Letter from the Editor

Editor-NBDear Thay, dear Sangha,

One of the threads connecting the articles in this issue is the concept of volition. Our volition is our deepest desire. According to the Buddha, it is one of the four nutriments––sources of energy, or food. Our volition fuels us to do what we most want to do. Thay says, “To generate understanding and compassion, to be truly happy and to be able to help many people: that is good volition, good intention.” When it’s rooted in loving kindness, our wholesome volition can be a wonderful agent of change.

Thay’s Dharma talk teaches about volition as a framework for understanding our use of technology. This talk raises deep questions: Are we turning to email or Facebook to fill a void, to tune out our suffering? Are we at the mercy of our habit of going after pleasure? Thay urges us to examine our motivations and volition. Because of our unwholesome intentions and dangerous use of technology, he says, civilization is heading in the wrong direction. But he explains that if someone has bodhicitta, or the mind of love, nourishing his volition, then “he can reverse the trend of civilization.”

Sister Annabel, senior editor of the Mindfulness Bell, kindly shared her insights after reading the articles in this issue: “Our volition in the form of bodhicitta is always there in every one of us. It only needs to be uncovered and kept alive by the practice. Suffering is very important in helping us learn to uncover our mind of love. If we know how to handle our suffering, it will lead to the feeling of compassion for our self and others.”

The connection between bodhicitta and suffering is very alive in this issue’s stories by war veterans and their loved ones. These writers have been to some of the darkest places. They show how awakening into a volition of loving kindness has taken their lives in a whole new direction, one of awareness and commitment to service. For example, Jeff Nielsen’s article describes his harrowing times in war and his tireless work to reverse the legacy of war. In an email about it, he emphasized, “Again, my article is not about me. But, about the consequences of war, all war.” A volition that arises from compassion and inspires service is intensely personal and inseparable from the collective.

Contributor Beth Howard tells how she has been deepening her practice of peace as her sons have been deployed in military service. Sister Annabel observes, “The practice of Howard is also to see that her sons’ engagement in war is what keeps alive her compassion and peace work. Her sons’ being in the army does not bring about the desire to destroy those who want to go to war, because that is a kind of war in itself. As a mother she has a deep desire that no son will ever go to war and she does everything she can to make that possible and trusts that it will be possible. That is the most nourishing kind of volition food.”

May these offerings open our hearts and inspire us to nourish our true nature of compassion, our mind of love.

With love and gratitude,

Editor-NBsig

Natascha Bruckner
True Ocean of Jewels

PDF of this article

Letters

May I suggest that if the Mindfulness Bell had an electronic format too, people like me would be able to read its content in developing countries through less pollution of worldwide transportation and less environmental costs, and it also would lower the price for us.
Ana Cristina Atanes
Brazil (via Facebook)

Dear Ana Cristina,

Thank you for your input. We would very much like to develop an online format for the Mindfulness Bell, and we are looking for Sangha friends who have the right skills and experience to help us move in that direction. Meanwhile, we are happy to be building an online archive of past issues, available at www.mindfulnessbell.org/wp. We hope this will nourish your practice.

mb66-Letters

Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

Every time it is a joy to find the Mindfulness Bell on the doormat. The first thing I look for is the Dharma talk from Thay. But I do wonder—why is there never a Dharma talk from one of the other masters? Going two times a year to the EAIB in Germany, I am thankful to receive the beautiful Dharma talks from Thay Phap An. And I’m sure that in the other monasteries, also, rich talks are given during the retreats. Wouldn’t it be lovely to share these talks also?

A lotus for you all,
Els Prins
The Netherlands

Dear Els,

Thank you for your message. It is heartwarming to know that you enjoy the Dharma talks from Thay. The Mindfulness Bell does publish Dharma talks by monastics, such as Sister Dang Nghiem’s talk, “Scorpion Nature,” in the Autumn 2013 issue. This was transcribed and edited from a talk she gave in 2011, and she generously shared the transcript with the MB. It would be wonderful to publish more talks like this, and we will gladly take your suggestion and invite monastic Dharma teachers to share transcripts of their talks.

mb66-Letters

My dear editor,

I have so much appreciation for the questions and Thay’s answers about suffering in the last Mindfulness Bell––in particular, the questions asked by bereaved mothers. Not quite fifteen years ago, that could have been me asking those same questions. My son was killed by another person when he was twenty-one years old. The grief of bereaved parents goes deep to the core of one’s being. It is a long hard road to travel. I have so much gratitude for people who helped me. Someone gave me tapes on loving kindness and compassion, which I listened to over and over. All I could do at first was tonglen, taking in suffering and breathing out space…at first for myself, and then it spread to others and got bigger and bigger. Someone asked me to join one of Thay’s Sanghas, and I practiced with them for many years until they disbanded. Now I practice with another Sangha.

To the mother who asked if she could ever be happy again: positively, YES! At first it is very hard, but slowly, you work through the grief and can see that the love you had for your child will never leave. And if you relax in this love, you will be able to see your child in many forms. I feel Jake in the cool summer breezes that caress my face. I see him in the orange juice he used to drink. I hear the chirp, chirp of the robins and I know he is near. I find “heart rocks” and I know he is cheering me on. One time I even saw where someone had written the name, JAKE, with rocks, very big and bold, on the side of the road. That made me smile from ear to ear, and I said, “Thanks, Jake.”

To the parent whose sweet son died by violence: I wondered for many years what could be done to lessen the violence in this world. How can Jake’s death and so many other deaths by violence not be in vain? Then I read an article about teaching mindfulness in schools. I thought about how mindfulness has helped me to take good care of my anger. I took a curriculum class in Northern California, mindfulschools.org, and have been teaching mindfulness in our school district’s grades 1-3 for the past three years. Now two other Sangha friends are teaching with me. The children love to practice mindfulness. They know that it can help them calm down and focus right away.

My life is full of blessings. I never thought at first this would be possible. Thank you to all who helped me along this path, which leaves no one out.

Sincerely,
Robin Correll
Garberville, California

mb66-Letters

Errata

In the Winter/Spring 2014 issue (#65), the article “Calligraphic Meditation” incorrectly stated that Sister Dedication was the exhibition curator. Brother Phap Nguyen was the exhibition curator as well as Thay’s calligraphy assistant.

PDF of this article

Intention, Innovation, Insight

A Day of Mindfulness at Google

By Sister Chan Hien Nghiem

mb66-Intention1

The Google campus is an interesting place. Called the “Googleplex” by Silicon Valley, it is a sprawling mass of buildings of unusual shapes and sizes, with earnest-faced, intelligent-looking young people darting between them. Some of them are riding free “Google bikes,” which––like the buildings––are branded with Google’s signature tones of red, yellow, green, and blue. There is a plastic pink flamingo perched on a dinosaur skeleton in the main courtyard, as well as a mini-pool, a sandy volleyball court, deck chairs, and exotic desert plants native to the Valley. Right away, you know that this is a place full of creative people, playful people––people who are dedicated to their work and their company’s mission of “making the world’s information accessible and useful.” Google is known as one of the most innovative companies in the world––an exciting, challenging, and fun, if sometimes chaotic, place to work. Yet it is also known as a place where its young (average age twenty-nine), talented employees burn out and leave after just a few years.

As a result, Google has invested a huge amount in “employee well-being.” All the food, the eighteen cafes, gyms, child care, and other onsite services are offered to its ten thousand employees completely free of charge. If you complete a project well, you can gain free “massage credits” to redeem on campus, or take some time out in a “napping pod.” And yet, none of these “perks” can ever be enough to balance the intense workaholic culture. Google’s CEO said that they have “a healthy disregard for the impossible.” Employees may work up to sixteen hours a day, mostly in front of a screen. No matter how much high-quality food and services they have access to, they suffer greatly. They are so busy that they experience acute stress and pressure, struggle to sustain healthy relationships with their partners, and have little time for family life. And so “Googlers” were delighted when, in 2011, Thich Nhat Hanh agreed to lead a half-day of mindfulness for employees during his US tour. Google was proud to announce on its website that it was the very first corporate headquarters in America to host the world-famous Zen Master. As of this writing, Thay’s Dharma talk Q&A has been viewed over 230,000 times since Google posted it on YouTube.

Thay’s visit on October 23, 2013, was his second time on the Google campus. This time, Google asked for a full Day of Mindfulness, not just a half-day, on the theme “Intention, Innovation, and Insight.” More than seven hundred employees signed up, so they needed to open two “satellite” locations where Thay’s Dharma talk was live-streamed on big screens, with monastics assigned to each location. There was a lot of excitement in the bus as we headed to the Googleplex to start the day with an early morning walking meditation. Some of us had been there in 2011 and remembered the joyful, relaxed atmosphere, the openness of the employees, and the fun campus. There is one entrance hall where Google search terms (being submitted by users around the world in “real time”) are projected flowing down a wall like a waterfall. There is another lobby with a giant swirling slide for engineers to slide down from the first floor to the ground floor.

Much of our excitement was not just to go to the Googleplex as a place, but to connect with the Googlers themselves––people in our own generation who share many of our aspirations. Software engineers (or “geeks” as they like to call themselves) are a creative, collaborative, experimental bunch of people, and meditation naturally appeals to their science-based curiosity. If they want to master technology, they also want to master their minds. Many of them have a deep faith that technology can serve the world and bring positive change, creating opportunities for all people across boundaries of nationality, race, and culture. So although we did not have green or blue hair or luminous sneakers like some of the Googlers, as Buddhist monastics we fit right in to Silicon Valley’s “Zen vibe.”

Our Deepest Desire

Google’s unofficial company motto is “Don’t be evil.” Their intention is to make the world’s information available––without being evil. But is information the same as insight? If we had to describe our aspiration as Plum Village monks and nuns, perhaps it would be to do good (water positive seeds and help people suffer less) by making humankind’s deepest insights available to all those who are suffering. It may be that the world has a lot of information, but we may lack the tools, training, and insight to help us suffer less. Information (or too much of it) may even be a cause of our suffering.

mb66-Intention2

Our Day of Mindfulness began with stopping. Thay was very joyful and relaxed as he explained walking meditation and led the hundreds of employees (many of whom had arrived early) on walking meditation around the courtyard. It was a very quiet morning, and the buildings were shrouded in mist. Everyone was perfectly silent as they took one mindful step at a time, eventually joining Thay to sit on the paving stones silently together. Absolutely nothing happened, and yet everything was happening. There was true stopping. And there was a sense of magic. Here in the pulsing heart of the Internet, there was stopping. There was peace. There was mist, and smiles, and quiet breathing. Nothing was going on, and yet everything was going on. We could feel that the Googlers were 100% engaged, 100% present. They were curious. They were tired. They knew that Thay had something they wanted, and they were eager to learn and taste for themselves what it was. Was it wisdom? Was it happiness? Was it freedom?

In a Dharma Talk back in Plum Village, Thay described how the Googlers had practiced walking meditation that morning so wholeheartedly. “They practiced very well,” said Thay, unaware that one of those Googlers was sitting right there in the Lower Hamlet meditation hall, having decided to come and “check out” Plum Village for herself. She was very proud and happy to hear Thay’s praise for their wholehearted practice. “But,” Thay then continued, “the reason they practiced so wholeheartedly was because they suffer.” And sitting there in the audience, she thought, “Yes, Thay is right. Thay has understood. We do suffer a lot. And this practice does help, a lot.”

After the walking meditation, Thay offered a Dharma talk. “Each of us has a desire, an intention, which we nourish every day,” he began. “Is our desire, our intention, just to run after fame, power, success, and wealth? Or is it something else? Every one of us should take the time to sit down and ask ourselves, ‘What is my deepest desire? What do I want to do with my life?’ It’s not just a question of ‘work-life balance.’ It goes much deeper.

“If our deepest desire is to suffer less and be happier; if our deepest desire is to come back to ourselves, to create joy and happiness, and nourish ourselves, and help others do the same; if our deepest desire is to learn how to suffer, how to come back to ourselves and embrace and look deeply into our suffering, so we suffer much less, and can help others do the same; then that is good.

“Many of us are consuming technology to cover up our suffering and run away from ourselves, but surely we can design the kind of technology that can help us do the opposite? This is a question of innovation: we have to invent new ways of practice to suit our present situation. If we do not renew our teaching, our practice, then we cannot serve society. All of us have insight, we just need something or someone to help us bring it to life so that we can know which direction to go in––and which direction not to go in.”

Thay went on to speak about the Four Nutriments, and how to nourish body and mind with mindful consumption. He also spoke about how the practice of deep listening and loving speech can be applied in corporations, and about his own experience of nourishing himself with the very simple practices of walking and breathing with mindfulness and compassion. There was then plenty of time for questions and answers. Every question came from the heart. They were the questions of “seekers,” of young minds seeking to make sense of their busy, stressful lives and seeking to bring deep meaning to them. We could feel their openness and their deep trust and respect for Thay. We could also hear their suffering.

mb66-Intention3

Sharing Aspirations

Many of us were sitting on stage behind Thay, as representatives from a different world. We may go for days or weeks without even opening a computer or listening to a track of worldly music. Unless we have worked in the registration office before Summer Retreat, we may have never known what it’s like to receive several hundred emails a day. We have a chance to stop, not just for a few minutes every day, but for hour after concentrated hour, contemplating our body, our breathing, the food or the miracles of nature around our practice centers. We can take a shower without Radio NST (Non-Stop Thinking) blaring through our mind’s ear.

When I worked in news journalism before I ordained, every day I would have to read six newspapers cover to cover and listen to two hour-long news radio shows, while following the waterfall of live “news wires” cascading down my screen. I feel it has taken me years to slowly quiet my mind and enjoy the silence of nothing happening, except life in all its wonders. Sitting there on the stage, I wondered if any of the Googlers would ever taste the deep peace and relief of being “free from information” which has refreshed my spirit in the monastery. We can’t give them that kind of peace and silence, but we can demonstrate that it is possible––in our smiles and in our steps––and we can show them how to create the conditions to generate tiny, life-changing glimpses of it in their day.

Soon we were all enjoying a delicious, vegan, mindful meal together. Google is a pioneer of corporate mindful eating, and since Thay’s first visit, the company runs a monthly “mindful meal” session in its cafes. During these lunches, Googlers have a chance to listen to the Five Contemplations, eat in silence, and share about their experience together. After Thay’s second visit, they plan to make a permanent “mindful eating zone” on campus, where employees can come to nourish themselves peacefully during their lunch break.

As well as supporting and nourishing their mindfulness practice on campus, some of us also had our own secret aspirations as we stepped into the world of Google that day. One or two of us were looking for GoogleMap employees, hoping we could inspire them to code a live, editable, browsable map of all our Sanghas and mindfulness events around the world. Brothers Phap Luu and Phap Khoi had a giant hard drive stashed in a backpack, hoping to inspire a Googler to import a decade of Thay’s Dharma talks into the back end of YouTube and publish them on our channel. (It would take perhaps a year’s constant uploading to do it from rural France). I was looking for someone who would design a really elegant, simple, flexible, free mindfulness bell app. And Thay, never one to think small, was looking for soul mates who would design the kind of technology that would help people suffer less and stop our civilization going in the wrong direction.

In the afternoon, Thay, his attendants, and a few other monastics met with senior Google engineers to discuss how they could do just that. While several hundred employees enjoyed total relaxation in the auditorium with Sister Chan Khong (surely much more healing and restful than the many massage chairs strategically placed throughout the offices), and others played volleyball with monks and nuns, a dozen of us sat around a giant boardroom table to have a Dharma discussion with Thay on the future of information technology.

Is it possible to create the kind of technology that can help people come back to themselves, embrace and handle the suffering inside? One chic and elegant employee was wearing the new “Google Glass”––the cutting-edge technology that enables you to send messages, run web searches, take photos, and record video without even lifting a finger. But was it helping her be truly present for herself or for the discussion?

The world watches 450,000 years’ worth of Google YouTube videos each month. That’s more than twice as long as modern humans have existed. But is this helping us suffer less? Is it possible to create, and make available on a global scale, the kind of content on the web that helps people to take care of themselves, their loved ones, and the planet? Google may know that someone is checking her Gmail one hundred times in one evening. That person is, at the same time, running Google searches for “causes of depression.” She makes orders through her Chrome browser for large quantities of junk food. Are the Google “algorithms” intelligent enough to offer some constructive ways to help this person? Google wants significant profits, that is true. But they also want to be good, to not be evil. Is there more they can do?

This was no ordinary business meeting, and the two hours we spent together flew by. It was amazing to contribute as part of the Sangha––as though we were the voices of one body, offering a new energy or idea in each moment, with Thay guiding us all the way. It was extraordinary to see our beloved teacher––a Zen Master from another generation, who was already over seventy by the time the 21st Century started––engaging so wholeheartedly with these young technology leaders, with such a quick and sharp mind, and with so much love and joy. The Googlers were delighted. And one of them, as Thay explained the deep meaning of why the bell and stopping are so important, was even moved to tears.

It was hard to bring the meeting to a close, and even harder to leave the room. We did so as friends, perhaps even as soul mates. The next time we meet will be for a retreat.

We didn’t take the slide down to the ground floor. We enjoyed every step.

mb66-Intention4Sister True Dedication (Chan Hien Nghiem) was born and raised in England and currently lives in the Lower Hamlet, Plum Village. She has been practising with the Sangha since 2002 and ordained as a nun in 2008.

PDF of this article

I Love Technology

By Kenley Neufeld

mb66-ILove1

I love technology. I value technology. I embrace technology.

These three statements may have been the first step to my finding more equanimity in my relationship to technology. To name it, say what it means to me, and see clearly the central role technology plays in my profession and how it enhances my Sangha experiences.

As a technologist, I’ve been an active user of the Internet since the early nineties. In grad school in 1993, I wrote my master’s thesis on the benefits of email communication. For the past twenty years, technology has been one of the core functions of my job. I bought the game-changer iPhone on the day it was released in 2007; it transformed both my work and personal life. I have a history of being an early adopter and appreciate the uncertainty of new technologies.

mb66-ILove2

When a Dharma friend asked me recently how I manage to not feel overwhelmed by technology, it was a perfect opportunity to look at my relationship to technology more closely. His second question, “How can technology serve us in alleviating our suffering, add to the depth of our connections, and allow us to live a more mindful life?,” provided the ground for me to reflect on the positive aspects of technology.

The ubiquitous nature of technology can definitely be overwhelming––being constantly connected, exposure to the endless marketing, the trendy and sexy elements––but how different is that from other things in life that cause me to feel overwhelmed? If I’m not grounded in practice and connection with myself and with others, overwhelm will arrive. And feeling overwhelmed can lead to despair. I ask myself: How well am I taking care of myself? How well am I taking care of my family? If I can do these things honestly, then I don’t feel overwhelmed. I can easily come back to my happiness through my breathing and my walking and build connections with others, even with technology.

Sometimes I think my challenges with technology are reflections of what other people experience and feel about technology––fear, frustration, isolation, and loneliness. These things are real, but ultimately we must look at technology like anything else in our lives: we can apply mindfulness to using technology, create beauty and support with technology, and let go of it when it’s not the appropriate time or place to use it. With awareness and mindfulness, technology can be a friend, not a foe. With awareness and mindfulness, we will also know how to put it down when we need a break. Just as we do with other things that we might love but that may not always serve us well, we can recognize our love of technology and then let it go.

Technology has opened many doors for Sangha building and sharing the Dharma in the last decade. I feel grateful for all the wonderful tools that help us to connect and to learn. Through technology, people all over the world can watch Thich Nhat Hanh give a Dharma talk from the south of France. Technology can bring a moment of happiness to almost a million people who follow Thay on Facebook when a special quote or image is shared. Technology enables people to gather online where no local Sangha exists. The Sangha-building possibilities of technology are all around us.

How can we use technology as a mindfulness bell for coming home to ourselves? If you use a mobile device, I urge you to turn off as many phone notifications as possible so that you can choose the appropriate time and place to connect. In my personal practice, I usually don’t turn on Internet connections for one or two hours after getting up in the morning. I don’t need to be connected first thing in the morning. Some people find a weekly “technology Sabbath”––a lazy day or Day of Mindfulness––to be very valuable. I typically take extended technology breaks several times a year.

In my work environment, I’m on my computer most of the day. I use an application to remind me to stop and breathe. My favorite app for this is Stillness Buddy (www.stillnessbuddy.com)

because it includes quotes from Thay and also invites me to stop at regular intervals. For my commute to work, I enjoy listening to the “Buddhist Geeks” podcast (www.buddhistgeeks.com), which explores the question, “How can we serve the convergence of Buddhism with rapidly evolving technology and an increasingly global culture?” And with the recent popularization of mindfulness, there’s a proliferation of mobile apps. Two that you may want to explore are “Stop, Breathe, & Think” (www.stopbreathethink.org) and “Buddhify” (www.buddhify.com).

Our mindfulness trainings are our guide to awareness, transformation of suffering, and touching happiness. When we practice and keep the mindfulness trainings alive, technology doesn’t have to be a hindrance; it can be a friend.

mb66-ILove3Dharmacharya Chan Niem Hy (Kenley Neufeld) received the Lamp of Wisdom in 2012 and supports Sangha work from his home in Ojai, California.

PDF of this article

Why I Chose the Monastic Path

By Brother Chan Phap Nguyen

mb66-Why1

During last spring’s Francophone retreat, Thay gave Dharma talks on the theme of “recognizing the conditions of happiness in and around us,” a subject that is very important and helpful for today’s living. Thay taught that to be able to hear the birds or see the sun rays in the morning, or to recognize that life has lovingly offered us our good eyes and strong heart, is already a source of happiness. So many people are not so fortunate with their poor faculties, and still countless others are suffering from serious illnesses.

mb66-Why2

One day, we had a formal lunch, a solemn and powerful event well attended by the fourfold community. Yet during the afternoon’s Dharma discussion, one practitioner shared that while the meal was something very special, she gained from it neither any sense of happiness nor any understanding of its purpose. Further, she felt pity that monastics could be made so happy by something as insignificant as an ice cream bar while a few cartons would be what she herself would buy. Monastics would derive happiness just from watching simple things like a cloud, a ray of sunshine, or a flower; she felt sorry for them.

mb66-Why3

I was not surprised by this sharing because I’ve known many other people with similar thinking. The sharing made me reflect more deeply on the sources of happiness in my life before and after I became a monastic.

Never Really Satisfied

I am Vietnamese American. In high school, I studied diligently for admission to a good university. That done, I continued to work hard for a good degree so I could get a decent job to help my family in America and in Vietnam. After four years of hard work, I graduated with degrees in international business and finance. I had wanted to go further for Master’s degrees in international law and international relations, but after much thinking, I decided to defer additional schooling in favor of work to help my family financially, and also to get real work experience. Just before graduation, I was fortunate to be hired by a stock brokerage company, with the work to begin one week after graduation. Everything appeared to progress as I had wished.

But my ambition did not stop there. Once employed, my next desire was to buy a house and a good car. These goals were achieved after three years of high-intensity and high-pressure work. In my job, dealing with many of the clients, especially wealthy ones, was difficult. There were days I left work with a headache. In seven years, I moved through two houses and was into my second car. I had a job, money, a good dwelling and means of transportation, but I was never really satisfied with my life. I always felt that I was missing something. The help I gave my family was never enough. The situation was the same with everyone around me.

I found instances of joy in being with my family, in material things, and travels. Every time I felt boredom, excessive work pressure, or the need to resolve some personal issue, I would travel. I visited many places, some of them with rather luxurious and elegant accommodations. I felt happy during those travels, but upon returning home to face the busy and tense life, and especially my own dissatisfaction, I began to feel the boring repetitiveness of my life. I wanted to change it.

Waking Up

When I was little, my mother used to take me to the temple to worship the Buddha and chant the sutras. I remember the lightness I felt on those occasions. Although I was too young to understand myself, I liked the quiet, serene atmosphere of the temples. Growing older, I continued to like those visits, but I only went to the temples when I felt my mind was unbalanced. Many people go to the temple to pray for favors, but I went just to chant a sutra or to do some temple work to find peace; that was it! Every day after work, I would stop by the temple for sutra recitation. Gradually the wonderful words of the sutras began to penetrate my mind. I became more familiar with the way life was lived at the temple. What I most valued was the peace that I felt there. Suddenly I began to see the beauty of monastic life. Images of the brown and saffron-yellow robes quietly entered my store consciousness. From there the seed of a monastic life began to sprout in me.

One day while doing research on Buddhism on the Internet, I found Thay’s name and the Plum Village (PV) website. Out of curiosity, I studied the information and became very interested in what I found. I began to read Thay’s books, and the more I read, the deeper I was moved. I decided to travel to PV once to check things out; sometimes, reality might not be the same as what we’ve read on the Internet or in books. I arranged my schedule to allow a one-week visit to PV. During that week, I had the opportunity to be in direct contact with the practice of mindfulness in the PV tradition. I learned to walk, sit, and breathe. In a few days, I felt there was already transformation in me: I felt light and peaceful. I liked PV’s natural settings. Thay’s Dharma talks moved me very much. I felt like a person just waking up from a deep sleep. After the week, I returned home with the vow to come back and ask to be Thay’s disciple. And true to that vow, I returned one year later and was permitted to join the monastic community.

While back in the US to rearrange my personal affairs, I continued mindfulness practice at Deer Park Monastery, another PV center in America. There I was given much guidance and help by Sister Dang Nghiem. One time, I was having dinner with her and another practitioner. That simple meal turned out to be an unforgettable experience. We were eating leisurely while the sun was setting in the distance. No one said a word: it was enough to simply enjoy the meal and value one another’s presence. It was wonderful. I felt the energy of peace enter my body and a sense of happiness I had never experienced before—one of peace, freedom, and contentment, so gentle and soothing.

The Joy of Non-Desire

Before getting to know the practice in the PV tradition, I was confused between the happiness derived from sensual pleasures and that derived from real peace. I had thought that happiness meant having one’s desires satisfied. But desires can never be satisfied because by nature, they are bottomless. Once a desire is satisfied, another one, even larger, appears. Eventually we become enslaved by our own desires.

mb66-Why4

On the other hand, there is the happiness born from mental stillness, a joy that comes from the non-desire within us. Looking closely, we can see that the process of going after desires until they are satisfied brings not so much joy but a lot of suffering. Our greater joy actually comes from the moment of non-desire, which happens between the end of one desire and the beginning of the next. For example, from the very first few months of my first job, I worked hard to save for a modern car. Once I got the car, I was quite proud and happy for a few weeks, and then my next goal was a house. The joy of having a new car gradually disappeared, and in its place were new efforts, new worries, and new plans to gather enough money for the new house.

When we look for externally generated pleasures such as travels, good food, and luxurious dwellings, we are really looking to satisfy just our physical needs. In the depth of our consciousness, our difficulties, sadness, loneliness, etc., are being suppressed. While sensual pleasures can bring us short moments of joy, they make our desires stronger in the long run. I had thought that graduating from a good university, having a good job, big house, beautiful car, much money in the bank, etc., would bring me happiness. But no! Looking back, I now realized I was a slave to my own desires.

Like many other young men, I was drawn to fame and fortune. Chasing after fame and fortune and never satisfied with what I had, I was like a person drinking seawater: the more you drink, the thirstier you become. In those days, I had worked hard to prepare for the future and lost sight of the wonderful present. Now a monastic, I’ve discovered that happiness is something that’s already in myself; there is no need to search elsewhere. But it takes mindfulness to recognize this. Mindfulness helps us to become aware of what is happening in the present moment and to more clearly see our emotions and mental formations.

A New Ideal

Is what I am saying familiar to you? Does anything here resemble what’s inside of you? I hope you will agree from reading my story that not recognizing correctly our sources of happiness is a common sickness of our time. I was a youth living a worldly life. Having experienced suffering, psychological complexes, sadness, and attachments, I can identify to some extent with the feelings of many young people. Nowadays, youth are facing many kinds of pressures from society, family, school, friends, and sexual tendencies. From puberty into young adulthood, sexual needs can develop so quickly and strongly that they are difficult to control. And if we do not know how to channel them, we can end up being controlled by them. Therefore, we have to deal not only with external issues, but internal ones, too.

Our society is very modern today, but the more modern the world is (with computers and other electronic gadgets, for example), the more lonely and lost people can become since there are now fewer opportunities for personal contacts between individuals. Such feelings of loneliness and emptiness could take us very far in the wrong direction. I think my earlier feelings of unease, worry, and loneliness came from my original ideals, which were based on the ambition for fame, wealth, and sensual pleasures. That’s why I was not very happy. Now I feel very happy: Thay has opened my eyes to a new life ideal, the development of understanding and love.

Dear friends! Young people like us need an ideal in life. A wholesome ideal is useful to ourselves and others. It will bring the fruit of love and happiness. The life of a young person is very beautiful, like a full moon, clear and undefiled. Let’s value it and keep it well. In order to do so, we have to practice stopping, deep looking and listening, recognizing and transforming, like Thay has taught. Our breaths and steps are the very beginning of this practice. I am walking this path of practice with much joy.

I hope you can live your lives so you can be like proud and solid pine trees. If you know how to take good care of your garden of the heart and your ideal, you too will experience the taste of peace and happiness. If you are happy, your loved ones and others will benefit. You will be like one of those blue pine trees: if it knows how to send its roots deep into the earth and stand straight with solidity and dignity, its trunk and foliage will bring much refreshing shade to life.

Translated from Vietnamese by Dat Nguyen.

mb66-Why5Brother Chan Phap Nguyen, born and raised in Vietnam, immigrated to the US with his family at age thirteen. He became a monk in February 2008 and has lived in Plum Village ever since. He enjoys drinking tea and lying on a hammock.

PDF of this article

From Warriors to Peaceful Warriors

Veterans Lighting the Way

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis in Conversation

mb66-From1

Brother Phap Uyen (Brother Michael) served in the military during Desert Storm, Desert Shield. He was ordained as a monastic by Thich Nhat Hanh on May 26, 2002, with the Nimba Family. Paul Davis served in the US Marines from 1964 to 1968. In 1966, he was in Vietnam when Thich Nhat Hanh started the Order of Interbeing. He took the Five Mindfulness Trainings in the mid-1990s and was ordained into the Order of Interbeing in Hanoi, Vietnam, in 2008. He lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and facilitates the Being Peace Sangha.

Brother Phap Uyen and Paul Davis are part of a group planning a Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery this November. To share with the Sangha their experiences and insights as veterans within the Sangha, they met by phone for a Dharma discussion on February 25, 2014.

mb66-From2

Roots of Personal Suffering: Family, Military, and War

Brother Phap Uyen: You and I have had numerous conversations because we were both in the military—you during the Vietnam War and me during Desert Storm, Desert Shield.

Paul Davis: I went into the Marine Corps three weeks after I graduated from high school. I grew up in a rural part of northeastern Ohio. I went into the Marine Corps not out of patriotism, but because I didn’t have anything better to do at the time, and two of my friends were going into the Marine Corps. I turned eighteen when I was in boot camp at Paris Island in 1964. About a year later, I got orders to go to Vietnam. By then I was nineteen. I didn’t really know much about life, and I knew nothing about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people. I was a field radio operator, which meant I carried a radio and I kept communications with headquarters. When I went to Vietnam I had no opinions, I was just there. It was probably different for people who went later, when they knew more about the war and formed opinions about whether it was good or bad. But I grew up in the fifties and early sixties with John Wayne and America being right, so those were the filters that I took to Vietnam with me.

mb66-From3

I had been in Vietnam for about ten months when I was wounded and evacuated. I spent three months in the hospital. And still I had not really thought about my experience in Vietnam. That came about a year later, in 1967. The brother of a friend of mine asked me to participate in a presentation at Ohio State University. It was about the cultural aspects of Vietnam, not about the war. A speech teacher was coordinating the event, and he asked the three of us if we felt that the people of Vietnam wanted us in Vietnam. I volunteered to answer the question, and I gave a long answer. At the end, he looked at me and said, “You didn’t answer my question.” I just sat there. I was numb, almost. I still get emotional thinking about that moment in my life, because it changed me in so many fundamental ways. I’m grateful for that question because it started my process of rebuilding who I was.

I came across Thay and his teachings much later, sometime around 1991 or ’92. I had just experienced a deep loss—it was a period of reflection and questioning. I left Vietnam in 1966 just two or three months after Thay left. I know you left Vietnam when you were two. Is that right?

Brother Phap Uyen: Yes. I was born in June 1973, in Saigon. In 1975, my family left Vietnam. We were in the last plane to leave Tan Son Nhut Airport before the communist government took it over. Our plane was up in the air already when the soldiers stormed the airport. My aunt had married a person that worked for Air America, the CIA’s covert flying group. He was able to help us get out of Vietnam. We stayed in a refugee camp in the Philippines for about two weeks, and then we ended up in Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California. After that, we went to Arizona to live with my aunt and uncle who had sponsored us. I was in the US by ’75. For my parents it was a huge adjustment. In 1979-80, my grandmother and my aunts and uncles started coming over from Vietnam.

My dad had served in the South Vietnamese military. He had traumatic experiences from the war, as well as being a heavy drinker, so it was quite challenging for the family. He and my mom separated when I was nine and a half. They divorced and I lived with my mom for a while. Then there was the battle between my mom and my dad. I was pushed back and forth between my parents, and they were kind of using me against each other.

Paul: I do know that the journey that took me to the Marine Corps was because of issues growing up. When I was in the service, I wasn’t angry. I was more mentally unconscious. When I got out of the service, I enrolled in college at Kent State University and began classes in 1968. During an anti-war demonstration in 1970, the National Guard came on campus and killed four students and shot more. I got involved in the anti-war movement, not a peace movement. I was a lot angrier as a war protestor than I was as a Marine. I had a lot of energy as an angry person. I know that part of your story is issues of anger as well.

Brother Phap Uyen: My mom remarried, and I didn’t feel a sense of security in that relationship either. I hung out with the wrong elements and joined a gang. We got into a lot of trouble. After high school, I didn’t have plans to go to college, so I joined the military. I wanted to try a challenge, so I tried out for the Navy SEALS. I went through the training program but I didn’t graduate from the program. Later on, I was an executive bodyguard for a four-star admiral.

Practicing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

After coming out of the military, I ended up with what we now call PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Even though I had known Thay since 1989 and I had received the Five Mindfulness Trainings from him, I didn’t really practice because I was still very young. I didn’t know how to handle the anger and frustration. I had nightmares at night. I didn’t want to be alone, so I was married when I was twenty-three. My ex-wife and I divorced about a year and a half into our marriage because I couldn’t handle my anger and my emotions. That also led to a disconnection between my daughter and me for a while. My daughter is now eighteen years old.

mb66-From4

There were moments when I was in a really dark place, thinking about killing myself because I was hurting the people I loved and cared about. My mom was quite scared for me because of the lifestyle that I was living—in and out of relationships, not being able to focus and go to school or handle a job. I didn’t like conflict. I would just up and leave my job and move to a different job if I didn’t feel the workplace was harmonious enough. I couldn’t really be around a lot of people at that time. Both of my marriages ended within a year and a half because I couldn’t communicate. There was always a part of me that was trying to hide the things inside of me, not being able to share openly or intimately. A lot of times, my anger would do the talking. After leaving the military, there was a time where within three months I moved six times. That’s partly because I couldn’t accept myself and I didn’t know how to be my own best friend. I wasn’t happy with myself. You can run away from a lot of things, but the one thing you can’t run away from is yourself. Around 2001-2002, my mom suggested for me to go to Plum Village and possibly take a break, because I hadn’t had a break since I left the military.

mb66-From5

Connecting with Thay and the Plum Village Tradition

Paul: I ultimately found Thay and his teachings in the early nineties, after my youngest son, Nathan, was killed in a car accident. The two things that led me to Thay’s teachings were the war in Vietnam and Nathan’s death. I always looked at spirituality or religion from more of an intellectual standpoint, but at that point I had to face some very serious issues of life and death. I first found an article that this Vietnamese monk had written, and I couldn’t even pronounce his name! And then I read Peace Is Every Step. I found out Thay actually did retreats here in the United States.

I went on my first retreat about 1995, at Omega Institute in New York. Being in Thay’s presence was supportive. I hesitate to use the word “healing,” but it was very supportive. When I got there, I found a veterans’ discussion group within the retreat. It was a combination of war protestors and veterans who had been to war, and their families. It was a good opportunity for families to come together and sit and heal. I kept going to Thay’s retreats every two years, and I kept sitting with the veterans’ group and getting to know other veterans and their stories.

The people who came to those groups weren’t always veterans. The woman who became known as the Central Park jogger, who was assaulted in Central Park and had been in a coma, came to one of Thay’s retreats and joined the veterans’ group because she felt it was one place where people could understand the trauma that she had gone through. So the veterans’ group was, in many ways, a safe place for others who had gone through serious trauma.

The initial group I attended at Thay’s retreat was co-facilitated by Claude AnShin Thomas, who was one of the early vets that got connected to Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s since left our tradition, and he was ordained in the Zen Peacemaker Order. The other was Roberta Wall, an OI member from New York. The two of them, the peace activist and the war veteran, co-facilitated that group, which I think made everybody feel welcome. A lot of people lost their youth to the war even though they weren’t there because they got so angry about it.

Brother Phap Uyen: In 2002, I was getting ready to come back to the US from Plum Village. I had already completed 1500 hours of massage therapy, and then I was going to go to school for Oriental medicine. I went in to see Thay and pay my respects. Thay said, “So, I hear you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor.”

“Yes, Thay.”

Thay asked, “So, why do you want to be an Oriental medicine doctor?”

“So I can help people heal, because the military has trained me to do things and use my skills to hurt other people, and I want to change that energy inside of me.”

But Thay said something to me that really made me stop and think: “If you want to help them heal, the only way you can do that is by helping them go to the root of their problem. And the root of their problem is in their mind. But in order for you to do that, you need training. So you need to become a monk.”

I thought, “I’m not sure if I want to commit to being a monk yet.” In the Asian culture, when you become a monk, it is for the rest of your life. I decided to do it anyway, because I saw the effect that being around the Sangha had on me.

mb66-From6

Healing Power of Sangha

The more I practiced with the Sangha, the more I could slowly start opening up. I slowly started being more gentle, friendly, happy. I smiled a lot more! My mom shared that seeing me grow within the Sangha has been a really great thing for her, because she saw me during the worst of my time, when I didn’t really smile.

Now that I look back at it, I see that when I was in the military, with my friends on the base, all those things that we have as part of PTSD were normal to us because everyone else around us was doing the exact same thing. They were drinking; they were not being faithful to their partners. There was anger, violence, hostility. While we’re in that environment, everything seems normal until we transition out of the military; then you realize you can’t just solve that problem by shooting that person. You can’t just blow up at that person anymore. You have to find a more civilized way. Fortunately for me, I came in contact with the Sangha.

When I was in Plum Village in 2002, the US was going to war with Iraq; later on, I got news that seven of the friends I had served with had died. Thay was in Italy at the time, and when he came back I was working in the registration office. Thay came in and asked me how I was doing. Thay said, “I’m sorry to hear that one of your friends passed away.”

“Dear Thay, it wasn’t one. It was seven of them. Right now, it hasn’t really sunk in yet, because I just received the news.”

Thay asked, “How are you going to practice for them? What are you going to do for them?”

I was looking at Thay and said, “They’re already dead. There’s not much I can do for them.”

“No,” Thay said. “They’re dead, but how are you going to practice so that you can help your other brothers and sisters that are not dead yet, or that are going to come back from the war zones?”

That really got me thinking about what I needed to do to practice—doing walking meditation and bringing the images of the soldiers up with me while I’m walking, or the images of my friends that are now dead and don’t have an opportunity to walk anymore, and to take those mindful steps for them.

But at that time I was still very young and fragile in the practice. It’s taken twelve years for me to work on my practice, to hopefully offer something to our brothers and sisters in the military. Granted, all my symptoms from PTSD are not completely gone, because they’ll never go away. But I can handle them in a more appropriate way instead of letting those emotions control me like they used to.

Paul: What stands out for me in listening to you is the importance of the Sangha, not only the monastic Sangha but the lay Sangha as well. For me, I could not do this without the fourfold Sangha. I know that if I wander off the path, once a week I have a gentle reminder with my local Sangha to return to the path. It’s the same when I’m able to spend time with the monks and nuns. It’s like meditation—when our mind wanders away from our breath, we return—and returning to the practice and the Sangha helps me maintain my practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: The way I’ve been practicing is using mindfulness like a bullet-proof vest. During your time, you had fl jackets; now they use Kevlar. Without the mindfulness practice, it’s like walking into battle without a flak jacket or a Kevlar vest on. I’m not about to walk into battle without my Kevlar vest on!

Helping Other Veterans Heal

Paul: I’m glad to be one of the threads in that jacket. You remind me of the importance of what can happen after the Veterans Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery in November. I know that the veterans who have benefitted most from Thay’s retreats are the ones who found the Sangha and stayed with it. Maybe that’s one of the areas where local Sanghas could really help out—to reach out to the veterans who come to the retreat, to make sure that they’re welcome without judgment into Sanghas that continue to support them in the practice.

Brother Phap Uyen: I think it’s really important, because the veterans often feel a disconnection between themselves and the rest of society. If we can get the local Sanghas to help with that, as well as having veterans’ Sanghas in different geographical locations, and possibly get together once a year, or have a big veterans’ retreat—something that they can pencil in every year on their calendar.

In Sister Chan Khong and Thay’s Love and Understanding program, when I sponsored a child for a school year, I would receive a thank-you letter and the child would share a little bit about what’s going on with their life and how school is going. We can connect veterans and local Sanghas by asking local Sanghas to sponsor a veteran for the Veterans Retreat. If we do that, the veterans will see that people do love them and care about them. It allows the veteran to send a thank-you letter, and the Sangha sees concretely that this is a person that they’re supporting.

mb66-From7

When I was living in Plum Village recently, Thay was talking about wanting Sanghas to have service projects—not just practicing and gathering at one person’s house, that’s good, but also to reach out to different aspects of our community to help. This is a way that we can do both things. A lot of the veterans have trouble finding jobs because people won’t hire somebody from the military, especially if they have PTS or PTSD on their record. There are financial difficulties for a lot of the veterans. That’s why we’re trying to do anything we can to get them to the retreat.

Paul: I was very upset when we decided to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was one of the people speaking at a public gathering against going to war. I was also doing volunteer work with the VA [Veterans’Administration], meeting with families whose children had been killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. I was torn between the idea of providing support for the families and honoring their loss, and at the same time speaking out against the war.

Veterans all react differently. There are veterans like me, who quickly realized that what they had been participating in was not right. There are other veterans who strongly feel they were doing the right thing, but they’re still experiencing strong emotion from those actions, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, or depression, or other things that can come from war.

Brother Phap Uyen: I understand where you’re coming from. Some people have come up to me and said, “Being a Buddhist monastic, how can you support the war?” I don’t support the war. I don’t want to ever support any act of killing or hurting people. But I support the healing of the individual. Everybody understands a human being needs to be able to heal. We see the strong power of the Sangha in being able to help us heal. The war has already happened. There’s nothing we can do about that right now. But what we can do is help them heal.

Paul: I’ve always liked Thay’s poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” I am the marine who went to war and I am the veteran who protested the war. Those are all part of who I am.

Brother Phap Uyen: Yeah, I see that in myself too. A big part of it is the environment. I think because we’ve been through the war, we want to stand up and not have our future generations go through what we went through.

Edited by Janelle Combelic, Brother Phap Uyen, and Paul Davis

mb66-From9

PDF of this article

Fierce Bodhisattvas

By Daryne Rockett

mb66-Fierce1

If you ask my ninety-six-year-old grandfather about his participation in World War II, he might tell you that he was disqualified from service because of his flat feet. His wife, Laura Blackwood, is another story. Fit enough for the typing pool, my grandmother served as a WAVE (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the United States Navy during the war. She died two summers ago. My grandfather will tell you that he gave the Navy the “best years of my wife.”

If you ask my dad about his participation in the Vietnam War, he might tell you that he would rather not discuss it. It was thirty-five years after his service when I learned he had been awarded a Purple Heart, because he does not believe that he should be in the same company as those who lost a limb or lost their life in that war. He served in the “brown water” Navy (a term used for a Naval force carrying out military operations in a river) in Vietnam. The very little information that I have about my dad’s service I learned from my mother. I am respectful of his preference for privacy. His is not my story to tell.

If you ask my first husband about his service in several modern wars, there will be very little that he is able to say. He was a pilot of the U-2 Reconnaissance Aircraft, and most of what he did prior to his retirement, and in the years since as a contractor, is highly classified. He and I met in South Korea during my service in the Air Force. The nation was still legally at war with its neighbor to the north, functioning under a cease-fire since 1953. We were there together in 1994, on the first of many occasions that North Korea announced it would no longer abide by the armistice agreement. I was a Korean linguist, and there is very little that I am permitted to say about my service in the Air Intelligence Agency or the Air Force Information Warfare Center. We both might say that we have lost a number of close friends in U-2 crashes.

If you ask my clients about their service in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kuwait, Bosnia, Iraq, or Afghanistan, they may tell you painful stories of loss. They may describe horrible memories from their service––memories of suffering, shame, or death. They might tell you about the losses of relationships, connection, and peace of mind that result from fighting. The losses that bring them to our Vet Center are the ones that hurt the deepest. What many of them will say is that they wish that the military, which taught them so effectively how to fight, had also trained them how not to fight. I had been longing for something similar when I first became familiar with Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching.

I had learned from my father how to fight to win, because he loved me and wanted me to be safe and successful. There was much arguing in my home as I was growing up, and the seeds of aggression were watered. During my military service I learned many wonderful skills, including how to speak Korean, but I was also taught with fear and intimidation, and I was encouraged to see a separation between “us” and “them.” The seeds of disconnection and enmity were watered. By the time I began my studies as a clinical social worker at the age of thirty-four, there was a wake of angry tirades and broken relationships behind me. A beginning meditation class introduced me to the practice of mindfulness, and my studies told me to find a teacher and a community of practice.

It Is Not in Our Nature to Fight

Without being trained, our first impulse is to freeze when we perceive ourselves to be in danger. Something in the most primitive part of our brain knows that predators see their prey as movement against a background. This is very likely the reason that a deer will freeze in the road as a car speeds toward it. Believing the car to be a predator, the deer stays still to avoid being seen, sometimes until it is too late. The second option that we will choose when in peril is to flee. That same ancient part of our brain understands that when we are no longer invisible to the predator, we should hurry away in order to avoid harm. Our last choice is to fight, and without training we will naturally avoid aggression because it is very risky. Our survival instincts tell us that if we stay to fight and sustain even a minor injury, there exists a very real possibility of infection, sepsis, and death.

So, in order to overcome our nonviolent nature and survival instincts, the military has developed very specific training techniques for fighting and surviving in a war. For instance, because weapons have been developed to kill, sicken, or incapacitate people with airborne chemicals, military members are trained to be able to retrieve a gas mask from its carrying pouch, place it over the head, clear it, and seal it completely to the edge of the face within nine seconds. This is not a process that we innately know how to do. It must be practiced repeatedly and under duress in order to be learned in such a way that the gas mask will be properly used even if the soldier is waking from a deep sleep, or disoriented by an explosion, or otherwise in a situation where clear reasoning is less likely to occur.

One of the methods used to teach these military skills is called an “Immediate Action Drill.” In the case of the gas mask, soldiers are taught how to use the equipment, and then the process is repeated a number of times in the classroom. Once it has been practiced formally in this way, trainees are warned to be ready for unexpected tests of their skill with the gas mask. At random times, a drill instructor will enter a room and yell, “Gas! Gas! Gas!” If the trainee does not don the mask within nine seconds, he or she is punished. Fear becomes a very compelling motivator to learn. These Immediate Action Drills are used to teach soldiers how to throw a grenade, fire guns, launch mortars, and bayonet an enemy.

In my own life and in my social work practice with war veterans, I sought a way to undo my conditioning to fight. I found guidance from Thich Nhat Hanh on retreats, in his books, and through my home Sangha, Stillwater Sangha in Maine. I found other teachers who were integrating mindfulness practice with psychotherapy, and I attended workshops and seminars and read more books. I received training in Non-Violent Communication from Peggy Smith, a member of the Order of Interbeing. And I practiced. I discovered that the best of my social work practice occurred when it was also a mindfulness practice.

A mindfulness bell is a kind of immediate action drill. First, in our formal sitting meditation, we learn to return to the present moment and bring awareness to what we are experiencing right now. Then, we have the informal practice of stopping and spending time with the breath in the present moment whenever a bell rings. In the treatment groups that I facilitate for post-traumatic stress disorder, we practice mindfulness of the breath formally in periods of sitting meditation. Then, I set a timer with random bells that sound during the ninety-minute group session. Regardless of where the discussion is going, when the bell sounds, we all stop for two mindful breaths. Only now, instead of being motivated by fear of punishment, we are guided by a desire to live freely in the present moment.

Only This Breath Now

Post-traumatic stress disorder is driven by experiences from the past imposing on the here and now, often triggering anxiety about how things might go badly in the future. In our groups, we practice mindfulness of the breath as a way to return from painful,

unplanned trips into the past or future and resume present moment awareness. I cannot breathe a breath in the future or re-breathe a breath from the past. I may only breathe this breath now.

In my practice with my clients, if a veteran comes in feeling angry and argumentative, I may be reminded of my father’s anger and get caught up in my habit of debating. And when this happens, I am no longer able to be compassionate with my client because I am no longer present. I am anticipating what my client will say next and how to counter the argument. After a decade of practice, I am usually able to notice when this habit energy is rising and stop to take a breath. I remind myself that this veteran is in pain and trusts me enough to let me see that she or he is hurting. When I am once again aware, I am able to be compassionate again, and deeply listen in a way that helps to relieve that veteran’s suffering. Because I am no longer fighting an old battle with my father, over and over again, I am also able to heal old hurts and hold both myself and my father with care and gentleness. When this happens, I think of Thay’s teaching about holding your anger like a baby and taking care of it.

My clients are happy to have a new kind of boot camp, where they learn skills to reverse the military’s programming to fight. We practice sitting, eating, breathing, and walking mindfully. We practice mindful speaking and deep listening. We practice empathy and courageous communication (another term for Non-Violent Communication). Over the past decade, as my mindfulness practice has deepened, my therapy practice has also deepened.

“I am aware that I owe so much to my parents, teachers, friends, and all beings. I vow to be worthy of their trust, to practice wholeheartedly, so that understanding and compassion will flower, helping living beings be free from their suffering.” These words from the Refuge Chant are a loving map, reminding me to recognize the fierce bodhisattvas who courageously put down their weapons and remove their armor in my presence. Though we never call it the Dharma in our sessions, it is undoubtedly the way of joy and freedom from suffering, and I am grateful for my many beautiful teachers.

mb66-Fierce2Daryne Rockett, Blossoming Music of the Heart, plays the harp and practices with Stillwater Sangha in Orono, Maine. She is a clinical social worker at the Bangor Vet Center, where she has enjoyed working with veterans and their families for nearly ten years.

PDF of this article

Reversing the Legacy of War

A Veteran’s Story

By Jeff Nielsen

mb66-Reversin1

I first went to Vietnam as a nineteen-year-old Marine in late 1965. It was a big adventure. I was greeted by many children, lush green countryside, and happy people harvesting rice and fishing. It seemed the people always had smiles upon their faces and a playful curious attitude toward us Marines. It was fun to engage with the children and villagers as we conducted morning patrols outside the barbed wire of our artillery post in Da Nang. I had no real fears on these patrols. On one occasion, I used a blasting cap from a disassembled hand grenade to assist children with their fishing. The blasting cap stunned the fish, and the children eagerly collected them up. They were amazed. I was amazed.

Many positive seeds were nourished during my first trip to Vietnam, as I interacted with a new culture. The hard-core stories of the war were on the edges. But, what began as an adventure in a strange, foreign land would later transform my life.

I volunteered to go back to Vietnam in the summer of 1967. That was the Summer of Love in the United States, but in Vietnam there was no Summer of Love. The war had escalated. I was assigned as a field radio operator with a Marine Infantry unit on the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), much further north than where I had previously been stationed. The war was real here. There was a tremendous amount of suffering, pain, and fear.

mb66-Reversin2

Our unit was under siege from the communist North at Con Tien, or “hill of angels.” I was witness to a brutal and vicious war. In the two weeks prior to and after my arrival, our unit suffered one thousand casualties and seventy dead at Con Tien. The DMZ was a battle of artillery duels, and the Marines were sitting targets inside their wire perimeter. Communist 122-millimeter rockets arrived regularly with howling screeches, creating mass scrambles for cover in red clay trenches. I was scared. There were no more smiling children. This was no longer an adventure. It was war with victims. Suffering and death were everywhere.

Marines lived in primitive, often muddy, unsanitary conditions. We bathed in rivers contaminated with the dioxin Agent Orange. Agent Orange was used to defoliate the jungle and deny the communists cover. The jungle countryside was also hostile. At night, we stood guard duty inside our wire, and rock apes, or monkeys, roamed outside the wire in the jungle. These monkeys can weigh over one hundred pounds, and at night they can resemble a person. Occasionally they, too, would throw rocks at our defensive perimeter. Everyone outside the wire was a potential enemy. Whatever moved was a potential rifle target. We were prisoners within our own barbed wire.

My job as a trained field radio operator was to maintain communications among the small units within our battalion, the individual line companies, and the battalion headquarters. This meant I had to go into the field or bush on a regular basis with fighting units. It was my duty to carry a twenty-five-pound field radio on my back, along with my own equipment: food (Crations), a shovel for digging in at night, two canteens, a pistol, and an M-16 assault rifle with 175 rounds of ammunition. Many Marines got heat exhaustion walking all day in the one-hundred-degree tropical jungle.

One of my assignments was to work as a relay operator on a prominent hilltop outpost called the Rockpile. There were ten of us up there. The Rockpile was accessible from the ground only by helicopter. It was the highest peak along the DMZ. There I provided clearance for aircraft and ground resupply convoys. I could observe and listen to most major military action from my nine-hundred-foot perch on a crag of rock.

From the Rockpile I was able to witness our weapons of mass destruction: the B-52 bombers with their two-thousand-pound bombs. These bombs would relentlessly pound the earth into submission. Fires erupted on the horizon, and the ground shook with enormous rumblings. Other aircraft also attacked the earth with Agent Orange. Agent Orange not only destroyed the jungle, but it also produced many major agricultural problems for the local farm people who lived off the bounty of the Earth. It also destroyed the farmers’ health. It was an evil tool of war that continues to create a lot of suffering.

mb66-Reversin3

One time I was giving radio clearance for a CH-46 cargo helicopter to pass over the Rockpile. I gave the signal. I looked up a second later and there was only a wisp of smoke where the helicopter had been in the sky. A communist gunner had fired a fifty-caliber machine gun accurately. The CH-46 had been flying low because of visibility and low ceiling in the early morning humidity. Eighteen marines perished. I was on the recovery team. We found one survivor, barely alive, and it looked as if all the bones in his body were broken.

I volunteered toward the end of my tour to accompany a resupply convoy to Khe Sanh. I was standing in the lead vehicle. On this occasion the communists must have been only a few feet away, hiding in the thick elephant grass that lined the narrow one-track highway, when I passed. Minutes later we heard their distinctive AK fire, four or five vehicles back. They had waited to open fire until they had more numerous targets. Sixteen Marines died on flatbed trucks that day. The next day we revisited the area. The dead lay where they had been killed.

My friend Arthur and I drew straws after that attack to see who would accompany the new lieutenant. I won the draw and accompanied the more experienced captain. Arthur was killed accompanying the less experienced lieutenant, with a few days left in his tour of duty. I visited with the captain not long ago, in 2006. He was dying of Agent Orange-related cancer. I attended his funeral at Arlington National Cemetary.

I was unhappy in Vietnam. There was so much suffering all around, daily. The only escape was booze during the intermittent R&Rs.* I wanted to go home to the USA. I wanted to begin a new life. But I now know that home is where you are; it is up to us to create the conditions for our own happiness.

mb66-Reversin4

A Difficult Journey

I survived Vietnam. I was lucky. But it was a difficult journey home. There was guilt leaving Vietnam, as our brothers were still there facing the suffering. In Okinawa, my friend Norm and I received word that our medic had been killed. Norm and I drank beer to excess every night during our transition back to the United States. We always ordered three beers––one for Norm, one for me, and one for the doc who was killed.

Upon arrival in San Francisco, I was admitted to the Oakland Naval Hospital. My “jungle rot” skin disease was severely infected from cuts and constant humidity. I was bandaged in gauze, like a mummy. I could not get discharged from the Marines in my condition, but my friend Norm was okay to go. It was a difficult farewell. I felt alone. I had lost the doc and now Norm.

In July 1968, I was discharged and left for home in Connecticut. There were many hurdles to face. I had to finish where I’d left off in high school. There were very few job prospects, as I had little training other than with a field radio and an M-16 rifle. Additionally, I had drinking and emotional problems: anger, resentment of my peers that didn’t go to war, and poor family relationships. The American culture was in a political turmoil. I felt the troops coming home were blamed for this war. This made me even angrier and more resentful.

My wife and I experienced many of the residual effects of the Vietnam War, and our marriage ended after eighteen years. In my thirties, I had a heart attack and two types of cancer, all related to Agent Orange. My wife had five miscarriages, also related to Agent Orange. My doctor advised us to stop trying to conceive a child. Later, we were denied adoption due to my past heart condition and limited family support.

In 1982, I went with a friend to the opening ceremony of “the Wall” in Washington, D.C. Of the fifty-eight-thousand-plus names on the Wall of American Soldiers Killed in Vietnam, most were in their early twenties––all with so much more to live. On the other side of the world, in Vietnam, many, many more were killed in this senseless war. Some Vietnamese people have told me that the hills in northwest Quang Tri Province cry at night with the hungry ghosts of the war.

Many Conditions for Happiness

My story gets better. Although there are many seeds of suffering in me, there are more than enough conditions for happiness.

I was first introduced to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh at a Veterans Retreat at Omega Institute in New York in the 1990s. I attended on scholarship. During this retreat, the seeds were planted; I began to look more deeply into the roots of my own trauma and guilt. I began to rethink my Vietnam experience.

I struggled with my education, hindered by my drinking. However, I completed college and earned three masters’ degrees, in counseling, educational psychology, and clinical social work. I began the course of study in social work, with a focus on international issues, in the late nineties after taking the Five Mindfulness Trainings. The seeds for my aspiration for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings were planted. I feel fortunate to have had such wonderful teachers as Lyn Fine, Helen Hunt-Perry, and Roberta Wall on my path.

My studies took me to Vietnam. Since 1999, I have been to Vietnam six, soon to be seven times:

1999: I did an independent study on post-war issues as a graduate social work student. I fell in love with the country and people again, as I had in 1965 with the children of Da Nang. I learned to sing songs.

2000: I completed an internship with Asian Family Services in Hartford, Connecticut. I returned to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam with a group of ex-refugee Southeast Asian staff to explore orphan issues.

2003: I returned to Vietnam with the non-governmental organization PeaceTrees Vietnam.** Its mission is to reverse the legacy of war by clearing unexploded war bombs and planting trees in their place. I was told last year that eighty-two percent of Quang Tri Province is contaminated by these unexploded bombs. Children and farmers continue to die.

2005: I returned with Thay and friends and became acquainted with the root temple in Hue. My practice deepened. I took a small group to visit PeaceTrees Vietnam. On my return, I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Thay in Massachusetts. I received the name True Pure Peace.

2008: I attended Vesak in Hanoi with Thay and the Sangha.

2013: Now retired from work, I took a course, Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. I went to Vietnam for three months with my wife, June, and taught English part time as a volunteer. I taught young children in a primary school in Hue. We sang many songs. Following that, I went on the Roots of Buddhism in Vietnam Retreat with Trish Thompson.

2014: I leave in a few weeks for our second mindfulness retreat in Vietnam with Ms. Thompson. Following this retreat, I will tour Vietnam with Veterans of Peace. We plan to raise money and create awareness about issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange.

mb66-Reversin6

I am now remarried and have three wonderful stepchildren. I retired after twelve years as a psychiatric social worker on a mental health unit within a maximum-security prison, and five years as a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) therapist, counseling returning war veterans with the Veterans Administration.

I am writing this in Southeast Asia, where the warm breeze flows, the air is fresh, the sun is out, birds chirp, local fruit is succulent, orchids are in blossom, and there is an absence of war. I look around at many smiling faces and say to myself, “Thank you.” I have gratitude for my many conditions for happiness.

Our practice continues to transform my life. I take my refuge with the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Five and Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings continue to be my liberation from suffering. I write this for all my friends on the path of understanding. May I be free from suffering. May you be free from suffering. May I be happy and well. May you also be happy and well.

*“R&R” is military slang for rest and recuperation, rest and relaxation, or rest and

** For information or to support PeaceTrees Vietnam, visit www.peacetreesvietnam.org. To support efforts to restore the environment and neutralize the effects of the war, visit www.landmines.org.vn.

Jeff Nielsen, True Pure Peace, practices with the Heart of the Valley Mindfulness Practice Center in Norwich, Vermont. He lives with his wife, June, and Jack Russell terrier, Mr. Watson. He is willing to accept any donations towards resolution of the issues of unexploded bombs and Agent Orange in the name of Veterans for Peace, Vietnam Chapter. He can be reached at jeffreyrnielsen@msn.com.

PDF of this article

Anchored in Awareness

Transforming Wounds of War

By Alexa Singer-Telles

mb66-Anchor1

Over the last several years, I have been working on facing deep-seated fear from my historical and cultural roots. My Jewish roots hold many stories of persecution, but until recently, I didn’t feel they affected me personally. Through the deep looking of meditation and Touching the Earth practices, I realized what my father brought home from his WWII military experience in Germany—fear and a silent anger at G-d that penetrated my sense of being Jewish. I was also changed by a powerful conversation with a loving German woman who spoke for her country, describing the shame and guilt she and her people still carry for what happened during the war. Our interaction opened up a river of compassion for her people and for all who silently suffer from the impact of war.

Knowing that many of us carry invisible wounds, I was moved to take action to bring attention to the unspoken, unseen wounds that veterans bring home to their families. I wanted to confront my own fears of persecution as a Jew, honor my father and his experience, and share my realization with others. As a leader in a local organization for marriage and family therapists, I organized a community-wide conference to help mental health professionals increase their understanding of the needs of returning war veterans and their families. The conference focused on the invisible wounds of war, particularly the self-imposed silence of soldiers upon their return from combat—the mental and emotional anguish of men, and now women, who have seen and done horrific things in war that are unspeakable to anyone at home.

At the conference, to give participants a way to manage intense emotions, I introduced the use of the mindfulness bell and shared some of Thay’s teachings on breathing and embracing difficult emotions. When a presenting psychologist shared how people in the military are trained to ignore the sensations and feelings of their own physical and emotional needs to focus solely on their mission, the group began to understand how veterans can be both unaware of their own bodies and hyper-vigilant to their surroundings. Family members, both wives and mothers, described the impact of combat on their loved ones and themselves—a sense of separation, fear, trauma, violence, and addiction.

The realities of war and its aftereffects on veterans and their loved ones are so painful that therapists can feel our interventions are inadequate. Our mindfulness practice of being able to stay present and offer compassion can be an anchor for ourselves and those we serve. At the conference, the bell was used as this anchor. At first, I invited the bell judiciously, but through the day participants began to request the bell to be rung in response to particularly powerful stories that were impacting their hearts and minds. One therapist shared, “Having the opportunity to stop and breathe gave me the capacity to stay present with the suffering described by the speakers. I was surprised I didn’t feel exhausted at the end of the day.”

This day gave tribute and voice to the silent suffering of my father and all veterans, increased therapists’ awareness of what might not be spoken but can be felt in working with veterans, and offered the practice of mindfulness and the bell as ways to sit with the strong emotions associated with war. The conference participants reported a deepening of their understanding of the invisibility and challenges of the wounds of war, increased their capacity for compassionate listening, and vocalized a willingness to reach out to work with veterans and their families.

After the conference, I shared with my dad how meditation, creative art, and Sangha support had helped me to work through my emotions and to understand how his history and my religious fears lived inside of me. I shared how, through practice, I was able to come to compassion and action. At ninety years of age, he understood and expressed his happiness and gratitude for seeing his unexpressed anger transformed in me, his seed bearing good fruit. I see that my healing is his healing as well.

mb66-Anchor2Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, co-founded the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California, in 1991 and was ordained as an OI member in 2004. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, offering the practices of mindfulness and the expressive arts to deepen one’s experience and enliven the creative process.

PDF of this article

Basket by Basket

By Ron Landsel

mb66-Basket1

It has been said that bomb craters in post-American-War Vietnam were not always filled in by gathering earth from outside the craters, but by the painstaking work of loosening up the densely compacted soil from within the crater itself, basket by basket. Heard years ago, this story has been a light for my path.

I attended my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1997, at Omega Institute in upstate New York, in a veterans group gathered in a little building called Cabin by the Field––a safe haven apart from the several hundred general retreatants. In tears and joy, our group was gently supported by Lyn Fine and Roberta Wall, and for the first time since my combat experiences in Vietnam, I sat and shared with several Vietnamese monastics, including Sister Chan Khong––veterans of our same war. Their sharing offered first-time glimpses of interbeing and deep listening. Doors to my heart were opened to understand my own suffering as only a part of the suffering of many. For the first time, I felt the courage within me to share openly with soldiers, spouses, children, and protesters suffering from the American War in Vietnam. Now, some seventeen years after our wonderful new beginning together, my volition continues to transform my suffering enough––basket by basket––in order to try to help others who suffer the wounds of war.

Thay heartens veterans to understand that we are the light at the tip of the candle, illuminating the way for the whole nation. He encourages us to achieve awareness, transformation, understanding, and peace, to be able to break our silent suffering and share with all of society the roots and the legacies of war. May veterans, youth, parents, educators, and governments join in breaking this long silence of wars and lend voice to our prayerful chant, “May there be no place at war.”

Ron Landsel, True West Garden, served in Vietnam in 1968-69 as a radio operator with 1st Marine Reconnaissance Battalion. He lives and practices in Oceanside, California, with his wife, Margaret, and the sisters and brothers of the Rising Tide Sangha.

PDF of this article

Running at Night

By Dave Kenneally

mb66-Running1

I have been practicing in Thich Nhat Hanh’s tradition for eight years and living at Blue Cliff Monastery in upstate NewYork since November of 2012. I am the inaugural intern in a one-year program for laypeople who want a longer and more intensive retreat at the monastery. My position is called “Sangha Outreach,” and I work to keep the monastery connected to lay practitioners all over the world. Last summer I was invited to join Thay and about one hundred monks and nuns on their biennial tour of North America. At one stop on the tour, Thay recounted a dream he had about twenty years ago. (Full disclosure: I’m going to leave out some fascinating parts; this is the dream life of a Zen Master, after all.*)

Thay dreamt he was still in university, in his body as a young man. The school secretary informed him that he had been admitted into a very selective honors course that was starting immediately. Thay hurried up the stairs, thrilled because this course was taught by a highly renowned and much-loved professor. When Thay walked into the classroom he was startled by what he saw. Rather than the small room with just a few students that he was expecting, he saw thousands of students in the grandest of halls. The windows all around him framed the impossibly beautiful view of snow-capped mountains, the sun, moon, and stars. While they waited for the esteemed instructor, Thay asked what the subject of the class would be, as he had neglected to ask the secretary in his excitement. “Music, of course,” was his classmates’ response. They went on to tell him that he would be giving the first presentation as soon as the teacher arrived. Music? Thay was not a student of music! He felt very embarrassed and was not sure how he could possibly give a presentation on the subject. In his nervousness, Thay fumbled around in his pockets, as if something hidden there could save the situation. Sure enough, he found a small meditation bell. Thay had been using the bell to bring himself and others back to the present moment since he ordained as a novice monk. He had been studying a musical instrument after all! With this realization, all of Thay’s confidence came flooding back, and just as the instructor was about to walk in, Thay woke up.

For me, the standout detail in the dream is the symbol of the bell. The bell is at the center of our mindfulness practice. Its sound is often referred to as the voice of the Buddha, and listening deeply to it has the power to bring us back to ourselves, back to our true home. Thich Nhat Hanh is a bell. The depth of his mindfulness ensures that his sound is very beautiful and pure. It radiates in a way that penetrates everyone and everything around him. I could feel how all of us on the tour were harmonizing ourselves to the sound of Thay’s practice. Not just trying to mimic it, but using it to gently guide us back to the sound of our own lives. Only in that place of deep and compassionate listening do we have a chance to realign with our deepest intentions. I felt powerfully embraced by the collective energy of thousands of people practicing like this during the tour. The safety and support of it enabled me to listen more closely to the sound of my own bell than I ever have. I was able to hear both its burgeoning harmonies and its lingering discords. This process made the three-month tour simultaneously very joyful and quite painful. Thay spoke again and again about the inseparable nature of happiness and suffering. He instructed us to learn how to “suffer well, so that we can suffer much less.” But what does that really mean?

Twenty years ago, while Thay was visiting nirvana in his dreams, I was a newly minted United States Marine, waking at dawn every morning to run with my platoon. We ran behind our commanding officer, following his pace and his silently chosen route each day. Some days it was three miles on the road, others it was five miles over hill and dale. The pain of not knowing was a practiced torture, meant to bend the iron wills of a hundred young men to an idea of discipline. Among the toughest ores ever to be pulled across that anvil was my childhood best friend, Christian Regenhard. Early on in our training, he started running alone at night. After watching him return home from another punishing session through the hills that surrounded our barracks, I asked him what he was doing. Wasn’t it enough to be dragged around the base each morning? He answered plainly and without hesitation, saying that he couldn’t take the pain of those morning runs. He shared openly, without shame, that he couldn’t bear starting every day at the mercy of another man’s whim. He had decided to train himself hard enough at night to bravely face even the worst of our morning circuits. When the sun rose, Christian was ready and could greet it with a smile. By embracing his vulnerability, he saw that happiness lay in training himself to be with his suffering, so that he could suffer less.

Like anyone, I know the seemingly senseless suffering that any given morning can bring. I remember and carry the pain of many such mornings. The grey day in childhood that I realized my father was an alcoholic. The spring morning of young adulthood, when my brother told me over the phone that our father was dead. The dawn in the South Pacific, when I clearly saw that I had spent three years of my life training to be a blunt instrument in another man’s hand. The fall night in a bar threatened by sunrise, when no amount of drinking or lying or crying could change the fact that Christian, now a firefighter, had died running up into the World Trade Center. In spite of all this and more, happiness is possible.

I can no longer endure the pain of being unprepared for the inevitable. I know that the tender spaces deep within my heart cannot be defended. It is time for me to throw open the doors behind which I have hidden my weakness and shame. Time to be open and vulnerable, so that I can learn how to suffer well. Listening deeply to the sound of Thich Nhat Hanh’s bell, I’ve heard its call. I have asked the brothers of the Blue Cliff Monastery to accept me as a monk. I have decided to train for happiness.

This article was originally published on Dave’s blog, davekenneally.wordpress.com. It also was included in the Blue Cliff Monastery Newsletter.

Dave Kenneally, True Precious Mindfulness, is a native New Yorker and a child of the Rock Blossom Sangha in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He has been living and practicing at Blue Cliff Monastery since November of 2012.

PDF of this article

The Path of Tears

By Kate Evans

mb66-ThePath1

For years now I have seen in the Mindfulness Bell fruits of work with prisoners. I have longed to hear of peoples’ work in mental hospitals and hostels. I have longed to tell my story of healing from years of abuse, and how Thay’s teachings have helped. In the last issue, two people wrote bravely and movingly of healing from and living with psychological problems in conjunction with the teachings. It was excellent to see this included. However, there is another way for many seriously damaged people to heal, with psychotherapy and the teachings and practices.

mb66-ThePath2

When I was preparing to visit Plum Village, my therapist asked, “What will you do in the meditation sessions?” because I could not meditate, but did practice psychological healing work. She suggested I practice my healing work in the sessions. After I arrived at Plum Village, I discussed this with Sister Chan Khong.

I told her, “I am healing from multiple personality, or dissociative identity, disorder. In my mind and consciousness are many, many personalities. They are from my childhood and youth, when each trauma was so severe it became detached from my conscious memory. These traumatic memories stayed bottled up as bits of raw emotion, which surface when triggered, together with my personality at that age. I heal by letting them surface, one by one, sharing their painful memories and welcoming them into a shared  consciousness.

“Because I am lots of pieces that have not all yet come together, ordinary meditation is hard for me. Please can I devote the meditation sessions to my healing work?”

To my delight, Sister Chan Khong said it made complete sense to do this. So during my visits to Plum Village, I spent the lovely meditation and other meditative times loving and nurturing my inner personalities, letting them surface their pain until they were able to let it go. In the years since then, practicing healing work for many hours a day, I have felt part of a wider Sangha.

I have also been helped by two other Plum Village practices. One I learned when Thay came to London last year and taught a huge, packed concert hall the first eight breathing practices of Buddha. The second of these was to breathe in all the way in, and breathe out all the way out. In a very challenging time this was a lifesaver. It was physical, easy enough for all my parts to do, especially the small inner children. It transformed panic into energy.

The other practice was Touching the Earth––getting in touch with ancestors. My ancestors were not good people. To heal, I had had to sever contact with my family of origin, and I had not wanted to get at all in touch with ancestors. When I heard of Thay’s Prayer Ceremonies in Vietnam to heal the wounds of the terrible war, I wondered if I could do an Atonement Prayer Ceremony for my ancestors. I was encouraged in this by the main teacher in a US practice centre. So I wrote prayers and reflections and took spiritual writings from many religions as well as two of Thay’s poems, and, with my therapist, I did an Atonement Ceremony for the misdeeds of my ancestors.

This completely changed my life. Suddenly, I had ancestors, I came from somewhere. Soon afterwards, I was able to look at childhood photos I had previously found too upsetting. Understanding flooded me as I looked at some very odd family photos and realised that my father and grandfather had been put in a terrible situation. With this understanding came the possibility of forgiveness. And with it came a fuller understanding of evil as sickness, with a cause and cure.

Although my healing during these past twelve years has been a “path of tears,” it has been quite different from any other approaches to the chronic psychological pain from my past. Drugs can be terrible as well as helpful, and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and other therapies I tried were a continual battle. These years of inner healing based on memory work have been radiant and transformative––a healing into love, deeper friendship, unstressed creativity, and so much more. I want to share with the wider Sangha the effectiveness of the psychotherapeutic remembering approach to the dissociation that lies behind so many severe psychological problems suffered by many individuals.*

At present, only some lucky people can afford this therapy, and even then it can mean sacrificing almost everything else. But the more it becomes known, the more likely it is to gain acceptance from health insurance companies and become part of standard health services. It also seems to parallel Thay’s teachings––only towards a group of consciousnesses that slowly merge into the more usual one.

I offer this to the Sangha.

Kate Evans is a writer for children and adults, living in London. Her Sangha is her therapist, her healing work, her breathing practice, and daily listening to the CD of Plum Village chanting.

PDF of this article

Alive Again

Walking a Path of Forgiveness and Healing

By Vanessa Meade

mb66-Alive1

When I first  began to meditate, there were many times when images of things I had seen in the military and in my job as a state trooper would surface while I was sitting. I don’t call them flashbacks, as it didn’t feel like I was actually there; they were more like “flashups,” where the images appeared, kind of like on a projector screen.

Prior to starting a meditation practice, I had avoided the images for years. I saw a lot of death and destruction in my jobs, and the images of those deaths were a source of my own disconnection from myself. In order to do my job, I disconnected emotionally. The problems arose when I disconnected off the job, too, in my personal life and relationships. I couldn’t find a way to reconnect with people and have feelings without becoming overwhelmed by them, so instead I tried not to feel anything.

Although I had never thought about how disconnected I was from myself and others through “turning off ” these experiences, they still affected my everyday life in many ways. Over time, I had built up layers of armor to protect myself from feeling what had happened, and this armor guarded me from the world and shut me off from feeling and connection. Learning meditation and a sensory awareness practice helped me to identify where this armor was and how I held it in my body.

Reconnecting with Life

I began to explore how to work with the horrible images I carry, and to honor them as important and needing care and attention. As I began allowing them instead of pushing them away or trying to forget them, I started to be able to look at them rather than run from them. When one came up, I stayed with the image as long as it felt safe for me to do so. If I began to feel overwhelmed, I came back to my breath and gently touched my hand to my chest or felt my hands on my knees as I sat—being gentle with myself, not forcing or thinking I had to deal with the image in a certain way or time frame. I went back and forth between the memories and images, and the experience of sitting and connecting with my breath and body. This helped me be with the emotions and touch what was going on without becoming overwhelmed. I would allow the tears to flow and not resist the emotions.

At times, some of the images would appear again and again. Each time, they were a little easier to see and sit with. The ones that were most difficult to see and feel took more time and showed up more often than the others. The important part was not trying to focus on them—neither keeping them in my mind nor pushing them away—but just to see them for as long as they were there before my thoughts continued on to something else or another image. At one point, I actually made a list of every death I remembered and witnessed as a trooper or in the military. I began to work through these images, not by the list, but as they arose in meditation. I believe the list helped me discover what was there to be seen and helped me understand how much there was to work with.

mb66-Alive2

As I was able to see and stay with the different images, I then was able to start feeling whatever the image brought up. I met deeply hidden feelings of fear, anger, grief, and many other emotions. As I accepted these emotions, I started to reconnect with my own life and with other people in different ways. I began to feel things again for the first time in years—to feel connected and alive again, instead of numb and closed off. I also began to reconnect with my own body and grieve about all of the deaths I had witnessed and indirectly or directly participated in as a soldier. While the process was difficult at times, it was a way for me to open up to the experiences I shared with the people whose deaths I had witnessed.

In this process, I found a way to release an image when it no longer felt charged in the same way, or when I felt as though I had seen it fully. I would imagine the person or people in the image surrounded in white light and then they would gently fade away into that light. I’m still not sure how I discovered this way to release the images, but it allowed me to feel that, through my process of accepting what happened, I was honoring the images I had been holding, and the people in them were being seen—witnessed.

Meeting What Is There

Sensory Awareness is a mindfulness-based practice brought to the United States by Charlotte Selver and introduced to me by Lee Klinger Lesser, from Honoring the Path of the Warrior (HPW), a mindfulness-based program for veterans. Practicing with Sensory Awareness has helped me to be able to sit in meditation and be present with what arrives in images, thoughts, and feelings. It

continues to help me learn to trust myself and the natural supports that are always available to me, through breath and contact, when difficulties arise. Sensory awareness experiments help me explore what is there, with awareness, instead of rejecting it or feeling like I have to change it. The change occurs naturally. It allows my own true nature to be, just as it is, with breath, body, and movement. This practice of noticing and being aware of what is needed in the moment is a big change from the ingrained reactions that my military and law enforcement training taught me. It allows me to explore and feel how I am, right now, and meet what is there, instead of continuing the habits of the past.

As I began to work with forgiveness and self-compassion, Lee also introduced me to the work of Thich Nhat Hanh and particularly his poem, “Call Me by My True Names.” That poem helps me look at what I experienced as a soldier working with Iraqi prisoners of war and in other situations in the military. It shows me a path of forgiveness for myself and others. Reading it continually reminds me that we are all things, all of the time, and interconnected.

These practices allow me to connect with my life in so many meaningful ways and also help me continue to walk the path of my own healing and to work with other veterans to honor their experiences and explore their own healing. The images and memories still surface at times in meditation, although not nearly as often as when I started. As I connect with my life, moment to moment, and practice mindfulness, I experience new ways of living with joy, peace, and compassion for myself and others.

mb66-Alive3Vanessa Meade is a US Army/Gulf War Veteran and founder of  the Alaska Veterans Organization for Women (A.V.O.W.). She is also a former Alaska state trooper and works as a mental health clinician with youth at a juvenile detention and treatment facility in Anchorage, Alaska. She practices with Fireweed Sangha, and Thay’s teachings guide her practice in many ways.

PDF of this article

True Peace Is Always Possible

By Beth Howard

mb66-True1

“True peace is always possible,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in the opening sentence of his book, Creating True Peace. His words have been both a guide and an anchor for me through our sons’ multiple deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thay continues, “Practicing peace, especially in times of war, requires courage.”

On September 11, 2001, my husband Paul was driving our son, Andy, to Central High School in Cheyenne, Wyoming, when they heard on the car radio that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City had been struck by planes. In that instant, Andy, a sixteen-year-old junior in high school, made a silent promise to himself that if the country went to war, he would join the Marines after graduation. He did not tell anyone.

mb66-True2

On October 7, 2001, the United States of America invaded Afghanistan.

In the summer of 2002, I went to my first retreat with Thay at the Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center in Colorado. Upon hearing the teachings and witnessing Thay’s gentle presence, I felt deep in my heart that this was a true path of peace and that this practice offered the best possibility for peace on Earth. I received the Five Mindfulness Trainings and the Dharma name “Living Dharma of the Heart.”

On March 20, 2003, the US invaded Iraq and in May, Andy graduated from high school, honoring his promise to join the Marines. He left for boot camp in the fall, expecting to deploy to war, but the Marines had a different plan. He was trained in supply and sent to Iwakuni, Japan. After a year, Andy completed training in security, joined the Marine Security Guard, and served in US embassies and consulates in Russia, Tajikistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Before he left for boot camp, I gave Andy a small family photo, writing these Plum Village song lyrics on the back:

No coming, no going,
No after, no before.
I hold you close to me,
I release you to be so free,
Because I am in you and you are in me,
Because I am in you and you are in me.

In August, I attended a retreat with Thay in Estes Park, Colorado. I signed up for a consultation with Sister Anna, and just before it ended, I told her that my son had joined the Marines. I began to cry and could not stop. She sat quietly with me, breathing. She reached out and touched my hand. She said, “It is hard for mothers. It was hard for my mother when I left California to be with my teacher in Plum Village, but I had to go. Your son loves his country like I love my teacher. He had to go.” Her words lightened my heart. Sister Anna suggested that I look at my own fear of death and recommended using the meditations in Thay’s book The Blooming of a Lotus.

mb66-True3

I retook the Five Mindfulness Trainings, requesting a new name in line with my aspiration to work for peace, and received the Dharma name “Peaceful Source of the Heart.” Before leaving the retreat, I found a flier for Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was my first Sangha and became my true refuge.

In 2005, after finishing his sophomore year of college, Andy’s twin brother, Peter, joined the army during the deadliest time of the Iraq War. Peter wrote in a letter to family, “I began weighing my own life, as blessed as it has been; and it seems there is something missing when there are soldiers fighting for a way of life that has not benefitted them nearly as much as it has me.” He thought he should take a turn.

I knew my sons went through rigorous training for war, and I began to ask myself how I might train and strengthen my practice of peace. Deep in my heart, I knew that if my sons were to die at war, I could not live with myself if I was not working for peace. I began to write for peace and to study writing practice with Natalie Goldberg in Taos, New Mexico.

At my next retreat with Thay, I had a consultation with Brother Phap Don. I asked, “How might I best support my sons in the military?” He recommended writing to them in order to nourish my practice and to share it with them. He said, “How lucky your sons are to have a mother who practices.” I knew how lucky I was to have such fine sons.

In 2006, Peter deployed to Iraq for a year. Many mornings, I woke up in tears, hearing another dead soldier story on National Public Radio. The newspapers and magazines were filled with the photos of dead “troops,” photos looking exactly like the ones of our sons on the piano in the living room. I began to withdraw from media consumption and to increase the time spent practicing mindful breathing, mindful walking, and seated meditation. I drove forty-five miles to attend Sangha and begin studying with an OI aspirant group.

In August 2007, I again joined Thay and the Sangha on retreat in Estes Park. I met Dharma teacher Rowan Conrad, who agreed to mentor me as an OI aspirant. During the next two years, he would give me much support and advice, but I especially remember what he wrote to me in August 2008: “I would like to see you create space in your life,” repeating “space in your life” two more times, so I might really take it in. Shortly thereafter, I fell off a deck while trimming a tree and fractured my back. My first email was to Rowan. In the subject line, I wrote, “Creating space … the hard way.”

Peter returned from Iraq, a decorated, wounded combat veteran. After completing his three years of service, he was discharged and returned to college.

In 2008, Andy reenlisted in the Marines, choosing to train for a job in counterintelligence, beginning his journey towards war.

In August 2009, I returned to Estes Park to attend the “One Buddha Is Not Enough” retreat. Thay was in the hospital on the East Coast, receiving treatment, but he sent us a letter. It felt like Thay was with us. We could feel how Thay lives IN the Sangha. I was ordained into the Order of Interbeing on my birthday and was gifted the Dharma name “True Land of Mindfulness.”

In the fall, after seven years in the Marines, Andy deployed to Afghanistan for a seven-month tour of duty. We started a Sangha in Cheyenne called Mindful Monday Meditation. I now take refuge in both the local Sangha and the OI and aspirant group in Colorado.

In 2011, I again went on retreat with Thay in Estes Park, and Andy deployed to Afghanistan for his second tour of duty. It is difficult to feel progress as a peacemaker when the war never ends, but I am nurtured by our growing Mindful Monday Sangha and by the genuine seeds of love, peace, and joy that are watered there. The Sangha provides clear evidence that there is true peace in the world, even though there is still war. One does not cancel out the other, but it is my deepest aspiration that peace shall prevail.

In 2013, I attended a retreat with Thay at Magnolia Grove Monastery in Mississippi. Over and over, I return to practice peace and my son returns to war.

In April 2014, Andy deployed to Afghanistan for his third seven-month tour of duty, our family’s fourth deployment to war. While on retreat in February, I had a consultation with Dharma teacher Al Lingo. He advised, “You must continue to live your life. Though you may move forward with fear and trembling, THAT is a dignified posture.”

Thay wrote, “I am offering this … to help us realize that violence is not inevitable. Peace is there for us in every moment. It is our choice.”

Beth Howard, True Land of Mindfulness, is a writer and peacemaker living with her husband, Paul, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She practices with Mindful Monday Meditation in Cheyenne and with the OI and aspirant group in Colorado. Her son, Peter, is married and completing his third year of law school.

Andy is engaged and planning to marry in March 2015. Her oldest son, Sam, is a musician in Portland, Oregon.

PDF of this article

The Paramitas

as the Path to True Love

By Joanne Friday

mb66-TheParamitas1I was recently invited by the Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation to share my experience of our practice here in the Mindfulness Bell. I feel that the Dharma is the greatest gift I have ever been given, so it is always a joy to share it.

During Winter Retreat, I have been practicing the paramitas with a group of Order of Interbeing members and aspirants. The paramitas are the qualities that we need to cultivate in order to go from the shore of suffering to the shore of freedom. In The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, Thay tells us that the Buddha said, “Don’t just hope for the other shore to come to you. If you want to cross over to the other shore, the shore of safety, well-being, non-fear, and non-anger, you have to swim or row across. You have to make an effort.” So I decided to to follow directions and make the effort.

Once again, I find myself in awe and deeply moved by the transformative power of the way in which Thich Nhat Hanh has transmitted the Dharma to us. I have always known the paramitas as a path to freedom, and now I have also experienced them as a beautiful path to unconditional, true love.

mb66-TheParamitas2

In the paramita on diligence, we are invited to be mindful of our minds, to nurture all of the wholesome seeds that arise in our consciousness and replace the unwholesome ones. If there is a person with whom we have difficulties, our habits often lead us to become angry, judge, or criticize and blame that person. When we berate, belittle, and blame the other person, we nourish their most unwholesome seeds, the ones that upset us in the first place. Instead, we are invited to look deeply in order to understand that person’s suffering, and to see how we can water all of the wholesome seeds in them so they will suffer less and their highest and best selves will manifest. This practice of taking responsibility for co-creating my relationships, and taking good care of those with whom I am inter-being, has been revolutionary for me. When I practice this with people toward whom I once hardened my heart, it breaks my heart wide open and I am in love.

The paramita on patience or inclusiveness is a deep teaching on love. Thay tells us that when we practice inclusiveness, we accept a difficult person exactly as he is, without any expectation that he will ever change. This can create enough spaciousness for him to change if he chooses. We can use this practice with ourselves, as we are frequently our most difficult person. When we can accept ourselves, without stories about who we should be or regrets about what we have not done, we are suddenly free to simply experience life in the moment and respond to life as it is and as we are. This makes it easier for us to do the same for others. The energy of acceptance is deeply felt. If in the past I held on to a judgment or opinion about another person, it was felt and she was defensive.

When I can truly accept someone, wholeheartedly, just as she is, it is also felt. There is no need for defensiveness to arise, and real intimacy is possible. What a wonderful gift!

The first of the paramitas is generosity. Thay invites us to look deeply at all we have to offer. I have been moved to consider all that he has offered. He has suffered tremendously and practiced to transform that suffering and become the embodiment of true love. He is living proof that the practice works. He has devoted more than seventy years of his life to understanding the ways we can cut through the illusions and misperceptions that keep us trapped. He has looked deeply into the Buddha’s teachings and has distilled them into precious gems that are totally accessible and usable, and offered them to anyone who wants to be free. All of these ways to untie our knots, to take down the barriers we have built in our hearts, are gifts to us from Thay.

I always say that I feel there should be a seventh paramita of gratitude. Gratitude immediately takes me from the shore of suffering to the shore of freedom. I feel deep gratitude to have received such wonderful gifts that have allowed me to experience true love in this lifetime. It has also been a joy to see the transformation and healing that has taken place in so many others who have followed Thay’s teachings. The Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation came into being because some of Thay’s students felt that same gratitude. They wanted to use their gifts to create conditions to ensure that Thay’s teachings could continue and help countless future generations. I hope that our gratitude will motivate all of us to become a part of this effort in every way we can. There is no better way to thank someone who has given us the keys to happiness and freedom than to pass them on.

Joanne Friday, Chan Lac Thi (True Joy of Giving), is a Dharma teacher in the Order of Interbeing. In 2003, she received authority to teach from Thich Nhat Hanh, her teacher for twenty years. Joanne leads meditation retreats for Sanghas and groups throughout the US. She lives in Rhode Island, where she is the guiding teacher for the six Sanghas that comprise the Rhode Island Community of Mindfulness.

PDF of this article

Cultivating Beloved Community

mb66-Cultivating1As this issue of the Mindfulness Bell comes to you in June 2014, Thich Nhat Hanh is giving a twenty-one-day retreat in Plum Village, exploring “What Happens When We Die.” Twenty-one-day retreats are a very special opportunity to receive the Dharma and put it into practice in the context of Sangha as we live and work together, create new habits in a family-like setting, and cultivate seeds of a beloved community.

Even if we don’t travel to Plum Village for a retreat, we can create opportunities for deep practice with our local Sanghas. A group of West Coast US Sanghas has organized a twenty-one-day residential retreat in Ukiah, California, to coincide with the Plum Village retreat. Their intention is to be inviting to a diverse cross section of the Plum Village community. The Ukiah retreat will be offered by core community members and Dharma teachers in the Plum Village tradition. This retreat will begin on June 13, and it is open to three-week, two-week, and one-week participation. Participants will practice the Dharma with a similar format, schedule, and Dharma talks as the Plum Village retreat. For more information, go to: www.21daystogether.wordpress.com.

If you can’t travel or devote twenty-one days to a retreat, we encourage you to be inventive in your local community. Organize your Sangha around talks streamed from Plum Village (www.tnhaudio. org); form study groups, Days of Mindfulness, or weekend retreats; pair with buddies; organize telephone conference Dharma sharings.

PDF of this article

Sowing Seeds of Kindness and Compassion

mb66-Sowing1Monastic Trust Fund

By Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chan Thoai Nghiem

This year, thanks to our spiritual ancestors, we are blessed to still have Thay. At the age of eighty-seven, he is still able to give a Dharma talk each day! In 2013, not only did he lead multiple retreats wherever he went, but also he gave additional talks to influential leaders and his monastic spiritual children at Plum Village Thailand, the Asian Institute of Applied Buddhism in Hong Kong, the European Institute of Applied Buddhism in Germany, Plum Village in France, and all three monasteries in the United States. Thay offered teachings to audiences as big as eight thousand in Thailand, twelve thousand in Hong Kong, and even thirteen thousand in Korea. He led a Day of Mindfulness for staff of the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and spent a whole day with administrators of Google, who directly transmitted his teachings to hundreds of their centers all around the world.

Wherever he goes, Thay always brings a community of monastic brothers and sisters with him to help produce a strong collective energy of mindfulness and joy that is able to address all manner of difficult or complicated situations. All Thay’s audiences, large or small, appreciate the presence of Thay’s disciples who are really a good continuation of him.

Currently, there are over 750 Plum Village monks and nuns practising, under the guidance of Thay, in the various practice centers mentioned above, as well as in Australia and Vietnam. By offering retreats and sharing the Dharma and practices of mindfulness with many people, the monastic Sangha has helped many people to transform and bring positive and beneficial practices into their lives. Even without the physical presence of Thay, these Sanghas have been able to bring the teachings of mindfulness to many more countries, including Italy, Spain, Israel, Palestine, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, mainland China, India, Bhutan, Japan, Brazil, Botswana, and Liberia. Every year, the monks and nuns travel (without Thay) and reach out to more than 200,000 people all over the world.

The Plum Village brothers and sisters across the globe humbly request you to support them by contributing to the Monastic Trust Fund, which was set up to ensure long-term provision of the monastic community’s most basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, health care, training, and other fundamental necessities. Only the interest generated by this fund is used, which means that support for the Sangha will endure for a very long time. In years to come, Thay will have at least 750 disciples to continue him, and the disciples of his disciples will continue to benefit from this kind support.

In 2013, a lay donor in the United States promised to contribute an extra two dollars for every one dollar given to this trust fund by any other donor that year. This means that a donation of $50 generated $150 in the trust fund. Thanks to the generosity of this donor, in 2013, donations to the Monastic Trust Fund of $61,683 became $185,049.

In 2012, the Monastic Trust Fund disbursed its $67,600 in interest to support 175 monks and nuns at the International Plum Village Centre in Thailand for four months in 2013. Hopefully, the interest generated from 2013 will be enough to support them for six months of 2014. For the remaining six months, they will have to rely on funds collected from the sales of Thay’s calligraphies and donations from lay practitioners attending retreats. But this year there are no big tours like in 2013. We hope that our US donor will continue to be successful in his business and so be able to continue his very generous two-for-one match.

Supporting the monastic Sangha is a way to express deep gratitude to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, our beloved and respected teacher, for his continuation in the world. The security of the worldwide monastic Sangha’s continuation is Thay’s dearest personal wish. Please be assured that you have made a good investment in the future generations of monks and nuns by contributing from your heart whatever you can to the Monastic Trust Fund.


All donations may be sent to:
Thich Nhat Hanh Foundation
2499 Melru Lane
Escondido, CA 92026, USA
Memo: Monastic Trust

For more details or to make a donation online, please visit our website:
ThichNhatHanhFoundation.org

For more information:
Telephone (US): 760-291-1003 Ext. 104


mb66-Sowing2With sincere gratitude, Bhikshuni Chan Khong

Bhikshuni Chan Thoai Nghiem

PDF of this article

Book Reviews

mb66-BookReviews1Zen Battles
Modern Commentary on the Teachings of Master Linji

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2013
Softcover, 266 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy, True Door of Peace

This re-issue of Nothing to Do, Nowhere to Go: Waking Up to Who You Are, originally published in 2007 by the Unified Buddhist Church, is lightly edited, re-titled, re-designed, and refreshed. It is curious that the publishers chose the title Zen Battles, as Thay and all of his students in the Order of Interbeing are well known for gentleness, peace, and reconciliation. So the word “Battle” in the title is not meant in the usual sense. While in Master Linji’s teachings, the master often strikes his students and sometimes shouts at them, we can absorb these teachings as a metaphor, much like the sword-wielding bodhisattva Manjushri who has the capacity to cut through our bonds of delusion. Thay tells us that the spirit of our Zen ancestor, Master Linji, is in everything we are taught and everything we do.

Born during the Tang dynasty in ninth-century China during a time of political unrest and repression of Buddhism, Linji studied with a recluse master and gradually developed his signature direct and dramatic teaching style: “If something has arisen, do not try to make it continue. If something has not arisen, do not try to make it arise. This action is more valuable than ten years’ pilgrimage.”

Reading these cases is like cracking a code. Yet it cannot be done with the mind. Each case presented by the author is a koan. First, we encounter Thay’s translation of twenty-three of Linji’s teachings, known as the Record of Linji, followed by the bulk of the book, Thay’s commentary on each of the cases. The author suggests we first read through Linji’s teachings completely, then repair to the commentaries.

Master Linji emphasizes that his insight was not with him from the time he took birth, “…but came about through polishing, refining, training, experience and investigation, and then one day I broke through to the truth.” Eventually, Master Linji let go of his studies in order to follow true Zen practice. The wonderful irony is that we read the book so we can throw the book away.

There is one paragraph in this book that is the only Dharma talk you’ll ever need. I leave it to the reader to find that paragraph for herself.

mb66-BookReviews2The Mindfulness Survival Kit
Five Essential Practices

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Parallax Press, 2014
Softcover, 160 pages

Reviewed by Leslie Rawls, True Realm of Awakening

Kits contain tools useful to a particular purpose. So too, The Mindfulness Survival Kit is filled with tools to help us practice with the Five Mindfulness Trainings and explore how they can be meaningful and useful in our lives.

The book first examines the historical background of the Five Mindfulness Trainings—the Plum Village version of the five precepts given by the Buddha. Having rooted readers historically, Thich Nhat Hanh then invites us to let go of any attachment to these practices as Buddhist concepts or dogma. Instead, he encourages readers to five ways to practice with the trainings that transcend divisive labels. “One of the deepest causes of our suffering,” he writes, “is our insistence on seeing reality in a dualistic way and our attachment to our beliefs.” Throughout the book, he invites the reader to use these trainings diligently, mindfully, and openly, “with an awareness of your capacity and of what is possible.”

The book examines each training individually, including commentary from Thay’s experience, as well as specific practices for the reader. Each commentary examines the training’s purpose, reminding us that practice is more than memorization and that we engage these practices for our own healing and for healing the world. Thay show us ways that he envisions such healing, and invites us to be open to new ways of practicing with each training and to explore these ways individually and within community. His commentaries show the interweaving of the trainings and the interbeing nature of all life.

The second part of the book is a study of comparative ethics and the mindfulness trainings. Here, Thay offers details about different ethics structures as a way of exploring how the Five Mindfulness Trainings fit with other structures and how we might practice with them. Again, he invites us to connect with others, not to set ourselves apart by labels and dogma.

Thay’s earlier commentary on the trainings, For a Future to Be Possible, included commentaries from many practitioners. I had found a great deal of meaning and support in this material and thought I’d miss it here. When I finished this rich book, however, I rejoiced that Thay repeatedly encouraged us to explore these practices, individually and as communities. And I recognized that the earlier commentaries were just one method of such collective sharing.

It is easy to lose oneself in a book, to think all the “answers” lie between its covers, that all we need do is read and understand the wisdom there. In The Mindfulness Survival Kit, Thay doesn’t let us off so easily. Instead, this toolkit offers guidance as a map might, and holds a light up for us to find our own ways to make these trainings come to life.

mb66-BookReviews3In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories

By Michelle L. Johnson-Weider (White Lotus of the Source)
Softcover, 108 pages
Blue Moon Aurora, LLC, 2013

Reviewed by Sandra Diaz

In the Garden of Our Minds and Other Buddhist Stories is a collection of children’s stories that bring traditional Buddhist teachings into the context of modern life through the lens of a western Buddhist family of four.

Five of the seven stories introduce classic tales from the Buddha’s life and teachings in a way that illuminates modern-day issues. When Mama tells the story “Prince Siddhartha Renounces the Throne,” the children, Briana and Alex, have a chance to explore what constitutes true happiness.

In “Fighting the Demon Mara,” the story of how the Buddha overcame doubt is transformed into a lesson about dealing with difficult emotions. “Mara is a name we give to the emotions that make it hard for us to do the right thing,” Mama explains.

“The Value of Persistence, the Story of Mahaprajapati” demonstrates perseverance and creative problem solving. Mahaprajapati, a follower of the Dharma, successfully convinced the Buddha to ordain women as nuns despite his original resistance to the idea. This story helps Briana to discover that “Persistence, determination, and allies can help you succeed in almost any situation if you have a worthy goal.”

“The Doorway of Death” tells the story of Kisagotami, a mother who begged the Buddha to bring her dead son back to life. The story brings valuable perspective to the topic of grieving and fear of death by encouraging us to fully appreciate this life while we have it.

“Lessons in Stopping” is the story of Angulimala, a murderer who renounced violence to become a monk and follow the Buddha’s teachings. Mama tells this story to demonstrate to Briana, who gets in trouble for talking in class, that “we can stop doing any bad action, even really really bad actions, once we make the decision to start acting correctly.”

The title piece, “In the Garden of Our Minds,” takes us through a Thich Nhat Hanh-inspired guided meditation in which children think of good qualities they have cultivated and imagine them as fl wers in a garden.

In the final story, “A Visit with Rinpoche,” the family goes to hear a Dharma talk by a teacher of Tibetan Buddhism. The children’s questions provide an opportunity to explore the complexities of being Buddhist in a mostly non-Buddhist society. Briana and Alex are inspired by the teacher’s description of a bodhisattva as “a great hero who lives with a heart of love for all sentient beings.”

In the Garden of Our Minds includes a glossary of Buddhist terms, as well as a section called “Conversations with Children,” which offers questions designed to spur discussion. This book is a simple but entertaining way to teach children about the Dharma in a home or classroom setting. Colorful illustrations by Brian Chen show an interesting mix of scenes of modern family life as well as from the time of the Buddha. Even though the book is designed for children, adults will find it an enjoyable way to learn about the Buddha’s teachings.

mb66-BookReviews4Teaching Clients to Use Mindfulness Skills
A Practical Guide

By Christine Dunkley and Maggie Stanton
Routledge, 2014
Softcover, 104 pages

Reviewed by Miriam Goldberg

Don’t let the title fool you. This book is a gem of mindfulness practice for everyone. Consistent with engaged Buddhism, it demonstrates deep listening, mindful speech, and right diligence, foundations of healthy Sangha practice.

For readers interested in teaching mindfulness, the book offers an organized sequence with “key tasks” and “stylistic factors” noted at the end of each chapter. For experienced practitioners, the five exercises on sensation and perception may be a review, but their variety and explanations support fresh eyes and the more complex practices that follow. Therapists and anyone interested in the intrapsychic value and effects of mindfulness will find concise descriptions and applications to some challenging habits of mind. Everyone can benefit from the authors’ focus on mindfulness in daily life to experience present moment, wonderful moment.

The book begins with definitions of mindfulness, a psychological context, and resources—from books and TV shows to recent research. All the practices suggested in the book address mindfulness as an experience of purposeful, present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness that helps us choose where we focus our attention and how we relate to experience while cultivating acceptance, compassion, and open inquiry in our thoughts, speech, and actions. With many examples of therapist-client interactions and commentaries that show kind and respectful inquiry, presence, and reflection, the authors demonstrate deep listening and mindful speech.

Buddhist instruction includes mindfulness of thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and breath. The authors here succinctly address the seldom-mentioned problems of teaching mindfulness of the breath to people who have a history of trauma or anxiety. Step by step, they show us how to bring clarity and compassion— rather than blame, shame, defensiveness, and/or denial—to our mental logjams and emotional upheavals. Their approach to habit-driven thoughts and emotions focuses on the thoughts that fuel the emotions. This is one effective way to cool down heated responses. Its success, however, is rooted in the underlying equanimity, compassion, and understanding consistent with Thay’s teachings to hold in mindfulness those parts of ourselves that get activated and need our steadiness.

In later chapters, the authors help us move from habit to choice and pick the best modality for a given moment. We can water mindfulness with emotion mind or reason mind, doing mode or being mode, internal or external focus, thoughts or feelings or sensations, and by recognizing effectiveness and using wise mind.

This book is not a quick read. Whether it is taken a chapter at a time, example by example, or straight through, one can absorb an approach to mindful awareness that can open transformation at the base, bring compassionate eyes to oneself and others, cultivate inclusiveness—rather than divisiveness, comparison, or isolation—and nourish communities with understanding and love.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Taking Refuge in Your In-Breath

Commentary on the Teaching of Master Linji

By Thich Nhat Hanh

mb36-dharma1

In the fall and winter of 2003–2004, Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay) taught from the Records of Master Linji, a Buddhist monk from ninth-century China. Our lineage descends from Master Linji, so we can consider ourselves his spiritual grandchildren. He is well-known for his use of the stick to wake up students who were ripe enough for such liberation. The stick was used to skillfully remove the notions and ideas the person was carrying with him or her, or anything else that was an obstacle to living a simple, free life.  

The teachings are often given in the form of interactions between Master Linji and those who came to learn from him. The moment of human relationship is thus the moment of waking up, of realizing our blindness and also our capacity to live with freedom and joy. In these interactions there is a fierceness, the punch, and also a tenderness, the willingness to engage, to commit oneself to another for the sake of liberation, for the sake of becoming a real human being.  

The original language of Master Linji’s teachings can be confusing, but Thay explains their essence in a way that makes them accessible and meaningful. Thay shows us how to bring them down to earth with the concrete practices of mindful breathing and walking. 

The ideal person, our ancestral teacher Linji tell us, is a free person, who lives a simple, authentic life. This person is free from pretention, free from busyness or business—a businessless person. His teachings were medicine for people of his times and they are medicine for us too. Like good medicine, these teachings kill the disease, yet leave the person whole. 

mb36-dharma2

Good morning, dear Sangha, today is October the 12th in the year 2003 and we are in the Loving Kindness Temple of the New Hamlet during our autumn retreat.

There is a sutra that was translated into Chinese around the second century. It is called the Sutra of the Forty-Two Chapters. Each chapter is very short and as a novice I had the opportunity to learn the sutra during my first year of studying classical Chinese. In that sutra there is one sentence that says: “My practice is the practice of non-practice.” It reads like this: “My practice is to practice the action of non-action, to practice the practice of no practice and to attain the attainment of no attainment.” When we hear the teachings of our patriarch Linji we hear the same thing. We should be an ordinary person, we should not try to be a saint. If you are seeking for holiness you lose it. Holiness is right there before you but when you begin to seek it you lose it. You begin to run and run and run and you can never catch it. What we learn from the patriarch Linji is not a set of ideas. That is what he hates the most—a set of ideas, especially abstract ideas about the absolute that symbolize the ultimate, the perfection that you are running after. This is what he is always trying to tell us. His teaching is that we should live a simple life properly and become a person without business.

What is your business? You may describe your business as trying to transform yourself, trying to reach enlightenment, trying to save human beings. Throw it away. Don’t consider it to be your business. If you run after that kind of business you cannot be yourself. You are a wonder of life and you are surrounded by wonders of life. A person without enterprise, without any project, without any business—that reflects the practice of non-attainment. There is nothing to obtain.

mb36-dharma3

Our practice is to take refuge in the present moment because the present moment is always available. The present moment is full of life, full of wonders. We don’t have to run towards the future to get it. You are already a wonder and surrounding you are wonders you can experience, if you know how to stop and to become fully present.

Taking Refuge in Your In-Breath 

How can you come fully into the present moment? One way is to take refuge in your in-breath. Is this possible? Some may say that our in-breath has a very short life span, perhaps only lasting ten seconds. Why should you take refuge in such a temporary thing? I remember when we held a retreat in Moscow for the first time. Some Protestant teachers from Korea were there, and said, “You should not take refuge in the Buddha because he was a mortal. You should take refuge in Jesus because he is immortal.” Taking refuge in our in-breath is very short and ephemeral. When we talk about taking refuge we think we want something that is very solid and long-lasting so that we can have peace and safety for a long time. If we are to choose between something that is short-lived and something that is long-lived for our place of refuge we may choose the long-lived refuge. Yet the question is, who are you to take refuge? As Master Linji said, you are looking for the Buddha—but who are you who is looking for the Buddha? Are you something that lasts very long? Or do you only last for a second?

We have the tendency to think that we are something that lasts longer than our in-breath, but that is not true. We are just like our in-breath. In the Sutra of the Forty-Two Chapters there is a chapter in which the Buddha asked his disciples how long a human life lasts. One person said, one hundred years; one said, fifty years; one said, one day and one night. Then one person said, it lasts for the length of your in-breath. And the Buddha said to that person, Yes, you have seen the reality of the human life—it lasts for only one in-breath. And it may even be shorter than that because as you breathe in you become another person. The you who is there before the in-breath is no longer the same you after the in-breath. You think that you are something that lasts for a long time so you try to take refuge in something that always remains the same and lasts forever. But if you know that the one who takes refuge and that which we take refuge in are one, you can understand why we can speak of taking refuge in one in-breath. This is very concrete. As we breathe in we can be with our in-breath and we become alive. If we know how to take refuge in our in-breath we can take refuge in our out-breath also.

We feel that we don’t have solidity, stability. We are not ourselves. We are pulled away by so many things, so many ideas, so many projects, so much fear, and so many afflictions. We don’t have peace. That is why we need to take refuge. To take refuge is to be yourself again. It is possible. Taking refuge in your in-breath, you suddenly become yourself right away. You are safe, you are solid. You are fully present right here and now. You are aware that you are a wonder of life and you can get in touch with many wonders of life surrounding you. Oh wonderful in-breath—it makes me feel at home. It makes me feel that I have arrived. It helps me not to run. That is why taking refuge in your in-breath is a very wonderful practice. We breathe in and out anyway, so we don’t have to invent the in-breath before taking refuge in it. It is already there. Bring your mind back to the present moment and enjoy. You suddenly become alive. You suddenly become yourself and you cultivate your solidity and your freedom. You are no longer a victim. You have your sovereignty. Mindful breathing is very important, and it is a non-practice because you breathe in and out anyway. You are sitting there enjoying your in-breath. You don’t seem like you are a practitioner, but you are a true practitioner. You are not trying hard, you are just enjoying your in-breath. That is what our ancestral teacher Linji wants us to do. Not to do anything, just be yourself. Sitting there enjoying your in-breath you become everything, you become immortal.

Taking Refuge in Your Steps 

You are always walking, going from your room to the restroom, to the office, to the kitchen. So why don’t you enjoy walking? Why don’t you go home to the present moment and enjoy taking refuge in your steps? Why do you allow yourself to be pulled in many directions? When you are distracted, you are not yourself, you are a victim. But you can change this by taking refuge in your steps right now, right here. It is wonderful to combine your in-breath with one, two, or three steps. In that moment you are truly yourself. You have your sovereignty; you are no longer a victim. You are no longer pulled away by the waves of birth and death. You are no longer drowning in the ocean of afflictions.

Pemb36-dharma4ople like to say, take refuge in the Buddha, take refuge in the Dharma, take refuge in the Sangha. But, I like to say, take refuge in your in-breath, take refuge in your out-breath, take refuge in your steps. The Buddha may be an abstract idea, but your in-breath is a reality, your steps are a reality. You are looking for the Buddha, you are looking for the Dharma. You are not truly taking refuge in them because you have not found them. But you don’t have to look for your in-breath; it is right there in front of your nose. You don’t have to look for your steps; they are right there in your feet. That is why taking refuge in your in-breath, taking refuge in your steps is very concrete. When you are doing that the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha become concrete also. You don’t have to run after the Buddha; the Buddha will run to you. You don’t have to look for the Dharma; the Dharma will come to you. That is what Master Linji tried to say: You do not need to look for the ultimate —the ultimate will come to you.

Although you do not look like a practitioner, you are a true practitioner because you are practicing the practice of non-practice. You practice in such a way that life becomes a reality in every moment of your day. We are looking for a spiritual path because we don’t have peace, solidity, and freedom. That is what a spiritual path is supposed to bring us. But in the market of spirituality you may be fooled by so many people, so many paths, and so many teachers because what they offer you is just ideas—ideas about the Dharma, about God, about the Sangha. There are so many people selling spirituality because there are so many spiritual seekers. Our ancestral teacher Linji was aware of this. He told us not to be fooled by these teachers, even if they are monks and nuns. Do not believe them because they are not really monks and nuns if they have not truly renounced the worldly life, if they are still looking for such things as fame, profit, and power.

Linji’s Teacher 

The teacher of Linji was Master Huang-Bo. When Master Linji was a young monk and had been in the temple for some time he was very eager to learn something directly from his teacher. An elder brother said, “Why don’t you ask the master to teach you something?” Master Linji said, “What should I ask?” His elder brother said, “You can ask: What is the essential idea of Buddhism?” So the young monk Linji went to his teacher and asked: “Dear teacher, what is the main idea of Buddhism?” And his teacher punched him. He asked again: “But teacher, please tell me what is the main idea of Buddhism?” And he got a second punch. But he still persisted and asked a third time: “Dear teacher, it is okay to hit me, but please tell me what is the main idea of Buddhism?” And he got a third punch. He was very disappointed. After some time he left the temple because he thought that his teacher was not very kind to him. After leaving his temple, while on a pilgrimage, he met another teacher called Da-Yu. He asked the young Linji, “Where have you come from?” Linji said, “I come from Master Huang-Bo.” “Why have you left him?” “Because three times I asked him what is the main idea of Buddhism and three times he hit me so I had to leave.” Da-Yu said, “You are a fool. You do not see that he has been extremely compassionate to you. Go home and bow to him.”

mb36-dharma6The young Linji went home and bowed to his teacher. His teacher said, “Where have you come from?” The young Linji said, “I met a teacher named Da-Yu and I told him that I asked you the question three times and you gave me three blows. He looked at me and he said, ‘You are foolish, you don’t see that your teacher is compassionate.’” And Master Huang-Bo asked, “What did you do after he said that?” In fact, when the teacher Da-Yu told him that he had not seen the compassion of his teacher the young Linji woke up and he said, “Oh, I see, there is not much in the teaching of my teacher.” He realized that these three hits were the real teaching of Buddhism and he laughed and laughed. The teacher Da-Yu shouted at him, “You just told me that your teacher was not kind to you and now you say that there is not much in his teaching. What do you want!”

Do you know how the young Linji reacted? He gave Da-Yu a punch. Da-Yu said, “Well, anyway you are his disciple, not mine. I don’t want to have any more to do with you.” And he left. So when the young Linji went back to his teacher Huang-Bo he told the whole story. Master Huang-Bo said, “If that guy comes here I will give him a punch.” And Linji said, “Don’t wait, here it is.” and Linji punched his teacher. Then Master Huang-Bo called his attendant and said, “Take this fool out of here!” That is the story of our patriarch Linji and his teacher. Do you want to try? Do you dare?

Removing the Object 

Linji told us that sometimes you have to remove the object and not the subject. If you come to Thay with your question, with your object then you may get a blow from him. Thay’s style is different, but it is very much in the same spirit. Very often Thay practices removing the object so that the questioner will find him or herself alone without his object. In the teachings of Master Linji there is a passage saying, “In the last twelve years I have not seen anyone coming without an object. Everyone has come to me with an object. As they begin to show it by way of their eyes, I hit their eyes. If they try to show it with their mouth, I hit their mouth. If they want to show it with their hands, I hit their hands.” That is removing the object without removing the subject. If someone comes to you with a question and you spend a lot of time explaining this and that and you are drawn to him, you are not practicing the way of Linji. You have to remove that object of his right away. It may be a very false problem. You have observed Thay doing that with many people. When someone asks a question Thay always tries to remove the question, to give it back to him or to her.

In the market of spirituality you are always looking for something and there are many people who are trying to fool you, presenting you with this or that idea. But Linji is not one of them; he denounced them all. Linji said you should not look outside; you should look inside because God is in you, Buddha is in you, the Dharma is in you. If you have enough faith in that understanding, you have a chance. But if you only look outside you cannot get anywhere. This is the true teaching of Linji. They are selling things because you need them. But if you don’t need them anymore they will not sell them. And that is a chance for them because they spend all their time selling things. If they stop selling they may go home to themselves and get enlightenment, transformation, and healing. If you allow them to continue to sell things like that they will never have a chance. That is why it is very important to stop buying.

You have not come to Plum Village to buy things or ideas, but to have a chance to go home to yourself and to realize that what you have been looking for is already within you. If you want to show your kindness to Thay and the Sangha, take refuge in your in-breath and become fully yourself. Take refuge in your steps and right in that very moment you will have solidity and freedom, you will have the capacity of getting in touch with the wonders of life.

Where do you look for the Kingdom of God? Where do you look for the Pure Land of the Buddha? Where do you look for salvation, for enlightenment? It is in your in-breath and your steps that you can find these things. Don’t do anything, just be an ordinary person. Live your life in an authentic way. Don’t try to use the cosmetics that are provided in the market of spirituality.

Have Faith in Yourself 

In the Records of Master Linji the term that our ancestral teacher used for “teacher” is “a good friend” or a “friend who knows about goodness.” We should look upon our teacher as a friend who knows goodness through his or her own experience. That friend should embody stability, solidity, compassion, and understanding. Because he is your friend and has had his own experience of goodness, he can help you. Help you to do what? He can help you to do the same as he has done—to go home to yourself and to get in touch with the seed of goodness that is in you, the seed of solidity and freedom that is in you, the seed of the Kingdom of God that is within you. Don’t have the notion that you have nothing within yourself and that you have to depend only on your teacher. Your teacher is only a friend who can support you to go home to yourself. That is what our ancestral teacher called faith.

In the Records of Master Linji it says, “The practitioners of our time do not succeed because they do not have faith in themselves. They are always looking outside.” They think that they can get compassion and wisdom from the Buddha, from the Dharma, from the Sangha outside of themselves. They don’t know that they are the Buddha, they are the Dharma, and they are the Sangha. They should allow themselves to become the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They should allow the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha to become themselves. This is the teaching of Master Linji.

Thay can tell you that there is not much in the teachings of Master Linji. We know that the first expression of enlightenment by our ancestral teacher Linji was, “Oh I see, there is not much in the teaching of my teacher.” If you can tell that to Thay, you are a good student. Thay only teaches breathing in and breathing out.

PDF of this article

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

Letter from the Editor

mb36-LetterFromEditorTo Our Readers

The Invitation ceremony has concluded the three-month winter retreat in Deer Park Monastery. Members of the Fourfold Sangha are sitting on the beach with nowhere to go, nothing to do; enough to make us very happy. During the three months of the retreat, the Fourfold Sangha has practiced the happiness of arriving in the present moment, with nothing else to attain.

This is the cream of the teachings of Patriarch Linji, who lived in the ninth century in China. The Patriarch’s teachings were brought to Vietnam in two waves; one in the thirteenth century and one in the eighteenth century. From Vietnam they have been brought to Europe and North America by Thich Nhat Hanh, who is a descendant of the forty-second generation of the Linji line. The spirit of these teachings lives on in the Dharma Doors of Plum Village. You will be able to read in this issue a transcript of a Dharma talk given by Thay on the essence of the teachings of Patriarch Linji.

The Wednesday morning teachings offered by Thay during the retreat were on the Records of Master Linji. Thay gave additional teachings on Wednesday and Sunday mornings to the Fourfold Sangha. In addition, there was the uninterrupted practice of mindful walking and breathing, when we are sitting, standing, lying, working, and eating. The teachings have always been very practical and the Sangha has been able to put them into practice without delay. Thanks to this, everyone who has participated in the retreat has realized some healing and transformation. In this issue you will be able to read about some of the practical fruits of the practice of the Winter Retreat.

We know that Buddhism is a living reality and not an artifact to be preserved in a museum. The teachings that have come from Asia need to be integrated intothe Western way of life. It is encouraging, therefore, to see how local Sanghas in North America have been adapting traditional Buddhist ceremonies to fit the needs of the practitioners in their Sanghas. Two examples can be read about in this issue: the Father’s Day Ceremony and the ceremony for introducing to the Sangha and naming newborn children.

Sister True Virtue

PDF of this article

Fruits of the Winter Retreat

mb36-Fruits1

From January through March, the entire monastic Sangha gathered at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California, for the annual winter retreat.  Lay practitioners were invited to join them.  Every Friday, 100–150 lay friends arrived and departed, some staying for a week, some for a month or more. This flowing, ever-changing Sangha was held in stability by the practice of the monastics and a core group of lay folks who were able to stay for the whole retreat.

During the three months, Thich Nhat Hanh gave Dharma talks in English and Vietnamese, focusing on the teachings of our ancestor Linji, and on the sutra on The Full Awareness of Breathing.  Other activities included the celebration of the Vietnamese New Year, Tet, which included oracle readings from a centuries-old poem; ten days of the Linji Great Ordination Ceremony; two almsround processions at nearby parks; and a public talk by Thich Nhat Hanh.

The following offerings come from a few of the practitioners who were able to share in the life of the Sangha, as we walked, sat, and ate in mindfulness. From doing laundry and making soy milk, to walking with Thay to his garden, every aspect of the day was a rich field of practice.  May the peace and transformation of that time together benefit all beings.

PDF of this article

My Gentlemanly Angel Within

by Jay Rabin

I was excited and anxious. Thay was about to give his first Dharma talk at the winter retreat, 2004 at Deer Park. Being a New Yorker and having experienced crowded conditions, I reserved a great seat far in advance.

Reserving a seat consisted of putting a jacket over a pad and cushion. I could not sit in the meditation hall and wait because my legs couldn’t sit that long. I asked the fellow next to me to save my place and looked in from time to time to make sure my seat was still there. Fifteen minutes before the talk I went in to protect my seat and to prepare for the Dharma talk.

I am excited: I have a primo seat for my first retreat with Thay and his opening talk.

Five minutes before the talk begins, it is announced that the talk will be in Vietnamese and if you need translation you must sit in the back near the translation equipment. What! This is not good. I am not happy. The people who have come up for the day have all the good seats. This is not fair; I have paid to be here for the whole retreat. This is not organized; this is not going my way. Don’t they know who I am?

I scramble around. There are no spaces available near the translation equipment and I have no headphones. A small stream of smoke has begun to come out of my ears. A rumor goes around, there are headphones being given out by the back doors. I rush out, get a pair and hurry back inside to find a place to sit. There are no extension cords so everyone is crowded around the small boxes of plugs. Now I have a new problem: there is no place to sit to be plugged into the equipment. The small stream of smoke coming out of my ears is getting bigger. Anxious and upset, I cannot find a place to sit.

Suddenly a voice calls out my name. A fellow I recently met is beckoning me over. He is aware of my predicament and is making room for me in an already crowded area. He is exhibiting the spirit of a Gentlemanly Angel. Then he spots another person in a similar predicament and invites her over, so we all make room. The Gentlemanly Angel spirit seems to be contagious, as I invite another straggler over. We are tight as sardines and quite uncomfortable, but because of our Gentlemanly Angel, we all get to hear Thay’s Dharma talk.  We also get to start acting like a Sangha, looking out for one another instead of focusing only on ourselves.

I got to experience love, compassion, and consideration in action. I got to look at my own actions, selfishness, expectations, and silliness. I think the Gentlemanly Angel potential is in me; it is just a matter of being mindful and living the life I aspire towards, the life of the Mindfulness Trainings.

mb36-Gentlemanly1

Jay Rabin, Continuous Service of the Heart, lives in Solana Beach, California.  He spent the winter retreat with Thay and the Sangha at Deer Park, and received the Five Mindfulness Trainings there.

PDF of this article

Poem: Deer Park Walking Meditation

Hundreds of feet softly kissing the earth.
Mindful full moon dance
by children of celestial light
whose source crests from behind
peaceful Deer Park’s hidden mountain saddle.
Dark night’s cotton-cloud haze
illuminated by one, then two lunar rings.
Most suddenly, poof
–focused concentration exits.
Enter, monkey mind’s desire,
trying to force the sky, moon and rings
to be as one.
Breathing calm, relaxed,
community proceeds up dark, rocky path
–noble teacher and sangha
answering the silent moon’s calling;
listening,
letting go,
liberating separation,
stopping.
Hundreds of eyes gaze
towards moon’s glow
that gently reflects with their forms.
Moon, sangha and my perception,
chilly shadows among valley and sky,
dance joyously in love,
harmoniously inter-being.

David Nelson, Compassionate Guidance of the Heart, lives and practices in Flagstaff, Arizona.

PDF of this article

Confessions of a Shoe Thief

by Lucy Kingsley

mb36-Confessions1Well, so much for mindfulness. I go to the small meditation hall to return a cushion. I leave my shoes outside. I go in and leave the cushion. I come out of the hall and put shoes back on to go down to dinner.

During dinner I sit in the back of the hall with friends. A woman makes an announcement that someone took her shoes from outside the small meditation hall, a pair of size six black clogs. Now she has a pair of white size seven and a half Nikes. She would like her own shoes back.

Realizing I went to the hall in my Nikes and not in my black clogs, I now understand that I am wearing her shoes.  I start to blush. I bow to the people at my table, get up and start a very long, mindful walk past the entire international Sangha to the front of the hall where she is standing.

I bow to her and slip off her shoes. She returns the bow and then embraces me. We both start to laugh. I take several long breaths and begin to walk the long way back to my table. I have a blister on my foot from walking in someone else’s shoes.

mb36-Confessions2

Lucy Kingsley, Loving Balance of the Heart, lives and practices in Eugene, Oregon.

PDF of this article

Chuc Mung Nam Moi

Happy New Year

January 22, 2004 Year of the Monkey

by Hope Lindsay

I came to the Ocean of Peace mediation hall early today, soon to be filled with monastics and lay retreatants for the Asian New Year celebration.   I am drawn to the beauty of this new hall at Deer Park Monastery. I want to fill my spirit through my eyes before the festival begins.

The altar area is filled with living color. There are mums, tulips, bamboo, and several species of orchids. Large vases contain pussy willows and reeds tied with tiny red ribbons. Bright red gladiolas repeat the color of good fortune. On the central altar, candles and incense are burning. Here are towers of fruits: mangos, apples, oranges, pineapple, and papayas. Sky and earth cakes wrapped in banana leaves remind me of the patient monastic and lay hands which made them the day before.

But perhaps the loveliest arrangement is the “tree.” It is Zen symbolism at its finest. Rocks arranged in classic patterns of heaven and earth support the large oak limb which has clusters of yellow blossoms attached to complete the appearance of spring. Red kites with words of peace and wisdom dangle from the tree.

mb36-Chuc

Now Thay has arrived and the hall has filled. We are awaiting the Chinese dragons (in lion form) to announce the beginning of the five days of fun and reverence. Here they come turning, and rearing! They are led by a paunchy red-faced figure representing the Earth. No one can resist laughing out loud as the lions blink their large eyelids and open their mouths in pretended ferocity, except Thay, who remains in meditation until the procession reaches him. Then he breaks into a sweet, almost twinkling smile.

Thay was presented with a collage of miniature photos shaped in the form of the single pillar pagoda which replicates the stained glass window in the hall and expresses the theme of Tiep Hien, interbeing. The monastics wished Thay a long life, filled with good health and loving kindness. I also wished  him  long  life,  motivated  by attachment. I need this soft-spoken, wise being awhile longer to help me awaken. Long, long life in this form to you, dear teacher.

Thay’s New Year wish for us is for our health.    For the Asians in residence, he requests remembrance of their ancestors, and to carry their memories into enlightenment. For Westerners, he wishes rest and mindfulness. Also, he wishes us mindful consuming, the single most important mission for the Western world. In consumerism lies the cause of poverty and war. Wise consuming is the key to world peace.

I am aware that I came to this ceremony to “fill up my senses.” My eyes were filled with the sight of the  monastics, dressed  in earth brown under their bright ceremonial robes, looking like mantles of sunshine. My ears were blessed with Vietnamese music sung by Sister Chan Khong, Ha Thanh, a visiting opera singer, and Sister Thi Nghiem. I hear this haunting music in my mind, even now. I can also feel the wonderful rhythmic challenge between the large brass bell and taiko drum speaking from opposite sides of the hall.

Blessings to us all in the year of the monkey. Play more, be joyfully spontaneous, and at the same time calm our monkey minds.

Hope Lindsay, True Flow of the Heart, spent the winter retreat at Deer Park.  She is a founding member of the Umpqua Area Sangha in Roseberg, Oregon, and an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing.

PDF of this article

Poem: The Oracle

mb36-TheOracle1Celebration of Tet, 2004

Stop.
Drop everything
except your breath
and walk toward the altar
like a bride
advancing toward her beloved.
Sit on your cushion
tall and serene,
concentrating
until your heart’s desire
burns in your chest
like a glowing ember.
Then lay yourself
face down
on the earth,
letting the hard shell
of your mind
crack open,
spilling its arrogance
into the soil.
When you are empty,
stand up.
Breathe three times.
In. Out.
In. Out.
In. Out.
Then leap
into the wishing well.
From the other side
of time,
deep at the bottom
of the well,
a poet will raise his arms,
catching your fall.
His love will lift you
back into time,
holding a ticket to joy.
This ticket
bears a number
that corresponds to a door.
Find this door
and open it.
On the other side
is a path.
Do not hesitate.
There is no mistake.
This is your path.
Straight ahead,
the object of your desire
reaches out
to take your hand.

Emily Whittle, True Wonderful Happiness, lives in Red Springs, North Carolina and practices with the Healing Springs Community of Mindful Living.

PDF of this article

Peace Is Mandatory, Plumbing Is Optional

by Margaret Kirschner

mb36-Peace1

Visualize Deer Park during winter retreat. Imagine the logistics needed to accommodate 250 monastics and approximately 250 lay retreatants, up to 1,000 or so on Days of Mindfulness when the local community visits. Picture the kitchens that prepare the food, the dishes, pots, pans, and silverware that need to be washed after each meal. Estimate the number of showers, hand washings, toilet flushings, tooth brushing, tea making, and the amount of water needed to keep the gardens alive and flourishing.

During the afternoon free time, a retreatant goes back to her room, ready to take a shower. She turns the faucet. Nothing happens. The water is off. She checks with neighbors. Theirs is off also. Next with the kitchen, and the restrooms near the Meditation Hall. Solidity Hamlet, Clarity Hamlet–all are without water. The pumps had stopped working. Was there panic? Was there grumbling and complaining? Was the water restored shortly thereafter? No, no, and no. The aridness of the desert enclosed the Deer Park retreatants.

Shortly after, the monastics announced a plan. They said the kitchens had reserve tanks that allowed enough water for meal preparations and cleanup. Large trucks would bring barrels of water, which would be placed outside our dormitories, along with buckets so we could bring in water to flush the toilets. We were asked to use the old slogan, “If it’s yellow, it’s mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down.” Packets of chlorinated wipes appeared here and there. Mindfulness practice continued as if nothing troublesome had occurred.  The water did not come back on until the next day, at least eighteen hours later. But even when it returned, only one pump was working, so we were asked to continue to conserve as much as possible in the week to come.

What caused peace to pervade the difficulties created by this situation? Was it the calm manner of the monk who made the announcement that solicited the acceptance of the water shortage? Was it the mindfulness practice of the participants? Surely both contributed, but the initial meeting of the monastics who were charged with responsibility must have been a generating source. There had to have been a committee of calm thinking ones, with an awareness that nothing is permanent. There must have been trust in the skills of those who were to do the repairs and an understanding that creative solutions come from serene minds. I’d have loved to have been a mouse in the corner watching the mindfulness that contributed to everything working out so harmoniously.

And so it goes at our retreat, day by day. Each small activity, imbued with mindfulness, builds further mindfulness and takes us through life’s vexations with equanimity and joy. May we show our gratitude by remembering this experience and by sharing this accepting awareness with our families and communities.

Margaret Kirschner, True Silent Sound, lives in Portland, Oregon and practices with the Portland Community of Mindful Living.  She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing during the winter retreat.

PDF of this article

Poem: Cucumbers

The cucumber slice stares back at me,
starburst mandala of seeds and flesh.
I fork it slowly into my mouth,
aware of arm, muscle, movement,
the glint of sunlight on the fruit,
then its coolness in my mouth.
How many cucumbers have I eaten in my life?
I think of cucumber and tomato salads
with red onions and feta cheese,
of cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches
eaten on creekside summer picnics
with my wife and children and friends,
of countless salads
punctuated by cucumber chunks.
How little respect I’ve shown this humble food.
How rarely I’ve seen what it really is,
this smooth green tube of encased coolness:
my body, my arm lifting the fork,
my heart loving this life, that very love.

Bob Speer, True Silent Voice, lives in Chico, California and practices with the Slowly Ripening Sangha.He was ordained into the Order of Interbeing during the winter retreat.

PDF of this article

Poem: Awakening

This morning at breakfast
I had nine grapes. I know
Because I tasted each one
And enjoyed each one and
For the first time felt
the resistance of each one as
I pulled each from its stem
For the first time saw
Where the grape meets the stem
The little tufts

Through which the grape became the grape
Through which the nutrients, the flavor, the sweetness
Flowed into it and
Now into me
Small, never before seen by me, unnamed, unfamous
Tufts
And then the bread
Dense with grains,
Good-for-you dense and dry in the mouth.
What’s this?
Sweetness!

Cranberries on the underside
Hidden from my view.
My goodness, what a surprise.

I can hardly contain myself with the glory of this moment.
Tears well up. I don’t know why.
Great anticipation to get back to my room to write this down
And still the great challenge not to anticipate. So many
Moments between now and then
Wash my dishes fully present,
Climb the steps,
Bow to the monk passing by,
Walk through the garden, each plant,
Pass the pond where the fish are quiet
Enjoying the cool water before the sun shines.

Tom Heller, Awakened Virtues of the Heart, is moving from Seattle to Cambodia, where he and his wife hope to start a Sangha.

PDF of this article

On Almsround

by Phap Thanh

mb36-OnAlmsround1

We went on almsround today. I walked slowly in meditation. My mind focused on my steps, behind my elder brother. As I walked people offered me food. I opened the lid and held out my alms bowl to them.

As I walked on, in the corner of my eye I saw a little girl, about three years old, in her mother’s arms. I realized that the little girl wanted to offer something to me, so I stopped and looked at her. She had an apple in her hands. She held it tightly. Her mother encouraged her to put the apple into my open bowl. The little girl was hesitant; there seemed to be a resistance in her. Very, very slowly she began to lower the apple into my begging bowl. I stood quietly, observing this wonderful and slow process. She lowered the apple a little further into my bowl, but it seemed that she was not ready to let it go.

mb36-OnAlmsround2

With more encouragement from her mother, she then released her grip on the apple and it rolled into my bowl. I could sense the little girl was ambivalent about letting go of something so wonderful and precious as this apple. I offered her a smile and bowed a thank you.

I felt very grateful for having been the witness of that moment in the little girl’s life. Maybe this was the first time she encountered the painful feeling of giving something away that was precious to her and at the same moment the joyous feeling of giving to benefit someone else. When she finally dropped the apple, it seemed like a new experience for her, like a relief.

I closed the lid of my bowl and walked on with slow steps. I felt very happy to carry this apple in my bowl, because with it I carried the little girl’s compassion. I carried the little girl’s experience of giving away her own food to someone else, someone that she didn’t know.

Later on the whole Sangha sat down to eat together in silence. I held the little girl’s apple in my hands and I still felt grateful for her sacrifice, for the pain she was going through to release it. I felt, with an apple given like this, many people could be fed. From this one apple, thousands of hungry children could eat and satisfy their burning hunger. I felt, with this generous attitude the little girl had shown towards me, so many starving children in the world could be fed. I ate the apple very slowly and tears ran down my cheeks.

Phap Thanh is from Germany and currently lives in Plum Village.

PDF of this article

Poem: Dixon Lake

mb36-Dixon1The trail of silent walkers
winds across the valley
like a lazy snake.

Sage blesses us with her fragrance,
while solemn stone friends witness
our peacefulness.

We arrive step by step
one after another
at the watery oasis.

Ducks race each other across the lake
over and over
going nowhere
like my busy mind.

A pair of regal pelicans glides by
slowly
bringing my attention
deep into the water’s flow.

mb36-Dixon2

Alexa Singer-Telles, True Silent Action, lives in Redding, California and practices with the River Oak Sangha. She was ordained into the Order of Interbeing at the winter retreat.

PDF of this article

Lamp Transmission of Shalom

at the Great Ordination Ceremony
Deer Park, California
February 13, 2004

mb36-Lamp1

Respected Thay, respected Venerables, brothers and sisters and friends, I offer Greeting to this House, greetings to the people and to the ancestors of this House.  Greetings to the land, the mountains, the rivers, and the sea. Tena koutou, tena koutou, tena koutou katoa (translation:  Greetings, greetings, greetings to you all).  In New Zealand, this is a traditional and respectful way to begin to speak as a guest of another community.

I have a sense that if I were to turn and look behind me I would see the New Zealand Sangha sitting, supporting me, and see my beloved daughter, who ten years ago insisted that we sell our house and go to Plum Village. She was eight, and she was very wise.

About fifteen years ago somebody put a book of Thay’s in my hand. I read one page, and that page was the beginning of the lamp transmission. I didn’t know anything about Buddhism, but I knew that this man knew what I wanted to know. For me, it is very beautiful to see this physical manifestation of the lamp, but the lamp of the Dharma, the lamp of Thay is in here, in my heart.

With my mother behind me and my daughter in front of me, there is a hardness in our family line. The practice gave me a lot of courage to transform that hardness so my daughter wouldn’t have to suffer so much. In the early days at home I would literally stop when there were difficulties between me and my child, and I would turn to Thay and I would say, “And what am I supposed to do now?” Many of you will probably know what he answered. He said, “Shalom, do the dishes.” Because that was what was in front of me. And I would do the dishes, very mindfully, and the difficulty between us would calm down.

A few years ago I was very sick. I’m not quite sure how this will sound to you, but it was a wonderful experience! It was very difficult and there was pain, and for many days I felt as if someone had pulled the plug out, because there was no energy, and this body suffered a lot. But something wonderful happened. I could experience for myself the softening of that hardness. I felt a lot of compassion and a lot of love for this body. I could feel the energy of the teaching from Thay, of the mother holding the baby.

Some mornings I would wake up and walk from my bed to the kitchen, and I would get halfway through cutting an apple, and there would be no energy left, so I would have to put the knife down and leave the apple half cut, and walk mindfully back to bed.  My body was very ill, but my mind was very clear.  So I lay in my bed and I breathed in, and I breathed out, and I could do that quite easily.  I could look out at the hills and the sky, and I was very happy.

It’s very wonderful to sit together and receive the Dharma lamp, all of us. I’d like to say to my lay friends: Don’t wait for the Dharma lamp that looks like this. It is a great good fortune for us to be able to be here. I wish you all well. I wish you well in body, heart, and mind, and I thank you for supporting me and teaching me.

Shalom lives in a community of mindfulness practitioners called Dharma Gaia Garden. They welcome guests throughout the year, for organized retreats and for informal visits. Some scholarships are available

The Path of Emancipation, a twenty-one day retreat, July 10– 31, will follow Thay’s teachings from the book of the same name. Cost: $400 plus dana for the teachings.

Go to www.freewebs.com/dharmagaiagarden or e-mail mindfulness@xtra.co.nz.  Write to Dharma Gaia Garden, RD1 Coromandel, New Zealand; phone (+ 64  7) 8667995

Shalom’s Insight Gatha

The deep purple delphinium drops her petals one by one. Magnificent!
And my countless faces appear and disappear, bubbles on the ocean’s surface.
Beauty and pain quiver my ripening heart. The earth trembles.
I step gently, this foot anointed by the bodhisattva’s hand.

Thay’s Gatha to Shalom

The seed that has been planted in the Precious Land
now has a chance to be penetrated by the spring rain.
Day and night, let us dwell peacefully in the position of touching the earth
so that everywhere flowers will bloom and reveal our true mind.

PDF of this article

Dharma Talk: Be a Real Human Being

by Larry Ward

mb36-BeAReal1I love the smells here. They’re old, been around a long time. I can feel the ancient presence of the native peoples, in the rocks and in the mountains, in the trees and in the river. It makes me very happy to be here in this space.

Compassion is very concrete practice. Compassion can make a huge difference in how we live our daily lives, how we make our daily decisions. And our practice is to feed ourselves those things that nourish our compassion. That’s what a bodhisattva does. The bodhisattvas feed themselves the spiritual food, the emotional food, the physical food that nourishes and cultivates their mind of love. That’s the second characteristic of a bodhisattva. The wisdom of nondiscrimination is one, and cultivating the mind of love is the other.

At retreats this past summer I heard Thay say something that I’ve never heard him say before.  He said, “Be a real human being.”

So I’ve been meditating on that. When Peggy and I led a retreat in Oklahoma City recently, we were doing walking meditation at the Murrah building site where the bombing happened several years ago. It only took a minute for that devastation to happen. At the east gate, “9:01 a.m.” is carved in stone, and at the west gate, “9:03 a.m.” Between them are 161 empty chairs, for the people who were killed at 9:02. The first row is made of smaller chairs for children, because there was a daycare center there.  And as we walked around that memorial, it became really clear to me that Timothy McVeigh never had a chance to be a real human being. How do I know Timothy McVeigh wasn’t a real human being? Because a real human being does not perpetrate violence. That’s not the act of a real human being. Violence is a dark cloud floating across the blue sky of a real human being. A real human being is not trapped in or addicted to conflict and jealousy. Yes, we all have seeds of conflict and jealousy in us, but our seeds of conflict and jealousy are a dot against the blue sky of a real human being

We all have the capacity to be greedy, to want too much, to give too little—to ourselves as well as others—but that is not the motivation of a real human being. That’s a shadow passing across the ground of a real human being.

mb36-BeAReal2

A real human being is like this camp—this camp is our host. The earth is here, supporting us and holding us; the trees are here, the creek  is  running.

Just holding us, whether we’re short or whether we’re tall, whether we’re young or whether we’re old, whether we’re black or whether we’re white, whether we’re straight or whether we’re gay, whether we’re this or whether we’re that. A real human being is a host, welcoming everything. In the morning when the sunlight strikes the sky for the first time, you can look in it and see dust in the sunlight. A real human being is the sunlight, not the dust.

Our practice is to water those seeds in us, to create an environment around us that gives us a chance of being a real human being. What I’m trying to do with this practice is to cultivate my best self, the best Larry possible. And when I do that I manifest the way of the bodhisattva. A bodhisattva is another name for a real human being. Thay told a story this summer about a wonderful woman from Holland that he met who saved thousands of Jews from the gas chambers in World War II, all by herself.  Bodhisattvas are real people.  Recently I started thinking about a brief encounter I once had with Martin Luther King; he was a real human being. Mother Theresa, whom I met when I lived in Calcutta, was a real human being. She was so real that when she thought something, you just did it.  [Laughter.]  It was astounding!

mb36-BeAReal5

Thay is that way. Peggy and I had promised Thay last year that we would join him on a trip to Korea last spring. But as April approached, we were moving from one side of the country to the other and we were extremely busy. So we wrote Thay a beautiful letter saying why we couldn’t come to Korea. We got a note back: “Thay is very sad. Here’s the schedule in case you change your mind.” [Laughter.] That’s all a real human being has to do. Being near a real human being is so rare an opportunity that any time we can, we go because it is a chance to be trained. To be trained in what? It’s a chance to be trained in becoming a real human being.

So we went to Korea, and it was a profound experience of the bodhisattva way. One day in Korea, five thousand people joined us in walking meditation, as we walked into the subway where a man had committed suicide and had killed 200 other people. He left a note, saying he did not want to die by himself. We did walking meditation into that subway where family members were still gathered, with candles, altars, and pictures. It was powerful to go from the daylight down those steps into that dark subway. You could still smell the fire. It was profound practice in offering compassion without saying a word.

The world needs real human beings. In the Lotus Sutra there is a section called “arising up from the earth,” and in it the Buddha is having a conversation with hundreds and thousands of bodhisattvas from all over the galaxy. One of the reasons they’ve gathered is that they’re concerned about planet Earth, and they asked the Buddha, “Do you need reinforcements?”  [Laughter.]  “Do you need help?”

And the Buddha said no, at this very moment bodhisattvas are rising up from the earth. Real human beings capable of living like the blue sky, like the sun and the moon that shine on everything. Shine on confusion, shine on clarity. Shine on sadness, shine on happiness. Shine on birth, shine on death.  Rising up from the earth.  It’s a powerful statement.

If you want to do something with your life, be a real human being. If you want to do something for your children, your grandchildren, be a real human being. If you want to do something for America, be a real human being. In everything you need to be a real human being. And it’s already inside of us; it’s in every cell of our body. However, we have to be trained to develop it, cultivate it, and to apply it. This is one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights—that one has to be trained to live life deeply. Most of us assume you have to be trained to be a doctor or a nurse or a pianist or a schoolteacher or a cabdriver or a cook. The idea that we have to be trained to live profoundly, seems to have never crossed anybody’s mind! You have to be trained to live. It’s one of the Buddha’s fundamental insights, and that training is lifelong.

The Buddha designed his life so that nine months of the year he was in public service, and three months of the year was spent in in-depth training. He designed his day that way also. He had very long days, lots of people coming and going, lots of teaching. But three times a day he withdrew for his own training, his own practice.

I think the dilemma for every one of us in this room, right now, is how do we design a life that allows that to happen for us? Our society is not structured for us to be real human beings; it’s structured for us to be consumers. And you don’t have to be a real human being to be a consumer. Our education system, our economics, our political process, don’t give us the time or create the environment for us to train ourselves in being a real human being. The training every bodhisattva has had for over two thousand years, is training in six things, and it’s the same training the Buddha had when he was a bodhisattva-in-training.

These six things are called the paramitas. They are practices that take us from the shore of fear to the shore of non-fear. From the shore of greed to the shore of non-greed. From the shore of hate to the shore of non-hate.

The first one of these practices is generosity. First, it means learning to give physical things we have without reluctance. Sharing. Basic kindergarten kinds of issues: “I have a cookie, and you don’t have one. What do we do now?” [Laughter.] Generosity. We have to train ourselves. Even though the impulse is deep inside of us, buried in ourselves, to share and to give, we are so quickly trained out of it by our society, by our culture. This is not just our culture, it’s every culture: “Don’t you do that, don’t give them your cookie.” Why? Because they may come back tomorrow for another one. We have tremendous rationales for cutting off and killing our true human being. Generosity: giving without apprehension, giving without fear.

There’s a great story about the Buddha’s generosity. The Buddha and his cousin Ananda were out for a stroll, and a man came up, bowed and said, “Dear sage, my mother has a medical emergency, and in order for her to be healed she needs another eye.”  So the Buddha took his eye out and gave it to the man. The man took the eye from the Buddha, threw it in the dust and stomped on it. And while he was stomping on it, Ananda said, “Hey, wait a minute!” But the Buddha said, “Ananda, the gift has already been given.”

Generosity. The practice of generosity is the practice of giving. For most of us, if people don’t do what we want with our gift we’re upset. That is the practice of non-generosity. When a gift has been given, it’s no longer yours, it’s no longer mine. And of course, there is no greater thing a person can do for their friends than to lay down their life, as Jesus reminds us. And the laying down of your life could be something as dramatic as martyrdom, but it could also be something as undramatic as going to a classroom full of children every day for forty years. It could be as mundane as going through your social work files for the thousandth time and not giving up on yourself and not giving up on humanity. It could be the fifty-fifth conversation with your daughter about the same thing, and you know you’ll do number fifty-six, you won’t withhold that from her.  Generosity.

mb36-BeAReal5

We train ourselves so well that eventually our generosity becomes like the Buddha’s.  It’s spontaneous – sure, here’s my eye.  But for most of us now we have to think about the cookie—the eye’s a long way off! And that’s the purpose of the training. The training takes us on a journey from the cookie to the eye. And we don’t get there without training. I know how hard that is for Americans who want things fast. It takes practice. It takes training.  It takes time.

The second paramita is diligence. It’s called Right Effort in the Eightfold Path. How can we be diligent? The first step of diligence is figuring out how to be consistent in your practice. Once a day, twice a day, once or twice a week with the Sangha, My own personal experience is that you cannot practice too much.

Once we have a daily practice rhythm, diligence means looking deeply within ourselves. It’s going into great inquiry. As Master Empty Cloud would say, “Great inquiry into our fundamental face.” That’s the practice. To have the courage to look into our real face. Not our five year-old face, not our ninety year-old face, not our American face, not our female face, our male face. Our fundamental face. Our original face, some have called it. Our Buddha nature, others have called it. The face of nirvana is our fundamental face. The face of a real human being. Great inquiry. Diligence. Looking into who we really are. And when we begin to see who we are, we begin to see who everybody else is.

For a long time I’ve been estranged from my son. I’ve written him letters over the years, but we have never been reconnected at the heart level. This year while practicing, I discovered the last threshold that stopped me from reconnecting with him. I realized that I didn’t know who he was: I didn’t know his fundamental face was the same as mine! I forgot about his Buddha nature. I forgot about his blue sky. And I forgot that because I forgot that about my face. As soon as I had that insight, within three days I got a phone call from a friend who said, “Your son’s looking for you.” And I’m looking for him. When we leave this retreat, Peggy and I return to Boston where we’ll be for a month, and we’re staying about two miles from where he lives, and he and I have plans to hang out.

Inclusiveness is the third paramita. That’s a very popular word in diversity circles. You want to be inclusive. Okay. Inclusivity is the practice of developing the capacity to receive what life gives us. To receive the pain, the suffering and the disappointments and to develop the capacity to take it in and to transform it into compassion.

Some years ago Peggy and I had our house burn down in Boise, Idaho, by an arsonist who had been sent by the Aryan Nation. I was working in California when the fire started. Because the fire occurred at two-thirty in the morning, they expected us to be there sleeping, and they meant to do us real harm. Peggy called me at three o’clock and told me that she and our dog Reggae were safe but the house was a total loss. I said, “Okay, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” The whole time I was rearranging my schedule I was so stunned at the very idea that somebody would do that. I realized I didn’t know how to think like that.  I realized I didn’t know how to feel like that about anyone. I asked myself, how could somebody do that?

So over the next year as we rebuilt the house, I began to look into what kind of person joins that group. And I found out that they come from very poor economic backgrounds.  That most are high school dropouts. See, I’m moving toward inclusivity. That, if you look a little deeper, you’ll discover that nine out of ten of those people have been abused as children, emotionally and sexually. That’s how somebody could do that. Just looking for something to do to somebody, to strike out with the rage, with the anger, with the pain that’s just sitting there, growing.

Inclusivity practice takes time -this is about patience. This is not about having a Pollyanna attitude. For two years, Peggy had post-traumatic stress symptoms from being there when the fire started. But what is most important about this experience is that we were not harmed. What I mean is that we did not find ourselves having to be cruel. We did not find ourselves wishing ill will. We did not find ourselves having the seeds of hatred watered and developed at all. Anger, yes. Disappointment, yes. Shock, yes. But we did not become possessed and cruel. We did not have our focus turned around and reoriented to try to eliminate someone who tried to eliminate us. Protected by compassion.  Protected by inclusiveness.

There’s a wonderful story of the Buddha. Around his time of enlightenment, Mara came and sent armies who fired arrows at the Buddha, and as the arrows got closer they turned into flowers and dropped to the ground. Now, I want to be like that. [Laughter.] And we can! That’s just the practice of inclusivity. I’ve seen it happen with Thay. I’ve seen an arrow coming at him, and by the time the arrow got to him it was a flower. Peggy and I were sitting with Thay and Sister Chân Không and a few others when Thay got the phone call about his sister passing away in Vietnam. And we watched him receive that news, knowing he couldn’t go to be with his family. We watched that news go in and come back out as compassion for the person on the phone who had to give the message. Inclusivity.

Mindfulness trainings, the fourth paramita, are characterized in the Eightfold Path by right speech, right action or conduct, and right livelihood. The first role of the mindfulness trainings is creating stability and safety in and around ourselves. You know, it is very difficult to reach tranquility and profound insight in sitting meditation if you’re constantly looking out the window to see if your neighbor is looking for you with a gun because you stole his chicken! [Laughter] The first function of virtue is to create stability in ourselves, so we can calm down.  So the sand in the glass can settle at the bottom.

Mindfulness trainings are the ground upon which awakening can occur. And they are also evidence of the awakening. They’re both. But it’s a journey. The first step in practicing the mindfulness trainings is to notice your own behavior. Not improving yourself. The first step is noticing yourself with gentleness, with compassion. And the second step is slowly beginning to try to shift the pattern. The third step is healing the pattern. And the fourth step is transforming the pattern. Most of us want to go from step one to step four. Be compassionate with yourself. The key is to continue to practice. Mindful breathing, mindful walking, mindful eating.

There’s also a secret of the Eightfold Path that’s not written down. It’s called right association. During a retreat last summer one of the children asked Thay, how did he get so peaceful? And Thay said, “Well, first I wanted to be peaceful. Second, I had an image of what that might be like.” And he referred to a time when, as a young person he saw his first picture of the Buddha sitting mindfully on the grass. “Third, I surrounded myself with peaceful people. Fourth, I added to that an environment that would support my practice of peace.” Right association.

Many of us want more peace, but our associations are not peaceful. We  have to take  charge,  and create the environment that cares for us, that supports us, that will sustain us in becoming real human beings. We have to learn to set boundaries that protect our practice. We have to learn to protect ourselves from others with gentleness and kindness, with kind caring.

Meditation is the fifth paramita that takes us to the other shore. And the other shore is always right here, right now. The practice of meditation is not an escape from life, it’s an escape into life. The classical description of meditation is the practice of stopping, calming, and achieving tranquility, stillness of mind, imperturbability. And the practice of deep seeing, deep looking into life, vipassanya, insight. This must occur for that to occur, and of course they inter-are, as Thay would say. But most of us want insight without stopping, without calming. For example it’s not that we aren’t smart enough to solve the problem of education in America, it’s that we haven’t meditated on it. We haven’t stopped long enough to settle down, to calm ourselves, and to look deeply into it.

Sometimes at Plum Village Palestinians and Israelis gather together. Because the first part of the peace process is about peace with oneself, they’ll spend several days sitting and walking and eating mindfully, and only later will they start to talk about peace with each other. It’s only a political problem because it’s a spiritual problem.

Einstein said the same level of consciousness that created a problem can’t solve the problem. You can only reinforce the problem with that kind of thinking. It’s astounding what can happen through spiritual practice, when, eye-to-eye across the table, father-to-father, son-to-son, daughter-to-daughter, mother-to-mother, all of a sudden we see each other’s children lying in the street and we get it! We get it in the very cells of our body, the possibility of being a real human being, and we know real human beings are not warmongers, that real human beings are not driven by revenge and prejudice. Revenge and prejudice and war are dark clouds floating across the sky of a real human being.

Meditation: stopping and calming and looking deeply into life. Meditation: sitting and walking and eating and lying down. Meditation is more than stress reduction. The purpose of meditation is to transform the quality of our minds. We say we want peace in the world, but we don’t have minds capable of it. We wish people were more kind, but we don’t train our minds to be more kind. Master Tang Hoi from Vietnam used to say that meditation is the process, the practice, of eliminating those clouds in the blue sky that is our mind.

Right view, right understanding, is paramita number six. The realization of perfect understanding is the bodhisattva’s only career. It’s very important that all these practices are done with wisdom. Generosity without wisdom, without understanding, is pity. Generosity without right understanding means you’ve died for the wrong cause. History’s full of examples of that tragedy.

Right view is detachment from views. It doesn’t mean we don’t have views. It means when we have views we know that that’s what they are, just views. Opinions are easy to come by; most of us have opinions that are created by our culture. We have opinions created by our family, by our ancestors, about ourselves and about each other, and we think they are our own. Right view is insight. Right view, right understanding, is about moving from the shore of speculation into the shore of direct perception. To practice developing insight into life, our whole life long,

The way of the bodhisattva is the way of the real human being. It is the way, as Thay would say, of walking with our Buddha feet, so that with every step we enjoy the miracle of being in the present moment. We touch the Pure Land of the Buddha, the Kingdom of God with every step–that’s where we live. With our Buddha eyes, everywhere we look we see wonder.

PDF of this article

Bodhisattvas in the Subway

by Peggy Rowe Ward

On Thay’s 2003 author tour of South Korea, one of the stops was to the city of Daegu.  Before we arrived, a man had started a fire in a crowded subway that contributed to the death of over 130 people and the wounding of 140 men, women, and children. At the time of our visit, rescue workers were still searching for the remains of additional victims.  Some of the families of the victims had moved into the fire-damaged section of the subways. The downtown streets were closed so we were able to walk and chant in the subways.  Following is an entry in my journal:

“We step off the bus. I sense her immediately— Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, is here. I feel a great sense of relief as we walk rapidly into the crowded downtown street. She is here, in the citizens of Daegu. Thousands of people fill the streets. Monks in light grey vests with balloon type pants, Buddhist sisters in grey and bronze robes, hundreds of Catholic sisters, small women in navy with white headdresses like sun visors.

Avalokiteshvara helps us part the crowd. She is standing on the dragon boat, streamers flying from her long black hair, the wind moving her hair like ribbons. We’re riding a wave on the back of a dragon boat.  In, out, step, step.

“We join the throng, walking step by step, feeling the breeze in our face, the rhythm of the wave and the cadence of our steps. Rescue workers, volunteer food servers, businessmen in dark suits, women in pastel jackets. The grey-robed monks are clicking prayer beads. Large piles of dried white football mums line the streets.

“I hear Hai-Jin ask the brother, ‘Are you sad?’ Her eyes search his face for some kind of answer. He answers her, ‘Yes,’ and with that ‘yes’ he shows her his pain, his sadness spills into the space between us. Somehow this seems to ease her mind in some deep way. Her body softens and I notice her outbreath. I see her stumble and reach for her hand.  Together we ride the wave, step by step, holding hands.

“We are stopped. It feels like we have reached an invisible wall. There is a heaviness, a darkness. Despair. It is mind numbing. It is palpable. A wall of grief. In one breath I feel fear. The child in me cries out and says, ‘Stop, do not go any further.’ And in that next instant I suddenly feel her -Kshitigarbha, the bodhisattva that rescues beings from the greatest suffering, is holding my hand.

“We go as a river. We are a river. Somehow this river moves down below the street. As a Sangha, we enter into hell. There is no light. There is only darkness. Then I see with Kshitigarbha’s eyes. There is a shimmering light everywhere. There is nowhere that light is not present.

“We walk on. We are one body. We move past family shrines. Candles flicker on faces of children, sons, daughters, parents, grandparents. We are here with the altars of teddy bears, baseball caps, beautifully arranged plates of fruit, the favorite foods of loved ones. There are posters of our beloveds over the shrines—young women in prom dresses, small soccer players, proud policemen, babies in christening robes. There are zip-lock bags with human hair and bone shards, all that remains of my daughter, my sister. Family members are draped over their shrines. Some are slumped and sleeping in front of votive candles. Many are crying. Some are wailing. Some seem frozen in time. Rescue workers with navy blue cups, hand out mugs of soup. People pass large white mums into our hands. They want to touch us. The Korean sister tells us they are saying we are angels. I’m uncomfortable at first, and then I give in to being an angel that day. How could I not be a blessing? My hand seems to float on its own toward the person on my left side. I gently rest my palm on the dark hair of my brother, my sister, as we become one heart of deep blessing.

Peggy Rowe Ward, True Original Source, is a Dharma teacher living in Asheville, North Carolina.

PDF of this article

Seasoning the Soup with Peace

An Interview with My Elder Brother

by Phap Lai

mb36-Seasoning1

Brother Phap Do and I sat and drank tea together on a number of occasions. Sharing tea is a time-honored way of building brotherhood in Plum Village. As the story of my elder brother’s journey and transformation unfolded I felt inspired to record it.

In this interview Brother Phap Do shares how he transformed his anger through practice, moving stories of reconciliation with his father, and how his mother started a Sangha after meeting a strange monk at their loved ones’ gravesides. Now forty-two years old, Brother Phap Do ordained as a monk in Plum Village in 1996.

Su Anh (elder brother), can you speak about your family background?

I was born and brought up in Hanoi, North Vietnam, with four generations, twenty-six of us all together in one house. When I was ten my father was posted to Saigon so then we no longer lived with all the grandparents. With twenty-six family members living in the same house you have a Sangha. We had to learn how to live with each other and practice patience. I received love from my great grandmother, my grandmother, and my mother. Sometimes my mother would be too tired and busy to give me attention or would scold me. My grandmother would take care of my mum while my great grandmother took care of me. That’s when I really saw the strength of the family all together—it was a circle of love. I learned about building family from them. There was much tension too, but my main memory is that there was a lot of love in that house.

What made you want to be a monk at fourteen?

My grandmother used to take me to the temple every week. She was the only religious one in the family. One time I stood mesmerized while a monk arranged flowers with such care: he was so peaceful. I wondered how anyone could have peace like that when everyone was going to war. We had just finished the war with America and then started one with Cambodia. I told my parents, “I want to be a monk,” and they responded “No!”  It was simply out of the question.

Why were they so definite, saying no like that?

I was the only son. They were relying on me to continue the family through having children and taking care of the family’s future. Also my father was a military man, a communist high in the government, a man of action. According to him, monks were lazy and shirked their responsibility to build the new Vietnam. They were anti-communist. For his own son to be a monk was unthinkable.

What was your father’s career?

My father’s elder brother joined the resistance army, fighting the French when he was sixteen. It was the branch of the Viet Minh which was to become Communist. He soon persuaded his fourteen-year-old brother to join him. It was 1945 and my father stayed in the army until 1968. The Communist Party put him in charge of a construction company and eventually he became the main government official for construction in Vietnam.

mb36-Seasoning2

There seems to be a parallel between his choice to join the resistance army in the mountains and you as a boy of the same age wanting to become a monk. Both offer a life in Sangha and a sense of purpose, even adventure.

Can you say something of your experience as a soldier?

I didn’t choose to go into the army, I was drafted. Before that I’d trained as a chef and was working for a tourist company. In 1985, I underwent six months of army training and they singled me out to be in the special forces and receive more training. I found myself being dropped into Cambodian forests on reconnaissance missions. Many traumatic things happened. One day in a jeep I heard a loud crack and looked around to see that my friend had been shot in the head. I drove off, escaping his fate. After two years in Cambodia one mission went badly wrong and we found ourselves surrounded by Khmer Rouge soldiers. One of our team made a run for it and was shot down immediately. The rest of us waited, defending our position for days until another team was sent in to rescue us. One other soldier survived along with me without serious injury, another I had to carry out after he lost his legs stepping on a land mine. He died later in the hospital. Although my father was proud that I was in the army, after that incident he was scared for my life and arranged through his contacts to have me taken out.  I am grateful to him for that.

Did you have to kill people on the missions?

We were there to gather information so the regular army could go in. But on occasion that happened. It was always dark, silent, and I seldom saw their faces.

How do you feel about them now?

They are still with me.

How did you feel about your two years of army service and being a civilian again?

I felt happy to be alive—I had survived. I also felt very proud and confident. I had risked my life carrying out a noble task. As my friend in our team put it in a song he wrote: we had taken on the burden everybody else refused. We had freed Cambodia from Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. That is how we saw it. I don’t view it so simply now—there was also the desire to conquer another land and people.

But as far as being back in civilian life was concerned, I was fearless.  I wouldn’t let anyone speak down to me no matter what position they were in. I never physically hurt anyone but no one ever challenged me. Looking deeply now I can see that the pride and violence in me caused me and others to suffer. But at the time I felt okay and focused on making a success of my life as a civilian.

What happened then?

I got a job as a chef and soon after my boss asked me to go to Frankfurt to be head chef at his Vietnamese restaurant there. I had the usual dream of making lots of money, having a fancy house and car for me and my fiancee. We were very committed to each other and she completely supported me in going abroad. We thought it would be a good start for our security and happiness in the future. And I’d be able to give money to my family. It’s not that they were poor, but to be able to repay your gratitude to your parents is a big thing in Asian culture and money is the usual way.   So off I went.

After some time in Frankfurt some disillusionment with my dream crept in. Although I admired the owner of the restaurant for his success, I could see that it did not bring him happiness. He had family difficulties and suffered a lot. I began to have difficulties too. The restaurant work was stressful and I couldn’t control my anger with the other cooks. We had a big turnover of customers who would often come in drunk, would drink more, be noisy, eat quickly, and leave. I would get back home most nights at around two a.m. and drink beer, smoke, and watch videos to unwind. But I found that, especially with the alcohol and violent images, memories would come up in my mind, particularly in dreams.

I knew something had to change. I began by quitting smoking and drinking and exercising regularly, and I started to feel much better. Still it wasn’t enough. So when my friend Vinh said he was planning to start a quiet vegetarian restaurant in Berlin I told him I wanted to join him.  A few months later I moved to Berlin.

In the vegetarian restaurant, the customers enjoyed their food and they seldom smoked or drank, except for a glass of wine. The atmosphere was relaxed and pleasant. Vinh went to see Thay speak in Berlin in 1994 and when he came back, he offered me an audiotape of the talk. I was extremely impressed so I started reading Thay’s books. Then some monastics came to Berlin in the spring of 1995 to offer a Vietnamese retreat. We invited them to the restaurant, and talking to Brother Phap An, Brother Phap Dang, and Brother Phap Dung, I could see a real quality of happiness and peace about them that I wanted too.

So I went to the summer retreat at Plum Village. I ordained as a novice monk on February 15th, 1996.

How did it feel, becoming a monk?

It was very clear—I had been reborn. I had had a feeling of being reborn when I went back into civilian life, having survived, against the odds, my time in the forces. But this was different because I had been reborn onto a completely new path, one my ancestors could not really tell me about—a path of peace and happiness and understanding. My ancestors were reborn with me even though they didn’t know it. The fourteen-year-old in me said, “Now I got my wish.”

mb36-Seasoning3

How did your family react?

Not happy. I had told them of my intentions beforehand. But when I actually ordained they were in a state of shock and didn’t want to believe it. When I visited Vietnam later, even my grandmother asked me, “Why a monk?” And I told her, “It was you, Grandmother, who took me to the temples. You showed me the good way, now I’m only trying to follow that way.”

My parents felt betrayed and that I had brought shame onto the family. I was their only son and their hope for the future of the family. So, many times they told me I had run away from my responsibility. They had matched me with my fiancee at an early age. She was part of the family. How could they explain to her and her family? And my fiancee was very hurt, which is a wound yet to heal. It gave rise to a complex in her: if I had become a monk there must be something wrong with her; she hadn’t been good enough to keep me. This is totally untrue but I cannot persuade her otherwise.

It was a difficult time for all of us but I knew I was on the right path. I had faith in the Dharma and was convinced that eventually my family would come to understand. But my father was angry and for the following two years avoided speaking to me whenever I telephoned home.

What finally brought about a change in their view?

It wasn’t until my father became ill with a worsening heart condition in 1998 that the door opened.  Before he went into the hospital I insisted he come to the phone and I told him I was going to send him some material to help him.  I sent the book Breathe!, You Are Alive, with Thay’s commentary on the Anapanasati sutra, the sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing. Then I gave a visiting monk from Vietnam a box of cookies to take to my parents’ home. By the time these arrived my father was already in the hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

My family sat down to share tea with my cookies. At some point—I can only imagine how their faces looked—my mother removed the plastic cover for the second layer of cookies. It was then they saw the carefully wrapped tape cassettes of Thay’s teachings, which accompanied the book I’d given to Dad.

My mother took them to my father in the hospital and he listened to them every day. It really helped him. Back from the hospital, he sent me a letter with a photo which I still keep. It is a picture of him and on the back he wrote: “You see your father is always waiting for you.” In his letter he said, “I know your way now.” Asian fathers don’t say they are sorry or admit they were wrong to their sons directly. I spoke with him on the phone and he said he was feeling good but a week later he had another heart attack and died later in the hospital.

Hadn’t you wanted to go be with your family at this time?

Sr. Chan Khong and Thay offered to pay my airfare, but I only had two years in the practice and didn’t feel stable enough. In 1999, on an invitation from Thay, my mother came to Plum Village for three months. We spent a lot of time together.  She enjoyed the way of life here so much she wanted to become a nun but the family back home wasn’t happy with that idea so she gave up her desire and went back.

Then in 2001 I went with the Sangha to Vietnam and spent two weeks with my family, which was also a healing time. My mother and I went to my father’s grave in a special memorial ground for government officials and officers. I offered incense and chanting for the deceased that we offer in Plum Village. It happened that a neighbor of my mother’s, a family friend, was also there visiting her husband’s grave. Her husband had been a close comrade of my father in the army. After the chanting she came up to us and said, “How lovely. I suppose you made a request to the temple for the venerable monk to come and chant for the peace of your husband?”

“But, this is my son,” my mother exclaimed.

The woman stared at my face, bewildered at first but soon recognized me and began to cry. She shared about her family’s suffering. Her son had gone to Germany at the same time I did. She said, “He has returned with lots of money but he has no peace. Your son has come back with no money but he has brought back peace. That is something so precious for your family, no money can buy that.”

Soon after I left Vietnam, my mother and this friend started a Sangha, offering mindfulness days and raising money for the hungry children in their region.

Can you share how, as a monk, you are transforming your anger?

Anger was the main obstacle for me. It came from my army training and from my father who had also been shaped in the army. Every single thing they tell you in the army waters the seeds of fear,

anger, and violence in you. The way your superiors relate to you is violent and you have to take all of that without reacting, but it goes in and then you dish out the same treatment when you’re in charge. All your training and what you do generates anger and you use the energy of anger, very focused and somehow cool, to do your job. It’s hard to imagine another way, although Thay teaches it is possible for a soldier to act from the base of compassion.

Living in the Sangha, it was easy to see my anger. Learning how to handle it was my practice. Over my six years as a monk I guess my brothers have had to go through a lot with me. Sitting in a meeting one time I became so angry at a brother as he was sharing, I had the idea to put the big bell over his head and turf him out of the hall.  Fortunately I was able to breathe and stay still. The energy in me caused me to feel I was the size of the gorilla in King Kong. If I stood up, my head was sure to touch the roof. I asked to hold Br. Phap Dzung’s hand for support. Soon I excused myself from the meeting and walked to Thay Giac Thanh’s hut. He was quite ill with diabetes and had recently broken a bone, but he was able to accept his illness and discomfort and be happy and peaceful. I would often do walking meditation to his hut and share tea with him when I was angry. I didn’t need to tell my story—just his presence calmed me down.

With  time,  through  the practice  of  mindful  breathing, I have developed a zone of peace in me and have had more and more space for my anger.  I say to myself, There is anger in me, but I am not this anger.    I can recognize it as it is coming up and take care  of  it. When  driving  I used to notice that my foot was pressing harder on the accelerator because my anger had manifested.  But because the  peaceful  mindfulness energy was also there, I was able to ease off very quickly. I would slow the car right down and go back to my breath. Mainly  walking  and  sitting meditation was the base of my practice but I also used other skillful means. I found writing poetry about my situation and feelings helped me. By  finding  eloquent  words and  putting  my  anger  into a larger context which contained positive thoughts and aspirations,  it  detached  me from the emotion. So gradually I know myself better and better and can recognize all the signs of my anger coming up and am able to take care of it right away.  Now I see the peaceful zone prevents the seeds of my anger manifesting, even when I see them being watered.

What do you wish for your future practice?

Just to continue the basic practice, to increase my happiness and peace. That is enough for me. I do see I have a strong seed to be an elder brother. I like to support my younger brothers but not as an authority.

I see also that here we have an opportunity to live together, Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese. It is a challenge to live together, to understand and connect with each other. Sometimes the seeds of prejudice are very strong. For instance, many Vietnamese still resent that Westerners tried to colonize our land and that they looked down on the Vietnamese as inferior. Many Vietnamese had a rough time integrating as immigrants. There can be a desire to show “I’m not less than you, I can do everything you can do and do it better.” But here we are together under the roof of the same teacher and as monastics we have left everything else behind for the love of the same practice. So we should make the effort to get to know each other and love each other. We can live together. It is an important act of peace— stopping the war—that we do this. I feel very at home with the Western people. I don’t care if my English or German is not perfect—even with my limited French I just go ahead and have a conversation. I don’t feel a barrier or a difference but relate to people on a human level.

mb36-Seasoning4

Br. Phap Do became a Dharma Teacher in 2002. For me his character echoes those samurai of ancient Japan who gave up their swords to become monks and channeled their one-pointed determination and zeal into the ways and practices of a monk.  Every morning at five a.m., Br. Phap Do is at the bell tower of Upper Hamlet in Plum Village, calling us with the deep bronze sounds and his strong chanting voice to sitting meditation.

Br. Phap Lai is a novice from England, currently living in Deer Park.

PDF of this article

Parenting, Children, and Mindfulness

A Wonderfully Rich Practice

by Bud Reiter-Lavery

Few of the local Sangha members have young children. I have two neighbors with children under the age of three who used to do formal sitting meditation alone or in groups, but haven’t done so since the birth of their children.  Similarly, I didn’t go on a retreat for six years—the time from the birth of my first child until my second child was age three. Perhaps the formal structures of practice that we have created, such as weekly two-hour meditation meetings, five day retreats, etc., just don’t work well for parents with young children.

My two girls are now ages five and eight, and I am discovering that I have more energy to engage them and others in mindfulness practice. I am also a lot less concerned about whether I lead a group or go on retreats. It is clearer to me now that my whole life is my practice, which means that for me, parenting is a salient part of my mindfulness practice, every day. My wife and kids are great Dharma teachers, both in how they can pull out the compassionate parts of me and when they unintentionally show me all the seeds I still need to transform. Frankly, when my girls are tired and prone to crying, I often find myself at the edge of my practice—and sometimes a bit beyond it.

I considered starting a monthly mindfulness morning for folks like me with kids, but I have made it much simpler and with fewer expectations. Once a month my girls and I have a mindfulness morning while my wife, Lisa, goes to church. This gives Lisa a chance to be more focused at church, and it gives the girls and me a wonderful chance to gently and simply practice. They love reading stories about the Buddha’s life. We also do a juice and cookie ceremony, color in a coloring book of scenes of the Buddha’s life, sing, and sometimes do outdoor walking meditation. We go with the flow and do whatever seems refreshing and enjoyable. I have invited the neighbors with children to join us, but I don’t really care if they come or not. The time is for the girls and me to enjoy being, to enjoy our mindfulness. It is a very relaxing time for me. I think it would drain me if I carried expectations about providing this as a service to the community.

mb36-Parenting1

Being married and having children mean that I have several other people’s needs to consider. We inter-are. So we’ve worked out a schedule that includes time for me to go to retreats and weekly Sangha meetings, making sure that I still have lots of time to be with my family. Last fall was the first time I took them on a retreat with Thay, so we are integrating family mindfulness in formal ways, but mostly in very informal ways. While I still periodically sing Dharma songs to them each night when I put them to bed, most of my practice involves just being present with them.

One of my favorite quotes about mindful parenting is from Dharma Family Treasures.  It goes as follows:

Master: I have no tolerance for those who use their children as an excuse for not practicing.

Hermit: I have no tolerance for those who use their practice as an excuse for not parenting.

Beggar: When we fully immerse ourselves in parenting as our practice, we answer the question, Of what use is it merely to enjoy this fleeting world?

O sincere trainees, create no Dharma orphans. Quickly is dew gone from the grass.  Quicker still are children grown.

Bud Reiter-Lavery, True Wonderful Awakening, lives with his daughters Katie, age eight, and Theresea, age five, and wife Lisa. He practices with the Mindfulness Practice Center of Durham, North Carolina.

PDF of this article

Welcoming New Flowers to Our Sangha

by Ben Matlock, True Equanimity of the Sangha

Editor’s Note: The Boston Old Path Sangha created a ceremony to welcome children to this life and to the Sangha. You might consider offering this ceremony to the children in your Sangha, especially to newborns. You can change and add to this format with your own creativity. For instance, it is lovely to chant the child’s name to her or him as part of a welcoming ceremony.

mb36-Welcoming1

A three-tiered altar was created; on the top level was a statue of Avalokiteshvara, candles and flowers. On the second level was an empty vase; on the lowest level a bowl of consecrated water with a willow branch. Everyone sat in a circle, with the parents and the children being celebrated nearest the altar. In front of each family was a bud vase with a special flower and a branch, and gifts offered by the Sangha. Across from the altar was a basket filled with one kind of flower.

Before the ceremony began, it was explained that the children were to be the focal point of the event, and were invited to remain through the entire ceremony, even if the traditional periods of silence were interrupted.

Opening the Ceremony Three Bells
Sitting Meditation, five minutes
Incense Offering
(Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, page 315)
Introductory Words
“Children are the flowers of the Sangha. Today the community has gathered to recognize two new flowers. We begin by expressing gratitude to our ancestors so that we can recognize that these dear children are the continuation of our spiritual and blood relations. Please open your hearts to these children and to the teaching they can provide us. They will also need our guidance and support along the paths they follow as they live their lives.”

Naming the Children

“Dear parents, please state clearly the name of the child you present this day.” (Each name followed by a bell). Each child is sprinkled with water.

“May your name lead you and us to realize the beauty of your suchness and may it be a continual bell calling you to an understanding of your true nature.

“The water on this branch is the clear fresh balm of compassion. May these children be treated with compassion in their lives and thus learn to have compassion for themselves and others.

“Parents, please tell how the child you present today has come to be known by his or her name.” (Parents tell us why they chose the names they did.)

(two bells)

The Five Awarenesses

“Dear parents, you have become the special guardians of these precious children. If you choose, you can be supported greatly by the Three Gems. The Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha will provide you spiritual support. The Five Awarenesses provide the context of your understanding of your special role. Know that this community will continue to support you in this practice. Consider reciting these awarenesses on the full moon each month. Hearing the sound of the bell, please say the five awarenesses in the presence of this community that wishes to support you.”

We are aware that all generations of our ancestors and all future generations are present in us. (bell)

We are aware of the expectations that our ancestors, our children, and their children have of us. (bell)

We are aware that our joy, peace, freedom, and harmony are the joy peace, freedom, and harmony of our ancestors, our children, and their children. (bell)

We are aware that understanding is the very foundation of love.

(bell)

We are aware that blaming and arguing can never help us and only create a wider gap between us; that only understanding, trust, and love can help us change and grow. (two bells)

Welcoming the Children into the Sangha

(Said by all) “Dear Children, we welcome you into our family and promise to allow you to flourish in our midst. We honor you for the gift you are. May you always experience the true refuge of compassion when you are with us. To help manifest the energy of compassion, we now invoke the name of Avalokiteshvara twenty-one times. While we chant, please enjoy assembling a community of flowers in the empty vase as a symbol of our own community’s flowering. One at a time, take a flower from the basket and place it in the vase.”

Each Sangha member bowed first to the altar and then to each of the children. At the end, the parents added the children’s flowers to the vase.

(Sing Recitation of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara’s Name from PV Chanting and Recitation Book, page 343, second variation.)

Hugging Meditation

“Participants are invited to turn to each other and practice hugging meditation as a form of Beginning Anew to close the ceremony and demonstrate that we are welcoming these new flowers with open hearts and harmony between each other.”

The ceremony unfolded in a lovely mix of formality and informality. At one point one of the children helped invite the bell. He did this several times, each time listening to the results of his actions. The other baby found the written program quite tasty and chomped down with great enthusiasm. Laughter came with great ease when something tickled our funny bones. A festive potluck lunch marked the end of the day’s events.

mb36-Welcoming2Note:  The water was consecrated by a few of us before the ceremony using the form in the Blessing Ceremony found in the PV Chanting and Recitation Book, page152.

The Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book is available through Parallax Press, iamhome.org.

PDF of this article

Teens, Yoga, and Nature

An Interview with Holiday Johnson

by Terry Masters

mb36-Teens1

Holiday, tell us about your yoga classes for teenagers.

I know that some people are hesitant to work with teens; they regard them with suspicion, or fear. But my experience with teens has been wonderful. I’m encouraged by their enthusiasm, creativity, and their delight in life. I really love them!

mb36-Teens2

What kind of work do you do with teens?

Thirteen years ago I started a non-profit program for teens which we named Standing on Your Own Two Feet. The purpose of the program is to use yoga to develop skills in teenagers that produce a sense of well-being. In my experience, yoga helps youngsters become strong, centered, and healthy.

Teens can come to any class at our yoga studio seven days a week. But I offer two yoga classes that are designed specifically for youngsters eleven to seventeen years old. Because teens often don’t have much money, the classes are half price, and I offer free classes for two months each year. During those months teenagers can attend classes every day if they want at no charge.

You also sponsor a teen retreat, don’t you? What is that like?

It is so inspiring! This past August, nine girls, ages thirteen to seventeen years old, and two adults gathered at a retreat center in an organic apple orchard in the mountains near Parkdale, Oregon for three days and two nights.

Each girl brought her own vegetarian recipe to prepare for the group. We had some delicious and creative organic vegetarian meals! In appreciation for the wonderful food and the work that went into preparing it, we began each meal with the Five Contemplations.

We practiced meditation every day. We offered formal yoga classes, and informal ones, too: the girls invented their own tree pose in the river! Sometimes the girls were quiet, enjoying the time to reflect and relax. Of course, there were also times when the girls were chatty and giggly.

We hiked. We swam. We sat in awe of nature: one girl found frog eggs for us to admire; another commented on how beautiful it was to be swimming in an apple orchard. One day Judy Bluehorse, a Native American, guided us through the woods, pointing out the various medicinal uses of the plants and trees we saw.

What is especially encouraging for me in working with teens is how they share their ideas with each other so freely. How supportive and kind they are, how sweetly they encourage each other. For example, some of the girls were afraid to swim in the muddy-bottomed lake. After some encouragement from their peers, the timid ones were in there having fun too. That kind of sweetness, that kind of compassion and generosity, gives me hope for the future.

If folks want to find out more about your work with teenagers, how can they get in touch with you?

Our website is www.holidaysyogacenter.com. I’d be happy to share whatever I can with people who are interested in working with teens. And I’d love to know more about what others are doing.

Holiday Johnson, Kind Forgiveness of the Heart, practices with the True Name Sangha in Portland, Oregon.

PDF of this article

Poem: Feelings

My heart is blushing red
I have cried for you once, I will not
cry for you twice
How I miss you
My heart is heart broken
Somewhere deep in your heart I
I know you love me so much
I am waiting
I can feel your heart wanting me.

mb36-Feelingsakira Traub is seven years old and lives in Hove, England.  She loves animals, yoga, and miso soup.  Her mother tells us that she is dealing with painful feelings following her parents’ divorce through words and music. She is a prolific reader, loves to write poetry, and has begun playing the violin.

PDF of this article

Buddha Nature

An Exercise for Children

by Terry Masters

mb36-Buddha1

NOTE What the facilitator might say is in boldface. The answers in parentheses are the answers our children gave us.

We know that a Buddha lives inside of each of us. Not the man who lived a long time ago, of course! But the nature of that man who lived thousands of years ago.  The Buddha’s nature lives inside each of us.

What do you think the Buddha’s nature is like? (Happy, generous, compassionate, kind, loving, open, free, patient, etc.)

Think of someone you love very much. Do you sometimes see the Buddha’s nature in that person? What does that person do, how does that person show you that the Buddha’s nature is inside of her or him?

It is usually easy to see the Buddha’s nature in someone we love. But the Buddha’s nature is in everyone, even people we do not think we like at all. Think of someone you do not like very much. Have you ever seen the Buddha’s nature peek out of that person even a little bit?

What did it look like? (The person smiled; the person once said a nice thing to a friend of mine; the person likes my cat.)

Why is it important for us to remember to look for the Buddha’s nature in ourselves and in everyone we meet? (So that we can love ourselves and others; so we can be happy and make others happy; so we can all have peace.)

Let’s learn a song about how we feel when we notice our friend’s Buddha Nature.

Sing:

Dear friend,
Dear friend,
Let me tell you how I feel
You have given me such treasure
I love you so

What do you think the “treasure” is that we sing about in this song? Could it be our friend’s Buddha Nature?

How do we feel about our friends when they show us—when they give us—their Buddha nature? (We love her; we feel happy; we feel grateful.)

Let’s sing the song again.

After the children have learned the words, it is fun to sing the song as a round in two or three (or more!) parts.

This song is a good way to say “thank you” to your friend or someone in your family. When might you want to sing this song? (When my brother doesn’t hit me; when my mom gives me a surprise in my lunch box; when Daddy reads me a story; when my grandmother makes up a song for me; when my friend lets me play with his roller blades)

PDF of this article