Dharma Talk: Breathing for Our Children

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Before he passed away, the Buddha instructed his disciples to take refuge in the island of mindfulness within themselves by practicing mindfulness in sitting, walking, breathing, and every activity of daily life. Mindfulness means to be aware of what is going on in the present moment. If we take one peaceful, happy step and know that we are taking a peaceful, happy step, mindfulness is there. Breathing in and out mindfully, we see the many elements of happiness already available.

mb23-dharma1

Mindfulness is enlightenment, understanding, compas­sion, liberation, and healing. If we touch everything with mindfulness, the world will reveal itself in its full splendor. Mindfulness makes our eyes, our heart, our non-toothache, the moon, and the trees deep and beautiful. And when we touch our suffering with mindfulness, we begin to transform it. Mindfulness is like a mother holding her baby in her arms and caring for her baby’s pain. When our pain is held by mindfulness, it loses some of its strength.

Sometimes we feel that happiness and well-being are not possible in the present moment. Our grandparents and our parents may have taught us that happiness is only possible in the future. But according to the Buddha, we can be happy right here and right now. Even if a few things are not to our liking, there are many positive conditions for our happiness. Please try this exercise:

Breathing in, I am aware of my eyes.
Breathing out, I smile to my eyes.

Generate the energy of mindfulness and embrace your eyes. Smile to your eyes. Having eyes in good condition is a wonderful element for your happiness. You only need to open your eyes, and you will see a paradise of form and colors. Please enjoy this paradise. Try not to let your worries, suffering, and anger overwhelm you. Please try this practice:

Breathing in, I am aware of my heart.
Breathing out, I smile to my heart.

When you use the energy of mindfulness to embrace your heart, you will see that having a heart that functions well is another condition for your happiness. But you have neglected your heart for a long time — by the way you work, eat, and manage anxiety. Embrace your heart with tenderness, love, and compassion, and smile to your heart. Practice with your whole body, while lying down or sitting up. If any part of your body does not feel well, hold it with mindfulness and tenderness. This is a wonderful practice. Mindful breathing is the door to reconcile with and take care of our self.

The first exercise the Buddha proposed in his Discourse on Mindful Breathing is: 

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out. 

The object of mindfulness is your in-breath and your out-breath, and nothing else. Identify your in-breath as in-breath and your out-breath as out-breath. It’s that simple. Just say, “In,” and “Out,” as you breathe in and out. These words are not concepts. They are instruments for maintain­ing mindfulness. Observe the reality of your in-breath throughout its duration. Stay at one with your in-breath all the way through.

mb23-dharma2

You don’t need to make an effort to stop your thinking. Just by concentrating on your in-breath one hundred percent, your thinking will quiet itself. You don’t need to “force” yourself to be mindful. Just enjoy your breathing. When the practice is pleasant, concentration becomes easy, and insight is born. Mindful­ness, concentration, and insight always go together.

Sit or lie down in a way that allows your body to rest. Sitting, your head and spine form a straight line. Relax all your muscles. If you are sitting on a cushion, select one that is the correct thickness for your physical condition. Find a way of sitting that allows you to sit for at least twenty minutes, without becoming too stiff or tired. As soon as you sit down, pay attention to your breath. Then notice your posture, a little bit everywhere. Relax the muscles in your face. If you are angry or worried, those muscles will be tense. Smile lightly, and you will relax hundreds of muscles in your face. Then notice your shoul­ders, and let go of the tension there. Don’t try too hard. Just breathe mindfully, and scan your whole body.

When you watch TV, you can sit for a long time. But in meditation, you struggle. Why not imitate the way you sit watching television? The key is effortlessness. Don’t fight or try too hard. Just allow yourself to sit in a relaxed way, and you will feel deeply calm. A period of sitting meditation is time worth living. Don’t interfere with your breathing. Breathing takes place by itself. Just light the lamp of mindfulness and shine it on your breathing. Don’t modify, bend, or make your breathing the way you think it is supposed to be. This is mindfulness of breathing, not intervention. Just become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. If your in-breath is short, let it be short. If your out-breath is long, let it be long. Become aware of your in-breath and out-breath as they are. Don’t try to make them shorter or longer. After a few minutes of practice, you will notice an improvement in the quality of your breathing, and a feeling of well-being will be born in you.

Mindfulness recognizes what is there, and concentration allows you to be deeply present with whatever it is. Concentration is the ground of happiness. If you live twenty-four hours a day in mindfulness and concentration, one day is a lot. Each moment of your life can become a legend. The Buddha didn’t leave behind a theory or set of dogmas. He left behind his life. Every step he took was solid and peaceful. His compassion penetrated the living beings of his time, and the living beings of today, as well. Each step, each breath, and each of his words convey the energy of mindfulness, understanding, and compassion. The practice is to live mindfully and deeply each moment of your daily life, to return to your true home in the present moment.

But many of us do not want to go home to ourselves. We were wounded as children, and it is hard for us to trust others or allow their love to penetrate us. So, instead of going home, we make every effort to avoid ourselves. We say we don’t have enough time to be with ourselves, and even when we do have five or ten minutes, we turn on the TV, pick up a magazine, or get in the car and go out for a drive. We haven’t been in close touch with our body, our feelings, and our mind for a long time. We are afraid to go home to ourselves, because we don’t have the means to protect ourselves from the suffering that is within us. But mindfulness can be our protection, making it possible for us to go home safely. With mindfulness, we can touch the wounded child within and embrace him or her without being overwhelmed. With training in mindful breathing and walking, we will be able to go home and embrace our suffering. The practice is to prepare ourselves to go back and touch the wounded child within. Doing this will help many beings — past, present, and future — and not only ourselves.

To practice is not to transform ourselves into a battle­field, the good fighting the evil. There is no battle. There are only positive and negative elements within us, and both sides are us. We can embrace all of them, and when we do, the negative elements will transform themselves into positive ones, without any fighting or discarding. We need to learn to transform our garbage into compost. If we continue to practice dwelling in mindfulness, accepting all the elements we discover within us as ourselves, one day our wounds won’t force us to do and say things we don’t want to do or say, anymore. With mindful breathing, we learn to recognize our unwholesome mental formations even before they arise, and we can stop being the victim of the habit energies we’ve received from so many generations of ancestors. At that moment, we become an instrument in the work of transformation, for our own sake and for the sake of our ancestors and future generations.

The Buddha gave many talks on breathing in and breathing out in mindfulness. My little book, Breathe! You Are Alive, presents several of these, with commentaries on how to practice. The Buddha did not offer these exercises as theories or means for analysis. He offered them as concrete practices for us to do. Please practice mindful breathing, and enjoy your breathing. Breathing is enjoyable.

Twenty years ago we could not have imagined non-smoking flights. We suffered for years every time we had to sit in an airplane among those who were smoking. Now, thanks to our collective awakening, there are many non-smoking flights all over the world. Awakening is possible. In every one of us there is a seed of awakening. We should have confidence in this seed, and not be over­whelmed by despair. The practice is to touch the positive elements that are already there, so we will benefit from these elements and realize awakening.

If you practice mindful breathing, mindful smiling, mindful walking, and mindful working, your stability and strength will inspire those around you. Please practice together as a Sangha. When you see a group of people living mindfully, capable of smiling and loving, it will give you confidence in the future. Please learn the art of Sangha building. We mustn’t allow the younger generation to lose hope. Breathe, walk, act, and live each moment of life in a way that demonstrates to our children that a future is possible. 

This Dharma talk is from Thich Nhat Hanh’s 21-Day Retreat in Burlington, Vermont, in June 1998, on The Path of Emancipation. The talks will be published by Parallax Press in 1999. 

Photo: Mark Sternfield.

PDF of this article

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

From the Editor

Mindful breathing is often the first practice we learn, and one we spend a lifetime trying to remember. Last summer, Thich Nhat Hanh led a three-week retreat in Vermont on the practice of mindful breathing. His Dharma talk in this issue originated in that retreat. In other articles, Dharma teachers Anh-Huong Nguyen and Joan Halifax share instructions on mindful breathing techniques. Dharma teachers Therese Fitzgerald and Eileen Kiera, and other practitioners, write of using mindful breathing to ground themselves and touch peace-in ordinary times and and in times of difficulty. Please enjoy this issue.
– Leslie Rawls

PDF of this article

The Energy of Love

By Anh-Huong Nguyen

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

When I invest all of my being into my breath, this exercise becomes a mantra. I entrust myself completely to my breathing, and I know I am safe. Mindful breathing is my anchor.

Many young people suffer because they don’t know what to do in times of strong emotion. They need the anchor of their breath. A few weeks ago, I shared the technique of belly-breathing with a group of fifth-grade students. I told them to use it in times of strong emotions. They listened attentively and practiced very well. These young people need our help to enter the heart of the Buddha and learn to take refuge in their safe island of self. My family escaped from

Vietnam in a very small boat. None of us could swim. Before we left, my father tied eight floats on both sides of the boat. On the open sea, our boat was caught in a terrible storm. The boat engine stopped. I peeped out of the boat. The waves were so high, all I could see was water- no sky, no horizon, just water everywhere. If my father had not tied floats on the boat, we would all have been in the bellies of the fish. Mindful breathing is like the floats on our small boat. By holding onto our breathing, we are able to go safely through the storms of life.

mb23-TheEnergy1

Allowing our body to relax is the key to enjoying our breathing. The breath is part of the body. When the body is at ease, breathing becomes natural and relaxed. Since conscious breathing is a bridge connecting body and mind, the breath is also part of the mind. When the breath is calm, it calms the mind. I like to see my breathing as a pillow on which I rest: “Breathing in, I am resting on the pillow of my in-breath. Breathing out, I am resting on the pillow of my out-breath.”

The practice of mindful breathing is the practice of stopping. Someone asked when to stop. The answer is “now.” There is such a lot of confusion, misunderstanding, and suffering in each of us and in the world today it is important for us to learn and practice the skill of stopping. When we discover that we are running into an accident, our only wish is to be able to stop. And we can achieve stopping by holding onto our anchor of conscious breathing. Stopping helps us realize the absence of accident-the presence of safety and happiness. A half-smile is the fruit of that realization. Forgetfulness is the kind of energy that makes us run away from the present moment, and is the cause of many of our accidents. Missing our steps as we walk on earth is an accident. Missing the looks and the smiles of our beloved ones at the dinner table is another accident. The moment we come back to our breath, forgetfulness is being transformed into remembrance, mindfulness, happiness, and compassion.

The practice of conscious breathing is indeed the beginning of and the basis of the practice of love. The practice of a half-smile always goes with the practice of mindful breathing. A smile is both a means and an end. We smile to acknowledge and nurture the joy that is present, so that our joy may continue to grow. When happiness pervades our whole being, a half-smile blooms on our lips, in our eyes, and beneath our steps-without any effort. Several people have asked: “How can I smile when there is no joy in my heart?” The feeling of joy may not be present, but the seed of joy is there. It only needs to be touched and watered.

Mindful breathing helps us water the seeds of joy by connecting with the elements of joy within and around us: “Breathing in, I feel the blood flowing in my body. Breathing out, I am in touch with the sound of water trickling in the creek.” Friends in the practice can help us touch our seed of joy. Our smile can also help us touch our seed of joy. We do not have to feel joy to smile. We smile to wake up the seed of joy sleeping in the soil of our mind. It may not seem too difficult to smile to others, yet it can feel strange to smile to ourselves. More than anyone, we deserve our smile. If we cannot smile to ourselves, something is in the way, preventing us from accepting and loving our self.

Suppose one winter day, we come home and the house is cold. We light the fireplace. After a while, the room becomes warm and comfortable. Our energy of mindfulness embraces our pain in the same way. The act of making a fire is born from an insight that the room is cold and the desire to warm the room. When we realize that we are suffocating in our pain, deep in our heart is born the desire to relieve our suffering. Our half-smile is the manifestation of that awakening and desire. Our half-smile is a breath of fresh air which brings immediate relief to our pain. It proves that we have compassion towards ourselves. Before the match is struck, the fire logs cannot produce wann air. Similarly, we must touch the seed of self-compassion for mindful breathing to produce the energy needed for transformation. Mindful breathing is the practice of compassion: “Breathing in, I smile to my in-breath. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body.”

Holding onto our breathing is an art. It requires self-training and practice. By nurturing ourselves with the ease and joy of conscious breathing while strong emotions are not there, we will remember to return to our breath the moment strong emotions start to arise. If our instability is so great that we cannot hold onto and experience a sense of safety in our breath, one of the following methods can be used.

First, we can revive trust in ourselves and in the practice by recalling any feeling of peace and stability that was produced by our conscious breathing in the past. This can be done most easily when we are in an environment conducive to the practice, such as in a park or beside a river. The energy of trust helps us reconnect and entrust ourselves to our breath again. Second, we can ask for support from our Sangha brothers and sisters who are quite solid and loving. Their presence and their words bring us relief and enable us to taste the safety of our breath again. Third, we can allow ourselves to be embraced by a loving, supportive community that has the practice of peace, joy, stability, and compassion as its foundation. Breath is life. If we cannot experience the safety of conscious breathing and the joy of being alive, we are like wilted flowers. A practice community is good soil where each practitioner is trained to be a skillful gardener. Good soil and well-trained gardeners together can transform wilted flowers into fresh flowers. Taking refuge in the Sangha is to entrust ourselves completely to the practice and wisdom of the Sangha. The Sangha is the anchor. If the Sangha is a true Sangha, we will be able to experience the joy of conscious breathing in order to be healed and transformed.

In one retreat, a woman expressed feeling numb toward her breath. Belly-breathing did not work for her. It is true that when our mind and body become very tense, we may not be able to feel our breathing. I asked her to lie down and allow herself to be held tenderly in the arms of the Mother Earth as several imagery exercises were offered to help her relax. After 20 minutes, she began to feel her in-breath and her out-breath. Later in the retreat, as tears came to her eyes, she shared with friends her feeling of peacefulness with the practice of belly-breathing. This miracle could not have happened without a loving, supportive Sangha. It is autumn in Virginia. Each day, I receive many beautiful leaves from our five-year-old son, Bao-Tich.

Whenever he steps through the door, his face is as radiant as the leaf in his hands. Looking at Bao-Tich, I realize how happy he was to encounter the leaf, pick it up, bring it home, and offer it to me. For him, each autumn leaf is a true wonder. He encounters each leaf as if it is everything. He looks so happy and satisfied! Everyone was once a child like Bao-Tich. We were happy and satisfied with “little things” such as the leaves, the pebbles, the twigs, the acorns. We looked up at the sky and talked to the birds. Our smile shows our desire to revive that capacity. A smile is the rain and the sunshine. It has the power of liberating us from holding enmity toward ourselves and others. A smile can transform dry earth into fertile soil. Our smile seals us to the present moment.

A mindfulness practitioner is a love weaver. When we practice mindful breathing-whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down–each breath is a thread woven into a cradle of love. Thanks to this cradle, we have a place to hold and nurture our joy, to hold and lullaby our pain. Transformations take place in this very cradle.

Dharma teacher Anh-Huong, Chan Y, facilitates the Mindfulness Practice Center in Fairfax, Virginia. She is the founder of The Committee for the Relief of Poor Children in Vietnam, which helps poverty-stricken children and orphans in Vietnam.

PDF of this article

The Seasons of Practice

By Eileen Kiera

I return to mindfulness of my breath as to a prayer-not prayer as supplication, but as a willingness to be open to what is unfolding in each moment. With conscious breathing as a foundation, we welcome whatever comes. Resting in the stillness of our breathing, we welcome the things we want and the things we don’t want, the things we generally choose to push away, deny, or ignore. Whatever presents itself, we are able to be here in trust. I’m reminded of Brother Lawrence, a 16th century Christian monk, who said he practiced the presence of God. In each moment, he came back to trust whatever presented itself to him. He gave himself into relationship with each event or person who came to him as if God breathed with him.

Even as I sit at my computer, writing these words, I’m given the opportunity to practice. My ten-year-old daughter, Naomi, asks me to put her hair in a bun. My first thought is to send her away, imploring her not to disturb me. But I return to my breathing as if to prayer and choose instead to be with her. As I brush her thick, black hair, I am touched by her sweetness and beauty. I feel my love for her, and the preciousness of this fleeting moment together. When we have finished, I am more present than before to my writing, and she goes off, happily singing a little song to herself.

Mindful breathing adds weight and potency to the simple things in our lives, and allows us to touch the depth of mystery, the deepest rhythms that are present in even the most ordinary things. In spring, I love the sight and scent of tender, pink apple blossoms. In summer, the fruit, hidden in green leaves, attracts deer and Steller’s jays to our yard. In autumn, the crisp, frosted apples are filled with the most delicious, sweet juice. In winter, the apple trees stands bare of leaves and fruit, as if dead. Year after year, I marvel at this ordinary cycle of life. It is a rhythm, like the ebb and flow of the tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the coming and going of my breath-the rhythm of life and death that surpasses our thoughts or understanding of life and death. And we live in the midst of this mystery every moment, with each breath.

I was touched by this mystery recently as I sat with a friend who lay dying. After sharing some memories of times we had spent together, ordinary events now filled with poignancy, I sat with him in silence. My breath seemed most ordinary, but it brought me in touch with the presence of the mystery, which you might call the presence of God. I was not looking for anything or making any effort to understand what was happening. Rather my breath was like a silent prayer of opening and trusting. In a few moments, I noticed that my friend and I were breathing together, our chests rising and falling at the same rate, slowly, peacefully. He reached out and took my hand, as old friends do. And I knew that we were both moving in the midst of the unknown, accepting even this. Being with each other, loving each other, as we had over many years, was enough in that moment. And I think it is enough in every moment, when we practice as prayer. We fall in love with everything that life gives us. We enjoy this day.

Dharma teacher Eileen Kiera, True Lamp, teaches mindfulness throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is co-founder of Mountain Lamp Community, a group of people dedicated to creating a rural practice center in the Pacific Northwest. They have purchased 40 acres in the mountains of northern Washington State, and are currently raising money and planning for the first stages of development.

PDF of this article

Breathfully Taking Care

 By Therese Fitzgerald

After months of zazen practice at San Francisco Zen Center, I asked my teacher Richard Baker-roshi, “Do I really have to count my breath?” “Yes,” he responded with unmistakable solemnity. I had friends who managed to count hundreds of breaths forwards and backwards, and others who described staying home just enjoying their breathing in zazen posture. So I kept putting myself in the “bamboo rod,” as Suzuki-roshi writes in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind–trying to learn what for me was a somewhat elusive practice.

Ten years ago, I acknowledged to Thich Nhat Hanh that paying attention to my breathing was mostly an experience of getting in touch with constriction in my abdomen and chest. Thlly asked me, “Is there any time you enjoy your breathing?” I thought for a moment and responded, “Yes, when I’m floating in the ocean, in a pond, or even in the bathtub.” “Why do you ever get out of the bathtub?” he asked wide-eyed, opening his palm.

Now as I sit up in bed writing while my husband sleeps next to me, I realize I am enjoying my breathing alongside of his breathing. At times-sitting at my office desk looking out the window, lying under a tree, standing at the dish sink-I find myself simply and happily being conscious of my breathing. The concept and practice of stopping, samatha-stopping at the sound of the telephone bell, having a friend ask, “Are you enjoying your breathing?” or stopping for formal meditation-has helped me notice my breathing throughout the day and notice whether it is long or short, relaxed or constricted. Stretching out in the prone posture is the most conducive for my relaxed breathing, and floating in a warm body of water, especially salt water, always gives me the most enjoyable breathing experience.

And then there are times when I have really needed to “take refuge in the island of self’ by practicing conscious breathing. This practice was my constant companion, for example, throughout the ordeal of my beloved brother’s recovery from a brain injury accident, starting with six weeks in a coma. The breath proved to be my strongest link with the present moment. By returning to my breath when any thoughts of the past or the future could have overwhelmed me, I nurtured my strength to stay with my brother through the coma- which was fairly unnerving, as he was both completely familiar to me and yet far, far away in another universe. Walking meditation in the halls of the neuro-unit sustained me in my contact with less-than sensitive medical staff and anxious visitors. I remember one visitor pleading with me, “Tell me it’s gonna be all right.” I breathed and spoke from a place of calm conviction, “He’s alive. Let’s be grateful and be with him as he is right now.”

mb23-Breathfully1

I had to leave midway through the coma, knowing that it would be several weeks before I could see my brother again. My father and I had just visited a facility for severely-damaged brain injury survivors. As I entered my brother’s hospital room, I was choked up with sorrow and dread. Tears threatened to disable me from sitting by his side and helping him as he struggled to tear at the feeding tube. I called on the practice of putting breath to song and sang “Breathing In, Breathing Out” with as much spirit as I could gather. My calm was restored, and my sister, who arrived to take care of my brother, was heartened.

Years later, I continued to process the lessons from this experience. While practicing walking meditation at Plum Village one year after the accident, my sadness almost overwhelmed me. I remembered Thay’s advice to me just months after the accident when I found it difficult to practice walking meditation on the beautiful streets of Prague, as all I could think of was my brother’s inability to walk at the time. Thay had responded, “Walk for your brother.” As we started out on the path along the Plum Village sunflower fields, I poured my loving concentration for my brother into each step, while I maintained awareness of my breathing. A song/mantra emerged from that walk which expresses what I continue to learn from the radical awakenings my brother opened up for me:
I didn’t know how precious life is,
until I saw you lying there.
I must have forgotten how precious life is,
and then I saw you lying there.
I couldn’t believe how precious life is,
as I watched you lying there.
And then I practiced taking care,
taking care of you lying there.
And now I know how precious life is,
 how very precious life is.

I tum to this mantra when I need to come back to my breathing and deepen my perspective.

It seems so simple: mindful breathing helps us be present for the preciousness of life. The trick is “remembering to remember” the practice that helps us stay present. We help ourselves by carving out time to sit and walk mindfully every day to develop the “habit” of stopping and being with the breath. And yes, counting the breath, gatha practice, guided meditations, or some other means of being fully aware of our breathing, can be the vehicle which facilitates our practice so that it is there for us to call on when we need it.

Dharma teacher Therese Fitzgerald, True Light, practices swimming meditation and mindful breathing in any body of water above freezing.

PDF of this article

Re-Spiriting a Campus

By Jerry Braza and Robert Henderson

Our University Stress Management Class begins at 9:30 every Tuesday and Thursday morning. At precisely ten o’clock, the campus bell chimes and the entire class stops. We listen, breathe, and smile as we come back to the present moment. In that moment, with each respiration, we unite body, mind, and spirit in a kind of “re-spiriting,” thus embodying the very essence of the root of the word “respiration.”

During the class, students learn a wide variety of meditation and relaxation techniques. This includes  discussion, exploration, and daily practice of mindfulness as a powerful form of stress reduction, as well as a metaphor for life. Students are discovering how mindful breathing can be a bridge between mind, body, and spirit. They are taught vaIious gathas such as “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile,” and are encouraged to develop their own phrases to accompany the breath during a variety of activities.

Initially, students noticed their breathing mainly during periods of physical activity. With the practice of mindful breathing, they report many positive changes. Breathing mindfully on the walk to the library facilitates a more relaxed mood needed to complete assignments. Mindful breathing while driving has helped combat forms of “road rage,” so students don’t get angry as often and arrive more relaxed. Breathing mindfully before a performance allows time for reflection and reduces anxiety. Students also report that mindful breathing helps them appreciate the natural beauty on campus, forget time constraints for the moment, focus before class, control anger, and cope with people and situations more calmly and effectively.

The class is discovering that the academic highway, often riddled with potholes, can also be smooth, peaceful, and scenic. In learning to stop, breathe, and smile, students are realizing that they are not separate from each other. Mindful breathing offers the space and awareness for deeper connections to others in the class and eventually, the campus community. Slowly, breath by breath, within this “academic family,” a Sangha is blossoming.

Jerry Braza, True Great Response, is an Associate Professor at Western Oregon University, where he teaches Health Education. Robert Henderson is a graduate assistant at Western Oregon University.

PDF of this article

Gatha

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in.
Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.

Breathing in, I see myself as a flower.
Breathing out, I feel fresh.

Breathing in, I see myself as a mountain.
Breathing out, I feel solid.

Breathing in, I see myself as still water.
Breathing out, I reflect all that is.

Breathing in, I see myself as space.
Breathing out, I feel free.

From Touching Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh

PDF of this article

The Gift of the Bell

By Leslie Rawls

Editing this issue of The Mindfulness Bell, I have been able to focus on my breath as a reality, not as a habit. The habit is when the bell rings, I stop and breathe, counting my breaths. If I’m not with my breathing, stopping and counting is empty recitation-like children saying the Lord’s Prayer without understanding the meaning. On occasion, I have been aware that I want to count my breath and get back to work. That’s just counting; it’s not breathing. I become aware of the urge to get it over, and that helps me come back to real awareness.

Working with these articles has helped me remember what a gift it is for the phone to ring or the computer bell to chime. Not because it takes me away from work, but because it reminds me to breathe mindfully. When I am truly present, my conscious breathing extends beyond the sound of the bell. I am able to carry it steadily. I am grateful for my breathing because when I practice conscious breathing deeply, it brings me into this moment. And, a half-smile really does bloom on my face effortlessly.

Leslie Rawls, True Enlightenment Country, lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

PDF of this article

Poem: Each Wave

Today I heard the ocean
breathing in and out.
It would not stop,
just that sound,
no more no less.

I think that is how
the Earth stays alive–
lung ocean breathing
for all of us
when we forget.

I saw a fox
loping across the lawn,
and before that,
lightning in the clouds.

Overhead the thunder
came and went.
Below by the water’s edge,
a thousand people
walked silently and left.

Still the sea went
in and out,
in and out.

I sat in the sand
burrowing my toes.
I sat deeply
and for a long time.
But even so
the marks I made
have been washed away.

An egret flies overhead
and the sea inhales.
Wide breathing ocean
teaching us with each wave.

Melissa McCampbell
Santa Barbara, California

PDF of this article

Opening Our Hearts

By Joan Halifax

The breath practice of Giving and Receiving develops our compassion and our ability to be present for our own suffering and the suffering of others. It is a practice of lovingkindness that opens up our whole being to the overwhelming presence of suffering and to our strength and willingness to transform suffering into peace and well-being. It is one of the richest and bravest practices we can do with people who are dying.

We begin the practice with a heart committed to helping others, to being with suffering and dying. When we look deeply, we see that to help others, we must relate with kindness toward our own suffering. To deny our suffering is to close off our hearts to what we and others experience. If we touch our suffering with awareness and love, Giving and Receiving becomes a practice of transformation. To see the possibility that we and others can be free from suffering is to see our own vast, good, and tender heart.

When I sit with a dying person, I must see beyond individual suffering. I must look from a place in myself that includes suffering but is bigger than suffering. I must look from a heart so big it holds everything. Can I see her suffering and her great heart as well? Can I see his true nature, who he really is, deeper than the story?

The practice of Giving and Receiving asks us to invite in all of our suffering and the suffering of others, and let them break open our untrusting and protected heart. When my heart breaks open by being deeply touched by suffering, its tender spaciousness becomes the ground for the awakening of selfless mercy. With an open heart, we cannot help but send all of our love and kindness to one who is suffering.

To begin the practice, you want to feel relaxed and open. You can sit in meditation posture, relax in a chair, or lie down. Gently close your eyes and let your body and mind settle. You want your mind to be clear, calm, and spacious. If you feel agitated, angry, or afraid, breathe in whatever you are feeling, accepting it. On your exhalation, breathe out peacefulness and well-being. Clear your mind by bringing your awareness to what is agitating you and accepting it with kindness. Do this breath practice until you are calm and alert.

When you are calm and clear, you can begin the second stage of the practice. For some people who have never done this before, it will seem counter-intuitive, because it involves working with the breath in an unusual way.

You begin by breathing in hot, dark, heavy, polluted smoke-suffering. On your exhalation, you breathe out a breath that is light, cool, and fresh. Breathe not only through your nose, but through your whole body. On your in-breath, dark smoke enters every pore of your body. On your outbreath, coolness flows from every pore of your body. Stay in this rhythmic pattern of inhaling dark smoke and exhaling cool, light breath.

Next, visualize a metal sheath around your heart. This sheath is your self-importance, your selfishness, your self-cherishing, your self-pity, all the fearful contradictions that are difficult for you to accept. It is the fear that hardens to protect your heart. The practice invites you to break apart the metal sheath around your heart, to open your heart to its natural nonjudgmental state of warmth, kindness, and spaciousness. Visualize the metal sheath breaking apart when the in-breath of suffering touches it. When the heart opens, the smoke dissolves immediately, vanishing into the great spaciousness of your true and vast heart, and natural mercy arises. The quality of mercy in your vast heart allows you to be with suffering and at the same time, to see beneath the suffering. This is your awakened heart.

You have now touched the initial elements of the practice: calming and opening the mind, accomplishing the rhythm and texture of the breath practice, visualizing the metal sheath around your heart and the sheath breaking open, the spontaneous appearance of the vast heart of mercy, the disappearance of the smoke into space, and the out-breath of healing. Remember that you are doing this practice because you and others are suffering, and you wish with all your heart that all beings may be free from suffering.

You want to care, genuinely care. This wish cannot be general; it needs to be very specific, personal, and authentic. When the Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche practiced Giving and Receiving, he remembered a puppy he had seen when he was eight years old. The puppy was being stoned to death, and the people killing it were laughing. He would have done anything to relieve the dog of its suffering. Whenever he thought of the puppy, his heart broke open. The memory of this helpless little creature was a key that helped him practice with commitment, resolve, and love.

Bring to mind someone to whom you feel a deep connection, whether this being is dead or alive, someone who is suffering, not a being whose life is all grace, but someone who really has suffered and whom you wish to help be free from suffering. Let your whole being tum toward this one’s suffering and wish that he or she may be healed. If this is difficult for you, tum toward your own situation. You are also suffering.

I ask you to breathe through your whole body your own suffering, your own alienation, or the suffering of your beloved as heavy, polluted, hot smoke. The instant that the in-breath of suffering touches the metal sheath of selfcenteredness around your heart, the sheath breaks apart and your heart opens to the suffering. The hot smoke of suffering instantly vanishes into the great space of your heart, and from this space arises an out-breath of mercy and healing. Send a deep, cool, healing breath to this other being or to yourself. Let the out-breath flow through every pore in your body. From the vastness of your open heart, breathe out mercy and love.

If you feel resistant, call yourself back to the practice. Remember that this practice can be done on every breath you take, every breath you give. Cultivate the details, the craft of this practice.

After you have practiced Giving and Receiving with yourself or one you love, let go of the image of that person. As you do, keep breathing in the dark smoke of universal suffering and breathing out healing. Then, let the visualization become particular again. Take your attention to the parent with whom you had the most difficulty-whether dead or alive, foster parent, or whoever raised you with whom you had the greatest difficulty. See them sitting before you.

Maintaining the rhythm of the hot, smoky in-breath and cool, light out-breath, consider how this one and you have suffered. For a minute, internally raise your eyes to this one and look at him or her. Let yourself slowly and mindfully examine the face and hair. Then, very simply gaze internally into the eyes of this parent with whom you have a problem. If this is difficult it may help to look at a mental photograph. See the wear on his face. See how her life has been full of disappointment and frustration. Maybe she was afraid. Maybe he was numb. See if you can allow yourself to be in touch with the difficulties of this parent. Perhaps you experience anger, disappointment, or heartbreak while looking at this parent. Let yourself feel whatever comes up. Imagine your parent as a five-year-old child. See his or her face fresh and open, full of anticipation. If it is difficult for you to see your parent this way, please notice the resistance that may be there. Resistance is all right. Breathe in the resistance, breathe out acceptance, spaciousness, warmth, and relief. If your parent is still alive, remember that he or she will die one day.

Remember your sincere wish at the beginning of this practice that the friend on whom you focused would be free of suffering. Breathe in blanleless suffering as dark smoke. Remember your parent as you last saw him or her. Let the dark smoke of suffering break open the sheath of hardness around your heart. On your out-breath, send all of your strength, understanding, caring, and love to your parent. Give it away with an open heart so that this one may be healed, so that suffering will be transformed.

This practice can also be applied to your own life. Turn your heart and mind toward your own situation. Breathe in your suffering and let it break open the sheath around your heart. Let your own vast heart open to who you really are. Breathing out, send clarity and space to your whole being. Heal yourself. You have the power in you to come home to the vast and true nature of who you really are. If you are a Christian or Jew, you might say, “I want to come home to God.” What separates you from God is the hardness around your heart, the fear in your heart. Breathe in the hot smoke of suffering from separation from God. Let it dissolve the hardness around your heart and disappear. What is left is love. All suffering disappears into the vastness. Breathing out, send a cool breath of radiant healing to yourself and come home to God. In your exhalation is the breath of spirit, the goodness of God bringing you home.

The practice of Giving and Receiving helps us get in touch with the obstacles that prevent us from understanding and caring. Through our own experience with suffering and the development of an atmosphere of openness toward it, we can begin to accept and be with the suffering of others in a more open, kind, and understanding way. Our difficult personal experiences are the bridge that leads us to compassion. We do not reject difficulties. Rather, we meet them exactly where they are. We cannot prevent suffering or death. We simply try to meet it, accept it, and find mercy in it.

mb23-Opening

Dharma teacher Joan Halifax, True Continuation, leads the Sangha at Upaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is an anthropologist, leads retreats on death and dying and other issues, and has written a number of books. This article is excerpted from herforthcoming book, Being with Dying, to be published by Shambhala Publications in late 1999.

PDF of this article

Breath Therapy

By Terry Helbick

The joy of mindfulness and mindful breathing has grown in my life from a “spiritual” practice reserved for meditation to a practice I use in all areas of my life. It is an essential element in my work as a clinical psychologist essential for me so I can be present with clients and essential for my clients to learn as they heal and change. All those practicing in the fields of healing come to appreciate how important it is to be centered, fresh, and present with clients or patients. An effective helper must be in touch with her own still center so that she can focus clearly on and listen deeply to the person who comes to her for help. She needs to have space enough inside her to see and accept whatever the person brings, without judgment. Empathy, understanding, and acceptance are the basics of a therapeutic relationship. Mindful breathing makes it possible for me to realize this type of openness and awareness with clients.

mb23-Breath

A therapist must also monitor her own thoughts, opinions, and emotional reactions as they arise. I use mindful breathing to contain and release my own “stuff’ as it arises in therapy sessions. I can then act as a container for the client, reflecting their suffering and holding it with love and acceptance. I have found that my ability to be useful to others depends intimately on my ability to be still and spacious in mindfulness. Mindful breathing is the tool I use to center myself in that stillness. It is also the tool that can hold, protect, and release the mental formations that may arise in me as I work with my clients.

Using mindful breathing, I am better able to observe what is happening with my clients. I am more apt to notice that slight change in their breathing as they tell a certain part of their story, or that fleeting look of fear that tells of a feeling they didn’t mention. As my breathing keeps me calm and open, it helps my clients look at their own thoughts and feelings with less need to deny or defend themselves. This helps them get to the root of their suffering much quicker.

Learning mindfulness practices of various sorts is an important part of therapy for many of my clients. I teach mindfulness of breathing to help them overcome their suffering and realize peace. I teach it first as a means to calm body and mind. It is the ideal tool as it will always be there for them, anytime, anyplace. Many clients have symptoms that stem from chronic over-arousal of their nervous systems. Whatever the cause, the body simply cannot tolerate this state of affairs for long without becoming ill. In addition to various physical diseases, chronic over-arousal is responsible for symptoms related to mental maladies such as anxiety and depression. Many people find that with practice, mindful breathing is quicker and more effective than a pill for calming down, with the added bonus of no unpleasant side effects.

Mindful breathing can create a safe place from which one can learn to nurture oneself and to observe mental, emotional, or physical states. Mindful breathing is an act of loving kindness towards oneself. It is literally feeding oneself, as well as allowing oneself to be fed by the universe, moment by moment. That safe place of calm and stillness is also the starting point for productive self-observation- an important skill to learn as an agent in one’s own healing. Many types of therapy assume a client can do this. I find that many cannot because they do not know how to stop reacting in unhelpful ways to the contents of their own mind.

Mindful breathing gives the client a means to stop the flow of habitual thoughts and feeling in response to an external or internal stimulus. To be able to stop and generate a feeling of calm is critical to being able to observe the content of one’s mind without judgment or attachment to the thoughts and feelings arising. Clients can use mindful breathing to stop their thinking, calm their feelings, and then, to create a space in which a new attitude, behavior, feeling, response, or even insight can be realized.

Much of my work involves helping people transform suffering from severe trauma, victimization, and loss. Mindful breathing has been invaluable for containing the intense emotional pain that arises in this type of healing. It can be the anchor in the storm that keeps a person from losing themselves in the intensity of an emotion, or to the terror of being out of control. Conscious, slow breathing can give back the self control and self nurturing they need.

The development of concentration and focus is important for numerous reasons in therapy work, just as in spiritual practice. I often give my clients instruction in meditation for its calming effects and for the additional skill it brings in concentration. Lastly, conscious breathing can be taught as an exercise that increases available energy and support. All too often, I watch clients actually stop breathing as they struggle with their issues. They cut themselves off from life support and as a result have no energy to cope. I simply teach them to monitor their own breathing so that they can notice when they stop and can get back on-line with life-breath by breath.

Terry Helbick, True Original Land, is a member o/the River Oak Sangha in Redding, California.

PDF of this article

All That Has Breath

By Adele Macy

Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Thay’s words seem so simple. At times, reading such simple words, I find myself searching for some extraordinary revelation. This intellectual hunger usually crops up when I feel overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities  and emotional demands. Then, I enjoy retreating to my room to ponder the riddles of the masters or read a good novel. I find great value in studying the Dharma, not being content with the comfortable grooves in my mind that think the ordinary is nothing extraordinary. Times of quiet study are like an in-breath before the out-breath of busy activity. These days, I have no books or poetry to protect me from the reality of having my critically-ill brother living with me. Charlie is suffering from every kind of lung disease imaginable plus several other serious and very painful ailments. I have had to put away my books and my “best laid plans,” and practice deep listening and compassion for a person whose every shallow breath is a challenge. Charlie has been pumped full of steroids for years just to stay alive. He is now at a stage where he is ready to let go, but doesn’t quite know how.

Charlie enjoys simple things, like watching me cook my exotic dishes and especially eating them. He laughs, watching out the window as our very determined basset hound pulls me down the street on our daily walk. He loves laughter and has a beautiful laugh that’s rich and wholesome. Many days, Charlie forces himself to laugh; he knows it’s better than any medicine. He grieves the loss of his 14-year companion, Lena, who recently died of lung cancer and the quick passage of their short journey together, spent hard and fast.

Recently, I took Charlie up the Blue Ridge Parkway-a glorious stretch of road winding through the North Carolina mountains. Charlie could not enjoy it, though he tried. His vision is going, and he couldn’t see the beautiful fall colors covering the mountains. Everything is a blur to him. On the way home, he broke down sobbing and told me that he felt like a mountain was sitting on top of him. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment. I can do the first part, but when I’m with Charlie, sometimes the smiling is difficult. I can breathe deeply, aware of the transforming effect, the peaceful joy of this body that lives, this blood that courses with the rhythm of all things. Why must my brother be deprived of this essential gift? How can he find this peace?

A couple of weeks ago I went on my monthly retreat in the mountains. I woke at 6:30, not wanting to waste a moment of this precious time. I had only one day before returning home to Charlie, who can’t walk five feet without having to sit down and rest. I kept busy all morning, building my fire, preparing breakfast, and straightening up. I reminded myself to stop and smell and listen and watch, but only for a minute because things weren’t quite right for zazen.

mb23-All

My Christian background led me once to a little book called The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, a monastery cook. At times when the bell rang for prayers and chanting in the chapel, Brother Lawrence continued working in the kitchen. When asked why he didn’t attend the sacred rituals, Brother Lawrence replied, “It makes no difference whether I am here cooking or in the chapel. God is present in all things at all times.” That book was my first lesson in mindfulness. Thay, like Brother Lawrence, reminds me that awareness is a moment-by-moment process that nurtures deep joy and compassion. I remind myself that there is no preparation required for deep listening. Preparing my breakfast is deep listening.

If I put my ear to the ground, I can hear the earth’s heart beating. The spaces between all things are breaths. The spaces between words, the coursing of the river, the whispering leaves moving to the great breath of the wind. All is air and movement and cells multiplying between breaths. Even the imaginary line I draw between myself and others is a breath.

My brother cannot breathe with ease, hike in the woods, or bend to the ground to listen to the earth’s heart beating. If I breathe mindfully when I’m with him, maybe I’ll hear the river moving in his labored lungs. Maybe if we both listen, old Grandfather Tree, our childhood friend, will remind us that even the slow-running sap of the old, tired tree nourishes the leaves that feed the soil that catches the rain that fills the liver that rests in a pool where a child drinks. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know that this is a wonderful moment! Such profound wisdom in those simple words.

Adele Macy, Liberation of the Source, works with elderly people and practices with the Charlotte Community of Mindfulness in North Carolina.

PDF of this article

Notes on Breathing

By Linda Buckley

Many times indigenous languages give us another way of thinking about meaning. The Hawai’ian word for breath is ha. I have often wondered how aloha could mean hello, good-bye, and I love you, but literally, it means “I give you my breath.” It is an offering of my life force. What a powerful way to greet someone! Here is my breath, here is the very essence of my self.

The word for family is ‘ohana, meaning those who breathe together. Perhaps like the Hawai’ians, we could breathe together as families. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests we have a breathing room or a breathing corner in our homes. It would be a place for us to catch our breath and recharge our batteries. A breathing room can be an eddy in the river of our lives-a place to simply be.

Many English words come from the Latin spirare, “to breathe.” At its roots, inspire means “to breathe into.” Inspiration stimulates the mind or emotions to a higher level. In our breathing rooms, we might receive such inspiration. The word conspire comes from the Latin com spirare, “to breathe together.” Conspiracy refers to a plan by a group intent on a bold purpose. A mindfulness conspiracy could be a bold attempt to live together as fanlilies in a conscious and attentive way with purpose, meaning, and direction.

mb23-Notes

Linda Buckley, Source of Clear Seeing, is the Director of The Mindfulness Center of Southeast Alaska in Juneau. She brings mindfulness practice into the public schools and leads families in mindfulness activities through music, stories, drawing, and movement. For information on family practice or mindfulness curriculum packets, contact Linda at jsldb@uas.alaska.edu.

PDF of this article

The Future is Possible

By Mai Nguyen

With excitement and uncertainty, the United Kingdom Sanghas participated in “The Ealing Buddhist”-a religious and cultural exhibit offered last summer by the Education Department of Ealing Borough in London. The three-week exhibit included lay and monastic participants from many Buddhist traditions and cultural backgrounds. With guidance from Sister Chan Khong, Sister Annabel, and Sister Jina, we shared the practice of mindfulness with over 1,000 children, age six to sixteen, their parents, teachers, and friends. Together, we practiced breathing, sitting, walking, and listening to the bell of mindfulness.

mb23-TheFuture

The children practiced wholeheartedly with us. Some later asked their teachers to get a bell for classes so they can “breathe better.” Their enthusiasm gives us hope that the future truly is possible.

Mai Nguyen, True Beauty, practices in London with Buddhist Interhelp, which recently received charity status.

PDF of this article

Salt in Clear Water

By Jennifer Shumaker

Driving from Arkansas through Taos and the Carson National Forest, I had plenty of time to fantasize about the next six days. I was on my way to a mindfulness retreat with Therese Fitzgerald, Wendy Johnson, and a group of practitioners from activist professions at the Vallecitos Mountain Refuge in northern New Mexico. We have been told to expect no electricity- no phones or E-mail to lure us away from the wilderness. The extraordinary blue of the Western sky with the pure white puffs of cloud promised a sense of clarity. Yes, this would be a break from everyday stresses, and a chance to clarify and strengthen my commitments among a safe and supportive group of strangers in a healing, untouched wilderness environment.

mb23-Salt1

Our retreat fantasies of balm and beauty seldom include the pain and exhaustion it takes to transform our unhealthy mental formations, nor the joy and exhilaration at insights gained as a result of this work. Therese knows some of my mental formations, and, like the caring teacher she is, refuses to let me hide behind them. The inevitable test comes on the first evening. Would I be bellmaster, as part of my Order aspirant training? What? Didn’t she remember my complete bungling of the job in Arkansas two years ago, . when we had a new bell with no ringer, and I had to use a piece of wood stripped from a log by the fireplace? With each strangled ring that was an insult to the beautiful new bell, my shame felt stronger until I had asked if I could resign my job. Of course, she said that it would be better for me to stay with it-that the bells were fine if I could just accept them, along with perhaps myself?

The second test for me was the short self-introductions we gave. Of all the things I could say in five minutes, I always end up saying something that leaves me feeling slightly vulnerable. Yes, I surely misrepresented who I am, and everyone else sounded so much more interesting. How much easier it would be if we all just kept silent with our small, private vulnerabilities. But the strangers felt less like strangers by the second day, and relationships were budding. We have made friends with the 650-year-old Ponderosa Pine-the oldest in Carson National Forest, with one of its few remaining groves of the old growth forest, and the Vallecito “river” (a stream in any other state except perhaps Arizona) that bubbles and gurgles through meadows of wild flowers. Surely this is one of the few remaining pieces of untouched heaven on earth.

The third day is the true test. The place and the people are no longer strangers, and some risky reaching-out in friendship is starting. During the walking meditation, I follow Wendy’s suggestion and offer my hand to someone. Wrong move! The gesture brings tears to the eyes of the new friend, and tears turn to sobbing that prevent her from finishing the walk with us. Besides, with two days of sitting and mindfulness under my belt, it is harder for me as well to ignore the feelings of unworthiness that constantly linger at the edges of my consciousness. My bells have not been uniformly perfect. Nothing like the beautiful sound that comes when Therese or Wendy rings it. I have become so nervous when ringing it that my hands are too sweaty to control the ringer, and it keeps slipping. This interrupts my counting of three breaths between rings, and Therese is having to help count. I wonder if she would accept my resignation this time?

During Dharma discussion that afternoon, all our smooth veneers are peeling away, and feelings start to break loose. Therese’s morning Dharma talk had been about feelings, with anger an obvious focus. One brave person in the group told of the fear that was arising in her and keeping her awake at night. She had heard of a man in the other discussion group who realized he was holding the chronic anger that is common among activists facing injustice every day. This woman was recovering from an abusive experience with an angry man, and the raw fears that resurfaced were disrupting her retreat experience. This seemed unfair-surely at a retreat like this people shouldn’t have to be afraid. Another man offered that irritation belongs in the category of anger, and that his irritation had been fierce at the lack of silence during certain periods of the day, like morning work-time and a couple of hours in the afternoon. Therese had told us we could wear a sign that indicated we would prefer to remain silent. This man didn’t want to appear aloof so he didn’t wear one, but when people spoke to him or near him he felt very annoyed with them.

For reasons I couldn’t understand, this statement started me shaking and sweating. Therese looked at me (to urge me to ring the mindfulness bell) and 1 thought she was encouraging me to speak. I mumbled something about feeling terribly sad suddenly-that I couldn’t explain it, except to say as children we had never been allowed to feel anything except happy. Something snapped in me, and I couldn’t stop sobbing. At the end of the session (I can’t even remember ringing the bell), Therese came and hugged me and told me not to hold back, to let the heaving sobs that threatened to take me over just come. She suggested I go to the grandmother Ponderosa Pine and I took her advice. While everyone else went to meditate, I stumbled to the tree and flung my arms around it. The sobs were so dramatic that I was hyperventilating, and I couldn’t even tell whether I was sad or angry, let alone what was behind all this. After lying exhausted in the field of white daisies that seemed to be trying to rock me in the breeze, I joined the others for dinner. Somehow I managed to ring the bell for the evening meditation, although my body was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep my balance during the walking meditation.

That night I had nightmares. In one particularly vivid dream, some colleagues from work were upset about my imperfect bell-ringing. I kept telling them that I am fine and feel great joy when I work with low-income community groups, but that I can’t perform among peers without feeling shameful and bungling it. During the morning walking meditation, I happened to look over at the man who was irritated by the lack of complete silence, and felt the sobs coming back. But this time, while sitting again, I followed Thay’s advice. I named the feeling-it wasn’t anger, sadness, or hurt, it was shame. Yes, hello shame, my old companion. I imagined embracing it like a small child in my arms, and tried to look deeply at it. Where did it come from?

Suddenly, in the space of my breathing, I had a great burst of insight. The irritated man and my colleagues from my dream were acting like my father and other family members in my home as I grew up in South Africa. I have always known that as the youngest child I was too noisy and excitable-singing too loudly, moving too fast, and talking too much, especially in the evenings when my father wanted silence. The new part of my insight was the realization that I was not intrinsically an irritating person. My father had his first heart attack the day I was born, and died of his fifth heart attack when I was 15 years old. This means that during my whole childhood, he was on heart medication that gave him a constant headache. My infant cries, toddler energy, and high spirits were like a constant piece of sand in his shell. Perhaps the irritated man at the retreat was not annoyed with me because I was intrinsically an irritating person, though I was certainly one of the people who talked to him when he secretly wanted silence. This toxic, chronic shame that I have worn all my life is based on an incorrect premise.

I remembered Therese telling me two years ago that maybe I just need to accept myself and whatever sound came out of the bell. My bell-ringing had actually been fine. I allowed myself to remember that a couple of people had actually told me that they had appreciated my fine bell-ringing. I hadn’t even heard them because I knew that, being noisy and imperfect, it must be irritating everyone.

That morning in outdoor walking meditation, the sky was especially clear and blue, the white daisies glistened, and the Ponderosa Pine stretched its gnarled, loving arms out to me. I wanted to run through the meadow singing about the hills being alive like the nun in The Sound of Music. Especially I wanted to throw my arms around Therese and the irritated man for bringing me to a point of understanding that would make my whole world look different from now on. I remembered Thiiy’s urging us to thank the garbage in our lives. Garbage transforms into compost when the light of mindfulness is shined on it, to fertilize all the healthy seeds in ourselves and in those around us.

As if to echo this sentiment, the woman who had struggled with sobs when I had held her hand early in the retreat came to me and offered to lend me a baby quilt her mother had given her as an infant, to keep me warm during the anticipated chill of the planned outdoor meditation that evening. I knew what she was feeling. And in Dharma discussion, the woman who was afraid of anger told us how she had realized during the retreat that she also carried around constant anger without even knowing it. Now she could work on it and perhaps finally come to grips with her past abuse. And the irritated man was amazed when I told him what he had done for me. He hadn’t felt irritated with me at all. And in spite of the lack of silence, he had decided he wants to be trained to join the Order of Interbeing.

mb23-Salt2

This was a true Sangha experience. The best Sanghas and retreats cast our mental formations into a mirror we must look into, in a safe and supportive environment that is a gem most of us don’t find anywhere else in our frantic and busy lives. Another image from Thay’s teachings became clearer. Thiiy talked about the way that meditating, being mindful, and following the Trainings help our hearts grow large and spacious so we become like huge lakes of clear water. If some hurt person throws salt into our lives, the spacious, clear water can absorb the salt without turning sour. That same amount of salt thrown into the cup of water of a constricted heart would be poisonous. So retreats and Sanghas should not try to avoid salt. That person who is angry or irritated or too affectionate might be exactly what we need to expand our hearts and transform our personal garbage into blossoms of joy. Thank you, Dharma teachers. And thank you, Vallecitos Refuge. Indeed, your hills came alive for me.

Jennifer Shumaker, Radiant Jewel of the Source, is a community development resource person and practices with the Ecumenical Buddhist Society in Little Rock, Arkansas.

PDF of this article

Truthful, Loving Speech

By Stephen Hyde

One of the most helpful teachings I have learned from Thich Nhat Hanh is that sometimes the best expression of our practice is a formless one. This encouragement to be formless made all the difference in my ability to sustain a practice within my home and family at a time when more overt expression would only have served to divide us. By taking practice underground, I was able to sustain it through some lean, Sangha-less years. I was able to weave my practice in a seamless and natural way into the evolving fabric of family life and relationship. Keeping the practice largely formless allowed my family to evolve our own practice—one “native to the grain” as Robert Frost would say-a practice that is genuine and loving, not just something extra in our lives. Loving speech has been a mainstay of this formless practice. In a formless world, it is often the whole of practice.

Loving speech is not just the words we speak or refrain from speaking. It is the reflection and habit of our mind, the nurturing silence we embody. Loving speech is the spirit of great generosity and compassion with which we listen to our world, the tender eyes with which we look upon our world, and our deep commitment to non-harming.

I have learned much about loving speech from the silence of my daughter. At the age of 18, she has an expressive vocabulary of perhaps 50 words, more than half of which are unintelligible to the untrained ear. When she is really ripped at me, the nastiest, most cutting word that she can hurl at me is a garbled version of “bathroom”! It is as close to cussing me out as she comes. For her well-being, I have to be ready to hear the whole of “bathroom”-both what is said and what is unsaid, what for her is forever unsayable.

On the other hand, when she is delighted, at one with this background of stillness, at peace with her world, she is apt to hug me or stroke my face gently with soft, twisted fingers and utter: “Minge, minge!” I don’t know if there is an adequate translation for it. “Minge” is just the tenderest, most heartfelt, and most comforting thing that she can say. Her term of greatest endearment, her highest expression of complete and abiding love-reserved for the most special moments-is “Minge, beejo!” Again, I can’t say what it means, only that it is truly transformative to be so wholeheartedly embraced by that sound when she speaks it. It is a kind of blessing, like hearing the name of Avalokiteshvara invoked on one’s behalf. It is a healing sound, and her speaking it’is a healing action. The freshness of her approach to language, her capacity to speak her whole being so completely, her trust in the sound-however mangled to the indiscriminate ear-to carry and convey the true sense of her heart invites me always to stay open to the true nature of loving speech-both as I continue to learn how to listen for it and how to offer it to my world.

My daughter has incredible radar for angry or unskillful speech. She makes no pretense of being untouched by harsh speech; she doesn’t put up a facade and pretend to be unaffected. She collapses into a puddle on the ground, wherever she is-whether she is the object of the speech or an innocent bystander: In this, she reminds us that unmindful speech is not an individual matter, that unskillful words travel to the furthest reaches of our families, our communities, and the cosmos.

Within my family and my community, I have worked to refrain from uttering words that cause division and discord and have seen how helpful that can be. However, sometimes what I refrain from uttering is what I believe to be the truth. It is a delicate point of balance, that, at times, leaves truth feeling a little buried.

Loving speech is not always truthful nor is truthful speech always loving. And sometimes silence can hold truth and love far better than speech, better than speaking out about a perceived injustice (especially when I don’t check to make sure my perception is accurate.) The risk I run by not speaking out is encouraging a tacit kind of censorship: that harmony in the family or community be seen as more important than speaking out about injustices. I have not yet found an easy answer. Sometimes the answer seems to be more truth, sometimes more words of support and confidence, sometimes greater silence. But I sense the potential for grave danger if truth is too often superseded by the desire for harmony and if the appearance of harmony is valued more than acknowledging and healing the many injustices-intentional and unintentional-that arise out of a shared life.

Perhaps in the practice of truthful and loving speech I must be willing to accept the necessary wounding or rending of family or community as the way that leads to deeper integration and healing, just as, in our determination not to kill or to let others kill, we understand that in order to live, we must kill. And in the course of this living, we must yield everything to our essential and dynamic relationship with life in this moment, accepting with true humility the very wound of life itself-the wonder, the terror, the beauty, the pain, the awe, and the responsibility, the inescapable responsibility we bear for nurturing all things, all beings, all unfolding.

mb23-Truthful

Stephen Hyde, True Jewel of Goodness, lives with his family in Pownal, Maine.

PDF of this article

A Real-Life Hero

By Gaia Thurston-Shaine

My hero is that woman who plays marimba with flying wrists, who opens her mouth in wild love for the music as she dances behind her instrument. My hero is one with gentle hands, who teaches Aikido by example and with the willingness to make a thousand mistakes for the sake of learning. My hero is the man who pulls the oars with skill, and who knows what to risk for the sake of fun and what is better left alone to admire. My hero is the woman who walks beside a field and exclaims at its beauty, then walks in the mountains and stands in awe. My hero dances madly, listens carefully, knows his strength, and see beauty in everything around him.

The dictionary definition of hero leaves much open for interpretation. None of the qualities I see as heroic are remotely similar to those honored in the tale of Beowulf, which I recently read. If an old English hero danced madly, took time to listen, decided something was too much for him to handle, or stopped to smell a flower, his reputation would be shot. Courage was seen as strength and perseverance in gaining power by force. I belleve it takes a much greater amount of courage and personal integrity to make mistakes, hug trees, look ridiculous, and truly Iisten.

Of all the people I’ve met, Thich Nhat Hanh comes the closest to having all these qualities. When I walk slowly beside him, his hand is gentle in mine. He stops to admire the sky or a view of the rolling French countryside. He teaches by experience, and has gained wisdom and insight by truly Ilstening to many kinds of people. I often wonder if he finds the same release through his sitting meditation as I do in the mountains or on the dance floor.

Every quality I see as heroic is one I constantly strive for in myself. I thrive on being gentle, listening, and walking with those I love. I balance gentleness with wild abandon, flying down a sledding hill headfirst or diving into an icecold glacial pool. I work hard to strengthen my abilities and do my best at everything I try, but also to accept my own mistakes. Perhaps some day I will become the hero I see in those around me-dancing wildly, listening closely, pulling the oars with confidence and respect, and seeing beauty in every landscape and human I encounter.

mb23-AReal

Gaia Thurston-Shaine, a high school senior, lives in McCarthy, Alaska, and Port Townsend, Washington. She has attended many retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh and cocoordinated the teenagers’ program during the 1997 retreat at Omega.

PDF of this article

Poem: Untitled Poem 2

The breeze gently caresses my face
touching me in ways not mown before.
Its energy reminds me of breath,
the breath brings me to one with all that is,
then flows out to leave a trace,
a gentle breeze upon my face.

I feel the breath and breeze
deep in that special place,
a place called home
from which I have traveled so far so long yet
not out of Kwan Yin’s palm.

And in this moment I realize,
Arriving, I breathed in.
looking deeply, I leave breathing out.
In-out-my heart is open wide.
Guided by the love of a brown-robed nun,
chanting opens my heart.

For here I have laughed and cried
with gentle touches and gentle eyes.
There will be no sighs of goodbyesgreen
lawn, green tree, blue sky,
warm friendship.

This poem was written collectively by the “Columbine Family” Dharma Discussion Group on the last day of The Path of Emancipation retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1998 in Vermont.

PDF of this article

A Pilgrimage Tale

By Canyon Sam

Oi! I called to the cyclo driver, swinging my arm back towards two white columns he’d just cycled past. My companion and I had started off early that morning with rented bikes to find Thay’s home monastery, Tu Hieu. All I knew was its name and its location southwest of Hue. After getting lost for a few hours, we’d taken all manner of conveyances to find our way here. Now it was late afternoon. The two white columns were the one distinguishing feature that indicated its presence down a red foot path leading into a pine forest.

I was struck by the triple-arched ornate gate and lovely crescent-moon lake at the entrance, not unlike the imperial entrances we’d seen the last two days at the Forbidden City and Mausoleums of former emperors. The sound of chanting resonated in the air. Soon we saw saffron and grey-robed monks standing in a gorgeous, 19th century, ope-doored temple. We found our way to the abbot and a layman, who invited us to have tea with them on the rosewood outdoor patio. They were very pleased to hear we were students of Thay. In fact, they said, “You see?” and pointed at a poster-size photo of Thay on the wall. It was the photo from the cover of Being Peace.

mb23-APilgrimage1

It seems the abbot was ordained at the same time as Thay years ago, the same generation, but now Thay is higher, the highest, they told us. The layman said something about having been sent or gone with Thay to Princeton years ago. Every time they referred to him, they called him Most Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh.

mb23-APilgrimage2

We talked for awhile, overlooking a courtyard of meticulously tended potted bonsai trees. I quickly realized that not only was Thay trained as a young monk at this temple, and revered as an alumnus and Sangha brother, but that the entire spiritual training and philosophy here was his. Sitting, walking, nourishing the seeds of enlightenment in each other-even lazy days.

Thich Minh Nguyen, an English-speaking monk, gave us a tour to the meditation hall. The long, light-filled hall in the forest had a large color-coded chart in one corner, showing seven generations of the ordained members of this order, dating back to the 1843 founding. I saw Thay’s name written on a green-lined nameplate among maybe three dozen others, preceded by the name Trung. On a red-lined nameplate below, among even more names, I found Sister Chan Khong’s name. Each generation had one family name that preceded the member’s own name. Thich Minh Nguyen asked my friend and me our Dharma names and when we told him, he told us we were the Tam generation, which meant heart. All the names in our generation were Bouquet of the Heart, or Lamp of the Heart, etc.

A poem handwritten in black-inked calligraphy on a lime green scroll hanging in the hall was written by Thay, Thich Minh Nguyen told us. We walked back through acres of fruit trees, past half finished brick buildings with stacks of red cinderblocks and wheelbarrows in front. New housing for monks, Thich Minh Nguyen said. How much like Plum Village it is, I thought, even down to the construction projects. The place had a sense of well-being, very grounded, and I sensed it was thriving. A schedule posted on the wall began at 3:30 in the morning and went till past 10:00 at night. Thich Minh Nguyen read it for us: sitting, walking, working, eating, Dharma study, prayers. The only surprising thing was the monks’ session of Kung Fu every evening! Suddenly I understood the model after which Plum Village had been established. And I understood the full meaning of bowing to our spiritual ancestors in the Five Prostrations.

mb23-APilgrimage3

We saw the altar to the monastery founder, his hand-drawn portrait framed in black lacquer, and walked among the graves of all the temple’s abbots in a cool, pine-shaded grove. I had been in Vietnam for two weeks, touring the main sites. It had taken days to get here from San Francisco, and though I loved being in Asia and seeing Vietnam, because of the language and the tourist groove we were in, I hadn’t made a strong connection. Out of this, and out of hours and hours of cycling around lost through the countryside we had arrived here and found these deep spiritual roots, this never-before-seen part of our spiritual lineage, and found a whole community practicing as we were taught to practice on the other side of the world.

Thay sometimes takes a pencil or a chopstick during a lecture and holds it horizontally to illustrate his point, and then turns it vertically and talks some more. I saw these lines again in my mind. I saw the vertical line. Below midpoint were all our ancestors who had come before us; above midpoint were all in the future who would follow us. Our responsibility to the generations who follow us is to do the same that has been done for us, or better, and our responsibility to the generations before us is to honor them for all they had done. We were no more and no less than part of this continuum of awakening. When I see the horizontal line, I see ground zero, that all of us on the earth now doing the practice are linked together. And then we are linked to the vertical line, at the midpoint. Therefore the place of the most energy and possibility is this center axis the here and now. The inhale and the exhale. The precious moment and the only moment. Here and now we inter-are across time and space from practitioners in pine forest temples in Asia, to traintrack-lined warehouses in Oakland, to hays tacked hills in France, and across the generations. I saw this, like this, as if for the first time.

Canyon Sam, Bouquet of the Heart, is a San Francisco writer and performance artist. Her nationally acclaimed solo show, “Taxi Karma and the Dissident, ” about her travels in Tibet and work with Buddhist nuns, plays in March at the Working Women’s Theater Festival. She is author of the forthcoming book, One Hundred Voices of Tara: Untold Stories of Tibetan Women.

PDF of this article

Waking Up

By Joanne Friday

When Thay was in the United States last June, I dreamed he had died. For me, it was a nightmare; I woke in a panic. I immediately started to have regrets. I had wanted to attend the three-week retreat, but was unable, due to finances and litigation I was involved in. I was thinking that I had missed my last opportunity to be in Thay’s presence and to learn from his teachings. I was so distraught. Then, I began to consider what I had been doing during those three weeks. I had been involved in litigation with an opposing attorney who attacked my integrity and my character. It required intense practice to keep praying for his instant enlightenment and not to become anger and hatred too. He was a very demanding teacher!

I also had a very good friend who was dying of brain cancer during those three weeks. I sat with him and held his feet. I remembered Thay’s teachings about being with Alfred Hassler when he was dying. I reviewed with my friend the contributions he had made and the wonderful legacy he was leaving behind. I was able to be truly present for him and for his wife.

I also remembered Thay’s teachings in a recent Mindfulness Bell that a true teacher is one who facilitates your realization of the goodness, truth, and beauty that you embody. Truth isn’t outside you in the person of your teacher or lover.

So in the middle of the night, having looked deeply, I realized that there was no missed opportunity. Although I didn’t have the pleasure of being in Thay’s company, Thay was with me all along because I was practicing the teachings that he had transmitted. What I had mistaken as a nightmare had been a deep teaching on no bilth, no death.

Joanne Friday, Clear Beauty of the Heart, is an artist and counselor, practicing with Clear Heart Sangha in Matunuck, Rhode Island.

PDF of this article

A Rose for My Father

By Glen Schneider

I first came across A Rose for Your Pocket by Thich Nhat Hanh in a local bookstore. I was a beginning meditator, browsing the shelves, and I read it on the spot. I didn’t think any more about the book until it was mentioned at a retreat led by Arnie Kotler, Therese Fitzgerald, and Wendy Johnson. In our small discussion group, Caleb Cushing, my Sangha leader, mentioned that he had followed the teaching and told his mother that he loved her. As he spoke, I thought, “Oh, this is something that people really do.”

I was deeply moved by the retreat in many ways, and the teaching about my mother came up again the following Tuesday morning. I woke up thinking about my parents, crying because I had never told them I loved them. My father is 83, an alcoholic, and very hard to reach. My mother is 82. Talking with my wife about my feelings that morning, I said “Well, why don’t I go see them today, and tell each of them that I love them.”

That afternoon, I took my dad into the woods near their house, to hunt for chanterelle mushrooms. I planned that we would walk to the mushrooms, pick them, and sit under a certain big oak tree where I would tell him. As we walked, my father was very annoying. We were in beautiful nature, but he was not there. His mind raced off into the past and the future after an endless list of this and that. I saw a white butterfly sitting among wild forget-me-nots, but could not get him to see it. And, I was very nervous about how I was going to tell him, feeling him less lovable by the minute. To make things worse, he told me that after we picked mushrooms, we had to stop by Jim’s house. Jim is one of my dad’s drinking buddies, and I began to get furious, thinking my father had probably trapped me into giving him a ride to get his first drink of the day.

We did find chanterelles and we did sit down under the big oak tree. I was angry and scared and didn’t know how I could do it. Finally, as I sensed he was getting ready to get up, I put my hand on his shoulder and, with my voice near tears, said, “Dad, I love you.” He reached his hand towards me, and then pulled it back and said, “Of course, we feel the same about you.” Then he began to talk about some repair to the house that he was worried about. On the way back to the car, we made small talk. I felt good that I had told him, but very disappointed that he could not really respond. I figured that was it. His friend was not home, so we went back to my parents’ house. I figured I would have tea with my mom, and tell her. But my dad decided he would have a cup of tea with us, too-the first time for him. He talked and talked until it was time for me to go. I would have to tell my mother some other time.

As we got up from the table to say good-bye, I gave my mother a hug, as usual, and then turned towards my dad. I didn’t know what to do, so I began to put out my hand to shake his. All of a sudden, he spread his arms wide and said, “Let’s have a big hug.” He had never hugged me before. I was completely dumbfounded. The seeds I had planted that afternoon flowered on the same day. And ever since, my father always hugs me good-bye.

That was in early March. I did tell my mother I loved her soon thereafter and the two of us had a lovely talk. About a month later, my dad and I were having lunch alone, and he started talking about his mother. Out of the blue he said, “One of my big regrets is that I never told my mother I loved her, like you did to me that day in the woods. I felt so great.”

mb23-ARose

And the story continues. For nearly ten years, my family has been talking about organizing an intervention to get my father into alcoholic treatment. Four days ago, twelve family and friends sat down with my father. Each of us read him a heartfelt letter and we all asked him to enter a treatment program. After a few objections, he agreed. We drove him immediately to a residential treatment program, where he has been for five days. On the third day, he told me over the phone, “I guess I am an alcoholic …. We probably should have done this a couple of years ago.”

Thay’s teaching helped me greatly. My father’s response gave me the courage to help organize my family to get him into treatment. I am grateful for the teaching which helped change my life, my father’s life, and the life of my family.

Glen Schneider sits with the Pot Luck Sangha in Oakland, California.

PDF of this article

Poem: Walking with Mother

Day 1
New hip, right side, burden and promise.
One step, two steps, move the walker.
Canes in uncertain hands, she looks back.
The walker beckons, an old friend waiting.
Breathing in, breathing out.
One step, two steps, move the canes.
With her I walk mindfully, half indoor pace.
Breathing in, breathing out.
Like a treed black squirrel she chatters,
Unhappy about leaves underfoot, clouds, unwelcome cats.
Right foot, breathing in, rhythm irregular as her steps.
One, two, three, move the canes.

Day 2
One, two, move the canes.
Slower than yesterday.
Merging plastic and steel, old joints,
stolen time, wandering mind.
Breathing in, breathing out.
Left, in, right, out.
“Then your father says . .. “, Breathing, right inBut
it’s three steps and move, then four
Before sunshine glimpses cats loving the slow walking,
Attention given and returned.
Breathing in, left foot, five
and the canes catch up.

Day 3
“Don’t tell me what to do;
when I’m ready I’ll walk!”
Breathing in, breathing out.
Seeking right action.
Three steps, four, move the canes.
Six, seven, eight, her eyes like cat companions
in the warm afternoon sun.
Breathing in, left foot.
Breathing out, right foot.
Listening to aging frustrations,
to find clear thoughts entering the stream.
Five remembrances ripple through my mind.
Breathing in the marvels as she sails
Twenty feet without pause,
Every step earth-caressed.

Day 4
I went walking with my mother.

Bill Woodall
Boise, Idaho

PDF of this article

Seeds of Childhood

By Peggy Denial

My first memory of gatha practice, though we didn’t call it that, was when I was two or three years old. Whenever I went out the door my grandmother would say, “May your guardian angel” and I would respond, “protect me and save me.” When I stayed with her she had other similar sayings for when she woke me up or put me to bed. Gathas are now one of the tools I use most in daily practice to bring me back to the present moment. It’s hard for me to open a door without the door-opening gatha running through my mind. Sometimes I’m still not present but my chances of returning to the present moment are greater.

mb23-Seeds

For years, I fought gatha practice, thinking it a “Mickey Mouse” practice. Thay would highly recommend the practice each retreat. I’d come home and try again. Over the years, I started to do the practice more regularly, but I had to keep renewing my efforts.

When my son Matthew moved in with us almost four years ago, the memory of my grandmother returned. Suddenly, the practice became more solid and my attitude toward it changed. I used gathas with Matthew the same way my grandmother practiced with me. We use it less now that he is ten but when he was seven and eight, he just loved it. I would say gathas when I combed his hair, when we dressed, washed hands, and brushed teeth. Sometimes we would say them as written and other times we had fun. I would say “While putting on my clothes, I hope” and he would answer “that all animals have lots of fur that keeps them warm.” Through the practice with Matthew, my grandmother came back to me. The strong seeds she sowed were watered and grew into a nourishing daily gatha practice.

Order aspirant Peggy Denial, Medicine of the Heart, practices with her family in Cotati, California.

PDF of this article

Prison Sanghas

By Rowan Conrad

Prison is a foreign country with a unique culture. This article attempts to address frequently-asked questions about practice with prison Sanghas. I share from my limited experience-three years practicing with inmates in two different institutions. Every prison has unique elements and my experiences may not match yours. Security levels, state regulations, and views of minority religion differ. Thay has reminded us that the only right view is no view.

mb23-Prison

The front gate of a prison is like an international border. Past that portal, assume you don’t know how anything works. Engage beginner’s mind. Please start by asking and listening. “You aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto!”-even if you are in Kansas. Respect the culture, the rules, and the people. You are a guest. Inmates and staff are your teachers. If we teach anything in prison Sanghas, we teach by the example of our own mindfulness, not by proselytizing. The variety and options “inside” are severely limited, so everything expands to fill this space. Little is big, medium is huge, and big is super-jumbo. All actions have meaning and impact, but within prisons, the meaning and impact will be magnified.

Respect that this is the inmates’ Sangha. Give guidance, suggestions, and support, but do not take over the details of the structure, leadership, or program of the Sangha-no matter how extensive and deep your personal experience may be. Inmates have very little control in their lives. Let any naming come fully from them. It is more important that the Sangha is theirs than that it have our ideal structure, process, or teaching. Our purpose is to support them in their own practice, not to impose ours.

Be yourself. Inmates have a lot of time to study people. They can spot phonies at 50 paces. Talk with people; don’t talk “Dharma” at them. Don’t talk down or judge.

Don’t ask about specific offenses. It is rude and invasive. But be prepared to hear about the offenses without judgment if the information is volunteered. My experience is that people do volunteer this information at some point sometimes as a kind of “final exam” to see how I respond.

If you work with opposite sex prisoners, you may be the only non-staff person of the opposite sex they see outside the visiting room. Life in prison can be very lonely. Expect a rich fantasy life to develop around you. Take care to dress down and act with great propriety. Do not allow yourself ever to be alone or out of sight with inmates of the opposite sex. Monastic rules for conduct with members of the opposite sex are good guidelines. Helping build a prison Sangha takes time and commitment. If your Sangha is interested in working with prisoners, realistically consider how much time and energy you’re willing to spend and estimate how long you’ll be able to sustain your commitment. Choose an activity that suits your ability. You can support prisoners by writing letters, sponsoring a meditation group, or visiting. If you can only visit once, don’t try to start a new group. Like any budding  Sangha, a prison Sangha deserves our persistent, dedicated practice.

When you’re ready to start, contact the community affairs office or the chaplain about how to proceed. Most prisons require volunteer training. Most volunteers write to prisoners from a post office box. Even if you trust your correspondent, others may get information from letters by simply looking over a shoulder.

Prisoners leave prison. The transition is exceedingly difficult and often made with little orientation. Most people coming out of prison have few resources and great need. If your Sangha has supported a prison Sangha, consider that upon release, these people may be joining your Sangha. How are you ready and willing to help with the transition? What are your judgments about people who have committed crimes? Violent crimes? Sex crimes? If the people are condemned in the Sangha for past behavior, they will leave. Every resource they lose increases the chance of recidivism. But to completely ignore risks posed by specific individuals is foolish. Be realistic. If you are going into prisons, be ready as a Sangha to deal with “prison Buddhists” who become “community Buddhists.” People in prison are like people out of prison. Some are trustworthy and straightforward; some are devious and manipulative. Don’t vilify prisoners, but don’t be blind either. A good Buddhist motto is “Expect nothing, be ready for anything.”

Rowan Conrad, True Dharma Strength, practices with the Open Way Sangha in Missoula, Montana.

PDF of this article

 

Poem: Call Me by My True Names, Reprise

Thay tells me he is a twelve-year-old girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by a sea pirate.
And my heart expands.
He is a frog, swimming in a lake
and also the grass snake, eating the frog.
And my heart expands.
We pray on the Jewish Holy days
with our German friends, and he asks me to
find the non-Hitler parts of Hitler
and the Hitler parts in me.
And my heart expands.

know I am the teenage boy murdered in Mississippi,
And I am the white-hooded murderer, smug in disguise.
I am the black-haired girl from Laguna Pueblo,
molested from birth by her father, uncles, grandpa,
and I am those men, hopeless.
I am the campesino, tending beehives in Guatemala,
And I am the soldier who executes him.
And my heart expands.

mb23-CallI am a twelve-year-old boy,
a can of nails hurled at my head
And I am his mother,
unable to help
or stop his leaving home,
as I whirl away to avoid being hit
by a pot of spaghetti
hot from the stove,
which decorates my chairs
with red and white streamers
before it clatters and rolls on the floor.

And I am the man
overflowing with rage,
who throws his anger
at the people he loves.
And my heart expands
to contain his suffering
Even while I say NO,
at the risk of my life.

-Anonymous

PDF of this article

The Nameless Bodhisattvas

By Sister Chan Khong

Vietnam recently experienced the worst flooding in over 30 years. Eight provinces are under the fierce waters. We desperately need your help to bring relief to these people. We send money only to the very able friends who have dedicated their lives to helping destitute people, not entrusting your gifts to the unreliable government agents. In comparison with the courageous, compassionate service of these nameless bodhisattvas, our gifts are so small. There are not enough words to thank them.

mb23-TheNameless1

These friends undertake dangerous trips to bring your gifts, evidence of your love, to the needy. They could easily lose their lives, sitting on trucks full of your gifts on muddy, broken roads or tiding through stormy waters on boats heavily loaded with your gifts. These live bodhisattvas radiate the energy of Love and Fearlessness. They go in place of us to face dangers and bring our gifts to the neediest people who are dying of hunger and cold.

Please touch the earth deeply in gratitude for their efforts, and then send your donation to help the people suffering from the storm and floods. Dear friends, even if you can only afford to give one dollar, if you offer it with all your love, then this act will touch three thousand worlds in the cosmos, and the wonderful energy of God, of the Buddhas, will embrace you and protect you and the people
you love.

mb23-TheNameless2jpg

What you can do to help:
• $1.00 can buy seven pounds of rice or fifteen instant noodle packages.
• $5.00 can buy a blanket for a family.
• $15.00 can help one family start their lives again.

Please send your tax deductible donation, marked “for flood victims,” to UBC Relief Committee of Green Mountain Dharma Center, P.O. Box 182, Hattland-Four Corners, VT, 05049, or wire funds to UBC Maple Forest Monastery, AL Bank, Route 4, East Woodstock, VT, 05091, Account #01001-24920.

PDF of this article

Letters of Thanks

In November 1998, Plum Village sent $2,500 to Sisters Hanh Toan and Hanh Lien from Quang Nga and $10,000 to Hue, to help victims of the recent typhoons in Vietnam. These letters are in response to this aid. On December 14, 1998, after receiving Sister Hanh Toan’s letter (below), Sister Chan Khong sent another $6,000, all the money left in the relief budget, to Sister Hanh Toan.

From Sister Hanh Toan, Tinh Nghiem Temple, Quang Ngai: 

We live in Quang Ngai City, away from the center or the storm and the damage here is small. With your help, we have tried to go to villages where the heavy rains caused creeks to rise, flooding and catTying away houses and crops-places like Binh Son, Ba To, Minh Long, Tra Bong, Sun T§.y. Very few relief groups dare to come to these areas, because the rains destroyed the roads and left them impossible to drive.

mb23-TheNameless3

After three consecutive typhoons, all families have depleted their rice supply. They eat manioc leaves or other raw forest leaves to survive. And they pray that relief people will come to save them. Hearing that our delegation of Buddhist nuns was coming to the district city, victims from nearby villages tried to meet us in the city. Although their villages are not more than fifteen kilometers away, the trip took nearly two days. The roads and bridges have been destroyed. The villagers crossed mountainous ravines and raging creeks, searching for unflooded jungle so they might reach us. In the end, we faced each other across swollen river waters. The bridge was broken and the water so high and fierce that no one and no boat dared to cross. The hungry victims stood on one shore and we stood on the other, incapable of reaching each other! With tears in our eyes, we left your gifts with friends, hoping they might cross the river in a few days, and continued our journey to Binh Dong.

Binh Dong is a remote village, 45 kilometers from the district city, and the road was very bad. When we got closer, it became impossible to drive. We left our truck and carried big boxes of food over a kilometer on a muddy, slippery road. As we crossed the river with the village on the other shore, the wind and rain became very strong. Our boat nearly threw us all into the river to drown. We sat very still and prayed in deep concentration.

When we arrived safely on the shore, we found everyone thin and pale, looking like hungry ghosts. They threw themselves upon us, pulled our dresses, kneeled down, and cried: “Sister, we are so hungry!” “Sister, my mother is dying, please give me a handful of rice to prepare soup for her!” “Sister, my young children are so hungry, please help us!” The people shivered in wet rags. We saw an old woman wrap herself in a torn mat, waiting for her daughter to return and prepare her soup. But when her daughter came home with some lice, she had already died of cold and hunger. Later, I witnessed another death because we came too late.

Most people are desperate. They have no food, not even a dry slice of potato. The waters are polluted with human and animal corpses, and other dirty, rotting things. People are so thirsty they must drink this water, and we will soon face epidemics of dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, and plague. These people have only wet rags to wear, no shelter, no beds, no tools for cooking, no blankets, no mats. There are 200,000 victims in Binh Son and Binh Dong, and many more in Minh Long, Ba To, Son Tay, and elsewhere. We do not dare to visit now, because we have already given away all of the money you sent.

From Nguyen Thi Kim Hoa on behalf of Binh Dong victims: We send our deep thanks to you for helping relieve our misery following the floods. Disasters crushed us as four typhoons, one after the other, lashed through our village. The waters rose and ran fiercely. The wind tore away trees and houses and threw them about. Everything was carried away by the raging waters. We ran with empty hands, trying to save ourselves.

Now, nothing remains. Nearly all of us are homeless. The sky is our roof and the earth our floor. No one has a grain of rice or a slice of dry potato to fill an empty stomach. No one has a glass of clean water or dry clothes. We look helplessly at those who died, but cannot be buried.

mb23-TheNameless4

As we faced such tragedy, your sudden presence was a light shedding grace on our misery. We are like one near drowning who suddenly catches hold of a log. We thank the Buddha of Compassion who heard our cries. You have come to distribute the food of love. Your bags for 320 families are not enough for all 200,000 victims in Birth Son, but thanks to your gifts, many children and weak, elderly people have a handful of rice. We bow deeply to thank your divine, immense grace.

PDF of this article

Maple Forest Update

Twelve monks and twelve nuns are now residing in Vermont for the Winter Retreat. We are also expanding our guest facilities. The Winter Retreat is a wonderful opportunity to deepen your practice and understanding of the Dharma. It began November 15 and will continue until February 18. The daily schedule includes sitting and walking meditation, working in mindfulness, sutra chanting, and mindful meals. Days of Mindfulness are observed Thursdays (9 a.m.-4 p.m.) and Sundays (10 a.m.-4.30 p.m.).

Every first Saturday of the month is Children’s Day (10 a.m.- 3 p.m.) with a children ‘s Dharma Talk and activities such as drawing, singing, tea meditation, learning to invite the bell, and walking with the monks and nuns. A young monk or nun usually coordinates the activities.

On the last Saturday in the month, people can come and offer their work for projects in the house and garden. You are very welcome to come and work with us on Saturday and stay the night for the Day of Mindfulness on Sunday. If you would like to stay with us, please write in advance. You can come most easily by private car. We can also arrange to collect you from Hanover, New Hampshire or White River Junction, Vermont if you arrive at a suitable time. A suggested donation of $25 per day per person covers room, board, and any teachings. Recently videotaped Dharma Talks by Thay are cUlTently being viewed on Days of Mindfulness at Green Mountain Dharma Center.

Please bring a sleeping bag; we supply only a mattress. Warm clothes and warm footwear are highly recommended Please bring stereo headphones for the English translation of Thay’s Dharma Talk. We very much look forward to seeing you in Vermont and hope that we shall be receiving guests from all parts of North America.

We feel that we are just another hamlet of Plum Village–on the other shore of the Atlantic. We offer the same practices as those offered in Plum Village and are closely in touch with developments there. Th§.y visits us every year and at the same time, offers two retreats in the Northeast as well as Public Talks.

mb23-Maple

For women’s accommodations, please write to Guest Mistress, P.O. Box 182, Hartland-Four Corners, VT, 05049, USA; Tel: (802)436-1102. For men’s or couple’s accommodations, please write to the Brother Phap Dung, P.O. Box 354, South Woodstock, VT, 05071 -0354, USA; Tel: (802)457-2786. If you wish to be on our mailing list, please write to either address.

PDF of this article

Haus Maitreya

I n the tradition and under the direction of Thich Nhat Hanh, Haus Maitreya will open May 22 in lower Bavaria. The new center will offer retreats for the general public, as well as specific retreats for Sangha leaders and Order of Interbeing members. Spiritual and organizational guidance at the center will be provided by three Dharmacharyas: Helga and Dr. Karl Riedl, and Karl Schmied. The center has a residential Sangha that models its daily schedule after Plum Village, and practices in harmony and mindfulness.

The center offers the opportunity to live with its resident Sangha for periods of three months to one year, to deepen the practice of mindful living. Friends who would like to share the life of the community can apply directly to Karl and Helga Riedl. People who would like to become residents and are able to commit to at least one year should also apply in writing to Karl and Helga.

mb23-Haus

Please write for a schedule of 1999 events. Intersein Zentrum fur Leben in Achtsamkeit, Haus Maitreya, Unterkashof 2 1/3, 94545 Hohenau, Germany.

Reprinted with permission from Intersein.

PDF of this article

A Center in Hawai’i

The Community of Mindful Living’s dream of helping start a residential mindfulness retreat center took a significant step forward this month (January 1999). Bennett Dorrance, Healing Touch of the Heart, has purchased the 638-acre historic Bond Estate on the Big Island of Hawai’i, and offered CML the Kohala Girls’ School parcel to begin a center for the cultivation of mindfulness, community, healing, creativity, and responsible land stewardship. This beautiful campus is surrounded by lush vegetation, including banyan, coconut palm, macadamia, banana, and papaya trees, and passion fruit and wood-apple vines. During the coming years, Bennett’s organization, New Moon LLC, will improve all the structures, including the chapel, a large dormitory, a dining room and kitchen, and several smaller buildings.

mb23-ACenter1

A Day of Mindfulness with nearly 75 local people was held on the land January 10, led by Arnie Kotler and Therese Fitzgerald. Arnie and Therese are planning to relocate from California to this retreat center within a year. In February, Dharma teacher and CML Board member Wendy Johnson and her family will visit, and Wendy will lead a workshop on meditation and gardening.

mb23-ACenter2

Over the past fourteen years, the Community of Mindful Living has been accompanied by many wonderful co-practitioners in the efforts to help create a residential practice center. Wholehearted  thanks to John Nelson, Kim Cary, Anh Huong and Thu Nguyen, Richard Brady, Pritam Singh, Mitchell Ratner, Betty Rogers, Kay Allison, Paul Norton, Jack Kornfield, Irving Kramer, and so many others in Virginia, California, and elsewhere, all of whose steady efforts have contributed toward making this possible. Special thanks to John Balaam, True Original Mountain, and our deepest thanks to Bennett Dorrance who found the “home” for practice on the Big Island. Undying thanks and a deep bow of appreciation to Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong for their unwavering support all these years. We look forward to the unfolding of this wondrous dream with the participation of the wide Sangha.

mb23-ACenter3

PDF of this article

North American Gathering

By Michael Trigilio

On October 10, 1998, North American Order of Interbeing members gathered for a three-day retreat at Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Seasoned practitioners and “rookies” like me traveled from all over the continent to share the joy of being together.

One of the first things Sister Annabel told us upon our arrival was that Thay wanted us to relax and just have a good time. Throughout the weekend emphasis was placed upon simply “being wonderfully together.” As the New England foliage was transforming from summer green into autumn splendor, being wonderfully together was a simple and delightful task.

Though scheduled events were regularly delayed or displaced, the days were spent with ease and necessary detachment from expectations. I am very grateful to Sister Annabel, Barbara DiPietro, Richard Brady, and the many others who worked hard to organize our beautiful weekend together.

On Sunday, Thay called from Plum Village and gave a teleconference Dharma talk. Through the phone-link between Green Mountain and Thay’s hermitage, we sang songs together and invited the bell to sound its call to mindfulness across the ocean. Much of Thay’s talk was in response to  questions we had formulated the evening before in Dharma-discussion groups. He focused on the importance of practicing with great solidity and diligence, and healing the conflicts within our Sanghas and within the Order itself. “I’m not saying you don’t have a right to suffer,” Thay instructed us. “But, you don’t have a right not to practice.”

The Tiep Hien gathering was, in many ways, like a very large and uncharacteristically constructive family reunion. Friends who see each other rarely had the opportunity to greet, hug, and smile together in beautiful Vermont. The weekend was not, however, simply a three-day pat-on-the-back-practice. Significant grievances and reservations were aired during Dharma discussions, as well as in private conversations. We carefully examined the constantlychanging role of lay Order members in the United States and Canada, especially in regards to the new responsibilities of the monks and nuns at Maple Forest Monastery. Though this retreat was not a business meeting, the fact that such topics were broached in a relaxed, weekend environment certainly encouraged many of us to discuss these issues with one another and with our Sanghas for many weeks to come.

This gathering was one of the most supportive retreats in my practice within the Order. As many as 85 Order members from many different parts of the continent traveled to be together and to discuss issues of great importance to them and to the international Sangha. As many others have in the past, I had been very curious about my place in the Order and the Order’s place in North American Buddhism. Coming together this way allowed me to see that the most essential elements of our practice and of our community are already within us. The words “I have arrived, I am home” never sounded so beautiful.

Michael Trigilio, True Birth of Peace, is an activist, artist, and student in San Antonio. He practices with the Sangha del Corazon in San Antonio, Texas.

PDF of this aticle

Report from Jerusalem

By Yacov Granot

Learning of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1996, Michael Rosenbush invited Thich Nhat Hanh to Israel to plant seeds of healing. Thay agreed and in May 1997 led two short retreats and gave Dharma talks in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Following his visit, several new Sanghas began, and have continued to grow.

The Jerusalem Sangha has been meeting weekly in member Yael Avnon’s living room. We do not use a statue, flowers, or incense. There are just people and sometimes Yael’s dog, Cloud, visiting or barking from another room. Those attending are from many different backgrounds with different ideas of what the practice is. No attempt is made to direct people in a specific direction. The suggestion is simply to breathe in and breathe out. Sometimes we are fortunate to have a guest from abroad.

Four Days of Mindfulness have been organized thus far, attended by people from allover the country. Dharma teacher Lyn Fine recently led a two-day retreat at Kibbutz Inbar in northern Israel with 50 people and a Day of Mindfulness in Jerusalem with 35 people. I was fortunate to attend the retreat at Inbar in late October.

My lasting impression of Lyn is of her continual smile, like the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland. What do I remember of Lyn’ s main Dharma talk? Nothing at all! It doesn’t matter, though. I feel I internalized the message. The experience of the retreat changed me, made me calmer, happier, wanting to help more. And much more mindful. Lyn taught us a four-finger exercise, touching your thumb to each finger in turn, breathing in and out each time. It seemed a bit like cheating to me-like using training wheels on a bicycle. But the practice is very helpful and now, I use it several times each day.

During the retreat, I received a Jewish insight as I listened to Lyn. Moses struck the stone to get water from it, instead of speaking to it, and was punished by not being allowed to enter the Promised Land. The question is sometimes raised whether this punishment was too severe-depriving Moses of the culmination of his life’s work for a single act. Listening to Lyn, I saw that God was asking Moses to demonstrate to the Jews the power of loving speech. Lyn, I feel, would have been able to get water from the stone through loving speech.

After the retreat, wow! A few minutes after we left, a car approached from the opposite direction and stopped. The driver, a big guy, and I looked at each other for a few seconds. Then, he shouted at us, like our sergeant in basic training: “Where is what’s-his-name?” I answered politely that I did not know and suggested that he ask at the kibbutz. Then, I said to the other passengers, “We have now returned to the harsh, crude reality of the real world.” The next morning, I realized that I had failed my very first test. When the driver and I looked at each other, I did not say hello or even smile.

Today, when I woke up, I started breathing mindfully and smiled. I was mindful at home. I left the house and began walking mindfully. “This is so easy,” I thought, “There is nothing to it.” I stopped and breathed mindfully for a while. Everything is as it should be. I have arrived, right here, right now.

Yacov Granot grew up in New York and has lived in Jerusalem since 1966.

PDF of this article

Announcements

Passages

Died: Samar Andert, True Original Mirror, of Stuttgart, Germany died on January 4, 1998.

Sister Jina New Abbess 

On December 20, 1998, Sister Jina was joyfully installed as abbess of Dharma Nectar Temple (Lower Hamlet) at Plum Village.

Virginia Mindfulness Practice Center

Dharma teachers Anh-Huong Nguyen and Thu Nguyen facilitate the new Mindfuless Practice Center of Fairfax, which is open Monday through Fridays. For Center hours and an up-to-date schedule of events, please contact MPCF, P.O. Box l30, Oakton, VA, 22124; (703)938-l377.

Netherland Days of Mindfulness

At age 82, Dharma teacher Nora de Graaf, True Fruition, participates with the Sangha infrequently, because of her health. She welcomes visitors who would like to join her for an occasional Day of Mindfulness in Utrecht, Holland. Please call before you come. 090-2870905.

Teens and Young Adults Program

We want to research and develop a program for late teens and young adults-ages 15-25-and invite your input, preferably from personal or Sangha experience. We hope to run a meaningful pilot program during the 1999 summer retreats in Vermont or Plum Village. Any programs offered will need staff to implement it during a retreat. If this sounds like your true self, please contact Brother Ivar/Phap Trf at Maple Forest Monastery, P.O. Box 354, South Woodstock, VT 05071-0354.

Lay Sangha Near Plum Village

Daniel Reeves is looking for families or small groups to help develop an informal lay practice at a farm three kilometers from Plum Village Upper Hamlet. The property includes two farm houses, barns, and outbuildings. For more information, please contact Daniel Reeves, 12 Falkland Street, Hyndland, Glasgow, Scotland, G12 9PR; Tel: 0141 337-2510; shakti@easynet.co.uk.

Group Accommodations for Vermont Retreat

Several members of the Vermont Sangha helped locate the Ascutney Mountain Resort for the mindfulness retreat with Th§y from Monday, August 23 through Saturday, August 28,1999. The resort provides a variety of accommodations, allowing for special group rates. Participants may register singly or in groups of up to nine people to receive the discount. For more information, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Green Mountain Dharma Center (Attn.: VT retreat), P.O. Box 182, Hartland FourCorners, VT 05049

Beginning Mindfulness Book Available

Andrew Weiss, True Shining, recently self-published a book based on the eight-part mindfulness program he teaches in Boston. The course is suitable for beginners and those seeking to solidify and deepen their practice. Copies are available for $14.95 plus shipping ($10.50 per copy for five or more). Please contact Andrew Weiss, 20 Elm Street, Maynard, MA 01754; Tel: (978)897-0796; E-mail: anhdru @excelonline.com

Building Bridges Between Traditions

In A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la, Rosie Rosenzweig writes beautifully and openly of journeying with her son, Ben, as she struggled to understand and accept his choice of a Buddhist  spiritual practice. Rosie writes of her own spiritual explorations, the strength she found in her Jewish roots, her loving questions about Ben’s path, and discoveries she made about herself and Ben. The book includes several chapters about their trip to Plum Village. (Shambhala Publications 1998)

Urgent Appeal for Green Mountain Dharma Center

During the application process for zoning as a retreat center, it was determined that the poor drainage of the Green Mountain property limits its residential capacity to 50 people. An adjoining 55-acres has good drainage and is for sale. Acquiring this property would allow the Dharma Center to build much-needed residential facilities. The cost is approximately $80,000. Maple Forest Monastery has received a gift of $40,000 toward the purchase. We appeal to you, the greater mindfulness community, to contribute the $40,000 balance to make the purchase possible. Contributions are tax-deductible. Please fax Sister Chan Khong (33-556-6161 -51) or Sister Annabel (802-436-1011) with your pledge, or wire the money to Maple Forest Monastery, Unified Buddhist Church, AL Bank, Route 4, East Woodstock, VT, 05091, Account #01001-24970. Thank you for your help.

PDF of this article