When we know how to walk, to take steps in lightness and gentleness, that’s called walking meditation.

In practice centers that practice in the Plum Village tradition, we walk peacefully as if we were walking in the Buddha Land. We do not talk as we are walking. If we need to say something, we stop to say it, and then we continue walking. If you visit Plum Village or Deer Park or Green Mountain or Prajna or Tu Hieu, you will see that the monks and the nuns in these centers do not talk when they walk. They pay attention to each of their steps, and the steps always follow the breath.

When you come to live with the monks and the nuns, even for just twenty-four hours, you can learn how to walk and sit like the monks and nuns. Peace and happiness radiate as we are sitting, as we are walking. When we practice correctly, there’s peace and happiness today; we don’t have to wait until tomorrow. Lay practitioners who attend our retreats learn to breathe, to sit, and how to pay attention to their steps right in the first hour of orientation.

While we are here in Vietnam we will also offer these teachings during the monastic retreats and retreats for lay friends. So everybody will learn about sitting meditation, walking meditation, breathing meditation.

“In, out, deep, slow. Calm, ease, smile, release.” That’s the fourth exercise: “Smile, release.”

Breathing in, I feel calm, I feel such a sense of well-being. Breathing out, I feel light. This is what we call the element of ease — one of the seven factors of enlightenment. When we practice through the third exercise we feel calm and ease. When we breathe like that it’s not just for us, but we are continuing the career of the Buddha. We are breathing for our fathers, our mothers in us. When we practice like that it’s so joyful.

I often write these statements so that the young monks and nuns can send home a calligraphy as gifts to their parents. “I am taking each step in freedom for you, Father.” “I am breathing gently, peacefully for you, Mother.” When we practice like that we practice for our whole family, for our own ancestral lines, and for our whole country, not just for ourselves alone.

The Healing Power of Total Relaxation

We accumulate so much stress! This can bring a lot of illnesses if we do not know how to practice total relaxation. That is why the Buddha taught us: breathing in, I relax my whole body; breathing out, I smile to my whole body.

In Plum Village we have the Dharma practice called “total relaxation.” We can do total relaxation as we are sitting or as we are lying down. I ask you to learn this practice. If you practice total relaxation each day for about twenty minutes, you can avoid a lot of illnesses. If you hold in too much tension and stress in your body or your mind, it can generate illnesses in the future, such as high blood pressure, cardiac diseases, or stroke.

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If we can practice as a family each day, with a time allotted so that the parents, the children, can lie down and practice, that is a very civilized family. In Plum Village we have produced CDs that can help people to practice total relaxation, available in English, French, Vietnamese, and German. At first when we don’t know how to lead total relaxation, we can listen to the CD and the whole family can practice. After a while we can take turns leading total relaxation for our family.

In the West there are hospitals that apply these breathing exercises to save patients when there are no other ways to help them. In an article in the Plum Village magazine, Brother Phap Lieu [a former physician] wrote about a doctor who learned about the sutra and the practices of Plum Village and then applied what he learned to help his patients.

Peace and Freedom in Each Step 

There are people in the West who are from the Christian tradition yet they know how to take advantage of Buddhist wisdom to help themselves. We call ourselves a Buddhist country, but many of us only know how to worship and make offerings. We do not yet know how to apply the very effective teachings transmitted to us by the Buddha through the sutras such as The Four Establishments of Mindfulness or Mindfulness of Breathing.

We have this temple — Phap Van (Dharma Cloud) — as well as Prajna, Tu Hieu, An Quang, and other temples. We can go to these temples to learn more about the teachings of the Buddha. We learn about breathing meditation, sitting meditation, walking meditation, total relaxation meditation, so that we can apply them into our daily lives.

At the retreat for businesspeople in Ho Chi Minh City, they will also learn breathing meditation, sitting meditation, and walking meditation. We have organized a retreat like that for congressmen and –women in the United States. Presently in Washington D.C. there are congress people who know how to do walking meditation, how to coordinate their breath and their steps. A congressman wrote a letter to me, and he said, “Dear Thay, from my room to the voting chamber I always do walking meditation. I come back to my breath and my steps on my way to this place. My relationship with the voting process and with my co-workers has improved so much because I know how to apply walking meditation practice.”

We have also organized retreats to teach these practices to police officers in the United States. Imagine all these big police officers who now take steps in peace, in gentleness. Do you know that in the United States there are more police officers who commit suicide than are shot by criminals? They witness so much suffering and they cause so much suffering to themselves and to their families; they feel they had no way out. That’s why a retreat like ours benefited them so much and they suffer much less.

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In prisons there are those who know how to organize sitting meditation. Last month an American prisoner wrote to me, “Dear Thay, even though I am in prison, I’m very happy, and I see that sometimes being in prison is good for me. This is an advantageous condition for me to do a lot of sitting and walking meditation. If I were outside right now, maybe I would never have learned this practice. I am not a monastic, but I see that I am living in prison and I live according to the mindful manners and precepts in the book Stepping Into Freedom. Stepping Into Freedom is a revision of the book written for the monastics; it contains the essential practices for the novices.

Over the centuries when people have been in deep despair and have come in touch with the wonderful teachings of the Buddha, they have been able to transform their lives. We are children of the Buddha — for many generations. Buddhism has been in our country for over two thousand years. If we have not learned these basic practices of meditation, it is a shame.

That is why I very much hope that those of you who are present today are determined to learn these basic practices. We have to be able to sit still. We have to know how to breathe in such a way that we feel comfortable, peaceful, and we need to know how to walk so that there is peace and freedom in each step. We’re not doing this for ourselves only, but for our fathers, for our mothers, for our children, and for our country.

In the Anapanasati Sutra on mindfulness of breathing, the Buddha taught us to use the mindfulness of our breathing to heal our body and our mind. When there is relaxation in the body, our body has the capacity to heal itself and medication becomes secondary. When stress is so great, we can take a lot of medication, but it’s very difficult to heal. So while we’re taking medication, the most important thing is to relax the body. When the nurse is about to give us an injection we tense our body because we are afraid there’ll be pain. When we tense up the muscles like that, if she gives an injection it will be very painful. So she says, “Now take a deep breath!” And when we’re breathing out and we’re thinking of the out-breath, then she sticks the needle into our arm.

While we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they while we’re driving, while we are cooking, while we are sweeping the floor of the house, while we are using the computer, we can also practice total relaxation. Do not think that the monks and the nuns do not work a lot. They also work a lot, but they practice to work in a spirit of relaxation. That is why they’re able to maintain their freshness, their smile, their happiness. We can do the same as the monastics.

The Secret of Zen

After we bring our mind back to take care of the body, we can bring our mind back to take care of the mind. In our mind there’s suffering, fear, worry, irritation, anger. Often we want to suppress these feelings but each day the tension and stress grow greater and greater. Eventually they cause us illnesses of the body and mind. The Buddha teaches us to bring the mind back to the body to take care of the body and to bring the mind back to take care of the mind.

Among the sixteen exercises of breathing, there is one exercise that aims to relax negative mental formations, such as anger and worry. Breathing in, I am aware that there’s irritation in me. Breathing out, I smile to my irritation. Breathing in, I am aware that there are worries in me. Breathing out, I take care of my worries. Our irritation or worries are like our baby. We use our breathing to generate the energy of mindfulness in order to embrace our worries and our fear.

Right mindfulness means we know what’s going on. For example, I am breathing in, and I know that I am breathing in. That is right mindfulness of the breath. When we take a step and we know that we are taking the step, that is right mindfulness of the step. When we drink a cup of coconut juice, in that moment we have mindfulness of drinking. We bring the mind back to the body so that it’s present as we are sitting, standing, lying down, putting on our robe, taking off our robe, brushing our teeth. Our mind is always present. That is the secret of Zen.

When the body and mind are relaxed, we have the capacity to listen to the other person and to speak gentle words. Then we can re-establish communication between us. The other person may be our spouse, our partner, our daughter or our son, our friend, or our parents. That practice is deep listening and loving speech. If there is no peace in the body and the mind, we cannot practice loving speech and deep listening. When we are able to practice deep listening and loving speech, we can help the other person to suffer less. Joy can be re-established in the family.

I’d like to inform you that Western practitioners, after just five days of practice, can reconcile with their families, with their parents. If they practice, they invest a hundred percent into their practice because they want to succeed and not practice just for form.

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Children of the Buddha

We organize retreats for Westerners to practice with Vietnamese. In these retreats the Vietnamese see the Western practitioners practicing diligently and correctly.

We have been children of the Buddha for two thousand years. We cannot do worse than Westerners. We can do just as well or even better. We have to have deep faith in the teachings and practices of the Buddha. Buddhism is not a devotional religion, it is a treasure of great wisdom.

It’s just like a jackfruit. The devotional part is only the shell outside. When you cut it open and go deeply into it there are parts that are very sweet, very fragrant and soft. Many of us have been practicing just on the outside of the jackfruit, but when we go into it we can enjoy it very deeply. We need to learn — not in order to accumulate Buddhist knowledge, but so that we can apply it in our daily lives.

First of all, we learn to practice in such a way that we can sit still and relax our body and mind. We learn so that we can listen deeply and speak lovingly. Perhaps in only one or two weeks we can change our whole lives. We can bring happiness into our family. Many people have been able to do it. If we want to we can also do that.

This is the first dharma talk. I don’t want to speak very long, so I will leave a little time so that you can ask questions.

Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment 

Woman from audience: First of all I would like to wish Thay and the monks and nuns good health so that you can continue to transmit the teachings to us and to future generations. When we practice we can come back to the present moment and dwell happily and peacefully in the present moment, and in order to do that we have to bring together the three factors of body, mind, and breath. But what if one of these three factors, for example, my foot, has a problem and I cannot keep it still. So then would my practice yield peace or ease?

Thay: Very good! [audience applause] First of all, do not wait until you have pain in your foot, then say, “I cannot practice!” Practice when you don’t have pain in your foot. When there’s pain in the leg, first of all we take care, we try to find treatment for the leg and at the same time we find a way to sit so that there’s comfort. There are people who have problems. Instead of using one cushion, they use two cushions. Instead of sitting in a lotus position they sit in a half-lotus, or they sit on a stool or in a chair. People may sit in a chair but they can still bring their mind back to their body.

As for the breath, for example, it may be very difficult when we have asthma. So we should practice when we are not having an asthma attack, and then when we have an asthma attack we can still practice with that.

Do not use the excuse that I have this particular difficulty with my body or my mind or my breath. There are people who are victims of vehicle accidents, who were artists and now they cannot draw with their hands, so they use their feet to draw — beautiful paintings. So if we have a little pain in our feet or we have difficulties with our breath, we can still practice. We don’t use that excuse to be too lax in the practice.

Invoking the Buddha’s Name 

Man from audience: When we use the breath to invoke the name of Amitaba Buddha, breathing in, we say “Namo” [“praise”]; breathing out we say, “Amitaba Buddha.” “Namo, Amitaba Buddha.” This is the Buddha of the Pure Land, and so when you teach us, “Breathing in, I feel calm, breathing out, I feel ease,” I can say it’s somewhat equivalent to my practice. Slowly it brings me to this concentration of the breath at a higher level. When there’s concentration on the breath and on invocation of the Buddha, it can help heal us. So I would like to share that with you, and I would like to express my gratitude of your teaching today.

Thay: Very good. We can combine the practice of invoking the name of Amitaba Buddha with the practice of breathing meditation. But tonight we talk about the sutra Anapanasati, Mindfulness of Breathing, which was taught by the Buddha himself. We can use this original sutra in all different Buddhist traditions, whether Pure Land or Zen or other traditions. We did not say that this is the only method of practice, because there are many other practices. We just brought up a few exercises that the Buddha suggested to us. It does not mean that we do not affirm or recognize other practices.

mb45-dharma6Whatever Dharma practices bring us to relaxation, freedom, and peace of body, they are all best practices. We don’t want to waste time saying that this practice is better than other practices.

Some people feel comfortable with certain practices; other people may not feel that they succeed in a practice, so they try another practice. Whatever practice we do, we want to reach the fruits of that practice — freshness, happiness, calmness. There is peace and happiness right away, and we don’t have to wait until three, four months later or three, four years later to taste that fruit. It’s the same way in the practice of invoking the name of the Buddha. We invoke the name of the Buddha in such a way that there is peace and happiness right in the moment while invoking the name. If we feel fear or anxiety, it is not in the spirit of the teachings of the Buddha. So that’s what it means, dwelling peacefully and happily in the present moment.

Being in Touch with the Departed

Man in audience: In a magazine they said that today Thay would give a Dharma talk about being with my loved one, and how to practice to bring peace to myself. When you gave the Dharma talk tonight, you said that when you are able to be in touch with your breath, you have peace and happiness. Do you mean that when we have peace and happiness, we can be in touch with our loved ones who are dead?

Thay: We will go slowly, step by step. There are many different topics. We will have the three ceremonies to pray for the people who passed away during the Vietnam war, and we can pose the question: “My loved ones have died in the war. How can I bring them peace? How can I help them to be liberated?” These topics need a lot of time to understand because they are very deep.

Just like any scientific field, Buddhism needs to take steps. When we cannot take the first step and the second step, it’s very difficult for us to take further steps. That is why we should not hurry too much or be pulled away by the theoretical realm. We need to grasp the basic practices first.

When we have enough peace in the body and the mind, we have the capacity to listen. Then we can take care of more difficult situations. In us there are certain preconceptions that we have accumulated from the past. When we listen to something new, we have a tendency to fight against it. Maybe there’s this structure inside us when we first listen to a teaching. That is why the Buddha taught us how to break through these views, whatever we learned yesterday. If we cannot let go of what we studied in the past, we cannot go on to the next step. If you don’t let go of the fifth step, you cannot take the sixth step. If you want to go to the seventh step, you have to let go of the sixth step.

In this past century many scientists have found that Buddhism is very inspiring. Einstein said that Buddhism is the only religion that can go in tandem with science. That is the spirit of breaking through knowledge, through views that we have accumulated from the past.

‘To Sit in the Wind of Spring’

We should end the dharma talk now. We will see each other tomorrow. This morning our delegation had a chance to visit An Quang Temple. We offered to the abbot of An Quang a calligraphy that said, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”

I explained to the abbot that in the old teaching, when the brothers and sisters sit together in this love on the path, when the teacher and the students sit together and exchange their experiences in the practice and teach each other and support each other, there is this happiness as if we were sitting in the spring. We benefit from the wind of the spring that is like a nourishing breeze. So that’s why this morning I wrote the calligraphy, “To sit in the wind of the spring.”

I have a feeling that tonight as the teacher and students sit here together, we also sit in the wind of the spring. We have the good fortune to meet each other to exchange our knowledge and experiences. This is a great happiness that I would like all of us to be aware of.

Interpreted by Sister Dang Nghiem;
transcribed by Greg Sever;
edited by Janelle Combelic
with help from Barbara Casey
and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.
 

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

Letter from the Editor

mb45-LetterFromEditor1Dear Thây, dear Sangha,

The Buddha taught the nature of interbeing. In our own time scientists have discovered the non-local nature of elementary particles. We feel in our daily lives that one nation is deeply connected to all nations of the world — we call this globalization. As Thay travels the world we feel the appropriateness of this way of teaching.

Thay goes to Vietnam and whether we stay behind in the U.S. or buy an air ticket to join the Plum Village delegation in Vietnam, we share in the karma of Thay and Vietnam.

The Grand Offering Ceremonies Bringing Relief without Discrimination from Past Injustice taking place in Vietnam during Thay’s visit are certainly very grand and powerful. Here at home we can set up our own little altar and gather as a family or sangha to read the Five Mindfulness Trainings for the souls of those who laid down their lives willingly and unwillingly during, or as a result of, the war in Vietnam four decades ago. The souls find relief in our own home although it may be far from Vietnam because they are non-local and our commitment to practice sila, the mindfulness trainings, is strengthened. As we gather before the altar our compassion is aroused for beings who are visible or invisible, already born or yet to be born, alive or departed. Here in the U.S. we have our role to play in practicing the mindfulness trainings, so that the tremendous inequity that lies between developing countries like Vietnam and over-developed countries can be redressed.

Still, in developing countries material development is already damaging the spiritual and moral dimension of life as it has done in the overdeveloped countries. With the destruction of this dimension the family breaks up because communication breaks down. Sila no longer has its place. The three spiritual powers — putting an end to the mental poisons, understanding, and love — give way to worldly and material power. Globally we need a practice of redeeming the three spiritual powers; this is what Thay is teaching in Vietnam and teaching the whole world.

We are praying that in August we shall have enough good merit to receive Thay in the U.S. so that Thay can encourage us and show us how to develop the spiritual and moral dimensions and powers in our own lives.

On a local level the Maple Forest Monastery of Vermont will move to the Blue Cliff Monastery of New York at the beginning of May. We hope to see you there in a spacious, beautiful, and comfortable setting at our opening (June 2), Wesak (June 3), OI Retreat (June 29, if you are an ordained OI member), or at our Summer Opening (July 6-20, for anyone who cares to come). Thay has given us the name Blue Cliff, so that we can work on the koan of our life: the koan that has practical meaning in terms of our everyday suffering and obstacles. (The Blue Cliff Monastery in China is the monastery where the most famous record of koans was compiled in the 12th century.)

May the monks and nuns of Maple Forest take this opportunity to thank all of you who are so generously supporting the purchase of this monastery with your material and spiritual support.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Letters

Thank you so much for sending me the Winter/Spring 2007 issue of the Bell, which had my poem “No Windows” inside.

I’m in a very difficult state because my mother passed away from cancer on March 3rd. I was devastated and in shock. My mother recently had major surgery to remove the cancer from her spine, and we all thought that she was doing fine. Well, that was not the case. The cancer came back and spread very rapidly.

I am utterly devastated! The pain of her passing was so intense that I’m surprised to still be here. She was my biggest supporter and a solid friend. She was silent whenever I did bad things, but was quick to applaud my good actions. And most of all, my mother was so patient. She had uncanny patience and suffered the wounds of life in calm silence.

That evening [after I got the sad news] I received in the mail a postcard from Editor Janelle Combelic in which she encouraged me to keep writing. Well, that little postcard really meant a lot to me because I really felt like dying, just giving up.

My mother’s passing from cancer has awakened me spiritually. I can see life, its depth and meaning, so clearly now. Life is sacred, all life, and know that I’ll never harm another person or living thing ever again. This world is so deceptive and most of us take so much for granted: our families, our bodies and intellect, the air and vegetation — all existence! Hearing that my beautiful mother had died caused me to be “convicted” in the court of life. I saw how selfish I’ve been all these years. How inconsiderate and insensitive to the sanctity of others. I grieved on my prison bunk and saw how special it is to be a human being and the responsibility it entails. Yes, we should smile and laugh, but life is not a meaningless game. It is dear, to be cherished.

The most difficult thing for me to deal with is all the pain and worry I caused my mother. I silently blamed her for when I was hit by a car when I was five years old, which left me with a permanent facial disfigurement. I never verbally told her that I did, but mothers just know, and I think that what happened to me also weighed heavily upon her heart. I would give anything in the world right now to be able to put my arms around her and to tell her: “Mom, what happened to me was not your fault, and I was so wrong to lay the blame at your feet. I love you so much, Mom!”

I hope that she is free from all suffering and pain. And I believe that she is!

I am so grateful to the Mindfulness Bell, and yes I’ll continue to write and send my poetry. I read every word and I love the pictures! Thank you!

I send you peace and love.

Malachi Ephraim
Arizona State Prison
Florence, Arizona, U.S.A.

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I was wandering my way through the river of life that is the world wide web on a journey of serenity when I found the uniqueness and personal liberation that is your site and magazine. I enjoyed your creative and supportive environment. Your pages are a gateway to the self that allow the viewer to experience your genuine heart and indelible presence.

There is an honesty and truth that radiates throughout your pages. I found everything interesting and appealing and I celebrate your journey. I enjoy absorbing the environments I explore and after exploring yours I am enriched by its imagination and creation. I wish you the healing power of mindfulness and a realm of infinite possibilities where your spirit can roam freely.

Micheal Teal
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

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Words from the Sanghas

“Generosity is contagious,” writes Susan Hadler in response to Leonardo’s message, below. The sangha liaison project that she helped initiate last fall continues to grow and bear surprising fruit. If your sangha doesn’t have someone serving as liaison to the Mindfulness Bell, please contact Susan at wondc@aol.com. Here are a couple messages she received recently.

I’d like to thank you again. I’m doing what I promised. I’m talking about the magazine, sending texts  translated into Portuguese to 200 people every week and encouraging them to subscribe to the magazine. It was a precious gift and I decide I’ll do the same. I’ll choose some people of our Sangha and give them a one-year subscription to help them the way you did to me. The magazine it is a refuge to me where I can be in touch with all Thay’s students worldwide. It gives me strength to deepen my practice.

Leonardo Dobbin
(True Peace of the Heart)
Verdadeira Paz do Coracao
Brazil

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Just to let you know that Singing Bird Sangha is alive and well in Tucson, AZ. We are currently taking time each week to focus on the study of sangha and, as part of that, to include the articles from the Mindfulness Bell. On Sunday, March 11th, we will spend our entire study time inviting individuals to relate to the larger group something from an issue that has caught their attention. Following that I am hoping to encourage our members to contribute photos, poems,or articles about practice and about how sangha particularly has shaped their lives. With this in mind it would help if I could include upcoming submission dates.

Barbara Rose Gaynor
Resourceful Calm of the Heart
Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.

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Editor’s reply: We read submissions all the time and try to get back to writers quickly.  Deadlines for our three issues per year are July 1, November 1, and March 1. We’re especially looking for submissions to the Heart to Heart section — 500 words on the Third Mindfulness Training (July 1) or the Fourth (November 1). We also need essays and photos from the Vietnam trip — or anything else that moves you and deepens your practice. Send to editor@ mindfulnessbell.org. Thanks for writing!

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We love to receive your letters! We enjoy compliments and we benefit from constructive suggestions. Please e-mail editor@ mindfulnessbell.org or write to Mindfulness Bell, c/o David Percival, 745 Cagua S.E., Albuquerque NM 87108, U.S.A.

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Healing in Vietnam

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In early 2007 Thich Nhat Hanh led a ninety-day pilgrimage to Vietnam. Fifty monks and nuns from the monasteries in the U.S. and France accompanied him, along with a hundred lay Westerners, in each of four three-week segments. On this second historic visit to his homeland, Thay was also accompanied by Vietnamese monks and nuns numbering in the hundreds, from the three monasteries in Vietnam that practice in the tradition of Plum Village.

As of this writing, Thay has offered two Great Ceremonies of Healing, also called Grand Requiem Masses, for the souls of those who perished during the Vietnam War. Never before has Vietnam seen such ceremonies. In the first ceremony in Ho Chi Minh City, as many as ten thousand people participated.

Here are writings and photos from two lay participants. David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, recently retired after eighteen years working in public health on Indian reservations in the southwestern U.S. He now practices with the Organic Garden and Ripening Sanghas in southern California. Madeline Dangerfield-Cha from Cleveland, Ohio, will enter Columbia University next fall; she has four half-brothers and one half-sister under the age of seven. Look for more about this historic trip in the next issue of the Mindfulness Bell, and view additional photos by David Nelson at www.flickr.com/photos/rezdog/. Hear Dharma talks and interviews from the Vietnam trip at www.dpcast.org.

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Arrival Day in Ho Chi Minh City

At the Quang Duc Temple, there was a great welcoming ceremony for Thay and the sangha. After a long formal procession, Touching the Earth was offered to the temple’s venerables for a long life to the patriarch that may continue to benefit many. The most venerable offered warm greetings and wishes for a successful trip. Next we took buses to An Quang temple. Thay shared that at this temple he became a Dharma teacher, giving hundreds of Dharma talks in that hall. Afterwards our procession slowly passed by smiling and bowing crowds and made its way to a most delicious Vietnamese feast. We dined to the sounds of up-beat popular music. That night at Phap Van, Thay gave his first talk of the trip. We in the lay sangha were fortunate to witness the talk from directly behind Thay, and to see the faces in the audience. Thay encouraged us to practice coming back to our breath as taught by the Buddha in the Anapanasati Sutra on mindful breathing. [Read part of this Dharma talk on page 4.]

—David Nelson

All photos in this section by David Nelson and Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Thousands on a Few Green Acres

The five-day lay retreat at Prajna Temple near Bao Loc was a wonderful gift. I hardly expected such intense practice! And so many people! Upwards of seven thousand Vietnamese retreatants came. You’d think it would be chaos, thousands of people on a few green acres. How on earth could seven thousand people remain meditative and quiet for five days in 90-degree heat? But these people are truly devoted: three thousand could cram into the meditation hall for Thay’s Dharma talks, the rest sprawling on the steps and lawn outside. Thay was so inspiring, so down to earth.

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For Dharma discussion, I was lucky enough to be included in a bilingual, multi-cultural, youth exchange extravaganza! A large group of monks, nuns, Vietnamese, and young Westerners, we discussed our experiences and challenges. The Vietnamese young people were slow to share, really hesitant, since “sharing,” they explained, is not a part of their culture. Yet after just a few minutes on the first day they began to share their suffering so we could join their journey. We played high energy games and goofy challenges. Everyone could shout and laugh, Vietnamese or English!

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Jungle School Adventure

Ha! I can’t even begin to describe the joy from yesterday’s adventure! The plan for the day was to visit schools in the central highlands around Bao Loc. Plum Village funds the construction, staff, and supplies of over a thousand schools in the whole of Vietnam, a million-dollar charity organization. Yesterday, we visited nine of them, real schools with real kids and real teachers. Just single room, no-frills buildings. Some have desks, some have chalkboards. No books, no toys. But they’re clean, and they’re built! The kids get one well-rounded, nutritious meal per day. Our first stop was a tribal village where most of the inhabitants spoke the local dialect. I played tag with more than forty six- and seven-year-olds. I felt like I was playing with my little brothers. You should have seen their smiles!

But the real adventure began in the jungle. No more plumbing, no more pavement, no more cars of any kind. A nun turned to me and said, “You know, this road gets completely unpassable when it rains. Turns into nothing but mud. The tires can’t move at all. Hey, look it’s raining in the distance!” It did rain cats and dogs — torrential, tropical, southeast-Asian rain, for thirty-five minutes. We were completely frozen, stuck in a muddy river the whole time, twelve of us tucked in our little monastic van. We passed around boiled peanuts and rice cakes and purified water. It was a beautiful storm, like a fever breaking, as the heat and humidity dropped.

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As soon as the rain slowed, Sister Chan Khong (the one and only! this woman has lived!) said “Alright, let’s go. The kids are waiting for us!” Our poor driver got us as far as he could, which was about a kilometer down the road. We left the other two vans behind. Sister said, “Can’t drive any further. We walk!” and jumped out of the van. The sky had cleared by this time, and all the dusty vegetation had been rinsed clean and was glowing with color. Muddy red earth, big gray sky.

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The walk was long and sticky. I almost lost a shoe at one point, so ended up barefoot in red mud — cool and fresh. Local kids in blue and red uniforms whizzed by us on motorbikes. A man on a motorbike stopped by, asking us if we needed a hand. Sister Chan Khong was all about it! This seventy-year old Vietnamese rock star just tucked up her robes and was off.

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The rest of us walked up and down muddy hills through the brush. Coffee plants taller than men. Little kids joining us, then peeling off on tiny paths, presumably to their homes hidden among the plantlife and mist.

At the school, since we couldn’t bring the gifts, a few people offered crackers. Someone had a brick of cheese. We dumped what we had into a cone hat and passed it around to the children, who ate with joy. In one of the poorest areas that Plum Village supports, these people are happy, functioning. They don’t need plumbing or cars in order to live.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Powerful and Jubilant Alms Round

In Bao Loc today, the alms round led by Thay in a black Highlander — the Buddha-mobile — was powerful, jubilant! Two thousand monks and nuns passed through streets mobbed by old women, children, and families offering toothpaste, medicine, sweet treats, yogurt, fruit, and the traditional boiled rice wrapped in a banana leaf with sesame salt. The Western lay delegation stood on the sidelines with Vietnamese locals; we helped collect the unbelievable excess of food, stuffing it into army sacks for later donations.

Playing with small children, we had our pictures taken by the locals, who love taking photos of us. My friends Brant and Ray are both six feet four inches — giants here in Asia. People run up to them and measure themselves, waving their hands over their heads and matching them up with the middle of Brant’s forearm. It’s hilarious.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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The First Great Requiem Ceremony

Thich Nhat Hanh declares during his Dharma talk at Vinh Nghiem Temple on this second day of ceremony that we will continue to open the throats of hungry ghosts. Along with powerful chants led by a chant master specializing in inviting spirits, the souls of those who died during the war, whether as heroes, in prison, of sickness, on land or sea, will be purified by the compassion and energy of the Dharma.

Day two begins with chants from the discourse on love, to detach the souls from the bodies. Everyone is requested to bring themselves wholeheartedly into the chants and not disturb the energy by moving around and taking pictures. First there is the Beginning Anew gatha of forgiveness, lightness and freedom. From the depths of understanding, with great emotion and steadfastness, the chants roar and pulsate throughout this huge temple. In the afternoon there is chanting to invoke the presence of the Medicine King, a previous incarnation of the Buddha. Led by the chant master, local traditional chants flow like a mighty river of heart-felt sound, non-stop for nearly two hours, echoing inside and outside among thousands in the courtyard. So many thousands of voices giving energy to the healing! Thay declares that as Beginning Anew transforms our hearts and those of the loved ones departed, the nightmare of the Vietnam War is over. The squash and the pumpkin co-exist peacefully on the same vine.

In the evening we in the lay sangha are amazed to become part of the lotus lamp ceremony. The procession line forms, with colorful umbrellas, flags, and other ceremonial poles. I stand near the beginning with my palms together to show respect to the monastics as they file by. As Thay arrives, looking over at me, he smiles. Raising his hand, he waves, wiggling his fingers in a cute gesture. I return the wave and smile. As our lay sangha follows, filing through a narrow opening, we pass shrines and a wishing well altar. The people offer us lotus bows and big smiles.

This evening is lit with spotlights, colored lanterns, the booming sounds of a big drum, cymbals, and bells, accompanying chants from the monastics and crowd. After a half-hour of waiting, our line is ushered quickly past attendants who offer us hand-made paper lotuses containing candles. Circling the temple, we glow, a beautiful candle-lit lane awaiting the chant master. More monastics, an entourage of musicians and traditionally dressed young women pass, smiling. We follow them to the Saigon River behind the temple, passing by big, bowing crowds. We place our glowing lotuses into the river where they float like beacons to light the souls lost in darkness — that they may join us during this transformative healing and reconciliation ceremony.

The dead have been invited to the temple to begin anew with us. On day three Thay states that this is the largest such ceremony ever in Vietnam — an action of love to bring individuals, families, and the nation into harmony and peace. We join in untying knots of injustice for all beings. Thay offers prayers for those who lost their precious bodies, that through our consciouness, they might be healed. Thay helps the audience understand how to walk and breathe as he does, with the energy of lightness and freedom.

Sister Chan Khong sings a song of Beginning Anew, teaching it to the audience. With tears in their eyes, they sing along. Greed, anger, passion, and ignorance are offered a chance to transform. People comfort one another. A large indoor screen projects the crowd’s faces of regret, forgiveness, and hope. Thay tells us that even the Communist party has admitted their mistakes of taking land and killing so many, although they refer to it as a correction rather than Beginning Anew. Everyone learns that once the mind is purified there is no trace of past unskillfulness, no guilt, no sin. Sitting in the spring breeze, teacher and students are happy as a family.

—David Nelson

Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh’

Hue is the closest city to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which remains the most heavily bombed piece of earth on this planet. Slowly, I’m formulating a sense of the real devastation of this war and all wars. Agent Orange is still wreaking havoc. Even today, babies are born with terrible deformities due to exposure. Many older Agent Orange victims beg here on the streets of Hue and in the temples where we go to practice. The suffering, I see, is enormous, continuous.

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The response that keeps re-surfacing is “Thank God for Thich Nhat Hanh” — a leader, a visionary. He’s fighting the bureaucracy with peace and love and compassion and understanding. Without resentment or cynicism or demand. He is fighting and he will win. It may take many more generations, but his message is true. Love all beings. Prevent all possible suffering. Act with compassion. Do not kill. Do not discriminate. The Communist officials here breathe down his neck. For thirty years, they repressed him and killed his supporters. Yet he is here, now, and he will not stop fighting with love and grace and dedication.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

Coming Home to Hue

When we arrived at Tu Hieu, Thay was just finishing an impromptu tour of the grounds, explaining his activities as a young novice. Walking through the front gate, he motioned to the left-most of three stone arches and recounted the details of his first entrance when he was only 16 years old. His older brother was already a novice, and had brought Thay to study with him. His brother instructed Thay to walk through the arch in full awareness of every step and of every breath, invoking the name of the Buddha. Right, I am breathing in. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Left, I am breathing out. Namo Shakyamuni Buddhaya. Those, he said, were his first steps on the path of mindfulness. He invited each of us to do as he had done.

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Sitting together on the shady grass, monastics and international lay friends, we are all smiling as a great family. Thay is cupping a flower in his left hand, which he brings up to his face every so often, breathing in with great joy. He motions to a young monk, maybe ten or eleven years old, to sit close to him, extending the flower to the boy, sharing its beautiful fragrance. The young novice is nervous and smiling, his legs curled beneath him, his back upright and erect. Thay puts an arm around his shoulders, and invites another young monastic to share a song. Many have been singing traditional folk songs or older Buddhist chants. This young monk sings a popular Vietnamese love song. His voice is warbling and full of laughter. His Vietnamese brothers and sisters laugh through the whole song. Our teacher is bright with joy and humor.

—Madeline Dangerfield-Cha

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Explaining the Reasons for the Grand Offering Ceremonies

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Preparations for these ceremonies were being made at least three months before Thay left for Vietnam. The full text of this letter is available on the Plum Village website in Vietnamese; it gives specific instructions as well on how to set up the altar. I imagine it was down-loaded and widely distributed in Vietnam. –Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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During the war, our country had to bear the pain of thirteen million tons of bombs and seventy-two million liters of toxic chemicals. So many of our compatriots have died because of the war. So many living beings — humans, birds, wild animals, vegetation, earth, and rocks — have been wounded, crippled, or devastated by these bombs and poisonous chemicals. At present, the number of unexploded bombs and grenades lying on the earth is still more than three hundred thousand and on average once a week someone will lose his or her life or be crippled by stepping on one of them. The number of warriors killed or wounded in action on both sides numbered one million two hundred fifty thousand.

The huge amounts of weapons used by both sides to kill each other were wholly provided by countries outside of Vietnam. The number of compatriots killed and wounded in North and South Vietnam is more than four million. The number of killed and wounded by bombs and weapons in the war has risen to five and a half million. Not only foreigners slaughtered, tortured, removed and constrained us by force, we ourselves were pushed into opposing and hating each other so that we also tortured, slaughtered, eliminated, constrained each other by force. The battlefields of Vietnam in the last war were the bloodiest Vietnam has ever known. Millions became boat people. Nearly half a million compatriots lost their lives escaping from Vietnam by boat. Thousands died because they wasted away while unjustly held in prison camps. Our land and our people bore the burden of so many wounds and injustices, which we have not yet had the chance to talk about.

Any victims of war are our ill-fated compatriots. Together with one mind we shall pray for all those who have died, in the Buddhist spirit of inclusiveness and non-discrimination. According to the teachings of the Buddha and according to the principles of psychotherapy if we keep holding down our wounds and pain in the unconscious we shall not have an opportunity to heal the wounds in our heart. To bring this pain up into our conscious mind, to recognize it, to embrace it with compassion, to pray, and to accept is an essential practice. This is the practice of the Grand Offering Ceremony to undo past injustice. This ceremony is realized in a spirit of brotherhood, when hatred is put aside, resentment, blaming and assigning guilt are absent, where we accept and forgive each other. This is what is meant by the Pure Nectar of Compassion, a wonderful teaching of the Buddha.

All our compatriots, whether old, young or middle-aged, love our country and our people. Everyone aspires to strive for independence, freedom, unity, and peace in our country. However, when our country found itself in a difficult situation many of us had to oppose each other and become the victims of a cruel and long-lasting struggle. Many of us have had to go through sad situations of enormous tragedy and maltreatment, feelings of injustice that we had never known before.

Now our country has been unified, is at peace, and has been rebuilt. It is our chance to come back together, hold each other’s hands, accept each other so that together we can pray for each other, whether the object of our prayer has died or is still alive and continues to bear the burden of cruel injustice. Together we shall have a chance to heal the wounds that are still bleeding and have been bleeding for a long time. The reason we dared to undertake this task for the Buddha is because we have seen these wounds. Respectfully we request the Upadhyaya, the Venerable elders, all our compatriots, and the Buddhists in our country and abroad, along with politicians of all persuasions, to understand this matter deeply and to give wholehearted spiritual support so that this task for the Buddha can be realized.

Translated from the Vietnamese by Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Still Mind, Peaceful Heart Retreat

mb45-Still1From August 13 to 18, 2006, over eighty lay people from all over North America attended the first large retreat outside a monastery in which our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh was not physically present. Eighteen monks and nuns from Deer Park, Green Mountain, and Maple Forest monasteries came to the beautiful YMCA conference center in Estes Park, Colorado. Situated on the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park, the location is magnificent and a favorite for Thay and the monastics.

The monastic contingent was led by the incomparable Thay Phap Dung, abbot of Deer Park. Happy to be reunited with distant brothers and sisters, the monastics manifested a bubbling happiness that spread to all the retreatants. Their playful joy did not dampen the depth of their wisdom, as we experienced during the question and answer session (see page 18).

For the first time the sangha went on a long mindful walk into the high country, led by the intrepid Thay Phap Luu (Brother Stream), taking most of a day to hike, picnic, and even — for the daring ones — dip in a refreshing pool. The tea ceremony on the last evening filled us with laughter and delights, such as the song “YMCA” with surprising new words, written and performed by one of the “families.” (see page 21).

As a gift for Thay, the monks and nuns created a video of the retreat. You may see it at www.deerparkmonastery. org/dharma_talks/video/stillmind_documentary.html.

We can only hope to enjoy many more such retreats in the future.

—Janelle Combelic,
True Lotus Meditation,
Longmont, Colorado

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Dharma Rain in the Rocky Mountains

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The monks and nuns who answered our questions during the panel discussion at the retreat astonished us with their wisdom and enlightened us with their insight. This heavily edited version gives you a taste; we hope to publish more excerpts in future issues.

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Question 1 (from a lay man): How can we practice with the current political situation, in particular America’s role in the world, and how do we judge and understand what we’re being told by the media? How do we maintain optimism and remain agents of change, without feeling confusion and despair?

Question 2 (lay woman): A lot of my family loves the military; they draw their support and livelihood from it. When they tell their war stories, I feel aversion and don’t want to be there, but I love them and want to connect with them in other ways. Do you have suggestions for my practice around this?

Brother Phap Ho — Watering Positive Seeds

When I lived back home in Stockholm, Sweden, I really wanted to make a difference and contribute to a more beautiful world. Problems felt so overwhelming, so big; how can I ever understand? There’s so much suffering everywhere.

We’re all different. We talk about seeds, the different tendencies or qualities we have inside — despair, joy, hope, confidence, being judgmental. Some might have a very strong seed of joy and hope in them, and their seed of despair is not so strong; maybe they can consume a lot of news and still see clearly a path of light and beauty. For some of us when we consume even a little, we are heavy and discouraged.

When suffering arises in me due to causes around me or just inside, I think they’re real. I think it’s something that needs to be solved. I think it’s a matter of life-and-death urgency. And in those moments, I very easily forget that there are things going well, too. The sun is shining on my face. The wind is coming in, a gentle breeze. Sometimes my brothers, they see that I get a bit heavy and they try to make me laugh. Sometimes I feel like, Oh, what are you doing? I’m trying to do something serious, I’m practicing! Don’t distract me! [laughter] Little by little I’m getting better.

We have a wonderful practice of nourishing the positive elements in us. There is the teaching of changing the peg, changing the CD. When we see that our minds go in a way that makes us feel heavy and we keep having irritation against someone, the world, the government or whatever, we can change the CD.

It’s not that I ignore the suffering, it’s not that I ignore the difficulties inside or outside. But I see them in a little bit bigger light. I don’t forget that the sky is there and that the earth is still here. There might be some suffering but still there’s a lot of solidity in you.

We learn from our practice. We stumble a little here and pick ourselves up; it’s a bit like trial and error. We have to know ourselves. Little by little we become more aware, we see more clearly, we know how to deal with difficulties and how to nourish ourselves. But we have to practice.

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Sister Lang Nghiem — A Ghost in a Hammock

When I was about to move from Lower Hamlet to Deep Park — Lower Hamlet is in Plum Village in France, and Deer Park is in California — I wanted to write a letter to my sisters and to express my gratitude for each of them in a concrete way, recollecting a positive experience I had with each of them. This would nourish those seeds in myself and also in my sisters. Everyone got a really good paragraph, and when I got to this sister, absolutely nothing came up! [laughter] I tried. I picked up my pen and said, Okay, Dear Sister — and then I would wait, and nothing came up. But I continued to try, and several days later suddenly I remembered an experience that I’d had with her.

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One night I couldn’t sleep, there was a storm raging in me, so I went out and sat in the hammock. In Lower Hamlet there’s a hammock next to the bookshop in a cluster of trees, and you can overlook the lotus pond and see the plum orchard. That night it was a full moon, and I could see the path like sand around the lotus pond, and the plum orchard, and the shadows of the trees. I sat there for a while and inside the storm was still raging. I was just trying to calm it down.

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Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me and someone asked, “Who is it?” I didn’t want to answer, I was focused on me, and I just sat still, swinging in my hammock. So I guess I was moving in and out of light and darkness, between the shadows from the tree and the moonlight. She asked, “Who is it?” several times. And I didn’t answer. Suddenly I felt pebbles at my feet, I was continuously being pelted with things. I realized what she was thinking and I just started smiling to myself. In Vietnam and in many cultures, ghosts don’t have feet.

I knew she thought I was a ghost or something. At one point I just turned around and stared at her as she continued to throws things at me. Then she came up and she recognized that it was me. “Oh, it’s you.” She sat next to me and asked, “What’s wrong?” I was really closed so I said nothing. So that night she just sat there, and she said she was determined to sit there, too, and I was wishing she’d go away! I kept telling her I was fine but finally it was too much for me so I got up and said, “Okay, we’ll both go to bed.”

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I didn’t think much of that moment, but when I was writing the letter to her I was able to acknowledge that her presence that night helped to change the storm in me. That letter nourished me so much because as soon as I was able to acknowledge some goodness in her, my views completely changed about her. I didn’t look at her the same anymore, and I came to care for her in a way that I had never been able to care for her before.

If you’re having difficulties with someone, sit down and think of something really good that came of that person. It may change your perspective of the situation, the person, or the organization, and the government, too. If we look closely we’ll be able to identify people with wisdom, insight, and compassion, and we can find ways to support them. Even those whom we feel we really disagree with, we can look a little bit more and see that they’re not just that, they’re much more. We can look again to pick out these things, and then we can act from there.

Brother Phap Luu — No Fear, No View

So much of the suffering that we experience in the world, in America today, is because of fear. It comes from a sense of being a victim, a sense that we are not in control, a sense that there are outside forces that somehow have power over us. So the question is, how do we bring the Dharma into this moment, into our lives, so that we generate non-fear in ourselves and in those around us?

If we ask ourselves that question, moment to moment, we’re really asking ourselves, how am I generating non-fear for myself, for my family, for my community? That way we’re no longer prisoners to any government, to our society, to the fear of someone coming and shooting our young son, whatever fear we might have.

Our fears are irrational. We get in cars and drive around every day, and it’s much more likely that we’re going to die in a car accident than we’re ever going to be hijacked in an airplane. Global warming is something to be afraid of — we’re talking about all of our successive generations.

In my practice, when I look at what I’m to do in every moment, I’m careful not to base what I’m doing in a view. I feel this is a lot of why we are ineffective in transforming the way society functions. I was in activist groups before I became a monk, so I have experienced what it means to base your actions on a view. This is clear, these people are killing, they’re destroying the environment, right? Thus, I need to do this.

In his teachings on the Eightfold Path the Buddha said everything is based on right view. If we don’t have right view, how can we talk about right thinking? How can we talk about right concentration? We need to have a clear view.

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Ultimately right view is the absence of any view. It’s only a matter of whether we’re clear or not clear. It’s not a matter of good or bad, of judging, punishing, or even statistics. Those are all just views, ways of looking at the world. Avidya is ignorance; one way you can translate it is the absence of light.

How can we keep this mind clear moment to moment? There’s not fear, because in clarity there’s no birth, there’s no death. It’s just manifestation, and the absence of manifestation.

What we’re doing now, ten thousand years ago it was the same thing. At the time of the Buddha, there was a prince who killed his father and terrorized the countryside. The Buddha didn’t go out and protest. This is what they did at that time. Now we have elections. [laughter]

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When we do walking meditations with Thay, we call it a peace walk, but what’s going on there? I’ve walked with banners, it’s very boring. But when you see Thay walking, it’s really interesting! You’re not quite sure what it is he’s doing. And we’re not quite sure either! We’re walking. No, we’re following our breathing, we’re following our steps. But is this about Iraq?

It’s for a reason that Thay is not saying this or that. What’s happening now, the seeds were planted hundreds of years ago. But if we want to change, we have to have a clear view right now, to affect what’s happening to our children, to successive generations.

Brother Wayne — Connection Beyond Words

I am also from a military family. On my paternal side, all the males have been in the military for at least four generations. All my five uncles were in the Navy or in the Air Force or in the Army. At a very young age I was against war, against the military.

A couple of years ago my grandmother passed away. She was the only remaining parent of my father, and it struck my father very strongly. Although I wasn’t there at the time — I was in China accompanying my teacher — I got some phone calls and my relatives were really concerned over my father. When I got back to America, I called my father, and we had the strangest conversation ever. His mother had just passed away, and he spoke to me about his Navy career. And that’s all he could say. For the first half an hour listening to military stories over the phone, I was kind of scratching my head. I thought, my grandmother, his mother, just passed away, and he’s talking about the Navy.

When we practice deep listening, when we listen from that place of stillness, with our body and not with our brain, we can listen to what is not being said. Underneath I could hear his sense of loss, his confusion, becoming an orphan, and also wanting to make amends in our own relationship, because when I was about a year old my mother and my father separated, and he wasn’t there for me. So I knew, when I listened, he was trying to make it up, and he didn’t know how.

In the case of your family, when you have to listen to all of these military stories, that may not be what they really wanted to talk about. They may not know how to talk about anything else.

Yesterday in our dharma discussions we were talking about the mindfulness trainings and a sister shared how she used alcohol as an ice-breaker, a tool to let go and to be able to talk from the heart and connect with people. This touched me very deeply, because the reason I’m a monk and the reason I practice is because I see so much of the suffering that comes from our disconnection.

I was struck in my first year coming to Plum Village as a novice monk how I was able to connect with people at the heart level. Ordinarily we connect with people because we have things in common. We talk about work, the kids, or movies, music, art, whatever. With the practice we don’t have to have the same background, the same taste in music or sports or philosophy. Because I am practicing to open my heart, and you are practicing to open your heart, I can connect with you. If I didn’t have the practice there’d be no chance I would connect with all these different types of people. In the case of our family, with the practice, we find our own creative way to do that.

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With my father, I was finally able to say, “Father, how are you? How do you feel?” I was able to make a connection. It’s different for each one of us. We have our own style, our own way, and we find that with our rootedness, with our stability.

Sister Susan — Mountain Love

You just can’t say enough about how important it is to get nourishment. You can’t say enough about what looking at a few good mountains can do for you.

I look at these mountains around here and what they say to me is, I’ve been around here for a billion years, and I can tell you a thing or two — not just about stability and rocks, but about beauty. There’s a lot of beauty in a billion years, and it touches my heart over and over again. It fills my heart to the brim, and that does a lot to pour a balm over what I hear about Lebanon and Israel, and to know that suffering there. I helps me to know that there is beauty in the world, that things are all right somewhere.

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It’s so crucial to look daily and to let yourself be free. For me it helps me let go of the complexities. People get in knots with government leaders, they can’t solve their problems, there are conflicting ideas and conflicting pains. People don’t know how to figure them out.

I can’t criticize without looking deeply. I need all the calm I can muster, all the mindfulness, looking carefully at both sides, staying calm, and knowing how it feels to be in those shoes — what would it be like to suffer.

Everyone has an amount of media that they can take. I take as much as I can, and then I know I can’t take any more. I look at a lot of mountains! Then I need to see the suffering, and there is so much suffering I don’t see, obviously. When I find myself feeling despair, I know I need to be outside.

We don’t look at our earth nearly enough. We have so little clue of our connection to the outside world, to our physical world. We get stuck in four walls and in personalities. The more we can connect with the world we live in, the more we can see the bigger picture and grow our calm. Our government leaders need all of our wisdom and calm, and the more that our views change, as our brother said, it will become so obvious. But we need to have all that calm and clarity and happiness. Our happiness comes from our nourishment level and our compassion level; they go together.

We need to make our families our intimacy. Bonding needs to be really strong. We need to let go of things like military, which political side our families are on. Families need to be intimate. I remember this wonderful story of Thay giving questions and answers; this lady was going on and on about how her daughter was into computers too much and it just drove her crazy. She was saying over and over how destructive it was and finally Thay interrupted her, saying, “You really need to learn how to play the computer with your daughter.” [laughter]

I get into this with my son. Sometimes we get on opposite sides, but that bond with our loved ones is so important. You need love so much. Ninety percent of the time it is about love anyway. We need it so much.

Transcribed by Greg Sever; edited by Janelle Combelic.

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YMCA Dharma Song

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Sung to the tune “YMCA”
Young monk, lace up your hiking shoes
I said, young monk, weighed down by the blues
Go there, you will breathe in clean air
With those moun-tains all a-round you

Breathe in, Sangha, you’re on your way
I said, breathe out, toss your dark thoughts away
Blossom like a well-watered seed, you can
Walk the path mind-ful-ly

Chorus:
It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
You can hike with the crowd
But please don’t be loud
Brother Stream, is that a storm cloud?

Young nun, you’re at the end of the line
I said, young nun, don’t let yourself lag behind
Walk fast, or you may find yourself
Alone with moun-tain li-ons

It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
It’s fun to hike at the YMCA
You can hike with the crowd
But please don’t be loud
Brother Stream, is that a storm cloud?

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On the Way Home (part 4)

 

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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Sister Annabel has been a disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh since 1986; this is the fourth installment in her autobiography.

Walking and Relaxing

Plum Village emphasizes two aspects of the practice that Buddha Shakyamuni taught 2,500 years ago and that the descendants of the Buddha have continued to practice until now. They are mindful walking and relaxation. Some of the old-fashioned translations of the Pali suttas refer to the Buddha pacing up and down in the monastery. What we understand by this is walking meditation.

The Buddha Shakyamuni compared the Dharma to the ocean. Just as the ocean floor steps down gradually in shelves, so do the wonderful teachings and practices. First we hear the teachings, then we give thought to them, and then we practice them. As a teenager I saw a film about Sri Lanka. I saw for the first time a monk making the alms round. His walking made me feel peaceful and the image stayed with me, although I did not imagine myself walking that way.

Years later I was instructed to walk slowly by a Tibetan teacher. This teacher only knew one sentence in English that went: “Now we are walking slowly.” When a Tibetan nun who was in our party heard this, she would take hold of my hand so that I had no choice but to walk slowly. I had walked slowly in Piccadilly Circus thanks to this hand and on the Acropolis in Athens. Even amidst throngs of tourists our little party of Buddhist practitioners was able to wend its slow and relaxed way.

Go Very Gently

After that I went to India. It was not possible to walk in India the way I had walked in Europe. Just the collective consciousness and the heat made me walk more slowly. Being in India was like putting your car in a different gear — more slow and more relaxed. All the same I did not have in the continuum of my own mind the way to practice mindful walking. I walked more slowly but my mind was often searching and not at rest as I walked.

In Himachal Pradesh we had many little paths to walk on in the forest, carrying building materials, water, or firewood or just going from one place to another. It was very beautiful: there was the fragrance of the pine needles, the singing of the birds, the chanting from the monastery across the valley; the view of the rice fields down below and the towering snow-capped peaks above. The air was very clean and fresh. There were no roads nearer than eight kilometres. The paths were just for the walking of humans, cows, and the occasional horse with two sacks strung over its back. Sometimes the beauty of that place was enough to bring me into the wonderful present moment.

In India I appreciated above all that I could live in the spiritual environment of a monastery. I could appreciate what it meant to live more simply than I had experienced before in my life: no running water, no electricity, little to eat and sometimes cold but always the knowledge that the sun would come back and make us warm. The beauty of nature embraced and surrounded us and I felt safe.

Walking with the nuns in the forests I learned how to sing songs about meditation practice in Tibetan and when the sisters asked me to sing a meditation song in English, since I could not think of any, faute de mieux I had to make one up:

Go very gently, going nowhere,
Go very softly, stopping nowhere
Like a river deep and wide,
Always moving, still inside

This was inspired by the river at Tilokpur in Himachal Pradesh at the foot of the mountain on which the monastery stood. In the rainy season the sound of the rushing water would climb the mountainside and we could hear it day and night.

Touching Nirvana with the Body

There was one particular path that I walked on many times every day; as many times as we might go up and down the stairs in our house. This little path led the way from our hut to the building site where we were building a retreat center. It was my aspiration to walk this path as a meditation practice but I did not know how. So I tried to remind myself to keep my thinking very simple as I walked, but that was difficult because I was trying to practice with my mind without involving my body.

When I first met Thay and Sister True Emptiness [Sister Chan Khong] it was at the airport in London. Thay walked slowly in mindfulness. It was difficult for me not to overtake Thay without realizing it. Thay did not say anything and just enjoyed walking until we came to the car park. There Thay stopped and put a hand gently on the side of the car. This gesture alone helped my body and mind to come back together. I felt as if the hand of Thay were the mind and the car the body. In the excitement of Thay’s arrival I had forgotten all I had ever learned about slow walking.

Some days later when we came to the place where Thay was to lead the retreat, I still had the tendency to run everywhere. Thay asked me to go upstairs to check whether there was a room suitable for tea meditation. As I started out in haste to please Thay, Thay called me back and said very gently: “There is no need to hurry. You can go slowly.” As I walked up the stairs I tried to remember that; pulling each step reluctantly back into the present moment. After all I was someone who was used to going up and down stairs two steps at a time.

The beauty was the next day when Thay gave instruction on how to walk mindfully. Of course you have to involve your body. In any mindfulness or meditation practice your body practices along with your mind. Thay told us that the Buddha had said: “You can touch nirvana with your body.” You invest your whole person in mindful breathing, mindful footsteps, and the contact between the soles of your feet and the earth. Then you can touch nirvana with your feet on this planet earth. Even after we left the retreat Sister True Emptiness had to remind me to practice mindfulness as we walked on the street or in the railway station.

In 1989 Thay took his disciples from Plum Village on a pilgrimage to the Fleurs de Cactus meditation center in Paris and Thay’s former hermitage called Sweet Potatoes at Fontvannes in the forest of Ote. As we walked on the paths by the Marne River or in the fields around Sweet Potatoes, I began to feel that my steps could bring me back home. Steps alone could settle my mind and body and bring them back together again. I had watched Thay walking and my feet wanted to imitate that way. It was as if Thay had blessed my feet.

With the practice of mindfulness the miracle is in every step. Walking along the corridor of a residence hall or a hospital is as deep a practice as walking on a mountain path. Sometimes the steps come first and then the mindfulness and insight follow effortlessly. Sometimes the practice needs a little support from meditation words or conscious breathing for mindfulness to flow. As children we walk in paradise without anything to worry about or regret. The only thing is that we do not recognize we are walking in paradise. Using meditation words such as “arrived, home” can help us realize that we have arrived and we are at home. “Solid, free” gives a chance to recognize the solidity and freedom that mindful walking is bringing us so that we do not lose it.

It is surprising how relaxing walking can be. All of the four poses that we adopt in our daily life can be relaxing: sitting, standing, walking, or lying down. Life in Europe and North America is generally full of stress. In Asia, Africa, and South and Central America life is becoming more stressful. There is stress in the environment or the collective consciousness as well as stress in the individual body and mind. Stress is a major cause of ill-health or disease. The way our society is organized creates stress for the individual and the individual is causing society to be as it is. The way out is the practice of relaxation.

Total Relaxation

A favorite practice in Plum Village is total relaxation; relaxing the body from head to foot. When I was working as a schoolteacher, after work I came home and, before I did anything else, I lay on the floor to let go of all the difficulties the workday had left in me.

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The main thing was to let go of perceptions and the unpleasant feelings associated with these perceptions. Since body and mind are inextricably interwoven, relaxing the body is immediately effective in relaxing the mind.

In the month of May 1989, during a retreat in the state of Virginia, I heard Thay lead the retreatants in guided total relaxation for the fi time. The relaxation stressed abdominal breathing and the lightness of our limbs as they relaxed like a piece of silk or duckweed floating on the water with the current. These images help us develop an attitude of non-resistance and effortlessness that is the ability to flow with what is happening. As the guidance ended, still lying down, we listened to a recording of waves breaking on the seashore. Sometimes Thay would read a poem of Thay’s in Vietnamese. It was never translated because the purpose was the musicality of the tonal language and the soothing rhythm of the verses.

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During the guided total relaxation an important instruction is to let go — let go of everything. I often use this practice of total surrender and acceptance when I am unwell and the practice of letting go in body and mind has an immediate effect of changing the situation for the better. When talking to someone who is sick in hospital, if we can help him or her let go, it can be very helpful.

The Determination to Relax

Walking and relaxation are experiences I enjoyed before I met the practice of mindfulness. So now do I have to make an effort to walk mindfully and to relax? It sounds like a contradiction to make an effort to relax. The practice lies in this: when you are not relaxed, know you are not relaxed. That is the simplest thought and relaxation can arise out of it. If not, take your thought a little bit further to know the causes for your not being relaxed and that will help remove the causes. When you are walking in “hell” or “purgatory,” know that you are walking there. That is the simplest thought and paradise can arise out of it.

When there is thinking that leads to fear and depression, know where the thinking is leading and you can come out of it without fear and depression. Just attention to breath or steps is wonderful. The Chinese word for thought, mind or intention is yi. In the word Anapanasati, sati or mindfulness is translated into Chinese as shouyi — holding or maintaining our mind. We hold our mind to our breath so that our mind does not need to wander into places of unnecessary suffering.

If someone is not able to sleep at night and she can practice total relaxation while lying awake, she can be refreshed and less tired the next day. As you lie in bed you can guide yourself or you can listen to a recording of a guided total relaxation so that you do not need to make any mental effort to remind yourself.

Relaxation, prashrabdhih, is one of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, as is effort, virya. We need them both. There needs to be a certain determination to be relaxed and that determination can be called effort. Without the determination, habit energies of thinking make us tense. Equally important is the ability to be quiet and at ease in the situation that presents itself. After a while the practitioner is able to relax and the result is energy rather than effort. Effort and relaxation are not opposing forces; they are complementary. So when we know how to relax we have the energy to make effort.

This year in Vietnam, Thay is teaching relaxation as one of the essential practices of the Anapanasati Sutta (the Discourse on the Full Awareness of Breathing) where the exercise is: “breathing in I am aware of my whole body, breathing out I relax my body”. This is one of the most important practices I can do for myself and for everyone else at this time. When my body and mind are truly relaxed I have the freedom to be able to look deeply and see a little bit more of reality.

Nothing Is Wasted

Since I came to the practice of mindful walking and relaxation relatively late — I was 36 years old — I have sometimes asked myself whether I have not wasted a large part of my life. When I look deeply I see that no time has been wasted because now that I know how to practice mindfulness and concentration, I can make use of all that has happened — positive or negative. If I had this life again would I live it differently? To me that is just a hypothetical question. My blood ancestors needed to go through this with me. How could I force them to do it differently? They laid the bridges and asked me to continue, without looking back. They wish for me to take them forward in a different direction but always building on what had gone before, taking that as the essence, not as good or bad.

So the practice in India was necessary. Without it the practice in Plum Village would not have been possible. As I walked on the little forest paths carrying building materials, I was always asking myself: How can I make this a spiritual practice? It took time for the question to be answered. It took another ten years to come to Plum Village.

mb45-OnTheWay4Sister Annabel, Chan Duc, True Virtue, became a Dharma teacher in 1990 and was Director of  Practice at Plum Village for many years. Since 1998 she has been abbess at the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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The Wonderful World of Gathas

By David Percival

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The mind can go in a thousand directions,
But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace.
With each step, a cool wind blows.
With each step, a flower blooms.

If your path is like mine, you often find your mind jumping into the future, back to the past, fabricating ridiculous situations, and taking you to places you don’t want to go. Before you know it your path is littered with boulders of fear, anger, despair, frustration, and forgetfulness.

Thay tells us that the practice of Plum Village is to come back to the present moment and take care of the situation. Wherever we are — at home, at work, driving, gardening, at a meeting — we can use the energy of mindfulness to bring us back to ourselves, to the present moment. One powerful resource available to all of us is to make use of gathas throughout our day. Gathas are short poems or verses that we can recite, regardless of where we are, to help us return to the present moment and to dwell in mindfulness. Monastics in Thay’s tradition practice gathas throughout their day.

As Thay says, “when we practice well, the gathas are with us continuously and we live our whole lives in awareness.” Gathas allow us to focus our mind, making it possible to almost instantly return to ourselves. Gathas help us to stop our relentless running, to slow down, to enjoy life in the here and now. While we enjoy walking, sitting, washing the dishes, turning the compost, we can stop our wild thinking; then we see the wonders of life in the present moment.

At my first retreat in the late 1980s, Thay taught us the following gatha, strongly suggesting that we memorize it:

Breathing in, I calm my body.
Breathing out, I smile.
Dwelling in the present moment,
I know this is a wonderful moment!

I did what Thay suggested and I will carry this gatha with me always. It is a continuous source of peace and calm.

Dwelling in Mindfulness

In June 2006 at the Breath of the Buddha Retreat at Plum Village, Thay told us to use gathas and poetry to help us dwell in mindfulness throughout our day. For example, early in the morning, standing in front of my altar, I start every day as follows:

Waking this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment,
And to look at all beings with eyes of compassion.

Start by memorizing a few short gathas (see sidebar). Then add more, including longer ones. Notice the rhythm of the lines: recite the first line as you breathe in and recite the second line as you breathe out, and so on. When you are stuck in traffic, waiting in the queue at the bank, walking down a hallway at work, or going to the restroom, recite this gatha:

I have arrived (in-breath)
I am home (out-breath)
In the here (in)
And in the now (out) (repeat all four lines)

I am solid (in)
I am free (out) (repeat two lines)
In the ultimate I dwell (in)
In the Pure Land I dwell (out) (repeat two lines)

You will be able to sit, stand, or walk at ease. You can calm yourself, you can smile at the chaos around you, and you will be able to continue what you are doing in a focused mindful way. Then, when you find your mind going off in another direction, pull another gatha from your gatha storehouse.

If you do a lot of walking meditation, either slow or fast (for exercise), you will note the built-in rhythm of walking and the gatha adapts well to any kind of walking. For example, with fast walking, my rhythm is four steps to each stanza:

In (in breath, four steps)
Out (out breath, four steps)
Deep (in, four steps)
Slow (out, four steps)
Calm (in, four steps)
Ease (out, four steps)
Smile (in, four steps)
Release (out, four steps)
Present moment (in, four steps)
Wonderful moment (out, four steps)

Or, with slow walking use one step per line. For me, fast walking is a very mindful practice and I try to do it in the present moment, enjoying the blue sky, the flowers, the insects, the birds, and my faster breathing.

A gatha is a poem, a song (see A Basket of Plums), and a guided meditation. They are the same and used in different situations. For example, with “Breathing In, Breathing Out,” I sing or chant it to myself as I walk, as I drive, as I work in my garden. The rhythm of walking, weightlifting, and working adapts well to the stanzas.

A Gatha to Cool the Flames

How often anger creeps into my mind! What a pernicious little seed it is, suddenly sprouting at the slightest provocation. We need to recognize and embrace our anger. When anger arises, stop — do nothing. Let the flames cool. Use a gatha to come back to yourself. Smile at your anger.

Angry in the ultimate dimension
I close my eyes and look deeply.
Three hundred years from now
where will you be and where will I be?

Finally, we can take existing gathas and adapt them to our individual situations – change some words, add your own lines. And, as Thay instructs us, write your own gathas. Encourage your children to write gathas. Ask your sangha to write and share gathas.

Sitting by the Garlic

For example, gardening is a major part of my life, a true meditation, a place to dwell happily in the present moment, a practice of non-self, impermanence, and interbeing:

Walking in my garden
I touch the present moment.
I am the flower.
I am the cloud.
I am the butterfly.
I hold some compost in my hand
And touch the essence of the Buddha.

Sitting by the garlic
the turtle moves under the mulch.
The beauty of life surrounds me.
Breathing in, I sit with impermanence.
Breathing out, I smile at the flowers.
Breathing in, I enjoy this moment.
Breathing out, there is no place to go.

The bits and pieces of our lives may seem routine and mundane – getting up, bathing, going to the bathroom, cooking, eating, washing dishes, cleaning, taking care of children and grandchildren, being with friends, gardening, working, driving, etc. The joy of the practice is doing everything in mindfulness, no matter how routine, because all these little things when put together equal our lives. This is what we do. The practice is now or never, with what we do and where we are. We can experience the joy of moving through our days in freedom and with equanimity, walking with peaceful steps and looking at all beings with our eyes of compassion.

The day is ending and our life is one day shorter.
Let us look carefully at what we have done.
Let us practice diligently, putting our whole heart into the path of meditation.
Let us live deeply each moment and in freedom, so the time doesn’t slip away meaninglessly.

David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he makes the desert bloom. He practices with the Rainbow Sangha and he keeps the Mindfulness Bell circulating.

Resources for Gatha Practice

All of these are by Thich Nhat Hanh unless otherwise noted, and all are available from Parallax Press (www.parallax.org).

Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: A beautiful short book with 49 gathas, featuring Thay’s commentary on each one.

Stepping into Freedom – An Introduction to Buddhist Monastic Training: This book is not just for monastics but is for everyone. It begins in Part One with 68 gathas.

Chanting from the Heart: Buddhist Ceremonies and Daily Practices: A basic resource for our personal and sangha practice. See the section on gathas, pp. 37-41.

A Basket of Plums (ed. Joseph Emet): Gathas as songs; songs as gathas.

The Blooming of a Lotus – Guided Meditation Exercises for Healing and Transformation: While some of the meditations are very long, others are shorter and consist of familiar gathas.

The Energy of Prayer – How to Deepen Your Spiritual Practice: See Appendix 2, “Buddhist Prayers and Gathas,” pp.145-155.

Thay occasionally brings gathas into his other books. Some examples: Touching the  Earth– Intimate Conversations with the Buddha, pp. 23, 71, and 72; No Death, No Fear, pp. 43 and 80. In The Path of Emancipation there is a beautiful explanation of “I Have Arrived, I am Home,” pp. 28-31, as well as a discussion of “In/Out, Deep/Slow,” pp. 115-119, and comments on “Being an Island Unto Myself,” pp. 181182.

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Confined in Anger, Freed in Love

By Jacob Bowley

I was confined in the summer of 1999, twenty years old and more a prisoner of my own deep inner fears than the walls around me. Wrapped up in the great speed of the world, I had been able — with the help of drugs and alcohol — to maintain in my mind an impressive illusion of control. Here in prison the reins were clearly not in my hands; I knew no way to keep up my speed. Forced to stop, or at least slow down, I had to face the bitter truth: my will did not rule the world. This disappointment was too much for me to contend with day after day so I closed my eyes in anger. I would rage against the whole world until it consented to the perpetual gratification of my senses.

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By the beginning of 2001 the institution was not pleased with my method of seeking fulfillment. They expressed this sentiment by giving me an extended stay in segregation. I knew the stay would be for only five or six months, so I saw no reason to change and quickly got into more trouble. At this point they told me I would stay in the hole for three years. My party stopped. This was no game. I could feel the anger oozing out of me, reverberating in my little cell and gaining strength. We looked at each other, my anger and me, and I knew it would destroy me.

While in the depth of this personal hell I came across a few pages about Buddhism. Strangely, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn’t find any ground on which to cut Buddhism down. What I read seemed to be simple common sense.

Truth Cuts to the Heart

I read that life contains suffering. I found this to be an insultingly obvious statement, and yet there it was, in black ink; I had no way to deny it. This was not metaphysical speculation or theological proofs, here was something which cut right to my heart. I could clearly experience this in my own life and see it in the lives of those around me.

I read that suffering has a cause. That cause is not the outside world but is within; it is ignorance and clinging. Not the outside world? This had my full attention. I was putting so much energy into the delusion that with enough effort I could bend the world to my will — could it be possible to just change myself? The prospect of putting this burden down gave me, for the first time, the courage to acknowledge how large the burden was.

I read that the burden could be put down: if the causes of suffering are not, the suffering is not.

Finally I read that there is a path leading out of suffering. I needed to learn more about this path.

That summer and fall I immersed myself in new and exciting Eastern philosophy, ideals of compassion, and graded paths to enlightenment. Amazed by the deep and lucid wisdom I found in these teachings I nurtured a whole-hearted intention to realize their virtue. Slowly I began to experience the strength, healing, and freedom found in kindness and love.

Gradual changes were noticed by the institution and they responded by allowing me to return to the general population early. It was November 2001, and despite the excitement of moving out of segregation I was scared. I knew that the true test of my resolve to change would come when I returned to my friends. I came out of the box strong in intention, but weak in appreciation of the importance of practice. I held on to my new ideas but did not continue to meditate or study. Compared with the solitude of the past year, all the new ways to spend time provided a rich and stimulating life.

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The sponsor of our Narcotics Anonymous group, Tyrone, says “You can’t think your way into right action, but you can act your way into right thinking.” The opposite is also true. I was acting my wholesome thinking and intentions into the back of my mind. My way of living systematically hardened my heart, but I didn’t notice the gradual loss of my freedom until I got into a fight over being called a name. How bitter it was to find myself bound once again in anger and rage! The anguish of this prison cut deeper now that I knew a small taste of peace.

Taking Refuge in the Practice

I turned for refuge to the practice, this time not in the isolation of the hole but right in the midst of my crazy world. I faced my habit of trying to maintain a certain image in front of my peers; I faced the deep fears at the root of this habit, and I chose instead to heal. The progress was slow and cautious, but there was peace in every step.

I met a wonderful spiritual friend early in 2004. Matthew Tenney is a living Dharma talk and he shared an infectious happiness with all of us here. He didn’t spend a lot of time engaging in the intellectual speculation and analysis regarding the practice that I wrapped myself in; rather, he introduced me to Thay’s teaching and to the true miracle of mindfulness in daily life. I had read about the importance of cultivating this obscure quality of mindfulness, and I was trying. But until now the methods appeared vague and overwhelming. Thay offered very concrete and simple ways that allowed practice to become a reality of my life.

One day, not long after meeting Matthew, I shared with him a yearning that had been percolating in my heart: I would like to be a monk after I was released. He asked “Why wait? Why not live that ideal right here, right now?” The aspiration to do just that has been the center of my life ever since, a center from which peace, stability, and freedom increase every day.

Witnessing the impact these qualities have on the emotional tone of this environment, and on the hearts of people who live here, gives me the strength to continue. It seems a long time ago that someone said of me, “Man, you can feel the hate radiate off that guy.” Today it is a quiet comfort for my heart to know that I no longer radiate pain and suffering to others, and that there is freedom in love.

Jacob Bowley received the Five Mindfulness Trainings, along with Matthew, long-distance from Brother Phap Bi on January 12, 2006, “a kindness,” writes Jacob, “ which brought tears to my eyes.”

Jacob is incarcerated in the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; this essay was written for the Mindfulness Bell and submitted by his father, Freeman Bowley.

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Hugging as Practice

By David Hughes

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I’ve always viewed myself as a hugger, a toucher. I hug my family members, and like to be hugged. I touch a lot — I’ll walk by my wife and touch her shoulder, or reach over and touch my daughter’s arm. My Dad was like this, too. Touching is good; hugging is better. In the workplace, I’m conscious of this tendency, and I have to pay attention to make sure that I curb the impulse to touch lest it be considered inappropriate. I know that many people don’t want to be touched, or at least don’t want to be touched except by a carefully chosen small group of people close to them. But I’ve always thought of myself as a person who likes hugging and touching.

So it should come as no surprise that I had a very positive reaction when I first encountered my spiritual leader’s teachings on hugging and hugging meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh has done for hugging what he has done for so many other activities of daily life — transformed the ordinary into the sacred. Thay tells a very funny story of his first visit to the United States, and being given a great big hug of welcome by a large woman. When he describes how truly “foreign” this experience was for him, you can actually feel it. In his culture, people don’t hug very much; people simply don’t hug Zen masters; women don’t even touch monks. Thay confesses to having been taken aback by this enthusiastic hug — but in typical Thich Nhat Hanh fashion, he doesn’t simply leave it at that. Looking deeply at the hugging experience, he recognized how wonderful and positive this practice was at its core. He developed Mindful Hugging as a means of deepening one’s dharma practice.

Three Simple Breaths

Thay suggests that before actually hugging, we take a couple of breaths to bring ourselves fully into the present moment, so that we can really be there for the person we are about to hug. As we then embrace, we breathe in deeply, and on the first in-breath we say to ourselves: breathing in, I am aware that you are alive and in my arms; breathing out, I am so happy. On the second in-breath, we say: breathing in, I know that I am alive and in your arms; breathing out, I am so happy. And finally, a third breath: breathing in, I am aware that we are both alive right now and embraced in each others’ arms; breathing out, I am very happy.

Three simple breaths, three simple gathas. A simple practice that anyone can do at any time. Sounds really easy, doesn’t it? But have you tried it? I have, and I have found that this practice brings up a whole lot of stuff from deep within me — stuff that may be hard-wired into me as a male, or acquired from the culture in which I have lived, or even cultivated by me over the years as a part of my professional and social persona. In short, it’s a deep and profound practice.

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Sitting here at my keyboard, I find that taking three long breaths takes a total of about thirty seconds. Standing around after a sangha hugging discussion and actually practicing a single three-breath hugging meditation, I found that it took about an hour! Or so it seemed. Ten seconds for a preparatory breath to be sure I am fully present, the arms around one another, and an hour later I finish with my third breath and release. What’s up with that? Of course, I am more used to the perfunctory tap on the arm, to the quickie social hugging that one gives and gets as a good-night or a good-bye, or a greeting for an old friend. This three-breath, mindful hug is intense! I truly am fully present, and the experience of it is powerful. The urge to break off after that first breath — or even sooner — is palpable. By the second breath, if I stick with it, I know that I am experiencing something very different. And as that third breath rises and falls, I feel the presence of myself and the presence of my friend, alive, real, physical, and very intimate.

Intimate, Intense, Physical

Ah, maybe that’s the real issue. Aside from being the longest thirty seconds in history, it is really intimate. So up comes all of my psychological conditioning about intimacy, about sexuality, about appearances and image. This experience doesn’t fit neatly into any of my pre-existing boxes; it’s out of my comfort zone. This is an intimate, intense, and physical experience with someone who is not my spouse, who is not my daughter or my mother. Do I ever hug my daughters or my mother in such an intense way? Is this sort of physicality reserved exclusively for my wife? Do we as mates even hug this intensely, this intimately?

The friend I hug at sangha is a male, as am I. Two heterosexual males both well over 50. Is this hugging sexual? Does he think it is? Do others, watching, see it as such? Intimate, intense, physical—does that make it sexual? Can I experience those three things all together without also being sexual? Can he? Is this what’s behind the urge to break off the hug prematurely?

Later that evening, after giving another sangha friend a ride, we give each other a hug in my car. I break it off fast. And she confronts me. What’s going on; what happened to the mindful hugging? Again, questions of conditioning, sexuality, and appearance come up strongly. Can I hug a woman so intimately, so meaningfully, without the stereotypical sexual overtones? I can almost hear Billy Crystal’s diatribe in When Harry Met Sally about all relations between a man and a woman being fundamentally sexual. But I have had female friends all of my life, non-sexual friends. I don’t restrict my contact with women, or my concept of women, to the realm of sexuality.

But there it is. I recoil from a deep, close, meaningful hug with a female friend even more abruptly than with my male friend.

The Gift of Being Fully Alive

To hug like this also demands trust. I am vulnerable in this openness. My intentions may be misconstrued. What are my intentions, really? Is this hug in any way in conflict with my commitments, with the third of the Five Mindfulness Trainings? Am I doing this for show? To prove my practice to myself or others? And what about him/her? Where is she coming from? What is his experience right now? Is he thinking something negative about me?

I now see hugging as a very powerful exercise in the context of a committed dharma practice. Mindful hugging, hugging that brings us fully into the present moment, is an extremely skillful means of focusing on our aliveness in all of its glory, with all its wrinkles, its hang-ups, its beauty. It is a practice, not a concept. To take 30 seconds to be fully and completely present with one another is to touch deeply our life right here and right now. We are fully alive. We have bodies. We have texture, we have smells, we have sounds.

Ultimately, it seems to me that this is a deep practice of letting go. Letting go of concepts, of conditioning. Letting go of fears, letting go of the impulse for security. Letting go and just experiencing — fully experiencing — the present moment, the wonder of this precious human birth.

Dmb45-Hugging3avid Hughes, Committed Direction of the Heart, is a member of Open Heart Sangha in Yarmouth, Maine, and an aspirant to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings.

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In Memoriam: Thay Giac Thanh

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1947-2001

Last fall marked the fifth anniversary of the passing of Thay Giac Thanh, the beloved former abbot of Deer Park Monastery. In his honor a beautiful stupa was built above Solidity Hamlet, and a ceremony of dedication brought together many of those who had known and loved the gentle monk. In this special section we feature several of Thay Giac Thanh’s poems from Scattered Memories, the complete collection of his poems published in 2006 by Parallax Press and excerpted here with permission.

Thay Giac Thanh was born in a quiet and remote hamlet in Rach Gia Province in southern Vietnam. Eventually his family moved to Rach Gia City where he learned to read and write and became an excellent student. Thay Giac Thanh expressed love for his country in his first poem, “Tears for my Homeland,” written when he was in the twelfth grade.

He became a novice monk in 1967 at Thanh Hoa Temple in Long Xuyen Province, where he received his Dharma name Giac Thanh (Awakening Sound) from his teacher, Venerable Pho Hue; in 1970 he was fully ordained in Giac Vien Temple. In 1971, he attended the University of Van Hanh in Saigon (co-founded by Thich Nhat Hanh several years before) to further his studies in Buddhism.

Although he was not a permanent resident there, Thay Giac Thanh spent several peaceful years at True Emptiness Monastery on the peak of Tao Phung Mountain. But all that changed in 1975 when the Communists took over all of Vietnam. Everybody now had to work hard in the fields under the hot, burning sun.

In July of 1981, he escaped out of Vietnam by boat, crossing the Gulf of Thailand. Like many other Vietnamese people enduring dangerous escapes, he was not able to avoid pirates. Seeing the cruel raping of women and grabbing of jewelry, angrily he asked, “Do you have a heart? How could you be so cruel to your fellow humans?” The pirates were angry and threw him into the ocean. Fortunately, the head pirate, in a flash of sympathy, tossed him a rope and pulled him up onto the boat.

After many months in a refugee camp in Indonesia, Thay Giac Thanh was sponsored by Venerable Thich Man Biac to come to Los Angeles. During Thay’s brief stay at Phat Biao Vietnam Temple, like a tender and caring mother the Venerable helped heal the wounds in the wanderer’s heart. In 1982, at the Venerable’s request, Thay moved to Nam Tuyen Temple in Virginia to help Thay Tri Tue; they lived happily together until 1989.
In 1986 he met Thich Nhat Hanh at one of his North American retreats; in 1990 Thay Giac Thanh attended the summer retreat at Plum Village and in 1991 began residing there. At the end of 1991, he received the Lamp Transmission to become a Dharma Teacher, for which he wrote the poem “Formless Samadhi.” Thich Nhat Hanh offered him a small wooden hut on the forest edge beside his own. There was a vast space in his heart; he walked freely and solidly, and his smiles and words carried a profound peace to people around him. Wherever he went — France, the U.S., Australia, Canada — from the beginning of his teaching to his last breath, all of us received his tender, fresh, and peaceful energy. He was respected and deeply loved by all of us.Thay Giac Thanh contracted tuberculosis in 1995 and his diabetes worsened. He took care of his illnesses like a mother loving her child, never complaining no matter how demanding the child was. In 1997 Thay Giac Thanh became Head of Practice at Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont, and in 2000 he became abbot of the new monastery in southern California. He knew that this place would be the last one of his life. He arrived at Deer Park Monastery in the summer of 2000 and left us in the autumn of 2001. A kind, gentle, and loving voice, a joyful smile until the end of his life, a deep and clear wisdom, great compassion, and peaceful steps, all revealed his profound understanding of no-coming, no-going.

The day before he died, he received a telephone call from his teacher in Beijing, China. Thich Nhat Hanh read him a poem he had just written, and added the second stanza later:

That you are a real gentleman is known by everyone
The work of a true practitioner has been accomplished
When your stupa has just been raised on the hillside
The sound of children’s laughter will already be heard

One maple leaf has fallen down and yet you continue to climb
The hill of the twenty-first century with us
Thousands of daffodils are beginning to bloom and the
Earth continues to be with the sky
Singing the song of no-birth and no-death

Adapted from “Biography of the Author” by Thich Puoch Tinh in Scattered Memories

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Poems by Thay Giac Thanh

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Tears for My Homeland
Oh my beloved homeland,
So many long quiet nights
I lay awake, crying tears of love for you.
Oh my beloved homeland,
What have you done to deserve this?
To let those demons torture you so,
Without remorse, compassion, or brotherly love.
They sold you to the Devil King.
Out of love for you
I buy you back with my own flesh and blood,
With my wisdom, my very heart,
And with my whole being.
Even if this body burns into ashes,
I vow to spread them along the road to peace.

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Dying
Poems will die.
Ten-thousand-year-long loves will also die.
Clouds swirl, obscuring the whole sky.
On life’s journey, there are ups and downs
But one day I will shake free from all my worldly debt.

Formless Samadhi
Clear water on one side, Urine on the other,
All will return to sky, clouds, oceans, and rivers.
There is sunlight during daytime
And moonlight at night
Shining my way.

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Being Sick
My skin and flesh are wasted,
My body is withered,
But my heart is still joyful as spring flowers.
Rivers, mountains are extensive.
Why hesitate to give up this tiny body?
I return it to the immense earth and sky.

Proclamation
As a wanderer who has no home
By chance I met you
While wandering from place to place.
My younger brothers and sisters from Vietnam,
You are green mountains, rivers,
Morning sunlight, and dewy flowers.
You are joyful, innocent, and light,
As white clouds drifting in the deep blue sky
Along with the first light of a new day.
If in youthful folly,
You lose your way, falling into steep gorges
Deep in the mountains,
All you need is a gentle breeze
Of understanding and love
To bring you back
To the lofty sky and vast oceans.
You do not need raging storms
Of anger and hatred.
Please do not scold or blame
My younger brothers and sisters
For I fear that the gray color of sadness
Would darken their pure hearts.

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Stupa Dedication

By Karen Hilsberg

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We arrived at Deer Park on a clear fall Friday morning last October to help the sangha prepare for the ceremony to dedicate Thay Giac Thanh’s stupa. Sunday would be the fifth anniversary of the continuation of the beloved former abbot of Deer Park. The weekend was particularly meaningful and special for me and my family as my beloved was carrying an engagement ring in his pocket; we had chosen the ring together earlier that week.

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Throughout the weekend everyone worked hard preparing for Sunday — cooking special foods deep into the night, washing hundreds of small bowls for the ancestral feast planned for Sunday, and laboring on the mountain to finish the installation of the stupa. Throughout all these activities and during intimate gatherings in the Solidity Hamlet classroom and meditation hall, members of the four-fold sangha mindfully recollected stories about the former abbot: recalling his beautiful teachings, reciting his poetry, and sharing personal memories about their meaningful and inspiring relationships with him. The feeling was one of a large family reunion, at once wistful and celebratory.

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Sunday arrived. It was a very warm and clear day with the sun shining bright. The morning began with a special ceremony led by the Venerable Phuoc Tinh honoring our ancestors in SinoVietnamese. We prostrated many times as he recited the ancient blessings and chanted the Heart Sutra in Vietnamese. The morning continued with a silent breakfast and walking meditation up the hill to overlook the stupa. The Venerable shared a line of poetry about how we are often able to see more clearly when we have a view of something from afar. Thus we gazed upon the stupa before proceeding down the freshly created steps; members of the sangha offered us their hands as we carefully stepped down to the dedication ceremony. We gathered very close together on the small steps around the stupa and after heartfelt chanting, the Venerable sprinkled water from a glass using yellow chrysanthemums and offered words of dedication. Some who loved the former abbot were in tears. We looked into the stupa after the ceremony to see it decorated beautifully with two cushions at a small table beneath a lovely altar.

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Next the Venerable gave a moving dharma talk in the Ocean of Peace meditation hall. He shared about the name of the stupa, “Floating Cloud,” and likened the life and the practice of the former abbot to a “cloud floating in the vast sky.” He wove a tapestry with his talk utilizing the imagery of the floating cloud and the Buddha’s teachings on no-birth and no-death. He urged us all to practice as the clear blue sky, observing clouds coming and going, but with the understanding of impermanence. He reflected on the nature of a lifespan and noted that some people like the former abbot offer much joy to others and leave behind “a softness of the heart during this lifetime while others are unskillful and leave behind a great deal of pain.” He urged us to live in such as way that we leave behind something beautiful for people to remember.

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Thay Phuoc Tinh taught that suffering is essential in life; we can welcome and profit from it by overcoming it, growing, becoming stronger, and realizing grace and peace in our hearts. “If we can find peace and be kind to those who are difficult, we can recognize the Buddha in ourselves.” He shared the poems “Gentle Steps” and “Being Sick” by the former abbot noting how Thay Giac Thanh was able to have a heart at peace when he was healthy and able to give to others, as well as when he was ill and able to receive from others.

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After this talk, the meditation hall was prepared for the ancestral feast. Outside the hall, David and I sat on the steps overlooking the oak grove and mountains and shared our aspirations to be together; he presented me with the engagement ring. Smiling, we and the children joined our spiritual family in small groups. We ate delicious traditional Vietnamese foods while members of the sangha smiled, laughed, ate mindfully, and offered beautiful songs from the heart.

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Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, and David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, are engaged to be married; they practice with the Organic Garden Sangha and Ripening Sangha in Southern California. The Venerable’s Dharma talk was translated into English by Sister Dang Nghiem.

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Svein Myreng,True Door

Our dear brother and Dharma Teacher Svein Myreng, True Door, passed from this life on Monday morning, April 16, 2007. He had come to Boston for heart surgery.

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Svein’s whole life had been affected by congenital heart troubles. They were a door that brought him to the practice. Through the awareness of his beating heart, he learned to practice mindfulness and taught many others to share in the practice. He spent many summers at Plum Village with his wife Eevi and their son Kyrre. In 1994 he received the lamp transmission from Thay and became a Dharmacharya. In 1999 his book of poetry, Plum Poems, was published by Parallax Press. He also translated many of Thay’s books into Norwegian. He led Days of Mindfulness in the Netherlands and France as well as in Norway. Together Svein and Eevi gave special support to children in Vietnam who needed heart surgery. With some friends he wrote a story of the Buddha for children in Norway.

Svein had a very close relationship with his son Kyrre. When Kyrre was about one and a half years old, Svein and Eevi and Kyrre came to visit Boston. Svein explained that he was in no rush to teach Kyrre lots of words. He wanted him to experience life as it was without words getting in the way. One of Kyrre’s favorite words was “moo” which he used for all animal sounds. In Norwegian it sounds like “meu.” Kyrre took great pleasure in every animal he saw. We agreed that he was having a wonderful time living in the present “meu-ment.”

That was how Svein lived. His cardiologist, Dr. Michael Landzberg, commented that he had never seen a patient come to him with so little fear. Svein was ready to have an operation the next day if it would make things better. No fear, no worry. Only the present moment.

Svein knew how to have great joy in every moment. And he knew how to teach that through his poems and dharma talks, through his smile and his beaming eyes. Even now he is teaching us. We are blessed to have such a teacher in our lives.

Elizabeth Wood, True Good Birth, practices with Boston Old Path Sangha in Massachusetts.

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Tears
Your tears in my eyes
My tears in your eyes
On this path where
joy and sorrow merge —
amazing!
Each raindrop makes a
greener leaf.

Grace
There is a stillness
simpler than silence,
a peace deeper
than calm.
There is a shimmering
in the dark soil,
shades of trees,
in old moss, and the twisted
forms of branches,
that hold us, carry us
and nurture us.
In a flash of the eye,
laughter, or a tear.
No effort needed, no self to seek,
just grace remains.

–Svein Myreng, True Door

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Heart to Heart

 

Heart to Heart is a new section of the Mindfulness Bell — for you to express your thoughts and share your practice on a given topic. In this issue we focus on the Second Mindfulness Training (of the Five). For the Autumn 2007 issue, we invite you to write on the Third; please send your submissions, under 500 words, to editor@mindfulnessbell.org by July 1, 2007.

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The Second Mindfulness Training

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

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Aware of the realities of today’s global economy, I realize that as a U.S. citizen it is impossible for me to live without stealing from and exploiting someone else somewhere in the world. Though I try to live and consume mindfully, I know that my own lifestyle rests on the exploitation of others. It is, for instance, almost impossible to buy clothes not made in sweatshops, where the workers (mostly young women of color) are treated mercilessly — forced to work twelve-to sixteen-hour days, six to seven days a week; paid a pittance that is sometimes not even enough to live on; sometimes forced to work unpaid overtime; subject to sexual harassment by their bosses; and forbidden to form labor unions that might empower them to work for better conditions. Most likely, the computer on which I write this was also made under such conditions, as were many of the other things I use in my daily life. In order to cultivate mindfulness of these grim realities, when I put on my clothes in the morning, I look at the tags on my clothing to see where they were made. Then I try to visualize the workers, while reciting this gatha: “As I get dressed, I remember with gratitude those who made my clothes, and with compassion, the conditions under which they work.”

I do try to consume mindfully and ethically where I can–buying recycled paper goods, ecologically friendly cleaning products, cage-free eggs, leather-free shoes — but there are limits to what I can do as an individual. Understanding interbeing, I see that many of my choices are conditioned by the larger global society of which we are all a part. I cannot buy products that were not made in sweatshops if they are not available to me when I go shopping — unavailable, because our economy is built on the principle of maximizing profits ahead of human and ecological needs. It is a race to the bottom, where corporations compete with each other, scouring the world for ever cheaper labor, and thirdworld governments compete with each other to attract business by providing this ever cheaper labor. Even my ability to buy those ethically sound products that I can rests on my own economic privilege, the fact that I can afford to spend a little extra money and such economic privilege inevitably rests on a system where others lack such privilege, living lives of poverty and exploitation. Understanding interbeing, I see that however mindful my actions, I still participate in a society based on theft and exploitation.

Understanding interbeing, I see that if I wish to live a life where I and others do not steal from and exploit others, it is not enough to look at my own individual choices when I go shopping. We must work together, collectively, to change the shape of our global society — to create an economy where, at the very least, everyone has a job where they are paid a living wage, treated with dignity, and allowed to form unions that can give collective voice to their concerns. The public good must be given greater priority than private profit. Only then will we all be able to live in a way that we do not have to steal from and exploit others.

Matthew S. Williams
Reverent Joy of the Heart
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

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Thay often says that if you have never gone hungry, you won’t appreciate the value of food. You take your safety, your freedom to move around, for granted. When you live behind locked doors, and don’t feel safe on the streets or walking in the countryside alone, then you know how valuable is the freedom to move around safely. This is not a freedom that we enjoy in our country, South Africa.

I live in a country where it is not safe to leave your doors open. You normally lock your doors when you go out, but we have to keep them locked even when we are at home, because this is the best time for criminals — they don’t have to break and enter –they just enter. This is not a nice way to live — behind bars in a kind of private prison to keep you safe in your own home.

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We have one of the highest crime rates in the world, and much of it is violent crime. The situation in South Africa has come to be because of the past history and collective karma that we have created. Everybody knows the story of Apartheid. The past is past, but it is still with us in the present moment. We have to work very hard to change it and to create a better future. We have undergone major transformation in our country under the bodhisattva Nelson Mandela, but social change takes much longer than political change.

We live in a hard country, and it can make you a hard person, or it can soften you and make you more compassionate. I used to be hard and uncaring before I encountered the Dharma. Since then I am constantly trying to increase my compassion, open my heart wider, and become a bodhisattva. I think of the bodhisattvas who go to the darkest places in order to help, and sometimes it feels like this path was given to me by default. “Darkest Africa” is my home, and many bodhisattvas are needed on this continent, which is plagued by tribal wars, famine, AIDS, poverty, and crime.

As aspiring bodhisattvas, there are many teachings to help us cultivate our capacity to love:

  • The teaching on Buddha nature: All beings are the same, we all have the same potential, we all want happiness and don’t want suffering.
  • The teaching on cause and effect: We take responsibility for what we are experiencing without blaming others. It is our own karma; we are reaping what we sowed. Even if we personally did nothing in this particular lifetime, we may have contributed through our non-action, our apathy.
  • The teaching on dependent origination: Everything depends on causes and conditions. Nobody is inherently “bad” — people act in certain ways because of causes and conditions that are often beyond their control. This understanding helps us to cultivate compassion, to open the door of our heart so that we can love instead of hate. Thay’s poem “Please Call Me by My True Names” about the sea pirate, helped me a lot. Here is an excerpt:

I am the 12 year< old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And I am the pirate,
my heart not yet capable
of seeing and loving.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open
the door of compassion.

These wonderful teachings help us to transform our minds, our emotions, our ways of being. We do this for ourselves and for the world, to relieve ourselves of suffering and to create a better world in the future because happiness and suffering are universal. I know that if you suffer, you will make me suffer. We know that if we exploit people or take unfair advantage of them, oppress them, discriminate against them on grounds of race, culture, religion, gender, we are committing a kind of theft — we are stealing their dignity to be who they are. This will make them suffer and it will make us suffer, because one day their suffering will impact on our lives and become our suffering as well.

We are all creators. We are creating all the time. We are responsible for creating the kind of world that we live in, and this is why the Mindfulness Trainings are so important. We must learn from the mistakes of the past so that we can create a better future based on love not fear, on giving not getting, on helping not harming, on supporting not exploiting, on building up not breaking down, on creating the conditions for happiness not suffering. Then we can all live in the Pure Land. The Buddha said:

If you want to know your past lives,
Look into your present condition.
If you want to know your future,
Look into your present actions.

Carol Leela Verity
True Stream of Light
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa

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Retreat at Plum Village

By Cameron Barnett

Over the summer I went to a Buddhist retreat in Plum Village, France. Plum Village is a community of Buddhist monks and nuns located about an hour and a half from Bordeaux. The head of this community is a man named Thich Nhat Hanh. He is a Vietnamese monk who was forced to leave Vietnam during the Vietnam War.

He was forced to leave because he was opposed to the war and both sides wanted him to join them. He left Vietnam to come to the United States to speak out against the war and when he tried to return to Vietnam, the government refused to let him back in. He then moved to France where he remains today.

Plum Village is made up of four communities where the monks and nuns live during the year. At different times during the year Thich Nhat Hanh offers retreats where people can come and stay for one or two weeks. The community where I stayed was very peaceful with a meditation hall, dining room, and ceremonial bell located in the very center. I lived in a farm house which was about a ten-minute walk from the center. It was an eight-room house which held about twenty people. Altogether at the retreat there were about 700 people coming from fifty countries.

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Hearing Thich Nhat Hanh and visiting Plum Village were so important to me because it showed me the importance of being in the moment and taking things step by step. Thay taught me to feel sympathy for those who are mean to others or who picked on me because their souls were not better off for what they were doing. He is an extraordinary person. In his presence I felt that somehow anything that I had ever done wrong was OK, and I was happy.

When I returned home, I was much more relaxed and helped some new kids in the school dorm move in. One particular individual who before had picked on me came up to me the next day after I got back and made fun of me for going on this retreat. Although it was an extremely offensive remark, I thought back to what Thich Nhat Hanh had told me and simply replied, “How are you today?” He yelled at me again and I said, “I had a great break, how was yours?” It took about a week but by the next Monday, he no longer picked on me. Today we are good friends.

My teachers also noticed a change in me. From the second I got back to school I was much more relaxed, calm, and patient. I was also happier. Before when someone had done something I did not agree with, I put up a shell and refused to talk to that person. Thich Nhat Hanh taught me that shutting out the person was no better than picking on him and that if I shut someone out once it would become a habit. With this in mind I worked hard on becoming friendly to everyone and listening to what they were saying. It was a truly amazing experience and it has changed my life forever.

Cameron Barnett, age 13, and his mother JoAnn attended the family retreat at Plum Village in 2006, having previously attended a family retreat in Massachusetts

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Love Equals

By Emily Hilsberg

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What love means to me is I love spending time with my family and friends. What I love to do is going to Deer Park. It is a Buddhist monastery. It is very unusual. Deer Park has a Tea Room. The tea room is at Solidity Hamlet and Clarity Hamlet. You can also have bonfires. Dennis and his dog Smokey had a bonfire with us. It can be very cold at night. Trust me it gets super cold. That’s what love means to me, being with my family. Deer Park is where Monks and Nuns live. To live there you need to shave your head and wear brown and blue outfits. There is a koi fish pond.

Emily Hilsberg, age 10, lives with her family in Culver City, California. She received the  Two Promises at Deer Park and her Dharma name is Serenity Sunrise of the Heart.

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Deep Relaxation for Children

By Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem

At the Family Day of Mindfulness at Deer Park, the children led the deep relaxation for the whole sangha. It was so sweet! Here are excerpts from that practice.

Deep relaxation is a wonderful chance to allow our bodies to rest. When our body is at ease and relaxed, our mind is also calm and at peace. The practice of deep relaxation helps our body and mind to heal. Please take the time to practice it often— for five or ten minutes when you wake up in the morning, before going to bed in the evening, or during the middle of the day. The most important thing is to enjoy it.

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Please lie down comfortably on your back. Close your eyes. Allow your arms to rest gently on either side of your body. Let your legs and feet relax, opening outwards.

    • We begin by following our breathing. When we breathe in, we feel our tummy rise up. When we breathe out, we feel our tummy go down again. Our breathing comes in and out like waves on the ocean, very relaxed, very peaceful. Just notice the rise and fall of your belly.
    • As you breathe in and out, become aware of your whole body lying down. With each out-breath, feel yourself relax deeper and deeper into the floor, letting go of everything: worries, fear, or thoughts.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two hands. Breathing out, I completely relax all the muscles in my two hands. Breathing in, I feel lucky to have two good hands; breathing out, I smile to my two hands. My two hands are so precious! With my two hands, I can paint. I can draw.I can write. I can hold hands with my friend, and much, much more.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two arms. Breathing out, I allow my arms to completely relax. Breathing in, I feel happy to have two strong arms. Breathing out, I let go of any tight muscles and I feel joy and ease in my arms. With my arms I can hug Mom, Dad, Grandma, or Grandpa. Now I can say thank you to my two arms.
    • Breathing in, I feel my shoulders. Breathing out, I let my shoulders rest and give all their weight to the floor. Breathing in, I send my love to my shoulders and breathing out, I smile to my shoulders. Every time I breathe out, I feel them relax more and more deeply.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two feet. Breathing out, I smile to my feet. I wiggle my toes, all ten of them. How nice to have two feet! With my two feet, I can walk and run, play sports, dance, and ride a bike. And when I am tired, my two feet love to rest. Breathing in, I stretch out my feet. Breathing out, I let my feet relax. Thank you, feet!
    • Breathing in, I feel my legs. Breathing out, I enjoy my two legs. My legs help me stand up straight, each day a little taller. With my two legs, I can sit cross-legged or do the splits or walk back and forth to school. It feels so good to have my legs. Breathing in, I stretch out my legs. Breathing out, I let my legs relax.
    • Breathing in, I feel my two eyes. Breathing out, I smile to my eyes. Breathing in, I let all the many muscles around my eyes relax. Breathing out, I send my two eyes my love and care. My two eyes are a gift! I can see birds flying in the bright blue sky. When I’m sad, I can cry and let the tears flow. Breathing in, I squeeze my eyes tight. Breathing out, I release them and let them relax.
    • Breathing in, I feel my lungs grow bigger. When I breathe out, I feel them shrink. Breathing in, I feel so happy to have two good lungs. Breathing out, I smile to them with kindness. They bring oxygen into my body and give me the power to speak, to sing, to shout, to laugh. When I was just born, the first thing I did was take a deep in-breath. I breathe the fresh air into my lungs and breathing out, let them rest and relax. Thank you, lungs for helping me breathe!
    • Breathing in, I know my heart is beating on the left side of my chest. Breathing out, I enjoy my heart and let it rest. With my in-breath, I send my love to my heart. With my out-breath, I smile to my heart. My heart keeps me alive and it is always there for me, every minute, every day. Breathing in, I know that my heart loves me. Breathing out, I promise to live in a way that will help my heart to be healthy and strong. With each exhalation, I feel my heart relaxing more and more, and I feel each cell in my heart smiling with ease and joy.
    • Now, I bring my attention to a place in my body that may be sick or in pain. Breathing in, I allow this area to rest, breathing out, I smile to it with kindness. I know that there are other parts of my body that are still strong and healthy. I feel the support, energy, and love of the healthy parts of my body penetrating the weak area, soothing and healing it. As I breathe in, I know my body is a miracle because it can heal when it gets sick. As I breathe out, I let go of any worry or fear I might hold in my body. Breathing in and out, I smile with love and confidence to the area of my body that is not well.
    • Breathing in and out, I enjoy the feeling of my whole body lying down, very relaxed and calm. I smile to my whole body and send my love and compassion to my whole body.Now the practice of deep relaxation is over. You can wiggle your hands and feet and slowly stretch. Then roll on to one side. When you are ready, you can open your eyes. Take your time to get up, calmly and lightly. Enjoy carrying the mindful energy you have generated into the rest of the day.

If you like, you can now sing a few relaxing songs or lullabies, or play soft music for a few minutes.

Now the practice of deep relaxation is over. You can wiggle your hands and feet and slowly stretch. Then roll on to one side. When you are ready, you can open your eyes. Take your time to get up, calmly and lightly. Enjoy carrying the mindful energy you have generated into the rest of the day.

Sister Jewel, Chau Nghiem is a nun living at Deer Park Monastery.

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Brett Cook: Collaborative Artist

Imb45-Brett1dentity of Interbeing:
Recognizing Difference and Seeing Ourselves
A Social Collaboration by Brett Cook, Spring 2006

The Identity of Interbeing Project was a group exercise of looking deeply that culminated in a large public work and gallery exhibition at the Packer Collegiate Academy in Brooklyn, New York .A series of contemplative exercises with almost 1000 students, faculty, administrators, caregivers, parents, and residents of the community made up this social collaboration that included a variety of reflective artworks now permanently displayed in the school. Social collaboration is an interactive, multidisciplinary experience in the practice of peace that highlights interbeing. Through participatory models of creation, the making of music, dance, words, and visual art become vehicles of expression where the self and other can disappear. A collective bond is experienced when collaborators recognize what they make, in object and action, is bigger than any individual. The point of the work is the process, andtheprocessisthepointofthework.Bycreatingthespacesforparticipants to express their individual selves in an inclusive way, there is the manifestation of interbeing – recognition of difference in us that at the same time shows our interconnectedness.

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The school gallery space where they are sitting was transformed overnight. The walls, covered in red paper, were home to large scale drawings of participants coloring outside, documentation of the entire project, a video made by students and both written and audio reflections.

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Brett Cook, Bodhisattva Aspiration of the Heart, is a creative person who crafts objects, experiences, and feelings that defy classification in any singular discipline, to relieve suffering in the world. www.brett-cook.com

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