When I was in grade school and high school I attended chorus classes, but I never paid much attention. It was a wonderful time to goof around, and for my classmates and I it often turned towards playful endeavor that tested our teachers’ sanity. I was not aware of the opportunity I had in that moment. But as much as I tried to avoid and resist it, then and at other times, learning to open my voice in speech, song, and chant has become a great part of my life.
Many seasons flourished and faded away while I lived under the great fear of simply opening my voice and singing. I sensed that when we do this we reveal ourselves; our voice transmits to those around us a direct experience of what is going on inside. What is in us vibrates in the listener, and it can be frightening when we are revealed like that to others, and even to ourselves.
This is a fear of being in touch with the reality of ourselves. And this fear is based on the belief that we are individuals, separate from others. We cannot avoid the perils of such misperceptions. Now we are learning that these beliefs and fears are at the root of much suffering and that they can be addressed directly by our practice of meditation. I have experienced that the practice of cultivating mindfulness of the voice can help us grow through this fear to a deeper understanding from which no bitterness and suffering arises.
I cherish a comical and yet inspiring memory of my father as he listened to German and Italian operas while cooking dinner. He would mimic these vigorous and committed voices as they coursed passionately through passages of misfortune and glory. He was being funny, but he was also singing his heart out, and as a child I could sense the intensity and power in his voice. My father is not an opera singer, but when he loved what he was doing and he was happy, he could put aside his inhibitions and his voice soared out in full vibrato. He didn’t know it, but it marked me, and it challenged me.
As a teen-ager, faced with self-centered awareness amidst my peers, this challenge grew into fear. There were many liberating moments when I was alone, at home or in the car, and turning the volume of the stereo up very loud, I sang along with my favorite bands, fully committed to letting my voice shine out. I thought nobody could hear me, but I was wrong. I could hear myself. Through this listening relationship to my own voice, I secretly began to teach myself to sing.
Many of us hold onto these self-centered fears for our whole life. We are afraid to open our voice; we simply do not know how to do it. We always feel uncomfortable and stifled when we are with others who are singing and especially if we ourselves are asked to sing. I was lucky. I found a safe way that slowly, bit by bit, stabilized my faith in my voice. Until one day I was strong enough to really sing out and enjoy. In that moment I made a leap, uncertain where I would land, but hopeful nevertheless. My voice wasn’t very beautiful but I had to make that first jump. Then I had to do it again and again. I had to thrust myself onto the path. And thus a great fear that had once chosen dark corners for me to hide in now opened many doors. It offered me a chance to be honest and accepting of much in me that previously was hidden and unwanted. Since that time my voice has always been a great teacher and a great joy, as it continues to unfold the marvels of challenge and freedom.
Entering monastic life, I met the practice of chanting, and it was then that my voice really opened. It was then that I began the process of liberating my voice, setting it free from the sorrow and loneliness that colored it deep within my heart. For the voice carries in it all the shadow and glimmer of our consciousness, afflictions as well as wholesome seeds. Without careful awareness and training we transmit many things to others through our voice frustration, anger, longing, and despair among them. On my own path, the liberation and transformation of my voice settled itself on a regular practice of sitting meditation, conscious breathing, and mindful movement. Soon after, it leapt joyfully into the arms of chant. I found that all aspects of spiritual practice and lifestyle will affect the voice. Likewise, all spiritual endeavor with the voice, such as the practice of chanting, will strengthen the other aspects of our practice.
Chanting as Meditation
Chanting is a meditation practice. If it is not a practice then it is not really chanting. For it is not the notes on the page or the text and font that make up the chant, it is the living voice inspired from the depths of consciousness and summoned from the relaxed and stable posture of the body. Chanting is the realization of the teaching sent out to the world in every syllable. It is the resonance of many voices held together by attentive, listening ears. It is the delicate ringing of harmonic layers left hanging in empty space, and it is the silence which fills up an open heart when it seems that tone is no longer heard.
When we chant well we are moved straight into the beauty and wonder of life without any emotional push and pull. We are moved, but not in the direction of longing, comfort, or excitement, as we are by many musical expressions these days. We are moved towards realization in the practice, towards freedom and clarity. When we chant well we remain grounded in our breathing and our practice of mindfulness. Thus the chant releases tension and knots in both body and mind, transforming us, drawing us into the current of awakening. It helps us let go and be flexible, capable of opening our heart to what is there in the marvelous moment. It reminds us of our resources and the strength of our compassion. It offers us inspiration to persevere through challenge and hardship; and it leaves a peaceful smile on our face.
In the Buddhist practice there are three realms of action in which we cultivate awareness: action of the body, action of speech, and action of thought (mind). In truth, there is no action that exists solely in one of these realms. They all have much to do with each other. The practice of chanting is a practice that consciously brings together all three realms of action into one, and does so in a very pleasant way that can be shared among many people simultaneously. Thus chanting has the potential to generate both concentration and joyful togetherness. Spiritual traditions around the world have recognized this for thousands of years, and almost all have some form of chanting as a substantial part of their practice.
The Realm of the Body
There are many ways to approach the practice of chanting in terms of techniques and methods. Yet there are certain elements of the practice that are important to any method. One of these is the breath.
It is essential in meditation practice, and especially in chanting, that the breath be relaxed and easy. If we can succeed in this then the breath, of its own accord, becomes full, deep, flexible, and strong. To relax the breath we need also to relax the abdomen and the abdominal organs. Thus the diaphragm muscle (which is an elastic membrane separating the lungs and the lower internal organs) can move (drop) easily and allow the lungs to expand to full capacity. If the belly and its contents are relaxed, then the diaphragm muscle can move downwards with very little effort more like letting go than making an effort. Then the chest can gently open, from the inside out, to accommodate more air. This allows our chanting, which relies on the firm and steady force of the out-breath, to come from the center of the body. It comes from the natural upward movement of the diaphragm, rather than the forced constriction of the chest. In this way we avoid using a lot of tension and unnecessary energy for a process that is designed to be relaxed and easy. If we breathe only with our chest, expanding it with the in-breath and contracting it with the out-breath, then we make unnecessary effort. Granted, this can help us to add to the total volume of air in our breathing, but it is not the natural mechanism for the lungs.
This is my experience of the natural process of breathing and its effect on chanting. You can help yourself to enter into this experience of the breath by learning to truly follow your breath without manipulation and keeping your abdomen flexible, warm and relaxed. Allow the diaphragm to draw the air down towards the belly and relax completely into the process of breathing.
Healthy breathing is encouraged by eating in moderation, massaging and stretching the torso of the body regularly, and by an upright and relaxed posture. It is very nice to stand while chanting, softening the knees a little to stay grounded and balanced. If you practice while sitting, be sure not to slouch.
We can also cultivate an awareness of the throat, larynx, neck, and ears. Be gentle, soft, and open in these places. Do not strain the neck forward while chanting. Do not force tones out of your throat. Chant the middle way, not too strong, not too soft. Chant in such a way that you can hear your own voice and also the voices of people chanting with you. Keep the neck and head warm and relaxed at all times. These things will help make it possible for the healing vibrations of sound to work in the body and transform the voice. It will also help to prevent tearing and scarring to the vocal chords and damage to the inner ear.
The Realm of Speech
The practice of chanting lies at the crossroads of spoken word and song. A chant is not a poem and is not just recited. A chant is not a song and is not simply sung. It is expressed with wakefulness somewhere between these two as a powerful poetic recitation and as an uplifting song, carefully blended. When we chant well we benefit from both the clarity of shape and texture and the steady, light, and yet grounded feeling imparted to us through tones.
When speaking and reciting in the English language we primarily use consonant sounds. The consonants sculpt and develop the texture of the voice. The consonants give shape to the meaning of words and can be powerful, beautiful, and sometimes emotionally unsettling.
When we sing a song, we are expressing primarily in vowels. You cannot sing a consonant; you can only sing a vowel. Singing out the vowel sounds, we express the meaning of the song directly in the realm of feeling. Thus, the significance of a song comes to us less from the message in its lyrics and the shape of its consonants, and more from the way its melody and harmony make you feel. This is very important, because the vibration of the tone has no filter before it impacts us. It goes straight past reasoning and we must embrace it as it is. Sometimes the intended meaning of a song and the actual feeling it gives us are in conflict with one another. For example, the lyrics express something light and uplifting but the melody and harmony of tones give rise to sadness and nostalgia. And even if the melody and harmony are appropriate, the voice of the singer can be influenced by his or her state of mind and emotions. Thus the song may not bring about the intended or appropriate feeling. The feelings brought about through the expression of the vowel sounds have great potential. They can be healing and transforming or agitating and even painful. We need to be aware of these things so that the healing spirit of the practice can shine through our chanting and singing.
We can develop awareness of these things by cultivating mindfulness in the act of chanting, as well as at other times; practicing the mindfulness trainings, carefully choosing what we listen to, watering wholesome seeds in our consciousness. Slowly we tear away the veils of our conditioning, and we begin to recognize truth and beauty in music and the voice that carries it. Slowly we bring a spiritual quality and resonance into our own voice and music.
The Realm of Thought
Our thoughts play an important part in chant. Of course the message of the chant is influential. Its content gives rise to energy, inspiring a kind of movement. We might describe this movement as the opening of the heart or stilling of the mind, a beginning anew, the settling of afflictions, or the cooling of desire. These phrases describe not emotions but spiritual activity, an entering into the realms of happiness that lie beneath our busy worldly affairs. The presence and practice of our spiritual ancestors are found in these thoughts expressed in chants. The stability to be gleaned from tradition and lineage is contained in these thoughts as well.
But the very thoughts that enter our mind during the moment of chanting are equally important. We should always remember that chanting is a process of meditation. Do not allow the mind to wander aimlessly. Maintain concentration on the breath, the posture of the body, and the content of the words you are chanting. Then your authentic presence and the chant join together into a living vibration that is shared among all present; and indeed, even those not present will benefit.
It is easy to be distracted by imperfections in your own voice or in the voices around you. Try not to be carried away by such judgments. You do not need a trained and controlled voice or “perfect pitch sensitivity” to chant well. Chanting is about being right where we are, and practicing. Chanting is a process, an unfolding into the present moment. This present moment is a place where many powerful things can happen, especially with the support of our spiritual ancestors and our community of practice. Because chants carry with them the understanding and the compassion of the ancestors, if we don’t feel skilled or confident, we can lean on them. The ancestors and our community are there for that.
I have discovered that a talented singer with a beautiful voice can sing horribly, wounding the heart and ears of the listener. I have also listened to people chant, whose voices, according to technical evaluation, were horrible. But because they chanted with full presence and sincere intention, what came out of them was something spiritually inspiring and beautiful. Talents are often the learning of behavior that brings one the love and recognition one needs, and not necessarily an expression of truth or something beautiful, because what hides beneath the talent is a fear, a longing it is suffering. This untended and unwanted suffering has twisted itself into something acceptable in an attempt to gather recognition that fills the emptiness inside, the void of loneliness. I believe that an artist who meditates must understand these things and take on the path of transformation in order to purify their talent, to make it a conscious, well -tended, and fully embraced expression of their life.
Some people, especially those with some talent or training, find it difficult to chant with others whose voices are not technically skilled. There are many ways to remedy this. The best is to do away with our idea of how things should be. Then happiness reveals itself. It is only difficult to chant with those who have unskilled voices because of our expectation, desire, and on a deeper level, because of the fear of what is not harmonious in us. So leave expectations and desires behind, and do not be afraid to rejoice in the reality of what is there. Start simply, with basic chants suited for the whole community. Have the Sangha practice lots of recitation, reading the texts aloud together. As a community, take up some basic training for the voice; there are huge resources available for this. But most important, always endeavor to do these things as ways to strengthen your practice and the practice of your community. This is cultivating wholesome thoughts in the practice of chanting.
Suggestions for Chanting in Community
Here are several suggestions for individuals and Sanghas to aid in the practice of chanting:
Take time to memorize the words and learn the content so that you can concentrate easily during the chant. Be aware of what you are saying so that you enter into a process of realization and are not simply repeating the text.
Take time to memorize the melody and the basics of the rhythm and dynamics of the chant so you do not have to rely on a piece of paper to remind you of what you are doing. Then you can begin the process of unfolding the tapestry of the chant.
Stay in touch with the process of breathing; learn to take deep and relaxed breaths while chanting. The point is to remain truly present and to cultivate stability and insight while chanting, not to get out of breath and make a flawless performance. If you need a breath, take one, it’s okay to miss a couple of words. Maintain awareness of body posture, holding yourself up right in a relaxed way. Every few breaths check to make sure you are not straining the neck, throat, and facial muscles. Soften them, relax them, and smile.
Listen carefully to other chanters around you as you chant.
All who are chanting must learn to chant with one voice. This is a very deep and wonderfully fruitful practice. Chant lightly, not too loud, so that it is easier to hear those around you. This encourages togetherness. When we chant well together we can begin to allow the expression of the chant to change subtly according to the experience of the content. The chant then becomes something totally alive and the collective experience of being together in freedom can arise very easily. In the Plum Village Chanting and Recitation Book, when practicing the chants marked “breath by breath,” be aware that each breath is usually for one phrase and there is space to draw an in-breath between phrases. We do not need to maintain the rhythm continuously through the chant each phrase stands on its own. They are not marches, and they should express the natural rhythm and dynamics of the English language. Only general guidelines are given as to how long each note is held or how much volume it receives. These chants are open to the expression of the chanters in the present moment and require a lot of listening to each other. They are inspired by the Gregorian technique, but they are not truly Gregorian.
When practicing other chants in the chanting book, we can follow the standard music notation more closely, adhering more to the timing and dynamics that are scored. There are no breath marks, but do not rush to take breaths in between notes. There is no need to worry about saying every syllable or word, skip one or two if necessary in order to take a real in-breath and maintain calm and presence. Remember to listen carefully to those around you as you chant. Rely on the group to carry the chant. We don’t have to do it all by ourselves when we practice as a Sangha.
The musical notation of a chant cannot contain its vitality. The notes and the technique are used as a guide to learn and transmit the basic form of the chant, but we should eventually let them go in order to truly live the chant. Please remember that chanting is not about getting somewhere or attaining something. Come home to the wonderful moment, open your voice, and enjoy!
Brother Chan Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained as a monk in 1996 and became a Dharma Teacher in 2001.
As the wheels leave the miles behind
in a flash of lights in the darkness
As the scene of the quiet night
floats past the windows
I want to be the humming of the engine
and the song of the rushing wind
My body throbs with the vibrations
I can feel the breathing of my fellow travelers.
The wind carries the breath of the world,
singing of love, and love only.
I am the song of the wind,
and nothing else.
Sankar Sitaraman is a member of the Washington Mindfulness community. He is a math professor at Howard University, and is originally from India.
blooming opening with joy
to the caressing light of the sun
My petals extend
delighting in the warmth, the fragrance,
and beauty of being alive
a sweet nectar is gurgling
Oh! I want only to offer
and offer again
all my sweetness
fragrance and beauty
Take me! Take me!
I am yours!
Please enjoy me, drink me
it is my sole desire
my deepest longing
I am full, so fresh
Sister Chan Chau Nghiem, True Adornment with Jewels, is a nun in Deer Park Monastery, CA.
The entire Sangha had been praying for sunshine for months leading up to this day. Yet, when I woke up and peered out the window, I was greeted by gray skies and a light drizzle. Had it been a few months ago, I surely would have panicked. Instead, I donned my raincoat, decided to adopt a sunny attitude and headed out the door to Ottawa’s Parliament Hill to begin setting the stage for the first annual Peace Song Circle organized by Pine Gate Sangha and Friends for Peace. It would be the culmination of three months of effort by the organizing committee. A total of seven local choirs, one dance group and three soloists would soon assemble to share a message of peace through song with their community and the world. With a sense of excitement and just a little nervous anxiety, I could hardly believe the day had arrived.
Early in December, when Ian Prattis, the founder of the Pine Gate Sangha, first proposed the creation of a Peace Song Circle, I was skeptical about the plan. He envisioned several local choirs singing in unison in the name of peace, along with members of the community, other peace organizations, and spiritual groups. The assembly would create a sense of solidarity and strength during a time when we were all feeling increasingly powerless to change the course of world events. It would be a reminder that through our daily practice of mindful living we are doing our part to help create a better world. I fully supported the purpose and need for such an event; I just didn’t see how it would be possible. I suggested it was highly unlikely that we could assemble enough choirs to attend with only three months’ notice. It would require too much rehearsal time and coordination.
A week later, Ian asked for volunteers to help organize the event in Ottawa, on Saturday, March 22. Jean, a woman new to our Sangha, was the first to volunteer. Her contagious enthusiasm set off a chain reaction and a committee of seven organizers was established. I too found myself volunteering to take an active role in this project. I don’t know what possessed me. With a full-time job, how on earth would I find time to contribute?
The organizing committee adopted as our motto, “Stand for Peace, Sing for Peace, Be Peace.” Since Ian was preparing to attend a two-month retreat in India, he was leaving the initial planning entirely in our hands. Now, not only would I be assisting with communications, but I also volunteered to recruit choirs to participate. Having never been involved in such an activity before, I felt overwhelmed.
I was also experiencing a personal crisis in my life after having been laid off from a position I had held for five years. As we were discussing plans for the Peace Song Circle at a committee meeting in late January, I shared my recent news over tea and cookies. Fighting back tears, I offered to devote more time to the project. Soon, I was overcome with emotion. While I hadn’t been happy with my employment situation for some time, I regretted leaving behind talented co-workers with whom I had developed close relationships. I also considered my departure a personal failure, feeling I hadn’t been able to live up to my employer’s expectations of me. As I let the tears fall, the entire group offered their support. As the meeting wrapped up, Jean said to me, “Divine intervention is at work here – just trust in it. You are simply needed elsewhere.”
Through these words, I realized that losing my job was a blessing. During the preceding months, I had often been overcome with work-related anxiety. Being asked to leave brought with it an enormous sense of relief. It eradicated a lot of fears, offering me an inner peace I hadn’t experienced in a long time. And now, I had been given an opportunity to better employ my talents, helping the Sangha to organize the Peace Song Circle. From that point on, I made a conscious choice not to focus on the past, but on the task at hand. When I actually shifted my energy to organizing the Peace Song Circle, I felt a sense of purpose, which my life had been lacking for a long time.
Organizing tasks began to fall into place. Our first major obstacle was finding a sound crew and system on a non-existent budget. Somehow, one miraculously materialized. Next, we had to recruit the performers. Although I received many, many rejections, we eventually did end up with just the right number of choirs and soloists. When two choirs backed out three weeks before the event, I stayed relaxed, and within two days, two more choirs offered to participate.
And then, there I was, on Parliament Hill, as the final preparations for the Peace Song Circle were underway. The sound system was assembled, and all of the choirs and individual performers had arrived.
As the clock on the Peace Tower struck 10:00 am on March 22, Chris, the master of ceremonies, launched the proceedings. Ian came forth and thanked the two or three hundred gathered for having braved the weather to join us in our stand for peace. He invited everyone to remain strong in the face of the overwhelming feelings of fear, anger, and hatred that tend to arise during such difficult times. Given that war had actually begun just days before, uniting to convey this message of peace seemed more crucial than ever. As I stood at my post near the sound booth, I was grateful to Ian for having had the leadership and vision to initiate the event. The Peace Song Circle had already created an enormous impact on my life; I just hoped it would have an equally powerful effect on everyone gathered to share in it.
As the first choir broke into song with, “All Within Me Peaceful,” the atmosphere began to transform. With each graceful sway of their arms, the accompanying dancers cast a calming spell over everyone. In turn, each performing group shared its unique talents and message with the audience. Whether it was through the middle-eastern flavor of the music of Jeanette de Nazareth, the spirited rhythms of the Ottawa Community Gospel Choir, the aggressive guitar riffs of the local rock group, Nir Blue, or the gentle folk melodies of the Oddities, the call for peace was strong and consistent. Throughout the two hours, children in the crowd danced happily as their parents joined in the singing, lending further strength to our call for peace and attesting to the healing energy that had been generated.
During the final performance, it dawned on me that the light rain was appropriate for the occasion. The sky seemed to be weeping tears of joy on the colorful array of umbrellas assembled, thankful for the peace offering we had just made. I too shed a joyful tear, grateful that, despite my fears and anxieties, everything had run so smoothly and that I had been able to contribute to this special event. I surrendered to the beauty of the moment. And in that moment, I found peace.
A one-hour documentary of the Peace Song Circle is available, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trisha Diduch practices with the Pine Gate Sangha in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. After four months of unemployment, Tricia is now happily working in Ottawa’s tourism industry.
“In Gratitude” was composed by Irene D’Auria for a gathering to support Ernestine Enomoto when she was moving from Washington D.C. to Hawaii. It was brought by members of the Washington D.C. Mindfulness Community to Plum Village during the 21-day “Hands of the Buddha Retreat” in June, 2002.
Brother Phap Uyen shares his path of practice
from Brother Phap Uyen’s writings and an interview by Sister Steadiness
My mom and I met Thay at a retreat in Redlands, California in 1989. I took the five mindfulness trainings and received the name Tam Houng,
Strength of the Heart. Two years later I joined the military. I was seventeen and a half and I didn’t really practice the five mindfulness trainings. Though my friends didn’t understand why I went into the military, it was my way of repaying the American servicemen that came to Vietnam and gave their lives so that I could come to the United States when I was two and have a better chance for education and a better way of living.
Entering Monastic Life
After coming home from the military and getting married I worked long hours every day because it helped me not to think about the problems I was having. Soon after Deer Park Monastery opened, my mom sent me there for two and half months to relax and try to change this habit.
My step dad and I had a hard time communicating when I was growing up. He went to Plum Village for the 2001 winter retreat, and when he returned we started trying to improve our communication. He suggested I go to Plum Village, so I went in the spring of 2002. I had fun during the Francophone retreat and the Vietnamese retreat. I started spending more and more time with the brothers.
I was planning to stay for the summer retreat and then return to the U.S. to start Chinese medicine school. After being trained to kill people in the military, I realized that I would rather use my hands to help heal people than use my hands to hurt people. I went to school for massage therapy and I wanted to study Chinese medicine as well. But when Thay’s Dharma talks started sinking in, I began to realize that if I became a monastic then I could help heal people’s mental problems or problems within themselves.
I wrote my letter requesting to be a monastic about two weeks before my ordination. I called my mom and when she heard that I was getting ordained she was very happy. She and my step dad, my sister, and my grandma came to Plum Village for my ordination, which made me very happy. My mom said, “If you love me then you will always take care of yourself and I hope being a monastic will make you happy.” Every time my mom calls me she asks, “Are you happy?”
It was January of 1992. I had just arrived at the Naval Recruit Training Center. It was 0200 hours. We were all tired, but there was a drill instructor yelling and screaming at us. We were up until 0400 hours filling out papers, being put into companies, and finding out where we would be staying while we were being processed. We arrived at our barracks at 0415 hours and at 0530 hours a drill instructor came in banging on a metal trashcan to wake us up. We were the low-life of the military; we had not yet earned the right to be called sailors.
We had three months of training to learn to go into full combat situations with firing practice and live rounds. We had biological weapons classes and had to go through the gas chamber without our gas masks on. We also studied firefighting. Putting our lives in the hands of one another really united us. It broke our habit of being individuals and taught us to work together to achieve our goals.
After graduation from basic training I went to SEALS Training School. SEALS stands for Sea, Air, and Land. I enjoyed my time in the SEALS Training Program. I was in the best physical shape of my life. But there was something missing. I was getting physically stronger, but I was also becoming a non-human being. I was trained to do one thing: to kill and ask questions later. We were taught many ways to get into enemy lines undetected, blow things up, and neutralize targets and people. So when I was almost through with my training I reported that I wanted to leave.
During my SEALS training we would run, swim, and learn to paddle inflatable boats against the waves. We did a lot of push-ups, sit-ups, and ran five miles a day in the sand carrying eighty-pound packs. We studied first aid, hand-to-hand combat, a martial art called ninjitsu, firing different guns, blowing things up with explosives, and learning to make our own bombs. We learned how to use special weapons like machine guns, handguns, and knives. We were trained to kill people without them making a sound. We learned different joint locks and pressure points, how to jump out of planes, free fall sky diving, face first rappelling, map reading, how to communicate using military sign language, and how to disarm missiles, rockets, and bombs. We went through a survival program twenty-one day exer cise, where we were supposed to rescue a helicopter unit that had crashed on an island. Our instructors played the enemies. If we were caught we would become prisoners of war. They would torture us by hitting us with sticks, put bamboo sticks in between our fingers and squeeze them together, give us electric shock treatment, starve us, or lock us in small cages. They would try to get information from us, like where our command post was, which person was in command of the operation, or our mission briefing information. If our focus was strong then we would state our rank, our military branch, and our social security number, repeating this until we passed out. We were graded on this exercise and our leadership abilities as part of our graduation requirements.
In the last part of our training we went through hell week where we stayed up for the whole week, taking vitamins to help stay awake. To test our leadership abilities, we were put in a combat environment with guns and grenades exploding everywhere. We were trained to always rescue our fallen comrades and bring them home with us.
After making it through hell week, I had two weeks left of training before graduation. But instead I left. I saw that a lot of my friends were becoming meaner and more aggressive. It felt as if we had a switch that we could flip to change from being a nice person to a very dangerous, killing machine. Sometimes I saw that the switch could get stuck and we could not change back into a nice person. I felt like a wild animal because all I was doing was being trained to kill. Usually a SEALS class starts with about 300 to 500 people, but only ten to fifteen people graduate. I would have graduated at the top of my class.
Comparing Monastic Life to Military Life
The military and the monastic life are similar in some ways. In the military we woke up at five in the morning. In monastic life we also wake up at five o’clock to do sitting meditation. It helps us to concentrate and to reflect on ourselves. That is what I spend a lot of my time doing. In the military we didn’t have time for self-reflection because we were always busy.
As monastics we have time to rest. We do walking meditation, which I enjoy. We study our fine manners and our ten novice precepts.1 One of the most important things we do in Upper Hamlet is to build brotherhood. We also have a novice council. We talk with the elder brothers and decide what we want to do as novices. That way we have a say. When I was in the military we didn’t have a say in anything. The officers of the unit would just tell the lower ranks what to do.
Transforming Unwholesome Habits and Anger
I picked up some bad habits while I was in the service, like drinking and smoking, which I now have given up. A lot of special services people engage in unwholesome things like drinking, having casual sexual relationships, gambling, and spending money. Instead of living our lives to the fullest, knowing that we might not be around the next day, we did these things to forget and to not feel.
After I left the military my life was not good. I saw that I was losing some of my human qualities. Since I didn’t get along with my father, I didn’t go home. I hung around with some people that weren’t very nice. Some of those people still write to me, but I don’t respond to them like I do to other friends.
Military life is very aggressive. When I was in the military we were taught to react first and ask questions later. For example, if we had a problem with somebody else we wouldn’t talk to that person. Usually we would go to the bottom of the ship at night and fight it out until only one person was left standing. Other people would come down and watch the fight.
Even though I am a monastic now, still sometimes that energy of anger arises in me. When that happens, I try to come back to my breathing. I know that I shouldn’t say anything when I am angry. Instead, I do walking meditation or I go back to my room, make some tea, light some candles and incense and just sit there and enjoy the tea, looking out my window. Now I can control my temper much better. That is a big change for me. Another practice that I like is Beginning Anew. Every night before I go to bed I light some incense and candles on the altar in my room and I practice Beginning Anew from our Plum Village chanting book. I begin with the incense offering and go through the whole ceremony. In it, you repent for things that you have done wrong in the past, not just in this lifetime but for countless lifetimes before. You want to be brand new again. I also do Touching the Earth, which has helped me release a lot of anger and resentment towards a lot of things that have happened in the past between me and my family.2 It is also a big help to have supportive brothers and sisters, and my mentor who I can always talk to and ask for help.
Practicing with Physical Pain
One difficulty I have struggled with is that my knee, my ankles, and my back are pretty messed up due to the violent nature of my military and martial arts training. When I was younger I never thought about the effects that this training would have on my body. When I was training in martial arts, my instructor would make us break bricks and wooden boards with our bodies. As you advance in rank you can’t just punch the board or chop the brick with your hands, you have to use different parts of your body. I would always use my legs, since they were the strongest part of my body. That is why my knees are pretty messed up.
In addition, the bones on both sides of my vertebrae are cracked, so often it hurts a lot, especially at night when I sleep. I can get up in the morning to go to sitting meditation, but it hurts. Also I don’t want to disturb my brothers when they are sitting in meditation so I just sit in my room.
As monastics one of the main things we do is sit in meditation. Since I can’t sit very long, I feel isolated from the Sangha in some ways. But Thay Abbot, my mentor, has encouraged me to sit with the whole Sangha. If I can’t sit for the duration, he said to just sit for half the time and then do walking meditation. Or he suggested that when everybody else is sitting, that I do walking meditation instead of staying in my room. That is why I like to go for long walks as my way of doing meditation. I practice to embrace my pain when it is there. I am also aware that my pain is not always here; I can run; I can play volleyball too.
My Relationship with My Mentor
I can talk with my mentor, Brother Nguyen Hai (Thay Abbot), about problems that I am having or about problems with any of the brothers. I ask him for suggestions on how I can help build brotherhood between the Western brothers and the Vietnamese brothers. He is very understanding about the problem with my back.
I am also his attendant. It is a great opportunity for me because it helps me focus on the practice. When I walk with him it is like walking with my teacher and I am mindful of my steps and aware of what I am doing. He told me that I still need to learn to walk in a gentler way, because from the military I developed a strong way of walking.
Facing Another Challenge
During winter retreat one of my close friends came to visit. She’s been a practitioner of Plum Village for a long time. It was a little hard to be with her now that I am a monastic. During the holiday season she asked to give me a hug. I went over and asked my mentor and he said, I guess she can hug you, but it would be best if she didn’t. So I asked him to come and stand next to us while she gave me a hug.
She kept forgetting that I am a monastic now, so while we were walking together she would try to hold onto my robe. I would have to remind her not to do this. The feelings that came up in me were there for a couple of weeks after she left. Talking to my mentor and reflecting on my life I see that I care for her still, but my love for her is not romantic now. As Thay has said, we are human beings so sometimes that energy still arises and we have to know how to take care of it. I have talked to my mentor about it a lot.
Re-establishing Communication with my Dad
One of the biggest things that happened for me as a monastic is that I wrote a letter to my real dad in Arizona. It was the first letter I have ever written him. It has been really hard for us to communicate because he is a very traditional Vietnamese and he has a hot temper. That is probably where I get my temper. I have been trying to keep in contact with him because I know that my dad and his side of the family are suffering a lot. My dad is the eldest son in the family, which makes me the eldest grandson and I am the one who is supposed to carry on the family line. But now that I am a monastic that is not happening. My only sibling is my sister and my only child is a daughter, so I have no descendants that carry the family name. I know that has hurt my father. I try to explain that I have become a monastic because I don’t want to be a monster of society anymore; I want to help people and their suffering, and first I have to help myself.
It was very hard for me to talk to my dad because he regarded his viewpoint as the best one and he didn’t listen to what I said. In Asian culture when the grown-ups talk the children are expected to just go out and play. In the past when I tried to talk to my dad we would begin arguing after five minutes because we didn’t understand each other. But slowly that has changed. I call my dad every once in a while and ask how he is doing, and I tell him about my happiness. I don’t preach to him because I know a lot of my family members on my father’s side don’t have a strong faith in the church or in the Buddhist religion. Being Vietnamese, since we were small my grandma took us to the temple, so we say that we are Buddhist but a lot of my father’s family doesn’t have energy or faith in the practice. My mom has said that my being a monastic can hopefully change that energy on my dad’s side of the family.
My Relationship with My Daughter
My daughter’s mother and I divorced when my daughter was less than a year old due to our cultural differences. Her mother is Catholic and Hispanic and I am Buddhist and Vietnamese. We didn’t understand each other so it was really hard for us. When my daughter was born I was working and going to school at the same time. I would get home at eleven o’clock at night. As soon as my key touched the lock my daughter would wake up. I would play with her and she would smile. When we divorced my ex-wife moved to another city with my daughter, so I didn’t get to see her very often. Before I became a monastic I sold a car and set aside that money to pay my daughter’s child support. My sister and other relatives offered to help visit and take care of my daughter so I could become a monastic.
My mom is coming to Plum Village this summer and she will try to bring my daughter with her. In some ways I feel that being a monastic is the best way that I can help my daughter. I would rather be fully present for her one month of the year than to be around her twelve months out of the year and not truly be present for her.
Serving in Kuwait / The Suffering of War
I was in Kuwait from June to December of 1992. I now see that we were over there not because of the suffering of the people of Kuwait, but for the oil. I have met a lot of Iraqi people. They are great people, some are very friendly. Yet I also remember meeting some Iraqi villagers that were very hostile towards us American soldiers, and I couldn’t understand why. I thought we were trying to help them end the suffering that their government was causing them. I now know that they might have rather put up with the treatment from their government than have us come and cause more suffering.
In 1985 the United States sold biological weapons to Iraq. Iraq then attacked us in the Gulf War with our own weapons. A violent act towards others will bring a violent act towards you. So when the United States attacked Iraq during the Gulf War it helped September 11th to manifest for the United States. And when Iraq attacked the United States they were also causing suffering for their own people. They launched biological weapons into the air, which infected the Iraqi people and their food as well as their enemies. That is a big price to pay for oil and holding onto a point of view.
The biological weapons used in Kuwait on the United States service people affected some of my friends. The United States won’t admit that some of us contracted this illness, called Desert Storm Syndrome. I have two friends that have severe problems.
One is a sergeant in the Marine Corps. Two weeks after returning from Kuwait he lost forty pounds and experiences a burning sensation inside his body. His wife told me that he may have only two years before he continues in a new manifestation. He is only twenty-eight years old.
Another friend is also a sergeant in the Marine Corps. She has burning, red spots on her skin that break open and leak yellow pus. The doctors have given her some experimental medicine, but it is not helping. She is having problems with her boyfriend because she can no longer have a child. She is suffering a lot. She feels very alone now. I told her that she is never alone. She always has her parents, herself, and her close friends to help her and that we will always be by her side.
Insights From the War
When I look back on being a soldier, I see that we do protect the freedom of our country. But we must also protect the freedom of all other people and things. We shouldn’t see ourselves as higher or better than anyone else. All of us have come to be what we are due to a lot of things. The rich are not separate from the poor, the just from the unjust, the first world from the third world countries. We are like this because they are like that; they are like that because we are like this. To protect and support ourselves, we have to protect and support others. We are made of each other. We are each other. We experience the same suffering of violence, fear, anger, hatred, and discrimination. My experience in Kuwait taught me that much.
I believe that if our president and political leaders were the ones leading us into battle, putting their own lives on the line, then they would think more carefully before they go to war. They would have seen first-hand, for example, the suffering and destruction that happened when our missiles went off target and wiped out small towns.
I believe instead of fighting each other we should work together to end poverty, hunger, malnutrition, and homelessness. We should educate the children, care for the sick and old, and work towards peace for the world instead of fighting over oil, which doesn’t really belong to anyone except the cosmos. We cannot take oil with us when we die. We fight so hard for oil because we are greedy and fixed in our own point of view. Instead we need to focus on what is actually worth working for: peace and harmony in the world.
Serving as a Monastic / Helping Others
My martial arts training has helped me come back to myself. I don’t practice the styles that I learned in the military because they can easily make a person become violent. Now I practice tai chi and aikido to become centered. I am beginning to share this practice with the Sangha. I also learned how to cook in the military, and now I cook and bake cakes for the Sangha.
I am very interested in helping teenagers. When I got out of the military, I thought about becoming a teacher. I see that if we help the younger generation to build their wholesome seeds then we don’t need to be afraid. But if we help them to water their negative or harmful seeds then we have a lot to worry about because they are going to be our future leaders.
It brings me great joy, especially during summer retreat, to help Vietnamese teenagers. Even though I am twenty-nine years old I am still young, and at the same time, I have had a lot of life experience. I have been through the military, I have been married twice, I have a seven year-old daughter, and I have lived on my own. Many young people think that their parents are old and don’t understand what they are going through. They think they want to get away from their parents and live on their own, but they don’t understand what it is like to live on their own. Hopefully, by sharing my experience they can understand both the positive and negative sides of leaving home.
I know that I have a lot of transforming to do. A lot of people joke about my name, Dharma Garden. I asked Thay one day when I was his attendant, why Dharma Garden? He said, because you have a lot of seeds in you, both wholesome and unwholesome. As the gardener you have to transform the unwholesome seeds.
My Joy as a Monk
My biggest joy as a monk is being around Thay and my brothers and sisters. Sometimes I am sad about what is going on around me, because occasionally my brothers and sisters don’t act as I expect them to. But I am reminded by my elders in Upper Hamlet that just because we are monastics, we’re not saints, and we all have shortcomings. Sometimes I get discouraged because a brother might talk to me a bit harshly. But, if I truly care about that brother I will find out why he is acting that way. Often it is just because he is tired or has something on his mind.
One of my joys is offering massages to my brothers. Sometimes a brother will ask me why I don’t get tired, giving so many massages. But I don’t feel tired because doing this helps me connect to the brother that I am massaging. When we massage Thay, we follow Thay’s breath, and that is how I massage my brothers. Sometimes when I massage my mentor and I am not following my breath he will stop me and say, “What are you thinking about?” And I become aware that I am not totally focused on what I am doing.
Another joy is drinking tea with my brothers. Every day it is busy in my room because all the brothers stop by and we drink tea, we laugh and play. My room is like grand central station for the brothers before they go to other activities in Upper Hamlet. It is a real joy to have my brothers around.
Brother Chan Phap Uyen, True Dharma Garden, ordained as a monk in 2002 and lives in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.
Sister Chan Thuong Nghiem (Sister Steadiness), is a nun in Plum Village.
- To read the ten novice precepts and the forty-nine chapters of fine manners for novices see Stepping into Freedom by Thich Nhat Hanh.
- See article in the Mindfulness Bell 33 about “Touching the Earth” practice and A text of Touching the Earth is also in the Plum Village Chanting Book (Berkeley: Parallax, 1999.)
Vince Rogalski, Sr.
I am a Vietnam combat veteran. I grew up in a strict Catholic family, the second of five children. We were poor, living in a two-bedroom house in a rough neighborhood. My father worked hard all his life; my mom was a full time wife and mother.
As a young Catholic, I was an altar boy, choirboy, and even considered joining the priesthood. But I was not an angel by any means. In our neighborhood, you needed to be tough or at least appear to be tough to get along. I got along. I always disliked school, even though I did pretty well most of the time.
I left college in 1967, and that November I was drafted. Five months later I was in Vietnam. My story is like many who saw heavy combat. It’s enough to say the experience is one I have never forgotten. I will always be a Vietnam veteran.
I returned in May of 1968 with an Army Commendation Medal, a Bronze Star, and some Purple Hearts. But the pride and honor I felt was short-lived, and I soon realized that the wounds I came home with weren’t the kind that bled.
I was married two weeks after returning. My wife and I spent the remaining six months of my service in Colorado. We wanted a family, and my son was born in 1970, and my daughter two years later.
It was a struggle to make ends meet and the situation became desperate in 1973 when I was diagnosed with serious ulcers. I had three major surgeries and spent twenty-five days in the Intensive Care Unit where I almost died.
After that, I was out of work for a long time. We lost the house we had been buying. With creditors knocking on our door, I went back to work against my doctor’s advice. I sank into a depression but was too proud to seek professional help. I felt that since I had gone through a war, I should be able to handle anything. I felt that the government didn’t care about me so I couldn’t turn there for help.
For a couple of years I did everything I could think of to improve our situation. I took a second job, I worked overtime, I went back to school. But our situation didn’t improve. So I resorted to escaping in drugs and alcohol to numb my pain. In 1976, I got a bunch of pills and a lot of booze and tried to kill myself, but instead I spent sixteen weeks in a locked ward at the Johns Hopkins mental hospital. There I was diagnosed with a war neurosis. I’d been having nightmares at night and in the daytime too. They called them flashbacks. I called them day mares. I got out of the hospital but I was still messed up. I finally started to see a psychiatrist through a new government outreach program for vets. I’ve been in some type of professional therapy ever since.
For the next twenty-two years, with the help of medication and counseling, I managed to keep my head above water, but just barely. During all these years, I couldn’t get close to people. I thought I didn’t trust them. What I came to realize was that I didn’t trust myself. After my parents died and my children were married, I left my wife. I honestly believe she’s better off without me. I knew that she could never forgive me or forget or let me forget. That was a big part of the problem. I couldn’t forget! The memories, the depression, the loss of my faith and self-esteem, all bore down once again. I was determined not to see the new millennium. This time I was going make sure my suicide attempt was successful. A bottle of liquor, all the pills I had at my disposal, and my quiet apartment was all I needed. But once again I failed. A worried friend came over and found me unconscious. This led to six months of intense treatment in four different mental institutions and six shock therapy treatments.
During this time, my son sent me a copy of a book titled Being Peace. The author was a Vietnamese monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. I am not a reader, but I had a lot of time on my hands at that particular moment so I read it. I felt a change in my perspective. I got another book called Touching Peace. After I finished it, I realized that I was thinking about the things I had read at least a little each day. I had never meditated before, but I tried it. I was still depressed and very unsure, but I seemed to be becoming calmer and more at peace.
The following year, 1999, my son told me about a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh at the Omega Institute. We went together. There was a veteran’s group there who welcomed both me and my son, which surprised both of us.
We experienced that though the people in the group were not all vets, they were all connected somehow. Not just connected by the war but connected to one another in a much more special way. Soon my son and I felt connected too. They were warm, loving, and honestly caring. Then we heard Thich Nhat Hanh speak about the way this Sangha practiced together and we began to understand more. We became a member of their family. It felt good to be hugged and in a very short while, I felt as if I’d known these people all my life. But more than that, I cared about them and somehow, I knew they really cared about me. It was hard to leave.
We went home and shared our experiences at the retreat and the next year we returned, bringing my daughter. She experienced the same warm welcome. It was a great thing: my son, my daughter, and I were having this experience together. I have never felt closer to my children. They have always been the center of my life but this practice has brought us together in a way that is hard to explain. We went to the retreat again last year and I’m sure we’ll go again.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a powerful, yet soothing teacher. His teachings haven’t solved my problems, but they have allowed me to slow down enough to see myself and others more clearly. I still feel much pain, guilt, and regret about the past. I also feel there is much to be thankful for. If it were not for my friend finding me unconscious, I would not be here now. I would have missed knowing my children, their spouses, and my three terrific grandchildren.
I’m not sure what a miracle is but for me it’s having hope where once there was none. I am now struggling with the realization that I have been diagnosed with leukemia and more recently Hepatitis C. I don’t expect miracles. I am only trying for hope and peace. Thich Nhat Hanh, the veterans’ Sangha, my daughter, Amy, my son, Vince, and my friend Kathy, have given me hope. I will always be a Vietnam veteran. I can neither forget nor change that. I now feel I have the strength to be other things. I hope it’s not too late to find peace.
Vince Rogalski, Sr. lives outside Baltimore, Maryland, where he is a government audit coordinator at Northrup Grumman. He continues to practice mindfulness with his son and daughter, and their families.
The Veteran’s Scholarship Fund is used exclusively to assist those who wish to join the Veteran’s Sangha at Thay’s retreats who otherwise might not be able to attend. The Veteran’s Sangha is committed to helping vets and family members process their feelings concerning the trauma of war. Contributions would be gratefully appreciated, and should be sent to Green Mountain Dharma Center, c/o Joyce, PO Box 182, Hartland Four Corners, VT 05049
Speech given at a peace rally in Veterans’ Park, Medford, Oregon in February, 2003
My name is Mike McGuire, and I am a veteran. Nearly thirty-five years ago I took an oath to my country and myself that I am still committed to uphold. Ironically, in substance it is very similar to the oath taken by George W. Bush as he officially assumed the role of Commander in Chief. In my case, the oath was on the occasion of receiving a commission to become an officer in the United States Navy in 1968. That oath to which we both swore our allegiance was to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America from enemies both foreign and domestic. It was clear to me then, as it is clear to me now, that it is this magnificent document, this Constitution, in particular the Bill of Rights, that makes America the country I would be proud to serve.
Much has changed in those thirty-five years. Much has changed in the last two years. It troubles me deeply that George W. Bush apparently did not take that oath seriously. Since his appointment as Commander in Chief two years ago, many of our basic Constitutional rights have been gutted.
Against everything that our founding fathers envisaged, it is now legal for an America citizen to be “disappeared,” with no right to legal council, no notification of arrest, no information as to where they are being held, and no safeguards against any misconduct or torture at the hands of their captors. All that is required is that the Executive branch of government or the military label you a “terrorist” and you are gone. No different than those countries whose actions we call inhumane and barbaric.
From an historical perspective, I believe the service given by a warrior to his society has been a heroic and honorable endeavor. It has been traditionally a selfless and necessary activity of maintaining borders and protecting women, children, and the necessities of life from the immediate dangers of invasion. But there is no honor when that warrior is instead ordered to murder large numbers of innocents in order to facilitate the theft of another sovereign nation’s resources in this case oil for the exclusive profit of the wealthiest multi-national corporations. Instead, this action turns into murder-for-hire.
How did we get to the point that the greatest threat to the U.S. Constitution is from within our own borders? How is it that the document which guarantees the human rights of American citizens is being erased before our very eyes? We each need to contemplate this question deeply. But what I want to address now is what we can do about creating a solution.
Reduced to its simplest form, this theft of our freedoms and rights has been accomplished through the calculated use of fear. Who doesn’t carry this fear? My personal fear is less about what Osama Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein has done or will do, and more about the direction my government is heading. But fear is fear. Where it gets projected is less important than how its effects cripple my sense of peace. Often it seems that the common assumption is that peace is the absence of war. But if I’m obsessed with fear, what peace can I experience?
Sometimes it seems all too easy to assume that peace is lacking because of George Bush or members of his administration. But that’s because in that moment I perceive those circumstances as being more real than the simple reality that I am alive and breathing and that in that breath lies the experience of true peace.
If the anti-war movement is to evolve into a true peace celebration, it will be because we as individuals know peace more truly than we know the fear we are being fed. It will be because we know an absolute standard by which to evaluate all else. That is the infinite and beautiful gift of life. I am capable of respecting another’s life only to the extent that I am respecting my own. If I want peace, I am capable of creating peace only to the extent that I know peace.
So I reach out to each of you to look to that which provides for you the greatest feeling of peace and well being in your lives. Take time to listen to that small wise voice within and the silence beyond. It may be most easily heard through your spiritual or religious practice. It might be through activities in your community; it might be spending time in nature only you know what nourishes you.
I believe that when enough people know the value of their own lives, that the values of this country indeed the world will be respect, dignity, compassion, peace, and freedom.
In conclusion I say that fear is the enemy. And that only peace prevails over fear. I invite you to know that peace within you and rise up with peace in your hearts and celebrate life.
Mike McGuire lives in Talent, Oregon and practices with the Community of Mindful Living, Southern Oregon. He is an active member of Peace House, the local chapter of Fellowship of Reconciliation.
How do you help people facing grave injustices to develop compassion in action?
This was the challenge facing me and the Buddhist nonviolence trainer Ouyporn Khuankaew, when we were asked to lead advanced nonviolence training for Cambodian activists.
The advanced training was to follow up on a nonviolence training Ouyporn and I had co-facilitated in Phnom Penh in the year 2000. That training had involved a challenging mix of nineteen university students, mostly younger women, and five illiterate older Buddhist nuns. The participants had belonged to two very different social groups that seldom interacted. The advanced training, too, would bring together groups that seldom mixed: university students from the urban center of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, and villagers from some of Cambodia’s poorest provinces.
The request to help facilitate the advanced training was exciting for several reasons. Since the first nonviolence training, the university students had been conducting their own trainings. They called themselves the Women Peace Makers group, and first aided girls in factories in the capital who were organizing for better working conditions. They then learned of villagers in rural areas who were struggling non-violently to stop illegal logging or land grabbing, and began to reach out to those communities. The advanced training would be a wonderful opportunity to learn more about these struggles, which seldom receive any attention from the international community.
Even more important, both Ouyporn and I were eager to learn more about engaged Buddhism in Cambodia. We are both Buddhist practitioners and especially influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh’s call to bring Buddhist perspectives to contemporary social problems. The desire to relieve suffering and to further develop the practice of Buddhist active nonviolence motivated us.
Bringing the Temple to the Streets
Cambodia has its own history of engaged Buddhism. Cambodia’s Supreme Patriarch, the monk Maha Ghosananda, has also called upon Buddhist practitioners to “bring the temple into the streets.” Similar to Thay’s work to end the devastating war in Vietnam, in 1987 Maha Ghosananda led a group of Buddhists monks and nuns to the United Nations’ sponsored peace talks in Indonesia. There he told all the fighting factions that he would form a fifth army. But this would be an “army of peace” whose ammunition would be “bullets of loving kindness.” “It will be an army absolutely without guns or partisan politics,” he announced, “an army of reconciliation with so much courage that it turns away from violence, an army dedicated wholly to peace and to the end of suffering.”
Since 1992 thousands of nuns, monks and lay people have joined Maha Ghosananda’s annual peace marches throughout Cambodia, called Dhammayietras. The first Dhammayietra played a very important role in de-escalating the atmosphere of violence during Cambodia’s first election. They have helped spread the values of nonviolence and compassion, and spread life-saving information on landmines, AIDS and the need to stop deforestation.
Many of the participants were surprised during our first training in Cambodia when we talked about Cambodia’s long history of active nonviolence, citing the example of Maha Ghosananda. They expected to hear instead about new, Western ideas on conflict resolution. But nonviolence, sometimes translated in Asia as ahimsa or “non-harming”, is evident in every culture and is as old as humanity. One aim of nonviolence training is to promote awareness of the values and resources that make for a culture of peace and nonviolence in the participants’ own culture.
This was especially important in Cambodia, where the scars of war remain unhealed. Between 1975 and 1979, at least one million Cambodians died of executions, forced labor, malnutrition, and disease. This was the period of the Khmer Rouge, the armed Cambodia force that outlawed money, schools, private property, and law courts. In this country where ninety-five percent of the population is Buddhist, the practice of religion was outlawed. Monks and nuns were forced to disrobe or be killed. An estimated 60,000 Buddhist monks died from starvation or execution during the Khmer Rouge years.
In the 1990’s Buddhist groups, such as the U.S. based Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the Thailand based International Network of Engaged Buddhists, helped to rebuild Buddhism by bringing in teaching materials on the Dharma and by supporting the education of Cambodian monks and nuns. Today, in a Cambodia where both politics and the courts are corrupt, the ordained Sangha is one of the few social institutions ordinary people trust.
Compassion in Action
Buddhism was obviously an important tool that the thirty-nine participants in the advanced training, held in August 2002, could use. We encouraged participants to use the Four Noble Truths in the training session on ways to analyze a conflict. First, identify the conflict, then look at the causes of the conflict. Then realize that solutions to the conflict were possible. This third truth could not be over estimated, because it is the basis of hope. There is mass corruption in Cambodian society. The rich, who may make their money from drugs, prostitution, or the exploitation of Cambodia’s dwindling natural resources, often bribe officials, while the poor can be picked up and thrown into jail at the whim of police. There was brutalization on a mass scale during the Khmer Rouge years. The trauma remains and violence is still common in Cambodia. Maintaining hope in such a situation is no small feat.
The fourth step in conflict analysis based on the Four Noble Truths involves identifying concrete ways to a solution. Tools to help the participants discover ways to find just solutions to social problems were explored. Many skits and practical exercises were held during the six-day training. They were all based on practical problems that the participants faced in their everyday lives. These problems included how to continue a nonviolent struggle after the villagers’ first action had failed; how to encourage people to try nonviolent methods rather than violence; and how to continue a nonviolent struggle even after the leaders have been killed.
The villagers, and the students who supported them, faced possible imprisonment. Corrupt police would be paid to put them in jail, or to beat them up. The deep belief in Buddhism gave some of the participants the courage to continue their struggles in the face of such massive odds. One of the participants was an older man, the leader of a village. In his village people make their living from fishing. But businesses were threatening their livelihood. Illegal trawlers were fishing in the traditional areas, capturing or killing all the fish. After their many complaints to the police were ignored, the villagers confiscated the trawlers, carefully explaining to the trawler crews why they were doing this.
The businessman, who refused to meet with the villagers, filed a court case, claiming they had destroyed his property. He also threatened to kill some of the villagers. This was no idle threat: in some villages there are many widows whose husbands have been killed after protesting illegal fishing.
During the training, the village leader said, “The Buddha teaches us that everything will change. He teaches us that we all will die. So why should I be afraid of being killed? Since I will die, I would rather die for something important, rather than for something unimportant.” The entire room full of participants clapped and cheered this statement.
In addition to tools such as deep listening and conflict analysis, Ouyporn and I encouraged the participants to cultivate meditation. This tool to help cultivate inner peace would support the activists when dealing with the inevitable strong emotions of anger and fear. Every day we would begin by sitting in silence. Many participants had never meditated before. They were awkward at first, shifting uneasily on the bamboo matting which covered the floor.
After each silent sitting, we invited questions. “Why concentrate on the breath?” “Why do my thoughts constantly go back to my boyfriend, who made me very sad?” “My back hurts, am I doing something wrong?” “Why do you ring a bell; the meditation teacher at my temple never does this?” Were some of the questions.
Ouyporn and I shared our experiences with meditation, and repeated why it is important for activists to be still and reflective. Meditation is a tool as useful as conflict analysis models or any other organizing skill, we said. It can help us develop the inner strength to continue the struggle for peace even when everything and everyone around us says to give up.
This inner strength was especially important for the women in the training. Although women are now sixty percent of the population, because so many men and boys were killed by the Khmer Rouge, women have little power or respect in Cambodian society. “Cambodian women should be gentle, modest and shy,” said one woman. “Choosing a husband is the responsibility of the parents, not the daughter herself. A woman’s role is to know how to cook, take care of the children and serve her husband.” The women students (who form a minority in the country, as only fourteen percent of university students are female) talked about family pressure to give up their studies and social change work, in order to marry. Some participants cried when they also told how some villagers assume the women students must be prostitutes, because how else could a woman be free to travel from the city to the countryside?
At the end of the advanced training some participants said that the meditation was one of the most useful tools they learned. Ouyporn and I learned much from all the participants, especially about perseverance and courage. All of us learned a little more about how the rich insights of Buddhism can be applied to the most destructive problems of the modern world.
Shelley Anderson, True Great Harmony, coordinates the Women Peacemakers Program of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation and lives in Holland.
For my Mom and her flower garden
In summer, the day lily opens its lavish orange petals for the sun
and withdraws at night, enfolding itself in a sacred and secret stillness.
This is where the myriad songs of the million birds dwell:
nestled in the throat of the lily.
And in the lily’s protective keeping,
a dream of the moon rises over the blue, forested hills
and follows its dream course
through a universe of stars,
warm in their remembrance
yet cold in their distance,
while the starry winds
and the night birds’ tentative twitter
nudge the dreamy head of the lily,
whose sleep is the half-held memory of the sun,
and the song of the birds kept safe
in their nests. The lily encloses the whole of earth,
night and day, as a flower.
In the moonlight hum
of the blue-green valley,
the lambent stream trickles over stones.
Sediment swirls, round rocks
at the bottom of dark pools.
Along the bank, within the soil
the hairy toes of the lily’s roots stir
as if to remember:
the stars are sparkling
settling into the streambed
of their earthen home,
and coursing through the lily’s veins—
green, languorous leaves
arced shadows in the moonlight.
It is when the lily,
like the dream flight of geese at night,
begins to sense
within the colder strands of its valley,
warmer winds at interims mingled;
then it slowly begins, just so much, to rouse:
while lapses of the beneficent wind
as curved or long,
lingering or swift
as the slopes of green hills and blue oceans
beyond the horizon and beneath the sun:
Come like the underwater sway of currents
through the tree limbs:
The maple breathes as a breath of wind,
climbs through its limbs and the tree one,
and every leaf, heaves
with a faint rising flutter
so soft it holds the thunder of ocean swells
and the night clap of a billion twinkling stars:
a warm wind
upon the ear and petal of the lily:
Clouds come cumulous and white,
upon the crests of hills.
Abreast the horizon and darkened forests
there is a silence
as of waking
in the light of stars
gathered as dewdrops
on pinnacles of pines.
The song of birds
rises out of the dim reaches of the forests,
as swift-beating hearts and buffy feathers,
little silent eyes swivel curious among the treetops
and a little bird in its nest, somewhat startled, chirps
as if another sang through him: (a call)
from hillside to valley
nd valley to hillside, again and again
in distinct and expanding song
like a thousand-stringed instrument played upon by the cool,
the last whisper of night and the distant stars,
who are far closer than we have ever imagined.
The face of the earth turns,
s if to listen.
The hidden corners of the woods
are as familiar as the presence of one’s ear.
And each secretive corner, in the morning light,
is a place made known by a bird’s song,
each leaf, limb, tree
and incline of slope
its singing —
The lily blooms beneath the maples.
What dream we face when we arise,
the sediment in our eyes, can be as tentative
as the day lily, who wakes
in its opening
though roots hold it as firm as our feet,
which know nothing but of walking.
And though the birds flitting from limb to limb
speak so well of flight,
their twig-like feet
are the roots, branches, reeds, and grasses of their earthen bower:
While the roots of the lily, though holding taut,
Still retain a sleeping dream of flight and
Separation from the land
What is this dream?
In the light of day,
have things become so hidden
that all lies latent as sediments of sand at the river bottom?
And do we long to remember
and bathe suspended
in the celestial water of our true home,
our quiet beginnings
and silent, subtle returns to what guides us
like the kinship of the lily and the sun,
or the geese with glossy eyes on a forgotten, familiar land?
A north star, a sailor needs when lost at sea.
But we do not,
when each filament and leaf of earth
and each star
can guide us towards our return.
The sun holds us and
we are kin to all beings,
and are blessed, greatly blessed
Brother Phap Tue, True Dharma Wisdom, is a monk living in Upper Hamlet, Plum Village.
An Interview with Rochelle Griffin
by Barbara Casey, at Plum Village, June 2002
Barbara: Rochelle, how did you come to live in Holland?
Rochelle: I was born and raised in the United States. During my first year of college my father became the director of the American International School in the Netherlands. So the next summer I went to Holland for vacation. I decided to stay a year, and then I never returned to the U.S. I was a very angry young woman, and I was particularly angry about America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. I had many friends who had gone to Sweden or to Canada to avoid the draft, and I felt a lot of solidarity with them.
I was also scared, because in the United States they had shot students who were protesting the war at Kent State University. In Europe I had such a sense of solidity from the culture, from the cities and cathedrals that were a thousand years old. I liked Holland because it’s a very small country that has integrated many cultures and many religions, and I really appreciated that there were fifty-two political parties. It’s a socialist government and somehow the people are able to work together. There were a lot of anti-war demonstrations, and I had no fear when participating. I found work and friends in Holland. So I’m American by birth and Dutch by choice!
Barbara: Tell us a little about the work that you are doing now.
Rochelle: The story starts many years ago when I was in training to become a midwife. I was critically injured in a car accident in 1980, the only survivor of a front-on collision. I was in the hospital and rehabilitation for almost two years. There were a number of times that I didn’t think I was going to survive. I have a clear memory of a near-death experience that changed my outlook on what I perceived death and life to be. During this experience I was not attached to my body, and I had a deep experience of being pain free, of being surrounded by a sense of well-being, support, love, and life. I felt that I had a choice to go towards the light or to return to my body. I was able to bring back that deep awakening with me when I returned to consciousness. I had a real sense that I had work still to do on earth.
That experience helped me begin to learn to live with chronic pain. As I started to deal with chronic physical pain I realized I also carried a lot of chronic emotional pain. At this time I met Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who is a well-known Swiss-American psychiatrist and has done a lot of work dealing with the taboos around death and dying. I was her translator during a workshop called “Life, Death and Transition.” I felt very strongly that my new work would be helping people process their suffering. I spent much of the time between 1984 to 1988 in the United States and Europe, doing workshops and training with Elisabeth and her staff. Because of my accident and resulting handicaps, I received disability pay from the government. I did not want that kind of financial support, I wanted to be independent and self-supporting. But in hindsight it’s been a blessing because it’s given me the freedom to develop the work I’m doing now.
In 1985 I started working primarily with people with HIV and AIDS in the Netherlands. I didn’t decide to work with these people in particular, but it was the group that was calling me and the door that opened. It was such an honor to be with people who had been afflicted with great suffering very young in life, and to witness their process of healing before they died. Their suffering included a great deal of stigmatization and misunderstanding and I have always felt an affinity to those issues.
In the beginning I worked primarily with gay men, but before long there were many people of mixed backgrounds including college students, middle aged women who were infected through their husbands, people using drugs intravenously, prostitutes, people in prisons, and people who had sex with someone who was infected. There were also children who were infected during birth and those who were orphans, because both parents were ill or had died of AIDS. Before there was any medication for treatment (AZT only became available in 1987,) I mostly worked with death and dying issues because people had an average life expectancy of only about thirteen months after diagnosis. Later as more medications became available, we were able to work through much of the pain and suffering at a deeper level through our Homecoming workshops, and to nourish the resulting peacefulness with mindfulness retreats.
In 1989 I set up my own foundation, called Fire Butterfly Foundation for Conscious Living and Dying. “The butterfly is a universal symbol of the soul freed from the confinement of the body. Fire stands for the accelerated transformation process which occurs when we’re confronted with our own impending death. People with a limited life expectancy can meet this challenge and increase the quality of their own lives and of those around them in a powerful and positive manner.” Rochelle Griffin
I feel that I have become a midwife in other phases of life, and am often a midwife for men too! My work has to do with finding out who we really are deep inside. In doing so we can discover that we’re really not as isolated and as alienated as we may have felt through our upbringing, that there is an energy in us that connects us as human beings to each other and to the universe. I wanted the groups to be mixed with young and old, gay and not-gay, men and women, and parents with children. Also caregivers would come to the workshop thinking it was going to be five days of lecture, but all this work is experiential, and that is what really helps to be a better caregiver. You can help others better when you understand that you’re not alone. When you’ve worked through your own feelings of anger, fear, grief, hopelessness, and helplessness, then you can be with others as they experience their own pain and suffering, without interrupting their process and without offering solutions. I don’t think that you can actually accompany people on this path futher than you have dared to go yourself. In trusting this process, we can tune into a different level of knowing what is best for us from inside out. And then we can trust that others will find their own way too, and we can be there for them, keep them safe, and encourage them to find their own answers.
In about 1982, a friend suggested that it might be helpful for me to learn to deal with my chronic physical pain by learning some form of meditation practice. I enrolled in a weekend retreat in a Christian abbey where Zen was practiced, and in that first weekend I discovered that instead of denying pain it was possible to go right into the heart of the pain and to sit in it. The pain transformed, and there came a great space where pain was present but it wasn’t only my pain, there was a sense of collective supportive energy. I also realized that my pain increased by resisting it and trying to deal with it alone. I practiced on this path for about fifteen years before I found Thay.
Barbara: Can you give us an example of some of the processes you offer in your Homecoming workshops?
Rochelle: People come to me when they find out they’re ill, usually. Or there are families, or healthcare givers, for instance, who are dealing with burn out. To prepare for a workshop, which is a very deep experience, we ask for a lot of medical information and we also do an extensive professional intake, so that we know who’s coming and if it’s appropriate for them to attend.
Usually the workshops have about fifteen to twenty-five participants and two to three staff members. It’s a very mixed group. I don’t work exclusively with people with AIDS any more because many of the doctors and healthcare services in Holland are referring people with other diseases and people with war trauma, abandonment or sexual, physical, and emotional abuse issues. Everyone seeking their own answers in dealing with issues related to loss and change are welcome to apply.
People will come thinking, “I’m coming to learn how to die,” or “I’m coming to learn how to live,” but they discover that they’ve been carrying a kind of backpack around almost all their lives they feel a weight on their shoulders that they can’t explain, so bit by bit we take some of the stuff out of that backpack and look at it. We bring the dark parts into the light and in doing so, we discover that we were actually more dead than alive by carrying this weight around! As a facilitator, my primary job is to create a physically and emotionally safe environment for this to happen.
In the beginning of the workshop we set a number of agreements about how we’ll be together, about confidentiality and how it’s okay to share our feelings, to be angry, to cry, to feel fear and express it by screaming, for instance, and it’s also okay to be quiet. We begin expressing feelings gradually, but because it’s a group process it goes very quickly but quite deep.
The first evening we have a candlelight memorial ceremony for the many losses that we have had in our lives. People just say a word or a name as they’re lighting a candle. The next morning we do some teaching around what we consider natural emotions that we are born with and enable us to survive in the world, and we teach how they become distorted in our lives, often causing more suffering. That is our ‘unfinished business.’ For example, there was a man recently who was feeling a great deal of fear and there’s nothing more scary than working with fear. I invited him to come forward and I explained: We work only with that what is present in this moment, so if you feel ready to explore this, sit down here and tell me what you’re feeling in your body, because we always start with the body. I started with a relaxation and guided meditation with awareness of breathing. The body gives us a lot of information, it’s as though the cells have a memory. This man shared that he felt as though there was a brick in his belly, it was really hard and black on the outside and bright red inside and less solid. This gave me some indication that there might be a layer of fear (the hard outer layer). The blackness could represent grief, surrounding a lot of anger represented by the inner, red, more fluid part, telling me that it could be explosive and dangerous if released unexpectedly. He told his story of having been a Spanish immigrant child, living in Germany with his family. He was left alone a lot of the time. His father was unhappy with his work and he’d become an alcoholic. His mother worked as a cleaning lady, and was away much of the time. The mother and children were abused by the father when he was drunk. This kid spent more and more time on the street, got involved in a gang to feel that he belonged somewhere and was caught dealing drugs. He was sent to jail, and in jail he was raped, and in the process he was infected with HIV. He had so much fear about getting into his feelings because he thought, If I really get into my feelings I’ll kill someone, and I don’t want to kill people, I don’t want to continue this vicious cycle, I want to stop it!
I explained: This mattress we are sitting on is the boundary, this is where you can get out all your rage and your grief, step by step. Gradually he opened into his deepest feelings and he got into some very deep rage, and what he found beyond that rage was the little child that he’d been when he was three years old. Discovering this child, he sobbed deeply. At three years old, he had been taken care of by his grandmother in Spain while his parents went to Germany to work. She was his security and his love, but she died, and he had to go to Germany to be with his mom and dad, and as the family became increasingly dysfunctional, he was hurt very much in many ways. But when he was able to get into contact with that little child in himself, he again felt the joy and peace that he’d missed for a long time. He came to understand some of the ways that he had learned to neglect and abuse that child, which empowered him to take charge of his life. He began to understand that his parents had done the best they could under the circumstances. Eventually he was able to forgive his parents and himself.
I have found that this work of dealing with our feelings in a very direct way helps us to connect with our ancestors and connect with our spiritual self. We’re not teaching people to beat on telephone books or pillows continually. Sometimes people might need to do that a couple times just to get a sense that they can be angry without getting to the point that they will kill someone. In this way they learn the difference between healthy anger which enables us to say ‘no’, to be assertive and set limits, and distorted anger when we can hurt ourselves and our loved ones. I’ve worked with quite a few war veterans and people in prisons who have killed people, to help them understand that deeper inside there’s a very wounded child who needs to be healed and cared for. When we can access that child, the healing occurs, and the forgiveness develops. I think forgiveness, including self-forgiveness is a very important issue.
Barbara: Do you use conscious breathing in this process?
Rochelle: I do help people to become aware of their breathing how deep, how free it might be in a particular moment. The breath is a key tool that can be used to access the body and to understand what is going on inside, beyond the thinking. I’m very skilled in observing body language.
In the Homecoming workshop we present this work through a form of Gestalt therapy, which is a mixture of a number of psychotherapy techniques. It’s based in healing wounds so that we can come to a place of peace and joy, so that we can live our life with a sense of aliveness instead of merely surviving. Breathing is a real tool. I often will tune in to someone’s breath to understand more deeply where he or she is emotionally at that moment. Our breathing tells us a lot. I become aware of my breathing to see where it’s stopping or where it’s flowing or if it’s smooth or not smooth, kind of like taking my emotional temperature. I explore the places in my body asking for attention (by being painful, closed, restricted, cold, or empty) during my in-breath and offer space and relaxation with the out-breath. In the workshops we begin and end the day with mindfulness meditation, and do walking and sitting meditation with the participants. In the workshop we also demonstrate how we can effectively become better caregivers. If someone has survived and transformed a certain experience of suffering, others can be nourished when that story is witnessed and understood.
Conscious breathing plays a role in the workshops as it does in the dying process. When people become more ill and closer to death, mindful breathing becomes more and more conscious, because when you have no energy, what else can you do but breathe? Through your breathing, you can connect to your emotions, as a way of releasing, letting go, and relaxing. Also as a way of connecting to what is and to that which we are holding on to and avoiding.
This last winter I was very ill with pneumonia and was having a hard time breathing, and I was so grateful that I know how to connect with my breathing through mindfulness practice. From my window in the intensive care unit in the hospital I could just see a small strip of sky between the buildings. I noticed the full moon outside and in this way I connected with my loved ones, and flowed with the pain, not denying anything, but able to connect with love, with life, and with support. I felt completely safe and at one with the universe.
Often people from one of my workshops will ask me to be with them or guide them in their dying process. One of the greatest fears that we have is the fear of dying alone. I don’t think we actually can die alone, but people often fear that they might. So I offer my service of being with them as they prepare to die.
Barbara: What do you mean when you say that you don’t believe that we can die alone?
Rochelle: I feel that we have a lot of help from both sides people with us in the present as well as from the collective consciousness. Often I hear stories from people who have been close to death, who say that a loved one who has already died is present, that their essence is present somehow during the dying process, and that this eases the fear and even can increase the sense of joy and peace in going towards death.
Often I will ask someone who is dying, “What do I tell people who want to know about dying? What is your message, your truth that you would like me to share?” The answer is always similar to how one friend expressed it: “You don’t need to be dying to start living. You can begin now, today. You can heal old pain and finish what is unfinished. Work through your grief, anger, fear and please do express your love enough! Then you can find peace in your life and in your death.”
– Jaap Jan, age 34, lived until 1995.
Barbara: As mindfulness practitioners, how can we best be with our loved ones who are ill or dying?
Rochelle: Mindfulness practice is so important because it makes us aware of the moment and of being present, and what sabotages us from being truly present. It can be real hard when it’s your own family member, especially when we have unfinished business, expectations, and unfulfilled longing.
We can learn to be instruments of peace. If we are firmly rooted on the earth, with our head touching the sky, connected to our source of spirituality in the universe, we can be an instrument between the universe and earth. Being peace in ourselves, making peace in our family and community, then we can facilitate the peace process with others. Understanding the breathing is a real tool because dying is not much else than a deep and total relaxation!
Barbara:At retreats we do semi-totally relaxation!
Rochelle: As long as we’re alive we don’t do that quite so totally as when we die!
Barbara: Right, right.
Rochelle: When we come into this world, we fill our lungs with breath, and this is the point of birth. At the end of life we breathe out and we die. I often offer breathing exercises and relaxation exercises to people going through the dying process. If you put a little more accent on the out-breath and it becomes a little bit longer, there is a point when there’s no breath, a still point. The in-breath is effort, and the out-breath is the relaxation or letting go.
Often I meet people who are so concerned about life after this life, or life before this life. I feel we have our hands full with our suffering and our joy in this life! I sometimes wonder if we actually are able to experience life before we die. Many people seem just to be coping to survive, without feeling really alive. So what I do is to bring what we experience as painful and that which we deny or run away from, into our consciousness so that it can heal.
I’ll tell you a story about a really good friend of mine who died a few years ago. He had to have lung surgery, and he’d asked me to be present while he went through this. I stayed with him for the weekend afterwards. He was in and out of consciousness, and every time he became conscious he would grab my hand and not want to let go. But as he would relax and kind of slip away, I let go. I stayed in a very light physical contact with him with my little finger just touching his, but not with the grasping. And I continued to breathe with him. I would support his breathing with my breath by making it a little audible.
As he came around and awakened, he said, “Rochelle, your being here has felt very supportive, but why did you keep letting go of my hand?”
I explained, “I wasn’t sure if it was your time to go, and I wanted you to feel free. I wanted to be present with you, whichever way you needed to go.”
“Oh,” he said, “I understand. I was grasping.” And I said, “Yes, and I wanted you to know that you had the choice, the courage, and the freedom to do what you needed to do for yourself.”
A few months later he was near death, and I went to the hospital, as he was asking for me. This was Saturday morning and the plan had been for him to go home on Monday so he would be able die at home, probably later that same week. But he was becoming very weak and his breathing was labored. I came into the room I looked at him and he looked at me, and I said, “You know, you are going home.” And he nodded. He knew. I added, “But, we cannot take you to your house, do you understand that?” And he nodded again. He had an oxygen mask on. I asked him, “Do you want me to come sit with you, and do you want me to guide you through this?”
He motioned with his hand, inviting me to sit close by on the bed. He took the oxygen mask off himself.
I said, “Allow yourself to be fully aware of your breathing, and follow your in-breath and your out-breath. Just in between the in and out-breath there is a still point where there is only stillness, before the in-breath starts again. Can you feel that? Gradually, allow your out-breath to become a little bit longer, and just relax into that. Is that okay for you?”
He laid his hand very gently down next to mine, not grasping. He looked at me as if to say, “I got it, I don’t have to hold on any more.” In a few breaths he relaxed completely and his breathing stopped.
It is so touching to witness this letting go, fully conscious and without resistance. He was a great teacher. That was a gift.
Barbara: Where do you see the direction of your work continuing?
Rochelle: I see myself as a privileged listener and I go where I am invited. My hope, my vision, is that my story will be an inspiration for other people to develop their own ways of healing into their own life and death. I’ve trained a few people to continue working with the emotions as I learned from Elisabeth. I’ve done this work throughout Europe, and also in Israel and the USA. At present there are fewer people dying from AIDS, so our center in Holland has become more of a mindfulness practice center for anyone interested in exploring their own answers around loss and change.
In addition to this work in Holland, we have opened a center in Spain where I’ve also been working for the last ten years and there is a team trained to offer similar work there. The last couple of years I’ve been invited to Israel several times, and with the situation in the Mideast right now, I think there’s an awful lot of work to do there. And there’s the AIDS crisis in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia. Some of the newer pain medications have become available in Vietnam for people with cancer; however this medication and nearly all medical care, is denied the people dying of AIDS. I do not have the illusion that I am going to all of those places, but there is much to be done. I’m watching to see what doors open as I continue being a privileged listener and training others to be also.
What I’ve learned very deeply because I’ve been so ill, is we have to take the time to take care of ourselves. We can’t care for anybody else until we take care of ourselves. At present I’m in a new phase of finding my personal balance between doing and not doing.
Barbara: Do you live in chronic pain still?
Rochelle: I have some pain always, in varying degrees, depending on how well I’ve been able to keep myself in balance. I use a combination of some medication, but mostly I use what I call my M.M.&M. therapy (meditation, massage and manual therapy) as well as taking care of my emotional needs and making time for myself to just gaze at the frogs in the pond. Every time someone dies or leaves, I feel the grief very physically. I recognize my grief when my heart feels closed off and often I feel physically cold and uncomfortable. What I’ve found is that I move through the grief process when I’m willing to go deeply into my feelings, including the resistance, by letting myself cry, feel anger, and whatever else I need to do. I am becoming more skillful at embracing these feelings without needing to express them fully; just recognizing them and their original source is often enough. Then my heart can open, be free, and feel supported by the love in the universe again. That’s what I think has helped me to repeatedly regain my balance, along with the support of my Sangha and my partner, throughout the eighteen years that I’ve worked so intensively in this field.
Barbara: As the process of birth has been brought out of the closet, you are helping to bring the process of dying into awareness also. We all need work like yours to help us to face death.
Rochelle: Yes. I’ve offered many trainings for volunteers and for healthcare professionals in the field of palliative care, and the work is always about our own issues. We often think, as professionals, we come into this work because we want to help others, but we have to help ourselves first. Because in dealing with dying people, if you aren’t completely authentic, they know! They are always a few steps ahead of us showing us the way!
Barbara: It’s like being with children.
Rochelle: Absolutely. You can’t fool them at all. They know when you’re being real and when you’re not!
Barbara: [laughs] That’s true! Well, thank you so much for sharing your story with the worldwide Sangha.
Rochelle: Thank you for asking.
Rochelle Griffin, True Light of Peace, Chân An Quang, practices with the Sangha Riverland. She lives with her partner, Jantien, and their golden retriever, ‘Gino-the-Joyful’ at the Vuurvlinder Center and Guesthouse for conscious living and dying, in Heerewaarden, a small village in the center of The Netherlands. Rochelle enjoys learning about the wild environmental needs of reptiles by breeding them in the safety of her large garden.
Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication, is the managing editor of the Mindfulness Bell.
Photos by Harry Pelgrim.
And Sister, our lives our made of water
entwined like root coil and ground swell
of the stuff that trees drink, wine of the world
swirled upward branched and twigged
in gladness of rising, ground to leaf and cloud.
The drop of rain that falls from leaf to grass
does not pass in secret, belongs to me:
is one of my shed tears for your pain.
And each leaf of each tree’s a prayer
that tells you every day I care, I care.
Judith Toy, Chan An Mon, True Door of Peace:I was asked to write this poem for a Sangha member whose sister has been diagnosed with MS.
Brother Phap Son
The earth never tires,
The earth is rude, silent, and incomprehensible at first,
Nature is rude and incomprehensible at first,
Be not discouraged, keep on,
there are divine things well envelop’d,
I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than
words can tell.
– Walt Whitman
The other day, some of the brothers at Maple Forest Monastery went for a hike. It was a beautiful day, there was a sparkling freshness in the air. The white, puffy clouds contrasted with the blue sky and the bright sun, making the day feel radiantly and intensely alive.
We walked on a trail that takes us through the property of a neighbor. Suddenly the trail became narrower and was flanked by large, old trees. There are not many trees around here that are as old as these. As I looked at the trees, my eyes moved across the old stone wall behind them and I contemplated the fields of waving long grasses, flowers of many kinds, and the forest beyond the fields. I felt that I was very fortunate and very rich.
I wondered how many people have had the opportunity to spend time with these trees and if their awesomeness, their subtle but clear message, is perceived and heard by many. These trees have been alive for many years, they have seen seasons come and go, people come and go, events come and go; yet they are still standing in the same place where they began as small seeds. Their message is their presence. I once had a group of trees say “hello” to me, as I felt their presence near the walking meditation path of the Upper Hamlet at Plum Village. I invite all of us to stop, listen, and experience the beauty of nature for ourselves. Whatever it is you may feel, be open to feel that and receive.
We continued our walk down the forest path, feeling a light joy and happiness, like children running through the forests, free and without concern. A couple of brothers took time to examine the different kinds of wild mushrooms that grow in the forest, with an eye to their edibility! The rest of us enjoyed the sounds, the smells, and the sights before us. The forest is quiet, but the trees make their solid and gentle presence felt, with their straight trunks blending with the thick green foliage. I felt small in comparison to their size, but somehow I also felt connected to them, as if I were part of them. This brought me a sense of peace and tranquility, a feeling of completeness within myself.
As a European, living here in the United States has made me appreciate the beauty and significance of nature. It is rare to find places where nature is relatively unburdened by human activity. I have come to see that places like the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mt. McKinley and Wonder Lake in Alaska, the Sierra Nevada mountains, Lake Tahoe, and Death Valley are truly part of the great heritage of the people of this country. By being in touch with the preciousness of these places, I also feel compelled to understand what people like John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ansel Adams touched in nature that moved them to dedicate themselves to defending and protecting these treasures. These men are also part of the rich heritage of this country.
Thay has spoken often about the need for people to have roots, to be rooted in something good, wholesome, and beautiful, and how our modern way of living creates many hungry ghosts, people who don’t feel deeply connected to anything. Through these roots, these connections, we are able to feel the energy of love and caring. I think cultivating these roots, helping them grow, is more important than ever. Seeing the effects of the events of September eleventh here and on countries throughout the world, Thay’s instructions to develop roots makes more sense than ever. I see it as indispensable to a happy life. Through our practice of stopping, of coming back to ourselves, to mindfulness of our breathing, of our walking, our eating, our speaking, we can ground ourselves and open our eyes to the beauties around us. This results in our feeling nourished and more integrated, more whole.
Some of the brothers here at Maple Forest have offered part of their monthly allowance to environmental groups that help to defend environmental laws, that educate young people about the wilderness, that help to protect and preserve these precious places. There are many caring groups doing good work that can benefit from our support and concern.
There are things we can do to help heal our planet and preserve the natural treasures we have inherited. Part of the practice of Engaged Buddhism is to support groups and individuals who are doing their best to care for the environment.
Brother Chan Phap Son, True Dharma Mountain, is a monk and Dharma Teacher in Maple Forest Monastery in Vermont.
Take my hand.
We will walk.
We will only walk.
We will walk for ourselves.
We will walk for everyone.
Always hand in hand.
We will enjoy our walk.
Without thinking of arriving anywhere.
Our walk is a peace walk.
Our walk is a happiness walk.
Then we learn
that there is no peace walk;
that peace is the walk;
that there is no happiness walk;
that happiness is the walk.
We walk for ourselves.
We walk for everyone
always hand in hand.
Walk and touch peace every moment.
Walk and touch happiness every moment.
Each step brings a fresh breeze.
Each step makes a flower bloom under our feet.
Kiss the earth with your feet.
Print on earth your love and happiness.
Earth will be safe.
When we feel in us enough safety.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
Global Peacewalks began in Jerusalem, in New York City, and in Berkeley, California, on Mothers Day in May, 2002. Now there are twenty-five to thirty communities who have participated in these walks.
We gather in a public place on the third Sunday of each month. Instead of carrying banners and chanting slogans, we walk slowly and silently. This helps us step into the source of understanding and compassion within us, and hold everyone with care. We are walking to offer compassion, and to learn that love is possible as a genuine way of life, even in the presence of rage and fear. Violence in any form is a tragedy that stops all of us from sharing a life of harmony and abundance. Coming together to embody peace can restore our hope and vision. True and sustainable peace is a process and can be created by peaceful means.
A Long Tradition
Walking for peace has a long tradition, and includes Maha Ghosananda’s walking in Cambodia, Peace Pilgrim’s walking in the USA, and Gandhi’s walking in India. In Israel the Vipassana mindfulness community has sponsored week-long silent walks which have drawn hundreds of people.
The idea for these Third Sunday Global Peacewalks arose during a conversation with Miki Kashtan, a trainer in Nonviolent Communication, an Israeli living in the United States, and a friend. We were both feeling sad about the polarization that was occurring in so many of the demonstrations that claimed to be working for peace. We wanted to offer a way to connect globally and to generate peaceful energy. Walking meditation seemed a wonderful skillful means.
Beginning on Mother’s Day was quite auspicious, as it helped us reconnect with the peacemaking origin of Mother’s Day. In the 1870s in the USA, Julia Ward Howe called on the women of the world to “leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.” “Let them meet first, as women,” she wrote, “to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as the means whereby the great human family can live in peace…”
Start a Peacewalk
The website, www.walkingforpeace.org, offers stories about past Peacewalks, organizing tips, and contact information for the walks in different cities. Any Sangha or individual is welcome to organize a walk.
Lyn Fine, True Goodness, was ordained by Thich Nhat Hanh as a Dharmacarya in 1994. She lives in Berkeley, California, and offers guidance to many Sanghas around the world.
About twenty-three hundred years ago, there was an emperor in Northern India called Ashoka, who waged many wars in the early years of his reign to expand his empire. Maybe he thought he was protecting his people. We understand that he was a very unhappy man.
One day after a particularly terrible battle, he walked on the battlefield. He was aghast at the carnage he had caused, bodies of men and animals strewn everywhere. At that moment, he looked up and saw a Buddhist monk walking peacefully across the field of dead bodies. Ashoka asked the monk how he came to be happy and peaceful. The monk was able to walk peacefully and with happiness because he was filled with compassion and because he had transformed his own suffering.
Because of the presence of this one radiantly peaceful human being, Ashoka became a student of Buddhism and stopped waging wars. Instead he focused on feeding his people and meeting their basic needs. He transformed himself from a tyrant into a well-respected ruler and changed the course of history. His son and daughter later transmitted Buddhism from India to Shri Lanka and from there the teachings spread to Burma and Thailand and throughout the world. This one monk and this one emperor literally changed the course of history. Because of them, many, many people have transformed their own suffering and helped others to overcome suffering.
We walk for peace in Austin, Texas because we know that we are all interconnected. We know that when one of us suffers we all suffer. There is no ‘other.’We know that when one of us transforms her suffering, everyone is transformed. We are the world and right now there is tremendous suffering in our world.
We are walking to practice peace in ourselves, and we will continue to cultivate that peace until it is reflected at the national and international level. Then, like Ashoka, we will use our resources to feed our so-called enemies and put an end to unnecessary suffering.
Paméla Overeynder, Chan Tue Nhat, True Sun of Understanding is a founding member of the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas. Pamela is also a member of the Hill-Country Chapter of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship,
The Buddhist Peace Fellowship is an international organization founded in 1978 to bring a Buddhist perspective to the peace movement, and to bring the peace movement to the Buddhist community. Its members seek to practice engagement in the suffering of the world. email@example.com
It is the third Sunday in December. As usual, wearing white, I am the first person to arrive at an empty Pack Square in the city of Asheville, North Carolina, while Philip parks the car.
I slowly circumambulate the rounded brick walk below the obelisk of Vance Monument, keeping company with actual-size hog and turkey statues commemorating Asheville’s farming origins. In our new age, the critters are bronze. I begin the process of deep quieting soften the belly, regulate the breath. Notice the brisk wind. I should have dressed more warmly.
Two men and two women cluster across the street in front of the noodle shop—talking with lively gestures the younger couple draped in stark white, head to foot. Will they walk with us? The girl is young and ebullient and spreads her white shawl’s wings like a great peace bird floating about the other three.
Having landed a parking space, Philip arrives looking like a hatted ice cream man, with creamy muffler flowing over his shoulder. Here comes the peace bird and her flock across the street toward us. Are you walking with us? Yes, yes.
We introduce ourselves and chat a bit, find these four are from Hickory, a city fifty miles east. And here arrives a lithe Buddhist woman, properly hatted and gloved, from the Anatasatti Magga Sangha! We begin our slow walk with no signs, no banners. Just follow our breath.
From the corner of my eye, I see two more Buddhists, handsome young men from the Shambala Group, catching up, bringing up the rear. We walk as one body. We are Buddha’s monks without bowls in the ancient Indian city of Maggada. Nine of us. Slow. With dignity. Into the crowd.
I notice the eyes of passersby and imagine what they’re thinking. “Oh my God, those people are weird. I can’t look. Oh no, they’re coming this way. Think I’ll duck into this store and let them pass. Aah, drug burnouts. What a beautiful smile on that one,” and so on.
I hope we don’t frighten folks. A curly headed child is throwing a screaming fit on the far corner. A woman with a red hat and red lips, coming our way, questions us with her eyes. Philip offers her one of our handouts. She takes it and smiles. A storekeeper leaves her shop to place her palms together and bow. We bow back. Two mothers, heads down, children firmly in tow, pass by mutely and quickly, facing away from us. They seem to be stomping. This is when I notice that our own footsteps are silent, like Cherokees in the Appalachian forest.
The curly headed child breaks away from her mother and runs, to stop and stand defiantly, curious, before us. I know she feels our calm and wants to drink it. With a look of apology, her mother whisks her away from the strangers.
Sky so blue. Deco buildings, red tile roof in sun. Philip and I keep step. It is good, this marriage, having this other self. We hold hands. This is our path. Sometimes we lead with both left feet. Sometimes his right and my left. We do not jay walk. At the side streets when the lights change, we feel ourselves wanting to fly across to the other side, but still we maintain our slow pace. A hundred perfect pigeons soar up over rooftops right before our eyes. Suddenly, the sky’s translucent.
In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment, only moment. In, out, deep, slow, calm, ease, present moment…wind bites, hands icy, gut serene. Noticing that I am empty, I am no longer empty.
Motorcycle with cute rider, rock music, passes. Lots of bundled shoppers. It’s Christmas. This moment is the meaning of everything Van Halen, shoppers and gawkers and walking for peace, spreading our peace, gifting ourselves, gifting the world with our pleasure in peace.
We spy our next door neighbor, Rose, leaving the Roman Catholic basilica. Does she see us? Does she not want to recognize us? Oh well. We walk gently on the sidewalks, murmur with our feet to the smothered earth below, kiss the mother. Now we enter the door of the warm dark basilica, its candle wax and incense and faint Gregorian chants. We pass the huge heating vents, feel glad for this sanctuary from the wind. Still walking slowly, following breath, from left to right, we pass before Mary the Mother of God, the candle alcove, the shrine room, and Jesus Himself breathing in Jesus, breathing out Jesus and back to the bright outdoors, past the sacred shops, past the sacred shoppers, past the honking horns and lights and holiday sale signs and brave-hearted dogs on leashes. It is the same in the street as in the church, this harmony of body and mind.
Judith Toy, Chan An Mon, True Door of Peace, lives with her husband, Philip and practices with Cloud Cottage Sangha in Black Mountain, NC. She is working on a nonfiction book, Sitting on Fire, the Zen of Forgiveness.
In Memory of Nora de Graaf True Fruition – 1917-2003
A Lover of Silence and of Life
“Am I going to die?” Nora asked, ten days before her death, more curious than fearful. “Are you ready to die?” one of her many visitors asked. There was silence.
“Yes,” Nora said, with the quiet conviction that characterized her life. Days later, she requested, “Open the window, the butterfly wants to fly away.” The next afternoon, the butterfly left. Nora de Graaf, friend and teacher, “Mother” of the Dutch Sangha, was gone.
Her quest to understand and bring meaning to her life began as a young woman. She studied with many religious teachers and collected an extensive library of teachings. She met Thich Nhat Hanh in the early 1980’s, and felt a lasting and deep heart connection with him. Her own teachings attracted more and more people, and she quietly and firmly laid the foundation for the current Dutch Sangha. In 1992, she received the lamp transmission and became a Dharmacarya.
Nora was a light for many in the Netherlands. She sought to understand her own suffering — including dealing with the progressive nervous disorder, Parkinson’s disease — which helped her to understand others’ suffering. She helped many people discover the healing power of silence. Nora had a passionate love of life, expressed through music and gardening, and especially through her encounters with everyone she met. Her daughter Nel, her friend Sietske, and many from the Dutch Sangha were present for a simple and moving ceremony during which family and friends remembered Nora, before setting her to rest in a beautiful cemetery under high old trees.
Offered by Dutch Sangha members Sietske Roegholt, Eveline Beumkes, Shelley Anderson, and Francoise Pottier.
In Memory of Alexandra Glankoff
It is with great sadness that the Community of Mindfulness Metro New York shares that Alexandra Glankoff, a cherished member of our Tuesday night Sangha for many years, died on January 19, 2003. Alexandra was traveling with friends and drowned while swimming off the coast of Verkala in southern India. Her presence in our community is greatly missed. Alexandra was a NewYork City public school teacher and was pursuing a Doctorate in Urban Education at the City University of New York. She also sat with the Educators’ Sangha, sharing how she integrated mindfulness practice into her work. She taught her students to use mindfulness meditation as a concentration practice prior to examinations, and invited the mindfulness bell to bring her students back to the present moment. She loved working with inner city teenagers, and among her contributions were coauthoring a multicultural curriculum, coaching a championship debating team, and directing a video with teenagers entitled, “Consider Us! The Children’s Rights Collective, Working Together For Our Tomorrow.”
Alexandra and I were in the same family and discussion group at Plum Village in 2002. She shared that she had been suffering from seizures caused by a head injury that occurred several years before in a car accident, which had left her in a coma for several days and taken the life of her mother. Because of the seizures, Alexandra took a leave of absence from teaching to heal, to grow, and to reflect on her life.
While at Plum Village, Alexandra came to know and greatly admire Sr. Khe Nghiem, who showed her great kindness and one time walked with her through the woods of Lower Hamlet to a small lake. Alexandra shared that walk with me, and returning, we saw a deer in the distance. Reflecting the golden light of the setting sun, the deer jumped over the thigh high sunflowers, appearing and disappearing as it jumped through the field. The golden grace of that leaping deer was a treasure we shared. Alexandra was just like that deer.
Bernadette Pye, Tuesday night Sangha, with Gloria Schwartz, Educator’s Sangha
A story retold by Terry Masters
Brother Chan Huy sits on the little stand Steven built for him for our weekend retreat. There are more than sixty adults in the meditation hall and six children, ages two years old to fourteen years old.
“Please come here,” Chan Huy motions to the children with a smile. “Please come sit with me.” They gather around him on the stand, wiggling and giggling.
“How are you today?” he asks.
“It snowed!” Julia Kate, who is six years old, informs him enthusiastically.
“Do you call that snow?” Chan Huy grins. “It was so little!”
“But it was snow!” she insists. “I made a snow ball and threw it at Alex!”
“She did!” Alex, the nine year old, says. “And it hit me!” “Well, what did you do?”
“I threw one back!” Alex says, grinning at Julia Kate. “Well,” Chan Huy smiles at the children. “Do you have any questions for me today?”
“I do,” Eliana, a seven year old, says softly. “What is your question, Eliana?”
“I want to know,” she hesitates, then continues, “What do you do when people tease you about your culture?” Chan Huy looks at the child. There is a long moment of silence.
“I’m trying to think of the last time I was teased,” he says, finally. The children sit quietly, looking into his eyes, patiently waiting for him to remember.
After a while Chan Huy says, “I do not remember the last time I was teased. How do the children tease you?” he asks Eliana. She pulls the skin of her Chinese-American eyes back. “Like that,” she whispers. The grown-ups in the audience feel our stomachs tighten.
“What do you do when the children tease you like that?” Chan Huy asks her.
“I try to ignore them,” she says, “But it’s not easy.” “Hmmm.” Chan Huy pauses. Then he asks, “Now that you’ve been at our retreat, what do you think you might do when the children tease you about your culture?”
Eliana thinks for a moment. We grown-ups are thinking, too. What would I do to help this beautiful child? What would I tell her to do? The room is filled with the silence of hearts searching.
Then Eliana says softly, “I think I would sing ‘Breathing In, Breathing Out.’” The grown-ups take a deep breath. Some of us blink back our tears.
“Would you like to sing it now?” Chan Huy asks gently. Eliana nods her head. He takes the lapel mike from his jacket and holds it to her lips. She begins to sing. The grown-ups sing quietly, under the child’s voice, in accompaniment.
I am blooming like a flower
I am fresh as the dew
I am solid as a mountain
I am firm as the earth
I am free.
I am water reflecting
What is real, what is true
And I feel there is space
Deep inside of me
I am free, I am free I am free.
Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue, practices with the Plum Blossom Sangha in Austin, Texas. She has owned a summer educational day camp for twenty-two years and helps coordinate and teach the children’s program in her Sangha.
Chan Huy, True Radiance, received the Lamp Transmission in 1994. Coming from a family with four generations of Thay’s students, he lives and guides Sanghas in Montreal, Canada and throughout North America.
Drawing by Shea Lyndsey Griffin, age 10.
Do you ever make up songs? Sometimes when we write the words to a song we don’t have music for it, so we use the music from another song that we already know.
In English we have a very old song called “Greensleeves,” but the words are not inspiring. The first word of that song is, “Alas!” Alas means, “Oh, dear! What a shame! Things aren’t going right!” Greensleeves starts off, “Alas! My love, you do me wrong.” It’s not such a good start for a song! You want to have a more positive beginning.
The song says, everything’s going wrong. We often get a lot of wrong news instead of the right news, so we want to have something going right in our song. The words don’t give us much energy to do what we really want to do, so we can change it a little bit.
The word “sleeve” in the song “Greensleeves” refers to the sleeve of a coat, and it means that the woman the singer loved wore a coat that was the color green. But there are other things that are green. For instance, the planet Earth has a green coat. It’s made up of the forest and the grass, and it’s very beautiful. So why don’t we change the song and talk about the green coat of Mother Earth? This will make us feel happy about Mother Earth. So instead of saying, “Alas! My love, you did me wrong,” we could say something like,
How beautiful the green grass is—
It covers the planet Earth.
How beautiful the green grass is.
I vow to keep it fresh.
Green grass is all my joy,
And green grass is my delight.
Green grass is the spring’s gift.
I vow to take care of the green grass.
In this version of the song you make a deep aspiration like the Buddha did when he sat at the foot of the tree: that you will look after the grass. Because if we don’t have green grass then we don’t have the other species – all the animals that live in the green grass and live by the green grass and eat the green grass– and we need these species.
There are so many songs with beautiful music but the words aren’t quite right yet. So if you find a song that needs more positive words and you put in new words, I think that is very helpful for our world. Then we can sing about things which can help the world become a more beautiful place.
Excerpted from a Dharma talk to children on June 25, 2001. Sister Chan Duc, True Virtue, is the Abbess of Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.
This is an exercise I have done with the children I teach. Please adapt it to work in your situation. The teacher’s comments are in bold, the children’s responses are in italics.
Here is what each child will need to do this experiment:
2 clear wide mouth jars or plastic cups
or cut the top off a clear plastic water bottle
2 paper towels
8 lima or pinto beans
1 permanent marker (for everyone to use)
We’re going to plant some bean seeds.
Note: Demonstrate and help the children as you give them the following directions:
Wrap the inside of one of your cups with a paper towel. Carefully put soil inside the cup, behind the paper towel. Fill it about 3/4 full. Place 4 beans between the paper towel and the side of the cup. Make a lot of space between the beans. Like us, beans like freedom! Please do the same with the other cup.
Note: We use clear cups and paper towels so that children can watch as the beans grow roots and stems.
Let’s name your bean seeds. One cup will be the home for your Happiness Beans; you will name your beans after ways that make you truly happy. For example, does it make you happy when others smile at you? Does it make you happy when you smile at others? If so, you might like to name one of your beans “Smile”! Other names for your Happiness Beans might be mindfulness, generosity, freedom, safety, love, hope, sharing. What makes you truly happy?
Playing with my dog, being with my friends, sharing, irises.
With the permanent marker write the names of your beans on your cup.
Your other cup will be the home for your Unhappiness Beans; you will name yourbeans afterways that do not make you happy. For example, does it make you unhappy when you or someone you know is angry? If anger makes you unhappy, you might like to name one of your beans, “Anger.” Other names for the Unhappiness Beans might be stinginess, fear, sadness, impatience, hurrying, jealousy. What makes you unhappy?
Fights, war, stealing, not sharing.
With our permanent marker write the names of your beans on your cup.
These beans are seeds. If the causes and conditions are right, they will grow into bean plants. What causes and conditions do you think need to happen to make the bean seeds grow into bean plants?
Soil, air, light, and water.
You have Happiness and Unhappiness bean seeds. Which bean seeds do you want to grow?
Only the Happiness seeds.
How can you help the Happiness bean seeds grow?
Give them what they need: soil, air, water, and light.
How can you keep the Unhappiness bean seeds from growing?
Do not give them soil, air, water, and/or light.
Help the children water their Happiness Beans. They should not water the Unhappiness Beans.
We people have things like seeds inside us, just like your bean cups. We all have the seeds of smiling, mindfulness, generosity, freedom, safety, love, playing, and sharing (and lots of other happy seeds!) inside of us.
Note: Be sure to include the ways to be happy which children offered earlier.
We all also have the seeds of anger, stinginess, fear, impatience, hurrying, fighting, stealing, not sharing, and jealousy (and lots of other unhappy seeds!) inside of us.
Note: Be sure to include the “unhappy seeds “ which children offered earlier.
When the causes and conditions are right, our seeds grow, too. Just like with our bean seeds, if we give our happy seeds soil, air, light, and water, they will grow. Of course, if we give the unhappy seeds in us the things they need, they will grow, too!
Just like with our bean seeds, we are the ones who get to decide which seeds will grow and which will not grow inside us.
What does it mean to give the seeds inside us air?
Freedom, space, time.
What does it mean to give the seeds inside us light?
To notice our seeds; to shine the light on them.
What are some ways we can water (and not water) the seeds inside ourselves?
With some guidance, these are some ways our children thought of to water/not water the seeds of happiness and unhappiness in ourselves:
Practice:“One way to water the seed of smiling is to smile a lot.”
Awareness: “I water the seed of generosity when I notice that I am being generous.”
Don’t concentrate: “One way to not water the seed of anger is to notice it but to not keep concentrating on it.”
Check my perceptions: “I can ask, ‘Am I sure?’ when I start to get jealous of a friend. Am I sure what my friend has is what I want?”
Act nice: “One way to water the seed of love is to tell our friends that we love them.”
Say a Gatha: “One way to water the seed of appreciation, is to say the Five Contemplations gatha.”
Breathe in and out: “One way to not water the seed of fear is to pay attention to our breathing.”
Don’t watch mean TV or videos or listen to mean songs on the radio: “One way to not water the seed of meanness is to watch only shows that are friendly and kind.”
Understand: “When I start to get irritated at my dad or mom, I can try to understand why they did the thing that made me irritated.”
Take Three Steps: “One way to not water the seed of sadness is to take Three Steps.
- Enjoy things that make me happy. 2. Notice when I am sad.
- Later, when I am not sad anymore, think about what had made me sad and try to understand it and change it.
Invite the children to take their happiness and unhappiness seeds home to care for.
Two sources for grown-ups: Transformation at the Base and The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching, both by Thich Nhat Hanh, available from Parallax Press.
Terry Masters, True Action and Virtue.
Practiced by Linden, a four year old
A story retold by Mai Nguyen
I heard this story from Sr Thoai Nghiem after she returned from leading a retreat in Devon, England. She said: I was recently visiting in the home of Helen and Martin Pitt and their four-year-old son, Linden. Helen told me this story.
“The weather was cold outside, and although we had the heat on in the house, it was still a bit chilly inside. I was in the kitchen, looking for some scissors. I couldn’t find them in the drawer. ‘That’s odd,’ I thought to myself. Then I had the frightening feeling that Linden had the scissors! I called out to my child. He didn’t answer. I called and I walked quickly through the rooms looking for him. I began to be quite concerned.”
I could see that the mother had been very worried about her child. It showed in her face even now, weeks later, as she told me the story.
“As you can see, Sister,” Helen continued, “on the table over there we have a wooden Buddha statue with a cloth covering the Buddha’s shoulders.”
I glanced at the lovely statue.
“Well,” Helen said, “When I stepped into the door of this room, I was stunned at what I saw. Linden had the scissors. He had cut a small jagged patch of his hair from the front of his head. I saw that he was placing his cut hair onto the head of the Buddha statue.”
“Oh hello Mummy,” Linden said when he saw me. “The Buddha is cold,” he said, “I hope my hair will keep him warm!” Helen laughed when she saw how funny her son looked with his new self-created hairstyle. Then she hugged him warmly. “I am deeply touched by your loving gesture to the Buddha,”
Helen said to her son, “even the Buddha in a wooden form.”
Mai Nguyen, Chan My, True Beauty, resides in London, England and is a recently ordained Dharma teacher and long-time student of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Practiced by Hu, a six year old
A story told by Thich Nhat Hanh
In A Pebble for your Pocket, Thay tells a story of a little boy who was confused about who and where the Buddha is. Thay says that Hu was six or seven years old when he asked his parents if he could become a monk. He became a student of Thay’s.
“When he first became a monk, Hu believed that the Buddha loved bananas, mangoes, and tangerines because every time people came to the temple, they brought bananas, mangoes, tangerines and other fruit, and placed them in front of the Buddha. In Hu’s little head that could only mean that the Buddha loved fruit very much.
“Hu imagined that the Buddha sat very still all day long, and when the hall was empty, he reached out for a banana. Hu waited and watched, hoping to see the Buddha take one of the bananas piled in front of him. He waited for a long time, but he did not see the Buddha pick up a banana. He was baffled. He could not understand why the Buddha did not eat any of the bananas that people brought to him.
“Hu did not dare ask the head monk, because he was afraid that the monk would think he was silly. Actually, we often feel like that. We do not dare ask questions because we are afraid we might be called silly. The same was true for Hu. And because he didn’t dare ask, he was confused. I think I would have gone to someone and asked. But Hu did not ask anyone.
“As he grew older, one day it occurred to him that the Buddha statue was not the Buddha! What an achievement! This realization made him so happy. But then a new question arose. ‘If the Buddha is not here, then where is he? If the Buddha is not in the temple, where is the Buddha?’ Every day he saw people come to the temple and bow to the statue of the Buddha. But where was the Buddha?
“I met Hu when he was fourteen, and he was still wondering about this. I explained to him that the Buddha is not far away from us. I told him that the Buddha is inside each one of us. Being a Buddha is being aware of what is inside of us and around us at every moment. Buddha is the love and understanding that we each carry in our hearts. This made Hu very happy.
“Anywhere you see love and understanding, there is the Buddha. Anyone can be a Buddha. Do not imagine that the Buddha is a statue or someone who has a fancy halo around his or her head or wears a yellow robe. A Buddha is a person who is aware of what is going on inside and around him or her and has a lot of understanding and compassion. Whether a Buddha is a man or a woman, young or not so young, a Buddha is always very pleasant and fresh.”
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A young college student boy(s) girl(s) or a destitute elderly or handicapped person male(s) female(s)
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A teacher(s) going to remote rural areas to teach children in kindergarten through grade school levels (ages 5-12) ____a teenager(s) to receive vocational training in traditional Vietnamese crafts: woodworking, embroidery, tailoring, carpentry, mechanics and electricity ____boy(s) ____ girl(s)
~ donation amount (specified by you)
Sponsor development programs in rural areas to build schools, build bridges, plant trees, dig wells, and make roads Support victims of monsoon floods and natural catastrophies to receive medical support and food and blankets
Please make your check payable to Unified Buddhist Church, a non-profit organization.
All money will be given to the persons who need help. No charge is deducted for administrative costs. Please send to or for more information contact Touching and Helping Committees
Europe: Plum Village, 13 Martineau 33580 Dieulivol, France
East Coast USA: Green Mountain Dharma Center Box 182 , Hartland-Four-Corners, VT 05049
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You are helping many people to lessen their hunger, to feel the love of humanity and to improve their lives. This act will continue its way to strengthen hope, understanding and compassion in each of us. Our way of living and relating to the world in the present is the base for social changes. We look forward to receiving support from you.
A lotus for you, Sister Chan Khong (True Emptiness) and the Touching and Helping Committees
by Thich Nhat Hanh
From a Dharma Talk at Joongang Sangha University for monks and nuns in Kimpo, Korea on March 31st, 2003
My dear friends, according to my experience the study of Buddhism and the practice of Buddhism should always go together. It is not possible to learn the teachings first and then begin to practice because it is by practicing that we understand the teachings, not just by listening and studying. We might think that we have understood the Heart Sutra but then ten years later we realize that we did not. Thanks to our practice, thanks to confrontation with difficulties and suffering we begin to really understand. Suffering plays a very important role in helping us to understand the teachings of the Buddha. Thirty years of war in Vietnam have helped me to understand Buddhism more profoundly.
When I was a young novice learning about the three refuges and the five precepts I thought that I understood them. But now I see that my understanding was very superficial. My understanding of taking refuge in the Buddha has been evolving through the years. After sixty years I continue to see more deeply into the practice of taking refuge. Taking refuge in the Buddha is something you practice all day long. You can take refuge in the Buddha while sitting, while walking, or while cooking for the community. Taking refuge in the Buddha brings me a lot of happiness. Learning the teaching and putting the teaching into practice in such a way that you can be nourished by it brings joy. It is that joy that enables you to continue your life as a monk or as a nun.
Suffering and Happiness of Monastic Life
In your monastic life sometimes you encounter a lot of difficulties, a lot of suffering, and you might be tempted to give up your life as a monk or as a nun. If there is no joy in the practice then you will certainly give up your monastic life. Sometimes the relationship between you and your teachers and the relationship between you and your Dharma brothers or sisters becomes difficult and you are discouraged. You don’t see any joy in the Sangha. You feel that nobody in the Sangha understands you, not only your brothers in the Dharma but also your teacher. People around you seem to practice very hard but they have not transformed, they are still angry, they still have many prejudices. And you lose faith in the practice. Many high monks speak about non-self but they are full of self and they are seeking fame, wealth, and power, and that is why you are discouraged and you want to give up. I realize that when you don’t find happiness in the Sangha and in your life as a monk or a nun you could be tempted by things in the world like fame, like wealth, like sex. But if there is joy and happiness in your daily life as a monk or a nun then these temptations would not be important at all.
Tempted by Communism
As a young monk there was a time when I was tempted to become a communist. I saw that in the Buddhist community people talked a lot about serving living beings but they didn’t have any practical methods to help the country, which was under foreign rule and the people, who suffered from poverty and social injustice. As a young monk I wanted Buddhism to respond to the situations that created suffering and to help reduce the social injustice and political suppression. Many elders spoke about serving living beings but they did not give the kind of teaching and practice that could relieve the suffering in society. I saw that the communists were really trying to do something and they were ready to die for the sake of humanity. So temptation at that time for me was not fame, not money, not beautiful women – it was communism. I did not become a communist because I was very lucky. I realized quickly that being a member of the communist party, I would have to obey the orders of the party and may have to kill my countrymen who did not agree with the party, instead of being able to serve them.
As a young man or a young woman you are full of good intentions to serve the people of your country, so you become a member of a political party. You want to serve, not to harm people, but your party may become like a machine and one day you may be given the order to kill, to liquidate other young people who do not belong to your party and you have to betray your first intention to love and to serve. I was saved by the enlightenment that violent revolution was not my path. I did not want to go in the direction of violence. As a young man or a young woman, when you enter monastic life you are determined to serve the people in your society and other living beings. You are a revolutionary. Leaving your family behind, shaving your head, putting on a monk’s robe is an act of revolution. You want to be like Siddhartha, offering your life in order to relieve the suffering of living beings. But if the teaching and the practices that you are given do not satisfy that desire to serve and to help others, then you will be disappointed.
After several years being in the Buddhist Institute1 my need was not satisfied, so I left. Also there was division in the community, there was no harmony, and people did not really do what they taught. I did not give up the life of a monk, however, because deep in me there was a strong belief that Buddhism could be renewed and could offer the teaching and the practice that would respond to the actual suffering in the world. I thought of engaged Buddhism, the kind of Buddhism that can be applied in all walks of life, in the realms of education, economics, technology, science, politics, the arts, and so on. I knew that historically Buddhist teachers guided and advised the political leaders. But nowadays business and political leaders do not listen, and it seems we have lost our spiritual leadership. At this time I was only a monk of twenty-four years old, just fully ordained, but I had a deep conviction that spiritual leadership could be restored to Buddhism and that Buddhism could give guidance in all areas of society.
With a number of other young monks we created a community of practice and tried to form a way of practice which we called “Engaged Buddhism.”
Buddhism must be present as a spiritual dimension in all aspects of life. In 1954 when Vietnam was divided into two countries, North and South, the suffering was intense. I was given the chance to realize a reform of the teaching and the practice in the Buddhist Institute in the South of Vietnam, called the An Quang Institute. I called on young monks and young nuns and together we created a system of education and practice that had the capacity to respond to the difficult situation in the country and in the world. At twenty-eight, I had to take care of reorganizing the largest Buddhist Institute in South Vietnam. I was lucky to have the love and support of the young monks and nuns, and together we tried to renew the teachings and the practice. We also had a number of elders who supported us and believed that we could do it, which was crucial for our success. At that time the French army had just been defeated in the North by the communist army and the French soldiers were leaving the country and American advisors began to arrive. It was the intention of the Americans to replace the French and to retain the South as a stronghold in order to contain communism and not allow it to spread in Southeast Asia. The country was divided and people suffered not only from social injustice and political oppression, but also from doubt and anger. We felt that Buddhism should do something to show people that there is a path leading us out of this difficult situation, and to create peace, brotherhood, and reunification.
It was suffering that helped us to give birth to what today we call “Engaged Buddhism.” Now this expression has become popular in Europe and America and there are Buddhist communities and associations that use it, like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. There are now Buddhist groups that organize soup kitchens for hungry people, centers to help dying people, and so on. Plum Village is now helping hungry children, disabled people, and refugees in Vietnam. Engaged work in society has become part of our daily practice.
Happiness and Harmony in the Sangha
Every one of us wants to help our society, but in order to go far we have to operate not as individuals but as a Sangha. If there is no harmony in the Sangha, if there is no brotherhood in the Sangha, if there is no happiness in the Sangha we do not feel nourished and we will not be successful. That is why the teaching and the practice of Buddhism should be effective in Sangha building. If the practice of Buddhism does not help the Sangha to be more harmonious, does not help brotherhood to grow, does not help to create more happiness in the Sangha then that practice is not effective and we don’t want it. You can practice very hard, staying up all night in the sitting position and not sleeping at all, but if there is no joy, no compassion, no understanding in you and the Sangha is divided and unhappy, then your practice is not correct. We should practice every day in such a way that happiness can grow in our Sangha. If there is no harmony, no happiness in the Sangha, serving living beings is an illusion.
We may like to sit together and ask whether there is happiness and harmony in our Sangha. If there is no harmony and no happiness in the Sangha what are the reasons? What are the causes? What can I do in order to make the Sangha suffer less? What can I do to make the Sangha happy today? Together as a Sangha we practice looking deeply into the first Noble Truth, namely the presence of suffering, the absence of happiness, in order to find out the second Noble Truth, the roots and causes of our unhappiness. To me a Buddhist Institute should be organized as a family, where everyone is a brother or a sister for everyone else. Our daily practice should be centered on building brotherhood and sisterhood. If we are nourished every day by the happiness of brotherhood or sisterhood we would never give up our life as a monk or a nun. Of course, we have to study the sutras, the shastras, and the vinaya.2 But we have to study in such a way that we can find ways of practice that will build a happy Sangha. Sangha building is our daily practice.
Many of us are capable of building big temples, but not many of us can build a happy Sangha. That is why I have been proposing that in Buddhist Institutes Sangha building become an important subject of our study and practice. If there is no real happiness, brotherhood, and harmony in the Sangha and we go out to teach the practice, we are offering fake products. In the Buddhist Institutes, Dharma teachers should not only teach what they know but should teach with their way of life. We should not be overwhelmed with texts. We should have time to look deeply into each member of the Sangha to see the suffering and difficulties of each person and to offer our help. In that way we can go together like a river, in the direction of enlightenment, transformation, and service.
During the twenty years of sharing Dharma in the West we have learned a lot about Sangha building and we have learned a lot about offering the kind of teaching that helps in modern times. I can tell you as an elder brother that the noblest task is to build a happy Sangha. The Sangha is like a beautiful garden. You have to take care of each tree and bush in the garden. You have to understand the nature and the need of each tree and bush. You take a lot of time to help each member of the Sangha grow beautifully and happily. When the garden grows beautifully, you enjoy it a lot; when the Sangha is happy, you are well rewarded with happiness. When people come and visit the Sangha and they see the harmony and happiness, they will have faith in the Dharma. We don’t have to say anything; they just look at the Sangha and they have faith.
One day the King of Sravasti, King Pasenadi, met the Buddha. They were both eighty years old. The King said, Lord Buddha, every time I see your Sangha I have faith in the teachings. The Buddha did not build any temples but he was an excellent Sangha builder. We, his students, monks and nuns and laypeople, should not only spend our life building temples, we should devote our time to building happy Sanghas.
- The Buddhist Institute is the place where young monastics are sent to study sutras, ancient languages and other Buddhist Young monastics come from many different temples to study together and are generally awarded a degree at the end of their studies. This form of training is followed in most Mahayana Buddhist countries including China, Vietnam, and Korea.
- The sutras are the teachings given by the Buddha, the shastras are commentaries on these teachings and the vinaya is the collection of rules and regulations governing the monastic Together these three collections of Buddhist scripture are referred to as the tripitaka, or the three baskets of Buddhism scripture.
I Have Arrived, I Am Home:
Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village Life
By Thich Nhat Hanh and the Global Plum Village Family, Parallax Press, 2003, 256 pages
The editors tell us in the Introduction, “This book is a delicious buffet of stories, teachings, poems, and images that offers a taste of the harmonious life possible through practicing mindfully as a Sangha.” Slowly turning the pages of this keepsake, tea table book, I feel the editors were too modest. Filled with color photos and artwork, this is a rich feast for the eyes and the heart.
Enjoying this book helps to deepen my understanding of the interbeing nature of the historical and the ultimate dimensions. Rooted in space and time, the words and pictures are my vision of the Pure Land, the Kingdom of Heaven. Shining through this marriage of the historical and ultimate dimensions comes the action dimension, exemplified by heartfelt stories of love and gratitude from practitioners all over the world. This book is an antidote to loneliness: it offers myriad threads of connection through time and space to lay and monastic brothers and sisters everywhere. For the first time, I see and hear the voices of those who came before me – those who were present in the early days of Plum Village life, those who built the buildings and the pathways at Plum Village that I enjoy now. I hear the visions of my teachers, Thay and Sr. Chan Khong. I listen to Sr. Annabel’s story of hardship and grace as she came to find her teacher and her true home.
And my teacher, Thay, blesses me with the understanding that “I have arrived, I am home,” is the Dharma seal of Plum Village, the heart of the practice. For those of us who have always felt a bit alien and homeless in this world, it is the most precious gift. Being close to this book, having it smile at me from my living room table, helps me understand and appreciate the treasure of practice, the treasure of friendship, I am being offered with each conscious breath.
Barbara Casey, True Spiritual Communication.
Award Given to Parallax Press Catalog
The 2002-03 Parallax Press mail order catalog has won first prize in a nation-wide competition of printing and graphic art firms promoting excellence in print communication. This award recognizes companies and individuals who create the best in print media. Our current catalog won amongst 632 other entries.
If you would to receive a copy of our “award winning” catalog please visit our website at www.parallax.org or call 1 800 863 5290.
By Thich Nhat Hanh
Exerpt from Lotus Sutra book, by Thich Nhat Hanh, recently published by Parallax Press.
In Chapter Twenty of the Lotus Sutra we are introduced to a beautiful bodhisattva called Sadaparibhuta, “Never Disparaging.”The name of this bodhisattva can also be translated as “Never Despising.” This bodhisattva never disparages living beings, never underestimates them or doubts their capacity for Buddhahood. His message is, “I know you possess Buddha nature and you have the capacity to become a Buddha,” and this is exactly the message of the Lotus Sutra—you are already a Buddha in the ultimate dimension, and you can become a Buddha in the historical dimension. Buddha nature, the nature of enlightenment and love, is already within you; all you need do is get in touch with it and manifest it. If you know this, if you are able to see your true nature in the ultimate dimension, then you will be able to realize Buddhahood in the historical dimension. Never Disparaging Bodhisattva is there to remind us of the essence of our true nature.
The action of this bodhisattva is to remove the feelings of worthlessness and low self-esteem in people. “How can I become a Buddha? How can I attain enlightenment? There is nothing in me except suffering, and I don’t know how to get free of my own suffering, much less help others. I am worthless.” Many people have these kinds of feelings, and they suffer more because of them. Never Despising Bodhisattva works to encourage and empower people who feel this way, to remind them that they too have Buddha nature, they too are a wonder of life, and they too can achieve what a Buddha achieves. This is a great message of hope and confidence. This is the practice of a bodhisattva in the action dimension.
Sadaparibhuta was actually Shakyamuni in one of his former lives, when the Buddha appeared as a bodhisattva in the world to perfect his practice of the Dharma. But this bodhisattva did not chant the sutras or practice in the usual way—he did not perform prostrations, or go on pilgrimages, or spend long hours in sitting meditation. Never Despising Bodhisattva had a specialty. Whenever he met someone he would address them very respectfully, saying, “You are someone of great value. You are a future Buddha. I see this potential in you.” There are passages in the Lotus Sutra that suggest that his message was not always well received. Because they have not yet gotten in touch with the ultimate dimension, many people could not believe what the bodhisattva was telling them about their inherent Buddha nature, and they thought he was mocking them. Often he was ridiculed, shouted at, and driven away. But even when people did not believe him and drove him away with insults and beatings, Never
Despising did not become angry or abandon them. Standing at a distance he continued to shout out the truth:
“I do not hold you in contempt!
You are all treading the Path,
And shall all become Buddhas!” (1)
Never Despising is very sincere and has great equanimity. He never gives up on us. The meaning of his life, the fruition of his practice, is to bring this message of confidence and hope to everyone. This is the action of this great bodhisattva. We have to learn and practice this action if we want to follow the path of the bodhisattvas.
The sutra tells us that when Sadaparibhuta was near the end of his life he suddenly heard the voice of a Buddha called King of Imposing Sound (Bhishmagarjitasvararaja) teaching the Lotus Sutra. He could not see that Buddha but he clearly heard his voice delivering the sutra, and through the power of the teaching, Never Despising Bodhisattva suddenly found that his six sense organs were completely purified and he was no longer on the verge of death. Understanding deeply the message of the Lotus Sutra, he was able to touch his ultimate dimension and attain deathlessness.
We have already learned about the infinite life span of a Buddha in the ultimate dimension. In terms of the historical dimension, a Buddha may live 100 years or a little bit more or less; but in terms of the ultimate dimension a Buddha’s life span is limitless. Sadaparibhuta saw that his lifes pan was infinite, just like the life span of a Buddha. He saw that every leaf, every pebble, every flower, every cloud has an infinite life span also, because he was able to touch the ultimate dimension in everything. This is one of the essential aspects of the Lotus message. When his sense organs had been purified, he could see very deeply and understand how the six sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind) produce the six kinds of consciousness. When his senses had been purified he was capable of touching reality-as-it-is, the ultimate dimension. There was no more confusion, no more delusion, in his perception of things.
This passage in the sutra may sound as if it is about something magical or supernatural, but in fact it describes a kind of transformation that we too can experience. When the ground of our consciousness is prepared, when our sense consciousnesses and our mind consciousness have been purified through the practice of mindfulness and looking deeply into the ultimate dimension of reality, we can hear in the sound of the wind in the trees or the singing of the birds the truth of the Lotus Sutra. While lying on the grass or walking in meditation in the garden we can get in touch with the truth of the Dharma that is all around us all the time. We know that we are practicing the Lotus samadhi and our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind are automatically transformed and purified.
Having realized the truth of the ultimate, Bodhisattva Sadaparibhuta continued to live for many millions of years, delivering his message of hope and confidence to countless beings. So we can see that the Lotus Sutra is a kind of medicine for long life. When we take this medicine we are able to live a very long time in order to be able to preserve and transmit the teachings of the Lotus Sutra to many others. We know that our true nature is unborn and undying, so we no longer fear death. Just like Never Despising Bodhisattva, we always dare to share the wonderful Dharma with all living beings. And all those who thought the bodhisattva was only making fun of them finally began to understand. Looking at Sadaparibhuta they were able to see the result of his practice, and so they began to have faith in it and to get in touch with their own ultimate nature.
This is the practice of this great bodhisattva—to regard others with a compassionate and wise gaze and hold up to them the insight of their ultimate nature, so that they can see themselves reflected there. So many people have the idea that they are not good at anything, that they are not able to be as successful as other people.
They cannot be happy; they envy the accomplishments and social standing of others while regarding themselves as failures if they do not have the same level of worldly success. We have to try to help those who feel this way. Following the practice of Sadaparibhuta we must come to them and say, “You should not have an inferiority complex. I see in you some very good seeds that can be developed and make you into a great being. If you look more deeply within and get in touch with those wholesome seeds in you, you will be able to overcome your feelings of unworthiness and manifest your true nature.”
The Chinese Master Guishan writes,
We should not look down on ourselves.
We should not see ourselves as worthless and always
withdraw into the background. (2)
These words are designed to wake us up. In modern society, psychotherapists report that many people suffer from low self-esteem. They feel that they are worthless and have nothing to offer, and many of them sink into depression and can no longer function well, take care of themselves or their families. Therapists, healers, and caregivers, teachers, religious leaders, and those who are close to someone who suffers in this way all have the duty to help them see their true nature more clearly so that they can free themselves from the delusion that they are worthless. If we know friends or family member who see themselves as worthless, powerless, and incapable of doing anything good or meaningful, and this negative self-image has taken away all their happiness, we have to try to help our friend, our sister or brother, our parent, spouse, or partner remove this complex. This is the action of the bodhisattva Never Despising.
We also have to practice so as not to add to others’ feelings of worthlessness. In our daily life when we become impatient or irritated we might say things that are harsh, judgmental, and critical, especially to our children. When they are under a great deal of pressure, working very hard to support and care for their family, parents frequently make the mistake of uttering unkind, punitive, or blaming words in moments of stress or irritation. The ground of a child’s consciousness is still very young, still very fresh, so when we sow such negative seeds in our children we are destroying their capacity to be happy. So parents and teachers, siblings, and friends all have to be very careful and practice mindfulness in order to avoid sowing negative seeds in the minds of our children, family members, friends, and students.
And when our students or loved ones have feelings of low self-esteem we have to find a way to help them transform those feelings so that they can live with greater freedom, peace, and joy. We have to practice just like Never Despising Bodhisattva, who did not give up on people or lose patience with them but continued always to hold up to others a mirror of their true Buddha nature.
I always try to practice this kind of action. One day there were two young brothers who came to spend the day with me. I took them both to show them a new printing press I had just gotten. The younger boy was very interested in the machine, and while he was playing with it the motor burned out. As I was pressing one button to show the boys how it worked, the little boy pressed another at the same time, and it overstressed the machine’s engine. The elder brother said angrily, “Thay, you just wanted to show us the machine. Why did he have to do that? He wrecks whatever he touches.” These were very harsh words from such a young boy. Perhaps he had been influenced by hearing his parents or other family members use blaming language like this, so he was just repeating what he had heard without realizing the effect on his little brother.
In order to help mitigate the possible effects of his brother’s criticism on the younger boy, I showed the boys another machine, a paper cutter, and this time I instructed the younger one how to use it. His brother warned me, “Thay, don’t let him touch it, he’ll destroy this one too.” Seeing that this was a moment when I could help both boys, I said to the older brother, “Don’t worry, I have faith in him. He is intelligent. We shouldn’t think otherwise.” Then I said to the younger boy, “Here, this is how it works—just push this button. Once you have released this button then you press that button. Do this very carefully and the machine will work properly.” The younger brother followed my instructions and operated the machine without harming it.
He was very happy, and so was his older brother. And I was happy along with them.
Following the example of Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva, I only needed three or four minutes to remove the complex of the younger brother and teach the older brother to learn to trust in the best of his younger brother and not just see him in terms of his mistakes. In truth, at that moment I was a bit concerned that the young boy would ruin the other machine. But if I had hesitated and not allowed him to try and follow my instructions, believing that he would destroy the machine, I could well have destroyed that little boy. Preserving the health and well-being of the mind of a child is much more important than preserving a machine, by a long way.
You only need to have faith in the action of Sadaparibhuta and very quickly you can help others overcome their negative self-image. Never Despising Bodhisattva shows everyone that they have the capacity for perfection within themselves, the capacity to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened one. The message of the Lotus Sutra is that everyone can and will become a Buddha. Sadaparibhuta is the ambassador of the Buddha and of the Lotus Sutra, and sometimes ambassadors are reviled or attacked. Never Despising Bodhisattva was also treated this way. He brought his message to everyone, but not everyone was happy to hear it because they could not believe in their own Buddha nature. So when they heard his message they felt they were being scorned or mocked, and, the sutra tells us, “throughout the passage of many years, he was constantly subjected to abuse…some in the multitude would beat him with sticks and staves, with tiles and stones.” (3) The mission of a Dharma teacher, of a bodhisattva, requires a great deal of love, equanimity, and inclusiveness.
Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva represents the action of inclusiveness, kshanti, one of the six paramitas, the bodhisattva practice of the perfections. Kshanti is also translated as “patience,” and we can see this great quality in Never Despising Bodhisattva and in one of the Shakyamuni’s disciples, Purna, who is praised by the Buddha in the eighth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. While the Lotus Sutra only mentions Purna in passing, he is the subject of another sutra, the Teaching Given to Maitrayaniputra. (4) In this sutra, after the Buddha had instructed Purna in the practice, he asked him, “Where will you go to share the Dharma and form a Sangha?” The monk said that he wanted to return to his native region, to the island of Sunaparanta in the Eastern Sea.
The Buddha said, “Bhikshu, that is a very difficult place. People there are very rough and violent. Do you think you have the capacity to go there to teach and help?”
“Yes, I think so, my Lord,” replied Purna. “What if they shout at you and insult you?”
Purna said, “If they only shout at me and insult me I think they are kind enough, because at least they aren’t throwing rocks or rotten vegetables at me. But even if they did, my Lord, I would still think that they are kind enough, because at least they are not using sticks to hit me.”
The Buddha continued, “And if they beat you with sticks?”
“I think they are still kind enough, since they are not using knives and swords to kill me.”
“And if they want to take your life? It’s possible that they would want to destroy you because you will be bringing a new kind of teaching, and they won’t understand at first and may be very suspicious and hostile,” the Buddha warned.
Purna replied, “Well, in that case I am ready to die. Because my dying will also be a kind of teaching and because I know that this body is not the only manifestation I have. I can manifest myself in many kinds of bodies. I don’t mind if they kill me, I don’t mind becoming the victim of their violence, because I believe that I can help them.”
The Buddha said, “Very good, my friend. I think that you are ready to go and help there.”
So Purna went to that land and he was able to gather a lay Sangha of 500 people practicing the mindfulness trainings, and also to establish a monastic community of around 500 practitioners. He was successful in his attempt to teach and transform the violent ways of the people in that country. Purna exemplifies the practice of kshanti, inclusiveness.
Never Despising Bodhisattva may have been a future or a former life of Purna. We are the same. If we know how to practice inclusiveness then we will also be the future life of this great bodhisattva. We know that Sadaparibhuta’s life span is infinite, and so we can be in touch with his action and aspiration at any moment. And when we follow the practice of inclusiveness of Never Despising Bodhisattva, he is reborn in us right in that very moment. We get in touch with the great faith and insight that everyone is a Buddha, the insight that is the very marrow of the Lotus Sutra. Then we can take up the career of the bodhisattva, carrying within our heart the deep confidence we have gained from this insight and sharing that confidence and insight with others.
Therapists and others in the healing professions, Dharma teachers, schoolteachers, parents, family members, colleagues, and friends can all learn to practice like Never Despising Bodhisattva. Following the path of faith, confidence, and inclusiveness we can help free many people from the suffering of negative self-image, help them recognize their true Buddha nature, and lead them into the ultimate dimension.
Illustrations by Lien Buu Olsson. She lives and practices in San Diego, California.
1 Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, p. 283.
2 Quote from “Awakening Words of Master Quy Son,” in Stepping Into Freedom [PUB INFO].
3 Hurvitz, Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, pp. 280–1.
4 Teaching Given to Maitrayaniputra , REF Pali/Skt and/or Chinese texts, translations
The practice of compassion is not for the faint-hearted; it takes great courage to keep our eyes open to the suffering all around us without shutting down.
In the first Dharma talk at the retreat in Estes Park, Colorado last summer, Thich Nhat Hanh began, saying, “It’s lovely to see the Sangha body manifesting herself.” What you hold in your hands, dear reader, is another manifestation of the Sangha body. Every conscious breath, every step in mindfulness that each of us takes, contributes to the collective insight offered in these pages.
Lately I’ve been in the midst of several loved ones who are experiencing physical and emotional difficulties. I feel a growing daily awareness of their sadness and pain. My interactions with them have been both greatly challenging and rewarding. The day after the Colorado retreat, I unexpectedly left to help my aging and almost home-bound parents for three weeks. During that time, I felt myself being carried on the wave of practice generated by the Sangha in Colorado. As a result, my heart was able to stay open, and compassion led me into a new, soft and tender expression of love for my parents. I was able to give them my best—my presence. Through this experience, I see what a great teacher compassion is for me—giving me a way to be in the world, my heart breaking open every day to the sweetness of this life. The practice of compassion is not for the faint-hearted; it takes great courage to keep our eyes open to the suffering all around us without shutting down.
“Leading with Courage and Compassion” was the subject of Thay’s teachings to U.S. Congress members. A section on these memorable events includes questions and answers at the public talk, and notes from a journalist/ practitioner.
We learn about another aspect of the practice of compassion from Never Disparaging Bodhisattva in the Lotus Sutra. Thay leads us through this teaching, showing us that we all have the capacity to realize our Buddha nature, and the responsibility to encourage others to have faith in their ability to become enlightened.
Also in this issue, the Sangha body has manifested as: inspiration from nature, including a breathtaking photo collection, and a story with haiku from two writer/environmentalists; a guided tour in story and photo from a trip of practitioners to war torn Israel; a teaching from senior nun Sister Jina, offering many concrete ways to deepen our daily practice; the story of a mindfulness psychotherapy clinic in Ottowa, Canada and ways to practice with our bodies and with pain; a letter from the mountains of Vietnam, asking for our assistance, as well as many other fruits of practice from Sangha members throughout the world.
Please consider offering the fruits of your practice to the worldwide Sangha through the Mindfulness Bell.
With this issue, we welcome a new graphic designer to our pages. Lien Ho, our tireless designer of ads and posters, subscription manager, and all around business administrator, is now designing the Mindfulness Bell. Lien is a treasure of the Sangha; she is a rare orchid that seems to never stop blooming, even in the most desolate of conditions. I look forward to seeing her gentle care and her professional hand add her touch of beauty to the magazine. Sr. Steadiness continues on the editorial team, as she lets go of the primary design tasks.
As this issue goes to press, the winter retreat will soon be upon us. When I first heard about the chance to be with Thay and the entire monastic community during this time, my heart knew that, for me, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one not to be missed if at all possible. To spend ten weeks nestled in the arms of the Sangha, letting the safety generated have its way with my heart, was an offer I just couldn’t let pass. To witness the loveliness of the Sangha body manifesting herself. Please join us, if you can.
September 10, 2003
On September 10, 2003 Thich Nhat Hanh offered a talk at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to members of Congress and their staffs. Two days later, Thay and monks and nuns led a three- day mindfulness retreat for Congress members and their families.
I would like to answer any question that you might have concerning this practice.
Q: How do you practice with anger?
Thay: Two days after the events of September 11th I spoke to 4,000 people in Berkeley. I said that emotions are very strong now and we need to know how to calm ourselves, because with lucidity and calm we will know what to do. And we will know what not to do, to keep from making the situation worse.
I have suggested a number of things that can be done to decrease the level of violence and hate. The terrorists who attacked the twin towers must have been very angry, they must have hated America a lot. They must have thought America was trying to destroy them as a people, as a religion, as a nation, and as a culture. We have to find out why they have done such a thing to America. A political leader of America who has enough calm and lucidity can ask the question, “Dear people over there, we don’t know why you have done such a thing to us. What have we done that has made you suffer so much? We want to know about your suffering and why you have hated us so much. We may have said something or done something that has given you the impression that we wanted to destroy you. But in fact that is not the case. We are confused, and we want you to help us understand why you have done such a thing to us.” We call that kind of speech loving or gentle speech. If we are honest and sincere they will tell us and we will recognize the wrong perceptions they have about themselves and about us. We can try to help them to remove their wrong perceptions. All these acts of terrorism and violence come from wrong perceptions. Wrong perceptions are the ground for anger, violence, and hatred. You cannot remove wrong perceptions with a gun.
While we listen deeply to the other person, not only can we recognize their wrong perceptions but we can see that we also have wrong perceptions about ourselves and about the other person. That is why mindful dialogue, mindful communication is crucial in removing wrong perceptions, anger, and violence. It is my deepest hope that our political leaders can make use of such instruments to bring peace to themselves and to the world. I believe that using force and violence can only make the situation worse. To me during the last two years America has not been able to decrease the level of hate and violence from terrorists. In fact, the level of hate and violence has increased. That is why it is time for us to go back to the situation, to look deeply, and to find a way that is less costly and will bring peace to everyone. Violence cannot remove violence; everyone knows that. Only with the practice of deep listening and gentle communication can we help remove wrong perceptions that are at the foundation of violence.
America has a lot of difficulty in Iraq. I think that America is caught in Iraq just as America was caught in Vietnam, caught with the idea that we have to seek and destroy the enemy, wherever we believe they are. That idea will never give us a chance to do the right thing to end violence. During the Vietnam War, America thought that they had to bomb North Vietnam, that they had to bomb Cambodia. But the more America bombed, the more communists they created. I am afraid that situation is repeating itself in Iraq. I think it is very difficult for America to withdraw now from Iraq. Even if you want to leave, it is very difficult. I think that the only way for America to get emancipated from this situation is to help build the United Nations into a real body of peace so that the United Nations will take over the problem of Iraq and of the Middle East. America is powerful enough to do that. America should allow the other big powers to contribute positively to building the United Nations as a true organization for peace with enough authority to do her job. In my point of view, that is the only way out of the current situation.
Q: Thank you for coming here. When we see so many lands in this country being destroyed, the forests, the rivers, and the mountains, by policies in this government, how might we approach our members of Congress mindfully, in the name of peace, and on behalf of the land and all living things?
Thay: I think that we should bring a spiritual dimension into our daily life. We should be awakened to the fact that happiness cannot be found in the direction of power, fame, wealth, or sex. If we look deeply around us, we see many people with plenty of these things but they suffer very deeply and many of them have committed suicide. When you have understanding and compassion in you, you don’t suffer. You can relate well to other people around you and to other living beings. That is why a collective awakening about that reality is crucial.
We think that happiness is possible when we have the power to consume. But by consuming we bring a lot of toxins and poisons into us. The way we eat, the way we watch television, the way we entertain ourselves is bringing a lot of destruction into us and into our children. The environment suffers when we consume so much. Learning to consume less, learning to consume only the things that can bring peace and health into our body and into our consciousness is a very important practice. Mindful consumption is the practice that can lead us out of this situation. Mindful production of items that can bring only health and joy into our body and consciousness is also our practice. I think one of the things that Congress may do is to look deeply into the matter of consumption. By consuming unmindfully we continue to bring the element of craving, fear, and violence into ourselves. People have a lot of suffering and they do not know how to handle it, so they consume in order to forget. Families, schools, and communities can help people to go home to themselves and take care of the suffering inside. The spiritual dimension is very important. When we are able to touch joy by living with compassion and understanding we don’t need to consume a lot and we don’t need to destroy our environment. Consuming in such a way that can preserve the compassion and understanding in us is very important.
The Buddha said if we consume without compassion it is as though we are eating the flesh of our own son and daughter. In fact we destroy our environment and we destroy ourselves through unmindful consumption. I think Congress can look into the matter and find ways to encourage people to consume mindfully and to produce mindfully, not producing the kind of items that can bring toxins and craving into the hearts and bodies of people.
We have the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast. But in the name of freedom people have done a lot of damage to the nation, to the people. They have to be responsible for that. I think there should be a law that prohibits people from producing the kind of items that bring toxins into our body and our mind. To produce with responsibility: that is our practice. I think we have to make a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast of America in order to counterbalance liberty. Liberty without responsibility is not true liberty. You are not free to destroy. Through films, movies, and entertainment we are producing food for the souls of people. If we know how to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our bodies, we also have to forbid the kind of food that can bring toxins into our consciousness and the collective consciousness of the people. I think these things have to be looked into deeply by people in Congress. The people in Congress have to see where our suffering comes from. I think unmindful consumption and production of items of consumption are at the root of our problem. We are creating violence and craving by consuming and producing these items. If we continue we can never solve the problem. The way out is mindful consumption, mindful production of items of consumption. My deepest desire is that the members of Congress will look into this matter. This is how we can protect our environment.
Q: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said that we are all caught in an inescapable web of mutuality. Whatever affects one of us affects all of us. In light of that view, that all of us on the planet are connected, what would you recommend as some first steps for people of different races and backgrounds to begin to close the gap of racism and bigotry that we are in right now, that is really expanding right now to Arab Americans because of the issue of 9-11. My question is really a two-part question. One is, what are some beginning practical steps that individuals can take to close the gap that keeps us disconnected despite our denial? Secondly, how do we deal with that in light of the legitimate fears after 9-11 that cause us to look at even our Arab American citizens in a hostile, distant way? How would you see individuals begin to close the gap?
Thay: I think we have to wake up to the fact that everything is connected to everything else. Safety, well-being cannot be individual matters anymore. If others are not safe there is no way that we can be safe. Taking care of others’ safety is at the same time taking care of our own safety. Taking care of others’ well-being is to take care of our own well-being. It is the mind of discrimination and separation that is at the foundation of all violence and hate.
My right hand has written all the poems that I composed. My left hand has not written any poems. But my right hand does not think, “You left hand, you are good for nothing.” My right hand does not have the complex of superiority at all. That is why it is very happy. My left hand does not have any complex at all including the complex of inferiority. In my two hands there is the kind of wisdom called the wisdom of nondiscrimination. One day I was hammering a nail and my right hand was not very accurate and instead of pounding on the nail it pounded on my finger. It put the hammer down and it took care of the left hand in a very tender way as if it were taking care of itself. It did not say, “You left hand, you have to remember that I, the right hand have taken good care of you and you have to pay me back in the future.” There was no such thinking. And my left hand does not say, “You, the right hand have done me a lot of harm, give me that hammer, I want justice.”
The two hands know that they are members of one body; they are part of each other. I think that if Israelis and Palestinians knew that they are brothers, that they are like two hands, they would not try to punish each other any more. The world community has not helped them to see that. If Muslims and Hindus knew that discrimination is at the base of our suffering they would know how to touch the seed of nondiscrimination in themselves. That kind of awakening, that kind of deep understanding will bring about reconciliation and well-being.
I think it is very important for individuals to have enough time to look deeply into the situation to have the insight that violence cannot remove violence. Only kind, deep listening and loving speech can help restore communication and remove wrong perceptions that are the foundation of all violence, hatred, and terrorism. With that kind of insight he or she can help others to have the same insight. I believe that in America there are many people that are awakened to the fact that violence cannot remove violence, that there is no way to peace, peace is the way itself. Those people have to come together and voice their concern strongly and offer their collective light and insight to the nation so that the nation can get out of this situation. Every one of us has the duty to contribute to that collective insight. With that insight compassion will make us strong and courageous enough to bring about a solution for all of us in the world.
Every time we breathe in and go home to ourselves and bring the element of harmony and peace into ourselves, that is an act of peace. Every time we know how to look at another living being and recognize the suffering that has made her speak or act, and we are able to see that she is the victim of suffering that she cannot handle—that is an act of compassion. When we can look with the eyes of compassion we don’t suffer and we don’t make the other person suffer. These are the actions of peace that can be shared with people.
In Plum Village we have had the opportunity to practice together as a community. We are several hundreds of people living together like a family in a very simple way. We are able to build up brotherhood and sisterhood. Although we live simply we have a lot of joy because of the amount of understanding and compassion that we can generate. We are able to go to many countries in Europe, Asia, Australia, and America to offer retreats of mindfulness so that people may have a chance to heal, transform, and to reconcile. Healing, transformation, and reconciliation is what always happens in our retreats.
We have invited Israelis and Palestinians to our community to practice with us. When they come they bring anger, suspicion, fear, and hatred in them. But after a week or two of the practice of mindful walking, mindful breathing, mindful eating, and mindful sitting they are able to recognize their pain, embrace it, and bring relief to themselves. When they are initiated to the practice of deep listening they are able to listen to the other group and to realize that the other group suffers the same way they do. When you know that the others also suffer from violence, from hatred, from fear, and despair you begin to look at them with the eyes of compassion. At that moment you suffer less and you make them suffer less. Communication becomes possible with the use of loving speech and deep listening. The Israelis and Palestinians always come together as a group at the end of their practice in Plum Village and report to us the success of their practice. They go back to the Middle East with the intention to continue the practice and to invite others to join them so that they suffer less and they help others to suffer less. For the last three years this has been a very effective practice. We believe that if this practice can be done on the national level it will bring about the same kind of effect.
Unfortunately our political leaders have not been trained in the practices of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and embracing pain and sorrow to transform their suffering. They have been trained only in political science. It is very important that we try to bring into our life a spiritual dimension, not vaguely, but in concrete practices. Talking like this will not help very much. But if you go to a retreat for five or seven days the practices of breathing mindfully, eating mindfully, walking mindfully, and going home to yourself to take care of the pain inside becomes a daily practice and you are supported by hundreds of people practicing with you. When you are in a retreat, people who are experienced in the practice offer you their collective energy of mindfulness that can help you to recognize and embrace, heal and transform the pain in you. That is why in a retreat we always bring enough experienced practitioners to offer the collective energy of mindfulness and concentration for healing. A teacher, no matter how talented she or he is, cannot do that. You need a community of practice where everyone knows how to be peace, how to speak peace, how to think peace so that practitioners who are beginners are able to profit from the collective insight.
To request permission to reprint this article, either online or in print, contact the Mindfulness Bell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
—President Dwight D. Eisenhower
April 16, 1953 Courtesy of CostofWar.com
“What kind of peace do I mean? What kind of peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children— not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women— not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
—President John F. Kennedy
at American University, 10 June 1963 Courtesy of Marc Ash
By Scott Nance
The next time a congressman or congresswoman is waiting at the airport, maybe he or she won’t be caught up thinking about his or her next meeting, or an upcoming vote on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. Instead, he or she may be doing mindful breathing or mindful walking. That’s because Thay, Sister Chan Khong, and other monastics from Plum Village recently brought the importance of mindfulness and going home to ourselves to members of Congress at an evening presentation at the Library of Congress on September 10th. A special retreat for members of Congress and their families followed two days later.
The idea behind meeting with members of Congress, their families, and their staffs was not to offer political ideas or suggestions, Thay said a few days before the retreat.
Co-sponsored by The Faith and Politics Institute, an independent organization in Washington, the purpose of the events was to share the practice of mindful breathing and mindful walking with U.S. lawmakers, their staffs, and their loved ones.
It’s been forty years since Thay first visited the U.S. capital. He first came in 1963 when the South Vietnamese regime repressed Buddhists and kept them from celebrating the Buddha’s birthday. Thay noted that he visited Washington a lot during the Vietnam War. “I came to bring information about the Vietnam War; information that was not available through the warring parties,” he said.
Thay recalled a particularly memorable visit during the war when he met with six senators, including Senators Edward Kennedy and George McGovern. “Six senators were eating lunch and asked me questions. I did not have the time to eat one spoonful of soup,” he remembered.
For this most recent trip, Thay and Sister Chan Khong began their visit by meeting with reporters. The press conference was the morning of September 10, just hours before Thay’s talk in a packed auditorium at the Library of Congress. “We have come as a group of people who know the practice,” Thay said. “That is why in the retreat, there will be a collective energy of mindfulness that can support those who are beginners in the practice.
Congressman Brian Baird of Washington has been reading Thay’s books for more than ten years, and gained a lot from participating in the retreat. “I thought it was outstanding,” the congressman said following the retreat. “It was a privilege and honor to meet Thich Nhat Hanh. I thought many of his ideas–particularly the practice of meditation as he teaches it–can be very beneficial. “Both my wife and I have tried to incorporate the practice of meditation–especially walking meditation concepts–and mindfulness in general in our daily lives,” he added. Congressman Baird said he and his wife find themselves eating differently after the retreat. He also practices walking meditation at work. “When walking to and from votes, for example, I’ll use that opportunity to be aware of breathing, and think of some of the concepts that
Thich Nhat Hanh shared with us,” he said.
Participating in the retreat has already had a positive effect on his job in the House, the congressman said. “I think it tends to make it both more effective and more enjoyable,” he said. The congressman believes he will be more effective by being focused on core values and awareness, then interactions with others will be more positive and more successful. “And much of this job is about interactions,” he said.
Introducing Thay for the evening talk, Congresswoman Lois Capps of California acknowledged that Thay’s talk coincided with the observance of the September 11 terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.
Congresswoman Capps said that “it is very appropriate that he be here with us, particularly that he be here on this eve of this momentous day in our nation’s history…”
To begin the evening at the Library of Congress, Sister Chan Khong sang a beautiful song, encouraging the audience to breathe mindfully in preparation for Thay’s talk. By surprise, another of the notables who made introductory remarks for Thay was well-known television comedian Garry Shandling. Mr. Shandling followed Sister Chan Khong, and he asked the audience for a round of applause for her lovely, inspirational song. The audience responded with a rousing ovation. “Sister Chan Khong, along with all of us who are fighting our egos, still wants a little applause now and then,” Mr. Shandling said playfully. “She is a fantastic woman.”
Then, with a smile, he said, “The question that must be in your mind: What am I doing here?” He revealed that he has practiced Zen Buddhism for twenty-five years. “I never talk about it,” he said. “My comedy certainly deals with the human condition and the suffering, and the pain, and the emotions that we all live through. Thank goodness I have a way to express it through my comedy. Behind that, I am someone who has meditated, and had a path–and a serious path–all these years.”
“The magic of Thich Nhat Hanh–and it’s nothing short of magic–is that he invited me, knowing that this sense of humor—this child-like art—is really part of life,” he added. Mr. Shandling said he has known Thay for two years. “I love him. I know him after those two years. I knew him after the first moment I looked in his eyes,” he said. He said that Thay really has touched in such a gentle, special way so many countless numbers of lives. “I’m one of them, and that’s what brings me here tonight,” he said.
Scott Nance is a professional journalist living and practicing in the Washington, D.C. area. Photography by Eric Alan.
Reviewed by Kate Atchley, Vow of True Virtue
The UK Manual of Practice has been recently revised. The Manual is a valuable resource for anyone who follows Thay’s teachings.
After an introduction, detailed guidance on many aspects of the practice is offered, including the Daily Practices, the Mindfulness Trainings, the Touchings of the Earth, planning and facilitating a Day of Mindfulness, and even a Tree-Planting Ceremony. Beginners will find explanations of the Dharma and mindfulness practice; experienced practitioners will find texts and advice to support their Sangha activities.
With Internet access, you may download all or some of the Manual at http://www.interbeing.org.uk. If you experience technical difficulties, please e-mail email@example.com. Updating of sections will be done from time to time. Please send any suggested changes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mac users can download the manual in:
- PDF format from http://www.interbeing.org.uk/manual.pdf or
- In Word from http://www.interbeing.org.uk/manualword.
The Essential Spiral
Ecology and Consciousness After 9-11
By Ian Prattis
University Press of America, 2002
Book Review by David Percival
This is a remarkably personal, honest, and passionate trip into the mindless violent world we have created, and an offering of how, through meditation and mindfulness practice, we can change ourselves and our world. With clarity and vision Ian Prattis illustrates that what the Buddha realized 2,600 years ago is directly applicable to our current quest for peace and justice.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s presence is in this book through numerous references to his teachings and writings. Prattis’s multidisciplinary approach covers everything from deep listening, problems of unmindful consumption, and
the global ecological crisis to globalization. The final chapter is a moving discussion of the Five Mindfulness Trainings as ethical guidelines for people of all faiths. Also included are ten mindfulness meditations, offered for the reader to practice. A comprehensive bibliography ends each chapter.
The Essential Spiral is a bold, no-holds-barred application of Buddhist practices to both our personal lives and to our world. Prattis is deeply committed to his personal mindfulness practice and his writing reflects his honesty and integrity. He uses many wonderful stories and anecdotes, often from his own life. He appeals to us all, Christian, Jew, Moslim, or Buddhist, to develop our own mindfulness practice based on the Five Mindfulness Trainings.
I am concerned that his somewhat academic style and direct Buddhist approach will lessen the book’s appeal to a broader audience. It needs to be read by people not familiar with Buddhism.
To some readers, Prattis may seem to propose radical practices and methods. Yet, if we truly want to transform the violence, anger, hatred, and despair that are in us and in our world, his prescriptions do not seem radical at all. We desperately need a “Consciousness Revolution grounded in mindfulness practice.” What would happen if we, as a nation, could stop, breathe, and really look deeply at the causes of violence and terrorism? What would the world be like if we really practiced the Five Mindfulness Trainings? This would be the revolution and transformation we are searching for. As Prattis says, “all that is required is that you do it now.”
By Lorena Monda
Golden Flower Publications
Book Review by Barbara Casey
Lorena Monda is a Doctor of Oriental Medicine, psychotherapist, Hakomi trainer, and Order of Interbeing member. The Practice of Wholeness reflects her insight from these varied commitments. In the introduction, she states, “It is practice that is at the heart of transformation.” Unlike many texts that offer philosophies about the world and our lives, Lorena takes us on a practical, exploratory journey, offering guided meditations and daily exercises to help us come to a greater place of wholeness within ourselves.
Before writing this book, Lorena asked, “What do people who make core changes in their lives do that other people don’t?” This became the basis for the teachings she offers. A gentle and clear guide, Lorena helps us learn to accept our bodies, emotions, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs, longings and aspirations.
We learn to come to peace with our humanness, and with the unknown. As we move through this process, we gain a greater ability to invoke wholeness, and to give it creative expression in everything we do. Individuals, couples, families, and even communities will find this book an invaluable resource for learning to live in harmony through simple, new ways to connect with the wisdom and compassion—the Buddha nature—within each of us.
Barbara Casey is an editor of the Mindfulness Bell.
A warm summer evening, and there is a slightly smiling moon hanging above the blue. Following the evening sitting meditation the whole Sangha enjoys walking together outside. Around the blooming lotus pond, I see so many angels and holy beings nuns and lay practitioners in long gray blue robes. So quiet, serene and light.
This is the image that touches my heart deeply, a few days after returning from two weeks in Israel. We went to Israel not as individuals, but as a Sangha body. We were eleven practitioners, monastic and lay people including five Dharma teachers (two monastic and three lay) who traveled together and offered two retreats with the Israeli Sanghas. In between the retreats we had four days to visit various places and meet with a number of groups of Palestinians, Israelis, and international people who are engaged in bringing peace, harmony, and healing to this holy land. We spent one day in the West Bank, one day visiting the old city of Jerusalem, and one day visiting Yad Vashem, a Holocaust Museum. In this short time we came into contact with many images, sounds, and feelings that touched us deeply. We came into contact with the wounds, the fear, the pain, and also the strong determination in some people to listen, to look deeply, to heal, and to live as true brothers and sisters. All of this I held gently in myself upon returning to New Hamlet in Plum Village.
In Israel I became aware that the most precious thing we have to offer is our peace, our freshness, and our stability. We came as practitioners. We practiced walking meditation everywhere we went, taking each step with ease, with care and love. We listened in the same way. We did not take sides. Listening deeply and lightly we could hear the voice, the experience, and the aspirations of the person sharing with us. And within that listening we left space to hold what was not said, and the pain and aspirations of those who were not present, who were not heard. I realized that we could form a space, a container for people in suffering, in conflict, to be with themselves and to come into contact with each other. When there is contact there is a possibility for understanding to develop, for healing, for peace.
At the end of our time in Israel my elder brother, Phap An, expressed a sentiment that I shared: coming into contact with all that we did in Israel, we must bow our heads. It was humbling to be present with suffering, to touch the source of pain of a whole land, the misunderstandings, the fear, the separation. And somehow in that container of coming into contact with suffering, with deep wounds in Jewish Israelis, in Arab Israelis, in Palestinians, in Germans and others, I began to receive a feeling of grounding, stabilizing and clearing my heart and mind.
Generating compassion, generating understanding as a concrete, daily-life practice, this is the experience I had in Israel. During our closing circle with our small traveling Sangha I shared that I felt something unfolding in me. It is this: seeing the path that is open before us, the path that has no beginning and no end. This is a path of presence, of unfolding love, compassion, and clear light to offer with each step, with each interaction and moment of contact with the Earth and with all the creatures of the Earth.
What is humbling is to see our own weaknesses, to experience our own mistakes, discrimination, and judgments. And what gives us strength is to know that we can transform, we can be bridges for each other, we can look with ease and understanding at the one we feel to be our oppressor, our enemy.
Peacefully, your Sister Steadiness
July 5, 2003 New Hamlet, Plum Village
Sister Steadiness is an editor of the Mindfulness Bell, currently living in Plum Village.
In Israel and Palestine
Excerpts from a journal By Sister Steadiness
Walking Peace in Yanoun
June 15, 2003
At the village of Yanoun (an Arab village in the Occupied Territories, West Bank) we met with the mayor and a council member under an olive tree. There had been several attacks by Jewish settlers on the villagers and their animals, to the extent that all the villagers fled the village out of fear. The United Nations and international organizations (like International Women’s Service) had encouraged the villagers to return and offered an international presence to prevent further violence.
The mayor and council member shared with us how a farmer had been attacked with stones and had lost his eye and his leg was broken. Many of their olive trees were damaged and uprooted and their livestock were killed by settlers.
We asked why they thought the settlers did that. They said the settlers told them, “God gave us this land.” We asked, do you think the settlers are afraid? They said, no. We asked, how were you able not to respond to violence with more violence? They said, we have no weapons. We have nothing. The council member, who was educated in Jordan and spoke English, served us fresh herbal tea and told us, “We can’t think about these things all the time. We have to enjoy the life we have right now.”
We shared our practice of walking meditation and together we walked in meditation through the village of Yanoun. Afterwards Brother Phap An shared with the council member about true brotherhood and peace.
Visiting Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem
June 16, 2003
One and a half million children died today, perished away.
Who are their descendants?
Who shall carry their light?
At Yad Vashem there were many beautiful trees that had been planted, including pines and evergreens that were now healthy and vibrant. Each tree had the plaque of a “righteous gentile” at the base. Our tour guide explained: a non-Jew who helped save a Jew by hiding or helping him or her to escape, not for money or out of personal favor. I understood this and respected the need to honor such acts of deep courage and compassion. And something stuck in my mind also—the qualification of “righteous.” It seems too easy to say that one is righteous and the other evil—black and white—not acknowledging the spectrum and the seed of righteousness and evil in each one of us. Our manifestation, our behavior depends on to what extent this seed has been able to grow, to blossom. It feels clear to me that the one who inflicts suffering suffers enormously. To live with discrimination and hatred is to live a very sad life. There is no peace, no wholeness, no deep love. That is suffering. You see the one who is angry, who is rigid, who is caught in perceptions, dogma— that is deep suffering—there is no freedom in that person.
The Wailing Wall
June 16, 2003
In my heart the place I wanted to visit was the western wall, the wailing wall. We went there. The women on one side. There I felt at ease. In contemplation, prayer. We stood at the wall. I felt the presence, the calm, solid, deep energy of prayer. I know the holy place is created all the time with our own practice and the quality of our presence and aspirations.
June 19th, 2003
Ibtisam shared about containing humanity in her womb and embracing all as a mother carries her child. She is a traditional Muslim woman who has found a deep strength and wisdom and is able to share it deeply. She came to Plum Village last year for two weeks as a member of a Palestinian and Israeli delegation. Her name means “smile” in Arabic. She led us in the following meditation:
“Be aware that there is a lot of space inside of you. Now feel a bowl within you and fill it with love, compassion, and light. Allow this light to flow over your own body, your head, your face, eyes, ears. Feel the light and love from the space inside of you flow over your shoulders, arms, torso, legs, and feet. Now allow the light and love to flow over your neighbors, and those near to us, through the streets, cities and slowly to flow over the whole of humanity, the whole world.”
She spoke continuously and then stopped and we rested together. I felt a deep peace – expansion, a womb meditation!
Photography by Simone Coiusti and Sister Steadiness.
Reflections on Engaged Practice in the Holy Land
By Mitchell Ratner
We did walking meditation together, each of us silently breathing and stepping, opening ourselves to the moment. We formed a circle and chanted together, giving homage to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva who hears and responds to the suffering of the world. All of us had walked and chanted before, but this time the atmosphere was noticeably different—our walking trail was the approach to the Israeli military checkpoint that separates the Palestinian authority-controlled city of Nablus from the rest of the West Bank.
This checkpoint is often in the news. Many West Bank Palestinians need to cross it each day, to work, study, do business, or seek medical treatment. Journalists and foreign observers have substantiated Palestinian claims of needlessly long waits and degrading treatment by the guards. We had come to the checkpoint to offer a healing presence.
There were about twenty of us at the checkpoint that day in June of 2003. Eleven of us had come from outside Israel, including four Plum Village monastics, three lay Dharma teachers, and several Order of Interbeing members. We had come to Israel to share the practice of mindfulness and to open ourselves to the suffering, resilience, and wisdom that is present in Israel and the West Bank.
The international program began with a five-day mindfulness retreat at Givat Haviva, a kibbutz education center in the rural heartland of Israel. The international community joined with 50 Israelis to develop our practice of mindfulness. During the Dharma talks we talked about the Buddhist understanding of suffering and the overcoming of suffering. In Dharma discussion groups and private sharings, we talked about the particular suffering that Israelis felt, especially the daily fear that some unforeseen incident will bring great harm to them or their families, and the larger, overhanging sense of despair, that the situation will not improve.
Three themes emerged for me during the Givat Haviva retreat that helped me frame what I saw, heard, and experienced in Israel.
The first theme was about blame. With mindfulness we can develop the capacity to relate to ourselves and others without blame. As Thay Phap An noted in one of the Dharma talks, “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” In the context of Israel, the words resounded. Almost every public or private discussion of the Jewish-Arab conflict focuses on attributing blame. Each side justifies the suffering they have caused in terms of the suffering they have received. The suffering is not abstract or distant; almost everyone in Israel and the West Bank has a relative, friend, or acquaintance who has been killed or wounded.
The second theme was about the importance of our daily practice, of working with our own suffering. Sister Gina shared with the community how important it was for her to be able to take care of her own anger, fear, and defensiveness:
“I really have to practice. Only if I can do it, can I expect others to do it. If I cannot do it my daily life, there’s no hope. . . I would sink into despair for myself and for the world.”
This focus on the connection between our inner lives and the conditions we wish to see in the world is a special gift that mindfulness practice offers the peace movement.
The final, third theme was about the power of history, our own history and that of our community. At Givat Haviva most of the participants were Jewish and many of the discussions led back to the Holocaust. The question was often raised in terms of whether Israeli Jews, as individuals and as a community, had worked through the Holocaust—whether that unimaginably searing and painful experience had been fully processed so that it no longer clouded understanding of the current reality.
After Givat Haviva, the international participants, along with some of our Israeli hosts, spent a long day in the West Bank. In the morning we visited activists from a Palestinian village that will be cut off from its agricultural land by the new Israeli “security wall.” In the afternoon the residents of a small Palestinian community, near Nablus, offered us mint tea and told us about the struggles of their daily life, including attacks and harassment from an Israeli-Jewish settler community that has established outposts on the hills over their village, the general economic and social instability arising from the Israeli control of the West Bank, and the daily difficulties caused by the many blocked roads and Israeli checkpoints—what was a fifteen minute drive to Nablus had become at least a two-hour ordeal, and some days it was not possible to go there at all.
Following our stop at the Nablus checkpoint, we returned to Israel, and arrived late at night at Neve Shalom/Wahat alSalam (Oasis of Peace), an intentional community founded in the 1970s by a Dominican priest in the foothills between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For more than twenty-five years Israeli Jews have lived as neighbors with Palestinian Arabs and Christians. Together they have created an international peace center, a bilingual/bi-national elementary school, and a retreat program that brings together Israeli Arab and Israeli Jewish high school students. A bumper sticker they make and distribute reads simply, in Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace Is Possible.”
Our next stop was Jerusalem, where we stayed for several nights with host families and together visited historical and spiritual sites, such as the Church of the Sepulcher (built on the site of Jesus’s crucifixion) and the Western or Wailing Wall (the last remnant of the second temple). One morning we visited the Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem—a harrowingly effective presentation of what it meant, life by life, for six million people, one and a half million of them children, to have died, only because they were Jewish. Afterwards, we did walking meditation together in the hall of memory, holding each other’s hands, calming ourselves, struggling to simply breathe and remain open: not to close to the suffering, not to be overwhelmed by it.
An hour later we had lunch at the Jerusalem office of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a remarkable German non-governmental organization started in the 1950s by Protestant theologians. The organization’s founding principle was that when a great harm has been committed, there must be atonement before there can be reconciliation.
We Germans began World War II and for this reason alone, more than others, we are guilty for bringing immeasurable suffering to humankind. Germans have murdered millions of Jews in an outrageous rebellion against God. Those of us who did not want this annihilation did not do enough to prevent it. For this reason, we are still not at peace. There has not been true reconciliation. …
We are requesting all peoples who suffered violence at our hands to allow us to perform good deeds in their countries, … to carry out this symbol of reconciliation.
As Sabine Lohmann, the Jerusalem office’s director explained, more than thirty-five years after that statement, young Germans still come each year to Israel, and to similar offices in eleven other countries. In Israel they learn Hebrew, provide personal care to Holocaust survivors, and work in special education classes and with people with disabilities—classes of people especially affected by Nazi policy.
The still vivid images from the Holocaust museum, coming together with the German organizations efforts to reach to the roots of reconciliation, encouraged us, right there in the organization’s meeting room, to have an intense and cathartic sharing about World War II, Jews, Germans, cruelty, guilt, blame, and atonement. Thay Phap Minh, a Plum Village monk, born and raised in Israel, reminded us that demonizing almost always accompanies blaming. We separate ourselves by highlighting certain characteristics and ignoring others. For him, it was important to remember that “the dark side of the Nazi is within me and there’s great love in the heart of a Nazi.”
After several more events in Jerusalem, we headed north to Nazareth. While the retreat at Givat Haviva followed closely the structure of a standard mindfulness retreat, the events in Nazareth also included exchanges between the Israeli mindfulness community and other groups working for peace and reconciliation between Jews and Arabs.
During the days preceding the public events in Nazareth, the international group and Israeli organizers met with two extraordinary Arab groups. Memory for Peace was started in Nazareth by Father Shoufani, an Arab Greek Catholic Prelate. He brought together Christian Arabs and Islamic Arabs who felt that there was no place in the public dialogue for the positions they held in their hearts. Nazir Mgally, a journalist, shared with us:
We are Palestinian people. We are also part of the Israeli state. We suffer with the people in the West Bank. We suffer with the Israelis. We said we were the bridge, and we didn’t do it. . . . I felt the best way to stop the bloodshed was to return to our roots as human beings. I felt I needed to understand his [the Jewish persons] suffering. Maybe he will understand our suffering.
The Memory for Peace group began by studying Jewish history together, and, after some time, they invited Israeli Jews to study with them. Just weeks before we met with six members of this group, they had traveled together to Auschwitz, 150 Arab-Israelis and 150 Jewish-Israelis.
A Nazareth building contractor explained why, as an Arab, he went to Auschwitz:
We are living here together and recent events have hurt us. We’ve seen the Jewish people close down and distance themselves. We wanted to see the roots; wanted to go to the place of greatest disaster. Today we know the main problems of the Jews. The Jewish people have fear. They have always been chased. We want to support them. Our aim is holy. With all our might we want to bring together the people who are living here.
The next day we met with a small delegation led by Sheikh Abd Elsalem H. Manasra, the head of the Salam Qaderite Sufi Order in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. He explained that while Sufis are Muslim, their tradition differs from many other Islamic traditions in that they try to penetrate into the texts, rather than interpret them from above. In Arabic, the words “Islam”, “peace”, “surrender”, and “wholeness”, all have the same linguistic root. The Sheikh’s spiritual vision was open and embracing:
I’m speaking as a human being, as an Arab, and as the Muslim. I begin with human being. This is what I share with you. Everything else is less.
Sufis say they have the truth, but not the whole truth. Others have a truth as well.
The holy man gives peace to the earth. We should break down the borders in order to reach the man.
There are only two commandments: love of God and love of man. This is enough for a universal religion.
The holy land can include all the Palestinians and all the Jews, if we love.
Before leaving, the sheik taught us to rhythmically chant, in the Sufi style, the name Allah, the pronoun of God. We stood and joined together our voices and spirits: Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, holding a sacred space together.
The retreat program in Nazareth, at the St. Gabriel’s Hotel, included elements from a standard mindfulness retreat, such as Dharma talks, sittings, and walking meditation, along with several public events. On Friday night, two hundred people sat in the church of St. Gabriel to listen to representatives from eight groups talk about their experiences working for reconciliation and peace. On Saturday afternoon, the retreat ended with a silent peace walk through Nazareth, to Mary’s well, in the heart of the city.
Often during the weekend, around meals and odd moments, Israeli Arabs, Israeli Jews, and members of the international community shared personal stories and reflections. In Hebrew, Arabic, and English, sometimes all three languages at once, people talked about their roots, their desire for peace, and their frustration with the distrust and fear that separated communities. Afterwards, both Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews mentioned that this casual sharing from the heart, across customary boundaries, which had happened in Nazareth, was rare even at peace and reconciliation events.
Several days after the retreat, on my last full day in Israel, I sat with a Jewish Israeli friend talking about what I had seen and learned. I struggled to pull the parts together. When I talked about the spiritual lessons I had learned while in Israel, my comments centered on all that we gain when we let go of blaming. I felt I had gained insight into what Thay Phap An had said, that “Looking deeply is to be truly present, without blame or judgment.” When we blame we distort. When we blame we highlight an individual’s or group’s actions, we ignore the context, and we ignore the contributions we or others may have made to the situation. When blame is in my heart, the other person naturally becomes defensive. Communication breaks down. Authentic dialogue and reconciliation cannot occur.
And yet, a few minutes later, when I talked about the reality of daily life I had observed in Israel and the West Bank, I dwelled on the defects of Jewish Israeli society. In me were feelings of disappointment and anger. The distrust and institutional racism was more extensive than I had imagined. I asked my friend, “Of all people, after the experience of the Holocaust, how could Jewish people be so intolerant of Arab Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank? How could they be insensitive to their pain?”
For several hours we talked, working our way down to the roots of the incompatibility between what I was feeling and saying about Jewish Israeli society and my increased understanding of the corrosive effects of blaming. I shared with my friend that the trip had made me aware of how often blame crept into my thinking and speaking. To use words such as racism and intolerance almost automatically steers a conversation toward blaming. Often, however, it is much more subtle–spontaneous remarks directed at loved ones, and seemingly objective discussion of social issues which slip into blame. (How could you/they do that?)
Why was it so hard for me to let go of blame? For the next two months I pondered the question and talked about it with friends. Finally the realization came that in my life, in an odd way, blaming was connected to caring. When it seemed that someone else’s actions were causing pain to me or to those I cared about, my response was to blame them. When I acted in ways that seemed to undermine the goals I had set for myself, I blamed myself. When people close to me acted in ways other than what I thought was in their best interest, I blamed them. That was how I was raised.
My strong reaction to what I saw as Jewish Israeli insensitivities came out of a deep caring. I did not want that community, which had suffered so much, to be destroyed again. I deeply wanted Israeli Jews to act in ways I believed would lead to a just and lasting peace. I saw that in my reactive blaming I underplayed how debilitating the historical wounds might be (Who was I to judge that enough time had past?), and I underplayed how many causes and conditions from outside the Israeli-Jewish community contributed to what I perceived as Israeli-Jewish insensitivity to the pain of others.
For me, the great challenge, in Israel and elsewhere, is to let go of the blame and not let go of the caring. Without blame, we can still work and hope for peace. Without blame, we can still bring attention to situations of injustice. We can even ask people to act in a different way, or, when necessary, forcibly prevent some persons from hurting others. Without blame, rather than closed and angry, our hearts are open and accepting.
Mitchell Ratner, True Mirror of Wisdom, is a Dharma teacher living in Takoma Park, Maryland and practicing with the Still Water Mindfulness Practice Center.
By David Percival
More than Light
This cold gray morning under heavy dark clouds,
sudden brilliant beams from over the mountains
leave this corridor ablaze, yellow fall leaves like fire,
adobe walls glow in unnatural light.
I stop and breathe in this present surreal moment
and wonder who else sees this luminous display,
but only crows diving and frolicking as they fly to the east.
Minutes later it is gone and I walk on down the alley
under a gloomy overcast sky
and smile at a ragged man looking for cans in the trash.
Slow walking around the Zendo.
Turning the corner to the west
a cold wind slaps my face mindfully.
The sky at dusk, a deep shade of red.
To the south, the cemetery
hosts hundreds of swooping crows
dancing in the air above tall trees,
squawking at each other endlessly,
finally settling on bare branches for the night.
I pause to savor the colors and the circling crows
then turn and walk on into the wind.
(in the Japanese Waka style)
Tall Zen Center walls
don’t shield from the radio next door
or smells of cooking meat.
We walk on under playing crows.
This is our world, the Dharma.
David Percival, True Wonderful Roots, is a founding member of Rainbow Sangha in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and offers marketing support for the Mindfulness Bell.
Nature as a Spiritual Path
By Eric Alan
Eric Alan is a photographer, author, and public radio program manager. He lives with his partner, Jane, in Ashland, Oregon and practices with the Community of Mindful Living, Southern Oregon. Following is an excerpt from his book, Wild Grace: Nature as a Spiritual Path, featuring his writing and nature photos. Publisher: White Cloud Press, Ashland, Oregon.
The Earth speaks in quiet affirmations. All that we call language, with its strings of words and human meanings, is but a narrow part of its living communication to us.
The other noises of creatures’ calls, often opaque in meaning across a distance of species, add to our own cries to broaden language’s scope. The vegetative sounds of leaves and branches in the wind, and all other living sounds that speak without a mouth, talk to us as well.
From sweet tones to solemn, soothing to raging, there is all manner of earthly speech. Silence speaks with the most powerful voice of all, at times: sometimes with no more message than its own healing power; other times by allowing the inner voice its own chance to speak, at last.
Naturally, the Earth speaks to us without using words—via wind and weather and strange facets of beauty.
I find that as a reward for creating harmony, for compassionate steps taken, for pure hard choices I’ve made that keep me along the path of the heart, that quiet affirmations offer themselves. A coincidence of birds at a moment of my own song; a falling star’s timing attuned to a good decision—it’s these kind of messages I hear as affirmations. I find them in urban places, too; in affirmations that might not at first seem a part of nature. They’re in money found at streetside; in music that falls in rhythm to the drive. They’re remarkable for the continual resonance they give to a kind act done, a good decision firmly made. They’re also remarkable for their absence when disharmony is chosen, when the path to my purpose is betrayed, or when I’m removed from returning beauty to the world which has given so much to me.
At this book’s genesis was such a moment. The beginning of autumn was arriving with its usual clamor of working demands. I had retreated for a Saturday afternoon with the trees and the creek, the warm but waning sunshine that would soon gain a winter chill and vanish into gray. I came to ponder this book’s concept. The agony of indecision arose in me, though, upon arrival at tree-side. Should I leave instead, to attend to my list of a thousand things? Were errands a better use of my time? I could busy my hands and ignore the silence and its dangerous release of my own inner voice. If I left, I could withdraw from the pure, silent world, and by missing the beauty, avoid all the danger that beauty brings. Or I could stay within the pain of silence and beauty, and pass through that pain to where only the afternoon’s beauty remained, and dare to believe that this book was worth beginning. I could stay and begin to face the reflection of the world upon these pages. I lay back on the grass for a minute and stared at the sycamore canopy far above. I breathed with focus, to take my heart back to center, my mind away from words. Breathing in, the wind is a part of me… In, pause, out, pause, in, pause, out. ...Breathing out, I am a part of the wind. Pauses as important as breathing, like silence as important as speaking.
When harmony settled to the core, the silent answer came, distilled from between thoughts. I would stay and dare the words, risk the sunshine. I would take the harder, more beautiful path.
Decision made, tension released, I opened my eyes to see a sycamore leaf release exactly then from the top of the grove canopy. Unlike most of the leaves using the wind as a path to the ground, it did not flutter and tumble. Leading with its stem, it kept the same side down as it traced a perfect, centered spiral. I watched it glide with focused calm direction as it came, closer… closer… to touch at the very spot I instinctively knew it would. I lay motionless and willingly remained defenseless as the centered spiral ended with the leaf stem exactly hitting my heart.
The Earth had spoken its affirmation. I was in the right place, along the path the Earth had invited me to discover. I was at ease, then, and the words began to flow into the place where you now read them. As I type them in, that leaf is still beside me, in a place of honor on my desk.
The Earth’s affirmations are small, quiet, easy to miss or deny. They almost never have the volume of a door slam, a pain cry, or an aggressively barked order. They aren’t orders, after all. They’re thank yous for a choice of beauty, and it often takes a vision of beauty, developed as a skill, to notice them. But I’ve learned through constant experience that they subtly exist, and that if they don’t show from time to time, despite my best awareness, I’m walking off my path. I’m not following nature.
The faith that these quiet affirmations require is something I restore by watching birds. Birds strike me as very faithful, spiritual creatures, for in every leap from a branch into the wind, they place the absolute trust of their lives into the invisible. Were the air not there to carry their wings, they would only crash in their delicacy onto stones far below. They may never see the air, or think of it with other than instinct, but they trust in it with absoluteness. We must trust in the world with that same absoluteness. We too must jump off branches when our soul knows we are ready for the air. We must give ourselves over to the world and its quiet affirmations. We must affirm the Earth, in return.
Photography by Eric Alan.
By Michael Petracca
I unlock the plover shed, a cinder block storeroom atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific. Through the shed’s salt filmy window, the sea looks glassy under a thick batting of overcast. Rust-colored kelp undulates slowly at low tide. Pelicans glide parallel to shore, pull up abruptly, plunge, splash. No surf to speak of today. The shoreline appears empty, save two black turkey buzzards pecking at a dead thing far up the beach.
over the kelp
beds ragged line of pelicans
like smoke in still air
The faded, once-blue canvas daypack is heavy. It holds: birding binoculars; brown data clipboard and research data entry sheets; spare dog leashes; cell phone; economy tube of sunscreen; several ocean-rounded rocks for scaring crows, who enjoy plucking eggs from plover nests like bonbons from a box; docent procedure manual in white three-ring binder; stack of Coal Oil Point Reserve flyers.
The flyers explain that the Snowy Plover Docent Program started in 2001, to help save the plovers from extinction, and “to raise awareness in the local community of the importance of the preservation of this species and its habitat.” They say that the Reserve is the only area where plover breeding has been recovered through management efforts and a strong volunteer docent program. I heft the pack over one shoulder, pick up the sighting scope and its tripod, and make my way down the crumbling shale bluff that overlooks Coal Oil Point Reserve.
foggy fall dunescape:
seaweed, sodden driftwood,
tern tracks in wet sand
Heading west, down the dunes and toward the roped-off Reserve. Workboots sink deep, thighs burn, breath comes deep and slow. Suddenly, a trick of the eye. The sandscape appears to move, as though the beach ahead were its own small geologic plate in earthquake time. A whole sheet of sand shifting away from me. It can’t be the wind; there is none. I look again. Snowies! What appeared at first glance as empty beach is actually a flock of our puffball charges, each hunkered down in a human heel print, perfectly hidden from view. My approach caused the flock to move en masse, from one heel print to the next, and as I approach slowly so as not to scare the birds into flight, the flock gradually moves from heel print to heel print, finally taking up temporary residence on the other side of the ropes, inside the Reserve perimeter.
cold autumn windstorm—
each small shorebird takes refuge
in a heel print hole
Plovers don’t know that they’re on a list of creatures whose existence on this planet hangs by a fraying thread. They don’t know that we docents are on the beach to protect them, or that the ropes mark a safe zone for them. Consequently, they rarely thank us (although their peet-peet cries, as they veer and wheel overhead, come as a blessing), and they pay no heed to the ropes.
In fact, plovers will occupy any territory that seems friendly at the moment. For short-term shelter, plovers will sometimes choose the bunker-like protection of uneven terrain over the more exposed flat of the Reserve. But if there were no roped area, there would be no plovers … or a lot fewer of them. For more than a decade before the Docent Program was implemented, breeding had completely stopped here, due to foot traffic—mainly students and their dogs—and the encroachment of non-native ground cover, which reduced the amount of camouflage-protective sand. Last year, after habitat restoration and the implementation of the docent program, we had fourteen nests, and nine plover chicks hatched and fledged.
blue sky, cirrus cloud,
small crew of westering gulls,
warm sun on dark cloth
The fog is burning off, and the foghorn has ceased its reedy moan. Reaching the eastern boundary of the Reserve, I open the tripod, set up the scope, and sight through it. At 32X magnification the far end of the Reserve looks like the moon’s surface. Hummocky terrain littered with small boulders. I pan the scope until some shorebirds come into sight. At first, a few non-endangered whimbrels and gulls loitering … then, finally, a small assembly of plovers, some motionless on sand, others darting quickly, pecking, and beach-running. I fix the scope on a still one, turn the fine-focus wheel until the plover comes into clarity. Around five inches long, stocky, whitish-tannish upper body and darker patches on the upper breast, short black legs. Eyes closed, dreaming of … what? Plover mind: Zen-empty?
I look around, take a deep, slow breath. Happy to be here, cleansed momentarily of thought. Plover mind. The air at Coal Oil Point smells like the air nowhere else. Salt mixes with a pungent smell of tar, due to natural offshore seepage that lends Coal Oil Point its name.
one seagull feather—
sandy, matted with dried tar,
tangled in seagrass
In the very old days, the Chumash used to make good use of the seepage. They used tar to caulk their thirty-foot redwood tomols, which they paddled up and down the coast and out to the Channel Islands for fish, abalone, and pleasure cruises. They wove grasses into twine bottles and coated them on the inside with beach tar to make them watertight.
More recently the oil companies arrived to tap the offshore petroleum reservoirs. Oil gets produced at the 7,500 ton Platform Holly, two miles offshore but very visible from the beach: by day, a stumpy, stilted erector-set box that intrudes on the gentle arc of the horizon; by night, an Orc-castle of twinkling lights and occasional gas-jet flares. At another site a mile east of the platform, natural methane is caught by two “seep tents,” massive steel pyramids installed by ARCO a couple of decades ago. A three-mile-long plexus of pipes and buoys connects Platform Holly and its neighboring seep tents with the Ellwood Oil & Gas Processing Facility just up the coast. Harbor seals have taken up permanent residence on every single buoy, and when wind is blowing just right, Coal Oil Point Reserve sounds like an overcrowded kennel at feeding time.
broken pismo shell
half-covered with sand, seagrass,
crawling with sand flies
Coal tar is everywhere at Coal Oil Point, and if you walk the beach for fifteen minutes your feet will be covered. I take a seat on the fold-out nylon/aluminum chair and as I start entering data on the record sheet, a sixty-something human beach-runner with beat-up straw hat, cut-off jeans and sturdy calves rounds Devereux Point. He heads up the beach, sees me and stops to look through the scope. “Nice birds,” he says when the plovers come into focus. He looks up. “But what’s the point? I mean, if it’s their time to go, then why fight it? That’s evolution.”
His voice carries no tone of challenge. He really wants to know.
Reasonable question. No one would dispute that human presence has a devastating impact on the world and its passengers. However, species were dying off long before we arrived on the scene. Volcanoes belched sulfurous fog, ice blanketed the continents, hurricanes raged, oceans rose, lakes dried, colliding asteroids ushered in eons of sunless cold … all with attendant extinctions. A millennial winter here, a grossly overpopulating and morbidly polluting human species here and now: all engines of evolution. Natural selection is nothing if not natural. If plovers are destined to go the way of the pterodactyl, why fight it?
unpeopled sand dunes
right out of prehistory—
jet fighter rises
For replies to the beach-runner’s question, you can dab at a broad palette of viewpoints. The utilitarian: plovers don’t provide fuel oil or good eatin’—no big loss if we lose some insignificant white puffballs. The ecological: nature exists in a delicate balance, and losing seemingly insignificant species may have dire effects that we can’t foresee. The eco-philosophical: all non-human and human life have inherent value, and we humans—as stewards of the planet—have a responsibility to protect this richness and diversity. The deep-deep ecological: keep the plovers, lose the people. The fatalist: our humble nearby star, the sun, will go red giant in a few billion years, rendering this whole planetary experiment moot … so why bother saving anything? The words of my beloved: save the plovers because they’re cute!
white heron standing
stockstill in wind-ruffed salt marsh
dips its head sharply
What I tell the beach-runner comes from docent training: “Plovers have been here much longer than people. They stopped breeding because of people and their dogs, and coastal development. I just want to give them a chance to come back.”
“Well, I’m glad somebody’s doing this,” the beach-runner says.
“Me, too!” I’m cheerful. The Plover Manual also recommends that docents “make an effort to be helpful and friendly at all times.” Sound advice, and not just on a bird reserve.
“Have a good one,” the beach-runner calls over his shoulder as he resumes jogging.
On my own again, I take out the Norton Haiku Anthology I often bring to my plover shift to read after I finish my research duties. Like breathing meditation or Vietnamese kinh hanh (slow-walking meditation) practice, haiku puts me in a state of mind in which the senses are fully awake, the mind engaged in the instant. Today I read Issa, the eighteenth century Japanese hermit-wanderer.
The toad! It looks like
it could belch
looking here, looking there.
You lose something?
What good luck!
This year’s mosquitoes, too.
I close the book and walk down the beach, along the length of the plover exclosure. Reading haiku on the beach sometimes has the effect of turning the mind into a random verse generator. It primes the literary pump, seventeen-syllable shortforms springing to mind and page unbidden and fully formed. Today words come:
sodden redwood burl
smooth and dark-stained by ocean
looks like a cow skull
green fuzzy spongeform
rolls along the low tide line—
what the heck are you?
Haiku has everything to do with process, not with award-winning outcome. The joyful surprise in a momentary sense impression, a serene reflection on the inseparability of writer and world, the bittersweet awareness that this blissful and/or painful and/or utterly mundane moment will pass, along with this life, this planet, this warm sun, this material plane … these are the currency of haiku.
The Zen potter spends a lifetime perfecting her craft. After decades of kneading, pounding, wetting, turning, and glazing with the warrior’s impeccable single-minded focus, she produces an admirably proportioned, phyllo-thin and delicately glazed bowl. She fires it, admires it, then throws it lovingly against the wall, breaking it into a thousand tinkling shards. Perfect and nothing special; throw another. The process.
Therein lies the deeper answer to the beach-runner’s question. The goal of helping threatened animals may be a worthwhile one. Likewise, the outcome of volunteer work may be immensely gratifying, as when birds return to breed where they had stopped nesting. But the mitzvah lies in the simple act of being present. Every Tuesday I make it my priority to sit with birds. Through fog, rain, sickness, surgery, tight work schedules, and final exams, each docent comes because it’s good to be here.
a broth of dolphins
feeding just outside the kelp
gulls screech overhead
My shift is up, and I make my way back toward civilization.
walking up the beach
up the soft, crumbling shale bluff
only my footprints
Michael Petracca, True Attainment of Realization, sits with the Stillwater Sangha in Santa Barbara, California, and teaches in the Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
By Emily White
One day, Ocean looked at Sky and thought, “I love Sky so much that I must give him a gift!”
So Ocean took some of her water and made a present. She made Sky a cloud.
Sky was thrilled. He loved his beautiful cloud so much that he laughed out loud and when he laughed his breath formed a gentle breeze that blew Cloud over the land, changing her shape in delightful ways.
This pleased both Sky and Cloud and Ocean very much, so Sky decided to give Cloud a gift, too. He took some of his breath and formed a wind so that Cloud could float over the whole earth.
Cloud was so happy! With Wind’s help, she sailed over mountains and valleys, over lakes and seas. Cloud swelled with love. She was so big with her love for the earth that she thought she would burst. Then she thought, “I must give Earth a present, too!”
So she took some of her water and sent it down to Earth in little drops shaped like tears. “I love you,” she cried out, as the rain fell.
Earth was very hot and thirsty. The cool rain soaked her skin and she felt fresh and clean. “I must do something to show Cloud how grateful I am,” Earth thought. “What can I do?” She thought and thought.
Finally, she gathered together some of the rain around a little brown seed buried in her soil. At first the seed was as hard as a pebble, but the rain softened it and in no time it sprouted a leaf that pushed up toward the sky.
Pretty soon the sprout burst through the Earth’s skin and for the first time her leaves felt the warmth of Sun’s rays.
“This is wonderful,” thought Tree. “I will grow straight and tall and make many leaves so that Sun will see me and know how much I appreciate his generosity.
Way up in the sky, Sun spotted the green tree and beamed with pleasure. They enjoyed each other for many months.
Tree began to notice that Sun shone less and less each day, and that Moon and Stars spent more time in the night sky. Earth began to shiver ever so slightly with cold, although she never complained.
“Sun must be very tired,” Tree thought. “I will drop my leaves like a blanket over Earth to warm her until Sun has rested.”
“Thank you, Tree,” murmured Earth. “You’re welcome,” whispered Tree.
After a time, Sun’s strength returned and he began to climb higher and higher in the sky. Tree was so happy to see her friend grow strong that she planned a surprise. One night, with the help of Moon, she covered herself in white blossoms.
As the world woke up, she sang, “Look! I am dressed in white stars. I am draped in cloud. I am as white as rain turned into snow. I am as soft as sea foam.”
“Splendid!” her friends cried.
Tree was so pleased with her surprise that she and Wind began to dance and before long every one of her petals had fallen to the ground.
“Oh well,” Tree sighed. “Now I will make new leaves to shade Earth from the hot sun. I will make the stems strong so they will not blow off so easily.”
Many happy weeks went by. Tree began to feel her branches grow heavy with plump juicy fruit. “What is happening to me?”she wondered out loud. “What have I done?”
“Mother, don’t you recognize us? We are plums. We are your children,” Plum replied. “The blossoms you made left us to grow in their place. We are sweet and delicious. Birds and animals will visit you to feed on us and to scatter our seeds. Then we will grow into trees just like you.”
“Oh, my,” Tree exclaimed. She was quite overcome.
Just then, a little boy happened by. His eye fastened on the red fruit hanging from the tree like a gift decorated with pretty leaves. He was very hungry—and thirsty, too.
The child reached up and pulled at the plum. Plum let go of the branch.
“Good-bye, mother,” Plum called to Tree.
“Hello, little boy,” Plum said to the child’s outstretched hand.
The boy held Plum gently.
“I must find just the right spot to eat,” he thought.
He sat down on a big rock not far from the tree. He turned the plum over and over in his hand, admiring the rich color and fresh smell.
“How wonderful to have eyes to see this red plum! How wonderful to have a mouth to taste such delicious food! How wonderful to be sitting on this rock today,” he marveled to himself.
Then, very slowly, he bit into the plum. His mouth woke up as from a deep sleep with the sweet taste of Ocean, Wind, Sun, Sky, Earth, Cloud, Rain, Moon, Stars, Tree and even more. In a flash, the boy saw that the whole world was in the plum. If the whole world was in the plum, then the whole world was in him, too.
When the little boy smiled, Plum smiled. When Plum smiled, Tree smiled. When Tree smiled, Sun smiled. When Sun smiled, Earth smiled. When Earth smiled, Rain smiled. When Rain smiled, Cloud smiled. When Cloud smiled, Wind smiled. When Wind smiled, Sky smiled. When Sky smiled, Ocean smiled. When Ocean smiled, Moon smiled. When Moon smiled, Star smiled. The stars smiled and smiled, all the way to the end of the galaxy and beyond.
And that’s what happens when you smile, too.
I am Ocean, he thought. I am Earth and Sky. I am Sun and Moon. I am Cloud and Rain. I am Tree and Plum. How wonderful to be all these things and a little boy, too.
Then he gave the best gift a child can give to the world. He smiled.
Emily White, True Wonderful Happiness, practices with the Healing Springs Community of Mindful Living, in Red Springs, North Carolina. She is an independent studio artist and writer, and the author/illustrator of several children’s books and books of poetry. llustrations by Nguyen Thi Hop. She lives and practices in Los Angeles, California.
A Dharma talk given by Sister Jina on September 1, 2002 in the Upper Hamlet in Plum Village
I have been aware of silence this week. I would like to share with you a little bit how I practice with noble silence in my daily life. I first came to Plum Village in 1990 for the first twenty-one day retreat in June. We were advised to observe silence on lazy days. So the first lazy day I went out to have breakfast on the veranda in the Lower Hamlet and someone came to sit next to me and said, “Oh, this may be a good opportunity to talk to you.” And at the table next to us there were three other friends and they were talking. And all of these friends had been to Plum Village before and I did not know what to make of this. For the rest of the retreat I do not remember silence being mentioned at all. We did not have a silent period on the schedule. I stayed for the Summer Opening in the Lower Hamlet. All the Vietnamese speaking friends were in the Lower Hamlet and just a handfull of non-Vietnamese speaking friends. The Summer Opening was a very joyful event and we were not very silent. I have kept the schedules of our retreats over the years and it was in 1992 that the word silence appeared on the schedule, “lights out, silence.” And in 1993 we started to call it “noble silence.”
Nowadays we have a period of silence on our schedule that starts at nine p.m. until after breakfast and sometimes we like to extend it until after lunch. Noble silence does not mean that we are not allowed to talk. It means that we don’t have to talk, we have no obligation to talk during that period of the day. It makes a difference in how we practice. I would like to thank Thay Doji for sharing how he observes the noble silence. It is a good reminder for me to know when I am approached by someone that I can ask, “Do you have to say this now? Can it wait until later?” Also when I am about to approach someone I can ask myself, Do I have to say this now, or can it wait until later? What makes silence noble is that it becomes an inner silence. The mind is calm and at ease. Whenever I hear the sound of a bell, whether it is the outside bell or the telephone or the chiming of the clock, I take it as an opportunity to practice noble silence. First I go back to my breathing. I feel the air moving in and out of my body. I become aware of the sensation moving into the body, the temperature of the air and the substance of the air when it moves in and when it moves out. Having come back to myself like that I become aware of the feeling that is present whether it is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and the mental formation that is present. I am nourished by a pleasant feeling. When we have a neutral feeling we have means of turning it into a pleasant feeling. When the feeling is neutral as it is now, I can feel it is wonderful just to be here not being overwhelmed by an unpleasant feeling and already the neutral feeling becomes a pleasant feeling. When an unpleasant feeling is present I can bring to mind that it is impermanent and in a little while it will no longer be there. That calms down the negative mental formation.
We often speak about embracing mental formations. When I feel the impermanence of a mental formation I can stay with it because I know that just by staying with it without doing anything else it will take its course and eventually it will disappear. But often I also take care of the mental formation by finding its manifestation in my body. The mind and the body are one so if there is a strong mental formation present in the mind it is also present in the body. So I become aware of my body and I ask the question: where does this mental formation, this emotion manifest itself in my body? Sometimes it is in my throat, like tightness, sometimes it is in my abdomen, like having a knot, or in the solar plexus, or in my neck or it is butterflies in my stomach. I find out where this mental formation of emotion manifests in my body. Breathing in, I become aware of where it is located and what it feels like, and breathing out, I relax. I find in that way I calm the mental formation that is manifested in my body and at the same time I calm it in my mind. With the practice of stopping and listening to the sound of the bell I go a little bit in the direction of inner silence. Now let’s listen to the sound of the bell and practice this.
I found some tension in my shoulders and I realized that I am carrying the responsibility of what I am going to tell you. So I relax. The practice of total relaxation is very refreshing for our body and our mind. It is something that I practice every evening before going to sleep. When I am in bed I take my cassette recorder and I take a tape—very often it is a chanting tape. It can be one of our own chanting tapes, or Christian chanting or any other chanting that I find pleasant. I make myself comfortable and I listen to the chant. Rather, I open myself and let the chant come in. I receive the chant. I receive the chant and I become aware of my body and whenever and wherever I find tension in the body on the out breath I let go of the tension. While doing this I am aware of my body weight increasing. I am getting heavier and heavier. Every time I let go of some tension I notice that that part of my body gets heavier. It is a sinking feeling as if I am sinking into the mattress or onto the bedboard until I come to a place of rest and then the body is very calm and quiet and so is my mind. The cassette turns itself off and I kind of sleepily take the headphones off. In the morning my mind feels very refreshed and light and so does my mind. The body moves around very lightly and gently.
I have noticed that when the mind is busy my body is also busy and I tend to be noisy. I put things down and it makes a noise and I move things around and it makes a noise and sometimes I bump into things. I like to regard my body as a door to come to this inner silence. I become aware of the sounds that I make when I move around. If it is very noisy I just focus on doing everything quietly. This has a wonderful effect: I become quiet and my mind quiets down too. It is logical because I am bringing the mind and the body together and that is when we have peace and calm. We are practicing mindfulness.
The other day I was sharing with some friends about my time as a novice in a mountain temple in Japan. When I went to a practicing temple in Japan for the first time I was given an outfit, a kind of temple dress. And I was given stiff slippers. The temple was large with wooden floors and we had to walk a long way from the Buddha Hall to our bedrooms and to the dining hall. We were told not to make any noise while walking. You couldn’t make the sounds, “patter, patter, flip-flop.” And that was quite difficult with those stiff slippers on those very shiny wooden floors. You have to be very mindful to walk without making a noise. And further we had to be pretty quick. And we were asked not to make a breeze. So we had these long robes that would flap as we walked but we had to find a way that they wouldn’t flap, wouldn’t make a noise and they wouldn’t cause a wind. We had young monks pointing out to us every time we made a noise and would make our robes flap. They reminded us in a kind of teasing, joyful way. But it brought us to being more mindful while moving about.
Also when practicing sitting meditation I find body awareness very centering and stabilizing. When we sit on a cushion sometimes we don’t really sit. If you bring your awareness to the lower part of your body you may feel that you are not really sitting. We are almost off the cushion. So when I sit on the cushion I become aware of the contact that I have with the cushion and I become aware of the feeling that is in my body. Every time I breathe in I become aware of my body and when I breathe out I let go of any tension I may find in my body. In that process I find that I am slowly, slowly landing on my cushion until in the end I sit on the cushion. This is what I do at the beginning of the sitting meditation to really arrive on my cushion. It is very pleasant.
The tension that I find is often somewhere in my head, on my face or in my shoulders. When the shoulders are tensed I am not really on my cushion. So I relax my shoulders and I already arrive a bit more. Another place I may find tension is in my lower abdomen. I relax my lower abdomen and I have that sinking feeling of arriving on my cushion. There are times when I keep this body awareness for the whole period of sitting. I am aware of the whole body as a single unit. What I mean is that I become aware of my whole body. I start at my head and I let my mindfulness flow throughout my whole body until every nook and crook is filled with my awareness. That is when the body and mind are one. I practice keeping this awareness of the whole body throughout the whole period of sitting. This brings about a joy in the body. It feels as if every cell of the body is happy. There is a slight tingling sensation throughout my whole body. It is very nourishing to practice sitting like that.
Being aware of my whole body quite naturally helps me to be aware of my breathing because breathing is something that happens in the body. This gentle flow of breathing in and out is something that I naturally become aware of when I become aware of the whole body. Maybe we can try that. Start from your head and let your awareness spread out throughout your whole body.
When we do slow walking in the meditation hall I like to walk with my palms joined and I like to be aware of the quality of touch between my palms. It is a gentle touch, but it is firm. Also I am aware of where I hold my palms. There is a place where I hold my palms that doesn’t cost me any muscular effort. You can try. Sometimes when they are a little bit lower it feels like they are being pulled down and then if I pull them up they feel weightless with no effort whatsoever. Then I walk and I become aware of my body moving through space. Every time I put my foot down I become aware of the contact between my foot and the floor. I like to become aware of the weight of my foot on the floor and come to rest in the steps. When I put my foot down there is a little pause when I rest, I sink into the step. There is also a physical feeling I have of sinking into the step. I sink into every step. It is very pleasant. I also like to practice that outside, but not so slowly. At times to rest in each step can be very challenging. For instance when the activity bell has already been invited there is a sense that I have to hurry. When we walk in a hurried way we don’t rest in every step. Instead, we seem to quickly touch the earth in order to get somewhere. So I practice taking the hurry out of my steps so that I can come to rest in every step. It is a bit tricky because there is something in me that tells me if you don’t hurry you will be late. But I also experience that if I don’t hurry I will get there much faster because the hurry comes from the worry and the worry is very heavy and slows me down. If I drop the hurry and the worry I can move a bit quicker and be in every step and be on time. You can try, it is very interesting to experiment with that. You can meet this habit energy that says you have to hurry or you will be late. You can move faster but you don’t need to hurry. It is very handy when you are at the airport and a bit late.
I use body awareness a lot to come to inner silence. I find it important, every day, to do some learning or studying, some reflecting and then practice. The time for reflecting is very precious for me. The time for learning is when we hear teachings, or hear the sutras or read a book. And then we have some time to reflect, to see where we are in our practice and what steps we are going to take in our practice and then we put it into practice. In the sutra, Knowing the Better Way to Live Alone it says not to be carried away by how our bodies, feelings, mental formations etcetera will be in the future. When we have read that sutra in the morning I take some time during the day to note when I let myself be carried away by thoughts about the future and I do catch myself, for instance, writing scenarios. I am thinking about having to tell somebody something, which is going to happen in the future, and in my head I write a whole scenario. I write my role of what I am going to say and then my sister’s role of what she will answer and then what I will say. I have it all written down. But my experience is that this scenario is never going to be realized, it is just something that I do in my mind. If I get caught in it then when I meet the sister I experience our whole meeting through the veil of this scenario and I react on my scenario and I don’t really act in an appropriate way to what is happening. When I find myself writing scenarios I practice dismissing it. I say this is a scenario and it may not happen at all. My experience says that it is not going to happen like this, so why do I believe in this scenario? So I can drop it and go and see my sister and see more clearly what is actually happening between the two of us. Hearing what my sister says and hearing what I am saying makes our encounter more fruitful. When I find myself trying to rewrite history, wanting it to be different—something has happened and I am going over it again and again, wishing that I have not not said or done this or he or she had not said or done that—I find that it does not help. When I notice I am doing that I practice dismissing and letting go of that habit energy and I try to look at what happened in order to get some understanding, in order to learn something from it. I take a teaching by Thay or a sutra to help me look. At times I take the Discourse on Love that speaks of loving and protecting all beings as a mother loves and protects her only child and I see in some situations I have not had that kind of mind at all. Or I take the Sutra on Reflecting and Measuring. Someone has told me something and I have answered back, not listened and just accepted it, so I can see what my contribution is to the situation and I determine to do better. Of course this doesn’t happen straightaway, it takes some time.
When I was in Japan there was a clear example of that. At the temple where I practiced in Japan we were only six or seven people. The practice leader was also the work coordinator because work is practice. My brother who was the practice leader had the habit of telling me what to do, which I experienced as being bossed around. He would come at any time of the day and he would say, “Jina-san, the toilets are dirty—go and clean them,” or “The meditation hall is dirty—go and clean it,” and I would always react in the same way. I would say, “Why do I have to do that? You always ask me to go and do these things.” And his answer would always be, “Because it is dirty and it needs to be cleaned.”
One day after chanting, something in the chant made me reflect on my habit energy. I was sitting in my room and remembering the previous day when this type of incident had happened and I looked at why I would do that. I saw that my brother had a good heart and was very committed to the practice and to our living together and he wanted to keep things neat and tidy. In fact, for me it was the same—I like to keep things neat and tidy. So we both want the same thing, but why did I always react like that? Inside of me was a little ego, or a big ego. What if my master came and said, “Jina-san the bathroom is dirty would you mind cleaning it?” I would bow and say, “Yes, master,” and I would fly so happily because the master had asked me to do something. But the fact was that the bathroom was dirty and it needed to be cleaned all the same. So I realized that something in me would like to be asked by a special person in a special way and then I would very happily do it. So I decided next time and any other time when my brother asked me to do something I would just bow and say, “Yes, brother,” and I would smile and go do it.
A few days later I was in the Buddha hall and my brother came up to me and said, “Jina-san, the bathroom has not yet been cleaned, so go and do it.” And I said, “Why do I have to go do it? You always ask me to do things.” And then he answered, “Okay, you don’t need to do it.” And that brought me back to my resolution and I said, “No, brother, you know I always react like that. It is just a habit. But you also know that usually I go and do it. So never mind my reaction I will go and do it.” And he said, “Okay.” From that day on it became a joke between the two of us and my brother would come and say, “Jina-san, go and clean.” And I would bow and say, “Yes, brother.” And sometimes he would ask me in a friendly way and at other times he was grumpy. I would think sometimes I am grumpy too, and I would just smile and go and clean.
We make a resolution about our habit energies or how we contribute to a situation and then we decide what we would like to change, what steps we will take and how we will practice. For me it is important to do that everyday. I take time to do that.
Thay once advised us to write our own sutras, so I did. I wrote a sutra about practices that would help me to listen and would help me to live in harmony with my community. Listening requires a silence, an outer silence and an inner silence to be able to hear what is being said and also what is not being said. Deep listening is an expression of inner silence. I use the practice of listening in order to cultivate inner silence. I read my sutra everyday. I usually do it in my hut. I go and light incense and I sit down. I face my little altar and I read my sutra aloud, slowly. I allow every sentence to sink in to water the seeds of awareness of the practice in me. It really helps me in my daily practice when occasions arise where I need to practice what I have decided to practice. A sentence out of my sutra spontaneously comes up and it helps me to practice. There are also times where it doesn’t come up and I notice afterwards and I take some time during the day to read my sutra again or if I know it by heart I will go and sit somewhere quietly and mentally go over it again. It really helps me. I find great joy in practicing and progress in the practice motivates me to continue. I would like to read my sutra to you. It is my sutra right now. When I feel I have realized enough of my sutra then I add other things. I take another aspect of the practice that I would like to strengthen. On top I have written ”Listen” because I would like to practice listening better.
The training in the art of listening begins in silence, develops in attentiveness and is perfected in communication.
This is something I read somewhere and it makes sense to me. It gives me a good guideline for practicing listening in daily life.
I will practice refraining from saying something that lies on the tip of my tongue.
Just by reading this every day I become aware of what lies on the tip of my tongue and I realize that often I am not aware of what was there on the tip of my tongue and I say it out before I realize what I am going to say. Keeping something on the tip of my tongue, I really have the opportunity to taste what it is like. It is not always sweet. It gives me some insight into my mind, my mental formations and the strength of the seeds in my store consciousness.
I shall listen to others’ points of view before stating my own.
This ties into what lies on the tip of my tongue. This practice is very important when we want to come to consensus in a community or in a meeting. I have written this here because sometimes when I am tired in a meeting I just state my point of view and then I think that is enough, let’s just finish the meeting and I don’t really create much space for other people to state their point of view. That is not very beneficial. I have found that when I wait for others to give their input I don’t need to give my input or I do it in a different way that is more beneficial for a meeting. That is one point I am practicing with right now.
I will practice not speaking about a third person.
In a community it is easy to speak about a third person and it can cause a lot of disharmony and suffering. We can speak about a third person on occasion in the light of how we can help that person in the practice. I am certainly not perfect at any of these points, that is why they are still here in my sutra, but I am becoming more and more aware of when I speak about a third person and how. When we are discussing the practice of a third person I become aware of any internal formations I may have regarding that person or the practice of that person. I can take care of my internal formation and try not to let it interfere with the input I give on the practice of that person.
If met with anger I shall respond with loving-kindness.
The Buddha said that the antidote to anger is loving-kindness. I try to keep love alive in my heart. We all know that meeting anger with anger is not beneficial but we know that we get pulled into it anyway. Reading this every day helps me to remember to look with loving-kindness at myself and at the other.
If met with non-cooperation I shall respond with compassion.
For those of us who live in the community or at home in a family we know that there are times when things need to be taken care of and at times we are met with non-cooperation of other members of the community. I am practicing responding to this with compassion. I try to put myself in the skin of the other to try to understand where the non-cooperation comes from. I try to discern when and how to encourage and when and how to release or let go.
The sound of the bell allows me to enjoy the whole length of my in-breath and the whole length of my out-breath.
I know this is our practice but I find it necessary to be reminded of that every day. Being aware of the whole length of my in-breath and out-breath allows me to be aware of what is happening inside of me. There are times when I just find myself waiting. The bell is invited and I stop but I am just waiting for the bell to stop so I can continue with whatever I was doing. Reading this reminds me that it is nice to take the opportunity to enjoy the whole length of my in-breath and the whole length of my out-breath. When I find myself waiting it is usually when everyone starts moving around that I realize I have just been waiting. I think I missed the opportunity but I can do it here. I can take a few moments to enjoy my in-breath and out-breath.
Every step brings me peace and joy.
We know this and we practice this in theory. At least, I practice it in theory. But I want to practice it in reality, so reading it every day helps me to do so.
Then I close with some words by Saint Benedict which help me to put things in the right perspective.
In the end it is not about what we have achieved but what we have become.
I would like to realize my full potential and reading my sutra every day helps me to go in that direction. This practice of learning, reflecting, and putting into practice and my sutra all help me to go in the direction of inner silence. It is an inner silence that I can practice throughout the day. Periods of outer silence can help us to cultivate this inner silence.
In the winter of 1998–1999 in the Lower Hamlet we had one day of the week where we could observe noble silence. We were allowed to put on a little badge that said, “noble silence.” It was mostly retreatants who used the opportunity to do so. I like to do this very much but I need the reassurance of the community that it is okay. I feel an obligation to always be approachable and ready to respond to the needs of the community. A period of noble silence might help me to do so better. An inner silence means nothing else than dwelling in the present moment.
I guess the Buddha wouldn’t have anything against that.
Thank you very much for listening.
Sister Jina is the abbess of the Lower Hamlet at Plum Village in France. Photography by Big Jim.
By Phap Tue
Above Sai Gon
and the honk of horns
the silent sky, where
Two shark kites flutter
from the rooftops tethered
vying high above the city
among the twitter of bats
and one kite
with three tails
tugs and rises on waves of wind
like a dancing lady
amidst the streaks
of rose-colored sky
I tell you,
the peace of Saigon
is on the rooftops
where little fragrant gardens gather
and eyes touch the peace
of the sky again
and kites, even at dusk
sway above the darkening earth
These are messengers:
and all children
young or old
meet in a silent
and secret dance
from rooftop to rooftop
and silent height to silent height
as swallows in eaves
or doves at dusk
The stars appear
slowly and dim
one shark kite still sways
above the darkness
to meet the stars
advancing toward the west
and this last kite
and all those who meet at night
are the freedom of a people
greater than any flag.
Thay Chan Phap Tue currently lives at Deer Park Monastery in Escondido, California.
An altar in the alley in Da Nang, Vietnam by Gary Richardson, Chan Dieu Hanh.