Saving Indra’s Net

Buddhist Tools for Tackling Climate Change and Social Inequity

By Angela Tam

We had some sort of good news last December, when government leaders met at the Bali Summit on Climate Change. They agreed to make “deep cuts” to carbon emissions, albeit without specifying how deep. They also agreed to transfer clean technologies to developing countries and reward those countries for protecting their forests.

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It looks like governments have responded to the UN’s call and mustered the political will to take action. What’s more, even businesses appear to have come round to the need to protect the environment: they are recycling paper, planting trees, participating in carbon trading. And citizens and NGOs, of course, have been at the forefront of the call for action.

But let’s put all this in perspective.

The issue of climate change has been around for some time: if we go back about half a century, we would find the New York Times editorial entitled “How industry may change climate,” dated 24 May 1953, that environmental scientist David Keith of the University of Calgary has referred to in a talk.(1)

Earth Day has been around since 1970, but if we think back to Henry David Thoreau and the Transcendentalists, then the environmental movement has been around for even longer. Unfortunately, despite the long-standing awareness of the threat and the persistent call for action, nothing much has been done, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had to issue a dire warning (2), telling us that, effectively, we now have just seven years (eight when the report came out in 2007) to sort it all out before it’s too late.

So now the world’s suddenly woken up to carbon trading, hybrid vehicles and technological solutions that include sending some kind of sun-shading device into space to cool the planet.

Is It Enough?

Here’s some food for thought:

  • Suppose everyone switches to energy-saving lamps, but also buys new, big plasma TVs along with various electronic Would the outcome be an increase or decrease in energy use?
  • Suppose car manufacturers all start making electric hybrids to Euro V standard, but millions more take to the Would the outcome be an increase or decrease in oil consumption?
  • Suppose we switch to biofuels, would we have the land and water resources to produce enough for both our cars and us?

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Hong Kong commissioned a survey on climate change (3) and the results are set out below:

  • 92% of the people interviewed state that they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned about climate change
  • 87% agreed that individuals share a great responsibility to act and over 90% said they would buy energy efficient lamps (94%), turn off standby appliances (91%) or adjust the temperature of air-conditioning (91%); but
  • 69% didn’t agree that utility tariffs should be raised to discourage wastage

You see, the way the world economy works is predicated on an externalization of costs that makes it possible for goods and services to be sold at remarkably low prices. And unfortunately, those of us in the developed countries have become so accustomed to this that, as much as we want to do our bit for the environment, we don’t want the effort to cramp our style. We don’t want, for instance, to lose the convenience of using disposable cups, chopsticks, and take-out lunch boxes, even though they create waste and pollution everywhere, not to mention the energy and resources required to make them, to be used just once before being thrown into a landfill.

The market is very smart; it knows that if it can come up with disposable alternatives that are “green,” we wouldn’t think about changing our habit at all. I was at an eco-expo recently where someone was selling disposable lunch boxes and mugs made from corn. He was very happy about the high oil prices, because they made his products more attractive to potential buyers, but I couldn’t help thinking about all the water and land that are used to make disposable lunch boxes rather than grow crops to feed people. So do we want food for everyone, or do we want disposable lunch boxes?

The Root Cause of Climate Change: Craving

Efforts to protect the environment have failed in the past and will continue to fail for as long as we are blind to the interrelated nature of all the issues and remain ignorant of our interdependence— that we are all in this Indra’s Net together. Living in cities where we function only as consumers, with little knowledge of the impact of the processes that bring food to the table, clothes on our backs, and PlayStations in our children’s bedrooms, it’s hard to see how our whole way of life is hurting the planet and ourselves. Green NGOs take people to visit landfills because the experience allows them to finally put two and two together and the effect can be quite dramatic: they see for themselves how all the waste stacks up and they swiftly stop using plastic bags, for example.

Unless we are aware of the connection between our habits and the planetary problems we have, nobody will change. Unfortunately, even landfills show very little of the impact our consumerist lifestyle imposes on both people and the environment. Let’s try to picture this: somewhere in an Asian village a piece of farmland is cleared to make way for factories where migrant workers are paid a small wage to churn out the shoes, toys, and gadgets wanted by consumers around the world. Crops are lost to the factories, and suddenly the villagers are sick and the remaining farmland poisoned by the polluted rivers.

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In the meantime, consumers in the developed world who have lost their stable jobs in manufacturing are getting by on part-time or poorly paid contract work while relying on credit to pay for the cheap imports — which won’t be cheap for much longer because the prices of raw materials and transportation have gone up due to climate change. Many countries make-believe that they have attracted foreign investment, but other than the meager wage paid to the migrant workers, what else have the host countries of these factories gained other than pollution, loss of cropland and depletion of natural resources that, once lost, will never be available again? A few attain material affluence, and certainly the top managers in the companies selling these goods — and their financial backers— make lots of money out of this, but for the majority, do their wages and long working hours compensate for the loss of contentment and the sense of community that grounds them? Is this really how we want to see the world come full circle?

All this has been happening for a while, but we have not been aware of the bind we’re creating for ourselves because we are too busy wanting this, buying that. Buddhism, however, gets right into the heart of the matter because it tells us that, actually, no, the real cause of climate change is not high levels of greenhouse gas emissions, but our craving. It is because we crave all these goods and services that so much energy and resources are devoted to their production, which, in turn, lead to the release of so much greenhouse gas as well as a widening wealth gap.

And Buddhism doesn’t just tell us what’s wrong; it gives us the tools for tackling the problem as well, in the form of the precepts and the Noble Eightfold Path. Thay’s elaboration of the five precepts is particularly useful because they are made relevant for the modern world. The Fifth Mindfulness Training is particularly relevant for the modern consumer because it reminds us to be mindful of not only what we traditionally regard as “intoxicants,” but also of what we see on TV, read in magazines, and so on. After all, advertising, whether subtle or not so subtle, is responsible to a great extent for the craving that’s causing so much difficulty for us.

The environmental movement has been slow to make headway because, most of the time it is, as the saying goes, “preaching to the converted” or up against stiff resistance. It owes its success of recent years to the fact that different elements of the movement have been co-opted by consumerists; look no further than the craze over the “I’m not a plastic bag” campaign.

Skillful Buddhist Means

Buddhism, on the other hand, stands a better chance of reaching people of different persuasions because, whether we know it at this moment in time or not, we all want to be happy and find meaning in life. Three Buddhist concepts are of vital importance:

  1. Dependent origination
  2. Mindfulness
  3. Sangha

We need people to understand what the concept of dependent origination means for them, in a language that everyone can understand. When I talk to architects and surveyors about sustainable building, I like to use a technical term they can relate to — ‘life cycle cost’. But really the idea is no different from that of the clouds, the sun, and the soil contributing to the growth of a beautiful flower. Bringing personal experience to bear, like the green NGOs taking people to see landfills, is even better. We need to find ways to make the ancient idea relevant to a modern audience.

Mindfulness, of course, underpins our appreciation of our interdependence. So how about teaching mindfulness meditation in schools? Make it as natural as learning to read and write. There’s a reason why food companies in the U.S. are now forbidden from advertising sugary foods to children under twelve; advertising is so powerful, adults fall for them as well, all the time. By making us aware of the root of the problem, from moment to moment, mindfulness meditation is a powerful antidote against the advertising that we don’t currently realize is responsible for causing so much craving.

In his book One City (4), Ethan Nichtern mentions a fashion magazine designer who, after taking up meditation, became more and more aware of the deeply manipulative nature of her job, and began to wonder whether it was right livelihood. That’s how meditation can help us and the world. Like the designer, some of us may be led to question whether our current work represents Right Livelihood; it is a necessary question and only by having the courage to face it will we stand a chance of coping with climate change and social inequity.

Finally, we need to widen the Sangha, in the sense of a supportive community. Recent research5 demonstrates something very interesting: many people are obese not because they eat the wrong food or do not exercise, but because their social networks consist of people who are heavier than the average. That’s how powerful social networks are. we want to belong; we do what our friends do. If our friends are always shopping for designer clothes and the latest mobile phones, we do too. If our friends recycle and avoid disposable cutlery, we eventually do as well. So if we can cultivate mindfulness Sanghas, we will be able to create social networks that reinforce earth-friendly behaviour.

Upaya, the Buddhist concept of “skillful means,” will need to be applied for the other three to work. Exactly what these skillful means might be is a topic for another day, but I hope we all give them serious thought and set things in motion. We only have seven years.

  1. Keith, David: “A surprising idea for ‘solving’ climate change”. http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/192
  2. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. 3EE TABLE ON PAGE 67, WHICH indicates carbon emissions must peak by 2015 if average global temperature is not to rise beyond the manageable limit of 4° C.
  3. WWF Hong Kong: “Air Quality and Climate Change Study”, May 4 Nichtern, Ethan: One City: A Declaration of Interdependence. Wisdom Publications. 2007.
  4. Aubrey, Allison: “Are Your Friends Making You Fat?”. NPR. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?story)d=12237644

mb50-Indras3Angela Tam, Patient Action of the Heart, lives in Hong Kong, where she is active in women’s rights, animal welfare, environmental protection, climate change awareness, sustainable development, and heritage conservation. Author of Sustainable Building in Hong Kong, she also publishes an ezine, Sustainable Living Hong Kong.

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Applied Buddhism & the Israeli Palestinian Conflict

By Bar Zecharya

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It’s humbling to stand here in the presence of so many whose compassion and dedication have touched the hearts and lives of so many people. In comparison to your kindness, your practice, and the fruits of your efforts, I am a very small fish indeed. But it is so much better to be a small fish swimming in the stream of compassion than a small fish frying in the pan of anger.

I speak to you as an Israeli, American, adopted citizen of the city of Rome, Jew, Buddhist, poet. As a musician, student of politics and of religion, teacher, friend, partner, ex-husband, enthusiastic motorcyclist; as a former infantry soldier who to this day still feels his automatic assault rifle like some amputees feel their missing limb, pressed against my shoulder and with the smell of sweat and grease. I speak to you as a brother, a son and some day perhaps a father. I would like to offer you the following reflection on my limited understanding of Applied Buddhism in the context of the Middle East.

You may think that in the Holy Land there is a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. This is not the truth. There is great suffering, yes. Fear is all pervasive: not just the fear of army incursions, assassination, terrorist attacks, the call to report to reserve duty, or of nuclear annihilation, but fear of exploitation, fear of economic insecurity, fear of loss, of not producing enough, not being strong enough. Conflict is rife in every sector of society, from the schools to the government, the murderous traffic, the family, the army; public and private spheres, religious and secular. there is tremendous violence against women and against children, abuse of power in the workplace, corruption, wholesale neglect and destruction of the natural and human environment.

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All of this violence is the result of confusion, misperception and wrong views. The suffering is great, but if we misinterpret that suffering as the result of a conflict between two nations we are ignoring its real roots and will only perpetuate them. Using the Buddhist tool of looking deeply into the emptiness of an independent self, we can see a different reality. We Israelis and Palestinians may not be the same, but we are not different either. We are united in our fear, bound by our anger, intimately connected by our inability to listen with an open heart, and identical in holding the mistaken notion that our suffering is the result of a national conflict.

Please Don’t Join Us

This is not to say that there are no machines of war, no suicide attacks, checkpoints or existential threats. But by looking deeply into the reality we can see that the physical war is a reflection of the one in our hearts, an attempt to control our suffering by projecting it onto a clearly identifiable external enemy. To cover up the deeper reality of our suffering and its causes, to mask it with a narrative of two characters, is to do a great injustice and to render impossible any real transformation.

In my opinion, understanding the deeper dimension of suffering in the Holy Land is already a form of applied Buddhism. What practical steps can we take to alleviate suffering?

The first step, as always, is to protect ourselves and cultivate compassion. You may live in Southeast Asia, Europe or anywhere else on this planet that so generously provides for us, and often on the television you see images of political conflict. If we respond to those images out of judgment, collapsing the infinite web of social, political institutional, familial and psychological causes and conditions into a simplistic schema of two sides, one victim and the other aggressor, we are watering the seeds of judgment in ourselves. Anger and hate need no permit or passport to pass through a checkpoint or concrete wall, and just as easily they can pass through our hearts. If we strengthen the seeds of judgment, anger and hate, their fruits will find their way to all aspects of our lives and will damage the relationships with all those around us. Your partners, your children, your parents and all of your loved ones are precious to you. If would be such a shame if our confusion and ill-being led to even a moment of discord or disharmony in your family and community.

The same television images can be embraced with compassion and deep under-standing. Think of  someone who launches a Qassam rocket into Israel. Being a militant is not the entire truth. No one is only a militant. He may be a militant, son, brother, friend, artist, student, and so on, including being a victim of numerous causes on many levels and from many directions — leading to his belief that killing can solve his suffering or the suffering of his loved ones. No one is only a soldier either. The truth of a soldier is just as complex, just as human, whose confusion and whose actions can be seen as the result of many causes, deep and wide, to which he, his commander and general are all victims. Were they able to see deeper they would act differently.

Please, friends, for your own sake, and your own happiness, take this as a meditation on non-duality, signlessness and interbeing, to develop your compassion for those of us who have not yet learned to do so. You will be setting a beautiful example of non-judgment for your children, who will then be able to enrich their lives and those of their loved ones with compassion and understanding. Thus you can turn a rocket attack or a military incursion into love, transforming ignorance into a teaching of the Dharma. I believe that this practice will bring you more joy into your own life, and that is reason enough to practice it.

Removing the obstacle of a dualistic view also presents many opportunities for Applied Buddhism on a wider scale. Just as fear is found in every sector of our society, opportunities can be found as well. We Middle Easterners would do well to learn to appreciate the many conditions of joy and happiness already present in the here and now. This includes our existing friendships, our children, the spectacular natural beauty that surrounds us, and the joy we can find by returning to the miracle of our breath.

Some of these conditions are also the countless projects of peace and development thanks to the dedication and generosity of individuals the world over. Whatever your expertise — be it social work, health care, agriculture, the environment, art and culture, or sport and so on — I believe that any contribution can relieve suffering and slowly water the seeds of joy, if given after having personally deepened the practice of compassion, non-judgment, and non-duality. Without this practice, I fear that any effort will unfortunately only contribute to further suffering. Coexistence projects are useful and welcome, but focusing solely on coexistence in my opinion risks emphasizing only one result of the underlying causes. Compassion, deep listening, and loving speech can be practiced at any level of society and in any language.

Question from the Audience

How can engaged Buddhism resolve the conflict in West Asia (the Middle East)?

That’s a difficult one! My first response is that preferring one political solution over another, from our standpoint outside the Middle East, is to practice the attachment to views, and our practice as Buddhists is to practice non-attachment to views. If we choose one particular political solution, believe that it is the correct view and attempt to enforce it on the rest of the world, we will only be practicing judgment and the inability to listen and will water those seeds in ourselves and in others. What we really need to do to have any positive effect, is the exact opposite. We need to practice the ability to listen without judgment so the seeds of love, even though they may be small, will be watered. First of all we must do this practice in our own hearts and in our own day-to-day lives. Second, we can support projects in Israel and in Palestine at any level of society: the family, government, education, etc, that involve listening deeply and using loving speech. Finally, we could bring Israelis, Palestinians or both, decision-makers and humble citizens, together to simply listen to each other and transform their own suffering. This is the only effort that will have any positive effect.

Bar Zecharya is a PhD student in Political Science at La Sapienza University. He holds an M.A. in Comparative Religious Studies and a B.A. in International / Middle East Studies from Ohio State University. Citizen of Israel and the United States, Bar currently lives in Rome, Italy; he can be reached at bar@zecharya.com.

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Sangha as Refuge

The Dharma of Caring for Alison K.

By Lauren Thompson

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I never knew Alison K. when she was well. By the time both she and I were regularly attending the Rock Blossom Sangha, in Brooklyn, New York, she was a few months into a diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer. Her tumor was a glioblastoma, the worst kind. According to the statistics, she had a year, at most two years to live. She was forty-one.

This would be my first intimate encounter with the reality of death, with the reality of someone I knew dying. For the Sangha, it would be our time to experience most poignantly what it means to take refuge in Sangha.

Having brain cancer is difficult enough. For Alison, the difficulty was compounded by her family situation. She was living alone; her parents had both died years earlier; she had two sisters, but one was unable to help, and the other was able to visit only periodically. For reasons known best to Alison, she had decided to grant three close friends the medical, financial, and legal powers of attorney. They all loved her and were deeply committed to her care, but even as a group they couldn’t meet all of her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. And so the degree of refuge that Alison sought in Sangha was profound. As her illness progressed and her needs grew more intense, the compassion that arose within the Sangha, both as individuals and as a body, was just as profound. For me, the experience was one of watching a miracle unfold, as beautiful and poignant as a lotus flower.

Like a flower, this bud of compassion unfurled in stages. At first, only one or two members were involved in her life outside of Sangha. For most of us, our involvement consisted of listening deeply to her words during Dharma sharing. She shared all of her pain and confusion, her fear and occasional joy and ease, and for me, as for many, her need was sometimes overwhelming. I felt a strong impulse to close her out, to guard myself from her pain. I felt the discomfort of strong aversion, and also the discomfort of disapproving of my own aversion. Was I really so selfish and weak that I would turn away from a Sangha sister who was dying of cancer? At times I felt such distress that I could barely sit still.

But the practice of deep listening helped me through these storms. Week after week, the instructions for Dharma sharing reminded me to observe my reactions without judgment, to simply bear witness to her truth, to listen for what may not be said in words, and to attend to everything with great gentleness. After some time, I found that my response had changed. As Alison spoke at length about her life’s present conditions, I heard the heart message beneath her words: “I suffer. Please help.” And the bud of compassion began to open.

It was then that I was able to reach out personally to Alison, and it was then that our brief but intense friendship began. One fall afternoon we met for tea, and we spent hours in conversation that dispensed with the usual preliminaries and small talk. We connected very deeply. Within weeks, Alison’s condition worsened, and through the winter and spring she spent more time in hospitals and hospice than out. Her capacity for language began to deteriorate, so that at times conversation was not possible. Yet our connection remained strong; in fact, it became only stronger.

What she needed was for me to be fully present to her, and during my brief visits, often no more than an hour once or twice a week, I found I was able to offer this. Whether that meant laughing over a movie with her, staying with her through times of confusion or distress, or holding her hand as she slept, it was tremendously rewarding to be with her in this way. It could also be draining and upsetting. I learned I had to take care of myself, as well, in order to take care of her. Layer by layer, the petals opened.

Blessed… Blessed… Blessed

As Alison’s condition worsened, many others in the Sangha were also drawn to be personally involved. Some offered regular companionship. Others helped to move her belongings into storage when she had to leave her apartment. Some visited as they could, or provided occasional transportation; others offered support to Alison’s closest caregivers. Some simply held her in their thoughts.

And Alison expressed her gratitude for it all. A precious memory for the Sangha is a tea ceremony which Alison attended in the fall. Alison began by sharing how thankful she felt for the support she had received, the friendship, the love. Then she sang a song for us all. It was a setting of the Beatitudes, which she sang beautifully in a low, warm, alto voice. “Blessed … blessed … blessed are the poor in heart, for they shall be comforted ….” She sang with her eyes closed, her hands crossed over her chest, as if her heart could not contain all that it must hold.

As the months went on, Alison would at times be able only to whisper “Thank you” or “So sweet,” or smile her luminous smile. Even if the most she could do was gaze into our eyes with warm intensity, she found a way to convey her gratitude.

Living in the Moment

We found that, even if we were only marginally involved, caring for Alison required that we shed expectations. Her condition would worsen and then dramatically improve, so we never knew what to expect from any visit. One day, she may be quite talkative. The next, she may be almost comatose, as her heavily medicated body stabilized after a major seizure.

Our sense of how much longer she might live was in constant flux. She moved back and forth between supported independence and hospice, between functioning and incapacity. Each transition felt like the end of one era and the beginning of another, but how long that era might last was anyone’s guess, even the experts’. “Don’t-know mind” was the only frame of mind that could contain this fluid reality. There was no definite future to plan for together – the customary illusion of “the future” could find no fixed mooring under circumstances like these. There was only the present moment.

We in the Sangha all contended with the feeling of helplessness, of having to accept that we could not give Alison what she really wanted, a reprieve from early death. And much as we might wish to offer our comfort, we couldn’t know how she would receive it. She might greet us warmly and ask about ourselves. Or she might barely waken. Or, for others more than for me, Alison might display the impulsive fury of a frustrated child, straining every fiber of her caregivers’ patience. We consoled each other, in person, by phone, and through an e-mail care circle, that our loving presence could be only helpful. We also encouraged each other to take breaks, to give only as much as we could without feeling resentful.

The challenges were many, but the gifts were many, too. I know that for myself, time I spent with Sangha sisters and brothers whose visits happened to coincide with mine often led to long, intimate conversations. Being with Alison awakened in many of us the sense of how precious every moment with another being truly is. Knowing this, how could we be anything but completely authentic and kind? For me, these encounters provided moments of deep healing of the terrible loneliness that had always left me feeling set apart and unknown. Through Alison’s dying, I had fleeting glimpses of interconnectedness with all of life, of true interbeing.

The Most Beautiful Gift

Certainly the clearest experiences I had of interbeing were with Alison herself. During one visit in early spring, she was alert and eager to communicate, but her speech was confused. Still, her heart intent was very clear. She insisted that I not leave until I had some “Christmas.” She knew that wasn’t what she meant, and after a few moments she landed on the right words: ice cream. An aide brought us each a cup of ice cream, and when she couldn’t finish hers, she offered it to me. I told her that more ice cream would probably upset my stomach. She held her cup out to me, saying, “Then eat it carefully. I’m giving it to you carefully. So you eat it carefully.”

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As I took the cup, I was moved almost beyond words by her offer, which was indeed full of caring. She seemed to be passing to me, not just ice cream, but her life, asking me to enjoy for her the portion that she would not be able to enjoy herself.

“Alison,” I said, “you are a good friend.”

“Yes, but no,” she said. “You don’t understand. I really like you. No, not like. I mean, I don’t want to be …”

She started gesturing broadly with her hands, and I suggested, “You don’t want to be all lovey-dovey?”

“Right,” she said. “But I love you. I really do.” “I love you, too,” I said, “I do.”

And for many moments there was only silence between us. There was a communication then that was not really between “Lauren,” with one personal history, and “Alison,” with another. We barely knew each other on that level. It was a connection of our very being. It was a moment of such joy and sadness. It was the most beautiful gift. A “Christmas” gift indeed.

When I was ready to leave, she patted her bald scalp and said, “Next time we have class, I’ll wear my hat.”

I smiled. “You mean next time I visit?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean.”

“You look lovely just like this,” I said. I kissed her forehead, said good-bye, and left. That was our last conversation. Within a week, she passed away.

To the Other Shore

I knew Alison well for only six months. I knew very little about her family or her relationship history, or what kind of music she liked. But through her dying, I caught a glimpse of our fundamental interbeing. Along with others in the Sangha, I felt that I was able to step, now and then, in the footprints of the bodhisattvas, responding with compassion to Alison’s condition, which was, ultimately, the human condition. I sensed, moments at a time, how precious life is. I saw how Sangha can be a boat that carries us safely to the other shore — it carried Alison, and it carries me still.

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Alison K. passed from this life on March 27, 2007, at the age of forty-two.

mb50-Sangha3Lauren Thompson, Compassionate Eyes of the Heart, practices with the Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, NY. She is a children’s book author, presently working on an adult memoir of her experiences with Alison K.

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The Question of Overpopulation

By Brother Phap Lai

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Question to PV Listening Website — 15 December 2007

Teacher, One of the five precepts asks us not to kill. I am concerned about the effects of overpopulation and historical outcomes such as war. Global warming proponents indicate that the human population is to blame. Some suggest that to achieve a sustainable earth our population must be reduced by as much as four-fifths. The entire earth may be in the balance. If the scientific evidence is accurate what guidance can you give us in avoiding the unthinkable? — Steve

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Dear Steve,

Thank you for your stimulating question and for having the courage to ask it. Many of us keep “unthinkable” thoughts hidden away, or we immediately believe in them without questioning their validity. History provides evidence that these thoughts — whether kept in a vault of shame or expressed philosophically to others — will one day be acted out at the collective level.

Overpopulation is indeed one factor that can build pressure for this to happen. The genocide in Rwanda was fueled by tensions that had built up due to pressure on common land and water resources caused by a combination of increasing population and environmental effects of global warming. The situation in Darfur is similar. Sadly there are people willing to exploit tensions to create division, hatred and fear in the desire for personal power and wealth or to impose an ideology. What can be done?

The environmental pressures our planet faces, of which overpopulation is an integral part, are tearing at the very fabric of the complex and diverse life that makes our experience so rich and beautiful today. Life on Earth is in trouble not in the future but now. It seems we are setting up conditions for a sixth mass extinction event on this planet. In Heat by environmentalist George Monbiot we read that foreseeable rises in temperature and carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are comparable with those that helped trigger the biggest-ever extinction event, at the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago — a period as ecologically diverse as today’s. Computer modeling tells us that with a ninety percent reduction of CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions globally by 2030 we have a two-out-of-three chance to prevent runaway global warming and avert this destiny.

Monbiot then sets about demonstrating, by picking on some key areas such as transportation, household energy use, electricity supply, and some example industries that these cuts could realistically be made while maintaining a good standard of living. Of course the affluent minority would have to change their ways. For example we would need to severely restrain our long distance travel habits but this is surely more palatable than an eighty percent reduction in population. Are we willing to change?

Call for a Collective Awakening

Like you I am deeply concerned about the tendency of humankind to resort to war as a solution to our problems. War is the deepest expression of human suffering and represents a failure to face our difficulties and seek healing in us and between us. What is needed is compassion and brotherhood — a “war-like” effort in which we pull together as one people. Al Gore recently said what is most crucial is a change in the collective consciousness to see the interdependence of all things. Similarly Thay says: “We need a collective awakening; enlightenment can no longer be considered an individual matter.”

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It seems clear that we are already suffering the unstoppable consequences of global warming and many of us will perish. Remaining in denial is not an option. Thay encourages us to accept our situation in such a way that we make peace with it in our hearts. Action taken from this place of peace will then be effective — right action — and is our best hope. But in taking on board the reality of what is happening we need to be careful. There is a tendency to fall into despair and become paralyzed. Unable to hold the situation mentally we try to forget what we know and take refuge in our own busy lives again. Once again we simply hand over responsibility to politicians and experts. However, without an informed and active public, politicians of selfish interest will take advantage. Eventually they will force upon us desperate schemes (backed up by “experts”) that will have more to do with seizing power and will undoubtedly make the situation far worse.

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Dying a Spiritual Death

In your question you refer to a perceived need among some experts to reduce the world’s population by four-fifths in order for humanity to have a chance to survive. Your reference to the “unthinkable” suggests that war and genocide may actually form part of the solution. This thought if not unthinkable should be unconscionable.

At the intellectual level we can get lost in a maze of complex moral questions and believe we have to do the unthinkable for the greater good. More frequently I hear people, sometimes timidly, sometimes boldly, voice opinions that wars and pandemics such as HIV and TB are necessary because we need to reduce the population of people. If we are to think like this then we must be prepared to die and see our children die in the same manner. We all are brothers and sisters sharing this planet. Perhaps we see disease as mother Earth’s mechanism to balance things. It is true, we cannot predict or necessarily control the course of nature but how sad if we think letting or making it all happen over there will help our plight. Disease, famine, and war cause misery and chaos and that will affect us all. Their stability and happiness is our stability and happiness. We inter-are. As soon as there is an “us and them,” an “over there,” in our minds we have lost touch with this truth — the truth of interbeing.

No one would deny that overpopulation is a major issue we face as a global community. However, the idea that reducing the population by four-fifths will necessarily solve anything needs to be examined.

Suppose that we achieved that goal, either by actively killing people or passively turning a blind eye to genocides, the ravages of civil wars, or disease and famine in other countries. Thinking that this would favor the physical survival of the remaining one-fifth is to forget something of fundamental importance — namely that in the process we will all have died spiritually. In Buddhism it is clear that the means cannot be separated from the ends. The so-called ends are defined by the means. Thay makes this clear when he says, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.”

Staying Connected

The First Mindfulness Training, as well as asking us not to kill, also asks us to “cultivate compassion.” Compassion here is not simply an emotion but is rooted in the Sanskrit word karuna. Thay teaches us that karuna, to be translated properly, needs to convey the meaning of “the capacity to relieve suffering.” Compassion in this sense implies an understanding of the situation, knowing what to do and what not to do to help, along with the willingness and ability to act. Understanding is more than intellectual or practical knowledge.

Ravi Ravindra, Prof. Emeritus of Canada’s Dalhousie University warns us on this point:

The search for truth — when it becomes more and more mental and divorced from deeper and higher feelings such as compassion, a sense of the oneness and the like — leads to feelings of isolation and accompanying anxiety … Then one wants to control others and conquer nature. Much of our predicament arises from this very dedication to truth in an exclusively mental manner.

True insight is always in line with compassion and the truth of the interdependence of all things. This perspective can only be found when one is stable, peaceful, and connected with the heart.

When ideas to control population come up that at first seem abhorrent I suggest taking a long walk and sitting in nature. After calming the mind and enjoying the connection to life, then we are qualified to look into the situation. First we can see the real consequences of our idea if put into action. And in time insight into the situation will allow solutions not seen before to arise. There are always more creative less violent ways of helping.

Collapse of the American Dream

Looking more closely into the problem of overpopulation we might start by reminding ourselves that the U.S.A. population, although only four percent of the world’s, consumes twenty-five percent of the world’s oil supply. Its per-capita consumption of the rest of the Earth’s material resources similarly outstrips that of other countries. It is clear from this fact alone that how we consume is just as important as how many people there are. China’s and India’s consumption is growing fast, a growth that will soon require more than one planet Earth to sustain us. And yet in the vast majority of countries people are poor and not responsible for these phenomena. Ironically when we think of overpopulation we think of the poor in the so-called third world and yet these people’s ecological footprint is virtually zero. If one’s goal is to create a sustainable planet, then one must address consumption as well as population  stabilization.

As a global society we need to turn in a different direction. We need to learn to live in a sustainable way, embracing simple living and focusing on community — sharing resources as opposed to the individual suburban utopia. In our small monastic community in New York, for instance, the cost of food per person is $2 a day. We eat vegan and try to eat local produce. Trips out to shop are also reduced because of communal living.

Collective awakening can gain momentum only with individual actions. To this end, Thay, in his public talks, often takes time to encourage us to reduce our consumption of meat. Thay quotes figures that point out the environmental cost of meat consumption. (See Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindfulness in the Marketplace, page 72, and the Mindfulness Bell, WInter/Spring 2008). ) If everyone in the U.S. were to reduce their meat consumption by half that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions more than if everyone were to drive hybrid cars. Seeing vegetarianism as a way out is not new. Albert Einstein said: “Nothing will benefit human health and increase chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet.”

Collectively of course we can do a lot more — for instance,

By morally supporting, inspiring and educating each other; making collective commitments (see the environmental initiative sign-up sheet on the Deer Park website), pooling ideas and resources; and speaking as one voice to industry, the media, and politicians. Ultimately we need the political will to implement national and international legislation that will meaningfully reduce our impact and move us into sustainable living. This requires the people’s deep understanding of the situation; politicians of integrity must have a support base.

Sustainable Compassion

Stabilizing human population is one aspect, albeit an important aspect, of the challenge to restore our ecosystem’s stability. In his book Plan B 2.0, Lester Brown presents a comprehensive and budgeted plan to literally “rescue the planet” under five main categories: (1) eradicating poverty and stabilizing population, (2) restoring the Earth, (3) feeding seven billion people well, (4) stabilizing climate, and (5) designing sustainable cities. He argues that to achieve a stabilized population of a well-fed seven billion is possible; his overall budget for 0lan ” implementation is $161 billion. Compare this to the money spent on the Iraq war, estimated to surpass $2 trillion (Harvard Magazine).

Linking the stabilization of population to the eradication of poverty as Lester Brown does is important. Adequate nutrition, good health care, and parental support especially for women, access to family planning services, readily available contraception along with education, these are all affordable and essential to creating the necessary conditions to empower people to make choices about the size of their family. Interestingly much research (e.g., UNICEF) shows that the most effective way to reduce the number of children born is to educate girls and keep them in school. This is a goal we can all help to achieve.

Draconian methods may achieve short-term results but also have unforeseen adverse consequences. For instance, I do not advocate enforcing fertility control measures as in China. It has caused a huge suffering which will be passed on for generations and has arguably not achieved a reduced impact on the Earth (see Collapse by Jared Diamond).

Lasting solutions respond compassionately to the real needs of the people. They come from those who are involved in the actual situation and grounded in love, which cannot be said of either Communist party policy implemented by a police state or IMF capitalist ideology enforced by economic leverage. Lasting solutions usually come from grassroots organizations — from the people themselves. They often require modest funding and only need to be supported by understanding authorities and not be obstructed by them.

Offering Our Gifts

Getting involved in our local community is therefore key. In this way we do not fall once again into forgetfulness or despair but can help inspire hope, especially in the younger generation who inherit our legacy. Finding and building a community of likeminded individuals to work towards this can alleviate our feelings of isolation and fear. In community we find a way to contribute our own special gifts to this cause.

Some reading is helpful. I can recommend the work of environmentalists and social activists Lester Brown, George Monbiot, and Jared Diamond (books cited above), Joanna Macy (World as Lover, World as Self), John Seed, and Paul Hawkens (Blessed Unrest). They help us understand the situation in all its complexity and offer us practical and humane ways to respond to the crisis. Thich Nhat Hanh himself has a wonderful new book on the subject, The World We Have.

Ultimately, the crisis we face is a spiritual one. Developing our own practice of meditation and mindfulness, finding and building Sangha — a community practicing the path of understanding and love. These are the important things to do. Personal practice gives us an inner refuge, a place of stability to go back to. The Sangha becomes a boat on which we can navigate the storm together. Practicing together we cultivate the much-needed insight, inner strength, and spirit of non-fear that we need to respond compassionately to our situation.

Thank you again for bringing up this topic for all of us to reflect on and please know that your practice and deepening insight is important to us all.

Brother Phap Lai currently resides in Blue Cliff Monastery, New York.

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Resurrection in the Present Moment

By Sr. Chau Nghiem

March 23, 2008, Cape Mountain Retreat Center, South Africa

Happy Easter to everyone! Easter is the celebration of Christ’s resurrection — resurrection is coming back to life, starting over. We each have a chance to come back to life in every moment. When we come back to our breath, when we really come back to our steps, to the food we are putting in our mouths, to what we are drinking, to what we are saying, we have a chance to come back to life. We can be there in that moment and not be dead to the reality in front of us — not lost in thoughts and worries. The only moment we have is the present moment. It’s the only place where we can really be alive and touch life.

So as we celebrate Easter and the renewing of life, we can touch the resurrection of each of our lives. This retreat is a kind of coming back to life, to touch what is really good and true and beautiful in each of us, in our lineage, our ancestors, and descendants.

We can always begin anew and return to the goodness in us. The present moment contains the past and also the future. What is the present moment but a continuation of the past? What is the future but a continuation of this present moment?

What we do in this present moment is extremely important.

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The past can be healed in the present moment; we don’t have to worry about the future if we know how to dwell solidly in each breath, in each step.

The past is not separate from the present. What happened in the past still exists in us — things we have done and said, things that we may not have had control over, things that other people have done or said. In fact our cells carry memories. By dwelling deeply in the present moment, we can massage those things in our body and consciousness and liberate ourselves from the wounds of the past — individually and collectively.

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Rediscovering Grandparents

I want to tell you a story of a time when I was able to heal wounds from my past. When I was not yet a nun, I went on a twenty-one-day retreat with my dad, led by Thay and the monastics in the U.S. He had been talking about the Five Touchings of the Earth and explained how we can heal our ancestors in us.

My father married my mother in the late nineteen-sixties. My mother is African-American. You know that my father [Dharma teacher Al Lingo] is European-American. My parents are black and white. My father’s parents were very upset. They never met my mother and they didn’t want to meet us when we were born (my brother is three and a half years older than me). When my parents divorced when I was seven or eight, my dad made contact again with my grandparents and we were able to visit them in Houston, Texas. I was eight when I first met them, and my brother was eleven. They were lovely and very warm to us. We were their only grandchildren. We visited them every year. Six years later, when I was fourteen, my granddad died. My grandmother passed away ten years after this so I got to be with her for another ten years. They were very kind to us. They helped my dad treat us to trips to amusement parks and they made sure we had all the foods we liked to eat.

I didn’t think too much about that experience growing up. I was at that retreat and one afternoon I went to the meditation hall to sit by myself and get in touch with my ancestors, as Thay had been teaching us. I just sat and began to breathe and think about my grandparents. A feeling of deep suffering came up towards my grandparents, a huge anger that they had excluded us from their life for eleven years. I felt a deep sense of rejection. I breathed with it as ) had been learning to do. ) embraced it; ) allowed it space to be there. I cried and cried, and I held it with tenderness.

Healing Ancient Wounds

As that emotion was being lullabied by my breathing and my mindfulness, it began to calm. I began to think, “Well, why were they like that? Why did they close their hearts to us?” I saw that they were raised in a completely segregated South, totally white. My grandfather was poor growing up and he made it into the upper middle class through his own intelligence and hard work and lots of help from a society that supported him. But he was a product of all the seeds that were watered in him in that time and place. I saw how much he loved my brother and me and how much excluding us from his life had hurt him. I saw that he was stuck, he didn’t want to be that way, but he didn’t know how to be different. I was also very grateful that he was able to break out of this trap to some extent before he died and have a genuine relationship with his grandchildren.

In that moment, the past was very available to me. I stayed with my breathing, and my grandfather was resurrected in me. I felt so much love for my grandfather. I knew he wasn’t gone to me and that we were still very connected. I’m so proud that I am my grandfather’s granddaughter! There were so many things he was talented at; there was a lot of gentleness, wisdom, and compassion in him. I benefit from that and I want to carry that on. And I know that’s what he wants me to do. I feel a great deal of support and love from and for him now, and my anger and resentment that was buried in me for all those years is completely transformed.

When we really take care of ourselves in the present moment and listen to our own pain and suffering, listen as a mother listens to her child — with tenderness, compassion, openness, acceptance — we can understand our suffering and we can heal our past.

Making Time for our Ancestors

The practice of Touching the Earth can help our ancestors be resurrected in us and help us start afresh, because we have a chance that they may not have had. So when we speak about collective healing — healing the suffering of our nation and our people — we can do that by being very mindful of how we live in this present moment. Our ancestors are us, so whatever we do our ancestors are doing.

One practice that we encourage everyone to do is to set up an ancestors’ altar in your home and spend time there every day.

In Vietnam people have an ancestors’ altar in their home; and anything of importance they report to their ancestors. When their child has his or her first day at school, the parents come before the altar, light a stick of incense, and let the ancestors know, “Today your grandchild or great-grandchild is going to school for the first time.” In many places throughout Africa, people do much the same thing.

It’s very healing to call upon our ancestors, because we are so much more than what we think; we are not this separate self.

When we can be in touch with this whole lineage of people who care about us, we have some energy. We don’t know where it comes from, but somehow we have energy to do things that we didn’t have energy to do before. We also have a sense of responsibility because we are aware of the expectations that our ancestors have of us and of the healing that they deeply need. So the choices that we make shift when that awareness deepens in us.

You could put a picture of your parents or your grandparents and just sit and breathe with your ancestors regularly. There is an illness in our society of isolation, loneliness, fear, the inability to connect to other people. When we can heal our connection to our ancestors, we’ll find more and more ways to make connections with people in our lives.

At times I can really touch my ancestors and I feel them very alive in me. They have a great sense of humor. They help me laugh at myself and not take myself too seriously. And they are full of love and compassion for me, too, when I am still enough to be available to them. They let me know that I will never be lost or abandoned, and they ask me to spend more time with them, to take more time to connect, to honor and remember them.

When we talk about healing collective suffering, collective trauma, it has to start with our own personal resurrection. To begin anew in history, to make a really different step as a human race, we start with being compassionate with our body, our mind, our ancestors, our family, our relationships.

The Pain of Exclusion

The experience on this retreat of exclusion, of feeling separate from the people in the village, I’m so grateful that it’s come up, painful and awkward and potentially volatile as it is. People have been coming here for some time and there wasn’t any event that brought the two groups together. Now this occasion of the village children being excluded from our bonfire last night has brought up the real suffering that exists, so we can’t go on with business as usual. It’s good that it’s painful, that this touches some deep suffering and confusion in us. It touches also a deep aspiration for things to change, for us to be able to connect and be free.

We have a chance to apply the practice — to take care of our own feelings, to speak mindfully with each other about it, and to look at how to respond with compassion. We don’t want to close our eyes before suffering, we don’t want to say “Well, that’s their business. We’re just here on retreat, why stir things up?”

Just as our own emotions need to be embraced, racism is a collective emotion that needs to be embraced — it is fear of the Other. We’re so used to thinking of discrimination as evil, so we don’t want to be associated with it. We know we are not like that! But we relate in the same way to our own difficult emotions — we push them away. Racism needs to be acknowledged and tenderly embraced as a collective. We have the compassion and wisdom, the Buddha seed in us, to look deeply at racism, classism, and all the various isms in us that tend to push others away.

We need to wake up together and look at it. People are already doing this in many places so it’s not something we have to create from scratch. The separation that exists in South Africa is no different from the separation that exists in other places. It may be felt quite acutely here, but it is everywhere. Our minds create the world. War and discrimination come from our minds. If we didn’t have violence in our minds, we wouldn’t create war.

The Grand Requiem Masses in Vietnam

I want to share about the Grand Requiem Masses that we did in Vietnam on our trip with Thay last year.

Thay returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2005. The Communist government thought he would cause an uprising against them, but he was so skillful and loving in his speech that they learned they didn’t need to fear him. Thay tenderly expressed the good qualities of the government and spoke very skillfully: “Why don’t you open up more? … You can do better and this will make people happier.” Because of his skillfulness, people listened. He gave talks to members of the Communist Party, and Thay said to them, “You know, the monks and nuns, we don’t have our own private cars, cell phones, or bank accounts. We’re the true Communists!” And they laughed, they weren’t angry. He was able in a very loving way to touch the need in the Communist Party to reduce corruption and materialism. So they allowed us to come back in 2007.

One of the main reasons we went was to engage in ceremonies to heal the suffering of the war. The pain had been suppressed, it was not allowed to come up and be expressed. They were three-day ceremonies of healing where people wrote down the names of their loved ones who had been killed in the war or who had been killed escaping by boat. We performed ceremonies in the South in Saigon, in the Center in Hue, and in the North in Hanoi. There were huge altars with food and fruit, and then pages and pages stapled to the altars with the names of thousands of people — where and how they died, some of starvation, some killed in the forest, some from a land mine.

We began our chanting, inviting all these souls who had died violently in the war to be a part of this healing. And they came; we felt their presence. I was crying tears that weren’t mine and many of us experienced something coming through us to be released — some pain that had been kept down and was able to be released on a collective level. We were encouraged to practice very uprightly, to really be mindful and kind, to be aware of our speech and actions, during those three days. Everyone had to make a special altar outside of their house, to pray for the healing of their family members who had died, and Thay gave talks every morning. I experienced the healing of my own blood and land ancestors in those ceremonies. On the third day of the ceremony, after quite a heat wave, it rained. It did that at each of the three ceremonies — on the last day it rained.

Transformation of the Collective

We can create spaces of healing and resurrection in our communities, by allowing pain to be expressed but held in a very tender, loving, compassionate container of mindfulness. When I first heard about these ceremonies in Vietnam, right away I thought, “Oh, we need these ceremonies in the U.S.” So much suffering is being passed on from one generation to the next. The absurdity of violence in the U.S., with ten-year-old children shooting classmates and teachers in school, is pain from ancestors that has not been healed. The brutality of this deep separation here in South Africa is pain that has not been addressed from our ancestors. If we can address and release that, our future generations will be free to live a very different kind of life.

mb50-Resurrection3I’m thinking about how to do some kind of a spiritual healing ceremony that is appropriate for Americans to address the wounds of Native American genocide, slavery, segregation, the witch hunts, and other deep, national wounds. We can also think about this here. I want to invite us all to meditate together, particularly on the situation that has arisen in this retreat. It is clear that whatever we want to suppress will come up some how, some way. We are asked to walk around the village, but we end up meeting some children from the village on the detour we take to the meditation hall. We are so naturally attracted to them! The urge to separate, it can never win! We want to connect; we want to love each other. It’s so natural, so human.

I was very happy to hear some of you share before the walking meditation about how important it is to be skillful and look deeply — not just act out of our goodwill and good intention — but to really think about the best response to this difficult situation.

It’s just not true that we aren’t connected to the colored people in the village. It’s just not true that it doesn’t matter what happens, that we can go about our retreat here and not be impacted by that kind of inequality. To see this, that’s the practice.

Maybe we can find a way as a community to make a true and deep response to this suffering. We know the farmer feels it, the retreat caretakers feel it, the villagers feel it. Everyone is victimized by this kind of separation. Everyone is crippled somehow by this narrow heart, the inability to include. I hope that out of this retreat, we will have a beautiful, strong Sangha that meets regularly in Cape Town. We have a meeting Monday night to be together and offer our support to creating a Sangha. So we can continue to look at how we can respond to this on Monday night.

I want to close by expressing my gratitude to all of you for being here, for having the courage to come on this retreat — for having the willingness to love, to open yourself up to transformation for yourself, your family, your society. All of us who have come here feel enriched and grateful for this time with you.

Sister Jewel, Chan Chau Nghiem, received the Lamp Transmission from Thich Nhat Hanh in 2007 in Vietnam. She currently resides at the new European Institute for Applied Buddhism in Waldbroel, Germany.

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Healing Separation

 By Sr. Thuan Nghiem and Sr. Chau Nghiem

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We held our retreat at the Cape Mountain Retreat Center, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. Thirty adults and eight children came and practiced for three days, many of them for the first time in our tradition. They were professionals, and most were white, though there were a few Indian South Africans, a Burmese woman, and a Xhosa boy, adopted by a white South African mom. The three Dharma Teachers took turns leading the adults’ activities as well as the children’s program.

We experienced very directly the painful residues of apartheid during the retreat. The retreat center was on land rented from a local farmer. On our way to the large meditation hall was a village of colored people* who worked for the white farmer. We met a number of colored children on our walks there who smiled at us with so much desire to connect. We invited the village children to the bonfire we had planned for Saturday night. They happily agreed to come. They were very poor and we heard there was always a lot of drinking in the village over the Easter holiday, so we wanted to provide them with a more wholesome atmosphere and give a chance for the village children and retreat children to enjoy playing together. When the retreat caretakers learned we’d invited the colored children, they informed the farmer and he insisted that the caretakers let the children know that they couldn’t attend the bonfire as there was a farm policy of no contact between retreatants and villagers. We were told that this policy was due to misunderstandings in the past between the Buddhist retreatants and largely Christian colored community, but we also knew it was quite common on South African farms to hold onto traditions of racial separation and inequality. The caretakers went to the village Saturday afternoon and told the children they were not allowed to come.
They either didn’t get the message or disobeyed, because at dinnertime, fifteen or so very nicely dressed children came down to the bonfire. We went to greet them and begged the caretakers to let them join us. They were insistent that the farmer’s rules be followed as after all, we were on his land, and we wouldn’t be there to receive the fallout of our actions, either on the caretakers or the villagers. While we didn’t want to be intimidated, we wanted to be respectful of our hosts, but we felt extremely upset and helpless in the face of such blatant exclusion and discrimination. We continued with the bonfire, without the village children, but there was definitely something missing and the energy was dampened.

The next morning, before we transmitted the precepts, I asked everyone to join hands and requested that we send the merit of our transmission ceremony to the village children who had been excluded from the bonfire, to the retreat center caretakers and to the farmer. I asked that we use the merit of the ceremony to water the seed of inclusiveness in each of us and help us to find better ways to create connections with those that are different from us.

One beautiful thing happened after the kids’ Easter egg hunt: we invited the village children to share in the bounty of Easter eggs. We got to take pictures all together and enjoy their delight in the Easter eggs. There was a meeting at the end of the retreat in which we decided to draft a letter to the retreat center owners sharing about the painful experience we had and asking that action be taken to remedy this policy of separation. The letter has been delivered and the newly formed Cape Town Sangha is following up with the retreat owners.

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* ‘Colored’ is the term used in South Africa for people of mixed Dutch and African ancestry. They speak Afrikaans and consider themselves distinct from both white and black South Africans.

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Poem: The Guest

This being human is a guest house
-Rumi

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I threw open wide the door and every window
Hung out a sign: “Guest House. All Are
Welcome”
And they came in unbroken procession,
Tapping my shoulder, hoping for a
conversation
Or at least a glance, a nod of recognition.
I did not speak, though well acquainted with
them all.
I watched the door, waiting for the guest of
honour
I sat and waited, waited only for you.

You arrive as one coming home, familiar with
this place
No fanfare, no red carpet, you simply take a seat
Across the table from the place where I have waited.
And I look, over the flowers I gathered for you
And see myself, looking at the flowers I gathered for me.

I build another door that all the guests might
come and freely go
But I remain, in this house, the guest of
honour.

— India Taylor

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Sangha News

Buddhist Institute Opens in Germany

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The European Institute of Applied Buddhism was opened in September 2008 in Waldbröl, Nordrhein-Westfalen, Germany. Thay’s first visit to the EIAB after it had been acquired by the Unified Buddhist Church was during the second week of September 2008. During this visit some monks and nuns came to stay in the building. There was no heat or hot water, and since the building had been uninhabited for two years, there was a great deal of cleaning to be done. The Mayor of Waldbröl kindly offered the services of the town to clear up the grounds before an important press conference presided over by Thay.

The building was constructed in 1897. It was founded by a local philanthropist, a pastor and doctor from Cologne, Dr. Hollenberg, and three other doctors, for the treatment of the mentally ill whose families were too poor to pay for their treatment. Dr. Hollenberg was responsible for other philanthropic works in the town of Waldbröl and is remembered on the ancestral altar in the Institute. On 14 November 1938, 700 people were removed from Waldbröl, including some from this hospital; they were taken to unknown locations where their fate was uncertain.

Many were put to death by injection or sterilized by the Nazi regime. The hospital was turned into one of Hitler’s recreational centres. Since the fall of the Nazi regime the building has been a hospital and then a NATO military academy. The legacy of this building is one of philanthropy and compassion as well as ignorance and suffering.

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House of Transformation

The large building consists of 400 rooms on four floors. In September Thay visited each of these rooms and sprinkled each with consecrated water. He was accompanied by a number of monks and nuns who chanted the name of Avalokiteshvara. It took four hours to complete this ceremony. The aim of this visit was to begin the process of healing that the monastic residents of the Institute have been doing their best to continue ever since. Interestingly enough the house was called House of Transformation when it was a military academy and we are happy to keep that name. Our daily practice is to take every step in mindfulness and offer up the energy to heal the suffering that has happened here. The stairs are made of marble as is the main corridor of the ground floor. It seems strange for monks and nuns to be living in such luxurious surroundings but we know that the laying of these marble floors cost much sweat and hardship for many people and our steps respond with compassion to this.

mb50-SanghaNews3Thay visited us again in November and wrote a letter to be read to those who suffered here. This letter is read aloud every day before the sitting meditation and during the offering ceremony to the wandering spirits. [See sidebar page 42.] This offering ceremony is performed daily by the monks and nuns in residence. Its purpose is to give rise to compassion that is able to heal the legacy of suffering in this building that has still not been wholly transformed. Please be assured that we are very happy to play a part in doing this work of transformation and are grateful to have this privilege.

One day when we were gathered to sing before walking meditation in the grounds of the Institute Thay told us that we do not need to avoid hardship and difficulties. These things can be causes and conditions for us to solidify our practice of mindfulness, understanding, and compassion. They give us the motivation to take refuge in each other and do what Martin Luther King most wanted, build the Beloved Community.

In the town of Waldbröl we have the support of the Mayor and his deputy. We also have the support of the Catholic priest and Protestant pastor, who have invited the monks and nuns to their churches to speak to their congrega-tions. The county construction committee has the duty to make sure that we bring the building up to date with the latest safety regulations. It seems that the military did not need to fulfill these require-ments and so we have a great deal of expensive work to complete. Until this work is completed we are not allowed to receive overnight guests in the building. Fortunately right next to us is a school for conscientious objectors who are training in voluntary service and this school has beds for rent on the weekends. This means that we can organise weekend retreats.

Traveling With a Bag Full of Moon

When Thay visited us in November, many monks and nuns also came. They drove from Plum Village, stopping overnight in the Paris meditation centre La Maison de l’Inspir. Once everyone was here Thay led us on a wonderful walk around the grounds of the Institute. This included the beautiful apple orchard on a hill with wide views and the local park just below the front of the Institute. Thay pointed out that the feng shui of the building is good, with the high mountains lying behind and the valley in front. We were delighted to find three bushes still in fragrant flower amidst the falling golden leaves.

The next morning the full moon was in the early-morning sky and a bell at 5:30 invited us to full moon meditation. There is a court at the top of the steps that is the perfect place to see the full moon. At first the sky was clear and we saw that bright reflection of the sun’s light. Then clouds came and we saw the moon go into her room but the radiance still came through its walls. In freedom she came in and out of the clouds. After twenty minutes outside we came into the building and sat in the hall where Thay had given the press conference in September. We watched the moon through the large windows. Then Thay spoke about poems describing the moon. We heard an explanation of the Vietnamese expression, “traveling with a bag full of moon.” This refers to someone like Thay Giac Thanh who needed few material things because he had plenty of freedom to enjoy the wonderful and beautiful things in life.

On the weekend a public talk and Day of Mindfulness were given for the people of Waldbröl. For this the auditorium of the neighbouring hospital was rented. Over three hundred people attended, including Sangha friends from Holland.

Thay gave warm and inclusive teachings on mindfulness and  the non-sectarian nature of Buddhist practice. The mindfulness day began at 5:30 with walking meditation to the auditorium while it was still dark. This was followed by sitting meditation, breakfast, and then a Dharma talk on the Four Mantras and how we can deal with our angry feelings. We had walking meditation in the park below the Institute and sat for a while together.

Future Retreats

We are now practicing the three-month winter retreat. Our doors are open for the local people to come and join us for walking and sitting meditation as well as two mindfulness days every week. We have an overnight retreat at the end of each month and go to the library to lead a two-hour session in basic mindfulness every week. Local people express their appreciation of the peace and joy they feel when they are with us.

After the winter retreat we shall be organising more retreats. The Dutch Sanghas have already asked to organise a retreat for them on Buddhist psychology at the Institute.

Please let us know if you would like a retreat for your Sangha. Our e-mail address is eiabmcampus@gmail.com. And our temporary website is www.eiab-maincampus.org.

—Sister Annabel, True Virtue

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For the 700 people taken from their home on 14 Nov. 1938

Dear friends, dear children,

Seventy years ago, you were treated badly. They took you from your home and forced you into camps, they sterilized you so that you wouldn’t have a continuation, and they killed many of you through euthanasia. The  was enormous. Not many people were aware of what was happening to you. You have suffered from that time on.

Now the Sangha has come, the Sangha has heard and understood your suffering and the injustice you endured. The Sangha has practiced mindful walking, sitting, breathing, and chanting. The Sangha has asked the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Patriarchs, and other great beings to transfer to you their merits and their freedom, so that you have a chance to be released from ten injustice you suffered and remanifest in beautiful new forms of life. The people who caused your suffering have also suffered a lot. They did not know what they were doing at that time. So please allow compassion and forgiveness to be born in your heart so that they also can have a chance to transform and heal. Please support the Sangha and the next many generations of practitioners so that we can transform these places of suffering into places of transformation and healing, not only for Waldbrol but for the whole country of Germany and the world.

mb50-dividerA Report on the India Trip

The trip was divided into three parts: three nights each in Varanasi, Bodh Gaya, and Rajgir. We traveled in 11 buses with about 300 participants and 30 monastics. The trip was very well organized. Each bus was designated a number and color, and everyone got a cloth bag matching their bus color. Each group stuck together throughout the trip, staying in the same hotel, eating together, and meeting to exchange how the trip was going.

Varanasi

On October 20 we checked into our respective hotels in Varanasi, had lunch there, and went to the Tibetan Institute in Sarnath for a general introduction. The Tibetan Institute served as our home base for three days and is where the monastics stayed. On October 21 we visited the Sarnath Museum and had lunch at the Tibetan Institute. That afternoon Thich Nhat Hanh gave a public talk at Deer Park in Sarnath. Everyone sat in the shade of the Dhamekh Stupa, which commemorates where the Buddha gave his first teachings. Many monks from Sarnath were in attendance. Afterwards Thay led walking meditation around the ruins of the site, lasting long past sunset, so that we were walking much of the time in almost total darkness. The next morning, in 11 rented boats, we watched the sun rise over the Ganga while drifting slowly downstream. Even Thay came for the boat ride! That day we returned to the Tibetan Institute for lunch and for Thay’s lecture to teachers who had been invited from the area.

Bodh Gaya

At 9:00 a.m. on the 23rd we boarded buses for the long ride to Bodh Gaya, where we arrived shortly before dinner. On the 24th we spent the day at the Mahabodhi tree temple for a public Day of Mindfulness, which was accompanied by some official fanfare (many children in uniforms, lots of lotus flowers). Thay gave a public speech attended by quite a number of people, including a large group of female teachers and a large group of monks. The Mahabhodi Society hosted everyone for lunch. Afterwards, Sister Chan Khong offered a session of Deep Relaxation and Touching the Earth. Shantum Seth (who organized the trip) led a tour of the temple grounds. The day ended with a candlelight procession, with the entire group doing walking meditation around the temple at three different levels successively. This was quite moving and beautiful.

On the 25th, we visited Sujata village across the Neranjara river, with a view of the Bodh Gaya temple. Sujata was the young girl who found Siddhartha at the end of his most ascetic phase and offered him food daily. A podium had been prepared under a large bodhi tree, and Thay spoke about Siddhartha’s experiences in the area. We were offered warm Kheer in bowls made of sal leaves. This is what Sujata had to offer Siddhartha on the first day she met him. The Ahimsa foundation (organizing the trip) has bought a plot of land here, where Thay planted four trees. Then we walked through the village, arousing quite a bit of curiosity. We spent time near the large stupa that commemorates Sujata, enjoying the view of mountains and rice fields — much like scenery in Vietnam! Lunch again at the Mahabodhi Society and an afternoon off. Some people visited the various Buddhist temples in Bodh Gaya.

Rajgir

mb50-SanghaNews4On Sunday October 26 we departed Bodh Gaya at 8:00 a.m. headed for Rajgir in a caravan of 11 buses. The route we took was very rough and bumpy. Most of the way we traveled along one-lane dirt roads. The scenery was beautiful. Occasionally we wound through small enclaves of houses, not even villages, really. Children ran towards the buses waving their arms in great excitement, and women stopped their work to stare at the passing parade of buses filled with foreigners. I never figured out why we took this route. Were no larger roads available or convenient? Or did someone decide we should travel along the kind of path which the Buddha would have taken between Bodh Gaya and Rajgir? Probably neither the scenery nor the way of life has changed that much since then.

Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Rajgir and checked into our “hotels” in a rather strange complex housing a former (and future?) munitions factory. The whole scene was a bit unsettling – many modern buildings, all several stories high and empty, no people in sight anywhere, lots of power lines between us and the view of the mountains. But the three nights we spent there were good ones. Shortly after arriving at the hotel, we headed off to Gridhakuta Mountain. Vulture Peak there was one of the Buddha’s favorite places. He and his main disciples are said to have had huts up there. King Bimbisara, the Buddha’s first wealthy patron, built a path up to Vulture Peak and donated land nearby for the Buddha’s first monastery, Bamboo Grove Monastery. We assembled at the start of this brick path and followed Thay up the mountain. There we watched the sun set, the monastics chanted quietly, and we walked back down in silence.

The next morning we all left at 5:00 for Bamboo Grove. This was a wonderful morning. The park was beautiful, the atmosphere very special. Thay led walking and sitting meditation. After breakfast, we headed to Nalanda University where Thay received an honorary doctorate and gave a speech — perfect speech. He described, among other things, how Buddhism can help restore communication in families and communities. He urged Buddhist scholars not to indulge excessively in intellectual debate. Instead they should make Buddhist teachings simple and applicable to daily life. Only in this way can interest in Buddhism be revived in India, the goal of the Nava Nalanda Mahavira. An elegant buffet lunch was served and then we visited the ruins of the ancient Buddhist site of learning. In the evening those who wished to could return to Bamboo Grove.

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On the next day we departed before dawn for Gridhakuta Mountain. We walked up the brick path in complete darkness, carefully winding around cows lying or standing along the way, for sunrise meditation. Then Thay made some comments on a portable loudspeaker. We are lucky, he said, that we can enjoy the same sunset, the same vegetation, the same landscape as the Buddha did here. We can also look at this all with “Buddha eyes.” Later that morning Thay led the transmission ceremony for the Five Mindfulness Trainings. I had a view of the beautiful setting from above: to the left and right I could see green hills and trees; in the center was a kind of amphitheater formed by huge boulders where the monastics were seated, dressed in their yellow ceremonial robes. Afterwards we were free to spend the whole day up there together as we liked: in silence, in quiet mindful speech, meditating, or exploring about. I talked with friends, napped in the shade of a big rock, picked up some trash.

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Late in the day we assembled again to watch the sunset. A small Japanese group carried out their own ceremony in front of the makeshift “altar” on Vulture peak. Our group just sat in silence. After they had finished taking pictures, we watched the sun set in silence and then walked back down the mountain, also in silence. While descending, Thay turned around several times to look at the departing scenery. One time he turned around and bowed. Later we realized that this was his goodbye. That evening there was an elaborate buffet dinner for Diwali and a musical performance sponsored by the state of Bihar. The next morning buses left in several shifts to Patna, according to when people had flights and trains. After a day-long ride to Patna, we checked into a hotel for one night before our own flight to Frankfurt via Delhi.

Reflections

A few times before and during the trip, I became a bit uncomfortable with the whole idea of a pilgrimage. But repeatedly Thay returned to a theme which addressed exactly this matter: urging us to get in touch with the Buddha inside ourselves. Especially at Bodh Gaya, many people were perfoming loud and elaborate ceremonies, perhaps intended to get them in touch with the Buddha, the Buddha outside of them, the God Buddha. But Thay kept encouraging us to look inwards: to think, speak, breathe, walk, and act mindfully. This is what he always teaches regardless whether the location is southern France, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, or Buddhist sites in Northern India!

Sangha Mourns the Loss of Peter Kollock

Brother Phap De writes: “It is with deep sadness that I inform you of the death of Peter Kollock, UCLA professor, who was instrumental in developing the very successful College Student Retreats at Deer Park. Those of you who knew and worked with Peter found him to be our brother, friend, and teacher. He was an inspiration to his students and to professors from other universities, who followed his lead in taking the mindfulness practice into many universities.

“Peter was a very skillful and careful motorcycle rider. He had just said good-bye to his wife, Ellen, and, apparently, was on his way from Calabasas to UCLA. According to the police, Peter, was hit by a powerful cross wind, causing him to hit the curb. His body was catapulted into a tree, killing him instantly.

“Please keep Peter in your hearts, sending loving energy to him, Ellen, and family.”

Claire Venghiattis, Great Courage of the Heart, lives in Mannheim, Germany.

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Book Reviews

mb50-BookReviews1The World We Have

By Thich Nhat Hanh
Paarallax Press, 2008
Soft cover, 142 pages

Reviewed by Karen Hilsberg

For many years, Thich Nhat Hanh has offered teachings about how we can make a future possible for ourselves and our descendants. Now people around the world have become acutely aware of the shaky ground on which we stand. Global warming, carbon emissions, soil depletion, extinction of species, deforestation, and dwindling of natural resources threaten our earth. The recent presidential election in America underscores that this is also a time of great hope and potential change. In this new book, Thich Nhat Hanh calls for a collective awakening. He offers clear instructions to help us give birth to that awakening and bring healing to ourselves, our human family, all species and Mother Earth.

Thay invokes the bodhisattva Dharanimdhara, or Earth Holder, who preserves and protects the earth — the energy that holds us together as an organism. She is a kind of engineer or architect who creates space for us to live in, builds bridges and constructs roads that lead to people we love. Her task is to promote interspecies communication and to protect the environment. We can empower engaged Buddhist practices in the twenty-first century, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us, with the tools that include the Five Mindfulness Trainings, the Four Noble Truths, the Four Nutriments, and the Five Remembrances.

Expanding on talks he has offered at retreats, our teacher tells us we can actually reverse the collision course on which we find ourselves. He writes, “When we begin this practice, we want things to be permanent and we think things have a separate self. Whenever things change, we suffer. To help us not to suffer, the Buddha gave us the truths of impermanence and non-self as keys. When we look at the impermanent and nonself nature of all things, we’re using those keys to open the door to reality, or nirvana. Then our fear and our suffering disappear … that is why it is very important to deal with our fear and despair before we can deal with the issue of global warming or other environmental concerns. The Buddha is very clear about this: we have to heal ourselves first before we can heal the planet.”

The World We Have concludes with a section called “Practices for Mindful Living.” Here, we are offered Earth Gathas, Touching the Earth and Deep Relaxation exercises, and an Earth Peace Treaty Commitment Sheet — this can be submitted to Deer Park Monastery along with the treaties of thousands of others who have made their commitment to heal the planet. We are given the hope to simplify our lives, conserve natural resources, eat lower on the food chain. This deep and meaningful text is published in a small pocket-sized edition, and is printed by Parallax on 100% post-consumer fiber.

mb50-BookReviews2What Book!?
Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop

Edited by Gary Gach
Parallax Press, 2008
Softcover, 248 pages

Reviewed by Judith Toy

Reading Zen poetry is like turning yourself upside-down and letting all the change fall out of your pockets. Gary Gach, editor of The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, edited this anthology of Zen poems first issued in 1998, and now reissued by Parallax Press, What Book!? Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop.

Indeed, what poems? As I read these pages I smile, finding that the space around the words is the poem, or as integral as the words themselves. I feel a little like Mahakashyapa when he saw the Buddha holding a flower. From Lew Welch: “I saw myself/a ring of bone/in the clear stream/of all of it.” And from Arthur Sze: “We step outside, and the silence is as/water is, taking the shape of the container.” And from the celebrated Korean poet, Ko Un (pronounced Go Une), an answer to the classic koan, what was your face before you were born? “Before you were born/before your dad/before your mom//your burbling/was there.” A burbling of the preverbal word.

“A poet once located poetry as somewhere before or after words take place,” the editor writes. Thus one of the 84,000 Dharma doors is generously flung open to mindfulness, to liberation: verse — the root of which means turning.

With an introduction by Peter Coyote, who writes this collection helped him understand the scale of Buddhist influence on the “popular mind,” here is a Who’s Who of 143 poets of Buddhist renown and unknowns, alive and dead, beat and monastic and both. Offering verses that are keenly alive and well grouped under one cover, we hear the voices of Czeslaw Milosz, Maxine Hong Kingston, Philip Whalen, Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Chogyam Trungpa and Thich Nhat Hanh, almost as one voice. M.C. Richards and Eve Merriam are among non-Buddhist westerners selected by Gach whose poems greet us with zen haiku and the reality of impermanence, respectively.

Allen Ginsberg says what this book means: “The whole body of the One Thus Come/falls in the raindrops and drips from the eaves.” Thich Nhat Hanh’s well-loved prose poem, “Interbeing,” excerpted from The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, says what this book means: “If you are a poet, you will see a cloud in this piece of paper.” These are poems that allow us to transcend them. “As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe….”

Of special note is the “Visible Language” section, a short but sweet exhibit of calligraphy, altar (shape) poems and brush drawings, including work by Thich Nhat Hanh, Peter Bailey, Shunryu Suzuki, and my old favorite Paul Reps, among others. One of Reps’ drawings shows a Buddha in brush strokes with a straight, ruled line down the center of his head and body. “Open Here,” is the inscription below. I heartily recommend to students of the Buddha to Open this book Here.

And of note…

By Judith Toy

Worlds in Harmony: Compassionate Action for a Better World, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Parallax Press, 2008, softbound, 108 pages, abridged from three days of dialogue between His Holiness and seven renowned helping professionals at the Harmonia Mundi conference in Newport Beach California, October, 1989. In his foreword, Daniel Goleman, Ph.D., author of Emotional Intelligence, reminds us that those of us alive now are the first generation in human history to glimpse the possibility of the end of our world. From the premise that this insight is of no use unless it results in action, His Holiness speaks with us person to person to teach us precisely how to save ourselves and the planet through compassion and loving kindness. He teaches us to be, think, and act as citizens of the world in ways that are based on equanimity and understanding. This book is also a guide to the practice of healing and compassionate action in daily life.

Hope Is An Open Heart, by Lauren Thompson, Scholastic Press, 2008, hardcover, 32 pages, illustrated by various photographers; a children’s picture book. Lauren Thompson practices with Rock Blossom Sangha in Brooklyn, New York, part of the New York Metro Community of Mindful Living. She is a best-selling, award-winning children’s author. This book is dedicated to her Rock Blossom sister Alison who died at age 42 of brain cancer. The author wrote to me, “Though she was not ready to die, and had little reason to hope for a future at all, she found the most peace by focusing on the joy of the present moment.” This gorgeously illustrated book of few words invites its readers into the beauty and wonder of the present moment.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Buddhism, Second Edition, by Gary Gach, Alpha, 2004, softbound, 390 pages. In a light-hearted voice, this chock-full compendium presents the life and teachings of the Buddha and explains how they spread and adapted to different cultures. It includes an introduction to meditation and explanations of the Three Jewels, the Four Noble Truths, and the Eightfold Path. Gach, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, also includes insights into Buddhism’s cross-religious influences and a chronology of Buddhist history. Most important is the Buddhist perspective on why we suffer and what we can do to be free. As Thich Nhat Hanh says about this book, “It will bring a smile to us all.”

The Plum Village Cook Book, by monks and nuns of Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in Southern France, published by Plum Village, 2008, softbound, 66 pages; illustrated with full-color photographs. In this little kitchen treasure, readers are invited to visit Plum Village to see firsthand how the brothers and sisters “cook vegetarian food mindfully, joyfully and calmly, which might be an inspiration for you.” Most of the ingredients used in these all-veggie recipes can be found at your local [American] grocer; some items such as black and white fungus, veggie ham, and veggie fish can be found at an Asian market or online. Recipes use the European metric system, so some cooks may need a U.S.-to-metric conversion table. But it’s well worth it to experiment with these tasty dishes that many of us have enjoyed at Thich Nhat Hanh’s monasteries.

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Dharma Talk: Leading with Courage and Compassion

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Unexpectedly, while on tour in India, Thay was invited to speak to the Parliament of India. On October 17, Thay addressed the assembly and many dignitaries.

THich Nhat Hanh

Honorable Speaker, honorable Secretary-General, distinguished Members of Parliament,

In this time of turmoil, in this time of violence, anger, fear and despair, every one of us suffers. The people suffer and also the leaders suffer. A spiritual dimension developed in our leaders may help to bring more insight and peace so that our leaders can find a way out for all of us. Is it possible to bring down the level of violence, fear, anger, and pain? To me, the answer is yes.

Those in the society who believe that they are victims of discrimination and injustice blame it on the society and their leaders. They have the impression that no one has listened to them. They have tried but they have never succeeded in making themselves understood. So, the practice of deep listening should be used in order to give them the sense of being heard and understood.

Compassionate Listening

In a nation, there are those of us who are capable of being calm, who can sit down quietly and listen with compassion. Our leaders may like to invite those people to sit and listen to the sufferings of the nation, to the sufferings of the people. This kind of practice is needed for everyone – not just for the political leaders. Suppose a father does not have time to listen to his son or daughter. That father would not be able to understand the suffering and the difficulties of his son or daughter and will not be able to make them happy. Even if the father has time to sit down and listen, if in the father there is too much anger, pain, and despair, the quality of listening will not be good enough.

That is why, to listen to the suffering of other people, we should listen to our own suffering. But in our society not many people have the time to listen and understand their own suffering and difficulties. If we are able to listen to our own suffering and if we understand the true nature and roots of our suffering, then we will suffer less. We will be able to see a way out.

After that, we can listen to our loved ones, our community, our nation. And listening like that can bring relief because the people who are listened to in that spirit feel that they are now understood.

The Parliament could organize a session of deep listening, inviting wise and skilled spiritual people to come and sit down with our political leaders. Then we can invite those who think they are victims of social injustice and discrimination to come and we can say to them: “Dear people, we are here. We are ready to listen to what is in your heart and to hear about your suffering, your difficulties, and your despair.” Preparation like that may take some time.

The session of deep and compassionate listening can be televised so that the whole nation can participate in it. If the quality of listening is deep and good, people will feel that they are beginning to be understood, and then the level of anger, violence, and suspicion in our society will come down.

Practicing with Israelis and Palestinians

In our community of friends, we have tried this practice in many ways. We always succeed. Every year, we invite a group of Palestinians and Israelis to come and practice with us at Plum Village. Of course, at first they cannot look at each other, they cannot talk to each other. There is a lot of fear, anger, and suspicion. First, we offer them the practice of mindful breathing, mindful walking, and learning to recognize the pain, sorrow, fear in themselves. Supported by the practice of the whole community, they get some relief in their body and emotion from practicing in this way.

After about ten days, we teach them the practice of deep listening and loving speech. One group is given the time to tell the other group about all the suffering it has undergone, what kind of pain, injustice, fear, and despair it has experienced. They are asked to tell everything using the practice of loving speech. They do not condemn, blame, or accuse each other. You can tell everything in your heart but refrain from accusing, blaming, and using bitter language.

When you are in the group that listens, you have to practice mindful breathing and remind yourself to listen with compassion. We know that if we can sit and listen calmly like that for one hour, the speakers will suffer less and will feel that they are being understood. Many sessions of listening and loving speech can transform the situation.

When a group of people are expressing themselves, there may be a wrong perception or misunderstanding — a fear or anger that has no foundation — but we do not interrupt or correct them because interruptions will make them lose the inspiration to speak out. So, we continue to listen and we tell ourselves that later on, maybe several days later, we will provide them with some information so that they may correct their perceptions. Now we only listen.

While listening we can gain many insights into how the speakers have gotten the wrong perceptions that they have; and how fear, anger, violence, and hate are born from those wrong perceptions. We tell ourselves that later on we will help them by offering them information that will help correct these wrong perceptions that are the foundation of their anger, hate, and violence.

Discovering Our Wrong Perceptions

While we listen, we might find out that we ourselves have been victims of our own wrong perceptions, that we have misunderstood ourselves and that we have misunderstood the others. In the process of listening we can correct our own perceptions and later on we might tell them that we have had wrong perceptions that have brought about fear, anger, and hate; and that now that the wrong perceptions have been removed, we feel much better.

After a few sessions of listening like that, one begins to see the other side as human beings who have suffered exactly as we have. You feel sorry that they have undergone such suffering. When you begin to look at the other group with that kind of understanding and compassion, they feel very much better because you are looking at them with the eyes of understanding and compassion. You feel much better within yourself and they suffer less. So, the practices of deep listening, compassionate listening, and loving speech always bring reconciliation and always help to remove wrong perceptions.

By the third week together, groups of Palestinians and Israelis are able to sit down and share a meal, they can hold hands during walking meditation and enjoy nature together. Reconciliation has taken place. At the end of the retreat, they come as one group to report about the progress of their practice and always inform us that when they go back to the Middle East, they will organize sessions of practice like this for other Palestinians and Israelis.

The difficulties between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and son can be resolved with that kind of practice of deep listening and loving speech. If a father does not understand the suffering or the difficulties of the son, how can he love him and make his son happy? Understanding is the foundation of love — understanding the sufferings and difficulties of the other person. But we have seen that if we do not understand our own suffering, our own difficulties, it will be hard to understand the suffering and difficulties of another person.

Terrorists Are Victims

In France where we live and practice, thousands of young people commit suicide every year because they do not know how to handle strong emotions like anger and despair. When you speak of terrorists, we know that in a terrorist, there must be a lot of anger and despair; that anger, violence and despair have come from somewhere. They have become victims of the kind of information they have been given. When people have the impression that they are not understood, no matter what they have tried.

To me terrorists are victims of wrong perceptions and many people become their victims. In order to help the terrorists, we have to listen to them, try to understand them, and help them to remove their wrong perceptions. They may think that we are trying to destroy their way of life, their civilization; based on that conviction they want to punish.

Looking deeply into the matter, I see that the roots of terrorism are wrong perceptions that have brought us to anger, fear, suspicion, and the willingness to punish. Our political leaders should be able to listen, to help the terrorists remove their wrong perceptions. We cannot remove wrong perceptions by using bombs and guns. How can you bomb a wrong perception? That is why violence does not work. Removing terrorism needs to be done with the practice of compassionate listening and the practice of loving speech. If we think we are too busy, if we do not take the time, we cannot heal the violence in our society. We must make the time to listen to our own suffering and to the suffering of our own family and our own nation.

Just by listening deeply with compassion, we can bring relief and reduce the suffering in the family, in the community, and in the nation.

The Role of Journalists

I was invited by the Times of India to be a guest editor for the edition of October 2. On the day I was working with the journalists, there was a series of blasts in the city. I was asked: What should journalists do when such a thing happens? After sitting quietly in contemplation, I said that we have to report about events in a way that helps to explain why such violent actions continue to happen. We have to show that anger, violence, and fear are born from wrong perceptions. If we ourselves understand, then we may be able to do something to help remove wrong perceptions, fear, and anger. If we do not know how to do this skillfully, then we will create collective fear and collective anger that will be very dangerous for the whole nation. The role of journalists is to report in a way that promotes understanding and compassion.

I also told the journalists that they need to report more on positive things in order to balance all the negative things that we are reading in newspapers and seeing on television. After finishing elementary school children have viewed one thousand acts of violence on television. They consume violence and fear every day. We have allowed the producers of television and films to poison our minds with fear and violence. When another person expresses a lot of fear and anger, we may take that poison into us. When we are reading an article or watching a program on television we may consume the fear. I suggest that the members of Parliament make time to discuss this, because the anger and violence we are consuming every day is causing us to react violently in our families and in society.

Non-Discrimination

I would like to offer a story about non-discrimination. My right hand can do many things that my left hand does not do. When I write, I always write with my right hand. When I use a bell, I use my right hand. Yet my right hand does not ever complain to the left hand saying, “Well I do everything and you do not seem to be very useful.” My right hand has the wisdom of non-discrimination. And my left hand does not suffer from the complex of inferiority.

One day I was hanging a picture. I was not very mindful and I hit a finger on my left hand with the hammer. Immediately my right hand threw down the hammer and held my left hand gently. It did not tell the left hand, “You must remember that I have helped you and in future you have to do something to help me.” My left hand did not tell my right hand, “You have done me an injustice. You have made me suffer by hitting me with that hammer.” My left hand and right hand have the wisdom of non-discrimination. That is why my left hand and right hand live in perfect peace and harmony.

If the father and the son look deeply at one another, they can see that the son is the child of the father and it is the son who brings the father into the future. If the father makes his son suffer then he himself suffers. When you are able to make your father smile, you are happy because your father is happy. It is your own happiness because happiness is not an individual matter.

Regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can say that the peace, joy, and safety of one side have very much to do with the peace, joy, and safety of the other side. So, to take care of the peace, well-being, and safety of one side is to take care of the peace, joy, and safety of the other side. The same thing is true with Protestants and Catholics, Muslims and Hindus. We are all like hands of the same body. If we know that our happiness is not an individual matter, then we can take care of the happiness and safety of our brethren. So, the insight of non-discrimination is the foundation of harmony and peace. We must educate our young people about this. Once we realize that either we live together or die together as a planet, as a nation, we can reconcile and transform the anger and suffering in us.

Transcript courtesy of Bureau of Parliamentary Studies and Training, India.
Edited by Barbara Casey, Janelle Combelic, and Sister Annabel, True Virtue.

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

Letter from the Editor

mb51-Editor1Dear Thay, dear Sangha,

In conjunction with Thich  Nhat  Hanh’s  2009  U.S  tour,  we  are delighted to publish this special issue on Sangha building — the first time in many years that we’ve had a whole issue devoted to a single theme. Even with sixty-four pages, we didn’t have room for all the excellent submissions; our heartfelt gratitude to all who contributed.

“Ever since I was a young monk,” Thay writes in Joyfully Together: The Art of Building a Harmonious Community, “my dream has been to build a happy Sangha. Now, after sixty years of monastic practice, I continue to feel that Sangha building is the most precious work that we can do as practitioners. The Sangha is our community of practice, and it is also our refuge. We rely on it and trust it to support our deepest aspirations and to give us energy and inspiration on the path of practice.”

Anyone who has been to Plum Village or Deer Park or Blue Cliff knows that Thay has succeeded in building a happy Sangha. Anyone who has been on retreat with Thay’s monks and nuns or his Dharma teachers has felt a touch of Sangha joy.

At my first big retreat, in Colorado in 2003, I knew no one. By chance, in our first Dharma discussion, I was the first one to introduce myself. I said my name and explained that I was from Fort Collins, just an hour away. The person to my left then introduced himself, and said he, too, was from Fort Collins. And so on around the circle, all twenty-some of us! A number of them met regularly in town and so I started to attend Peaceful Heart Sangha. My life has never been the same.

The Dharma talk in this issue is the speech on “Leading with Courage and Compassion” that Thay delivered to the Parliament of India when he was there last fall. It is followed by a moving article about President Obama’s inauguration; the section on “Sangha Fruits” explores the wider meaning of Sangha — our place in the world.

“Buddha’s Medicine” provides wisdom from Dharma teachers who have been building Sangha for decades. A host of practitioners describe their personal experiences in “Living Sangha,” and then specific practices are described in “Nuts & Bolts.” A few articles delve into more advanced practice in “Order of Interbeing & Beyond.”

Sister Chan Khong sent us a report on the India trip, which closes out the issue, along with the book reviews. As usual, Thay and his monks and nuns traveled and taught tirelessly; we have room for only a few stories from the trip.

A personal note: one Sangha that is not mentioned elsewhere is the Mindfulness Bell Sangha. For the last four years, I have had the privilege of immersing myself in this amazing worldwide community. Most of you I have not met in person; nor do you know each other. Yet your love for the Dharma, for our beloved teacher, for your Sangha brothers and sisters comes through in many ways — your beautiful submissions, the comments you make in e-mail or in person, your subscriptions, your donations, the copies you send to prisoners. You reprint articles in your newsletters and in major newspapers in Israel and India; you share readings in your Dharma discussions.

These are challenging times. As Thay has often said, we need not sink in the sea of despair — we can take refuge in the raft of Sangha. May all beings find Sangha and realize their deepest aspirations.

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Support President Obama’s Sangha

An Invitation from Thay

On April 15, 2009, during the Francophone Retreat in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh made this request of the Sangha.

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President Barack Obama is surrounded by his Sangha — his family, his advisors, his community of faith, his supporters — and I want to help that Sangha. If Barack Obama succeeds it will be thanks to that Sangha. His job is very difficult and he needs a strong Sangha to nourish and protect him because he’s vulnerable. There are attacks coming from every direction.

In 1965, I wrote a letter to Martin Luther King to tell him about the suffering in Vietnam and the struggle we were leading for human rights and peace. Exactly one year later I met the Rev. King in Chicago, and we talked a lot about the future of the world, of America, Europe, Asia. We were hosted by an organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation. We spoke of community and Sangha; Rev. King spoke of Sangha in terms of a Beloved Community. We discussed how we could spread the ideas of truth and right thinking, how we could practice right speech to educate people about peace, human rights, and social justice.

Practicing right speech, right action, and right thinking we worked hard to change the way the world is thinking. About forty years have gone by since we planted seeds that are starting to sprout a little bit everywhere. All over America, Europe, Africa, and Asia we have worked to sow the seeds of brotherhood and sisterhood and peace, and I feel that Barack Obama is the blossoming of our work. And Obama is not the only flower to blossom; if there is Obama, then there are others like him who also have manifested to realize the Beloved Community. This is a consciousness that has been growing for many years, a consciousness and a community that can support Obama’s Sangha and Beloved Communities all over the world.

It is a great joy to see President Obama have a chance to represent us at this time in the history of the planet. We wish him to succeed and we have to support him; we have to help his Sangha be stronger.

All of us can do something. We can write a letter to tell President Obama and his Sangha that they have our support.

I think our practice here in France should have some connection with the American Sangha. We can support this Sangha that Martin Luther King called the Beloved Community. The French Sangha is growing very quickly — you are that community. This French retreat represents the French Beloved Community. And we need to do something to support President Obama and his Beloved Community.

Thank you.

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Please join our French Sangha and embrace Thay’s inspiring invitation to support President Obama and the Sangha that surrounds him. Please send your letters to the following addresses: pvbelovedcommunity@gmail.com
or
Sr. An Nghiem
Plum Village New Hamlet 13 Martineau
33580 Dieulivol France

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The Buddha’s Medicine

“The Buddha’s medicine is made of only two ingredients: Sangha and time.” When I first read those words I knew them to be true. This sentence, on page 159 of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Opening the Heart of the Cosmos, tells the story of my life.

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For many years I meditated by myself, but the benefits didn’t manifest much beyond my meditation bench. I still felt isolated, anxious, alienated from my family and society. It wasn’t until I discovered Sangha that Thay’s teachings started to take hold. With my new friends in Peaceful Heart Sangha in Fort Collins, Colorado, I began to put the teachings into practice — to live them. Over the months and years since then I have gradually become happier, healthier, more peaceful, more joyful. I attribute these benefits far more to Sangha than to my own diligence.

As my Sangha friends accepted me in their midst and I felt safe enough to reveal more and more of my true self, I learned to accept those qualities I had previously despised or feared in myself. Hearing my friends’stories opened my heart and helped me appreciate our differences as well as our similarities. The more I’ve given to Sangha, the more I’ve discovered my own gifts. Even the conflicts have been precious — you can’t have community without conflict — because they have deepened my relationships and forced me to develop skillful means.

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In The Lonely American, psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz write that “our society is in the midst of a dramatic and progressive slide toward disconnection.” Studies show that people have fewer close friends than in previous decades and more individuals live alone than ever before. At the same time, medical research shows that “[s]ocially connected people live longer, respond better to stress, have more robust immune systems, and do better at fighting a variety of specific illnesses. Health and happiness, the two things we all say matter most, are certifiably linked to social connectedness” (excerpted in Utne Reader, March-April 2009). These trends are not limited to the United States; along with the technology that makes “virtual” connections possible, we are exporting this social malaise all around the world.

mb51-TheBuddhas3Whether this disconnectedness is symptom or cause of the grave sickness in our modern society, I don’t know. But I have no doubt what the cure is: community. A community based on mutual respect and personal responsibility, grounded in mindfulness and insight, bathed in love and compassion — in other words, Sangha.

The matter is urgent. “Whether or not the twenty-first century becomes a century of spirituality depends on our capacity of building community,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh in Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism. “Without a community, we will become victims of despair. We need each other. We need to congregate, to bring together our wisdom, our insight, and our compassion. The Earth is our true home, a home for all of us. We invite everyone to look deeply into our collective situation. We invite everyone to speak out to spread the message. If we fail in this task of Sangha building, then the suffering of the twenty-first century will be indescribable.”

And how can we transform our situation? Sister Annabel, in her article “The Collective Bodhisattva,” gives us the answer: “We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking…. The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body.”

The work is up to each one of us. The benefits, without limit.

— Janelle Combelic

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Peace Is Every Step

The Path of Mindfulness at the Presidential Inauguration

By James Figetakis

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The morning was cold. The anticipation was high. The crowds were intense. After nearly two years of a historical campaign that became an unprecedented social movement, the day had arrived for the Inauguration of our forty-fourth President, Barack Hussein Obama.

As residents of Washington D.C., my wife and I had decided to make no specific plans for Inaugural weekend. No striving, no grasping, no expectations. Stay open to all possibilities. Our intention was simply to embrace the energy of the historical moment. Whatever arises, enjoy the power of the wonderful present.

Like a Pilgrimage to Mecca

As it unfolded, many of our good friends from around the U.S. and Europe streamed into D.C. to participate in the Inaugural festivities. Ours became an open house for overnight guests, for impromptu dinners, for spontaneous celebrations of the moment and the new era.

One surprise was that some friends came bearing gifts, as a token of gratitude, such as tickets to the Inauguration (among other festivities). We felt blessed since it also meant sharing the historical moment with them. We also anticipated that the crowds, the security, and the cold weather would be challenging.

Peace is every step. The shining red sun is my heart. How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step. It turns the endless path to joy.

Carrying one friend’s child — a six-year-old girl — on my shoulders, I set out with my friends for the Capitol somewhat late on the morning of the Inauguration. We fell into crushing crowds in the metro, masses walking in the streets, throngs of thousands waiting to pass security and enter their ticketed sections. Making our way to the Capitol was like a massive pilgrimage to Mecca.

An Extraordinary Collective Peace

Despite staggering lines since sunrise in freezing temperatures that wrapped around entire city blocks twenty people deep, there was a palpable peace in the air among the crowds. I chose to practice walking meditation in the sunshine for the twenty-minute walk from our home to the Capitol, rather than focusing on the possible outcome that we might not enter in time (if at all) to witness history.

We are what we feel and perceive.

Afterwards, many people who decided to watch the Inauguration on TV or were not in D.C., asked me about our experience: were the crowds unruly, police threatening, people delirious? Was there dancing in the streets or chaos in the capital?

The Inauguration of President Obama was the most extraordinary experience of collective peace and mindfulness that I have ever witnessed in a public setting in my life. It surpassed even the power of the Dalai Lama on the Capitol steps that I experienced when His Holiness received the Congressional Medal of Honor in October 2007.

If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.

While we waited in endlessly long lines, strangers were friendly and respectful toward each other. As we passed the security checkpoints, police guards were calm and good-natured. When we noticed that our ticketed section was impossible to enter due to more bottlenecks, a rare solidarity emerged: people on the other side generously offered their hands to help us over an eight-foot stone wall so we could reach our section just minutes before the Inaugural events began. The security police nearby smiled as we three adults and the six-year-old were hoisted over the wall by strangers and into our section by a multi-racial smiling crowd of well-wishers.

Each thought, each action in the sunlight of awareness becomes sacred.

I continued mindful breathing and standing meditation before and throughout the Inaugural ceremonies, absorbing the warm rays of sunshine, the deep blue of the sky, the awe of the Capitol at this moment in history.

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Tears and Smiles

Everyone near us, around us and within view appeared to be in complete reverence. They were mindful of the power in the present moment. Connected through their silence, they dwelled in inner stillness. The tears and smiles on everyone’s faces reinforced this experience of shared joy, complete awareness, and extraordinary interbeing.

When I see someone smile, I know immediately that he or she is dwelling in awareness.

A collective awareness seemed to pervade the air and reminded us that every moment was precious. Whether it was the somber invocation by a controversial minister, the exhilarating singing of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” by Aretha Franklin (wearing that hat!) or the historical swearing-in ceremony — first of Vice President Joe Biden, and ultimately of President Barack Obama — they were a series of fleeting moments, passing so quickly, that they could only be fully absorbed through the power of everyone’s mindfulness.

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Enjoying Our Beautiful Environment

As the new President delivered his Inaugural speech, the sun shone more brightly and the air felt more pure. The crowd of nearly two million continued to dwell in profound stillness and reverence, but now they were interconnected by deep gratitude.

As far as I could tell, there was no pushing for a better view nor jockeying for a better position, no attachment to an outcome nor grasping for something more. This was it, and it was wonderful!

There is nothing to chase after. We can go back to ourselves, enjoy our breathing, our smiling, ourselves, and our beautiful environment.

James Figetakis has been a member of the Washington D.C. Mindfulness Community since 1999, and before that, of the Mindfulness Community of Paris, France. After working for U.S. and French multinationals he now advises global philanthropists and non-profits. James resides in Washington D.C. with his wife, Patricia Langan.

All quotes are from Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh (Bantam Books, 1992).

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War, Conflict, and Healing in Belfast

By Bridgeen Rea

This talk was presented at the Vesak Conference in Hanoi in May 2008.

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I first went to Plum Village for a week of the summer retreat in July 2005. Sitting with Thay and the Sangha around the lotus pond in Upper Hamlet — following my first-ever walking meditation— had a massive impact on me. Maybe it was the strong French sunshine or the beautiful pink lotuses, which I’d never seen before in my life, but I was deeply touched by the peace and the happiness all around me in Plum Village. I had a joyful, wonderful time and I felt lots of love. I decided to take the Five Mindfulness Trainings that week.

Back in Northern Ireland I went to meditation once a week in the Belfast Zen Centre, which follows the Soto Zen tradition. I feel like the Mindfulness Trainings worked on me, rather than me working on them. I was training to be a yoga teacher and tried to be as mindful as I could — when I remembered!

In August 2006 I went to the Neuroscience Retreat at Plum Village, where I met a psychologist from Dublin who told me I should go to Vietnam. I thought it was impossible, but I went! Many friends supported me to go and even my family were happy for me.

For the whole three weeks of segment two, I shared a room with Gladys from Hong Kong, who has now been ordained as Sister Si. I felt so happy to have met such a beautiful person. In Vietnam many of the lay friends encouraged me to start a Sangha in Belfast. In Belfast it’s not really possible to be Buddhist — if I say I practice Buddhism, people say ‘but are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?’ and it’s only half a joke!

Growing Up During “the Troubles”

I was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1974, five years into what is known as “the Troubles.” Growing up in a divided society rife with sectarianism, hatred, and fear was the norm, but I had a happy childhood and enjoyed school.

The Troubles did penetrate my life though. I was born on July 8, which is right in the middle of the ‘marching season’ — the guaranteed time for trouble in Belfast. Belfast used to shut down and become a ghost town. I have memories of people protesting out on the streets when a hunger striker died around my eighth birthday and I didn’t get to go on a planned outing. When I was much older and wanted to have a party or an evening out in a local place, often my friends couldn’t come because of trouble in parts of the city.

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As a teenager I had to be aware of going to places wearing my school uniform because it identified me as Catholic. I had to be careful about going out with Protestant boys. Also I was very aware that my name, Bridgeen, labels me as a Catholic, unlike my sister’s neutral name Jenny, which can be either Catholic or Protestant.

My family doesn’t understand the practice. They ask, “What is it you do, worship Buddha?” My parents and friends understand that Buddhism is a peaceful thing, but they worry that I’m too into it. They say, “Why don’t you just go on a ‘normal’ holiday?”

In April 2007 I told my friend Sinead about the idea of Sangha — she is a poet and very open to new ideas. She thought it was wonderful! She had just had a baby and thought that Sangha would be the perfect thing to help her balance her life. So with her encouragement I called a couple of friends who were interested or at least open-minded towards Buddhism and meditation. The Tall Trees Sangha started in my apartment. After a year five of us are still practicing once a week. It is very wonderful and brings all of us many blessings.

How to Be at Peace?

By coincidence when the Sangha started in May 2007, Northern Ireland installed its first power-sharing executive. Ten years after the historic Good Friday Agreement Northern Ireland finally has a locally elected government. This is something that my Granddad didn’t live to see and would never have believed could happen. Belfast has been transformed. In some ways the peace is still tenuous and people are now having to learn how to live in a new situation after forty years of conflict.

How to be at peace? My friend Sinead says: “I think there is a psychosis in the society here — there has to be, given our history — and it will take a long time for this to be resolved, even though we are witnessing miracles. They say for every year of conflict you need another year of reconciliation. And I think this affects people who live here on all sorts of levels.”

I work in the new government administration as a Press Officer — for a Minister who belongs to a party that my community once saw as the enemy. But in spite of the many positive events, sectarianism and fear are still rampant. The society is still very much divided in terms of where people live and the schools they go to. There are many social problems of deprivation, depression, and suicide.

My mindfulness practice and Sangha can’t do much on a large scale but on a micro scale five us are learning a lot from Thay and trying to nourish our good seeds. Every week we practice sitting meditation, walking meditation, listen to Thay speak on CD and we have a Dharma discussion. Two of us come from a Catholic background, one was brought up Protestant, one was brought up with no religion; there’s also a German guy whose religious background doesn’t really count in the Northern Ireland context!

Forgiving and Moving On

We don’t discuss politics or the state of society, rather our personal problems and challenges. I really believe in Thay’s saying “peace in oneself, peace in the world.” I aspire to follow the Five Mindfulness Trainings, though sometimes I don’t find it easy to live up to them.

Another Sangha member in his fifties with five children says gratefully that the Sangha nourishes the spiritual aspect inside him and that it makes a space in his week. He remembers being angry and depressed during the Troubles and shouting at the TV. I think every family experienced that.

He says: “Sangha is a space where people can express themselves without upsetting anyone. It is open-minded, far from my dogmatic Christian upbringing. I always feel uplifted after it. It also helps me to relax as I am often an anxious frightened person. As I lived through the Troubles the fear in the community was palpable and people were steeped in it, and they weren’t allowed to question it. The atmosphere was full of tension, hatred and anger — sectarianism and bigotry everywhere. You were constantly waiting on something bad to happen.”

When I am out socialising and people find out I practice meditation they ask me all sorts of questions. There is a lot ignorance, confusion, and misunderstanding about anything that comes from the East. There is fear that it’s some kind of cult or it’s against Christianity. Yet Belfast people are the salt of the earth; they are warm and friendly and funny! If you ever visit Belfast you will find people go out of their way to help you and make you feel welcome.

Because of our history we may have a dark sense of humour, but there is also awareness of the importance of forgiveness. People understand about changing and moving on for the sake of future generations.

Bridgeen Rea, Peaceful Gift of the Heart, hosts Tall Trees Sangha in her apartment in Whiteabbey Village, Belfast, Northern Ireland.

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The Gift of True Freedom

By Trish Thompson

We often hear reference to what it means to be free. We speak of the “free world.” We speak of “freedom of speech.” Most of us, at least in the West, as well as in many Eastern cultures, have the freedom to choose our mates, our careers, and even how many children we want to bring into the world. We value having the freedom of mobility, political and physical. We feel free when we can go anywhere we want, when we want, “without hindrance or restraint.”

Those of us who have these freedoms and other, similar ones, consider ourselves to be a free people. Are we sure? Are we truly free?

As an ordained member of the Order of Interbeing, I am on an e-mail list devoted to aspects of our mindfulness meditation practice. One day in 2006, Bill, an American practitioner who has been involved for years in prison ministry, posted a message. In it, he told of an American woman, ‘Sarah,’ who was an inmate in the Women’s Prison in Bangkok. He asked that anyone passing through Bangkok try to reach her to give her some solace.

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Learning of this woman, members of our Hanoi Community for Mindful Living decided to write letters to Sarah. A member took them to Bangkok and left them at the U.S. Embassy for her, along with some books by our teacher. We wanted her to know she was not forgotten.

Months later, while in Bangkok, I decided to follow up. I learned she was still in the prison. Could she have visitors? The answer was yes.

First Prison Visit

Books have been written about the notorious Bangkok Women’s Prison. Available at the Bangkok airport, they make popular in-flight reading. I was thankful I had not read them. As the taxi whizzed along the highway to the prison, forty-five minutes from the city-center, I felt anxiety. I had never been inside a prison. Scenes from the films Silence of the Lambs and The Green Mile kept coming to mind.

The Women’s Prison is very large. Many buildings sprawl over an area several blocks long. Even though the driver had instructions in Thai, we had difficulty finding our way. Twice, I followed first one guard and then another, only to learn that I was in the wrong place. This was not wasted time. Surprisingly, everyone was extremely cordial and helpful, even smiling and cheerful. My anxiety disappeared.

Finally, we were there. I found the right window, gave my ID and my reason for being there, and was told to take a seat. The waiting area was outside, but protected from the searing Bangkok sun. There were twenty-five or so other visitors, all Thais of various ages, including small children. Finally, after a one-and-a-half hour wait, my name was called. My handbag was put in a holding bin, and my body patted down.

Through the Chicken Wire

The visitation windows were also outside, consisting of a long fence of chicken wire three meters tall. Wooden partitions, set one meter apart, created an illusion of privacy. A grassy area, two meters wide, separated my wire fence from another like it. In a moment, a woman appeared behind it, and took her seat directly across from me.

She immediately asked, “Who are you?” “I’m Trish,” I answered. “Trish from Hanoi.”

Her puzzled expression changed to one of amazement. Excitedly, she asked, “Trish? You’re Trish Thompson?” I nodded, yes.

She smiled very broadly. “Oh,” she said. “So you got my letter.” She looked so happy, even though I could not clearly see her through the two thicknesses of wire.

I told her, no, I had not. None of us who had written to her had received an answer. She did not appear surprised. Then, she said, “I got the books, and I’ve read them and reread them. They have changed my life.” She said I was her first American visitor, other than the embassy personnel who came every four to six weeks to give her a monthly stipend, a loan of some kind from the U.S. government. Her food and bare essentials had to be bought by her at the prison store.

Just then, a bell rang, and her face dropped. “Can you come back?” she asked. “Next time we can meet in a special room, with more privacy, but you must get a letter of authorization from the embassy. We can meet for a whole hour!”

I said I would come on the next visiting day. In response to my question of what I could bring her, she asked for some fruit and some panties large enough to fit a Western woman.

The greater part of the next afternoon was spent looking in the lingerie section of department stores for underwear for a middle-aged Western woman in a women’s prison. Bikini panties did not seem appropriate. My mission, not an easy one, was made more difficult by my total dependency on English. Somehow, using hand signals and repeating, “Grandma, Grandma,” while bending over, pretending to use a cane, I made myself understood. Several large and unattractive pairs of panties were produced for my inspection.

I chose the two I thought were most feminine, in pale pink and blue.

Sarah’s Story

On visitation day, I arrived at the prison, with time to spare. I had my authorization letter, the panties, and a huge bag of fruit bought on the street near my hotel. I was led to an upstairs room where I met the supervising guard for the building. Kindly, but firmly, she informed me that I could not give Sarah my gifts. All gifts must be bought in the prison store, in order to guarantee that they are drug-free. Disappointed, I vowed, once again, to be more mindful and not make assumptions.

I was led to another small room, in view of the guard, but out of her range of hearing. I sat in front of a Plexiglas window. Almost immediately, Sarah appeared on the other side and took her seat. We were now only about one meter apart.

What a lovely woman, I thought. She looked quite calm and peaceful. She wore no makeup. Her skin was clear, and she looked very healthy.

She accepted, with little comment, my apology for my ignorance and subsequent failure to deliver the requested gifts. She clearly had things she needed to say to someone.

With little prompting, she told the following story.

She was traveling with a male friend, both of them drug addicts, when she was caught trying to sell two kilos of heroin. After a trial, she was sentenced to death. A year later, her sentence was commuted to life. In Thailand, a life sentence is a life sentence, with no possibility of parole.

She had been in the Women’s Prison, in the section for drug offenses, for four years. She described the first two as a kind of hell, and then said, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hell, but I have learned to accept my situation. I was a drug addict for 20 years. Now, I am clean. Prison has saved my life.”

She possessed the shift she was wearing, another like it, and two sets of underwear. Her diet was a daily bowl of soup with “something strange floating in it,” supplemented by fruit purchased by her in the store. She and several friends sat in a circle to share their food. I exclaimed, “So, you have a community!” She replied, “Oh, yes, I do.”

When asked to describe the worst part about being in prison, she shared her sorrow that she could not see her mother who was too old to travel. She expressed her concern for the entire families, including children and elderly grandmothers, who were inmates. “When the Thai police make a drug bust, everyone in the area is picked up and presumed guilty.” She said she knew women who had been there more than forty years.

An extreme hardship was “the noise and complete lack of privacy.” Her bed was a mat on the floor, the room so crowded with 300 women that they slept toe to toe.

She told me that since receiving the meditation books, she had begun to meditate, waking at 3:00 a.m., the only relatively quiet time in the day. Sitting on her mat, she practiced conscious breathing, learning to focus on her breath, rather than on the snoring of her roommates.

She had also begun to practice mindful walking throughout the day, especially when in the exercise yard. “I am aware of a big difference in my state of mind,” she said.

And, then she said something so powerful that I shall never forget it. “You know,” she said. “When I was ‘out there,’ free to come and go as I pleased, I was never satisfied, I always wanted more, more of everything. I never felt I had enough. In here, I have enough. I actually feel happy, truly free for the first time in my life.”


One of the books sent to Sarah was Be Free Where You Are by Thich Nhat Hanh, based on his talk given to inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institute. The book never reached her, apparently confiscated by censors.

Sarah was transferred in 2007 to a prison in the U.S. Under U.S. law, she will be eligible for parole in 2014.

mb51-TheGift2Trish Thompson, True Concentration on Peace, remained in Hanoi, after accompanying Thay to Vietnam in 2005. She started and continues to support the Hanoi Community for Mindful Living. Currently living in the Central Highlands, she is writing a Dharma memoir, Mother, Where Did You Go?

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Seeing Ourselves in Each Other

The Collaborative Art of Brett Cook

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Brett Cook is committed to bringing collaboration and healing to communities all over the U.S. — through passionate creativity. Guided by the ideal of interbeing, Brett applies his training in visual art, education, and contemplative practice to lead community members in cooperative art projects. And the results reach far beyond their stunning works of art. In communities that have been divided or wounded, Brett offers a bridge between conflicting beliefs and painful histories. By leading people through dialogue and art-making, he generates healing and peace.

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A practitioner in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, Brett has traveled to Deer Park Monastery and Vietnam to practice with the Sangha. He’s blended art and mindfulness practice in communities from New York to California. Last year in Durham, North Carolina, Brett facilitated a project called “Face Up: Telling Stories of Community Life.” Hundreds of people took part in community conversations about neighborhood goals, then traced and colored drawings of local heroes in large public art installations.

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The Face Up project featured portraits of human rights activist Pauli Murray (1910-1985). “For me,” Brett explains, “Pauli was an exemplification of emptiness; she wasn’t one thing, but all things. She spent her life expanding for other people, as well as herself, the idea that we don’t have to be limited by one identity, particularly from the world around us. We can be seen as infinite and connected to all things.” As the community worked together to create images of Pauli and other role models, they had a chance to “see themselves in each other” and in their artistic creations.

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For more information about Brett Cook’s Sangha building and art, including video clips and art slide shows, visit www.brett-cook.com.

— Natascha Bruckner

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A Net of Sangha Jewels

By Jack Lawlor

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There is a famous metaphor in the Avatamsaka Sutra about the Jeweled Net of Indra, which likens the interdependent, interwoven nature of reality to a vast net of jewels in which each jewel is reflected in the other.

The Sanghas that have been inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings resemble the Jeweled Net of lndra. They too are vast, now extending throughout the world. They extend from the Tu Hieu Temple in Hue, Vietnam (our Root Temple where Thay at age sixteen began practicing and studying as a novice), to Plum Village in France, to affiliated monastic practice centers in China and Korea, to our Deer Park and Blue Cliff major practice centers in North America, to twenty-year old Sanghas comprised primarily of lay practitioners located throughout the world, and to the newest Sanghas just formed in a practitioner’s living room.

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Each of these jewels reflects the others. Although they may be separated by oceans, although their membership is comprised of practitioners from much different cultures, although some Sanghas are considerably older than others, they each reflect what’s shared in common: a deep reverence for mindfulness practice and a characteristically gentle but wholehearted aspiration to be mindful in everything we say and do — not only for our own benefit but for the benefit of all beings.

Stop, Be, Look, See

Early in his efforts to inspire the growth of the Dharma in the West, Thay asked lay practitioners to master just three things: sitting meditation, walking meditation, and the use of the breath poems known as gathas. The equanimity we nourish through the practice of conscious breathing in the form of sitting meditation, walking meditation, and daily gatha practice manifests not only in stress reduction, but also in enhanced understanding and insight, helping us know what to do and what not to do even in the most perplexing situations. Thay summarized mindfulness to North American practitioners in the late 1980s in a simple four-word breath poem: Stop, Be, Look, See.

We are so fortunate that Thay also impresses upon us the need to live in an ethical manner consistent with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which in so many ways help us remain together as a healthy, happy community. Another great fortune is the emphasis Thay places on Sangha practice itself. When we practice meditation and mindfulness with others, we receive loving feedback through the shared practice of deep listening and appropriate speech, and our rough edges become smooth. Our spiritual practice grows, rather than become either the fond memory of a retreat we attended or a book we once enjoyed.

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With a modest degree of persistence, we soon learn how much easier it is to practice together than alone; how we contribute to a Sangha without the need to say very much because our presence is in and of itself a gift that supports and authenticates the practice of other Sangha members; how we are inherently social beings who need the interaction and support that may not be forthcoming from books and tapes; and how someone in our Sangha will likely have been down the same road we’re traveling and have the ability to listen to us and understand us.

We’ve all experienced tastes of the grace and ease that arise when we practice together as a Sangha rather than alone. We’ve all taken our place on our meditation cushions at home, observed that it is 7:00 a.m., done our best to sit through 35 minutes of sitting meditation, only to peek at our watch and find that it is 7:03! Yet when we sit together as a Sangha, we sit in a relaxed way free of such tension and anxiety, because we have the support of friends on the same step-by-step spiritual journey.

Spiritual Friends on the Path

It is now approximately six years since I helped Thay and our Sanghas throughout the world assemble the Parallax Press manual on Sangha building and practice entitled Friends on the Path. I have continuously marveled at the effectiveness of Sangha practice and come to realize why the Sangha — together with the Buddha and his teachings, the Dharma — are regarded as the Three Jewels in the Buddhist tradition shining so brightly within Indra’s net.

There is a beautiful term in the Pali language, kaylana mitta, that describes the kind of spiritual friend we can be to one another. I have seen assemblies of kaylana mitta do so many things quite well without the benefit of resources other than their friendship and their dedication to mindfulness practice. I have witnessed how local Sanghas develop consistency in individuals’ sitting and walking meditation practices to the point where they are deeply woven into each practitioner’s life. I have seen how Sangha practice encourages Sangha members who were alienated from their blood families and their children to reconcile. I have witnessed how Sanghas help Sangha members in time of need, and even serve as primary caregivers as a Sangha member approached death. It has been encouraging to see how our Buddhist faith community contributes to political dialogue by joining hands with other faith communities in efforts to stop war and prevent further ecological destruction.

Perhaps you, like me, have seen local Sanghas serve their communities in countless ways, including working with the homeless and raising funds for charitable causes both in North America and overseas. It is clear that our Sanghas and Sangha members serve in innumerable ways, without a lot of fanfare, setting examples in work places and in other social settings that have helped place the Dharma seed deep in the social fabric of the West.

Only twenty years ago, Thay opened our eyes to the possibility of Sangha practice at a time when a large Sangha would have been six or seven people sitting together in a dining room. Today, this Jeweled Net manifests in Sanghas and monastic practice centers throughout the world in which thousands of people participate. Yet all this has been accomplished in a surprisingly short period of time with no sense of hurry, in the spirit of one step, one breath. When I first met Thay twenty years ago near the busy baggage claim at O’Hare International Airport, and soon thereafter found myself following his example of practicing airport walking meditation toward my car, I realized instantly that this lineage would have its impact upon our world in no other way.

What lies ahead? Thay has predicted that the next Buddha may indeed be a Sangha. That prediction will manifest if each of us infuses our lives consistently with the most basic mindfulness practices based on conscious breathing, and if we keep doing so together with a light, loving touch, as kaylana mitta, friends on the path.

Jack Lawlor, True Direction, was ordained by Thay as a Dharma Teacher in 1992. Jack was a co-founder of Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois and practices extensively with Sanghas in the American Midwest.

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Poems by Bill Menza

Sisterhood and Brotherhood
Everyone is my teacher.
Everything is the Dharma.
Look for the miracles,
The magic words,
Of understanding and love.
Make friends with yourself,
Speak from your heart,
Practice limitless non-self interbeing.
Your only career is the realization of  perfect understanding,
Imperfections accepted.

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So Just Be
Your hopes and desires,
Your expectations
Bring tension and stress.
There is no peace.
You look for happiness
With old thinking
So it cannot arrive.
You want one thing,
And the world
Gives you something else,
Thus your present moment wonders
Are taken away.
So just be
With your out-breath.

Bill Menza Sarasota, Florida

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The Collective Bodhisattva

Sisterhood and Brotherhood in the Twenty-first Century

By Sister Annabel, True Virtue

If you were to ask me what could save this planet Earth I would say not eating meat, not using fossil fuels — but only if based on sisterhood and brotherhood. Sisterhood and brotherhood come first. Whatever we do we should do as a Sangha, as a community. First we look deeply as a community then we come to a consensus on how we should act, and then we act as a community. Our community wants to establish sisterhood and brotherhood within itself and then within society and in the world. As a monk or nun our community is the one into which we have been ordained. As a layperson your community is your family, your church or local Sangha, and possibly also your work place. Having established brotherhood and sisterhood here, you can also bring sisterhood and brotherhood into the society.

Your spouse, your children, your parents and siblings are all your brothers and sisters. To the best of your ability you can practice looking deeply together, come to a consensus, and act together. Children from five years or seven years old can be encouraged to share their views, listen to the views of others that can be simply expressed, and play a role in family decision-making. Teachers and pupils in the school also practice sisterhood and brotherhood in this way. Sisterhood and brotherhood is not just reaching consensus and acting together. It is also communication: listening deeply and speaking lovingly. We should all train in expressing our sincere appreciation of each other; expressing our regret when we do something hurtful; asking others if we have done anything to hurt them; and expressing mindfully and without blame or resentment when we have been hurt.

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You may say this is wonderful but it is unrealistic. Yet others have done it and you should make your best effort for the sake of the planet Earth. I have faith in it and I will go on singing my song until this body disintegrates — and the song will continue.

About which programmes you will watch on the television, parents share and children share. If we do decide to watch a programme that is not wholesome, it is not the end of the world, but having watched it we share how it affected each one of us. What seeds were watered, how tired or otherwise we felt afterwards.

Our Contribution to a Global Ethic

There are more than 84,000 things we can choose from to do to save this planet Earth from global warming, from toxic wastes, from running out of drinking water — we have to choose for our own community what is realistic. We do as much as we can and we learn from what other communities are doing but we do not force our ideas on other communities. We encourage them to do what is best for the planet in the context of the appropriateness of their own situation. This is the practice of the Third of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, “Freedom of Thought” [see below].

Once we embark on this path, we feel safe. We are living in a time where the challenges are great, but we face the challenge with compassion and resolution. Knowing that we are doing our best we do not despair. Our minds are at peace and if our efforts to save our planet fail, we will accept to offer up the merit of what we have done for a new civilization that could arise millions of years from now. After all, all civilizations are impermanent. In past lives we have died with our civilization and in future lives we shall die with our civilization. The important thing is the heritage we leave behind us with the actions of our body, speech, and mind.

The Mindfulness Trainings are there to guide us. They are our contribution to a global ethic. They are a living reality. They come alive when we bring them into our daily life. Every day new situations will arise for us to find new ways to put the Mindfulness Trainings into practice. When we see the different situations that arise we shall know how to revise the Trainings every twenty years. The cultural and social situation is constantly changing. There are new challenges that arise and need to be faced. The spirit of the Trainings is clear and they need to be appropriately worded in order to help guide us in the new challenges that are arising.

Buddha Shakyamuni said this clearly, “Ananda, the minor precepts should be revised according to the culture and the time.” When Ananda reported this to the elders, they asked, “But Ananda, did the Buddha say what are the minor precepts? Which precepts specifically can be revised?” Ananda said no and as a result no one ever revised the monastic pratimoksha for 2,600 years. Certain avenues have been opened up by technology that can lead to real corruption of the monastic order, but these cannot be dealt with, because the precepts cannot be changed. When the Buddha said minor precepts he said we can add precepts that are needed because of the time and the culture. We can word precepts in such a way that keeps the spirit of the vinaya but gives concrete guidance where it is needed. The major precepts: not killing, not stealing, keeping celibacy, not lying about our attainments. The minor precepts are there to help us observe the major precepts. If we break them we have not broken the major precepts but we may be on the way to doing so. Technological advances such as the Internet, telephone, and e-mail can be means that take us in the direction of breaking the major precepts. The revised pratimoksha that has been recited and practised in Plum Village and affiliated monasteries since 2000 guide us so that we use these things skillfully in a way that benefits society and our community and not for our corruption as a monk or a nun.

Stopping vs. Acting

We can analyse the Mindfulness Trainings according to the three different actions of body, speech, and mind. We can also analyse them according to the two aspects, stopping and doing. Mindfulness Trainings are not just to remind us to refrain from unskillful actions, they also encourage us to replace unskillful with skillful — in other words, to transform unskillful into skillful energy. If we look at the Five Mindfulness Trainings, we see how the First Training is to stop the principally physical action of killing and replace it with action that protects life. It is mainly a Mindfulness Training encouraging bodily action but in a minor way it includes speech and thought action — “I am determined not to condone any act of killing in my thinking and in my way of life.” We condone by our way of thinking and speaking. At this point, mind and speech action are involved.

Here we can digress a little to see how the aspect of doing has gained importance in the wording of the Plum Village versions of the lay Mindfulness Trainings. In the revised pratimoksha the prescriptive aspect of the Trainings is a little more prominent than in the classical pratimoksha, but it is still of comparatively minor importance. Master Chih I, founder of the Tendai school (late 6) was already discussing Mindfulness Trainings in terms of stopping and acting. He discusses the ten wholesome action trainings (dasakusala-karmani.) These ten trainings that belong to both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions include three trainings for body action, four for speech action, and three for mind action. The Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings are a revolutionary continuation of the ten wholesome trainings. The ten wholesome trainings were as follows:

1. Refraining from killing (stopping)
Protecting life (acting)

2. Not stealing (stopping)
Practicing generosity (acting)

3. Refraining from sexual misconduct (stopping)
Protecting the good name, happiness, respectability and commitments of others and oneself (acting)

4. Not speaking falsehood (stopping)
Speaking of things as they are (acting)

5. Not speaking divisively (stopping)
Speaking constructively and to bring about reconciliation (acting)

6. Not insulting or denigrating others (stopping)
Speaking gently, respectfully and with compassion (acting)

7. Not exaggerating (stopping)
Speaking words that give rise to confidence and respect (acting)

8. Not being carried away by craving (stopping)
Living simply (acting)

9. Refraining from anger and enmity (stopping)
Developing compassion (acting)

10. Not holding on to prejudices, preconceived ideas (stopping)
Being open and ready to exchange ideas (acting)

If we examine these ten traditional trainings and their continuation in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, we shall see that the fifty-fifty stopping and acting ratio has been maintained. What is different in the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings is the ratio of trainings concerning mind action in comparison with those concerning speech and body action. At least half of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings concern mind action. The tenth training of the ten has become the first three trainings of the Fourteen.

The Six Harmonies

Our next link is the Six Harmonies or Togethernesses — how to live in harmony with each other. If we analyse these six we shall see that one is for the body, one for speech, and two for mind action. The remaining two are for body, speech, and mind. Here are the Six Harmonies:

  1. The harmony of the body, to perform bodily actions that promote harmony (body).
  2. The harmony of sharing – to share equally and according to need, benefits that accrue to the individual or the Sangha (body, speech, and mind)
  3. The harmony of speech – speech to promote harmony (speech).
  4. The harmony of thought – thought that promotes harmony (mind).
  5. The harmony of views – resolving questions by harmonizing views (mind).
  6. The harmony of the mindfulness trainings the whole community practises the same mindfulness trainings (body, speech, and mind).

Thus we see that mind is involved in four of the harmonies, body in three, and speech in three.

The Six Harmonies are guides to practicing sisterhood and brotherhood. It is clear that mind action is the overriding practice.

What is it that our world needs? The happiness brought about by sisterhood and brotherhood. We need mind action to bring this about. One right thought can heal the person and heal the world. We should give greater emphasis to mind because mind action can also be very harmful. Mind action can be violent and destructive both to the thinker and to the world. How we think matters. Thinking produces karma; it is not only bodily and speech actions that produce karma. Right thinking is a basic need in order for harmony, sisterhood, and brotherhood to be possible. Right thinking can make harmony of the bodily action possible.

The Buddha gave the example that a monk sees a bowl that has not been washed. He thinks to himself: “The owner of the bowl must have been called away on urgent business to help someone. Why do I not wash his bowl for him?” Thinking like that he washes the bowl, feeling joy in his heart. Or the monk thinks: “What scoundrel left his bowl lying here, unwashed?!” And feeling irritated he turns his back on the bowl. Or the monk thinks: “It is not correct practice to leave the bowl unwashed, but there are demanding circumstances. I have time now, let me wash his bowl.” This shows how right thinking makes right action possible and the feeling of joy that comes with right thinking.

Right thinking also makes right speech possible. The Buddha gives this example. Suppose you want to say something to someone in a discussion or meeting. The situation could be delicate and you want to have a positive outcome from your words. So, before speaking you stop and ask yourself: “If I were to say this, would it make the other(s) happy?” Having breathed mindfully you can either feel a near certainty that it will bring happiness or unhappiness (in which case you do not say it) or you feel unsure and in this case you do not say it. The harmony of mind is the way of thought that produces harmony. When we are thinking negatively about a person we are mindful of our thinking and change the thought as we would a television channel we do not want to watch. We change the thought for a positive thought about the other person. That is how to practice harmony of thought.

Harmony of views depends on mind action. When we hear an item on the agenda to be discussed, our mind may immediately have a view about that item. There is nothing wrong about that. We can share our view, but we are not caught in it. We listen to everyone who has a different view. We feel happy when we hear a view that is more sensible than our own, and immediately let go of our view. When we have listened to everyone’s view and we still like our own idea, we ask ourselves what it is that we like about it and try to see how we can synthesize part of our idea to arrive at consensus, only maintaining our own view if we see it is a matter of life and death — a real danger to body or mind could exist if our own idea is not heeded.

Letting Go of a Separate Self

When I first came to Plum Village twenty-four years ago, it was not a practice centre as it is now. Thay and Sister Chan Khong sponsored refugees from the boat people who were held in refugee camps. They stayed here until they were ready to go out into French society and work. I, too, was a refugee from England from a difficult teaching job. Since we were not yet a practice centre we made our living by agriculture. We were quite poor if you compare it to our community now. We did not have the money to mend the roof in the Lower Hamlet and it needed mending. Our cultivation of soya beans, colza, oats, and vegetables was important to us as a source of revenue. Apart from that there was only the one month summer-retreat.

My mind was shocked to see that the cultivation was not organic. Thay taught me to practice the harmony of views, which is also to practice the first three of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I was somewhat surprised that Thay did not agree that we must cultivate our land organically and impose this idea on the other refugees. Thay told me: you must sit down together and decide as a community how you are going to cultivate. We did this and I was the only one who wanted to go organic. When I told Thay he said that if I wished I could make a small organic garden, cultivate a few plum trees organically, and see how it worked. If it worked well it would be a good argument for increasing the percentage of organic cultivation. I still feel strongly sometimes about certain matters, but I remind myself to practice harmony of views and the first of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. If we are not careful, something like organic gardening can become an –ism or ideology rather than a collective action by the community for the common good.

In practicing letting go of our views and perceptions, we are practicing letting go of our separate self. There is no single pair of eyes that can see as clearly as the Sangha eyes. Working with mind consciousness we are beginning to work with manas. Manas is the layer of consciousness that lies below mind consciousness. It is not as conscious as mind consciousness. It has an energy of its own that seldom rests. It is the energy of cogitation. This cogitation produces and preserves a separate self idea. Sometimes in deep sleep manas is inactive, no longer producing the idea of a separate self. On awakening it immediately comes into action, preserving the idea of self. We could explain this as a primitive survival mechanism. We need to ask, is survival possible without the idea of a separate self? If we can wake up and follow our breathing without needing the idea of a separate self, we are safe. We do not need any other survival mechanism.

The Fourth of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings also concerns thought action. It concerns not avoiding suffering. It is the natural tendency of manas to run away from suffering and seek pleasure. In transforming this natural tendency we are mindful of cogitation and can transform manas along with its four mental formations of self — self-love, self-ignorance, self-view, and self complex. Self-love is what makes us feel that suffering is bad and fail to see that suffering is necessary and can also be good. The Fourth Training is to learn to face suffering, accept it, and use it as the mud upon which lotuses can grow. The wording of this Training may also be revised to help us see more clearly the interbeing nature of suffering and happiness.

The transformation of manas does not take place through ideas. In the beginning we hear the teachings on no-self, we meditate on them, and we put them into practice. In order to transform manas we have to practice no-self. What better place than in a practice community? Sitting together, walking together we entrust ourselves to the Sangha body. In the case of personal needs we can bring them to the Sangha body. If the Sangha sees fit and possible the Sangha will help. It is by living no-self that we transform manas. The experience will penetrate down into the deeper levels of consciousness but not the intellectual ideas of no-self.

Education as Key

People have conducted surveys in the United States and Europe to find out what percentage of the population lives in a relatively awakened way — caring for the environment, open to multicultural experience, giving importance to a spiritual dimension in life, living simply in order to have time to share with family and follow the pursuits that nourish oneself, devoting time to helping society, wanting to transform self more than demanding that others transform. What percentage of the population would you think lives this way? Somewhere between seventeen and twenty percent. People such as this are open to a global ethic. They want to live in an ethical way but are not interested in political or moral authorities. When we talk of a global ethic we are talking of something that does not belong to any particular creed or faith but can be accepted by anyone whether he has a creed or not. Such people can easily accept the precepts of the Order of Interbeing.

mb51-TheCollective2We are living at an exciting time when our world can either make a turn for the better or continue down the hill for the worse. Let us stand at the junction and direct the traffic by our compassion and inclusiveness and especially by our right thinking. Education will help more than political or moral authority. Education is to discover, to make known, and to participate. In some schools now children participate, growing and cooking their food in the school garden. It is not only children who need education, we all need it, and it is quite possible to educate without imposing our ideas on others. You can tell your children that they cannot watch television or eat junk food but they might go to their friends’ houses and do just that. The question is how to communicate about toxic foods and allow the children to discover for themselves what is harmful for their minds. Some parents have succeeded in following this middle way.

Education takes place in the framework of the Sangha of sisterhood and brotherhood. If parents are able to educate their children in how to watch television healthily, that is because they have the support of Sangha friends and because the children are able to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness where there is a children’s programme. We educate each other through the wonderful practice of Dharma discussion. What could be more beautiful than the scene at large retreats of many small groups sitting in circles and listening deeply to learn from each other?

Enlightenment is no longer (or was it ever?) an individual matter. The only way we can proceed is as a collective — a Sangha body. We wake up and help others to wake up together. We are a collective  bodhisattva.

Sister Annabel, True Virtue, resides in Waldbröl, Germany where she is helping Thay to establish the European Institute of Applied Buddhism.

THE FOURTEEN MINDFULNESS TRAININGS

  1. The First Mindfulness Training: Openness

Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.

  1. The Second Mindfulness Training: Nonattachment to Views

Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.

  1. The Third Mindfulness Training: Freedom of Thought

Aware of the suffering brought about when we impose our views on others, we are committed not to force others, even our children, by any means whatsoever such as authority, threat, money, propaganda, or indoctrination to adopt our views. We will respect the right of others to be different and to choose what to believe and how to decide. We will, however, help others renounce fanaticism and narrowness through practicing deeply and engaging in compassionate dialogue.

  1. The Fourth Mindfulness Training: Awareness of Suffering

Aware that looking deeply at the nature of suffering can help us develop compassion and find ways out of suffering, we are determined not to avoid or close our eyes before suffering. We are committed to finding ways, including personal contact, images, and sounds, to be with those who suffer, so we can understand their situation deeply and help them transform their suffering into compassion, peace, and joy.

  1. The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Simple, Healthy Living

Aware that true happiness is rooted in peace, solidity, freedom, and compassion, and not in wealth or fame, we are determined not to take as the aim of our life fame, profit, wealth, or sensual pleasure, nor to accumulate wealth while millions are hungry and dying. We are committed to living simply and sharing our time, energy, and material resources with those in need. We will practice mindful consuming, not using alcohol, drugs, or any other products that bring toxins into our own and the collective body and consciousness.

  1. The Sixth Mindfulness Training: Dealing with Anger

Aware that anger blocks communication and creates suffering, we are determined to take care of the energy of anger when it arises and to recognize and transform the seeds of anger that lie deep in our consciousness. When anger comes up, we are determined not to do or say anything, but to practice mindful breathing or mindful walking and acknowledge, embrace, and look deeply into our anger. We will learn to look with the eyes of compassion at ourselves and at those we think are the cause of our anger.

  1. The Seventh Mindfulness Training: Dwelling Happily in the Present Moment

Aware that life is available only in the present moment and that it is possible to live happily in the here and now, we are committed to training ourselves to live deeply each moment of daily life. We will try not to lose ourselves in dispersion or be carried away by regrets about the past, worries about the future, or craving, anger, or jealousy in the present. We will practice mindful breathing to come back to what is happening in the present moment. We are determined to learn the art of mindful living by touching the wondrous, refreshing, and healing elements that are inside and around us, and by nourishing seeds of joy, peace, love, and understanding in ourselves, thus facilitating the work of transformation and healing in our consciousness.

  1. The Eighth Mindfulness Training: Community and Communication

Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves in the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech. We will learn to listen deeply without judging or reacting and refrain from uttering words that can create discord or cause the community to break. We will make every effort to keep communications open and to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.

  1. The Ninth Mindfulness Training: Truthful and Loving Speech

Aware that words can create suffering or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence. We are determined not to say untruthful things for the sake of personal interest or to impress people, nor to utter words that might cause division or hatred. We will not spread news that we do not know to be certain nor criticize or condemn things of which we are not sure. We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may threaten our safety.

  1. The Tenth Mindfulness Training: Protecting the Sangha

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

  1. The Eleventh Mindfulness Training: Right Livelihood

Aware that great violence and injustice have been done to our environment and society, we are committed not to live with a vocation that is harmful to humans and nature. We will do our best to select a livelihood that helps realize our ideal of understanding and compassion. Aware of global economic, political and social realities, we will behave responsibly as consumers and as citizens, not supporting companies that deprive others of their chance to live.

  1. The Twelfth Mindfulness Training: Reverence for Life

Aware that much suffering is caused by war and conflict, we are determined to cultivate nonviolence, understanding, and compassion in our daily lives, to promote peace education, mindful mediation, and reconciliation within families, communities, nations, and in the world. We are determined not to kill and not to let others kill. We will diligently practice deep looking with our Sangha to discover better ways to protect life and prevent war.

  1. The Thirteenth Mindfulness Training: Generosity

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

  1. The Fourteenth Mindfulness Training: Right Conduct

(For lay members): Aware that sexual relations motivated by craving cannot dissipate the feeling of loneliness but will create more suffering, frustration, and isolation, we are determined not to engage in sexual relations without mutual understanding, love, and a long-term commitment. In sexual relations, we must be aware of future suffering that may be caused. We know that to preserve the happiness

of ourselves and others, we must respect the rights and commitments of ourselves and others. We will do everything in our power to protect children from sexual abuse and to protect couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. We will treat our bodies with respect and preserve our vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal. We will be fully aware of the responsibility of bringing new lives into the world, and will meditate on the world into which we are bringing new beings.

(For monastic members): Aware that the aspiration of a monk or a nun can only be realized when he or she wholly leaves behind the bonds of worldly love, we are committed to practicing chastity and to helping others protect themselves. We are aware that loneliness and suffering cannot be alleviated by the coming together of two bodies in a sexual relationship, but by the practice of true understanding and compassion. We know that a sexual relationship will destroy our life as a monk or a nun, will prevent us from realizing our ideal of serving living beings, and will harm others. We are determined not to suppress or mistreat our body or to look upon our body as only an instrument, but to learn to handle our body with respect. We are determined to preserve vital energies (sexual, breath, spirit) for the realization of our bodhisattva ideal.

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Sangha Building

A Lesson in Love

By Joanne Friday

Our practice is about expanding our capacity for love and compassion. We use the practice to transform our unskillful states of mind and develop fearlessness so we can go through the world loving freely with an open heart.

In my experience, this is the basis of Sangha building. It is a very deep practice of expanding our capacity to love. The Sangha, committed to practicing the Five Mindfulness Trainings, ideally provides a safe container in which we can water the wholesome seeds in ourselves and each other. It is a community with which we can practice deep listening and mindful speech and share our aspirations, our joys and concerns, and support each other in our practice.

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It also gives us opportunities to be more aware of the unwholesome seeds in us and to use all of our practices so that we can transform them. We can observe our habits of mind and our attachment to views. Because our Sanghas are open to everyone, we come in contact with some people who are difficult for us. We can feel our hearts close. It requires that we invoke Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva, whom I see as a sort of patron saint of Sangha building. S/he is the bodhisattva of deep respect who sees the Buddha nature in everyone. We need to be able to do that for each one of our brothers and sisters. When we find our heart closing, we can look at what arises in us regarding the person we find to be difficult. We embrace those difficult feelings, look deeply in order to understand, and with understanding, we arrive at compassion and love for ourselves and the one we thought to be “difficult.” Then our heart can open again.

The Sangha gives us many opportunities to put into practice the teachings of the Discourses. We might use the Discourse on the Five Ways of Putting an End to Anger. If a person’s actions are not kind, we focus on their words. If their words are not kind, we focus on their actions, and so on.

In the Sangha, we have a responsibility to resolve all conflicts however small in a safe way. We can touch those things, like conflict, that scare us, and develop skillful means to transform them. This enables us to become more fearless and more honest with ourselves and each other about conflicts when they arise. Once again, we can allow our hearts to open instead of to harden and close.

These are just a few examples of the transformative power of Sangha building. If we want to build a healthy and happy Sangha, we need to discover and transform the barriers to love in our own hearts, so we can truly love every one of our brothers and sisters. We are so blessed to have a practice to help us to be truly joyfully together.

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Joanne Friday, True Joy of Giving, practices with the Clear Heart Sangha, the Radiant Bell Sangha, and the Mind Tamers Sangha in Rhode Island.

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Buddhist Enough Haiku

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Sangha/No Sangha haiku
Are we a Sangha
or just a group of friends? Such
questions: words, mere words!

Sangha haiku
Sangha is where you
find it: music, books, the woods,
communing together.

Suchness haiku 2
No gurus, chants, rites,
no lineage. We touch the
earth: free-range Buddhas

Kill the Buddha haiku
A letter comes back:
Sorry, these haiku are just
not Buddhist enough.

— Charles Suhor

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Why Build Sangha?

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Thich Nhat Hanh shares the fruits of monastic civilization with lay practitioners so that we, too, can experience community as a resource for awakening. Meditation can seem easier when we’re in a group, and we learn from each other, so we build Sangha to enjoy and support our practice.

The Buddha was explicit about the value of community: “Monks, as to external factors, I do not see any other factor that is so helpful for the arising of the seven factors of enlightenment as this: good friendship.” (Samyutta Nikaya, Bojjhangasayutta, 51)

My first experience with Thay’s community was at a five-day retreat. Someone in our Dharma discussion group suggested we could keep meeting after we returned home, so we created a roster, and someone volunteered to host a gathering. Two weeks later, we sat, walked, listened to a reading, and shared our experience of the practice. We couldn’t agree on a name, but the No-Name Sangha enjoyed practice together enough that we met each week for several years!

I enjoy it when people visit our Sangha, and I like to visit Sanghas, too. When my teenage son and I went to check out some colleges, I used the Mindfulness Bell Sangha directory to locate friends along the way. [Editor’s note: the Sangha list is now online at www.mindfulnessbell.org under “Directory.”] One woman I called said that the Sangha in her town hadn’t actually met for over a year, but she was happy to meet me, and even offered us a room for the night! We meditated in her garden, and then talked about what made practice nourishing, what some of the difficulties could be, and so on. A few months later, she called to thank me for the visit, adding that she had talked to some of the people in her old Sangha and they had started to sit together again.

How Does Sangha Support Practice?

First of all, Sangha is an explicitly safe place. “Alone together” in community, we make the practice visible, credible, accessible. When we’re alone, we may routinely get carried away by our thoughts, but Sangha reminds us how to be diligent and observant. We recognize what’s true and nourishing, and we create a foundation upon which we can stand when we encounter adversity. The gardener makes the garden, and the garden makes the gardener.

A practice community is a creation, and takes time, but the work of Sangha building isn’t about planning and hard labor. It requires involvement, but when it feels difficult, we’re not doing it correctly. Learning how to build Sangha, like meditation, means learning how to get out of our own way!

Sustaining a Sangha is practice, too. If we’ve been nourished in the Sangha, we’ll have patience to learn to trust the “Sangha eye” to arrive at decisions that will be in everyone’s best interest. Lay practitioners can implement practices that the monastics rely upon, like Beginning Anew and Shining the Light, but as Thay says, “What is most important is to find peace and share it with others.”

“This Is the Entire Holy Life”

On one occasion, the Buddha was dwelling in the Jeta Grove of Anathapindika’s Park, in Savatthi. His attendant, Ananda, mused to his master how the company of like-minded people constituted such a big help: “Venerable sir, this is half the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.” Vehemently, the Buddha corrected him: “Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entire holy life, Ananda …When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.” (Samyutta Nikaya, Part V, Ch.1)

Dictionaries define Sangha as “the community of Buddhist monks,” but more inclusively, it applies to any group that meditates together. With practice, we may recognize that Sangha actually consists of everything that supports us. We bow to a cushion, smile to the bean in our soup spoon, attend to the rustling of leaves, the splash of the rivulet.

mb51-Why2Caleb Cushing, True Original Commitment, practices with the Pot Luck Sangha and the Open Door Sangha in the East Bay Area of Northern California.

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Sangha Building in Southern California

By Karen Hilsberg

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Thich Nhat Hanh has said that the Buddha of the twenty-first century may manifest as Sangha. The simplest definition of Sangha is a community of friends practicing mindfulness together and offering spiritual support to one another.

I practiced on my own in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh for ten years before beginning to practice regularly with a local Sangha and with the Deer Park Sangha. And from practicing with a Sangha my mindfulness practice has deepened exponentially. I learn so much from my friends in the fourfold Sangha (monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen)! We grow and develop together through our formal and informal practice together and through our special friendships.

Here are some tips and best practices that have worked to strengthen community and build Sangha in Southern California during the past seven years.

  • If you build it, they will come. My husband and started a Sangha in our home in October 2003. We publicized the Sangha for about three weeks before the first meeting by putting up fliers in health food stores and coffee shops, and sending out e-mails. Nine people attended our first gathering, and the Sangha has been meeting every week for the past six years.
  • Meet for at least two hours at a time so that people can have time to settle in without rushing. The format of many Sanghas is to begin with a silent or guided meditation for twenty to forty-five minutes, followed by slow walking meditation, then more sitting meditation. The second part consists of a Dharma discussion on a prearranged topic, such as a talk by Thay, an article in the Mindfulness Bell, a book by Thay, a sutra, or the Mindfulness Trainings. The Sangha may also learn a song or chant together, or practice inviting the bell. Have a different person lead the Sangha each week.
  • Meet every week at the same time in the same place. This creates continuity and dependability. Recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings or Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings once a month. Sangha members learn about the Trainings, discuss them, and then find ways to incorporate them into their lives if they like.
  • Use e-mail to remind 3angha members of the time and topic of each Sangha gathering. Create a website and add a listing on the worldwide directory of Sanghas at www.mindfulnessbell.org so that practitioners can locate a Sangha in their area.
  • Be inclusive. Welcome new members and make it easy for new members to participate. Some Sanghas offer an introduction at the beginning of each meeting or once a month. Some Sanghas have people who welcome everyone at the door at the beginning of the Sangha and are available to offer basic instruction in mindfulness practice.
  • Move the Sangha to a public space. Everyone loved meeting at our home and practicing walking meditation in the garden. However, we were encouraged to move the Sangha to a public space, which we did. Meeting in a local yoga studio has relieved the responsibility of leading the Sangha every week from any one person. It is often more comfortable for people to meet in a public space.
  • Collect dana each week to support rent for the space, community service projects, or scholarships for Days of Mindfulness and retreats.
  • Encourage Sangha members to subscribe to the Mindfulness Bell and periodically discuss an article or issue as a Sangha.
  • Lead by caretaking council. Share the Sangha leadership among a group of people who meet quarterly to make decisions about Sangha schedule, organize picnics or potlucks, arrange Days of Mindfulness, and attend to other Sangha business. Practice deep listening and loving speech during caretaking council and try to come to consensus when possible.
  • At least once a year, offer a Day of Mindfulness from 10:00 to 4:00 to the community and nearby Sanghas. Either lead the activities of the day yourselves or invite a Dharma Teacher or Order of Interbeing member to support or lead the activities.
  • When possible, attend a practice center or weekend retreat together as a Sangha. This is a wonderful opportunity to
  • get to know one another in a different context, to have unstructured time together, and to deepen the practice of the Sangha together.
  • Create an Order of Interbeing and/or OI Aspirant Sangha. Deer Park Monastery has been offering an opportunity on the third weekend of the month for OI members and aspirants to attend the monastery and meet together as a Sangha to deepen their understanding of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and the OI Charter, and to build community in Southern California. This has been a wonderful opportunity for many Sangha leaders to feel recharged and nourished in their practice of Sangha building in their home communities.
  • Welcome and support families with young children. Children are wonderful practitioners and teachers. Children can understand mindfulness practice and families can practice together. Offer gatherings for families that can support parents in the wonderful and challenging task of fostering mindfulness and peace within the family.

The practice of mindfulness takes place at Sangha and increasingly in every aspect of our daily lives. Our Sangha brothers and sisters become our spiritual family with whom we share the landscape of our lives. As Thay has said, a practitioner is like a drop of water. If the drop of water is alone, it may evaporate easily. However, when many drops of water join together to form a river, all the drops of water in the river can travel safely to the ocean. The Sangha is our river that supports our practice of mindfulness and the cultivation of joy and non-fear in our lives.

For further support on Sangha building, refer to Friends on the Path by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Karen Hilsberg, True Boundless Graciousness, practices mindfulness and builds Sangha in Southern California. She recently self-published her first book entitled Be Like a Tree: Zen Talks by Thich Phuoc Tinh.

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One View from the Cedar Cabin

By Nancy Stewart

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The Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, New York came into being in 1999 following the Ascutney, Vermont retreat with Thay. In my Dharma discussion group I was introduced to four people from my community whom I had never met, two actually living right down the road! We organized a regular meditation practice, invited friends to join us, did occasional half-days of mindfulness. In the next couple of years we sponsored two well-received retreats for the general Ithaca community led by delightful Order of Interbeing monks (and we are still so grateful — you know who you are!). We thought all was well; and it was, but impermanence set in.

Sangha members began to come infrequently or dropped out — too busy, new jobs, time conflicts. We put out fliers, used our e-mail list, and got listed on the Sangha directory website. New members came enthusiastically — for a while, then left town or just stopped coming. For many months, regular attendance was down to two of us: Pamela and me. While everyone else had become less committed, Pamela and I began to realize just how helpful the practice was for us and we became more committed.

Week in, week out, we were there with rare exception. I dragged myself there many times when I didn’t feel like it and discovered I was always glad I had come. We were meeting in a friend’s cedar cabin heated by a wood stove. Freezing in winter, stifling in summer, it was difficult to find but had fabulous atmosphere — woodsy decorations, birds chirping, vegetable garden and long tall grass to walk in. We were attached to our cabin, but we knew we needed to let go of our attachment.

A Fortuitous Move

Pamela had the insightful idea of changing our meeting place to our local hospice, right near the cabin. Everyone in town knows where that is. In exchange for the space, and to create goodwill, musical Pamela began to do intermittent singing and dulcimer playing for the hospice patients and staff. We started a collection box (well, a green and red striped can) and the hospice was our first donation recipient.

Pamela journeyed toward the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings; with persistence and long-distance mentoring she became an OI member in 2007. Her mindful energy for keeping in touch with the wider Sangha, generous spirit, and calm tenacity have helped mentor new Sangha members along the way. And new members keep coming. Some come once, some for a while, and some have stayed long-term, but the difference is that now it is rarely just Pamela and me sitting together. And two more of us have started our own aspirant journeys.

Everyone’s favorite part of our weekly meditation (besides getting up for a walking meditation after a long sit!) is our herbal tea ceremony in silence, followed by Dharma discussion. When we share and listen from the heart about our meditation experience or our practice struggles, we deepen our human bonds and inspire one another.

Words of Wisdom

What would I say in a nutshell (or lotus blossom) about Sangha building? Show up even when you think you’re too busy — it will help your busy-ness and add to everyone else’s meditation energy. Be willing to lead meditation and let your mindfulness be a role model — you will help others on the path. Notice new members with love and compassion, and add them to your member listserv. Send a regular mindful message to your members. Choose a known and accessible location and keep a low-key visible presence in your community with fliers, newspaper articles, and online information. Hold a community event occasionally. Look for ways to give back to the community. Get help from the wider Sangha.

But in the end, it is probably not so important to enlarge your Sangha as it is to commit to regular practice — and along the way you will help yourself and others become more attuned to a miraculous way to live!

mb51-One2Nancy Stewart, Meaningful Flower of the Heart, is an aspirant to the Order of Interbeing and a founding member of the Cedar Cabin Sangha in Ithaca, NY. She is a semi-retired integrative family physician. Now that their three children are grown, she and her husband Ray Terepka live with their golden retriever, Bodhi, who reminds them to be in the present moment.

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Form Is Emptiness

The Umpqua Area Mindfulness Sangha

By Hope Lindsay

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Eleven years ago, our home-based Sangha in Roseburg, Oregon began with three friends. Each of us invited others and at our zenith, about twenty people were on our reminder list with as many as fourteen at any session. Because we came from various traditions, or none at all, we had no particular structure until one of us attended a retreat with Thay and registered our Sangha with the Order of Interbeing.

As time will do, the years drew us in different directions. Changes in jobs, relationships, and family needs took many of us away. For me, a painful transition took place. During our third year I joined the Order of Interbeing, but others wanted different Buddhist orientations. Some had attended Ruth Denison’s Dhamma Dena and felt deep loyalty to that tradition. One person was a devotee of Jack Kornfield and vipassana; one dismissed our tradition as “just mindfulness”; still others found that Tibetan traditions suited them best. Finally, two formed a pre-session study hour for pondering the meaning of the Buddha’s teachings and made a decision that our Sangha should be closed to new attendees unless they had an established history of Buddhist practice.

To myself, I repeated the refrain, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” It felt like a power struggle was taking place in a Sangha that had begun in tranquility. The closer we came to a purist form, the further away from openness, inclusiveness, and time for discussion. Our numbers began to dwindle.

Luckily, the minister of Umpqua Unitarian church suggested that I hold a mindful meditation session at the church. The only time available for the space was Wednesday noon. The time of day limits us, perhaps, but we are mostly retirees. A small subgroup comes from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and our Sangha takes on a bit of that flavor. Rather than attention to form, we focus on contemplation, spiritual growth, and insight. Our numbers are growing.

Most of the attendees have a keen sense of social justice and participate in activities such as Women in Black, hospice volunteering, or community action committees; some members sponsor seasonal giving to homeless, animal shelters, third world countries, and so on. When I was drawn to Thay’s teachings many years ago, it was a similar combination of social outreach and contemplation, meditation and daily dedication to the precepts that attracted me. I like this Sangha very much.

Whether it is my shortcoming or my memory of the former Sangha’s struggle, we are not fully structured in the style of Order of Interbeing. We do read the Five Mindfulness Trainings — one Training each week. This seems popular. We open with a bell, lighting incense, a brief reading, silent meditation for twenty minutes, followed by one of the Trainings and a reading that reflects the precept. Most of us sit in chairs. Some of us are ailing, so we do not do walking meditation except at occasional Saturday retreats. And heaven forbid that we sing! No one knows the OI songs but me and I can’t hold a tune. Also, we are rural and out of the way for other OI members to visit us and refresh our practice.

I feel at home in this Sangha. But I do not wear my beloved brown jacket. It would set me apart too much. Instead, I put it on for meditation at home, my private sacred moment.

mb51-Form2Hope Lindsay, True Recollection of the Dharma, worked as a social worker and counselor in hospitals, school districts, and community mental health settings. Now that she has retired she is fulfilling her dream of being a writer.

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Always Hug the Dharma!

Sangha Building and Growing Pains

By Katie Hammond Holtz

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It is natural that we will experience growing pains as we go through the stages of life — and the same is true for Sanghas. If we expect our Sangha to fit our ego-definition of “perfect” all the time, we will be disappointed, unhappy, blame others, or feel there is something wrong with us. However, if we are honest with ourselves and others, and steadfast in our practice and in “hugging” the Dharma, we can get through the growing pains and find new joys in each stage of development.

In fact, as Thay teaches, difficulty is a great gift. This has been the case for Laughing Rivers Sangha, which I founded after a retreat with Thay eighteen years ago.

I will highlight just a few ways I, and others, have embraced the Dharma while building the Sangha—overcoming more than a few growing pains along the way. The growth of a Sangha is like the continuation of a child, from birth to adulthood.

Our Sangha’s Early Childhood

As a new Sangha, we were happy to just sit, sharing our simple practice, supporting one another, and laughing often — a group of deep friends that eventually grew to ten core members, with about twenty-five people on our mailing list. There was nothing to be in conflict about; it was light and easy. There were few decisions to make beyond figuring out whose house we would meet at and what to bring to the potluck meals we shared.

The first real organizational decision involved our name—and that took about ten minutes. After our sitting one evening, Jim began tossing out funny Sangha names that had us all laughing—and soon we all agreed that “laughing” should be part of our name. Then Kerry said, “I’ll close my eyes, open to a page in this book, and wherever my finger lands that will be the other word in our name.” We cheered this idea — and his finger landed on the word “river.” Since we live in Pittsburgh, a city defined by the joining of three rivers, we knew we had a winner.

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Decision-making got a little more complicated as we grew to our present size of well over fifty core members.

Early School Years: Our Sangha’s First Conflicts

If a child has a harmonious childhood, free of responsibilities and expectations, the first year of school can be rough — suddenly there are pressures, big changes, conflicts with others, and potentially traumatic experiences. Interestingly, it was around age five or six that our Sangha experienced its own fundamental change, followed by a difficult conflict. First, three core members departed from the regular Tuesday evening practice — one becoming ill, one moving to Georgia, and one deciding to focus on individual practice. Each is still in my personal Sangha and we remain deep friends, but their departures left me alone to deal with the Sangha’s growing pains. I wasn’t aware until later how much of a heartache this was.

Then a Sangha member who had been practicing with us attended her first retreat with Thay. She came back inspired, eager to put the teachings into practice. I was so happy for her and I invited her to become more involved in Sangha building. Sadly, a conflict soon arose between us when I invited her to work with me on the Sangha newsletter, and though we talked on numerous occasions, the conflict persisted. I asked a long-standing Sangha member to support me during this time, but they withdrew from the conflict. Next I consulted with Dai-En Bennage, a Dharma teacher in our tradition, who advised me to write a “love letter” to my Sangha sister; but she and I eventually decided to do a direct “flower watering” exchange and a Peace Treaty. I thought the meeting went well, but at the end she became angry with me, and despite continued effort, we could not resolve our conflict. She and another member left our Sangha to start another meditation group. I was heartbroken. I felt like I failed in my practice. I also felt abandoned, which touched a very deep seed in me from my childhood — exacerbated by the recent suicide of my younger brother.

Clearly our group had developed a more formal identity at this point and unlike the early days, there was now something to change and criticize and defend. For the first time I was perceived as an authority figure to react against. Although my Sangha sister and I were both rooted in Thay’s practice, she wanted a different type of group, and I believe she saw me as an obstacle.

Although our group came together again after she left, this was a very difficult period for me. Apparently I was not skilled enough to accommodate to the rapid changes that the Sister sought, nor skilled enough to understand the true nature of what she needed.

As painful as this conflict was, it pushed me to deepen my practice to support the foundation of the Sangha. In particular, I aspired to the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and wanted to be in regular contact with others building Sanghas. I reached out to an OI member in Washington, D.C., who listened deeply, pointed out that I needed support in this situation, and made himself available. I attended a retreat with Thay and learned the “love letter” practice in depth, which I still use regularly.

Friends Forever: Our Sangha Grows Together

In the years that followed, our Sangha picked up new friends who are core members to this day, and we began to experience the joy of shared Sangha building. The Sangha began to solidify because of the direct connection each of us had with Thay’s teachings, and our shared commitment to mindfulness and the Dharma.

A shared leadership evolved naturally, allowing us to successfully develop our group practice and give it more structure. For example, we began reciting the Mindfulness Trainings the first Tuesday of the month, and doing special practices like Deep Relaxation and Touching of the Earth on the third Tuesday. A shared leadership model can clearly be a great advantage in Sangha building. It is a concrete practice of interbeing.

Our Sangha Finds Our Dharma Teacher

A Sangha, like a child, can only get so far on its own. In 1999, I asked Dharma Teacher Chan Huy, True Radiance, to come to Pittsburgh and lead a retreat for our Sangha. Since then he has led multi-day retreats twice a year with the Laughing Rivers Sangha. Chan Huy embodies the Dharma, strongly supports everyone to receive the Mindfulness Trainings, offers consultations, and mentors all aspirants and OI members in our Sangha. Right from those first retreats, I noticed that all of us felt stronger, more skilled and solid in our practice. We’d found our teacher.

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With Chan Huy’s support and guidance, I was finally able to aspire for the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. I had wanted to do this for several years but I had been unsuccessful in finding a committed mentor, and it wasn’t clear in those days how to go about it when one was geographically isolated. In 2002, three of us in the Sangha received ordination. This deep transmission, combined with my earlier frustrations, inspired the three of us to be very dedicated to mentoring other aspirants in our Sangha. We now have two OI coordinators who focus on this valuable work, including one of the aspirants I mentored. How beautiful it is to see our continuation! But continuation is reciprocal—I learn a lot from her open-heart practice too. And that is the way of building a Sangha.

More Complex Decision Making: Our Sangha as an Adolescent

As our Sangha grew and activities and decisions became more complex, shared leadership evolved into a consensus model. For example, when we began looking for a separate meeting place, our leadership did an extensive search, shared the information with the Sangha, and then every person had a vote. Most people enjoyed this model because it allowed everyone to express their viewpoint, respond, and experience the process of finding consensus. But eventually frustrations began to arise; some people felt the process was too inefficient for a Sangha of our size.

We consulted with several Dharma teachers regarding ways of supporting our growth, and shared these ideas with Sangha members. We all read Joyfully Together by Thay. By 2006, we had replaced consensus with a formal annual meeting and a Continuing Care Committee. [See page 47.]

I must admit I was one of several who resisted this change. I was concerned that our Sangha would lose its “home-spun” nature and free spirit. But today I understand that this is what was best to get the Sangha through its current growth stage. And I also try to remember the Mindful Meeting Guidelines, which are read at the beginning of each meeting. [See page 48.] The core principles come from Thay’s writings, including the Fourth of the Five Mindfulness Trainings on deep listening and loving speech, and the Second of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings on being open to others’ viewpoints.

Our Sangha Looks Forward into Adulthood

Despite all these changes, Laughing Rivers Sangha’s fundamental Tuesday format has remained the same for eighteen years: sitting, walking, and Dharma sharing. After two of us had the good fortune of being in Plum Village in 2000 for the summer retreat, we added the new chanting we’d learned. Several years ago Thay asked us to start reciting the Trainings twice a month, and we now use the entire recitation ceremony from the Plum Village Chanting Book.

We have a beautiful Sangha, and we continue to grow. I wish I could say that these difficulties were the only ones we had to contend with, and that all of them were handled skillfully. But that is not true and there is still suffering for me that I need to transform; I am slowly unwrapping the gifts contained there. But our individual and collective practice has deepened, and we are each more skillful, happier, and more able to let go of our own views and truly love one another through it all. And yes, laughter is still a part of Laughing Rivers Sangha!

Suffering is a necessary growth process when building a Sangha. As Thay and Chan Huy have taught us, you cannot have a joyful Sangha without it.

mb51-Always4Katie Hammond Holtz, True Sky of Peace, founded Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh, PA in 1991 and she is a clinical psychologist in private practice. Thanks go to Don Bertschmann, our very first Sangha member, for offering his insights and editing this article.

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Morning Sun Rising

By John Young

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Five years ago Fern Dorresteyn and Michael Ciborski began a series of conversations with practitioners across the United States and around the world; listening, talking and imagining a life rooted in practice outside the structured container of the monastery. Having spent nearly a decade in Plum Village (also Deer Park and Maple Forest monasteries), first as lay people and then as monastics, they knew that practice would always be the foundation of their lives. And they knew that a life of practice is vitally nourished by living closely in spiritual community. Their aspiration is to creatively meet our fast-paced, stressed-out consumer society face to face with a clear, vital alternative.

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So began the journey that has led to the creation of Morning Sun, a small (but growing!) residential lay community and practice center in rural New Hampshire.

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In dreaming and living Morning Sun, we look for balance; allowing space for the organic development of our community, depending on who arrives into it, and also ensuring that there is a glittering diamond of clear intention rooted in practice that informs all we do. For those of us (like me, for example) who come from lives of planning, power, control, and strategy, this wise fluidity is a wonderful opportunity to embrace “don’t know mind.”

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As the seasons turn from winter to spring, we are growing into the next chapter of life in Morning Sun. We will soon close on the purchase of 240 acres of beautiful land and begin construction of the first two houses, a simple meditation hall, and a couple of cabins. We’ll plant our gardens, grow our vegetables, and open our hearts to practitioners who may wish to come and join their lives to ours in Morning Sun.

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The summer ahead will be a full one — both in terms of working on the land that will house our community and in terms of programming. We’ll offer our mindfulness adventure summer camp for children, teens, and parents for the third year in a row. We’ll offer half-days of mindfulness three times a month and one full day every month, we’ll collectively offer deep ecology/spirituality workshops based on Joanna Macy’s work and hope to hold a series of these throughout New England. And we’ll continue to navigate the local planning process so that we can move forward in preparing the land to welcome new practitioners.

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As the community grows, so will our efforts to be present with and serve the world. Clustered around a beautiful pond we will slowly build our center, where people can join in practice and learn about the bodhisattva way of life. Around our central campus, individual dwellings and co-housing will be built for residents and long term guests. Our intention is to offer diverse programming for individuals and families: helping them to slow down and touch the joy of simple living; transform anxiety, confusion and stress; and develop their capacity to work through the practice of mindfulness and sustainable living for the benefit and healing of society and the Earth.

As all of this unfolds we are delighted to be making new friends in the micro-region right around the Morning Sun land. It turns out that we are in one of those very special spots on the planet where people have been drawn to put down roots and build community in all kinds of different ways. The Orchard Hill community, school, and fantastic bakery is a just a couple of miles up the road. And a couple of miles in the other direction is the Sustainability Project, where we’ll be holding our camp this summer. And then there’s Mole Hill right across the road from our current practice house, where our neighbor Dennis holds evenings of theatre, music, and other festivities.

As we look out over the coming months and years we are filled with gratitude. So many conditions are coming together to support the vision we have been dreaming of for such a long time. We are blessed and so very happy to share the fruits of Morning Sun with all.

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John Young worked as a political adviser and activist in Canada until three years ago when he went to Plum Village for the first time. He then left his career, his home, and all his possessions to follow the path of practice. You can reach the folks at Morning Sun online at morningsunedcenter.org or by phone at (603) 357-2011.

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Together in Beauty, Together in the Everyday

Sangha Retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery

By Sara Becker, True Wonderful Path, with insight from Danielle Rinnier, David Snelbaker, Harold Adams, Jay-Philippe Myerson, Lee Alter, Maria Rodriguez, Compassionate Light of the Heart, Push Mukerji, Gentle Voice of the Heart, Steve Becker, Harmonious Wholeness of the Source, Susan Saltzman, and Tara Swartz.

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It’s early morning and the sky is still dark: fresh cold, deep silence. Stars shine on snow. In the great meditation hall, candles and incense are burning. The bell is invited. The Sangha sits together, breathing, as the sun begins to rise.

One winter Friday in 2009, eight members of Peaceful City Sangha in Philadelphia drove up to Blue Cliff Monastery for a three-day weekend. Carpooling was a joyful opportunity to get to know each other better. At Blue Cliff, the women shared a room, the men, a dorm, and we ate breakfast with the nuns and monks respectively. Together we enjoyed other meals, morning sitting, walking meditation in the woods, total body relaxation, touching the earth, Dharma sharing … and also time to rest, or connect over a cup of tea. In the evenings and mornings, we shared silence.

Being engulfed into the practice in this beautiful and conducive setting, surrounded by monks and nuns that embraced with their largest hearts this practice day in and day out, was sublime.

Guy time was cool!

Spending nights in community and hearing each other’s snores, washing up in the early morning, and cleaning the washroom when it was time for working meditation — these experiences foster a tender familiarity.

Time to bond with fellow Sangha members — especially with members you have never talked to or thought you would not be able to connect with — allowed a warm glowing feeling to transpire.

Whether we were feeling deep peace and joy, deprogramming from our lives, or gnarly stuff was surfacing inside us, we experienced this within ourselves, within the body of the larger fourfold Sangha, and within Peaceful City’s own Sangha body.

To look inside and touch my rawness, my bareness, in the presence of our Sangha was so scary! And amazing — you’ve seen part of me that scares me and you still love me as a sister.

The retreat was an exceptional experience of community. One that comes close to my family experience.

Traveling and returning as a Sangha continues the energy.

The retreat taught me how to integrate mindfulness into my everyday life as a way of life and also that the Sangha can be part of that life, not just an isolated few hours each week. I feel as if I am an active participant now rather than just a guest or visitor.

Folks who weren’t able to attend the retreat are also enjoying new vitality and cooperation in our practice sessions. At the same time, the retreat shines light on experiences of separation in ourselves, our Sangha, and society.

I’m happy that many members of our Sangha have been able to attend a retreat together, but I feel sad not to have been able to deepen my practice or connection with the Sangha in this way.

As a result of not taking part in the retreats, I do feel a little like an outsider, part of the group, but not really in it. But I probably would feel that way even if I went. I sort of go through life feeling that way. I think I must like or feel familiar with that feeling — not committed.

Sound of trees in snow. Kiss of cold night air. Silence. In loving community, may the energy of this retreat continue, finding forms to support and nourish us as a lay city Sangha, flowing, in all our connections, out into the world.

Peaceful City Sangha, Philadelphia, has been meeting since 2005 and offers practice sessions on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, as well as a twice monthly Thich Nhat Hanh Reading Circle (currently reading Old Path, White Clouds). As a group, we tend to enjoy a good meal, cherish companion animals, and care deeply about relieving suffering and offering love in the world.

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Intersein-Zentrum

Ten Years of Practice in Community

by Karl and Helga Riedl

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The Intersein-Zentrum, a practice and meditation center in the lineage of Thich Nhat Hanh, is celebrating its tenth anniversary! This means ten years of concretely and continuously building and maintaining Sangha.

After living in Plum Village for more than six years, we knew very clearly that we were wholeheartedly ready to adopt this practice and this way of life. In May 1999, together with the late Karl Schmied, we founded a residential community in the southeast corner of Germany — the Intersein-Zentrum (Interbeing Center).

Since the very beginning we inspired and attracted people to share our way of life and practice, living under the same roof in the spirit of the Six Harmonies. Over these past ten years, quite a number of people have been inspired by the practice of Thay and happy to share this lifestyle. For some of them, after months or even many years, different priorities emerged and they went on their way — enriched, happier, and with more clarity. Others have stayed with us for as long as nine years. Today we are ten residents sharing our joy and love for the Buddha-Dharma.

The Four Foundations

The first foundation for a Sangha is to be deeply inspired by the Dharma and the practice of Plum Village.

Together with two other friends we moved into a renovated building in early 1999. At the beginning we felt quite lost in that big house, which can host as many as eighty-six people apart from the family retreats, when we host over one hundred people. The four of us began right away with the same schedule that is used in Plum Village: meditation, silent meals, walking meditation, Dharma discussion, etc. One of the principles of our small Sangha from the very beginning has been to never, even in difficult and pressing situations, put the practice aside or skip scheduled activities. There was and still is a lot to do for a small group of people — running a big center and many retreats, being there for guests, implementing fascinating ideas and projects. However, before beginning a new task, we always ask the question: “Is it in accordance with the practice and our schedule?”

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The second foundation for a Sangha is that through this emphasis on a constant, uninterrupted practice, gradually the stability and happiness of the small Sangha increases and radiates out.

Living in a residential community, sharing all activities, applying the Six Harmonies, and having only a common income from retreats and guests is a special and demanding practice in itself. The most important practice — and this holds true even for a non-residential Sangha — is to regularly come together and share. To share means to allow everyone to express their joy and their difficulties, inspire others with their insight, and ask for support and understanding. This fosters communication on a very deep level. Furthermore, it is important to be clear about organization, tasks, positions, and the decision-making process, to agree on the structure, and to expose and clarify misunderstandings.

The third foundation for a Sangha is to keep communication alive and open and to make sure the structure is transparent and clear for everybody.

Sharing also means sharing the practice with others — giving and serving. In this way we realize how much we can let go of our self-concern and how well we are rooted in the practice. Once a month we offer a retreat — generally from five days to one week— where we introduce people to mindfulness and different Plum Village practices. Refreshed and with new insight, they return to their families and workplace and when they come back, they report on their experiences: “Just knowing that you are practicing all year round gives us a lot of support and trust.” Most people come back again and again, staying for longer periods to be in close contact with the Dharma and the Sangha. Each summer we offer a retreat for families, which is one of our most important. We stay connected with most of the families for many years, and we can observe with great joy and confidence that they are applying what they have learned and heard.

The fourth foundation for a Sangha is to have a common public activity and responsibility. Within this field we can express the fruit of our practice and we have the opportunity to respond to the actual problems people are facing today.

As a Sangha we are living and practicing in a non-Buddhist environment and it is very important to establish good relationships with our neighbors. Our connection with the nearby villages, which are deeply rooted in Christianity, is friendly, warm, and openhearted. Schoolteachers come here every year with their classes to experience our way of life and even the Catholic priest has visited us several times with his congregation.

The Acceleration of Wisdom

Last year we initiated a winter study and practice training that will run for three years in a row. This arose from seeing the needs and difficulties of practitioners and especially wanting to give those who are deeply motivated the opportunity to enhance and deepen their understanding. Observing the participation and enthusiasm of quite a number of people gives us the confidence that this training corresponds much to the needs of our time. This is another important aspect of a Sangha — to study and deepen the understanding of the Dharma practice and to be able to explain it to others.

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We have many Italian friends from Plum Village who come regularly to the retreats we lead in Italy. They have observed over many years the development of the Intersein-Zentrum in Germany. They felt much inspired by how this lay practice center is organized and how the practice is kept alive, so after several years of preparation they are on the way to manifesting a residential practice center in southern Italy. Those who feel committed to living in a residential community are coming here to be trained and some members of our center will go there and support them at the beginning. It is very important for a Sangha to establish a good relationship with other Sanghas, so we can learn from our cultural diversities and open up to each other.

The emphasis in our tradition is the practice of mindfulness and so it is quite natural that we take care of our bodies and our environment. In our center we serve vegetarian food that is based on the principles of Ayurveda and the Chinese five elements; we get protein from a rich variety of beans and nuts. We offer classes in yoga and chi gong. Furthermore we have solar water heating and a very modern wood pellet stove for heat, a large composting pile that we have turned into a beautiful vegetable and flower garden, and a biological sewage system. We are very concerned about driving and we have more than one car-free day. All these different activities are expressions of our practice and they are seen by our guests as examples that they can take home and apply directly in their daily lives.

When we look back over these years, we see that all the difficulties we have faced were indeed “wisdom accelerators,” as Thay calls them. We gained much understanding of the difficulties faced by people who are practicing the Buddha-Dharma in the West, a culture that is deeply materialistic. We continue to learn a lot and to experience more than ever a deep trust in the Three Jewels — while using our modern tools and language that people in the twenty-first century can understand and apply.

Helga Riedl, True Wonderful Loving Kindness, and Karl Riedl, True Communion, were ordained as Dharma teachers by Thich Nhat Hanh in 1994. Their spiritual path began in Poona, India, with Baghwan Sri Rajneesh in 1980 and in 1985 they started Buddhist practice in the Zen tradition. They also studied the Theravada tradition in monasteries in Sri Lanka and Thailand and the Tibetan Gelug tradition at the Lama Tsong Khapa Institute in Pomaia, Italy. It was there they met Thay in 1992 and shortly after followed him to Plum Village.

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A Sangha With Heart

mb51-ASangha1By Jim Scott-Behrends, Natascha Bruckner, Miriam Goldberg

Three practitioners express — in very different voices — appreciation for the Heart Sangha in Santa Cruz, California.

The Beauty of Our Practice

In the cool of the evening, mindful steps cross the wooden deck. On the porch of the Zendo a sign invites Noble Silence. Every Monday evening members of the Heart Sangha gather at the Zen Center of Santa Cruz. Coming from a diversity of backgrounds we find our common thread in practice inspired by the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh.

Thich Nhat Hanh has referred to Sangha building as the most important activity we can participate in. The Heart Sangha has made this proposition a priority by sharing a commitment to a sustainable practice rooted in emancipation and joy. As in architecture Sangha building relies on a strong foundation. We find this foundation in the Mindfulness Trainings and the basic principles of wisdom and compassion in our tradition.

According to Thay, “[t]he main purpose of a Sangha is to practice and support mindfulness, openness, and love. Organize in a way that is most enjoyable for everyone. You will never find a perfect Sangha. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. Rather than complaining too much about your Sangha, do your best to transform yourself into a good element of the Sangha. Accept the Sangha and build on it.”

The beauty of our practice is the generosity of spirit that is evident each time we meet. We are a family with a common purpose. With warmth, love and humor we pursue the way of awakening.

A recent experience in my life reinforced my gratitude for the Sangha. Last year my mother was having a string of medical issues after eighty-nine years of good health. Each time I drove to Southern California to visit her, the Heart Sangha was with me. Holding my mother’s hand and feeling the progressive weakness of her energy, I could feel the strength of the Sangha supporting me. When I returned and sat with the Sangha, my sadness was alleviated when it was held in the larger vessel of the Sangha body. I did not need to hold it within myself. In sharing stories of my Mom and her life of service to others I could feel the warmth and care of the Sangha. The unspoken power of their deep listening provided a space of healing for me. When my Mom died in November my Sangha brothers and sisters offered their true presence.

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Day by day, month by month, year by year we investigate and explore the breadth of our tradition. From the importance of mindfulness in our daily lives to our engagement in the wider world, we benefit from our Sangha practice. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “Whether practicing together as a family, a Sangha, or a nation, we have so many opportunities to grow in our capacity to understand and to love. Each moment and each day is an opportunity to begin anew, to open the door of our hearts, and to practice together for our own transformation and healing and for the transformation and healing of our families and our world.” Practicing together in this way we are discovering the path of living peacefully in the present moment and living joyfully together.

— Jim Scott-Behrends,
True Recollection of  Compassion

Reaching Out from the Heart Sangha

Our Sangha reminds me of an octopus.

An octopus has many arms and hands, like Avalokiteshvara, whose hands each hold a unique tool to relieve suffering. Each person in our Sangha is like an arm reaching out from the Sangha body, from the heart.

One person volunteers at the food bank; one advocates for immigrants; one raises money to help children in Gaza; one organizes a Sangha beach cleanup. There are several psychotherapists, a farmer, a doctor, a T’ai Ch’i teacher, a Hospice caregiver, a counselor for veterans.

We come together on Monday evenings to rest in the heart of our practice. The heart is the circle where we sit in silence together, the circle we walk with mindful steps, the circle of our arms in hugging meditation. Like blood that circulates back to the heart, we are nourished and energized when we return to our center circle every week.

Strengthened by our return to the Heart Sangha, we extend out into the world again, putting mindfulness and compassion into action, building Sangha in our greater community with acts of kindness and love.

— Natascha Bruckner,
Benevolent Respect of the Heart

Branches and Roots

The Heart Sangha is a gentle, loving gathering of people who prefer guiding principles to set forms. We all value the Mindfulness Trainings, loving kindness, spaciousness, and the joy of practice.

Over many many months, I have learned that Sangha building has become a profound inner exploration of inclusion, a dynamic practice of my willingness to release the deep belief in my isolation into the acknowledgment of interbeing. It calls me to explore and heal that which is below the surface, close to the roots. If I find myself fearing isolation, exclusion, comparisons, competition, it calls me to hold myself present in mindfulness to discover what in me is so frightened … and how to receive that part and hold it in the light of deep understanding.

When I open with tender vulnerability and let myself receive the love and wisdom from Sangha, not blindly, but with the clear eyes and open heart born of mindfulness practice, and see the essential light, beauty, Buddha mind in each one of us, I know that we are all cherished. The tree of Sangha develops stronger roots.

Each person’s strong individuality strengthens the love and also offers challenges and richness to our commitment to safeguard the unique perspectives of each person present, and hold everyone within the tenderness of deep sharing. We stretch and drop down to hold the tension of daring to listen and include each other even when our opinions differ. It is a very special environment, cultivated by all of our efforts to receive each person deeply, and allow each one’s gifts to nourish us all.

We are encouraged by those who naturally build Sangha through tending the lush branches of the tree, extending, stretching and waving to many, and by those whose natural gesture is to drop inward towards the root. Together, we nourish the whole. Together, we gather under the tree, and smile. And that smile fills the universe.

— Miriam Goldberg
True Recollection of Joy

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Is There Harmony in the Community?

By Jerry Braza

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Over five years ago at the Winter Retreat, Thay suggested that local Sanghas practice meeting on a regular basis to formally recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings. Since then, at the River Sangha, in Salem, Oregon, we continue, with nurturing results, to practice with a formal ceremony every month followed by a Dharma or book discussion. The formal ceremony always includes a Sanghakarman procedure, which “ is the way we make decisions on all matters that arise in the Sangha.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, Joyfully Together) This process has helped us to stay connected to the core community, enhance the greater community, and overall has contributed to open dialogue and peace within the Sangha.

Several years ago, during the Sanghakarman procedure we were awakened by an honest response to the question “Is there harmony in the community?” At that gathering an individual shared “No, there is not harmony and here is why.” Apparently she and others were concerned about the amount of political discussion that seemed to be infused in several weekly Sangha gatherings and she felt the Sangha was not the refuge it had been in the past. Courageously, this individual responded from her heart and shared her deepest truth at the time.

Since the Sangha had already gathered to recite the Trainings, the Sangha continued. Following the formal recitation a discussion began that continued on several other occasions; the issue was resolved one month later at the next formal recitation. If a person is aware of difficulties within the Sangha, this needs to be brought out. Perhaps a facilitator can announce, in the weeks preceding the formal recitation, that if anyone feels there is a lack of harmony please say so now, so that the Sangha can resolve the issue beforehand with either a Beginning Anew or other dialogue process. In this way harmony will be reached before beginning the next formal recitation.

In Joyfully Together Thay shares, “Being in harmony does not mean that we do not disagree or make mistakes and miss opportunities to understand one another. It means that we are doing our best and there is no division or split within the Sangha.” Reflecting on Thay’s description of Sangha harmony, it was obvious to me that we naturally had disagreements and that we were all doing our best at the time.

However, the gift that came from our Sangha member’s sharing was the call to stop and have several discussions on the matter.

When all views were heard, we were then able to move forward with insights and suggestions for the leadership corps in order to more skillfully guide Dharma discussions, select Dharma discussion topics, and promote understanding.

We learned how important it was to have had those discussions and to subsequently encourage others to answer the “harmony question” mindfully. This may be one of the best skillful means to look deeply into Sangha dynamics and involve everyone in the process of resolving all conflicts, however small. It became clear that we were practicing the “Four Skillful Means of the Bodhisattva” as outlined by Thay:

  • Offer “non-fear” and provide protection for all. Sanghas should be a safe place to practice and leaders need to provide support for this deep sharing.
  • Practice loving speech. Creating an atmosphere to practice loving speech is the opportunity that formal recitations and discussions provide.
  • Do things for the benefit of others. It is very empowering for all Sangha members to see that everyone benefits through skillful speech and true understanding of “interbeing” is achieved.
  • Practice the path of understanding and love. Through processes such as the Sanghakarman procedure and heartfelt sharing, we are able to listen deeply and practice true love through our understanding of each other.

One simple courageous response helped our Sangha to look deeply at itself and has helped create wisdom and clarity. Harmony is possible through our daily practice of the Mindfulness Trainings. As with the Trainings, harmony is the direction we all aspire to and this can be our most essential practice.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is a professor, a private consultant, and the author of Moment by Moment: The Art and Practice of Mindfulness. In 2001 he was ordained as a Dharma teacher; he practices with the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon and leads retreats.

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Deep Listening

By Brian Kimmel

I have found the practice of deep listening, both being heard and hearing others, to be very effective in dealing with the stresses and pressures of lay life. It takes effort to be present with our own suffering. We want so much to be happy, and yet often we aren’t doing the things we need to do in order to make happiness possible for ourselves.

When others listen deeply to us, we are better able to listen deeply to ourselves and to find answers to questions such as, “What do I need in order to support my practice, and to remain safe, solid and free?”

An Intimate Circle

Deep listening meditation is part of our Tuesday Night Sangha in Las Vegas. We offer members an opportunity to speak about what is in their hearts. We’ve had many people share intimate things about their lives, feeling safe in the support of the Sangha and the atmosphere of harmony the Sangha creates. Many people have cried in our circle and afterwards have felt so relieved and grateful to have had the opportunity to tell others how they feel. They also enjoy offering deep listening to others.

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At each Sangha gathering, we start the evening with sitting and walking meditation. Then we may listen to a talk, sing songs, or introduce ourselves. We always end the evening with deep listening.

We invite a sound of the bell to start the session of deep listening. Whoever would like to share joins their palms together. The rest of the group joins their palms to acknowledge them. This is a vow we offer, a promise to allow them the space to be heard. We vow, silently, not to cross-talk or interrupt anyone as they are speaking, and then allow at least a few breaths when they are finished before the next person shares. To conclude each sharing, the person speaking joins their palms to express their gratitude to the attention that has been offered.

Getting Out of the Way

Deep listening is about healing and transforming whatever suffering is in our heart and store-consciousness. One important aspect of deep listening is allowing what is said to come from emptiness and return to emptiness. We don’t want to be the bearer of another’s suffering. To do deep listening effectively, we must listen and invoke the heart of Avalokita, the Bodhisattva of Deep Listening and Compassion. We listen with compassion and nonattachment. If we listen deeply to what is being said, our understanding transcends words.

People often attach meanings, views, or judgments to what is being said. We may not even hear the other person. We may only hear our own thoughts and perceptions. We only think about ourselves — what we are going to say or how we will respond.

To listen deeply, we must get out of the way. We must give our full attention to the person who is speaking. Even if the person is silent, our attention remains with them. I’ve often suggested the practice of saying the person’s name silently in order to keep our mindfulness on them, and to keep our own thoughts and feelings from wandering aimlessly.

We need to be calm in body and mind in order to listen. That is why sitting, walking, and singing precede deep listening. Deep listening is a meditation and takes practice. We learn through experience how to be better listeners.

Brian Kimmel, True Lotus Concentration, lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and has supported mindful living in Nevada and Utah since 2004. He works as a massage therapist, musician, and inspirational speaker.

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Giving a Talk

By Joseph Emet

I have just come back from a five-day Dharma Teachers’ retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. There I heard a lot of talks, and also many pleas for finding ways of helping new members of the Order of Interbeing to be more effective in Sangha building, and in spreading Thay’s practice. In that spirit, I want to share my own experience in giving talks. Giving good talks will help greatly in making a new Sangha successful, and will encourage newcomers to return as they find meetings nourishing and meaningful.

Say It Only Once

I want to start with an experience I have not forgotten over twelve years. After one of our first meetings, I asked my partner for feedback on my talk. Sangha members can be diplomatic sometimes. My partner had no such qualms. “I can’t stand it,” she said, “You say everything three times!”

I had no idea I was doing that. In the excitement of having said something significant, I had been wanting to make sure that everybody got it. Sure enough, I would say it a bit differently each time; but it was true, I was hammering each point to death, and boring my audience to distraction.

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There is no way to make sure that everybody gets it. When I hear one of Thay’s Dharma talks a second time, I often discover new things I had not heard the first time. Sometimes the mind wanders, or we mull over a point that was exciting and new for us, and we miss the next sentence. Yet Thay moves right along, opening new vistas, and presenting new experiences. He respects the people who heard it the first time, and they keep coming back for more.

Answer the Needs of Your Audience

I also noticed early on that I tended to blow off steam a lot. I had pet peeves. Something would set me off, and there I went rambling on and on, off on a tangent. I cured that habit by writing what I wanted to say out on the computer first. Then I would read it aloud and ask myself, “Does anyone need to hear this?” In most cases, the answer was no. Sure, I had a need to say those things, and it felt good to get them off my chest. But it now felt just as good to hit the delete button and send my therapeutic ramblings down the cyber-drain.

Our talking answers a need. The more we talk to ourselves, the more people will tune off. We can instead answer the needs of the people we are talking to. Their needs may not be the same as ours. As we keep the needs of our audience foremost in mind, we also keep their attention and gain their respect.

Prepare and Improvise

Those two words are not opposites. They complement each other. A jazz musician may be improvising, but he knows how to play his scales! Thay urges us to speak without a prepared text, but not without preparation. He himself has an immense amount of preparation for what he wants to say.

Keep It Simple and Direct

Some of us speak one way and write another. Thay seems to have only one way, and a gift for writing that sounds direct and conversational. Once I was preparing a talk for a group of teachers. I had written it all down, and showed my dense text to a friend who was an English teacher. He looked it over, scratched his head in puzzlement, and asked me, “Joseph, what are you trying to say?” I told him in a couple of simple sentences. He asked, “Well, why don’t you just say it, then?”

I think that this is the negative meaning of the word “prepare” and the one Thay wishes us to avoid. We can destroy a simple experience by thinking about it too much and writing it down in a bookish way until there is no juice left in it.

We get to the Order of Interbeing through our desire to learn the practice, and then through our wish to share it. But once we are there, we find that there are other skills we need to master in order to share effectively. Giving a good talk is foremost among them.

Joseph Emet, Dwelling in Peaceful Concentration, is a musician and Dharma teacher living in Montreal, Canada. He has written many songs inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetry, published by Parallax Press.

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A Noble Silence Manifesto

By Philip Toy

It is not feasible, I know, but I have always wished that we could hold our talk until we have left the zendo.

When we drive up to Cloud Cottage, we begin to practice Noble Silence.

Our car’s tires on the gravel are already practicing car tire zen.

When we open and close our car doors, we are practicing car door zen.

When we greet one another we bow without speaking, honoring each other’s practice.

Without the weight of words, we are light and available to everything and everyone around us.

When words are called for and appropriate in the zendo, we keep them spare and few, just like stones in a zen garden. With ample space around them, these words can really signify.

When verbal communication is necessary, it should be experienced only by those who truly need to know.

The less we talk, the more we are opened up to ways to communicate without words: seeing and smiling and understanding.

Meditation instruction, Dharma discussion, and Dharma talks, to be felt and effectively experienced, rely on what is not said, on what is not seen as much, if not more so, than what is.

Often it seems for our practice to deepen, we need to say less, not more; and even take back some of what has already been said.

It has been said of even Buddha’s beautiful words that “they are like entangling briars.”

I pray not to snag anyone more than I already have with too many karmic hooks and snares.

There is a time for chanting and singing, yes, and even yelling! But how well can we experience any of these if they are carried out in a room already full of words?

Maybe if, and when our little tearoom is complete, we will have a wonderful space in which to let spill all the words we so ardently may need to share — and maybe in that sharing find the silence between those words.

We are a beautiful Sangha. And yes, words have contributed some to that beauty. But I think our delightful practice of Noble Silence has contributed much, much more. Don’t you?

Philip Toy, True Mountain of Insight, has been practicing since the early 1970s. He and his wife Judith host Cloud Cottage Sangha on the grounds of their home in Black Mountain, North Carolina; they also lead retreats and days of mindfulness around the country.

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Continuing Care Committee

By Deborah Brooks

We used to make decisions by consensus in long meetings of almost our entire Sangha, every two months or so. It was often a frustrating and arduous process that — for me — did not preserve peace and well-being in the Sangha. It would take half an hour or more to hear every person’s view on the matter being considered. Some people wanted to talk more than once, or took a long time to express their view. Arriving at consensus was difficult and it was not unusual to run out of time or energy and leave important decisions hanging. As painful as the meetings were, it was excruciating when the next meeting —with a different set of Sangha members — reviewed and often revised all the work of the previous meeting.

We created the Continuing Care Committee (CCC) several years ago to make our decision-making a more wholesome experience and to give us a way to make decisions between meetings. We wrote guidelines for mindful meeting so that we could make doing business a practice [see “Mindful Meeting Guidelines” on page 48]. This committee is charged with moving the Sangha toward its own goals and aspirations, which are identified by the entire Sangha at an annual meeting every fall. Goals may range from the general (“I’d like us to do more singing”) to the specific (“I want us to find a different venue for our next retreat”). For the rest of the year, the Sangha entrusts the CCC to coordinate how we will achieve the directions we have chosen.

The CCC consists of six to eight members who volunteer at the annual meeting. Anyone in the Sangha can volunteer, but we try to achieve a balance of newer members with veterans. The commitment is to attend monthly meetings of the committee for a year; some people serve for several years while others come and go, so there is a constant flow of energy into and out of the committee. CCC meetings are open to any Sangha member, but decision-making is left to CCC members. The Sangha’s agreement is to trust committee members to make decisions, and not to question or protest once a decision has been made. This has worked beautifully for us, and is much more efficient than the long meetings of yesterday.

I have served twice on the CCC, and for the most part have found it to be a very light commitment. The committee does not actually carry out the Sangha’s wishes. Instead, it identifies people in the Sangha who are interested in certain projects (usually the people who suggested the projects at the annual meeting) and supports each Sangha member in carrying his or her project forward, either as an individual or as a team leader.

For instance, if the Sangha has decided to sponsor a four-day retreat, it is not the CCC’s job to organize the retreat. Instead, CCC members identify the person or people interested in serving on the retreat committee, and talk to them about what kind of support they need. It’s about communication – conversations. We do not allow ourselves to become overwhelmed or resentful. If no one can be identified to facilitate a project that was named at the annual meeting, the assumption is that there is not sufficient time or interest in the Sangha to do it, and we let it go.

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Sometimes it is lovely and fun to go to the meetings. What could be more beautiful than drinking tea and talking to members of your Sangha? Other times I have been frustrated and cranky. Once, only two people made it to the meeting. The committee had a couple of big discussions about commitments and attendance after that! I have become irritated when it seemed like people were not listening, and important information had to be repeated. These are practice opportunities, and I have learned and grown from them as much as I have from sitting at ease, breathing, and drinking tea with other CCC members. Our meetings are great opportunities to practice breathing, smiling, deep listening, and being mindful of mental formations. They are also wonderful opportunities to deepen relationships within the Sangha.

Deborah Brooks, True Realization of the Essence, practices with Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Sangha member Tony Silvestre contributed to this article.

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Mindful Meeting Guidelines

By Tony Silvestre

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Meetings are a wonderful opportunity to practice skillful speaking and listening. When we gather to discuss and take care of our Sangha, there are opportunities for members to present gifts to our Sangha and for our members to practice receiving gifts. An important purpose of meetings is to practice mindfulness. It is important that the Sangha practice during meetings in ways that bring ease, peace, and joy to meeting participants. The process of making decisions is as important to the harmony of the Sangha as any action that the Sangha can take. We recognize that like all phenomena, these guidelines are impermanent, and may change as needed.

Thay invited us to be mindful at meetings and suggested that we communicate with each other using kind and respectful speech and deep listening in order to share our insight so that we can make the best decisions for the benefit of the Sangha. The following is an aspiration that Thay offers for our use:

Dear Lord Buddha and All Our Ancestral Teachers,
We vow to go through this meeting in a spirit of togetherness as we review all ideas and consolidate them to reach a harmonious understanding or consensus. We vow to use the methods of loving speech and deep listening in order to bring about the success of this meeting as an offering to the Three Jewels. We vow not to hesitate to share our ideas and insights but also vow not to say anything when the feeling of irritation is present in us. We are resolutely determined not to allow tension to build up in this meeting. If any one of us senses the start of tension, we will stop immediately and practice Beginning Anew right away so as to re-establish an atmosphere of togetherness and harmony. (from Joyfully Together)

Here are the guidelines that we use for meetings of the Laughing Rivers Sangha:

  1. Each member’s ideas and comments are a gift to the Sangha. We will practice to listen without judging and should first identify the gift offered before considering its usefulness.
  2. We will practice to express ourselves clearly and as briefly as possible. Talking over people, interrupting speakers, and rushing to speak as others pause are some ways that we limit others’ ability to speak.
  3. Repeating points that we already made, speaking for long periods, and making comments that are dealing with multiple issues at once, can be intimidating and overwhelming. We will practice to make every effort to present simply and briefly.
  4. We will practice to be careful before we represent the views of others who are not present.
  5. The Mindfulness Trainings present many opportunities for practice during meetings:
  • Aware of the suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views.
  • We shall learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to others’ insights and experiences.
  • Aware that lack of communication always brings separation and suffering, we are committed to training ourselves I the practice of compassionate listening and loving speech.
  • Aware that words can create sufferings or happiness, we are committed to learning to speak truthfully and constructively, using only words that inspire hope and confidence.

6. We will practice speaking with candor and gentleness to safeguard the Sangha.

Tony Silvestre, True Hall of Peace, is convener of Rainbow Buddhists of Pittsburgh, a social and educational group for LGBT people and their friends. Other members of Laughing Rivers Sangha in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.

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Sangha Dot Com

A twenty-first century phenomenon is the “virtual community” — a gathering of people who share a common interest and develop personal relationships, without ever meeting face to face — thanks to the Internet. For practitioners who don’t have easy access to a live Sangha, these virtual solutions can be a blessing — an electronic raft that keeps their practice afloat. (The cyber-universe evolves rapidly, so some of the technical information here may be out of date by the time you read this. But you might be inspired to start something on your own!)

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Plumline Online Sangha

In March 2006, Allan LaCroix took Thay’s words to heart — “without Sangha, practitioners quickly lose their practice.” Allan, Peaceful Commitment of the Heart, of Ontario, Canada, sent out an e-mail looking for people interested in helping to set up an online Sangha for practitioners who are physically challenged. Because of Allan’s own difficulties accessing Sangha face to face, he thought this might be a viable way for him to keep in contact with the greater Sangha and at the same time maintain his practice.

In Colorado, I was having similar difficulties and I thought this was a great idea, so I contacted Allan. Plumline Sangha was born. We began meeting weekly and over time set up a workable online meeting format using Yahoo IM.

While in Plum Village in June 2006, I met people who lived in remote places with no Sangha nearby. I saw the potential for use of online Sangha by people who are geographically limited as well as physically limited. I posted signs, put out a sign-up sheet during the Sangha Fair, and spoke with people about Plumline. Comments ranged from “a great idea” to “this will be huge over time.”

Allan’s goal was to ultimately set up a website where people could connect with one another. Eventually we created a website that is easy to navigate through and simple to use: www.plumline. org. It is designed to be a support center for those wishing to establish, build, and maintain an online Sangha — a place to share ideas and resources as online Sangha develops.

After the first few months I found myself facilitating Plumline alone, twice a day on Mondays, trying to accommodate people from around the world at 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. Mountain Time. We have had requests from twenty-four countries. By December of 2008 I was not able to continue as meeting facilitator by myself. I had received over 175 requests from people and could only serve twenty or twenty-five due to time zone and language constraints. These are some of the places we have heard from so far, outside of the U.S. and Canada: Australia, Austria, South America, Africa, France, Germany, Greece, India, Ireland, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Syria, Senegal, Thailand, UK, United Arab Emirates.

Fortunately some volunteer facilitators came forward. Bill from Canada took over the evening meeting and now facilitates on Thursdays at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Lorraine facilitates on Mondays at 9:00 a.m. Pacific Time. I still operate behind the scenes, answering the many e-mails that come in.

As our mission statement says, online Sangha is not a replacement for face-to-face Sangha, but a viable alternative for those that cannot regularly attend a traditional Sangha and wish to maintain their practice. Plumline has been established to enhance the Sangha experience for practitioners and enable people to connect with others in similar situations.

A Plumline member from Oregon writes: “Plumline has given me a real frame of reference for the term ‘taking refuge in the Sangha’. Because of my geographical isolation I would have no other way to experience a Sangha and be able to practice and receive loving and compassionate speech.” A member in Australia says, “Thank you to everyone who has kept the Dharma alive in Plumline. A lotus to you, a Buddha to be.”

Plumline has already become more than Allan and I imagined. It has become a vital worldwide Sangha connection — a connection we hope will continue and flourish for years to come.

We are in need of volunteers to make this happen. We need background technical support for the website and the Plumline message board. And we need people to facilitate meetings in other countries to accommodate time zones. Clearly we don’t need someone from every country, yet. We need folks from time zones for Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.

Please check us out at www.plumline.org or e-mail us at plumline@elitemail.org.

— Elaine Sparrow, True Lotus Heart, lives in Idaho Springs, Colorado where she co-founded Full Moon Sangha. A former educator, Elaine has focused on building Sangha for children and providing children’s programs at Days of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness Anywhere Sangha

A couple of years ago I was listening to The Hand of the Buddha retreat on CD and the phrase “global Sangha” stayed with me. At the same time, I was working on an idea that I call Communities Without Borders, but I didn’t know what the next step was for me. In 1996, my wife and I had started Peace House, in Phoenix, Arizona, part of which was leading a Sangha practice. I would get calls from people asking where and when we met. Their reply was often, “Is there any place closer or on a different day?” The response to all this has come in the shape of a virtual practice center — Mindfulness Anywhere Sangha.

We meet every Monday night, technology permitting, from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. (Arizona time, Mountain Standard Time year round), over the Internet or by phone.

We sit and walk together each in our own homes. We have a Dharma talk and discussion. We are able to play talks by Thich Nhat Hanh; I look forward to having other teachers share with us live on the Internet.

The great thing is that distance is no longer a problem, nor are the day and time because the practice is recorded and people can listen and sit when they want. One of the obvious advantages is that we are able to observe a no-car commitment.

Some of the comments have been:

  • “I think this is going to be a valuable resource and I will absolutely circulate it at every opportunity.”
  • “I felt connected to others; I didn’t feel alone at all. I really enjoyed it and it felt like I was with a group.”
  • “This is very comfortable. It really appeals to me since I travel mostly by bicycle; this makes it really easy and allows me to connect with ”

To join the Sangha, go to the website www.mindfulnessanywhere.com and select “Phone-In Sangha” at the top of the page; follow the instructions to join either by telephone or by Internet. The phone lines and Internet connection open every Monday at 6:55 p.m. AZ MST.

We also have an Internet network at mindfulnesspractice.ning. com where one can blog, join forum discussions, share pictures, videos, and music, and send messages to others.

— Rev. Marvin Brown, True Good Energy, is an ordained inter-denominational minister who teaches mindfulness practice and religious thought.

Virtual Sangha

Do you ever wish you had other Sangha members joining you in sitting practice every morning? How about having them join you in your living room so you don’t even have to get up and go anywhere? And they don’t have to get up and go anywhere either! That’s what several of us have been doing for the past few months. We have developed what we are calling Virtual Sangha. Through the wonderful technology of free conference calling, we are able to dial into a common number and be connected with each other via our telephones. We take turns leading — which involves inviting intentions or prayers for the first minute, then doing a short reading for another minute, followed by inviting the bell and sitting in silence together for the next half-hour. We put our phones on speaker so we are free to put our hands in whatever position we wish and enjoy our breathing and meditation. At the end of the half-hour, the bell is rung again, and people hang up and go about their day.

It is very sweet to start the day meditating with others. I have known this from retreats, and I have longed to have it be a part of my daily life for some time now. I have found myself being envious of those who live in community or have a practice center where this opportunity is readily accessible. While our virtual sitting practice is not quite the same as being present in person, it is quite lovely and has made a big difference for me. It has helped me to be more regular in my morning practice, as I know there are others who will be sitting with me. I find it easier to wake up early, knowing that my Sangha sisters and brothers will be there. And it’s not limited to those we know. Although we are in Colorado, by word of mouth, we have people joining us from Iowa and Canada on some mornings. I feel like I’m making new friends with people I haven’t even met!

Feel free to join us. Here’s how it works. We “meet” at 6:15

a.m. on weekdays and 8:00 a.m. on weekends and holidays (Mountain Time). Simply dial 1-218-339-3600. You will be prompted to enter a code. Our group’s code is 934902#. Feel free to identify yourself, but if it’s after 6:20 or 8:05, please remain silent, as the meditation will have begun. (We take the first five minutes to greet each other before the reading and silence begins). Once the meditation has begun, we ask people to mute their phones (by entering *6 on the conference call service) in order to avoid the sounds of rustling clothes, coughs, sneezes, inquiring spouses and children, etc. (Note: The conference call is free, but the long distance call isn’t, so use your free minutes for this. Many people’s long distance charges don’t begin until 7 a.m. on weekdays and don’t apply at all on weekends.)

If you live in another time zone, you may want to start your own Virtual Sangha. Just go to www.freeconferencecall.com and sign up. Happy meditating!

— Val Stepien, Liberating Essence of the Heart, lives in Denver, Colorado where she participates in a real live Sangha, Eyes of Compassion.

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Mentoring and the Aspirant Process

By Joanne Friday

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When someone approaches me with an interest in becoming an aspirant for the Order of Interbeing, I give them twelve Questions for Reflection [see sidebar] to help them look deeply at their motivation and to decide whether conditions are sufficient for them to make a commitment to Sangha building at this time.

Then I meet with them so that they can share what they discovered when answering the questions. If they are clear that they want to become a member of the Order, the questions help them to see areas in their lives that need their attention, or areas of their practice that could be stronger. I always ask them to look deeply at what they see as the strengths of their practice and which areas need to be strengthened. This helps me to offer them supportive practices.

A Clear Aspiration

It also helps for the potential aspirant to get clear about their motivation. Many of us have been powerfully conditioned to want to “attain” something and make “progress.” Many approach the aspirant process as they would an academic program, wanting to complete the requirements and get the degree. This habit energy can be very strong and a real obstacle to stopping and getting in touch with our inner wisdom. When people can stop running after the answer outside of themselves, develop compassion for themselves, and learn to use the practice to take very good care of themselves and transform their suffering when it arises, they are able to be fully present and be of service to others. Then we can truly inter-be and build a strong Sangha.

Once they are clear about their aspiration, I ask them to write a letter to Thay (with a copy sent to Brother Phap Tri) outlining their spiritual path so far and explaining why they want to enter the aspirant process at this time. I invite them to ask an Order member or two that they practice with regularly to assist in mentoring them. I then try to connect with those mentors so that we can share the process of supporting the aspirant.

I share aspirant materials that have been compiled by other Dharma teachers (many can be found at http://mountainsangha.org/aspirant/). They include suggested reading lists and practices.

I talk with the aspirant monthly, in person or by phone, and help them to look at how they are practicing the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings in their daily life. Our Sangha has an aspirant group made up of Order members, aspirants, and those contemplating joining the Order. We meet once a month and have a ceremony to recite the Fourteen Trainings. Aspirants become familiar with the form and the chants. We then have a check-in, during which the participants share which of the Fourteen particularly resonated with them or what happened during the month that gave them the opportunity to become more aware of their habits of mind, places they are caught, and opportunities to use the Fourteen. We then share a potluck lunch and hugging meditation.

Aspirants are also encouraged to attend retreats and Days of Mindfulness, take an active role in their Sangha, organize Days of Mindfulness, and share their practice. If they are not in my area, I ask that they attend retreats that I will be offering or attending so that we get a chance to practice together.

Flowering and Transformation

After the aspirant has been studying and practicing for at least a year (or two years, according to many Sanghas), and the Sangha, the Dharma teacher, and the mentors are all in agreement, the aspirant is invited to receive Ordination.

At that time, they complete an application to receive the Transmission of the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings. They write a letter to describe how they have transformed their suffering, some of the insights they have had during the aspirant process, and their motivation for wanting to receive the Transmission at this time. The Sangha writes a letter of support, the Dharma teacher writes a letter, and the mentors write letters. All of these letters along with the application form are compiled into a packet that is sent to Thay. Copies of the packet are sent to Brother Phap Tri and the Dharma teacher, and a copy is kept by the aspirant.

Also in our Sangha, we conduct a Shining of the Light ceremony near the beginning of the process and again two to three months before Ordination. [See “Shining the Light” on page 53.] Not everyone feels comfortable doing this; if not, it is better not to do it. When done skillfully, with love and compassion, the person who has had the light shone on them feels deeply loved.

That’s how we are supporting our aspirants at this time. As mentors, we practice deeply in order to be able to be available to the mentee. It is a true privilege to share the path and an inspiration to witness the beautiful flowering and transformation that occurs.

Joanne Friday, True Joy of Giving, practices with the Clear Heart Sangha, the Radiant Bell Sangha, and the Mind Tamers Sangha in Rhode Island. She lives with her husband, Richard, in Wakefield, RI.

mb51-Mentoring2Questions for Reflection

These questions for reflection were developed during the Community of Mindfulness, NY Metro aspirant process and were published in The Mindfulness Bell #21, April 1998.

  1. Why do I want to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings?
  2. Why have I decided to state my aspiration to receive the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings at this time?
  3. How has my practice of mindfulness (understanding, love, and compassion) helped me to transform my suffering (anger, fear, depression, craving/neediness, despair, distractions, specific relationships, and past and current experiences of suffering)? What are challenges in the practice for me at this time? Where is my “growing edge”?
  4. What time and energy can I offer at this time and over the next few years to take responsibility for the well-being of the Sangha with which I practice? How am I communicating with my Sangha about my deepening aspiration, to encourage support and avoid divisiveness?
  5. Where am I with my relationships with my family? with Order of Interbeing members? with other Sangha members? In what ways am I practicing in the direction of “resolving all conflicts, however small”?
  6. Where am I in relation to mindful consumption of alcohol (as interpreted in Thay’s tradition); and other consumption, including consumption of TV?
  7. How long and in what contexts have I been practicing within Thay’s tradition (local Sangha, Plum Village, retreats, reading)?
  8. What is my relationship with my “root” tradition(s)? How do I see the connections in my life between my root tradition(s) and Thay’s practice and teachings?
  9. How long and in what contexts have I been practicing with other meditation traditions? How do I integrate these experiences with Thay’s practice and teachings?
  10. How do I use the practice of mindfulness in the context of my workplace and livelihood? How would I like to do this even more?
  11. What is my “socially engaged” practice and aspiration?
  12. Are there other questions and concerns about my practice, about the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings, and about joining the core community of the Order of Interbeing?

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