Dharma Talk: The Day I Turn Twenty

By Thich Nhat Hanh 

mb31-dharma1Dear Sangha, today is the 13th of December 2001. We are in the Dharma Nectar Hall, at the Lower Hamlet, during the winter retreat. The committee, working on the book for the twentieth anniversary of Plum Village has asked me to talk about the history of Plum Village so that they can include it in the book. There are so many stories to recount that I don’t know where to start!

 

The Six Umbrella Pines

We found the Lower Hamlet on the 28th of September 1982. Before this, we had found the Upper Hamlet. When we went to take a look at the Upper Hamlet, I liked it immediately, because it was beautiful. I saw the path that could be for our walking meditation, and I fell in love with it at first sight. However, Mr. Dezon, the land owner of the Upper Hamlet, did not want to sell it. He loved that piece of land very much; he could not let it go. We understood this, since he had been a farmer there for a long time. After a few days, we found the Lower Hamlet. Having purchased the Lower Hamlet, we still wanted the Upper Hamlet. Therefore, we continued to pay attention to what was going on up there. That year, there was a hailstorm that destroyed all the owner’s vineyards. He got angry and put it on the market for a very high price, not to have more money, but so that he would not have to sell it. In spite of the increased price, we bought it, because we liked the land so much. As a result, we had the Lower Hamlet first, then after a few months, we had the Upper Hamlet as a part of Plum Village. In previous years we held the summer retreat in the Sweet Potato Hermitage in the North of France. It was, however, such a small center that we could not receive many meditation students. As a result, we came to the South to look for land and establish a practice center that could receive more people.

mb31-dharma2We decided to open Plum Village to the public right away during our first summer, in 1983. Thus, from the winter of 1982 to the summer of 1983, we had to work a lot. At the beginning of 1983, we began to plant some trees in the Upper Hamlet. The first trees we planted were six umbrella pine trees with the help of a local farmer. The land in the Upper Hamlet was full of rocks, so we needed his machine to dig holes for the trees . We put a little bit of cow manure in the bottom of each hole before planting the trees. It was raining on that day and everybody was soaked. Afterwards, I got sick and stayed in bed for three weeks. Everybody was worried. Fortunately, after a while I could get up and eat some rice soup.

In those days, we did not call it Plum Village, we called it Persimmon Village which was the name of a practice center the School of Youth for Social Service and the Order of Interbeing had planned on building in Vietnam, so that their members could come to practice and nourish themselves. In the 1950s, we had the Fragrant Palm Leaves center in the highlands of Vietnam, in Blao. You would know about that center if you have read the book Fragrant Palm Leaves. However, the School of Youth for Social Service wanted to have a center closer to the city. When I wrote The Miracle of Mindfulness, I also mentioned the idea of founding a practice center called Persimmon Village. Eight years later, we managed to find the Lower Hamlet and our vision came true. We had thought of planting persimmons but we realized that it was not practical, so we planted plum trees instead. We were still naive, thinking that if we planted many plum trees, we could have enough income to support ourselves. We were not horticulturists, so we did not do very well. We have enjoyed more plum blossoms than plums.

The name Plum Village is beautiful, so we changed it from Persimmon Village to Plum Village. In reality, we had only planted a few dozen persimmon trees, but we had planted 1,250 plum trees. Many of those first plum trees that we planted were bought with the pocket money given to us by children who came to Plum Village. The children were told that in seven years the plum trees would give fruits; those fruits would be dehydrated and sold, and that money would be used to help hungry children in Vietnam or in other poor countries. Many children saved their pocket money in order to plant plum trees. Sometimes the children would combine their pocket money to plant a plum tree. It cost thirty-five French francs to plant a baby plum tree. We planted 1,250 trees because that was the number of the original monastic Sangha of the Buddha.

In May of 1983 we held our first Summer Opening with 117 practitioners. We did not yet have the practice of touching the earth or the daily practice with gathas, meditation poems. However, we already had sitting meditation, walking mediation, tea meditation, and consultations. There were not yet monks and nuns, so I had to lead all the practices from the beginning to the end, from A to Z. I had to walk around and correct people’s sitting posture, straightening each person ‘s back and neck. During our first summer retreat, Westerners came to practice with Vietnamese people. In the second Summer Opening, there were 232 people. In the third 305, the seventh 483, and in the ninth there were 1030. In 1996, 1200 people came for the summer retreat and in 1998, there were 1450 practitioners. In the year 2000, the number increased to 1800. Of course, not all 1800 came at the same time. Some came for one, two, or three weeks, and some came for the entire four weeks of the retreat. There were also those who li ked it so much that after four weeks they asked to stay on longer. People also come throughout the year to practice with us. In the first few years, Western practitioners stayed in the Upper Hamlet while Vietnamese and Asian practitioners stayed in the Lower Hamlet so they could enjoy traditional dishes of their homeland.

The Atlantic cedars, which you see in the Upper Hamlet, were also planted during the first year. They were just four feet tall then. They took a long time to grow, but the more they grew, the more beautiful they became. They will be very beautiful in three hundred years. There are two different varieties of Atlantic cedars; one is a smoky gray color, and the other is a silvery blue. When we do walking meditation in the Upper Hamlet, we start at the linden tree. As we pass the Transformation Meditation Hall, we see the Atlantic cedars on the right. They are already so beautiful. I often look at a tree and see it as a monk or a nun who is growing strong in Plum Village. I stop to offer praise, this young novice is doing quite well because that cedar has grown healthily and beautifully. Twenty years have passed, and they are now grown – no longer four-foot high baby cedar trees. In Plum Village, many other things have grown up as well. Not only the monks and nuns and lay practitioners have grown up, but our methods of practice have also matured like the cedars.

The Signless Nature of Plum Village 

In 1983 , standing on the hill I already saw that all the plum trees were in flower, whitening the whole land. That was the sight in the ultimate dimension. Within four years, when the spring arrived, the plum trees really did blossom so beautifully. Every April, we organize the Plum Blossom Festival, with tea, cookies, singing, and poetry. In Plum Village, we have two flower festivals: One is called the Plum Blossom Festival, and the other, the Daffodil Festival. In the Upper Hamlet at the end of March, thousands of wild daffodils bloom in the Dharma Body Forest. We organize a Daffodil Festival and about half a month later, we have the Plum Blossom Festival in the Lower Hamlet. If you come to Plum Village in April you will be able to participate in the Plum Blossom Festival, which is beautiful and poetic.

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Now Plum Village also includes the New Hamlet, which is the Loving Kindness Temple, the Hillside Hamlet and the Gatehouse. Near Upper Hamlet we also have Middle Hamlet and West Hamlet. Many are surprised when they come and see that Plum Village is not what they had imagined. For example, we had forewarned a delegation of practitioners from the Buddhist Association of China before their arrival to Plum Village, saying that we had only trees and cow barns that have been converted into meditation halls and living quarters. We had told them this many times, but when they arrived they were still surprised. They had not expected that Plum Village could be so poor, simple, and rustic. Each one of us has a different understanding of Plum Village.

Novice monk, Brother Phap Can, grew up and studied in Germany and came to Plum Village to be ordained. Last year, he went back to Germany with a delegation from Plum Village, and he discovered a new Germany. During those years that he lived in Germany, he had never been in touch with the Plum Village Sangha there. This time going back, he encountered a large number of Vietnamese and German people following the practices of Plum Village. There were Dharma talks, where 3,000 and 7,000 German people attended. There were walking meditation processions with many hundreds of German people walking together. Returning to Germany, he discovered a completely new Germany. Plum Village exists in Germany, but he had never seen it during the seven or eight years he had lived there. We have to find the truth with the eye of signlessness. Plum Village elements exist everywhere; they exist in our own hearts.

Coming to Plum Village with a camcorder does not necessarily mean that you can record Plum Village. Plum Village is not a Vietnamese temple that is set up on European land. In Plum Village, we see the Indian culture, the Chinese culture, the Vietnamese culture, and the Western culture. When we look at Plum Village carefully, we see that non-Plum Village elements exist in Plum Village. Consequently, Plum Village is also an object of meditation. The deeper we look into it, the more clearly we see it. Otherwise, looking at Plum Village, we only have a superficial and vague notion about Plum Village. If we look at it deeply, we see that Plum Village is also unborn and undying.

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A few years ago, when we went to visit the Jeta Grove in India, one of the places where the Buddha lived, we found that the Jeta Grove Monastery was no longer there. A group of Japanese archeologists came to excavate the area, and they discovered remnants of many large monasteries adjacent to one another, buried under the earth over time. They could identify the places where the monks slept, the Buddha hall, the teaching hall, and so on. Yet, we know that the Jeta Grove has never died, because when we go to other countries like Japan, China, Korea, and Tibet we see that the Jeta Grove is still there in its new forms. Thus, the true nature of the Jeta Grove is that of no-birth and no-death. Plum Village is the same. For example, if tomorrow Plum Village is closed down, and people build large shopping malls in the Lower Hamlet and the Upper Hamlet, Plum Village will still be there in its new manifestations everywhere, especially in our hearts. When we come to Plum Village, we must look at it deeply to see its nature of no-birth and no-death; we must see the reality of Plum Village beyond all forms.

Old Path White Clouds 

The first years during the Summer Opening, I stayed in the room above the bookshop in the building near the Linden tree in the Upper Hamlet. We had very few rooms then, and I had to share the room with four or five children. They slept with me and at night they sprawled out on the floor. I thought that children needed to sing; that chanting alone was not enough. I intended to write the song, “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life … ” for the children to sing. In the afternoon we did sitting in the mediation hall called the Bamboo Hall. The walls are made of stone. Facing a big block of stone, the tune for the song came to me. “I take refuge in the Buddha, the one who shows me the way in this life,” then “Namo Buddhaya.” I thought to myself, I am here to do sitting meditation and not to make up songs. Let’s continue it after the sitting meditation. However, after a few minutes, the music returned to me. I thought, if it’s – going to be like this, I may as well compose the song now. So I continued writing that song and, after the meditation, I recorded it in order not to forget it.

I remember at that time I was also writing the book, Old Path White Clouds. We did not have central heating yet, only a wood stove in the room and the weather was very cold. I wrote with my right hand and I put my left hand out over the stove. I was very happy writing that book. From time to time I would stand up and make myself a cup of tea to drink. Every day the few hours I spent writing was like sitting with the Buddha for a cup of tea. I knew that the readers would have much happiness while reading the book because I had so much happiness while writing the book.

Writing Old Path White Clouds was not hard work, it was an immense joy. It was also a time of discovery. There were sections that were, to me, more difficult than others. One section was when the Buddha first gave teachings to the three Kasyapa brothers and received them as disciples. There are some documents that say that the Buddha had to use miracles to do it, but I didn’t want to retell that he did it with miracles. I wanted to show that he did it with his compassion and understanding. The Buddha has a great capacity of understanding and compassion so why would he have to use miraculous powers? I had a strong faith that I would be able to write the chapter in that light. That was the most difficult chapter for me to write in Old Path White Clouds, but eventually I succeeded.

The second most difficult chapter was when the Buddha went back to visit his family after having already becoming enlightened. He was still the son of his parents and a brother to his siblings. I wished to write in a way that would retain his human qualities. The way he took the hand of his father upon their meeting, the way he related with his younger sister, with Yasodhara and Rahula was very natural. I could only write in that way because I felt the ancestral teachers were supporting me. In reading Old Path White Clouds, we find that Buddha is a human being and not a god because that is precisely the aim of the author, to help the readers rediscover the Buddha as a human being. I tried to take away all the mystic halos that people ascribe to the Buddha. Not being able to see the Buddha as a human being makes it difficult for us to approach the Buddha.

Blossoms of Awakening 

I became a monk in Vietnam. I grew up in Vietnam. I learned and practiced Buddhism in Vietnam. Before coming to the West I taught several generations of Buddhist students in Vietnam. But I can say that I realized the path in the West. In 1962, at Princeton University, where I came and learned more about the history of religions, I began to have many deep insights, flowers and fruits of the practice. If you have read Fragrant Palm Leaves you will see that my going to Princeton was like going into a monastery. It was far from all the pressing demands of the current situation in Vietnam. I had much time to do walking meditation, assisting the maturation of insights that had not yet ripened. I wrote the book, A Rose for Your Pocket in the summer of 1962. It is a very simple book but is in fact the fruit of awakening. It is in this book that the practice of “dwelling happily in the present moment” is first described. Each of us has a mother. A mother who is as fragrant as the “fragrant banana” or delicious as sweet rice or as sweet as sugar cane. Aware of those qualities of your mother, do not live superficially with your mother but live with full awareness. We need to live in a way that does not cause the wonderful things of life to slip right through our fingers. We need to live deeply with each moment in the present. This is what is contained in that little book. A Rose for Your Pocket can be considered as the first blossom of my awakening. And since then, that insight has just continued on its path of deepening.

The shortest and most profound Dharma talk I can give is “I have arrived, I am home.” Only six words. And this morning, I shared with Sister Chau Nghiem that, “I have arrived, I am home” can be considered as the Dharma Seal of Plum Village. Any Dharma talk, any teaching which goes against the spirit of “I have arrived, I am home” is not truly a teaching or method of practice of Plum Village. That Dharma seal was first expressed in that little book, A Rose for Your Pocket.

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In 1974, while I was working for peace in Paris I wrote the book, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I wrote it out of love for my monastic and lay students who were working in Vietnam in the dangerous circumstances of wartime. I wrote it for young social workers in Vietnam, monks and nuns and lay people. After that book was written I sent it to Vietnam to be published and over here I thought that our friends who had supported the work of calling for peace could also enjoy the practice as it was expressed in that book. So it was translated into English. This is a book that teaches us how to dwell in the present moment and to live mindfully with awareness of what is happening within us and around us. Between the writing of A Rose for Your Pocket in 1962 and The Miracle of Mindfulness in 1974, there was twelve years during which I wrote and published many titles. In those twelve years you can recognize the progressive change in my way of looking at things. That was the process of the blooming of a lotus.

In my life of practice I have had the opportunity to bring Buddhism back to the stream of the original teachings of the Buddha. Before coming back to the original stream of teachings, I already had the insight into dwelling happily in the present moment. Once back in the stream of the original teachings, that insight was experienced fully and with more clarity.

The book The Miracle of Mindfulness was published by Beacon Press and up until now, more than two decades later, this book is still in print and continues to sell very well. The Miracle of Mindfulness is a mediation guide that you can use if you want to share the Plum Village style of practice with people. Those of you who have not read The Miracle of Mindfulness should find a copy and read it. It has been translated into at least thirty different languages.

The meditation of mindfulness is the basic practice of meditation in Plum Village. Mindfulness means dwelling in the present moment to become aware of the positive and negative elements that are there. We should learn to nourish the positive and to transform the negative. Twenty years of Plum Village has helped me to learn so much and has helped the Sangha of Plum Village to grow up so much.

Going as a River 

In May 1966 when I left Vietnam I did not think I would be gone long. But I was stuck over here. I felt  like a cell of a body that was precariously separated from its body. I was like a bee separated from its hive. If a bee is separated from its hive it knows very well that it cannot survive. A cell that is separated from its body will dry up and die. But I did not die because I had gone to the West not as an individual but with the support of a Sangha’s visions. I went to call for peace. At that time our work in the areas of cultural development, education, and social development had strong momentum. We had established the Van Hanh University, a University for Higher Buddhist Studies, the School of Youth for Social Service, the La Boi printing press, and the weekly newspaper Hai Tri eu Am (The Sound of the Rising Tide.) We also had a campaign calling for peace within Vietnam. I went with all these things in my heart so I was not in danger of drying up. If I had gone as an individual, looking for a position, for a bit of fame then I surely would have dried up. The life and death issue is Sangha building. That is why I began building a Sangha with the people who were helping me do the work of calling for peace. The people who helped me were pastors, priests, professors, high-school students, and university students. I met with them, befriended them and invited them to join the path of service for peace.

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From 1968 until 1975 I established and lead a delegation in Paris of the Vietnamese Buddhists for Peace. During this time, many young people came and volunteered to help us. They would work, and at lunch time we offered them a simple meal. After dinner they stayed on to practice sitting meditation. Along with sharing the practice of sitting meditation with the young people, we also shared how to practice walking meditation, deep relaxation and singing. When we were working for the Delegation of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam in Paris, we organized sitting meditation sessions for Western practitioners in Paris once a week at the Quaker Center on Vaugirard Boulevard. By offering the practice to the young people who came to help with the social work and the peace work, many seeds were sown. This may be one reason why many young people came when we first organized the Summer Opening in Plum Village.

When I was in touch with individuals and communities who were very concerned about peace and social work, I saw that they had difficulties. After working for a period of time, they became divided, they grew tired and abandoned the cause. Thus, meeting with any organization or any individual, I shared with them my methods of practice. Before we had the Sangha gathered together in one place, we already had the Sangha as individual elements in many places.

Pastor Kloppenburg of Bremen, a Lutheran pastor in Germany, was someone who loved me very much. He initiated and organized occasions for me to give talks calling for peace everywhere in Germany and he helped me translate and publish the book, A Lotus in a Sea of Fire in German. He also provided material support for me to send to Vietnam so the School of Youth for Social Service could continue its work of service. He helped me to organize the peace talks in Paris. In Holland, there was Minister Hannes de Graff of the Dutch Reformed Church and he supported me immensely. On the path of calling for peace in Vietnam I made many friends in the religious circle, in the human rights circle and with the younger generation.

When we first established the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation in Paris, we faced many difficulties, such as getting residential permits, finding enough food to eat and clothing to wear. During that time, our headquarters was small but housed so many people. There were nights when Sister Chan Khong, who had been a professor at a university in Saigon, had to ask to sleep overnight at a restaurant because we ran out of sleeping space. Instead of buying regular rice at a supermarket, we bought the cheaper broken rice, usually sold as birdfeed, from the pet store. One day the man who was selling the broken rice asked us, “Why do you come and buy so much rice? You must have a lot of birds in your house.” And we said, “Yes, many, nine in all, and each one is very big!” And we showed with our hands how big those birds were. But our life was full of happiness. I found a place to teach and I received one thousand French francs as a salary every month. Other people in the delegation also had to find work. Sister Chan Khong used to teach mathematics and tutor young students to add to our income.

There was a period when I took a course on printing as a trade. I am still a good printer and can bind books quite well. I always printed and bound books in mindfulness. I have printed several dozen books and I have bound thousands of books. At that time La Boi, the printing press of Vietnamese books, had not yet moved to the United States and we did the printing in France.

In all the years of my exile from Vietnam, I have never felt cut off from my Sangha in Vietnam. Every year I compose and send manuscripts to Vietnam and our friends in Vietnam always find ways to publish our books. When they were banned, the books were hand-copied or published underground or published under different pen names.

There are still many people in our Sangha who sleep in a sleeping bag. Sister Chan Khong still sleeps in a sleeping bag. In Plum Village I used to sleep on a very thin mattress on a plank of wood on top of four bricks. That fact does not prevent me from being happy. I have never wanted to build a luxurious, beautiful monastery here. When I am able to sell my books that money has been used to bring relief to the hungry and to victims of the floods in Vietnam.

From being like a cell that had been separated from my Sangha body in Vietnam, I was able to practice cloning and not only did I not dry up, like a bee separated from its hive, from a cell I have become a body. And that body became the Sangha body as we see today. The important factor is that we need to go with our heart full of our Sangha, then we will not dry up and die. I have said the other day that if you have come to Plum Village, you have to take home with you no less than Plum Village in its entirety. Bringing Plum Village home, you will be able to survive longer. The teaching and practice of, “I have arrived, I am home” always complements the teaching of, “going as a river and not as a drop of water.” If you are a drop of water then you will evaporate halfway, but if you go as a river you will surely reach the ocean. I have never gone as a drop of water. I have always gone as a river.

Responding to Suffering 

When mb31-dharma7we were working in Paris, the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation was able to sponsor more than 9,000 orphans resulting from the Vietnam War. We didn’t support the building of orphanages but we tried to find relatives of the orphans to unite them. We would send twenty-five French francs each month to those families to buy food and school supplies for the orphans. At that time I was very busy with different work, but every day I also spent some time to translate the files on the orphans. I was given twenty files of orphans each day. The files were made and sent to us in Paris by our social workers in Vietnam. There was a photograph of each orphan, the name of the father and the mother, and how the father and mother died. We had to translate these files into English, Dutch, French and German to find sponsors for each chiId. I used to hold up the file with the photograph of the child. Looking at the face of the child, I would smile and breathe. The energy of compassion would come up in me and my heart was full of love. Then I would be able to translate them easily,  the translation was very poignant because there was a lot of love and compassion flowing out of my pen. There was a Danish lady who was so inspired to help us with the program for orphans that she took a course to lean Vietnamese. Her Vietnamese was good enough to help translate the files.

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In 1975 when the Americans left Vietnam and the North took over the whole of Vietnam, our Sangha in Paris retreated to a hermitage in the countryside of Paris, Sweet Potato Hermitage, where we had gone every weekend to rest and renew ourselves. At Sweet Potato Hermitage, I wrote the books, The Moon Bamboo and The Sun My Heart and the second and the third volumes of The History of Vietnamese Buddhism. Sweet Potato Hermitage is still there. We should organize a pilgrimage there one day as a fun outing. It is near the forest of Othe. It is very beautiful and the climate is colder than Plum Village.

During this time at Sweet Potato Hermitage, from 1975 till 1982, Sister Chan Khong and a number of others in the Sangha organized relief work for the refugees, the boat people, who were escaping Vietnam at that time. We rented three boats, The Leopold, The Roland and The Saigon 200. We used these boats to transport the boat people on the ocean. Our aim was to pick them up on the ocean and to secretly take them to other countries like Australia. Once, we rescued five hundred and fifty people on our boat but our underground work was exposed. Both Sister Chan Khong and I were driven out of Singapore because we had secret headquarters there. The reason why our work was exposed was because some journalists were scouting for news. If this had not happened the refugees we rescued would have been taken to Australia to be processed as immigrants sooner. But instead, we had to turn them over to the United Nations High Council on Refugees. Those boat people had to stay in refugee camps for three, four or five years before their cases were finally reviewed and processed for immigration . So unfortunate!

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Before Sister Chan Khong left Vietnam to come and help me, she worked energetically and in high spirits with the School of Youth for Social Service. She has been present with me from the beginning of 1968 until now, supporting all the work for peace and social work. Since 1968, she has constantly worked, never once having the idea of giving up or surrendering. Of course I have had many other friends and many other disciples, but some have given up because there are many dangers, difficulties and obstacles on the path of calling for peace, human rights and building up Sanghas. Because of their difficulties, either personally or from the environment, others have abandoned the cause. But Sister Chan Khong has always accompanied me from the beginning to the end with great dedication.

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A Meeting of East and West 

The difficulties that we encountered in the process of establishing Plum Village were the problems that the Buddha also had but there were also new difficulties. We have benefitted from the experience of many previous generations of practitioners and we have also grown and learned from the difficulties of our own time.

One difficulty that the Buddha had a little of and we have had a lot of is the differences between cultures. Our Sangha is made up of twenty or more different nations and cultures. Plum Village is not a Vietnamese temple set up in Europe. It has roots in Vietnam but it has also had to grow and be appropriate for the environment in which it is growing. When we bring plants from Vietnam and we plant them in the West they do not grow the way they would in Vietnam. When we grow mustard greens in France they grow thorns, which would never happen in Vietnam. We have to know how to adapt to our surroundings and we have to know how to absorb the beautiful things from the cultures around us. Sometimes people from both the East and West come to Plum Village and find forms of practice that are not suitable for them, because they carry expectations that Plum Village will be like their respective cultures. But it is a combination of both. When a person from Asia hangs clothes out to dry, they hang the trousers lower than the shirts and the two legs have to be hung close together. It would be very strange for an Asian person to see them hung up any other way. If we use a normal bowl to feed the cat an Eastern person can never accept that. The bowl that the cat eats out of should be different from what humans eat out of. When a Western nun cooks, putting all her heart into cooking, a Vietnamese nun may look at the food and go somewhere else to eat instant noodles. This makes the Western nun very unhappy. This happens every day in Plum Village. So the cultural gap is there and it brings difficulties. It is not anyone’s fault, it is just differences.

If you want to offer something you have to have that thing in order to offer it. In the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition there are many jewels. But if we want to offer them we have to have them within ourselves. We have to put our roots down in our own tradition very deeply. We must put our roots down in our educational tradition, our ethical tradition, our cultural tradition, and in our spiritual tradition in order to be able to share them with others. We have to keep the most beautiful things in our culture to be able to offer them to others. The most beautiful and precious things I have received are not something I can ever take out of me. I can bring them out and share them, but how can I share them if people cannot accept them? In the process of sharing the practice we have to learn to understand the culture and the environment of the West. We have to present our own jewels in the way that is appropriate to the Western way of thinking.

There are two things necessary to transmit the teachings we have received. We have to have things firmly in ourselves and we have to understand the culture of the people we are offering the teachings to. If we don’t understand anything about the language or the behavior of the Western people how can we offer these things? There are teachers from the East who come to the West who have jewels from their own cultures but they have not understood the Western culture and so there is no way they can transmit their jewels to Western people. You have to understand Western culture and then you can share the jewels of your tradition. In these last thirty-five years I have learned so much in this process.

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I have not only learned from Westerners but I have also learned from the East. In the light of Western culture I have seen the beauties of the East in a way that I had not recognized before. Before I was only able to see 70% of the beauty of Vietnamese culture. But now under the light of Western culture I can see 90% or more of the beauty of Vietnamese culture. I have learned from the place where I am teaching and also from the place where the jewels came from. When Western friends come to Plum Village they also have to have their roots in their own culture and in their own spirituality. Then they have something to share with us. It is not that they are hungry ghosts, wandering around and that they have nothing to offer to us. If they have put down their roots in the Western culture and they come here they will have something to offer us. And because we are open we can receive from them and both sides will profit. The most basic condition to have a successful exchange between peoples of different cultures is for each person to have his or her roots firmly established. This is a process that takes place year to year and Plum Village is still in the process of learning these things.

Renewing Buddhism in Asia 

Plum Village has contributed a great deal not only to Buddhism in Europe and the United States but also to Buddhism in Vietnam and other areas of Asia. In did not have monastic disciples in Plum Village I would not have been able to write the book, Stepping into Freedom. It is a handbook that shares practical guidance and requirements for a novice. The book that is currently being used by novices in Buddhist countries was written over 400 years ago. I sensed that it was outdated and no longer appropriate. I sat down with my disciples to compose Stepping into Freedom, which has thirty-nine chapters on mindful manners instead of the original twenty-four. This new handbook includes mindful manners on such areas of practice as how to use a computer in mindfulness and how to facilitate discussions about the Dharma. The ten mindfulness trainings (novice precepts) are also presented in a very complete, practical and beautiful way.

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If we did not have the monastic Sangha here we would not have been able to offer to Vietnam the daily chanting book, written in modern Vietnamese, which many temples are now using. (Most traditional chanting books used in Vietnam are written in old or Sino-Vietnamese, which most people do not understand.) We now have a book for reciting the Bhiksu and Bhiksuni precepts in Vietnamese, English and French as well as the Grand Ordination ceremony in Vietnamese, English and French. While teaching the monks and nuns in Plum Village we have been able to write and publish many reference books that temples, meditation centers, and Buddhist universities in Vietnam and other countries in Asia can use and benefit from. For example, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teachings, a book on basic Buddhism as taught to monks and nuns, is being used as course material in many Buddhist institutes in Vietnam by young Dharma teachers.

We have also created a four-year training program for monks and nuns. Upon completion, monastics are capable of organizing retreats and leading Days of Mindfulness. After being a monk or nun for five years you can be a candidate for receiving the transmission of the Dharma lamp to become a Dharma teacher. In Plum Village we have three kinds of Dharma teachers: monastic Dharma teachers, lay Dharma teachers and honorary monastic Dharma teachers. During the Winter retreat 2001-2002 we had the Lamp Transmission Ceremony in which thirty monastic and lay practitioners. About seventy monastics and thirty lay people have received the Dharma Lamp in Plum Village and have led retreats all over the world. There are also numerous honorary monastic Dharma teachers who received the lamp at Plum Village and are teaching in Vietnam.

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In Plum Village during the winter retreats, the monks and nuns have the benefit of long courses which allow deeper learning. For example, we have had retreats on the living traditions of Buddhist meditation, on Plum Village practice, on the Southern and Northern transmissions including the major sutras like the Prajnaparamita Sutra, the Lotus Sutra, and the Flower Adornment Sutra and on Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika Shastra. The material from some of those retreats has been transcribed and made into books and monastics in Vietnam have benefited from them. Thus the practice and study of monks and nuns in Plum Village has contributed a great deal to the study and practice of Buddhism in Vietnam, Europe and America.

The Relationship of Teacher and Disciple 

Early on I trained several generations of monks and nuns in Vietnam. I looked after the young monks and nuns with all my heart and thought taking care of them was enough and that I didn’t need to have disciples of my own. When I came to the West I still had that idea. Then one day I saw clearly that if I don’t have a direct teacher-disciple relationship, the practice of the disciple would not deepen. When I taught the students in meditation centers in North America and in Europe there was a link, a relationship of teacher and disciple. But after I left the relationship weakened and therefore the students never really matured in the practices I offered. The students did not practice the teachings offered continually and ceaselessly because of the lack of the teacher-disciple connection. After that I decided that I would have monastic and lay disciples. I saw that the relationship between teacher and disciple is very important, not only for the disciple but for the teacher as well. I have learned a lot having disciples living and practicing with me.

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The relationship with my students, which is direct and continuous, has helped me to see the ways of teaching which can most likely ensure success. It brought together the teachings and practice, of the mindfulness trainings and fine manners, so that the teachings and practice are not separate from each other. Through the course of teaching and our practice as a Sangha, we have been able to produce wonderful Dharma doors which lay and monastic people can use. For instance the idea of the Sangha body, the Sangha eyes, Shining Light, touching the earth and the second body system are the fruits and flowers of our practice here in Plum Village. They are not only used by monks and nuns but also by lay people. The presence of monks and nuns in Plum Village has brought me much happiness. The basic reason is their commitment for their whole life to the practice and their determination to go on the path of our ideal together. In Plum Village, monks and nuns vow to live together as in a family for the rest of our lives.

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In the past I also taught several generations of monastic disciples but I was never as happy as I am now as teacher and disciple live together and practice together. Every day I find ways to transmit to my disciples all that I have realized for myself, like the first banana leaf transmitting and sending nourishment to the second and third leaves. The happiness which monks and nuns give me is very great. Monks and nuns in Plum Village all have beauty, sweetness, bright smiles and twinkling eyes. I don ‘t know if they were so beautiful before they became monks and nuns or whether they became beautiful afterwards. Or is it just because I am like any other father and mother that I see my own children as more beautiful than other people’s children? But I do see them as beautiful, whether they are from North America or Europe or from Asia.

I think some of you must agree with me. Just a few hours after the ceremony for transmitting the novice precepts their faces are so much more radiant, their two eyes more bright and their smiles fresher. That has to do with their determination, their commitment, and with the precepts’ body. Sitting with the monks and nuns to drink tea or to have Dharma discussion, to talk about happiness in the present and the future is one of the things I like doing best of all I spend a lot of time with the monks and nuns and that time brings me a great deal of happiness.

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When monastic and lay disciples do something wrong, clumsy or unskillful that brings about difficulties and suffering the Sangha should help them. I have learned over thirty years not to use my authority as a teacher to resolve conflicts. We have to use awakened understanding and love. This has to be applied both in the East and in the West. If we do not do this we will not be successful as a teacher. Often our disciples cannot see the mind and heart of their teacher. We have to be patient. They think that their teacher’s heart is as small as a peanut. We think that Thay does not allow us to receive the precepts because he is punishing us, because he does not love us. We do not know that our teacher’s deepest desire is to see his disciples grow and to become big sisters and brothers for all our little sisters and brothers, to take our teacher’s place. The more they can do that the happier Thay is.

Therefore, the teacher is someone who has the capacity to allow his students to make mistakes. We have to learn from our mistakes. When we are a teacher we have to have the capacity to see all of our disciples as our continuation. We have to help everyone to grow up. We don’t just want to support one or two of our disciples. We want everyone to grow up like all mothers and fathers want all their children to grow up. If we are an older brother or sister in the Sangha we have to look after every younger brother and sister equally. If we do that we already have begun to be a teacher. If we know how to love all our disciples with equanimity, then when we officially become a teacher there is no reason why we should not be successful.

I really want there to be lay people practicing with the monks and nuns in all of our monasteries, to be a bridge between the monastic community and the lay people in society. We can really call these lay people upasika (lay disciples who have received the five mindfulness trainings) because they are close to the monks and nuns. With deep understanding, they will then have the capacity to hand on the insights and the happiness of the monastic Sangha to the community of lay people at large. There are many lay people in the Order of Interbeing and that is one of the reasons why we have made progress in developing the Order of Interbeing and sharing the practice in so many places. They are not like other lay people because they have received the fourteen mindfulness trainings. The fourteen mindfulness trainings are like a bridge which connects the monastic community to the lay community.

The Order of Interbeing began in 1962 with six people. Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chi Mai were among the first six core members of the Order. Today there are more than 700 members of the Order of Interbeing and they are present all over the world. Now we want to establish lay communities led by lay people like Intersein in Germany led by three lay Dharma teachers and Clear View in Santa Barbara, California led by two lay American Dharma teachers. We hope in the following years of the twenty-first century that there will be many similar lay centers led by lay members of the Order of Interbeing. We also hope there will be many Mindfulness Practice Centers set up to offer a secular practice of mindfulness without religious overtones. In these centers, people from any belief can come in order to comfortably practice, without fee ling they have to abandon their root religion and convert to a new religion.

Buddhism Beyond Religion 

When I was last in China I met with the vice minister of religious affairs. We offered his department a calligraphy saying “The Spiritual Dimension.” My idea was that although China is developing and strengthening many aspects of their society: the economy, education, the arts, and politics, the people still suffer if they lack the dimension of spirituality in their lives and activities. Giving support to Buddhism so that Buddhism can contribute to that spiritual dimension will help people in China suffer less.

Last winter the School of Medicine of a university in Geneva asked me to come and speak about the human brain. They have organized a week-long symposium on the brain and are gathering neuroscientists and brain specialists to offer illumination on this topic. I am not a brain specialist, but they invited me because they want to have the spiritual dimension represented. Also I was invited to contribute to the international conference of politicians and business leaders of major enterprises held at Davos, Switzerland. Neither am I a businessman, so why do they invite me? Because they see that the business people and those in politics do have suffering, worries and fears, and they feel the need for the spiritual dimension. The medical school in Harvard has also invited me to give a Day of Mindfulness for doctors and medical researchers. The spiritual dimension is called on to bring relief to people’s suffering, anxieties, and fears in all fields.

Monks, nuns and lay practitioners have to bring Buddhism out of its religious context, presenting Buddhism as a source of insight and a tradition of practice, to be able to share it with, and serve, the world. We have to bring Buddhism into prisons, schools, hospitals, and police headquaI1erS so the people in these areas can live a life with more ease and less suffering. Therefore we need to learn how to offer methods of practice that can be used in all sectors of society, without the limitations of being a religion.

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Looking at the scope of the Plum Village Sangha’s activities we can see that the practice of mindfulness in daily life has been able to reach many sectors of society. We host retreats not only in Plum Village but also in other countries of Europe, America, and Asia. We have had many retreats for families, where parents, children and teenagers practice together. We have hosted retreats just for young people in the United States, Australia and Europe. We have had retreats for psychotherapists in America and Europe. We have had retreats for war veterans, environmentalists, doctors, nurses, teachers, peace activists and business people. We have brought the practice into prisons. This year the Mind/Body Institute of the School of Medicine at Harvard University wants me to come and receive an award. They say our retreats have helped heal many people and greatly relieved their suffering. We are not doctors nor are we psychotherapists but our retreats have brought rejuvenation, joy and hope to thousands of people. They want to affirm that fact with an award. This is an indication that we have been able to surpass the limits of religion and enter the main stream of society.

The Seed has traveled far 

In the process of Plum Village growing up we have been able to modernize the methods of learning and practicing Buddhism. Our teachings have been received easily, enthusiastically and happily. Whenever we have a retreat, people from different religions practice together without any discrimination. Our methods of practice seem to be applicable for many schools of Buddhism as well. Whether practitioners come from Japanese Zen meditation, Korean meditation, Vipassana meditation, or Tibetan Buddhism they all come to practice together and feel at ease in our retreats.

Business people, who have participated in a retreat held in Plum Village for business people, reported that a few months after the retreat they still continue to have more insight into what they have learned. The seeds that were planted in the retreat continue to sprout bit by bit, offering deeper understanding. They now know more clearly what path they should take and what path they should not take. We have been able to present the teachings in such a way that young people and Westerners can understand them, accept them and apply them. That is quite an achievement of Plum Village, but it is not the work of one person alone or just the work of a few years. It is the work of thirty-five years that includes twenty years of Plum Village and the work of the entire Sangha.

We have been able to present the five mindfulness trainings in non-Buddhist terminology. The five mindfulness trainings are very true and very deep expressions not only of Buddhist teachings but also of the practice of Buddhism. The five mindfulness trainings are presented as a very concrete way of practicing mindfulness and not as restrictive commandments. We have also presented the fourteen mindfulness trainings as the essence and the practice of Buddhism. Many people who do not call themselves Buddhist like to recite the fourteen mindfulness trainings. We have established more than 800 local Sanghas all over the world. In large cities like London there are over ten Sanghas, within city limits. Small towns also have their Sanghas. In Israel there are Sanghas of Plum Village. In Australia, in Germany there are many Sanghas. In Vietnam there are numerous temples and Sanghas following the mindfulness practice of Plum Village. Other centers in the West also practice Plum Village practices. If you do not see these manifestations, about 800, all over the world you have not seen Plum Village.

One day while sitting in London during a retreat, I was very moved to receive letters from practitioners in Edinburgh, Scotland. I have never set foot in Scotland but the practitioners wrote thoughtful letters about their practice and about their Sangha there and shared their happiness. I was interested in Edinburgh because I had a friend who was a monk and he went there to study. He was sent to Colombo to study Buddhism but after several years he was sent to Edinburgh. He studied anthropology for several years there and then he went back to Vietnam. But he did not leave any trace. I have never been to Edinburgh but the seed of Plum Village had gone to Edinburgh and it has grown up in the soil there. That is something that surprised me and made me very happy. That is just an example of one of the many places I have never been to but the seeds of Plum Village practice have flown there. Here in France there is a kind of plant called pissenlit, the dandelion. When the dandelion plant ripens it turns white. The seeds are at the base of the white petals and the wind carries these seeds very far, maybe tens of kilometers. In the same way the seeds sown by Sanghas of Plum Village have spread very far. They have traveled into prisons, into Catholic cloisters, into schools, families, hospitals and communities in many places around the world and they will continue to go far in the future.

Harvesting Every Moment 

Yesterday Fei-Fei, a lay practitioner living in Plum Village, asked me, “Thay you work so hard, have you yet harvested the fruit that you want?” I responded, “My dear, what else do you want Thay to harvest? Every moment of my daily life is a moment of happiness, is a harvest. As I sit with you now and teacher and disciple drink tea together, it is not to achieve anything. When we drink tea together we are already happy. To give a Dharma talk is already happiness. To do walking mediation with my disciples is happiness. To organize a retreat is happiness. To help practitioners be able to smile is happiness. What more do you want me to harvest?” Our work should be happiness. Our practice is “dwelling happily in this moment.” Every Dharma talk I give has to reflect the Dharma seal of Plum Village, “I have arrived. I am home.”

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

Coming Home to Plum Village

Letter from the editor, Barbara Casey

I hope you are refreshed and inspired by this special issue of The Mindfulness Bell, celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Plum Village in France and of the Plum Village style of mindfulness practice throughout the world. In these pages, you will be introduced to a few of the thousands of people who have given themselves to this way of living and have been transformed in the process. Through the guidance and inspiration of our teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and of the Noble Sangha of monks, nuns, and laypeople, we are growing a strong and safe family which can comfort us in times of despair and challenge us to become our most fearless, compassionate selves for the sake of our families, our communities, and all living beings.

I came to mindfulness practice Plum Village style in 1997 at a weekend retreat in southern Oregon, where I lived. With a sigh of relief, I opened to the deep knowing that I had found my spiritual home. From there I experienced the Plum Village Sangha in retreats in California, Vermont, and Washington as well as in my home town. In 1999 I was fortunate to travel with 180 Sangha members to China, where I became acquainted with our spiritual ancestors, feeling their dedicated support and encouragement. In 2000 I first set foot on the grounds of Plum Village in France, and once again had the palpable experience of coming home. Being in the Plum Village community brings out the best in me. I have found both a welcoming openness to express my unique way of being and the encouragement to release any attachment to the way I think I need to be. I have found the safety and freedom to listen to my own inner voice and to let loving-kindness guide my actions. I have found inspiration and friendship from both monastic and lay brothers and sisters.

Making plans to visit Plum Village this June for The Hand of the Buddha retreat, I notice my feelings of happiness and comfort at the thought of walking through the woods, standing in line for breakfast, and breathing deeply the cool night air. I can already see the smiles on the faces of my brothers and sisters as we come together once again.

My deepest gratitude to my Noble Teacher and to my spiritual family throughout space and time. May we manifest Plum Village in our hearts with each breath of freedom, with each peaceful step. A Lotus To You, Barbara Casey

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Book Review

A new book from Parallax Press
Available in December 2002

I have arrived, I am home
Celebrating Twenty Years of Plum Village Life
By Thich Nhat Hanh and the Global Plum Village Community 

In this moving history of building and sustaining a vibrant, multicultural mindfulness community, we hear voices ranging from children, war veterans, practitioners in prison, and social workers in Vietnam, to Israeli and Palestinian practitioners, Western and Asian monks, nuns and lay people. The sharings are grounded in Dharma talks by Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Chan Khong and Sister Annabel (True Virtue) who openly share their challenges, wisdom and joy in their journeys with Plum Village over twenty years. The book is richly illustrated with color photos and art as well as poems, songs, and short stories.
To order contact Parallax Press: www.parallax.org

This special issue of The Mindfulness Bell is an appetizer to this forthcoming book that will be available in full color at the end of 2002.

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Poem: Dharma jazz

What tune will he play today,
the great improvisor
the Dharma jazz master?

Will our strings vibrate
with empty fullness,
or will our concepts transform his noble jazz
into jumble?

Aiming hard at aimlessness,
we wait in anticipation.

Here he comes!
Flowing into the room
across the floor
and onto his cushion.

The hall falls silent.
Only the singing of birds
and the chatter in our minds
can be heard.

The bell is invited,
and the sound of Buddha resonates in the room.
A moment of stillness
and the master begins.

Are we prepared?
Are we open?
Are we listening?
Are we receptive?

Sheets of words tumble upon us.
We try our best not to try too hard
And then it is over,
we are content.

The concert was good.
For a few moments we felt as though we knew
the source of his music.
As though this source was also ours (as he says)

We stand up and bow twice,
And head slowly for the door.
Sunshine and tea
Are waiting outside.

Kare Landfald, Norway
written by the lotus pond in Upper Hamlet on Aug. 5, 2001

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Poem: A Half Moon

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Alone, I walk in meditation on this small path.
Stopping, smiling, I gaze at the half moon.
The moon this evening is strangely bright,
clearly printing my shadow on this peaceful path.
I continue to walk and I invite the moon to follow my steps.
But dear moon!
Is it because of my invitation that you follow?
If there were three people going in three directions,
You would still follow all three.
Even ifthere were a thousand people
with a thousand directions,
You would not forsake anyone.
Oh moon, this evening,
always and forever,
I wish to cultivate your capacity
To walk with everyone,
No hatred, no discrimination,
no abandonment,
Even towards the person
I have hated the most.
Oh, but dear moon,
my mind is still so small;
How many times
have I promised myself this,
Yet failed to realize my aspiration?
Today I sign a contract with you.
Please, moon, remind me to be aware,
so that my sincere vow may be fulfilled.

Sister Hoi Nghiem

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The Soul Of Ancient Europe

By Marcel Geisser

Plum Village is not only a place in France. Wherever Thay is there is also the spirit of Plum Village. This was the feeling I always had, when I was traveling with my teacher. Wllether it was on a highway through Switzerland, in a peaceful park in Warsaw, on the high top of the Zugspitze mountain in south Germany or on the magnificent Karl’s bridge of Prague.

It is 1992. In my memory I see many people walking the streets, enjoying the nice weather of the summer holidays. Late that morning we were walking through the ancient city of Prague, looking at the beautiful old churches and buildings. Slowly we reached the Karl’s bridge, crowded with tourists and many merchants from the town, offering all kinds of handmade goods.

As it often happened, Thay had linked his arm loosely with mine. Once in a while we would look over the bridge down to the calm water, then continue our slow walk in mindfulness amidst the crowd of people. I enjoyed it so much to be with Thay among all the strangers. Suddenly he stopped walking. He stood still and closed his eyes and so did I. I began to hear the midday bells from the church on the other side of the river. Time and space disappeared in the deep beautiful sound. There was no trace left of a thought. The complete oneness of the universe was not a matter of speculation.

After an unknown time I realized we were still standing motionless on the bridge among all these people passing by. It struck me, how odd this sight must be for the people passing by, an old Vietnamese monk in brown robes standing there with this other small man on a crowded bridge. I opened my eyes and was touched by surprise. Nobody even took notice of us. We were somehow invisible – something I had come across often from the teachings of the shamans. How to become invisible? By not being special’

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At his public talk that evening Thay said, “It took me many years – but today I touched the soul of ancient Europe.”

Marcel Geisser, True Realization, is a Dharma teacher in Switzerland.

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I Am Not Different From You: A portrait of Sister Chan Khong

By Eveline Beumkes

Her original name is Phuong; her Dharma name is Chan Khong, meaning “True Emptiness.” Thich Nhat Hanh and Sister Chan Khong started Plum Village together in 1982. That Plum Village has become what it is today and that people all over the world have been inspired by Thay’s teachings is to a great extent a result of Sister Phuong’s enduring support and untiring initiative. Feeling grateful for having come in contact with Thay’s teachings is feeling grateful to Sister Chan Khong in the very same breath.

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I first met Thay and Sister Phuong in 1984 during a meditation weekend in Amsterdam. In the evening there was a special program with Vietnamese music. At one point the music stopped abruptly and Sister Phuong began to sing. I was deeply touched by her voice. Never had I heard someone sing like that. She sang my heart open and I cried and cried, not understanding what was happening to me.

During the first summer I spent in Plum Village, Sister Phuong wasn’t yet a nun; she was simply called “Phuong.” She had lovely long black hair that, in her way, she would casually put up in a bun by sticking a pen through it. She warmly welcomed the few Westerners that visited Plum Village in those days and she did what she could to make us feel at home. At that time she was the only person able to translate from Vietnamese into English or French. When Thay gave a Dharma talk or when there was an event in Vietnamese, she would sit next to us and translate for hours on end without ever appearing to get tired. Sister Phuong’s way of translating was so expressive that even after having translated for hours, her voice sounded as colorful as it did when she began.

Three years later when I moved to Plum Village I was often the only one during the winter season that needed translation during Thay’s talks and at the dining table at the end of the meals. There were about ten of us by then, and after dinner, as we were enjoying countless cups of tea, there was usually a lot of conversation, all in Vietnamese. During those moments I felt so left out, but when Sister Phuong was around she would always come sit next to me and, while participating wholeheartedly in the conversation, she would translate for me at the same time. I savored those moments in her presence. A couple of years ago I noticed she had taken on a new habit; while translating she would keep her hands in a certain position, a mudra. When I asked her about it, she explained she did it in order to remind herself to stay mindful while she was talking.

She also strengthened my confidence that there is always a solution to any problem. One winter I had promised to make a flower arrangement for a tea meditation in the Lower Hamlet. I looked all over and could not find a single flower. When everyone was seated in the zen do and Sister Phuong was about to enter, I ran to her with an empty bowl in my hands telling her, quite unhappily, that I had not succeeded in making the flower arrangement. Even before I had finished speaking she picked up some tufts of grass that were growing along the path, added a few handfuls of pebbles from the path we were standing on, picked up a stick lying nearby, planted it in the middle and … voila! Her creation was complete and the tea meditation could begin. While we entered she gave me a mischievous wink and whispered, “pure nature.”

As the years passed, more and more people came to Plum Village and new sleeping quarters needed to be created. One of the places chosen for a future dormitory was the attic of the house where my room was. Cleaning it was a gigantic job, with spider webs from floor to ceiling and the dust of ages everywhere. After cleaning for just a few minutes I looked like a mine worker, and many hours of scrubbing and sweeping later I seemed to have made no progress at all . One afternoon, after a few days of lonesome work in that cheerless place, Sister Phuong suddenly appeared,joining me in my work with great swiftness. Her help and enthusiasm were most welcome, but at the same time I felt embarrassed that she was there mopping the floor with me while she had countless other things to do, things that could only be done by her. No matter what I said, she was not at all receptive to my urging that she spend her time in a different way; she continued until the job was done. She never felt that any job was beneath her.

Tireless Energy for Others

I was often amazed by her inexhaustible energy. If something needed to be finished, she simply continued until it was done, if necessary beyond midnight, without eating and often all by herself. When packages of medicine needed to be sent to Vietnam, she sat for hours on the stone floor, addressing labels and writing uplifting words to each family. Others came and joined her in her work, but when they left she continued. And never have I detected even a glimpse of self-pity in her. Despite all that she has to do, I have never once heard her complain that she is too busy. r have also never heard her complain of feeling cold, while in the wintertime in the draughty rooms of Plum Village there is certainly reason enough to do so. In early autumn when I was already wearing two pair of socks, I saw her walking without any. Her name “Chan Khong” also means ” bare feet” in Vietnamese. She never gave the slightest attention to her own discomfort.

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When she talked about the situation in Vietnam she was always wholeheartedly involved . Durin g a tea meditation many years ago I remember her telling us that she had just received a message from Vietnam that a number of artists had been imprisoned. She cried openly as she spoke and I felt so touched . As I suffer from my own pain, I saw her suffer from the pain of others . Far more often though, I saw her laughing, because she is very open to the comical aspects of a situation . Once a small group of very important Vietnamese monks from America paid a short visit to Plum Village. On the morning of their departure we were all, about twelve people, called to the zendo. We sat in a circle while Thay spoke for a while in Vietnamese. We had just adopted a new routine in Plum Village; when someone was leaving, in order to say goodbye to him or her on behalf of the whole Sangha, one of the permanent residents would practice ” hugging meditation” with the parting friend during a communal meeting.

Hugging meditation is done in the following way: you first bow to each other, aware of your breath and forming a lotus bud with your hands to offer to the other person. Then you embrace the other person, holding him or her during three in and out breaths, fully aware of the fact that ( I) you yourself are still alive, that (2) the friend in your arms is still alive and (3) how lucky you are that he!she is still there and you are holding him/her.

Well, that morning Thay asked one of the nuns to come to the middle to say goodbye to one of the highly important monks (maybe abbots). In the meantime, he explained to the monk how hugging meditation was done. It was obvious to us that the monk in question was clearly not accustomed to this form of meditation. And certainly not with a nun! Only those who know the tradition well can gather how revolutionary Thay was at that moment. When both were standing in front of each other and, after exchanging a short, uneasy glance, started bowing very deeply, the inevitable happened: their heads collided. It took a ll of us great pains to refrain from laughing out loud and, like us, Sister Chan Khong sat for a long time with a twisted face that she just couldn ‘t manage to get back into the right expression, however hard she tried.

Though countless practical things continuously demanded her attention , Sister Chan Khong also kept an eye on us, on how we were doing. And if she suspected that something was wrong with one of us she asked straight away about it. Whatever it was she wanted to discuss, she always came immediately to the heart of the matter. When I wanted to tell her something, she usually got the point long before I had finished. Her way of listening was very attentive and without judging . When I spoke with her I always felt a lot of space. Yet I also know from experience that her way of communicating has its own rules, and at times that has been quite difficult for me. The hardest to digest was her sudden way of stopping a conversation – completely unexpected, in the middle of a story, in the middle of a sentence. Since I learned that that moment could an’ive at any time, I brought up what I wanted to talk about right away, or else she’d be gone long before I’d touched the topic I’d wanted to discuss. And that would be really bad luck because she was so busy, you’d never know when your next chance would be.

She could abruptly cut off a conversation on the telephone as well, just like that. It has happened to me more then once, that while in the middle of a sentence, I would suddenly hear “beep, beep, beep” in my ear, the connection having been broken . At first I felt really hurt, but as time passed I learned to see that as her “suchness,” and to simply accept it as just one of her many sides.

As far as I could see, the contact between Thay and Sister Phuong was always very halmonious and without tension. Once however, at the end of dinner, Thay spoke to her in an unusually stern voice, “Finish your meal! ” Because it was so different from how Thay normally spoke to her or to any of us, I never forgot it. There were a few gra ins of rice (maybe eight or twelve) left on her plate and Thay further said something like, “Many people are hungry at this moment.” To my surprise, Sister Phuong, with a look of remorse, proceeded to eat the remaining grains of rice on her plate, without any protest to having been addressed the way she was.

Becoming a Nun

The first year I lived in Plum Village, Thay was the only monastic. But after their trip to India in 1988, Sister Phuong, Sister Annabel and Sister Chan Vi returned with shaved heads they had become nuns. This unexpected change was a great shock to me. Thay must have noticed, because soon after their return when I happened to be alone in a room with him and Sister Phuong, he invited me to touch Sister Phuong’s head and to feel for myself how it felt without hair. While very carefully touching her head she laughed at me in a playful way and then took me warmly into her arms and said, “I am not at all different from you, even if I am wearing other clothes and have a shaved head. There is no difference at all between us.”

I felt that something had changed in Sister Phuong; I felt that the practice had really become number one in her life and that she had made a vow to try with all her heart to live as mindfully as possible. I noticed, for example, that in the middle of a conversation that was getting too noisy, she would become quieter, or while doing something very quickly she would suddenly slow down. Because I so clearly felt the change that took place in her, it was quite natural for me to start calling her “Sister Phuong” instead of just “Phuong.” Speaking about her new position as a nun, she once told me that she wanted to be careful that she didn’t become proud. She explained to me that in the Vietnamese community this could easily happen because as a monastic, Vietnamese people have the tendency to look up to you very much.

I have always known Sister Phuong as a jack-of-all-trades. According to her, she has much less energy than ten years ago, but when I see how much she takes on, seemingly without any effort, I am truly amazed. During a retreat some years ago in a Tibetan monastery in France, Thay fell ill. From that moment on, Sister Phuong took care of every aspect of the program, including the Dharma talk. On top of that she cooked twice a day for Thay and the three Plum Village residents who had come to take care of the children’s program. In her remaining time, she was available for retreatants who wanted to discuss their problems with her. And when the children’s program didn ‘t run so smoothly, she took care of that as well. She was the last one to go to bed and the first one to get up, and she continued to be in good spirits.

I have often wondered where her endless supply of energy comes from. I partly attribute it to the fact that she truly lives in the present; from moment to moment she deals with what is coming up, and she doesn’t lose energy in worrying about what may come next, which to me is a reflection of a deeply rooted faith. Even more important though, I think, is her compassion. When she became a nun she received from Thay the name Chan Khong, “True Emptiness.” “My happiness is your happiness” and “your pain is my pain” is something that she truly lives. Seeing the self in the non-self is not a theory for her but the very ground of her being.

Eveline Beumkes, True Harmony/Peace, lived in Plum Village for three years from 1988 to 1991. She has helped to organize the practice in Amsterdam, Holland and translates Thay’s books into Dutch.

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Poem: You Set Out This Morning

You set out this morning
to give the silver space a future.
The phoenix spreads her wings
and takes to the immense sky.
The water clings to the feet of the bridge,
while the sunrise calls for young birds.
The very place that served as a refuge for you years ago
is now witness to your departure
for the rivers and oceans of your homeland.

Thich Nhat Hanh
Paris, 1966

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Being the Practice

By Sister Annabel (Sister True Virtue)

From a talk given in the New Hamlet, Plum Village.

Dear Mahasangha good afternoon. Today is the 9th of December in the year 2001. It seems that the object of mind and the subject are not separate. I could think that I am the subject and Plum Village is the object of my mind. But the way I talk about Plum Village and the way I see Plum Village is not really separate from my mind. It is not separate from the collective mind, the mind of others, either. Plum Village is a collective creation.

“Oh, What it is to be happy”

I have always liked to sing. When I arrived in India in 1979 to practice with some Tibetan nuns I immediately found that I was able to sing in a way that I hadn’t been able to sing before. Whenever I had an emotion I would sing about it. The Tibetan nuns liked singing very much. Whenever we had a chance to be a little bit lazy and walk in the forest, which wasn’t very often, they would always sing. And they would ask me to sing for them in English. I wasn’t quite sure what to sing that would be in harmony with the Dharma. So I had to make up my songs as I went along. Whenever I had even a tiny realization in the practice I would make up a song about it. One song was called, “Oh, what it is to be happy.” At that time I didn’t know what it was like to feel really happy inside.

One day I was coming back to the monastery carrying some wooden planks on my shoulder because we were building the monastery in the forest. I saw one of the monks sitting on the side of the mountain. The monks live on one side of the river and the nuns live on the other side. We were up in the mountain and down below us in the valley were rice fields. The rice fields looked very beautiful divided by dikes. In the distance there were more mountains with clouds. You could hear the children laughing in the valley and you could smell the scent of pine trees. You could hear the boy who looks after the cows playing his flute. Everything was perfect, a Pure Land. But somehow in my heart I was not happy. When I saw the monk sitting there, he looked as if he were completely free, completely happy. Although I didn’t know in myself what happiness was, I thought I could experience it through him. So I wrote that song, “Oh, what it is to be happy.” I stayed in India for eighteen months. During that time I appreciated so much the beauty of the place where I was staying. But I never felt as in really got a hold of a practice that would help me to transform.

I wanted very much to be a nun. When I was seven years old I wanted to be a Catholic nun. When I was twenty-one I asked an abbot of a monastery in Normandy if I could be accepted as a Benedictine nun. He said no. When I went to India to be with the Tibetan nuns I still had the dream to become a nun. They also said no. Because I couldn’t become a nun I thought I might not be in the right place, the place where I could really devote myself to the practice and really transform myself. I felt I had so much to transform to really be able to feel the happiness that I witnessed in the monk sitting on the hillside. One day I was feeling very lonely. There had been a drought so I hadn’t had a bath for three months. That sounds like a long time. My skin was very black with dirt and I knew that I didn’t smell very nice and I felt very hungry because we never had enough to eat. In the morning we had a little bit oftea if we were lucky and if we were luckier we had a little bit of barley flour to put in the tea, but not always. At lunch we had one or two chapattis, a kind of Indian bread. And in the evening we had a little bit of rice soup. As we became poorer and poorer the rice soup became more and more watery. When I would wake up in the morning my stomach was always grumbling. It was also cold because we were quite high up in the mountains. I was shivering and hungry. But because of the beauty of the place and because deep down I wanted to practice so much, I stayed for a year and a half.

One day a monk came along from the main monastery and he had a radio. In the place where we lived we didn’t have any electricity or running water. I don’t know how he managed to have a radio but he did and he could pick up the BBC world news. He understood English, which was very rare. He said to me, “You know in England now there are thousands of women who are sitting around the missile bases to stop atomic weapons from being transported out.” There were many American missile bases at that time in England. He said, “This is a wonderful thing to do.” When I heard that I thought maybe that is what I would do.

Finding My True Teacher

So I left India and I went back to England and joined the women. They would sit there day and night to block missiles from leaving the base. We would put ourselves in front of the gate so that the missiles couldn’t come out. This is also part of my deep aspiration: I want there to be peace in the world. I don’t want there to be any war. So I thought this was a way to express my deep aspiration for peace. But in fact it is not enough to sit at the gate of a missile base. You need to sit at the gate of your own mind in order to be able to be aware of mental formations in your own mind and to transform them. That is a very important part of peace work. Some people were not peaceful in themselves. I asked everyone at the missile bases, “Does anyone know about Buddhist practice, does anyone do meditation? Do you know anybody who is in the peace movement and also is a Buddhist?” Everyone said, no, they didn’t know anyone. Then one day someone said, “Oh yes, I know someone. He is a Buddhist teacher from Vietnam,” and they said Thay’s name. Then I remembered that when I was in India, when I was so sure that I wanted to be a nun in the Tibetan tradition, one of the Tibetan teachers said to me, “No, your teacher will come from the far East, not from Tibet.” Other nuns said to me, “You have to meet your real teacher in the country of your birth.”

I heard about Thay and I wanted to find out more about him. I wanted to read what he had written and I wanted to be with people who knew him. I did my best to find a community. There was a Buddhist Peace Fellowship community in Kent so I joined them. We used to produce the Buddhist Peace Fellowship magazin e. We would go on peace  demonstrations and join discussions on peace. Whenever we went on demonstrations for peace we always tried to practice walking meditation because we were in touch with Thay through his writings. But it was not enough to be in touch with Thay through his writings. I wanted to be in touch with Thay’s person also. One day one member in the community in Kent asked, “Why don ‘t we invite Thay to come to England and give some teaching?” So lmet Thay in England and Thay comes from the Far East. I had all the right conditions to meet my true teacher.

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When [ first saw Sister True Emptiness in the airport I fe lt that she belonged to my blood family. I don’t know why but that is how I fe lt. When they had to go home on the last day I was a little bit sad because I didn’t know when I would see Thay and Sister True Emptiness again. I was in the car with Thay and I had to get out of the car to go home and Thay was being driven on to somewhere else. As I stepped out of th e car, Thay also stepped out and asked if I would like to come to Plum Village for the summer opening that year. When I heard that, all my sadness went away. That summer, in 1986, I went to Plum Village.

Another Pure Land

It was very hot that summer. The first thing Thay said to me was, “Here is India, India is here.” That made me immediately feel at home because the first time I had experienced the Pure Land was in India . Here was another Pure Land for me to experience. The Upper Hamlet was so simple and so beautiful. The Transformation Hall was not yet there. The Still Water Hall wasn’t there. Everyone was busy preparing for the summer opening. I immediately felt the atmosphere of complete relaxation. I immediately felt that I was at home. Later on that day someone took me down to the Lower Hamlet. I felt even more at home. It is very strange, from the time that I left the place where I was born I had never felt at home like that. When I looked at the stones the buildings were made of and when I looked out over the hills, I felt like that. Actually I was still a very unhappy person, but I was very happy to find my home, my Pure Land. Thay says you don’t need to have transformed all of your afflictions to dwell in the Pure Land. I don’t know what good fortune I had to be able to be there.

We enjoyed the summer opening. I spent two weeks in the Upper Hamlet with Thay and two weeks in the Lower Hamlet with Sister True Emptiness. In those days, Sister True Emptiness was the practice leader in the Lower Hamlet and Thay looked after the Upper Hamlet. We weren ‘t very well organized. We did everything at the last minute. Sister True Emptiness would have an idea to do something and five minutes later we would do it. It was nothing like the summer opening now. The summer opening was very beautiful because it was a kind of haven for Vietnamese refugees. When they arrived in Europe from the refugee camps, many Vietnamese people found themse lves in a situation completely unlike what they had known in Vietnaill. They found themselves living in a place where they could not speak their own language, eating strange food , probably doing menial work whereas they may have had a high degree of education in Vietnam, and so on. Plum Village is a place where there is Vietnamese language, Vietnamese food and other Vietnamese people.

Sister True Emptiness said it is very important to speak Vietnamese. The refugees have to speak a language that isn’t the ir own a ll day long and they really need to reconnect with their roots. That is one of the reasons I really wanted to speak Vietnamese. I was lucky because everybody spoke Vietnamese so it wasn’t difficult to learn. In those days the summer opening was quite Vietnamese. Now it is a bit more European and North American.

My real Vietnamese teacher was Sister Chan Vi . She was ordained at the same time that Sister True Emptiness and I were ordained in India. She came to Plum Village from the Philippines’ refugee camp. In the winter of I 986, Thay and Sister True Emptiness had gone to visit the different refugee camps and share the practice. They had met Sister Chan Vi at that time and asked her to come to Plum Village. When she arrived she felt it was strange to be in a foreign country and especially to stay with someone who was English and only spoke a few words of Vietnamese. At first it was a I ittle bit difficult.

Sister Chan Vi was the first member of my Sangha that I lived with twenty-four hours a day. When I lived in India I had learned about living with people of a different culture. I knew that there were things that might seem quite natural to me that for someone from another culture might seem offensive. When we live with people from other cultures we need to practice mindfulness and be aware of our actions of body and speech because we can easily offend someone without meaning to.

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I remember in India we lived in a little hut. I was a lay person at the time. The hut was on stilts and under the hut they kept the rice and other things. From time to time a nun would have to go under the hut to bring something out. When I was sitting in the hut it was my duty to leave the hut and stand outside for the nun to be able to go underneath because it would be disrespectful to sit on top of the nun going under the hut. That is not something I learned in England. At first r was very offended if in the pouring rain, in the middle of the monsoon I was told I had to leave the hut so they could go underneath and fetch something. But I learnt that this is part of politeness, a way of not offending people and keeping people happy, so after awhile I managed to do it without feeling any resistance in my heart. With Sister Chan Vi I also tried my best to learn about what is considered correct in the Vietnamese culture.

We both liked garden ing. When Sister Chan Vi had been in Vietnam she had spent time in a temple on the mountain and she had looked after the garden there. In our little garden we grew quite a few Vietnamese vegetables. Actually our garden was under plastic because they wouldn’t have grown outside. Whenever you went into that garden you could smell the fragrant herbs, just like if you go into the greenhouse here, today.

Every morning we would rise early and go straight out into the garden because there were many slugs and they would eat everything up if you were not careful. We would pick up the sl ugs and take them out into the forest. We pulled up any weeds. After we had looked after the garden a little bit we would go to the mediation hall and practice sitting meditation together. If it was summer time we would go into the Red Candle Hall. In the winter it was too cold, we didn’t have any heat, so we would go to the little room next to the Red Candle Hall. When it rained, the rain would come in because the roof tiles were loose; they weren’t attached to each other with cement or anything else. When a supersonic plane went overhead and broke the sound barrier, all the tiles would move. When the tiles moved, they left a gap. So whenever it rained, we had to put out all the buckets to catch the rain coming in. In the winter it used to snow more than it does now. The snow would blow in through the tiles. One time we went up into the attic and there was snow quite high, maybe ten centimeters or so. We had to shovel all the snow in the attic, put it into buckets and carry it down. Fortunately someone very kind saw that we wanted to practice and offered to gi ve a donation to fix the roof so that snow and rain wouldn’t come in anymore. That was the first time we had a big donation. Before that we were really quite poor.

In the winter we heated the rooms with some wood stoves. But in order to have the wood we had to go out and saw it in the morning. We had a saw with handles on two ends. Sister Chan Vi held one end and I held the other and together we sawed the wood. She said that she used to do the same in Vietnam. She used to go into the forest, saw the wood and sell it to help supprt her family.

I was very happy when Sister Chan Vi came. To be able to live together with just one other person in the Sangha twenty-four hours a day is already wonderful. When you have a sister who also wants to practice with you, you receive a lot of energy in the practice. The energy to practice was not doubled, but it increased ten or a hundred times. She supported me very much. She had often wanted to be a nun when she was in Vietnam, and she really liked the practice. She wanted to practice sitting meditation, reciting the Fourteen Mindfulness Trainings and chanting the sutras, and she chanted very well. She taught me how to chant the sutras. Sister Chan Vi was also a very good cook and she showed me how to cook Vietnamese food.

Sister True Emptiness also supported me and Thay was always patient. I don’t think I was an easy younger sister to have. I think I have transformed quite a bit since then, but I haven’t transformed everything since you can still see some of the weaknesses I had then. Sister True E mptiness was very patient with me and very open. She never showed any kind of discrimination at all. No one in the Sangha seemed to have any kind of strong racial discrimination, but sometimes we find it a bit easier to be with people of our own culture. But Sister True Emptiness is just as easy with people of different cultures as she is with people of her own culture.

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Thay very kindly allowed me to organize more retreats in England to which Thay agreed to come and teach. The Sangha in England began to grow. I used to meet people whom I had known before I had come to Plum Village and they would say, “Two years ago, you were so arrogant and now you have changed a lot.” That I have been able to transform gives me and others so much confidence in Thay’s way of practice.

Ordination in India

As well as going to England, Thay said that we would go to India. When Thay says we wil l do something, we a lways do it. In the world often when people say something, they might never do it. Thay had been thinking about going to India for a whil e and it was arranged and we were able to go. I was very happy because India had always been my spiritual home and I couldn’t think of anything better than to go there with Thay. I didn’t know that Sister Chan Khong and Sister Chan Vi had asked to be ordained as nuns in India. When I found out I thought, ‘Why can’t I become a nun, too?’ I had already tried twice. And in fact I had even asked Thay one time if I could become a nun when I first came to Plum Village and Thay said, “No, you have to do like Sister True Emptiness and become a lay member of the Order of Interbeing.” I was very sad when I thought that maybe I couldn ‘t become a nun with Sister True Emptiness and Sister Chan Vi . I thought, my goodness if we come back to Plum Village and they are both nuns and I am not, I don’t know if I could bear it. But Thay said that is not a good reason for becoming a nun. I think the main reason Thay agreed to my becoming a nun was my bodhicitta. I th ink it was there somehow. Maybe an additional cause was Sister Chan Khong who intervened on my behalf.

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We went to India. We went to Bodhgaya. We went to Uruvela and we had tea mediation and tangerines with all the children in Uruvela, the village where the Buddha had gone after enlightenment. We waded across t he Neranjera river. What I remember the most was the beauty of doing walking meditation in the places where the Buddha had walked.

One day early in the morning before it was light, we rose and went to the Vulture Peak. The police went with us because there are bandits there. It was the middle of November so it was not too hot and not too cold. We spent the whole day there. Out of great compassion, Thay ordained us as nuns, especially out of great compassion for me who popped in at the last moment. Sister Chan Khong gave me one ao trang (robe) of hers. When I was ordained I was very happy because I felt very light. I thought that I had cut off everything that had bound me, the past and all the fetters, and they were all gone. The next morning when I woke up and put my hand on my shaved head I fe lt very light and very happy. One morning I woke up, put my hand on my head and then I saw a mother rat with six baby rats run past the foot of my bed. They all had their tails in their mouths. In those times we stayed in very simple accommodations. When I lived in India before, the rats would come at night and eat my hair but now they didn’t have any hair to eat.

When I came back to Plum Village I realized that I hadn’t cut off all my afflictions and fetters at all. I still got angry, I still got sad, I still had a tremendous amount to transform . But I don’t think I can ever be shaken in my aspiration, in my determination to realize as fully as I can in this lifetime my own transformation and helping others to transform. I was thirty-eight, nearly thirty-nine when I ordained. It was a little bit late. I already had built up many worldly habit energies. Maybe my transformation is not as fast as other people’s. It is slow, but it is there. When I received the Dharma lamp from Thay in 1990, Thay gave me a gatha which said, “The work of transformation is what reveals the sign of truth.” I think this means that all my life I have to keep transforming and  I have to keep transforming and I have to keep transforming and clearly.

Every summer opening people come and I am always  there. The first summer opening missed was my thirteenth summer when I went to Vennont and didn’t come back that year. Apart from that summer, I have been to fifteen summer openings. In many summer open in gs someone  comes up to me and says, “You are much better than last year.”

Green Mountain Dharma Center, Vermont

In 1997 I went to Vermont. Vermont is extremely beautiful. The snow and the mountains in the winter, the gold and red of the autumn trees, the tremendous shock of green in spring – a very deep, bright green which comes after four or five months of white – the mists of the summer and the clouds in the mountains. The place we live is very beautiful with lakes and a teahouse built in a Japanese style. It was quite different than when I came to Plum Village.

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When I went to the United States, everything was already very comfortable. We didn’t have any work to do. In Plum Village to renovate the buildings, we had to lift out the cow manure from the barns in order to transform them into living quarters. It made very good compost for the garden. But in Velmont evelything was ready to live in. We had a beautiful house with carpet and hot running water and evelything was in place. We were seven sisters and two brothers at the beginning. We lived in a little house and the two brothers lived in another little house. Because they were so few they used to come and join us every day for sitting and chanting. When I arrived, everything was covered in snow. It was so silent. You don’t even hear the birds because it is too cold for the birds to come out. Every morning the sun rises over the snow and it turns pin k and there is a pink glow about everything. It is extremely beautiful.

I began to know the North American people. We think because we know the same language, we have everything in common and we wlderstand each other immediately. But in fact there is quite a difference between the North American people and the European people. It took me about three years to feel at home in North America. Before that, I expected North American people to be like Europeans and they aren’t. The suffering in North America is tremendous. Although materially we have far more than we need, the psychological suffering is huge. I think this was one of the difficult things for me to accept when I was first there. For instance, sometimes we would hear news that the son of someone close to the Sangha had committed suicide or someone else had killed his mother, terrible stories like that, especially among the yo ung people. There were many people we had to comfort because of tragedies in their families that arose from psychological suffering. In some ways I think that psychological suffering is worse than material suffering. But luckily the Dharma doors that Thay has taught can bring relief. It is my deepest asp iration to go back to the United States to understand better the situation there and to devote my life to helping in any way I can.

Often in the United States the newspapers contact us. We are also asked to give talks on international affairs. I have been asked to give talks on the situation in the Middle East. I have been asked to a write an article on Afghanistan and things like that. So part of being in a practice center in North America is that you really have to be in touch with what is going on.

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In Vermont, usually once a week we have visits from school children. Religion is not officially taught in the schools, but many schools have teachers who are interested in Buddhism. They organize courses on Buddhism and the students do a field trip to the Green Mountain Dharma Center to learn how a Buddhist community lives . When the children come we don’t teach them theory. We do our best to have them share about their difficulties. Fortunately we’ve had some young monks and nuns whom the young people from high schools and universities can easily feel close to. The young monks and nuns understand their situation because many of them have been brought up in the United States. Green Mountain Dharma Center is not very big. It may never flourish like Plum Village does. It may always be a little off-shoot of Plum Village. Plum Village is the root, the place for us to come back to, to be strengthened by our spirihlal roots so we can go off again to Green Mountain Dharma Center and offer something better. But we need to have that off-shoot out there because it is like an antenna that is in touch with what is happening and the antenna can let Plum Village know what the needs are over there.

Plum Village in the Future

If I think about Plum Village in the future, I see many westem monks and nuns. I know that the practice has to be developed. A tree always has to grow otherwise it is not a tree anymore. In the futu re there will be many new Dharma doors, new mindfulness practices, adapted to Europe and the United States where arts and music will be integrated into the practice.

Thank you very much.

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What is Intimate and True

By Brother Phap Khi

There are places on Earth to rest from the tiredness of the world. There are places for life, ports of call, places for passing through and transition so that people can finally meet themselves, meet each other, in the light and at the source of spiritual and human love in all its depth and authenticity. Places like this do exist. There may be too few of them, but they are real. These places are as precious as a drop of water in the heart of a desert oasis, a treasured pearl of light in an increasingly blind world. Such pearls of light enable us to glimpse the beauty and wonder of this world, so full of light.

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Plum Village is a place of great beauty and nobility, offering us an almost naive and gentle kindness, a generous and young and fresh kindness bringing relief and liberation from our pain.

Plum Village is woven with spiritual wealth. In this Pure Land there is a profound depth of human richness, a wealth of the heart, a wealth of community with monastic and
lay brothers and sisters who show deep fee lings of a family spirit in their daily interactions.

Thay is the wisest one amongst us. He is our grandfather, our father, our elder brother, as well as our spiritual teacher, master, guide, and friend. He offers us everything, the most precious things on this earth, in this life, all that can be offered from the heritage of life. He gives us a transmission of ancestral values and spirituality, an education in kindness and humility, acceptance and forgiveness for ourselves and others. Thay is an immense gift, a generous offering of love, a wonderful being in al l his humanity and simplicity.

Sometimes I cry tears of gratitude, inspired by the overflowing grace given to me to see and to hear what is right next to me. I would like to give all the water drawn from the depths of my heart, from the depths of my whole being. I would like to be able to express, more often, my immense gratitude for all the kindness [ perceive here, for the wealth of people gathered here who live together and who love each other almost in silence.

Surely I will never have enough tears, enough ink or words to express what is happening in Plum Village. I see people coming here as survivors of suffering, with distressed and ripped up souls. These are beings who need love, tenderness, attention, and friendship . They need to be acknowledged and listened to. These beings are ourselves. And because they are ourselves it is possible for us to offer them little and then big waves of kindness, brotherhood, sisterhood, care and compassion.

Thay offers us words of truth. They are the words from the heart, lifting worlds, pulling apart the curtains and liberating our inner child and bird. Thay shows us the way leading to right speech, speech of the heart. Thay encourages us to make good use of this speech. Then Thay pushes us, with kindness and a deep love, to send this speech in all directions, because it will bring relief to the other, freeing this sister, this brother from illbeing or despair.

But beyond words, what prevails in Plum Village, in all its splendor, its peaceful majesty and its noble simplicity, is a presence. The presence of silence, a knowing and living silence that is the living Dharma.

Let’s ask ourselves the question: What are we all doing together in Plum Village? We come from all corners of the world, from all horizons, cultures and ways of thinking; we come to meet here, to find the kind and loving protection of Thay, for what reason?

To be together, just that. To live together and to love. It is simple. It is the truth. The truth is always simple.

Plum Village is real. Asian faces, light faces, different smiles and light everywhere in people’s eyes. It is the same light.

It is certain that I’ve found my place of pilgrimage here. I walk on the Earth as Thay teaches us, with sacred steps for the sacred Earth. I make light steps, peaceful steps, steps which are the messengers of my gentleness, gratitude, loyalty and love for my friend, the Earth . I walk like that and the contact, the relationship, the communion with my friend, the Earth, becomes more and more intimate and true.

Plum Village, I love you .

mb31-What2Brother Phap Khi, Instrument of the Dharma, is from France. He ordained in 2001.

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In the Land of the Buddha

1988 trip to India with Thich Nhat Hanh

By Gillian Coote

In 1987, my husband Tony and I heard about a pilgrimage to India with Thay and Sister Phuong, to be led by Shantum Seth. Thay had recently written Old Path White Clouds, and would be sharing his knowledge of the Buddha’s life and offering Dharma talks. How could we resist such an opportunity?

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Our first destination was Sarnath. After an expedition on the bus, Thay watched us giving rupees to people who were begging in the streets and saw us climbing back on board with many packages. The following morning, Thay asked us to consider these actions deeply, and to understand their interconnection. Perhaps we could make a decision to restrict our shopping and our giving money to street beggars. Perhaps we could donate that money to an organization addressing the structural causes of poverty and in this way make a difference in people’s lives. His words struck home, and the last few days of our pilgrimage were spent with Buddhist social workers in Poona at their retreat center in a remote valley surrounded by ancient Buddhist caves, where we donated several thousand American dollars to support their educational, medical and cultural work amongst poor Untouchables.

Tony and Gillian Coote practice with the Sydney Zen Center in Australia. Gillian made a documentary for Australian TV during Thay’s 1986 visit to Australia, called “The Awakening Bell,” which is distributed by Parallax Press.

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Poem: Structure of Suchness

 

Do not scold the little birds.
We need their songs.
Do not hate your own body.
It is the altar for humanity’s spirit.

Your eyes contain the trichiliocosm,
and your ears have sovereignty over the birds,
the springs, the rising tide,
Beethoven, Bach, Chopin,
the cries of the baby,
and the song that lulls her to sleep.
Your hands are flowers oflove
that need not be picked by anyone,
and your forehead
is the most beautiful morning of all mornings.
Do not destroy the structure of suchness within you.

The corn, the grass, and the fragrance of the night
have all spoken out for peace.
I know a bullet may strike
the heart of the little bird this morning,
the bird that is celebrating life with all its might.
The corn, the grass, the fragrance of the night,
together with the stars and the moon –
all of us are doing our best.
We are doing everything we can
to keep you alive.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Found in Call Me by My True Names.

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Be A Flower

Children’s Questions to Thay
Summer Retreat 2001

Child: Why do you shave your head?

Thay: This question is classic. Many children have asked why do you shave your head? The answer I usually give is that we want to save shampoo. But there are other answers as well. The Buddha said to the monks and nuns, every morning when you wake up you have to touch your head and remember that you are a monk or a nun, not a person who lives in the world. Remembering that you are a monk or a nun you will know that you shouldn’t try to run after fame or profit, you should try to cultivate more compassion and understanding every day. That is one ofthe reasons why we shave our heads, in order to remember that we are monks and nuns.

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The other reason is that to shave one’s head is a symbolic act we make in order to show our determination not to do as we did before. We really want to begin anew. We want to live a spiritual life. That is an expression of a determination. Shaving one’s head is a kind of language saying I want to pursue the spiritual path of the Buddha.

Another reason is that we want to tell people that we are already monks or nuns and they should not try to run after us and to take us as their husband or their wife. It is an indirect message that I am already a monk, please don’t try to seduce me. I am already a nun, please don’t try to seduce me. Please leave me alone so I can follow the path of the Buddha. It is very clear. Don’t run after me; I am already a monk; I am already a nun.

Child: Thay, mosquitos keep biting me and I want them to stop it. Can I kill a few everyday?

Thay: When I was a little boy I also had that question. Later on I learned that a mosquito needs to get some food in order to live. It is like us. When we are hungry we also look for something to eat, that’s very natural. I think there are ways in which we can protect ourselves from being bitten by mosquitos. In Vietnam everyone has a mosquito net to sleep under at night. If they don ‘ t use a mosquito net they have to kiII mosquitos the whole night. Not only a few, because after you kill one another will come. So you  spend the whole night killing mosquitos. So killing mosquitos is not the best solution. One way we can protect ourselves is by using a mosquito net. I think there are a few mosquito nets in Plum Village. You may ask the brothers to let you borrow one so you can spare the life of little mosquitos.

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In my practice , from time to time I allow mosquitos to get a bite. Some of the brothers and sisters practice like that also. When a mosquito lands on us we just breathe in and out and we just allow the mosquito to get some food. We don ‘t do it very often. But from time to time we want to practice to nourish our compassion and understanding. Sometimes when I saw a mosquito land on me I produced a kind of storm to make the mosquito fly away. But we do it without any anger. Wejust prevent the mosquito from biting.

Child: How can we help our bad teachers?

Thay: What do you mean by bad?

Child: Teachers that like to blame others and give extra work for the children to do.

Thay: When we say that our teachers are bad, are we sure that we are good students? That is the first question, are we good school students? Helping our teacher is a very good thing to do. I think first of all we should show our sympathy and we should not show our anger to our teachers. We shou ld have an opportunity to s it down and talk to our teachers. Your teacher must have something good in him or her, although she may have some negative things also. So during the talk with your teacher you can mention what is good in him or her. After that you can say what is good in other teachers, especially the good things that you don’t see in your teacher. You have to speak in such a way that it doesn’t sound like you are blaming your teacher. You say what you appreciate in your teacher and then you say what you appreciate in other teachers. That is an indirect way to help your teacher to develop these positive things that she has not developed.

Also we can say that we students can be silly sometimes, we are difficult sometimes. So please help us so we can be less silly and less stubborn. If we talk to our teacher like that and we listen very deeply our teacher will appreciate us. We make an effort to please our teacher and our teacher will make an effort to be a better teacher.

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There are many ways in which we can come to our teacher. We can come to our teacher as one or two students and sometimes we can talk to another teacher and ask that teacher for help. Sometimes we can write a loving letter to our teacher, not blaming. If you don’t have a chance to talk directly to him or to her, you can write a letter acknowledging all the goodness in her and you can ask her not to do the things that will make you suffer. Three or four of you can sign the letter together. If you write with loving speech your teacher will have a chance to read it. I hope these suggestions are helpful. Please try.

Child: Why do we have to die one day?

Thay: Imagine there is only birth, there is no death. One day there will be hardly any place to stand on earth. To die means to leave the place for our children . And who are our children? Our children are ourselves. Our children are our new man ifestat ions. The son is the continuat ion of the father. The father looking at his son has the feeling that he will not die because his son is there to continue him. Looki ng like that you see that you are not dying, you are continuing in your son . And your son is not dying because he is continued in the grandson and so on. Buddhist meditation helps us to look deeply to see that there is no real dying only continuation in different forms .

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Look at the c loud in the sky. The cloud may be afraid of dying. But there is a time when the cloud has to be transformed in to rain and to fall down. But that is not really dying. That is changing form. The cloud changes into the ra in and the cloud continues in the rain. If you look deeply into the ra in you can see the cloud. There is no real dying. You continue to be in many other forms. The cloud can continue in the form of snow, in the form of rain, in the form of a river, or in the form of ice. One day the cloud can become ice cream. If the cloud does not die how can we have ice cream to eat?

Thay is not afraid of dying because Thay sees himself in his disciples, in you. You have come to learn with Thay and there is a lot of Thay within yourself. Thay is giving himse lf to you. If you have received some understanding, some compassion and some awakening from Thay then Thay is continued in yo u. Later on if someone wants to look for Thay they just come to you and they see Thay. Thay is not onIy here [pointing to himself], Thay is here also [pointing to the children.] This is what I like best about Buddhist meditation. Buddhist meditation can help us to transcend death.

You know that death is very important for birth, for our continuation. In our body there are many cells that die every minute in order to leave space for new cells to be born. Birth and death take place every minute in our body. If there is no death it is impossible for us to continue in our body. That is why birth and death are linked to each other. Birth gives rise to death and death gives rise to birth . If we cry every time one of our cell s dies we will not have enough tears left. If every time one of our cells dies we organize a funeral then we will spend all our time organizing funerals. That is why we have to see that birth and death take place every moment in us. That is why the role of death is very important. That is about the first answer. But the second answer is better. Looking deeply you don ‘t see birth and death, you see that there is a continuation. If you study more deeply you will see more deeply.

Child: Dear Thay, how many hours of meditation do you practice daily and of which how many hours of sitting meditation and how many hours of walking meditation?

Thay: Every time I sit it is sitting meditation, whether in lotus position or half-lotus position or chrysanthemum position or any other kind of position that is sitting meditation. I am not a good mathematician so that is why I don ‘t count very well. My practice is to do like this. Any time that I sit down it is sitting meditation. I want to sit quietly and peacefully. During the time that I have to give a Dharma Talk, although I have to speak that is also sitting meditation. I sit with stability, with peace. You don’t count the time of sitting in the sitting meditation hall only, you count the time of sitting everywhere. Sitting on the grass, sitting on the hill; any sitting is sitting meditation .

Any time you move your feet and touch the ground, any time you go from one place to another you can practice walking meditation. In Plum Village we are recommended to do like that. We do not do it just for one hour or one and a half hours a day, but all day long. Every time you walk it should be walking meditation because it brings you more happiness, more peace than the other kind of walking, in forgetfulness. Also we are not supposed to talk while we walk because we have to invest ourselves completely in the walking. In every step you give 100% of yourself so that you can produce the energy of stability and peace. If you talk then the energy is taken from the walking by the talking. Monks and nuns are always encouraged to walk like that. If you need to listen to someone you stop and listen with 100 % of yourself.

The practice in Plum Village is not to just have some time in the day for the practice. You try to practice the whole day. Whether you are cooking or washing you follow your breath. If you do things mindfully that is already meditation. In Plum Village we practice continuous meditation and we want to do everything in a relaxed way. Driving a car, talking on the telephone, washing our dishes – we want to do everything peacefully. We consider each activity as important as the time of sitting meditation . You can enjoy it. Now we are having a session of questions and answers. I do not think of it as hard labor. I think questions and answers can be a very joyful time. You ask a question and [put all my energy into listening to you and trying to understand you. I try my best to respond to your question with all my heart. We can have a lot of fun and happiness. We can have a lot of peace and calm doing that.

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Child: Dear Thay, what should we do when other children make fun of us?

Thay: There are many ways to practice. If you are a good practitioner, then you can go back to your mindful breathing and you just smile to the person who is making fun of you. That is the most beautiful response. You don’t get angry, you just look at him and smile. It shows him that you are not affected by his attempt to make you angry. Although you don’t say anything, even though you just look at him or her and smile, your message is very clear. I have peace in me. I am not going to get angry. You cannot provoke me to be angry. This is also a teaching for him or for her. You can do that only if you practice in advance. At home if someone says something or does something that is irritating, you go back to your breath. Breathing in, smiling. Breathing out, calming. You just look at him and say silently, why are you doing that? You don’t say it out loud. You just look and smile and there is compassion in you. You see that the other person is not happy and that is why he is expressing his violence and irritation. Because you know that people who are happy don’t do that. They don’t make other people unhappy.

I wish all children who have come to Plum Village can practice this teaching. Every time there is an irritation in you, don ‘t say anything. Don’t do anything. Just go back to yourself and practice mindful breathing. Breathing in, I feel calm. Breathing out, I am not going to get angry. Keep smiling like a flower and you will disarm everyone. They will not provoke you anymore. They will learn from you. Be a flower.

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When you provoke a flower, when you call a flower mean names, what will the flower do? The flower will continue to smi Ie to you. When someone comes and tries to make fun of you or provoke you, just practice “flower fresh.” Breathing in, I am fresh as a flower. Breathing out, I am solid as a mountain. Thay has transmitted to you the flower and the mountain. Right? You have the flower and the mountain in yourself. Make good use of the flower and the mountain in you and you will not be affected by what other people say and what they do to you. If you begin to practice at your young age you will become a great practitioner in the future and you will be able to help so many people, including your children and your grandchildren .

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The Luckiest Daughter of Cambodia

By Sister Khe Nghiem

The Buddha said every one of us has the seed of peace within our consciousness. Unluckily, when I was a young child, the environment in which I grew up did not water my seed of peace. As a child, I ran under the bombs and bullets during the civil war in my country, Cambodia. My heart and body were wounded and traumatized by fear and hunger. This wound remained in me throughout my life until I met Thay’ s teaching. The Buddha’s teaching opened my heart wider.

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The practice of looking deeply at non-self and emptiness is a wonderful and healing practice for me. I see clearly that the wound that exists in me and in the world is not me. I have no right to possess or attach to it. So I practice letting go. Now I see I am lucky to experience this wound. I have the opportunity to encounter the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and I am happy to put the teachings into practice. I practice mindfulness to come back to my wounded mind and body. During the day or at night, when my heart does not beat normally, as if it were still under the bombs and the bullets, I follow my breath to calm my mind and relax my whole body. Letting go of all tensions, I become calm and happy again. Thanks to my daily mindfulness practice with a kind teacher and Sangha, I have experienced a lot of healing.

In the beginning, cultivating peace in my five territories (of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness) was very unpleasant. But as my practice goes deeper and becomes more familiar, there are times I can smile, free from my suffering. Whenever my mind is caught in negative perceptions or useless and unpleasant thoughts, I practice to recognize it. I sit stably in front of a mirror. I look at my face with care and love. I can see my little wounded parents, grandparents, and all my ancestors. I practice, “Breathing in, I am experiencing an unpleasant emotion. Breathing out, I smile. Breathing in, I calm my mind. Breathing out, I relax my whole body.” I give my blood a chance to flow freely. I sing my favorite song and listen to peaceful instrumental music for a while. I touch and embrace my blood ancestors, spiritual families, all people and species. I smile to them.

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Everyday I feel reborn and full of gratitude to life. Being here in Plum Village with Thay and  the Sangha, I feel I am the luckiest daughter of Cambodia. Thay gave me the dharma name Khe Nghiem, which means “Adornment with Appropriateness.” It is appropriate for me to cultivate peace in myself, family,nation, and in the world.

A moment with the dandelions
Dear dandelions,
you are so free
You seem very humble
and in harmony
You open your whole being
to the cosmos
You accept life as it is.

Sister Khe Nghiem ordained in 1999.

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The Country of Endless Space

A New Practitioner Sprouts in Plum Village

By Susan Hadler

I stepped off the train and waited. A woman in a long brown dress walked slowly towards me. She was smiling and she stopped in front of me. I was about to extend my hand when she brought her hands together in front of her chest and bowed. Worries fled. I smiled, brought my hands together and bowed. The nun’s unhurried walk, her smile and bow live in me even as I write this from my room in the heart of Washington, DC, a city beleaguered by death, grief and fear in the wake of September 11th.

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Plum Village was a nursery and I was a thirsty sprout, drinking in the freedom to stop and to be quiet. I learned freedom of a kind I never imagined could exist in a community. This new freedom comes from the place deep in the earth of being where the seed cracks open and roots and Iife begin. It is a place of inner space. Uncrowded. It seems to be nurtured by emptying rather than by filling, by weeding and pruning and watering with rest and attentiveness. I am trying to nurture this tender new plant that grew from the soil of living with the nuns of Plum Village and learning new ways of being with others and with myself.

I learned from the sisters that cultivating inner space is primary and important work. This was revolutionary for me. Previously, I had learned to respond indiscriminately and fill myself with others’ emotional needs. I thought this was noble, even though I was often exhausted and unable to enjoy life. At Plum Village I learned to preserve inner space even in the presence of others; when I am with you, I am there for you, but I am still rooted in my own still center of space and peace. That place of space and peace is the tender new sprout I am learning to take care of. It means I can walk slowly and smile and bow even when you are upset, even when I am upset. This freedom seems to come from a place of security that is available all the time, even now when my city is threatened by biological terrorism. When I am rooted there, I feel almost childlike in my ease with living. Then I know the ultimate is everywhere. The ultimate is here.

I felt the roots of the new freedom grow during working meditation in Plum Village when a friend reminded me to enjoy the sea green leaves of the bamboo I was hacking off while pruning the forest. Growth continued when another friend taught me to hug the apples we were sorting, even the wrinkled, soft ones, instead of tossing them rapidly into boxes. Working slowly and attending to the task was new for me. I have always tried to work as quickly as possible and finish work before relaxing. But work was seldom finished. Often I did six things at once – cooking, cleaning, eating, laundry, talking on the phone, listening to the radio. In order to avoid the uncomfOItable period of restlessness and withdrawal involved in slowing down, relaxing often took the form of more stimulation – movies, novels, and events. The little plant that began to grow in the quiet soil of Plum Village enjoyed the calm and clarity that came into my mind and body as I began to slow down and wake up. I noticed the new growth springing up outside my window as well as within.

Amazingly there was no competition in Plum Village for knowing the most, singing the best or even for working the hardest! That one surprised me. I had been trained to believe hard work was a virtue. After a few days of volunteering for everything and feeling confused when I wasn’t rewarded for my ‘virtuous’ behavior, I began to understand that things other than hard work are valued in Plum Village, things that promote peace. I learned to value things like walking slowly, stopping to enjoy the fields and forests, singing in a circle, gathering to eat ice cream after a special working meditation, talking to the flowers and the sky, listening to the rain and watching the sunset through the orchard, and sharing stories and poems during tea meditations. Even rest is valued. Rushing and exhausting oneself are definitely not valued, even when one is trying to be helpful or useful. My little sprout thrived in the simplicity of Plum Village where space existed around each thing, like the space surrounding the flowers in the Meditation Hall.

My new freedom to enjoy living was tested when terrorism struck the USA. Anger and fear rose up in this country like a mighty unending storm. I was overwhelmed and struggled to breathe. Sometimes I forgot my little plant and when I sat to meditate, I felt tight aching shoulders and tiredness, symptoms of fear. When I was with friends, the talk was full of grief and rage and panic, discussions of causes and solutions. Voices boomed, threatened and clashed. Many of us rushed to help and to prepare for more attacks.

In the midst of fear, I’ve learned the meaning of refuge. Sitting with the Sangha here in Washington, D.C., I have found a place of peace where people walk slowly and smile and bow and sit in silence together and listen to each other, fertile soil for plants to flower. One afternoon in early October, a rainy windy fall day, I joined the Capitol Hill Mindfulness Community and the Committee on Mindful Politics for a silent walking meditation, an effort “to help Congress cultivate peace within themselves and in doing so, help to create peace in the world.” I approached the Capitol full of anxiety and sadness. It was the day anthrax was discovered in the Capitol.

After the opening circle, we held hands and walked slowly toward the Capitol. Breathing in, breathing out. I looked up at the dark clouds swirling over the Capitol. There in front of the white dome, I saw an image of Thay. He was wearing his familiar brown jacket and long scarf. He was walking with us slowly, hand in hand. He was smi ling. I lost my fear then and entered that country I found in Plum Village where the dark clouds of anger and fear and grief evaporate and space is endless. Bright yellow leaves twirled and danced with the wind as they fell around us . We stopped. We smiled. We bowed.

Susan Hadler practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community.

Drawing by Wietske

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Poem: Daisy Flower Family

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Our family is named Daisy Flowers.
We come from many countries of Mother Earth,
now we stay in Plum Village
and we cut vegetables every day.
We don’t cut our fingers by talking
while we are working.
We don’t cut our hearts
by anger, fear, or emotional suffering.
Dwelling in the present moment,
we don ‘t cut ourselves in forgetfulness.
Hearing the bell,
we stop cutting and follow our breath.

We cut carrots with joyful eyes.
We cut potatoes with sweet smiles.
We cut mushrooms gently in mindfulness.
Understanding and love blooms, like Daisy Flowers,
in the warm winter sunshine.

Sister Y Nghiem, Lower Hamlet, Summer retreat 2001

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Poem: The Universe for Breakfast

mb31-TheUniverse1Looking into
my cereal bowl
I find
the universe, smiling.
Banana –
from the Caribbean;
rich soil,
mother of growth
for wide-leafed tree.
Tropical rains,
cooling thirsty earth,
born of clouds,
bringing water
from distant lands
to the buds,
ready to flower.
Sun, kissing
the petals opened.

Grape Nuts cereal brown,
ripened fields
of wheat and barley
swaying in the winds
of America’s bounty.
Country of my birth
loved, with mixed emotions,
sad at your misused might
thankful for the refuge
of my desperate ancestors.

Pumpkin seeds –
from far off China,
soil for Indian wisdom
of wandering Nuns
bringing tofu and love,
germinating kernels
of Zen simplicity.

mb31-TheUniverse2Sesame seeds –
from Guatemala,
land of hope
and death squads,
repression and
Liberation Theology.

May the sweat
upon these seeds
be repaid with
just bounty,
giving child labourers
a place at school,
full bellies and
warmth of home.

Organic milk –
from British cows
like those I see
beyond my window
munching spring growth
on Stourbridge Common,
leaving fertiliser.
All the same
to mother earth,
great transformer
of putrid smells
into rosehip buds
for next year’s tea.

Sitting at my table
I taste the sweetness
of childhood food,
feeling distant products
transforming within.
Suddenly, they are real,
beyond plastic packaging
divorced from storms,
deep roots and light.

Even a city girl,
raised in cement,
can taste the universe,
chew the wind,
digest the sun
and know
it’s all possible
at this very instant
when I breath,
beyond time/space,
in the ultimate dimension.

Joy Magezis inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh ‘s Norfolk Retreat

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Learning to Trust the Present Moment

By Mitchell S. Ratner

Meeting Thich Nhat Hanh

In November, 1990 I heard Thich Nhat Hanh address a conference in Washington, D.C. The next day, with 300 others, I sat with him at the Lincoln Memorial and listened to him read poems from the Vietnam War years and reflect on his efforts to share with Americans the suffering caused in both countries by the war. Then we walked silently, reverently, past the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. I was deeply impressed by the quality of his presence, the flowing calmness of his words and actions and the remarkable effect this had on others. Sitting on a cushion at the conference, on a simple raised dais, Thich Nhat Hanh spoke softly about love, anger, compassion, about finding peace and joy in each step, in each action. His words and presence created an atmosphere of infectious serenity. The audience of 3,000 was wondrously quiet; even coughing was suppressed naturally for the duration of the talk.

Finding peace and joy in each moment was a lovely idea, but how could I weave that way of being into the fabric of my urban American life?

Plum Village Life

With great anticipation I set off in November 1991 for a three-month winter retreat. Plum Village was then two farm complexes or hamlets about two miles apart in the Dordogne valley, an hour’s drive from Bordeaux. The region offers vistas of small farms and vineyards, gently rolling hills, historic chateaus, and picture-perfect clouds and sunsets.

Daily life at Plum Village was fairly relaxed. Before breakfast and before retiring, the community gathered in meditation halls for an hour of sitting and walking meditation and the reading of a short Sutra. Before lunch residents did outside walking meditation together for about 30 minutes, followed by the ten mindful movements, tai-chi-like stretching exercises.

Aside from the silent meals, on most days the only other scheduled activity was a work period of two to three hours. Monastics, permanent residents, and lay visitors rotated through work assignments necessary to support the community, such as making bread or tofu, working in the gardens and greenhouses cooking, and making small repairs. Twice a week, the hamlets gathered for talks by Thich Nhat Hanh.

I was very happy to be in Plum Village-there were so many wonderful things to learn. The way I had been trained to learn was through studying. I threw myself into it, reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s books late into the night. I took notes, developed charts, glossaries, and Sanskrit word lists. I initiated discussions with advanced students about the meaning of key concepts, such as “emptiness” and “samsara.”

Three weeks after my arrival, Sister Annabel, then the Director of Practice, asked me after the evening meditation if I wanted to gain something from my stay at Plum Village, something I could carry home with me. I thought to myself, excitedly, “Here it is, my study has paid off-Sister Annabel is going to pass on to me the central organizing principle that will make sense out of it.” Her reply was not what I expected. With a slight tone of reproach she said, “Mitchell, everywhere you go should be walking meditation.”

Walking meditation, as Thich Nhat Hanh teaches it, is a relaxed, slow, focused, walking with attention brought to the feet and the breath. In the meditation hall, between sittings, it is usually done with one’s palms together, in front of one’s chest. One walks slowly, with one step for an in-breath and one step for an out-breath. Outside the meditation hall it is usually done more quickly, with two, three, or even four steps for each in-breath or out-breath, and with one’s hands held or swinging naturally at one’s side.

When Sister Annabel admonished me, I already knew about walking meditation, in the sense that I understood the outer form. I had done walking meditation many, many, times, but the import of walking meditation at Plum Village had not yet entered my heart.

The Present Moment is the Teacher

What I still hadn’t learned was that the essence of Plum Village was not a philosophy or concept, but rather a way of being, a practice: that we should pay attention to the present moment. The behavioral ethic of Plum Village is to mindfully carry out each activity, working calmly and giving it our full attention, whether it is cutting carrots, tying a shoe, walking to the bathroom, or writing a letter. Acting in this way, each act becomes more real, more authentic. I could see the transformative power of this practice in others. The presence I had found so remarkable in Thich Nhat Hanh when I first met him was embodied , in varying degrees, by each of the monks, nuns, and long-term residents of Plum Village.

The importance of continuous mindfulness was being constantly taught indirectly. One afternoon during a 1993 visit, I was busily sweeping a meditation hall when I glanced over to Brother Phap Ung, a young Vietnamese-Dutch novice monk, who also was sweeping the meditation hall. Something in the way he held himself, in the quality of his broom strokes, made me aware of an agitation within me, an impatience. I was sweeping to get the job done, so I could move on to something important. In contrast, he clearly was sweeping as if what he was doing was important.

Plum Village is a place ofwonderrnent. But it is also a human community, of monastics, residents, and visitors of very different backgrounds, with different capacities and ways of embodying and expressing the spiritual lessons of Plum Village. Misunderstandings and tensions were inevitable. It was easy to get caught up in the ongoing drama of who was doing what and why. It was especially easy for me to get caught up in the drama when my feelings were being hurt, when others were not acting or responding in ways I desired. And when I was puzzled, hurt, confused, I sometimes questioned all that I had learned at Plum Village. Without really realizing it, a part of me implicitly tied the attunement to the present moment, the teachings of the Buddha, Thich Nhat Hanh as a person, and Plum Village as a community into a single conceptual package. I couldn’t separate the message from the messenger.

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That changed one brisk winter morning, during a stay in 1996. As usual, after his Dharma talk, Thich Nhat Hanh led the community in walking meditation to an open space in the plum orchard. Instead of returning to the dining hall for lunch, Thay took a few steps forward and repeatedly motioned for everyone to come closer. The seventy of us in the circle moved in, bit by bit, until we were closely crowded around him.

He spoke softly, in English, looking directly at us, “With each step you have to say: I have arrived. l have arrived. Whether your home is in Washington, D.C. or New Delhi, you have to come home to this moment. You have to be here with each blade of grass. This is Nirvana. This is the kingdom of God … You have to be your own hero. No one else can do it for you . You need determination. You need concentration … This is the essence, the heart. If you can take one step, you can take two. The present moment is a teacher that will always be with you, a teacher that will never fail you.”

It was an extraordinary moment. Standing there in the orchard, I could feel his determination, his sincerity, his great desire to teach this simple truth, as a physical presence. And when that energy entered, it melted the bonds that had held together the conceptual package of message and messenger. Suddenly I realized that I was free to trust the present moment, wholeheartedly, unreservedly. I could trust wholeheartedly and still honor and embrace the hesitations I sometimes felt about how I or others were treated at Plum Village.

Although the realization gave me permission to have hesitations, in practice I had fewer. I found that I could be more tolerant of a perceived shortcoming because there was less riding on it. Conflicts arising out of cultural misperceptions, lack of thoughtfulness arising out of human frailties could be seen as just that, not as threats. My peace and happiness did not depend on anyone in the community being perfect, much less everyone. It came as a great relief to let go.

From Seeking to Trusting

Many of us who look for spiritual comfort do so because of the wounds we have received. We want an explanation which we think will make the unhappiness go away. One of the great gifts of Thich Nhat Hanh and of Plum Village is to turn us back on ourselves, to turn us back to our own experiences, our own lives. Thinking alone can take us only so far. The disembodied intellect can compare, contrast, and perform logical operations, but without an intimate awareness of our lived experience, we are constantly battered about, vaguely or acutely dissatisfied, hoping to solve with our heads that which can only be solved with our hearts, our heads and our awareness working together. The beginning and end po ints of this spiritual journey are wonderfully captured in two lines from a talk Thich Nhat Hanh gave several days before the instructions in the orchard :

“When you are alienated from your roots, you seek Buddhas. When you are in touch with who you really are, you are a Buddha.”

Bringing it Home

Over the years I’ve looked for and found ways to bring the spirit of Plum Village home with me, to my everyday life in an American city. What helps me most are bells of mindfulness. Real bells, such as from our grandfather clock, and metaphorical bells, such as the red of a stop light, gently remind me to return to the present moment. Gradually there seems to be more calm and balance in my life, a growing inner stillness. Every once in a while, when I catch myself naturally fa lling into a more mindful way of doing something, such as being aware of my feet and breath as I climb stairs, I smile inwardly to Thich Nhat Hanh. I recognize that hi s spirit has entered my stair-walking, and that, as he teaches, the boundaries between us are more illusionary than we believe them to be and the interconnections much more real.

Mitchell, True Mirror of Wisdom, practices with the Washington Mindfulness Community. He received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in December 2001.

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Healing the Present, Healing the Past

By Azriel Cohen

Shared at the Hiroshima Commemoration Ceremony in Plum Village, August 7, 2001 .

Last night, a young man from Germany at the Hiroshima Commemoration in the Upper Hamlet shared with the community how he observed anger arising within himself, when the Israeli-Palestinian group shared that the trauma of the Holocaust was still a source of deep suffering for the Jewish people, and that it affected the situation in the Middle East. He decided to look deeply into the anger that was within himself, and he discovered that though he was born a long time after World War II he himself was still not healed from the wounds of that war. He had ancestors who were actively involved in the Nazi regime. He turned to the community and declared that he personally wanted to do something that might be healing and to somehow find a way to apologize to all the Jews who had suffered. He asked the community to breathe mindfully and  support him while he bowed his head to the ground in silence.

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I was deeply moved by what he did. When my turn came up to share my reflections on the experiences of the Israeli-Palestinian group, I offered the following story to this young German man:

My only other time in Plum Village was five years ago. The most moving experience I had was on my last day. At our last Dharma discussion of the retreat, a young woman who I did not know shared with our group a very deep pain that she had in her heart and soul. She was German and was tormented by the possibility that her ancestors had somehow played a role in perpetrating the atrocities of the Holocaust. Though she was third generation after the war, and though she had no certain evidence that anyone in her family was involved, she was haunted by the deeds of her grandparents ‘ generation. She was obsessed with discovering the truth and finding a way to heal from it. She read every book she could find on the Holocaust, saw films and spent time in archives combing through information to see if any of her relatives were mentioned. Through her eyes she shared her pain and suffering echoed in her voice.

After the circle was finished, I went over to her. I said, “Amelie, I’m named after my grandfather’s little brother, Azriel, who was killed in one of the concentration camps during World War II. The last time my grandfather saw his brother was when he was a little boy, so he was unable to ever tell me much about him.” Both of us had tears in our eyes, realizing that here we were three generations later, the two sides facing each other. Both of us realized that if there was anything whatsoever that we could do to contribute to healing what had happened, it would be by getting to know each other as humans. I had no plans to go to Germany during my travels through Europe, but I decided to visit Amelie at her parents’ home near Munich. We went together to Dachau, one of the more well-known concentration camps and we spent six hours in total silence, walking and just being. The next morning I departed, and though that was the last time we saw each other, the experience will forever be with me.

Last night, during the ceremony commemorating Hiroshima, the young man from Germany and I walked arm in arm carrying candles under the open starry sky. I realized how in the present we can impact on the healing of the past and what seems to be beyond us, and that each of us, in our own little way can contribute to peace if we find  peace within ourselves.

Azriel Cohen helped to organize the group of Palestinians and Jewish Israelis who have come two times to practice in Plum Village together.

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Poem: Feather on A Midday

If had not stopped to watch
A feather flying by,
I would not have seen its landing.
A tiny, pure white, fine feather.

Gently, I blew a soft breath to send it
Back to the spring.

In had not looked up to watch
The feather gliding over the roof,
I would not have seen
The crescent moon hanging
On a midday.

Sister Dang Nghiem, Spring 2001

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A Lotus Blooms in the Catholic Church

By Mike McMahon

Several years ago, following my divorce, my daughter Annie and I moved into a rundown house in one of Omaha’s older neighborhoods. I was broken emotionally, financially, and spiritually – and deeply depressed. The condition of the house seemed to match my own. Even so, like a wounded animal that crawls into a cave, I felt grateful for this basic shelter, which a friend was letting me stay in for just the cost of utilities.

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That first Autumn in the house, as I tried to get Annie and I involved in the neighborhood, I struggled with my shame over my circumstances without having the resources to do much about it. As Christmas approached, I was moved by the images of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the manger. The fact of their poverty, the beauty of their lives and of the image of the manger – all of this comforted me a great deal. I hadn’t been involved in the Catholic Church since high school. For the previous twelve years, I had been practicing Buddhism in the Soto Zen tradition. I had also read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books and was drawn to his way of practice. His statement, “Go back to your spiritual tradition and find the jewels buried there,” was compelling to me.

I am a songwriter. That Christmas a song poured out of me. I called it, “Jesus’ Room.” The first verse went like this :

The cows were tromping everywhere,
in the middle of Jesus’ room.
The sheep were shedding all their hair
in the middle of Jesus’ room.
The manger was in disrepair and Joseph full of gloom:
“This is the poorest place in town and this is Jesus’ room.”
And Mary said, “We don ‘t have a silver bowl,
a cup, a crib, a spoon.
But all we need is love to furnish Jesus’ room. “

It seemed that the seeds of my Christian faith were rising up from the depths of my being to nourish and support me. I played the song at a neighborhood Christmas party. Afterwards a neighbor asked me to sing the song at her church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

I loved the mass at Sacred Heart – a joyful celebration featuring beautiful music by one of the best choirs in town, liturgical dance, and many other creative flourishes. We held hands and swayed as we sang a simple, lyrical version of the “Our Father” written by the pastor. The “sign of peace,” usually a simple greeting to the person sitting next to you, lasted about fifteen minutes as parishioners moved about the church, embracing and enthusiastically wishing one another peace. The experience called up a ferocious longing in me.

Annie and I have gone back every week since. That first year was interesting and challenging. Sometimes I would freeze upon hearing some of the old articles of faith which no longer made sense to me: “Jesus is the only begotten Son of God,” and wonder, what am I doing here? Other experiences were affirming and healing. Like the first time I heard Paul’s letter to the Corinthians on love: “Love excuses everything, believes everything, endures all things … When I was a child I thought and reasoned like a child, but when I grew up [gave up childish things.” Standing there next to Annie, trying to learn how to take care of myself, how to be a good father – these words moved me deeply. Or listening to an old standard from my grade school days, “Holy God We Praise Thy Name,” being sung with a gospel feel by the choir, their faces beaming, I remember a deep joy and the thought, “This is my tribe – I’ve returned'”

Eventually I relaxed and allowed myself to be nourished by the “jewels” of Christianity without being tossed away by my disagreement with church doctrine. I’ve come to believe that the heart of the teachings, both Buddhist and Catholic, is learning to respond to life in a loving way, cultivating a sense of intimacy with all existence the rest is just architecture. I am guided by Thay’s call for us to create a formless practice – one which seeks to overcome culhlral and conceptual barriers between people.

Since then I’ve become deeply involved in the Sacred Heart community life. I help teach bible study classes to kids before mass each week. I’m also involved in the program, which supports people who wish to join the church, and with writing and performing liturgical music. I have continued with my Buddhist practice, meditating, having mindful meals, and getting together with a Sangha once a week to practice together.

We have a unique tradition at Sacred Heart. Prior to the start of mass each week, a member of the congregation wil l share an opening prayer that they have created. I am one ofthe people who takes a tum providing this prayer. I often draw on a combination of the Bible and Thay’s writings for my inspiration. The word, “mindful” appears often in my prayer, and I frequently pray for us to grow in our ability to live as a community. Translating the principals of mindfulness into a language that my Christian sisters and brothers will want to hear is challenging and instructive for me. It helps me to see both Buddhism and Christianity in a new way.

I read once that significant developments in human culture often occur as the result of the coming together of two seemingly incompatible streams of thought and experience. My efforts to marry my Buddhist and Christian heritages produces beautiful fruit for me, and I hope contributes to the well being of both my Christian and Buddhist communities.

Mike McMahon, Source of Joyful Harmony, practices with the Honey Locust Sangha in Omaha/Lincoln, Nebraska.

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A Magical Wedding in Plum Village

By Peggy Rowe Ward and Larry Ward

The Vows I made to Peggy:

I promise you Peggy that I will:
Practice peace, I will honor you, listen to you and communicate wholeheartedly
with you.
Nurture and celebrate the treasured memories of John, Kathy, Steve and Viola as special ancestors of our new family.
Look at you every day and smile with eyes of love and a heart full of trust.
Express with my own voice my dreams, emotions, difficulties and wonders.
Support and encourage you to live your spiritual and professional dreams.
Give you the space and time that you need to come home to your deepest self.
Water your flower every day, so it may grow in our marriage, the flower of your intellect, the flower of your real compassion, the flower of your beauty, the flower of your generosity, and the flower of your originality.
Become more and more at ease and at home with myself in our relationship, to grow beyond my habits of distance and seriousness and become more full of light and laughter.
Water my own flower through taking care of myself physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually so that I can bring vitality and charm to the wonderful mystery of our marriage.
Sing, dance and make meny and take great joy in the simple things that make us whole.

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The Vows I made to Larry:

I promise to say “I love you” every day.
I promise to not go to bed angry, that we will kiss each other in peace each evening.
I promise to love and accept you, even though I don ‘t always understand you.
I promise through kind communication to increase in understanding you, knowing that compassionate dialogue is a key to growing in love.
I promise that our journey together will be juicy, to sow seeds of laughter, adventure and joy and be your bride of amazement.
I prom ise to honor the fool in you and in myself, so that we can begin anew and maintain freshness and wonder. I suggest an annual ceremony to throw out that which is stale in ourselves and in our relationship.
I promise to take good care of myself – body, soul, spirit, and emotions.
I know one thing that I do that I would like to change. I know that when I feel distant and disconnected from you, I have internal formations that arise where I’ll feel hurt, fear, sadness and anger. Then I have the habit energy where I will bug you with sharp communication or criticism. I ask your help in helping me to transform this habit energy and this internal formation. This reminds me ofthe blind witch in Hansel and Gretel who poked at the children with her bony finger. My preference would be to be like the crafty boy and girl child who figured their way out of the kettle in the kitchen.

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Two Moons

The moon lit up the early morning sky. Wearing all white in the moon light, I felt more like a fairy or a small girl in a church play than a bride. I was the first to arrive in the zendo. So earl y, so nervous, I hadn ‘t slept well. The Lower Hamlet guests and residents slowly assembled. It was 6 a.m. and there was a thick, rich fog that added density to the stillness. Half sleepy, half mesmerized by beauty, we waited as people gathered. It was time. We walked mindful steps on the stone paths leading to the country road. I was glad for the presence of Susan and John, my friend Elizabeth, my West Hamlet family. I held a small bouquet of orange and white wild flowers lovingly presented to me by Helga.

The thick fog turned the rising sun into a second moon. The sun joined the moon that still hung in the western sky. This morning, there were two moons. Magic was afoot! We moved as one body on the road, walking in mindfulness, the bride and her family, step by step. No cars, a moving body, two moons, step by step, moving toward my beloved.

We rounded a bend in the road and figures and a sp lash of color appeared through the fog. Larry was in fro nt of a group of people, carrying a tray with brightly wrapped packages in red paper. He was wearing an African tunic and ceremonial hat in black and gold. He looked like an African king, so solid, so regal. Next to him were two young Vietnamese men wearing long lapis blue silk tunics, so lovely. Caught by such beauty, my mind jumped for a second . Where am l? Who am I? What year is this? In this magical space, it could have been any time in hi story, I could have been any bride, but it was August 1994 on the road outside the Lower Hamlet. The groom fol lowed by the groom’s family. My beloveds.

Step by step, the two fami lies continued to walk toward each other under the two moons. Two bodies, step by step, until we met, and like two streams, we became one river. In one fluid motion we turned and walked together to the Lower Hamlet zendo. Flowing like a river, one body, one fam il y, my famil y.

Peggy, True Original Vow, and Larry, True Great Voice, live at the Clear View Residential Lay Practice Center in Santa Barbara, California.

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Growing Up with the Practice

By Megan Lawlor

At my first retreat with Thay and the monks and nuns of Plum Village, I was eleven years old. Now almost thirteen years have passed by, yet I still remember each moment clearly.

As children, we spent most of our time at the retreat playing end less games of baseball and frisbee outside.”We struggled to keep silent through each meal and begged unsuspecting ad ul ts to please, please take us to McDonalds.”We explored every corner of the retreat center and chose our favorite places to play. If there was a certain element of freedom at those retreats.

As a part of the Sangha, I remember sitting in the front row of every dharma talk and fee ling as if Thay was speaking directly to me. l remember walking with the adults during outdoor walking meditation and fee ling completely frustrated and confused at the strange, turtle-like pace . And I loved creating skits with the other children that we performed for the Sangha at the end of each re treat. “Buddha Meets the Jetsons” was our first, brilliant masterpiece. We spent hours practicing a skit in which Buddha is whisked away into the future and spends an afternoon with the Jetson family. Of course, the Jetsons were shocked by Buddha’s mindful behavior, and we were delighted with the laughter we received.

Last year, after almost thirteen years of learning with Thay, I visited Plum Village for the first time. I had imagined it and heard of its orchards and lotus ponds, but the opportunity to finally see it with my own eyes was wonderful. It was there that I realized how important Thay’s teachings have been throughout my life.

A gatha that I learned in fifth grade still remains a sol id place to which I return, although I may have changed the words:

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Deep, slow.
Calm, peace.
Smile, release.
Present moment.
Wonderful moment.

When I was little, I must have memorized this poem without realizing it. Now, whenever I am nervous or upset, it surfaces in my mind and has an immediate and calming effect.l\J believe that the opportunity to hear Thay’s teachings has taught me so much. When I read his words I can imagine his voice, as ifhe is in the room reading to me. His presence as a teacher, and as almost a family member, has been incredible.

Today, many years after my first retreat, I am teaching my first year of high school his story at a public school on the south side of Chicago. Confronted by children in grown up bodies and the struggles that they face each day just to get to school , I am often overwhelmed. There are times in my classroom when chaos arises and remembering how to stop, take a few deep breaths, and then smile at the children who are expecting me to yell changes everything .It is still the most simple, and the most difficult practice. But I am practicing every day by listening to these beautiful children’s stories and dreams.

It is interesting to go to retreats now and no longer sit in the front row during dharma talks or stand up part way through the talk to go outside to play.I remember how it felt when I look at the children, and I smile. Then, Ilisten to Thay for the children that I am now teaching, in the hopes that I can give some of his insight and compassion to them.

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Megan Lawlor is twenty-four-years-old. Her father, Jack Lawlor is a Dharma Teacher.

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Twenty Years Young in Plum Village

By Sister Viet Nghiem

I was born in 1982, the same year as Plum Village. My twentieth birthday, January 10th, 2002, was on a mindfulness day. I received a lot of love that day from the Sangha. I was very moved when Thay wished me a “happy birthday” before starting the Dharma talk.

Later, Sister Phuc Nghiem came into my room and gave me a package in a plastic bag. I could see a yellow-orange color that was very beautiful. It reminded me of the color of the sun playing with the leaves in Autumn. At that time I was still an aspirant and I did not know that the next ordination was coming soon. When I recognized the sanghati robe, I felt funny. Trying on my monastic robe on my birthday had a deep effect on me. I felt like an angel.

I shared my birthday cake with my brothers and sisters . I was so happy, my heart was full and my cheeks hurt from smiling, laughing and singing too much! I realized that I was twenty the same year as Plum Village. But what was the true meaning? Our monastery has been built up wholeheartedly and with great patience. Because all the conditions have been sufficient today we see Plum Village in its many manifestations and I am also one of those manifestations.

I saw that it is a real blessing to celebrate my twentieth birthday here. When I was fifteen , I came to Plum Village for the first time. For me, it was a refuge, a place where I could find the rest and comfort I needed. When I turned twenty I ordained in a family of twenty-one monks and nuns, the Sugar Palm Tree family. I dreamt of having a younger sister or brother and now I have ten brothers and ten sisters! They are in me and I am in them, and together we bring youth to the monastery because we are the cells of the same body, the Sangha body. I see also future generations in me, because by practicing well, I am more able to open Dharma doors for them. When I received the precepts I became a link in a long chain that has no beginning and no end.

To turn twenty in Plum Village allowed me to open up and bloom in the Sangha. I feel fresh because I am twenty for all those who came before me and all those who will come, whoever they are, wherever they are, visible or not visible. I am twenty for my mother, my father, for Thay, for my brothers and sisters, wherever they are today.

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Sister Viet Nghiem, True Adornment with Transcendance, is from Paris, France. After finishing her baccalaureat she came to live in Plum Village and after one year ordained as a novice in February 2002.

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Protecting Self and Others

Choosing Not to Drink Alcohol as a Practice for My Children and My Grandchildren

By Tom Reinert

I had my last drink of alcohol on July 17, 1998. It was a very good bottle of Chardonnay, shared with my wife over a special anniversary dinner. At the time, I enjoyed the wine and did not know that I was giving up drinking alcohol.

I come from a family of alcoholics. My father was an alcoholic. His father was an alcoholic and drug addict. My brother is an alcoholic. My mother has a sister and several brothers who are alcoholics. My wife has a brother who is an a lcoholic. I am fortunate, for whatever genetic propensity there is for alcoholism, I do not exhibit it. Throughout my adult life I have been a moderate social drinker, drinking one or two drinks several times per month.

I did not stop drinking as a mindfulness practice, but for my son, who was fifteen at the time. He is a good kid – smart, personable, and kind-hearted. He had not shown any problems with alcohol. But as he has become older, I have become more aware of the pressures he is under – the social glorification of alcohol and drugs, the difficulty of being young in a confusing world, and the stress to perform well in a competitive society. And my wife and I have noticed characteristics in his personality that remind us of some of our family members who have had problems with alcohol or drugs.

I could not protect my son from a larger world and the likelihood of experimentation with alcohol. But I could be an example. I could show him that being a man does not require drinking, that your masculinity need not be measured by how many beers you can consume, and that there are less self-destructive ways to deal with stress. So I simply stopped drinking.

Six months later I began meditating, and about a year later I came upon a commentary on the Fifth Mindfulness Training by Thich Nhat Hanh:

“There are people who drink alcohol and get drunk. who destroy their bodies, their families, their society. The)’ should refrain from drinking. But you who have been having a glass of wine every week during the last thirty years without doing any harm to yourself; why should you stop that? What is the use of practicing this Mindfulness Training if drinking alcohol does not harm you or other people? Although you have not harmed yourself during the last thirty years by drinking just one or two glasses of wine every week, the fact is that it may have an effect on your children, your grandchildren, and your society. We only need to look deeply in order to see it. You are practicing not for yourself alone, but for everyone. Your children might have a propensity for alcoholism and, seeing you drinking wine every week, one of them may become alcoholic in the future. If you abandon your two glasses of wine, it is to show your children, your friends, and your society that your life is not only for yourself. Your life is for your ancestors, future generations, and also your society. To stop drinking two glasses of wine every week is a very, deep practice.”

I then realized that my not drinking alcohol was a practice, a practice of awareness and love for my grandfather and my father, for myself, and for my son.

Two weeks ago we sent our son, who is now eighteen, to college. He does not drink alcohol and he is very comfortable talking to other students about it. In choosing a dom1, he had a choice of selecting “chem-free” – a dormitory where no one drinks alcohol. He decided that he did not want to limit himself to interacting with only non-drinkers. Instead, he chose a dormitory where many students do drink alcohol.

He has no trouble at parties telling other students that he does not drink, and when questioned, telling them it is because his family has a very bad history of alcoholism. And when he becomes uncomfortable with others’ alcohol related behavior, he simply leaves. He seems to have adopted non-drinking as his own practice. We are hopeful that he will continue to make good choices for himself.

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Practicing as a Couple

By Brendan Sillifant

My search

I have had a deep affinity with the practice of mindfulness since I was a teenager. I had come across it in a variety of forms from different sources. From the Buddhist traditions of Thailand, Japan and Tibet, and from modern self-help psychology also. As a young man I wanted to learn to live my life fully, and I set out to travel for two years visiting different practice communities in North America looking for a teacher and a Sangha. That is where I first attended a retreat with Thay. I was drawn to his teaching which seemed so appropriate for modem society, deep and yet simple. I particularly appreciated the emphasis on joyful and continuous practice.

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Not being caught in dualistic thinking

I then came to practice with the Plum Village Sangha for six months in 1991. The Sangha was a small community made up of both monastic and lay practitioners. When I first came to Plum Village it was my love of mindfulness practice that brought me here, I had never had the thought to ordain. But after a time that wish grew in me, although that wish in me was still quite innocent, even naive. My teacher was a monk and I wanted to be like him. Nevertheless I made the determination to return to New Zealand, to sell all my worldly possessions, spend some precious time with my family, and then return to Plum Village to ordain.

Whilst in New Zealand I attended a Chinese Chan retreat in order to keep my practice strong. The retreat was held each weekend for almost two months. During this time I grew quite close to a young woman who was also practicing at the retreat. The blossoming of this relationship created a lot of confusion in me, it seemed like a conflict, to ordain or to marry. I wanted both, I wanted to be with the young woman I was growing to love, and I also wanted to practice wholeheartedly. I spent many months trying to make a decision between these two alternatives, trying to look into my real aspirations and yearnings.

Eventually I came to see that there was no conflict between these two things. When I looked deeply into my concept of monkhood, I found that what was actually important was to see what were the elements present in monastic life which would be supportive to my practice, and to find ways to bring these elements into my life and the life of my partner. With this understanding, there was no longer a decision or a choice that I needed to make. In my daily life I tried to blend my two loves, and I learned not to be caught in dualistic thinking between monastic life and lay life, but to seek to create a life with all the positive conditions present. I found I could have both a loving marriage and a strong committed practice, and there was no contradiction between the two. I experienced my relationship as a support to my practice, not a hindrance, even sexuality. My relationship supported my practice and my practice supported my relationship. I experienced these two things as a wonderful support for each other.

Relationship supports practice

My wife and I live closely together, and as a result we have grown to know each other quite intimately. This intimate understanding enables us to offer support and guidance to each other, helping each other not to fall into habit energies. An intimate relationship also provides comfort, soul sustenance, and nurturance, which can give one strength to overcome difficulties in one’s life and practice. I experience my relationship as a kind of Sangha, it supports me in the same ways as the greater Sangha does, yet very intimately. I feel very fortunate to have a small Sangha within the big Sangha. As practicing partners we also help balance each other. When one person feels sad or anxious, the other can help him or her to feel bright or relaxed again. When overcome by wrong perceptions about someone or some situation, the other can provide alternative ways of looking. When we need to nourish the five-year-old boy or girl within us but are unable to do so, the other can provide that loving embrace. When we need the firm words of a teacher or Dharma sister or brother to put us back in the practice, the other can provide those words to set us straight. We practice in some ways as a single body, being aware of our own mental formations and also the mental formations of the other. So we have both our own mindfulness to rely upon and when that is weak we also have the practice of the other to rely upon. We practice to transform our own afflictions and also the afflictions of the other.

Practice supports relationship

The practice of mindfulness is a wonderful support in cultivating a loving relationship. It deepens our ability to speak lovingly, listen deeply, and understand each other. Mindfulness practice keeps our relationship fresh and helps us not to fall into negative habits. It gives each person more self-understanding and stability so we are more secure in ourselves, as a result we become much less prone to reading into the relationship what is not there. In addition to this the presence of the greater Sangha helps not to be isolated in our couple-ness. Sometimes two people become so much alike in character and view, that they cannot offer the other a new or different way of looking when needed. Dharma and Sangha can be a great support in offering clarity in situations that are usually dominated by habit energies. So when one person in a couple is lost in confusion, the other does not also become lost but can offer new clarity and fresh ways of looking into a situation.

Conscious watering of positive seeds is one of the tools of the practice that can be a tremendous support to a couple. Many couples we see around us are fresh and loving in the beginning, but after many years the habit of blaming, arguing, and criticizing each other begins to give the relationship a sour flavor. And at one point it seems the relationship is so infused with negativity that the path to recreating a positive healthy love is such a difficult task that many couples give up, thinking its easier to start over with another person. The practice of mindfulness, of being present to each other and for each other, already increases an awareness of the preciousness of each other. The practice of watering the flowers in each other helps us to be aware of the positive qualities of each other, and to express our appreciation and gratitude towards each other. If over time we are able to water the positive seeds more than the negative seeds in each other, then the ability to appreciate and acknowledge the wonder and beauty of the other will always be present, even in the midst of difficulty. As a result, when there is disharmony, the motivation will be not to hurt the other, but to heal the relationship and to reestablish harmony between us.

From Attachment to Freedom

I have spoken about how I see that an intimate relationship can be a wonderful support to one’s practice. And now I would like to say something about the obstacles to meditation practice that can sometimes arise in a relationship.

We hear a lot about attachment in Buddhist teaching, and we may be involved in an intimate relationship and ask ourselves, “Well, what does attachment mean to me in my situation?” We need to look deeply into this area of our lives, because the practice of non-attachment can greatly enhance our relationship. Developing non-attachment does not need to go against our relationship. We need to look at our relationships clearly, not just follow an ideal we have heard about. What is our real experience of attachment, in what ways does it truly sustain us and in what ways does it make us suffer?

In our life we do take refuge in many things, we rely on many things. As children, and still as adults, we rely on our parents, we rely on our teachers, and on our friends. We rely on certain colleagues at work, we rely on our community of practice, and we rely on the three jewels. If suddenly one of these refuges is not there, we feel its lack, we suffer. This shows us the presence of attachment. Nevertheless we have been enriched by the presence of these people in our lives. Their presence has given great beauty to our lives and we would not wish to have been without them. We are attached to these people and situations because they have contributed so much to us. So the question is not to abandon these things, because we know that without them our life will be less rich, less nourishing. The question is, rather, how to bring the spirit of non-attachment into our relationships, so we can profit fully from the presence of the other whilst also maintaining our freedom and our sovereignty. The practice of non-attachment can lessen any unhealthy dependence that exists in our relationships and can allow our love to be light and joyful.

It is interesting to look deeply and to see in what way dependence is a wholesome and necessary part of our human and spiritual life, and in what way does it limit us? Does our dependence support us in becoming whole and complete or do we rely on the other person to complete us? We take refuge because we need support on our path to wholeness. But if our object of refuge or our way of taking refuge becomes a barrier to becoming whole, whether it is refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, or in our partner, we need to re-examine our way of taking refuge. A true teacher does not want us to only depend on him or her for stability, he or she wants to strengthen the teacher within us and will direct us to rely on that teacher more and more over time. The disciples of the Buddha took refuge in the Buddha, their teacher. Yet near the end of his life the Buddha instructed them to take refuge in the island within themselves, because that island is the teacher within which will always be with them, it is a stable and reliable refuge. The Buddha knew that it is this island which is the real object of refuge.

I will give an example: My wife Fei-fei is someone who is very confident, she enjoys being in front of groups of people, and can be her best on stage. But me, well its something which makes me a bit nervous, something which I would prefer to avoid if possible. So I could say to her, “Fei can you talk tomorrow for me, I don’t want to speak in public.” I can rely on her in any situation where I have to speak in front of the community, and thus avoid ever having to challenge myself and grow. In did this she would become more and more confident, with all the practice she would get, and I would become more and more shy. And an imbalance would result in our relationship and also in me. I would become incomplete without her. So this would be a way of taking refuge which would prevent my becoming whole. Alternatively I can learn to see Fei-fei as a teacher and can learn from her strength in this area. I can try to emulate her confident presence, thus her presence can be a source of strength for me that supports me becoming more whole and less dependent.

This is something to be aware of in a relationship, because we may have been attracted to our partner because they have certain qualities that we lack, to complement and complete us. But we can rely on our partner in a constructive way that helps us develop and transform our weaknesses, thus overcoming our initial dependence and becoming more free. In this way our relationship can take us in the direction of greater dependence or greater freedom and wholeness, depending on our way of taking refuge.

From attached love to boundless love

Our relationships can lead us into a narrow isolated love or a broad inclusive love, and this also depends on our way of taking refuge in each other. Sometimes our way of loving, our way of taking refuge in each other is a way of hiding from the world around us. And the more deeply we invest in each other the more deeply we cut ourselves off from others. So our way of taking refuge in each other becomes a prison for us. Even taking refuge in the Sangha can be like this. Perhaps we mix only amongst our close brothers and sisters in the Sangha, and we hide from the people who come to the community to practice, we may even hide from certain people in our own community. This is a form of attachment which may imprison us and keep us from opening our hearts to all those who cross our path in life.

Our love, to be deep and fulfilling, cannot be limited to only one person. If we love one person yet are alienated from others then our love will grow in on itself, it will not flower. It seems natural for a relationship to want to express itself in service of something greater. Perhaps that is why it seems so natural for couples to want to have children, so that the love that is cultivated between two people can seek a greater expression and flowering. When we can love one person we can love others also, love needn’t be limited to one person. For this we need to be able to see the deep nature of the one we love. To see that that person contains her mother, father, grandparents, a whole lineage and culture. Our love then becomes embracing and we can learn to accept the things in the other person which are the most difficult for us to accept. Mindfulness and looking deeply helps us to see beyond the appearance of the one we love, so our small love becomes a door to great love. The relationship becomes a labaratory or testing ground for our love, allowing us to cultivate a mature love which then extends to the many people we come into contact with. In loving one person we do learn to love many people, because the person we love contains multitudes.

Over the years I have been together with my wife I see more and more how deeply she is.the continuation of her parents and ancestors. That in marrying and making the vow to love her, I have married and made the vow to love also her parents, siblings, grandparents, society, and indeed all beings. A couple relationship is really the coming together of two streams, not just two people, so there is a lot of potential there, potential for strife and for strength. And for certain our love will be cultured and matured over the years, like a good cheese.

Sexuality

Sexuality is another area that can easily become an obstacle to our practice if we are not skillful. But my experience tells me that sexuality can be an integral part of an intimate relationship, and also an integral part of a spiritual life and practice. We sometimes make too much out of sexuality by either being preoccupied by it or by not wanting to have anything to do with it. But sexuality can be a beautiful and nourishing part of a committed relationship. We try to bring the practice of mindfulness to every area of our lives and sexuality is an area of our life that also profits from the practice of mindfulness.

With the practice of mindfulness the sexual act can be no less than a sacred and beautiful ritual that is performed in deep concentration and joy, a deep expression of love and care for each other. With mindfulness present we are able to maintain a peaceful and relaxed presence, without becoming lost in sensual desire. Desire is an obstacle to peace, and it can also be an obstacle to deep communion, because the other becomes an object of desire, and we lose the deep love and intimacy that is present. Sexuality is a form of expression between two people that can nourish joy in being together, and helps establish closeness   and love. But this is only possible in the context of a committed relationship where attention is also given to other forms of communication. Sometimes sexuality is sought outside of a committed relationship, because we yearn for intimacy but we do not know how to establish real intimacy. Perhaps in our relationship there is so much misunderstanding and so many small unresolved hurts that there is no longer intimacy between us. So we naively seek intimacy elsewhere, in new relationships which do not have the same baggage of suffering. We need to remember that intimacy comes from the meeting of hearts not bodies, the meeting of bodies is only an expression. And for the meeting of hearts to be deep and present even after many years together we need to practice constantly.

How do we maintain our love over many years?

In the early days of a relationship there can be a lot of excitement, passion and romance. These feelings can be very compelling and attractive, they set our heart pumping and make us feel very alive. Our love is fresh and new, filled with hope and expectation. We do not know the other deeply and we imagine how wonderful they are. After sometime of being together, we begin to get used to one another more. We think we know pretty well everything there is to know about them. We quickly settle into a routine; our relationship becomes mundane, ho-hum, perhaps even boring. Th\ngs are ok, but not very alive. We think back to the early days and remember how fresh and wonderful it was to be with each other. But we don’t know how to return to that freshness again. We think we need to do something spectacular to get the vitality back into the relationship, like taking a romantic holiday on a deserted island in the Bahamas.

But it is much simplier than that. We just need to be more attentive to maintaining our full presence for our loved one, and not fall into the habit of taking each other for granted. Fei-fei said that when we first met, she thought I was very romantic. For my part, I do not really feel I am a romantic person, neither do I aspire to be. But I think what gave this impression, was that I practiced really being there for her, giving her my full attention when we were together, and perhaps she had not experienced this kind of attention very often before. This kind of mindfulness is the tofu and potatoes of our love, it is the daily food of our relationship. And with this steady loving presence our relationship stays fresh and vital, even if our life appears very routine.

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Personal Time versus time for each other

Another way in which we might consider a relationship as an obstacle to a solid practice is that we may feel we have less space in our lives. I sometimes hear people say that they need more space in their relationship. They need time away from their partners. I have had this feeling occasionally in my relationship, although I feel lucky that this feeling comes up very seldom. For me this is a signal to look deeply, of course I can honor that feeling and take the opportunity to go for a walk by myself. But I need to ask myself, why do I not experience enough space in being together at the moment? I cannot just say that I need space and that’s normal , and take my space. Perhaps our way of being together has settled into a habit of being too talkative. We may have been spending excessive time gossiping about others. Or maybe there is some tension in our relationship that makes it difficult for us to be at peace in the presence of the other. All these things are signals to us to pay more attention to the quality of our time together, and the quality of our practice together. Just as the Sangha is a support for our practice so to can be our couple re lationship. And when we retum there we find a refuge of warmth, space, acceptance, ease, and peace. If these things are not present in our relationship, it is because we have not cultivated our relationship in a skillful enough way.

Oneness – from individual to couple

Life as a couple has a certain vitality and richness which takes us beyond our individual desires and aspirations. We are two but we are one, and we really need to leam to think, feel , and see as one, or there will be conflict. If we continue to follow our own wants and needs and the other continues to follow their own wants and needs, we will not find a deep harmony and unity in our relationship.

For our love to return to us a deep sustenance for our soul, for there to be a deep intimacy between the two of us, we really need to learn to see the happiness of the other as our own happiness, and our happiness as the happiness of the other. This is not an attitude of sacrifice, because in sacrifice there is still duality, there is still “I” give up my needs to satisfy “your” needs. Where there is sacrifice there is still the unconsciolls debt of the other that we hold in our hearts and expect to be paid back sometime. To see that our happiness is one is to see that giver, gift, and receiver are one. We don’t want to sacrifice because we know that deep down, for the other person to be happy, we also need to be happy. How can the other be bright and cheerful when we are moping around, feeling tired all the time having given beyond our capacity. So to give to ourselves, to nurture ourselves and our own deep peace and joy, is to make an offering to the person we love.

Recently Thay has said that practicing as a Sangha is like practicing as a couple. It can be a true practice of non-self to see that we are one body, and that we can no longer seek only for our own happiness without considering the happiness ofthe other. As a couple we become so interconnected, that this way of thinking no longer functions well. We simply have to learn to think in a new way, a way that really acknowledges our true interconnectedness, our interconnectedness as a couple, as a Sangha, and as a world.

Brendan, True Virtue of Loving Kindness, lives in the Upper Hamlet with his wife, Fei-Fei.

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Simplicity, Sisterhood and Freedom

Interview with Sister Ha Nghiem (Sr. Fern)

By Sister Chau Nghiem

Why did you become a nun?

Sister Ha Nghiem: There are times in life when you touch life really deeply and you touch yourself really deeply. You can see how beautiful life is and there’s a deeper connection between everything than you can usually see with worldly eyes. When I saw that deeper connection between things, their suchness, it made me want to love everything and take care of everything. You never want to see harm come to anything and you have a desire to help others touch the deep beauty of life. For me, it was only something I could touch sometimes. But I was very inspired by reading about people who understood themselves deeply, and I saw that it was only then that they could help others. That’s why I ordained.

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There have been two elements always in my life since I was little. The first is that we lived in the mountains in a cabin without electricity and it was so peaceful and so simple. Because it was so quiet and peaceful you could touch everything and see beauty in everything. You could touch the life of the forest and even the house itself. And when I came to Plum Village, it had a similar kind of simplicity like my childhood that I loved. Sometimes when material conditions are less, there’s more room for people and life.

The second element, also since I was quite young, was that I learned about environmental and political issues. By age sixteen, I was so concerned about the state of the world and I cared so much that I knew I had to give my whole life to try to improve the situation. When I came to Plum Village, I loved it because the lifestyle was so simple. Thay’s teaching was very deep, but very much about being engaged. For me it felt perfect – I felt so at home. I loved whenever I saw a monk or nun, even before coming to Plum Village – the image of their simplicity, lightness and how they gave up everything except what’s most important to them: the path of practice and to be there for everything that needs them.

Was being Western difficult?

Sister Ha Nghiem: At first it was hard being a westerner because I had lived in a lot of other communities and I had my own ideas about how things should be. Of course other sisters had their own ideas and not much openness or communication. There were only three other western sisters before me and they were already much older in the practice. So I felt quite alone a lot of the time. People were always talking around me but I didn’t understand. It was hard in that sense. But there was always the teaching and  practice that helped to nourish me.

But all that changed. Now it’s so different. There is much more understanding between the sisters. We all practice a lot of patience and try to listen and look deeply in order to understand each other, with all our cultural differences. Some time after I ordained, Thay said, “We need to get you some younger western sisters.” I would pray “I know you are out there in the world somewhere, please come.” Now there are so many of them!

How have you changed because of the practice?

Sister Ha Nghiem: I can take care of my feelings and my mind now, whereas before I knew the practice, they were so strong and would carry me away. Now, no matter how strong they are, I always have the practice, so I don’t feel afraid. Before I used to cry pretty often, or feel sad sometimes about things in the world. But it seems I hardly cry anymore. Sometimes six months pass and I realize I haven’t cried once! Because I can touch something deeper in life, things don’t make me so sad anymore. When I am troubled I know how to look deeply, using the teachings of the Buddha as my guide, in order to gain understanding and peace.

You ordained with your partner of seven years. How have you practiced to transform your romantic love and attachment?

Sister Ha Nghiem: For me it took a long time. I’m still working with it. It wasn’t hard to become a monastic, but I still had feelings for him that would bother me. I didn’t accept them, because I thought as a nun, I shouldn’t have these feelings. A few times I talked to Thay about it. He always told me it’s normal, it’s fine, and l just need to keep watering my happiness, to find out how to be happy in the Sangha and see that as a nun, we don’t want to love just one person but many. He encouraged me to keep trying to open my heart wider.

But I found we went through difficult times when we stopped showing our love for each other in any way. We were kind of cold. We would pay lots of attention to other people, but not to each other. It was at that time that I saw the weakness in my love, I saw that if my love for him was dependent on him loving me, then I wasn’t loving him deeply. I spent time in meditation looking at that, trying not to see him as my partner, as mine, as someone who cares for me, loves me, spends his time on me. And I was able to touch and see him as a person with many beautiful things inside as well as difficulties. I cultivated, I practiced to touch a feeling of love for him without wanting anything in return. I practiced to care most about his path. So even when there
were times I wanted to go talk to him, if I felt it wouldn’t be supportive of him , then I wouldn’t talk or have fun with him. And also not give him things. This is really deep caring, the kind no one can see, when you just want what is good for the other.

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Often I had the impulse to give him something or do something for him, and then I would say no because it wouldn’t help him become more free in himself, nor me either. It wouldn’t help us. We have known each other since we were teenagers. When we were together, we were very close, we spent all of our time together and lived together for many years. Our minds moved together from being almost children to being adults, from being teenagers, to finding a direction. Before we were monastic, we already had chosen a very simple life, learning about things that watered our deep aspirations. In many ways, we found the spiritual path together, supporting each other. We were so much a part of each other before ordination.

I think I’ll always fee l very close to him, because part of our root is one. Just like one would feel for a mother or a sibling because we really grew up together. But I know that the most important thing deep in his heart is the same in mine – it is our aspiration on the path . So that’s what’s most alive between us now, whereas before there were many other things.

How do you practice to build sisterhood?

Sisler Ha Nghiem: For me it is the most important thing we can do. I had a lot of aspirations coming to Plum Village, but I learned that the best way for me to realize them is for our whole Sangha to grow really strong. I saw that helping the environment, helping children, or anything that I want to do can be done best if the whole Sangha can become really strong. We can do so much together when we have the stability and clarity to look deeply into the situation in the world. The more we practice, the more our minds can see things clearly and the more joy we will have to offer.

I can see that most people in the world are so agitated inside, always reacting to things. If you have people who know how to practice, being there, they can be calm and find a harmonious solution, by stopping, not reacting. I realized that the most important thing I could do to help the environment and the whole world was to help my sangha. At first this was a conflict within me. I wanted to keep doing other things, but building the Sangha was working towards those other things also.

In my meditation, I like to contemplate my sisters – to see their potential. I take time to look into them and into myself. I see in my daily interactions I can be quite unskillful. I ‘m very shy and not always really present for others. So when I look back I see, oh, I just walked by that sister, or maybe during the whole month I have n’ t acknowledged her. I may be doing something with a sister and I realize I am only concentrating on what I’m doing, like cutting wood. But I could use that time for us to get to know each other more and to show my love, to show that I’m here for her. So when I realize that, sometimes I practice it right away. If I have even a very little thing to give to a sister, I do it with my whole heart; I know I’m alive and she ‘s alive. It’s wonderful , it can mean so much and bring a lot of joy.

I try to find little opportunities to connect with my sisters. But I think one of the most important things is my own practice. If I’m really practicing walking, and during sitting, I water my bodhicitta and cultivate insight while we do chanting, then I’m offering a very deep energy to the Sangha. That’s what we’re all trying to do together. That’s the best thing I can offer. Whenever I see other sisters doing that it nourishes me so much. I feel so happy that they are just there and practicing.

I know there are times when I’m not practicing deeply, I’m not offering the right energy to the Sangha. And I know I have to be careful to practice equanimity. I know I am not always able to have complete equanimity but at least I’m going in that direction. I do take care to try and not water the seed of jealousy in one sister or another – to see who needs support, not just being there for one, two or three sisters. I practice to keep opening my heart to have friendships with many different sisters.

Of course, there are some sisters you feel really nourished by, sisters I can talk to deeply about the practice, my difficulties, and touch the seed of joy with very easily. This is very important. But I use the energy and openness I get from these moments and I try to share it with the next brother or sister. T never think I have one, three or five good friends and I can stop here. I’m so happy I have a sister I fee l close to on the path because when we talk we help each other grow. But I always feel inspired to have that with other brothers and sisters, so that this kind of bond and support can grow throughout the Sangha.

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Sister Ha Nghiem, True Adornment with a Lotus, grew up in New York State. She ordained in 1996 and received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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We All Belong Together

Sister Thuc Nghiem (Sister Susan)

Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Insight Gatha

Just one instant of the present moment and something knocks
so loudly at my heart;
The love that we all belong together.
A star at dawn above the darkened earth,
they talk together of this.
The blades of grass, the dew and the sunshine,
they talk together of this.
My in-breath, the apples and the soil,
they know this together.
The breeze, the flowers, the moon beams and my heart,
we interare.
My teacher, my sisters, brothers,
my children, ancestors and all people
did you know we talk of this all the time.
My out-breath and my smile, the rain and my tears, the trees
and my carbon,
they just can ‘t stop talking together of this.

Six birds flying overhead with the rising sun,
I suddenly wonder if any of them feel exhausted or have a
deep pain in their wings.
I see it must be so and I am shaken by compassion.
Who am I, if I am not these birds?
Who am I, if I am not all things?
We do this together, what happiness, what joy.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha given to Sister Thuc Nghiem

The full moon that looks like a ripe fruit,
is used as a mirror by a beautiful lady.
The autumn hills stand quietly and majestically around us.
As soon as you smile at someone’s footprints
on the Ben Duc harbor,
the Lord of Compassion ‘s boat of loving-kindness
will have already brought you to the other shore.

note: The Ben Duc harbor is the harbor you must use to go to the Perfume temple in North Vietnam. The water is a little muddy at that harbor.

Thay’s Words of encouragement

Avalokiteshvara is always there around us and inside of us. In a time of confusion and suffering we need the bodhisattva of deep listening and of great compassion to be with us . The bodhisattva may manifest herself in every step we make, in everything we say. Our daily life should embody the capacity of deep listening and compassionate action. The seeds of compassion should continue to be planted in our society. Whether that seed can sprout today or tomorrow depends on many conditions. But the bodhisattva does not worry about the outcome. The bodhisattva takes care of the action only. Every day we keep sowing the seeds of understanding and compassion and we have the conviction that alI these seeds planted today will sprout tomorrow or after tomorrow. That will bring enough happiness and peace. We try to do this together as a Sangha.

There are many seeds planted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Some seeds waited for 2600 years in order to sprout. The same thing is true with us. The essential thing is to plant the seeds of understanding and compassion. This is the meaning of the lamp transmission, the continuation of the practice. It is wonderful that the light of the Buddha has still come to us as bright and alive as ever. Now the light is being transmitted to you, Sister Susan.

Excerpt from Sister Thuc Nghiem’s Dharma Talk

A tool that Thay has given us is the ability to find healing in nature, to go sit in the middle of a field and do nothing. In the past two years I have found an apple tree out in front of the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont. Is it under it, near the fence, every morning. I see the same patch of earth, the same landscape in front of me and the same trees, in the springtime, in the summer, in the fall and in the winter. I think I began doing this because one morning I saw a bird watching the sun come up. I felt that that bird was more wholehearted than I was in being with the sunrise. About a month later I was taken by surprise and I really saw the sun come up. [t pierced me straight to my core.

I wanted to watch the sun come up and after a while I noticed the earth also. When it was cloudy, rainy or snowing I didn’t see the sun but the earth was very wonderful. I began to feel very close to the earth. It was so wonderful to go and sit cross-legged on the earth every morning. I began to appreciate the apples in the different seasons and the chipmunks and the squirrels who would run by me. One time a chipmunk landed on my head. One time a bird landed on my head. I think from this, on a deep level, I began to feel the interbeing of the earth and the sky and the chipmunks and the raindrops and I certainly saw them interbe with my happiness. It was this time I spent under the apple tree that really gave me a smile so easily. It gave me love in my heart so easily. I could see that everything was connected. The teachings on Buddhist psychology also helped me to see that everything is connected. In nature it is easy to see that everything is connected. I think that is why I can sit and stare at it for so long because something in me recognizes that I am looking at everything.

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I could see that my sisters and I were connected very deeply and we affect each other. Perhaps the greatest happiness is knowing that we live in a community. It doesn’t matter if sometimes the community has difficulties or I can’t get along with someone or a million other things that can happen in a community that lives together twenty-four hours a day. But the fact that we are living together, that we are trying to make the Sangha work and we are making it work, that we support each other by practicing the same guidelines (the mindfulness trainings) and we are really there for each other, to me that is one of the most beautiful things on earth. To me it makes all the difference when I recognize the fact that we all belong together, that you can’t take the father out of the son, you can’t take us out of each other, you can’t take anything out of us . We all belong together.

On our trip in China last fall on the last morning Thay woke up very early to see some of us off who were leaving for America, after a late night at a public talk. He was sitting outside with us. I was sitting at a table with another sister. She turned to Thay and said, “I want to thank you for allowing me to come to China and I want to apologize for any mistakes I have made.” She went on to say, you know I have many weaknesses and I am trying to overcome them and it is difficult. And Thay quietly stopped her and said, “We do it together.” To me that was the most incredible thing to say.

All our pain, all our difficulties, all our joy, we do it together. And when we do this we are following the truth of things and that brings about our greatest happiness. What if all the Sanghas we know have that idea, we do it together, for each other. If in a family something comes up, they can do it together, they work it out together. As a nation, we can all help each other to do it together. So when some group suffers, we do it together. We think about it, we look deeply into it. And as a world we do it  together. We have many ways of diplomacy and we know we are doing it together for all of us. We know we alI belong together as one family and so we will find the best ways to bring about happiness for all of us.

Sister Thuc Nghiem, True Adornment with Ripeness, lives in the Green Mountain Dharma Center in Vermont.

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Entering the Stream of the Practice

Brother Phap Hien (Brother Michael)

Brother Phap Hien’s insight gatha

Remembering your peaceful steps along the ancient path,
the sound of the old bell carried me out into the night sky.
I return now with a bright message from faraway stars,
and Oh, how my weary feet adore the tender earth.
We have always known each other.
There are thousands of generations of tears,
smiles and laughter echoing through the great hall.
In this endless embrace with this unfathomable aspiration,
my teacher, my brother, my friend,
what have we possibly to fear?

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Br. Phap Hien

The Dharma handed down by wise ones from long ago
is like the sound of the rising tide,
echoing tens of thousands of songs and poems.
Having been brothers and sisters to each other
during innumerable past lives
we should hold firm to the door of the practice
so that the true vehicle can go vigorously far into the future.

Excerpt from Brother Phap Hien’s Dharma Talk

It’s hard to say anything to a community that is you. When I was six-years-old I went to the dentist and the dentist asked me what do you want to be when you grow up? I had never thought about that question before, but I remember I answered him very quickly. I said, I want to be a farmer. He looked at me and he said, a farmer? What about a doctor or a scientist? I said, no I want to be a farmer. The seed of the simple life and the family life living close to the land was very big in my ancestors.

And then when I was about twelve-years-old my parents separated. That was a great wound for me, a big wound in my heart. I lost all my trust and faith in my family. I remember also at that time someone asked me a question of what I wanted to do with my life and my answer was completely different. My answer was, I want to be alone. I wanted to live in a little house all by myself way up in the north of Canada with no one else around, with long, cold winters. Still a simple life, but with no more family. Actually what I really wanted was to be in the embrace of Mother Earth. But that dream to live alone didn’t last very long. When I was seventeen I fell in love. That gave me the incentive to open up a little bit, to try to learn to be honestly close to someone, to share my life with someone. It was a very good thing that that happened. The inspiration ofthe family life came back into my dream.

About a year later when I began college I did a solo retreat for three days all alone in a desert canyon. I didn’t eat anything. It was very hot. I barely wore anything. I just sat on a rock and did nothing for three days. I had never done anything like that before. During that time, without any kind of words or cognitive process, I understood something very deep about myself. When I tried to put it into words it didn’t work. But I knew deep inside I had found something that resonated deeply with a place, a home within.

When I was twenty-one I was living in Northern California in the redwood forest. On my twenty-first birthday I received a book, Peace is Every Step, from my next-door neighbor. I was very happy to receive the book and I asked her, what is it? She just said, it’s a lot like you. A few weeks later she moved away and I never saw her again. She is a kind of bodhisattva for me because giving me that book opened a big door for me. I read Thay’s teaching and I felt as if someone was speaking what was inside of me. But he was able to put it into words, to give clear examples of what it meant to have that inside of oneself and to live it. I tried my best to practice walking mediation right away, but I didn’t really understand it. But I did understand that my life had to be about what was going on in the here and now from that point on or it wasn’t life. That is what I wanted. I had met the Buddha and the Dharma and a little piece of the Sangha. Soon after that I found myself here in Plum Village.

When I was twenty-four I became a novice monk and I started my life all over again. I didn’t realize that I was doing that, but I did. I don’t think I have fully realized it yet actually.

Before I became a novice I had had a dream of going to India and Nepal. This was before I had fully met and experienced a Sangha body. I had the idea that I would go there and find a place to touch something ancient. When I arrived in Plum Village and I heard the monks and nuns chanting at a formal lunch in the summer retreat I felt that something ancient, something very powerful. It is strange, but I gave up that dream to travel to the East and then eight months after becoming a novice I went to India with Thay and the Sangha. That next fall I also traveled with Thay and the Sangha to America and I found myself doing walking meditation in the redwood forest in Northern California at Kim Son Monastery one morning. I suddenly realized it was only ten to fifteen miles from the spot where I had first received Peace is Every Step. I had also been very intent on having a family life before I became a monk. In giving up that dream I got the biggest family I could possibly imagine.

The Dharma is very powerful. To be in touch with the Dharma through the Vietnamese Buddhist culture and community has been very important for me. Through my life in the monastery I have learned a lot about place, relationships to others and to environment, which I never knew before; relationship to elder brothers and sisters, relationship to younger brothers and sisters and so on. Being born in Plum Village as a monk is to be born in a group of several brothers and sisters who ordain together on the same day, sometimes as a tree, sometimes as an animal , a fruit or a flower. I was born in the coconut tree family. There were five of us; Phap Kieu, Thuc Nghiem, Ha Nghiem, Phap Hien and Hy Nghiem. We had many elder brothers and sisters who ordained before us also in groups, like batches of children or batches of cookies. There are many ofthese batches in our community but we make up one family and we are all children of Thay, our teacher. Thay has also been in that same place. He has been a child of his teacher in a community of monks and nuns and so on and so on.

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It has been very important to experience that kind of connection as part of my life .  When I was growing up I only knew my mother, my father and my two sisters. I didn’t have much connection to other people around me. Then my parents divorced and my family broke up and I felt I had nothing. Living in the community of Plum Village I have learned roots. I learned to open my heart and to see my roots, both in my blood family and in my spiritual family. To experience a lineage, a transmission, a continuation has brought stability into my heart. It has brought non-fear into my heart.

This is a great medicine for westerners, wandering souls that we are. Many of us have not grown up, as many brothers and sisters from Vietnam have, with a lot of family members around and a culture that waters the seeds of being rooted, having a lineage, and being aware of one’s ancestors and descendants. We have not had that in America for a long time. Many of us wander around in a lot of pain, with a lot of loneliness because we don ‘t know who we are and we don ‘t know where we come from. It has been really important for me to enter into the awareness of being a part of a lineage and to experience it living all around me in the community of Plum Village and also in the culture of Vietnam.

I said to Thay several years ago that while practicing touching the earth I suddenly discovered who I was and because of that I was not afraid anymore. I knew who I was and where I had come from. Sometimes the seed of fear still comes up in me. But when I can remember my roots, through my brothers and sisters in my spiritual family and through the generations of my blood family, I can feel within me that I have nothing to be afraid of.

The gatha that I offered to Thay is about that. It is about entering into the stream of practice, discovering my afflictions and about getting grounded in the practice, down through my belly into my feet. I really love to walk on the earth now. It is about understanding, I am you and you are me. It has been that way for a long, long time.

Brother Phap Hien, True Goodness of the Dharma, ordained in 1996 in Plum Village. He received the Dharma Lamp transmission in Winter 2001.

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Gatha for Offering Incense

mb31-Gatha1In gratitude we offer this incense
throughout space and time
to all Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
May it be fragrant as Earth herself
reflecting careful efforts
wholehearted awareness
and the fruit of understanding
slowly ripening.
May we and all beings be companions
of Buddhas and bodhisattvas.
May we awaken from forgetfulness
and realize our true home.

Found in, Present Moment, Wonderful Moment, by Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Buddba Body

Larry Ward

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Larry Ward’s Insight Gatha

The sound of the great bell has awakened
the Golden Buddha in my heart.
Grace arrives on the holy wings of a breath,
in the here and now.
I am at home without desire.
The cloud of forgetfulness fades away.
My eyes open wide to the wonders of life,
each a Buddha land.
Bright light shining in every direction,
healing and transforming me.
My happiness and freedom
overflow into the river of great compassion.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha

When the great Drum begins to play, we
hear the thunder
its sound vibrates even the golden moon light
Beams from the four directions are projecting in
witnessing to a mind that manifests
both purity and oneness
If one is attentive,
one will notice that both the cam and the sat are still playing
the harmonious song of great courage.

Cam and sat are ancient instruments that are always played together. They are associated with husband and wife, who compliment each other, creating a harmonious duet together.

Thay’s words of encouragement

The gatha I just chanted is about the moment when the Buddha attained Great Awakening at the foot of the bodhi tree after having defeated Mara, the energy of darkness, the energy of fear, the energy of ignorance, craving, and discrimination. The Buddha and many generations of practitioners have followed his example and succeeded in defeating the power of darkness. We need the light and courage of the Buddha especially in this time of distress and fear. We need a long process of education in order to transform fear and discrimination in our society and within ourselves. Through the light of the Buddha we can see habit energy deeply rooted in our society – the tendency to lose hope, to be overwhelmed, to be taken by despair, the tendency of craving, of fear, of discrimination. We have to be patient, we have to continue with our practice and our work of education in order to uproot this negative energy.

It’s wonderful not to have any desire in our heart. It means that we only have one desire, the desire to uproot evil, to uproot the negative energy within our society. This lamp transmitted to you today, Larry, is the symbol of love and trust from the Buddha and from our ancestral teachers that you will continue to do your best to improve the quality of life in our families, in our communities, in our societies and never lose hope. I have faith in you; the Buddha and the patriarchs have faith in you .

Larry’s Dharma Talk

To go with my whole life for refuge is to put my life in the Buddha’s life and to find my story in the Buddha’s story, to find the Buddha’s story in me. And to surrender having to be someone else other than the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. To surrender to my Noble Teacher, the Venerables here and the Noble Sangha. To be willing to be taught by the ancestral teachers, to be willing to be taught by each breath, each step, each sigh, each star, each blade of grass, and each smile, each heartbreak and each disappointment. To surrender. To be willing to be taught. And so the transmission continues.

Finding the heart of the Buddha in my heart, finding my heart in the Buddha’s heart, my heart is as big as the whole world.

Finding my feet in the Buddha’s feet. Two years ago during our retreat in China we had wonderful walking meditations. One morning during one of our walking meditations I looked down and I didn’t recognize my feet. I could not find Larry ‘s feet, and realized they were becoming Buddha feet.

And my ears becoming Buddha ears. Hearing the cries of the world, the laughter, the tears, the unspoken dreams and hopes and the whispers of love quietly held in the night.

And my eyes becoming Buddha eyes. Seeing wonder everywhere I look, beholding a miracle in every moment.

And my mind, slowly, and forever becoming the Buddha’s mind, the mind of practice, the mind of coming back to the here and now, the mind of knowing when I’m not back in the here and now and the mind that gently brings myself back.

Our beloved teacher has been transmitting no less than 100% of himself to us, as his teacher did for him, and his teacher before him. And the Buddha has transmitted no less than 100% of himself to us. And so this coming summer I am preparing to receive the Buddha’s hands. And I surrender having to have Larry’s hands, I surrender having to be somebody so I can happily be nobody and so I can serve the world in that way. And so our bodies are becoming the bodies of the Buddha, our hands, our feet, our eyes, our ears, our smile. And so the transmission continues.

Larry Ward, True Great Voice, lives in Clear View practice center.Peggy Rowe Ward also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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A Tear FeU Into My Hand

By Lisi Ha Vinh

Lisi’s Insight Gatha

A tear from the ocean of suffering fell into my hand.
Looking deeply into this tear, I found a precious jewel.
Looking deeply into this jewel, I found an open heart.
Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path.
Walking this path, I found the ocean
Embracing it all.

Dharma Lamp Transmission Gatha for Lisi

You have always embraced with all your heart the great cause.
That is why crossing so many paths and bridges
you are still able to walk with freedom and ease.
Since the beginning of time
clouds are always traveling, water is always flowing
And it could be lovely to learn to sing the song of the ultimate
every morning when the east gets rosy.

Excerpt from Lisi’s Dharma Talk

My husband and I decided to step out of our very busy lives and take a sabbatical. We spent part of this sabbatical in a Swiss mountain village on retreat. Every morning we read one of the fourteen mindfulness trainings and then during the day we went for long walks in the mountains, feeling the training that we read in the morning sinking into our consciousness. In the evening we would sit by the warm fireplace and share what feelings and thoughts had come up.

When we read the fourth mindfulness training about the reality of suffering, I remember sitting in meditation and suddenly feeling tears running down my cheeks, warm, wet tears. And one tear fell into my hand. Have you ever looked at a tear? It’s something really beautiful. If you have a chance to look at a child and a little tear is caught in the eyelashes, it’s like a dew drop in the heart of a lotus leaf. It reflects the whole universe, it’s shining bright like a jewel. Tears are truly a universal human language. A mother whose child has died – maybe in Israel, maybe in Germany, maybe in Afghanistan – has the same tears. She might express them differently, but the tears are the same, wet and warm and salty. I once had a tremendous privilege to hold a mother whose eighteen year old son had just died. I held her and cradled her for many, many hours and the tears were running down my shoulder and making my clothes wet. I had the feeling I was holding the most precious jewel in my arms.

Jewels are something that you take good care of. They are in the crowns of kings, they are on the engagement ring of your beloved. When you look at jewels, they are so pure and so transparent and so full at the same time. Human suffering is the same, it is extremely precious. You don’t throw jewels on the floor or put them where you keep your shoes; you keep them in a special place. And human suffering is the same, you have to take really good care of human suffering.

In my gatha, I said, “Looking deeply into this jewel l found an open heart.” I am Austrian, coming from a Catholic tradition. When my parents took me to church when I was small, you could buy pictures of Mary and Jesus. There was one picture that intrigued me immensely, the picture of Jesus with an open heart – he was standing there and his breast was torn open and you could see his heart. When I saw this picture I was always so worried, thinking how could you live like that, it’s so dangerous, somebody bumps into you and you get hurt. At the same time I was incredibly amazed at the look on the face of Jesus, which was somehow fearless. To me an open heart and fearlessness go together. A vulnerable fearlessness of an open heart.

Looking deeply into this heart, I found a path. So I come back to the mountains where we walked every day. Every step was pure joy and pure gratefulness for this incredible beauty of nature. There was one little path that went through a forest with pine trees that lose their needles in autumn so they turn yellow and orange. One time we walked through this forest and all the golden yellow pine needles had fallen on the ground and it was like walking on pure gold. I can fee l right now the happiness of that moment. I can still hear the sound of the silence of our steps . Beauty is always available at every moment.

Walking this path I found the ocean embracing it all. The tears of pain and the tears of joy all contained in the ocean of life. And I wish us all a safe and joyful journey on this ocean.

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Lisi Ha Vinh, True Great Bridge, was born in Vienna, Austria. She has developed educational and humanitarian projects in Vietnam together with her husband Tho, True Great Wisdom, over the past twelve years. Lisi and Tho have been married for thirty years, have two grown up children, one grand child, and they consider their couple and family life as an important part of their spiritual path. Tho also received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

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Inner Eyes

By Sister Dang Nghiem

Dear Sister,

Before we started our meditation this morning, our sister asked us to send the energy from our meditation and sutra chanting to you. You have been sick, and you have recently lost your vision. In the past, my monastic sister has shared with me about her friendship with you, and she told me of her most recent visit with you . Thus, I feel your presence is quite familiar in me. At the sitting meditation, I decided that I would keep my anatomical eyes completely closed and follow my breathing diligently. I prayed that my inner eyes would reveal to me what I should see, and that I may gain an understanding of you and of what you may be going through.

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I saw myself sitting by the vendor with my mother and younger brother. She took us there to celebrate my successful completion of the fifth grade. I do not remember what kind of sweet soup we ate, or if it was even sweet soup. It could have been a salty dish . However, I do remember how special I felt. My mother worked so hard to provide us with everything we needed. She was always outside of the home working. It was the first time she especially paid attention to my schooling, I felt so special.

I saw my grandmother sitting on the plank bed, silently sewing a pocket, the size of my palm, onto my mother’s black pair of underwear. I was to inherit that pair of underwear, and the next day I was to wear it to go to America with my brother. Grandmother put the U.S. five dollar bill in it, so that I could buy some extra food for my brother and me, while we were staying in the refuge camp in Thailand.

I saw myself the next day, when my brother and I crossed the threshold of our house to go to the airport. The palms of my hands were reddened with the juice of the chewed betel nut, which my grandmother had just spit and rubbed onto my palms, saying that it would help me, “not to miss Grandma too much.” It was drizzling outside, and the fine particles mixed in with my tears. I walked away, knowing that I would never see my grandma again in flesh and bones.

I saw myself as a college student, sitting alone at the desk on late nights . I studied diligently to be worthy of my grandmother’s trust. I studied diligently to prove that I was capable, that I was someone. My eyes were tired, my body was weary, but I would not stop. Raw energy pushed me onward.

I saw myself mesmerized by the mountain range before me. ” Purple mountains,” my partner said to me softly. They were indeed purple – myriad shades of purple. We stood there, completely present in that moment. I could feel the desert breathing, the mountains stretching, the quiet peace flowing through my partner.

I saw myself watching leaves falling with my loved one. Yellow leaves. Some twirled . Some spinned. Some zigzagged. Some held stillness in their movements. Some zoomed straight down to the ground. They were dancers, proceeding with their own dances as they all returned to Mother Earth.

I saw myself watching a video of Thay’s Dharma talk during the Francophone retreat 2000. The camera pointed at the stage, showing also the back of my upper body as I was sitting in the audience. My hair was in a bundle; I had not realized that it was so full and black. Light reflected on it and formed a half white circle around the hair bundle. I was wearing the brown robe of an aspirant – a nun to be. Who was that person? I asked myself, as I was watching the back of my own upper body in that video. Who is this person, whose hair now is completely shaven? Are they different from each other? What has she gone through? I saw the monastic sisters on stage. One looked just like me. I had thought before, how can someone else look like me? However, in that moment, I saw how I could mistake that sister for me. I also saw my face in the face of a Korean sister, in a fifteen year old, in a French sister, in short and tall, in thin and chubby sisters. l saw sadness. I saw faith. I saw a smile of pure joy. I saw restlessness. I saw my faces in their faces. Looking at them. Being them.

I felt warm tear drops rolling down my cheeks throughout this morning’s sitting meditation. My eyelids were closed, and light particles could not penetrate them. Yet, my inner eyes revealed to me all of these images, of my childhood, of my young adulthood, of my spirit path . My inner eyes have revealed to me the flow of my life. My inner eyes tell me that I no longer need to hide myself in shame or to show myself in pride. I have never been alone. My faces are the faces of my sisters, of my partners, of my mother, of my grandmother, of leaves, of mountains, of memories, of awakened moments.

My dear sister, may your inner eyes, too, guide you home, to everything that has always been with you, nourishing you, guiding you, carrying you, and uplifting you. May your inner eyes reveal to you the spaciousness of your true existence, where you touch peace and non-fear. Where you can help your loved ones to embrace all that is.

To you, I offer my most sincere faith and support.
Your sister, dang nghiem.

Sister Dang Nghiem, True Adornment with Non-Discrimination, ordained in 2000.

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Miraculous Moments

By Sister Thuong Nghiem (Sister Steadiness)

Surrender (1995, a five-day retreat in New York state)

Thay has just finished giving the Dharma talk in the big white tent. Now all the retreatents, 800 of us, are gathering to go for walking meditation. Seeing this huge crowd of people I immediately wish to head in the opposite direction. But everything is so quiet. Only the sound of decaying leaves crunching beneath gentle footsteps and birds and some young chiIdren ‘s voices are heard. The stream of humanity is so bright and colorful. I am drawn to enter this stream of practice. I see people holding hands walking so slowly and carefully as among precious jewels. Each brown leaf, each scarlet and gold leaf is a jewel. A monk is hugging a tree. I pause and look. I am so touched by that image. And farther on I see a monk practicing movements facing the late autumn sun and many people lying on the earth quietly held by earth and sky.

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The Earth, the woods, the silent depth of nature has always been a refuge for me, a sacred space to be truly myself, to be with myself fully, to release my unhappiness, to sing and dance and be loved. I could not imagine seeing these expressions of ease, joy and stillness with nature and with each other in this crowd of 800 people.

This crowd has been transformed into a community of practice and into a river. Slowly I feel myself opening and releasing into this body of beings, feeling the cool freshness of river water, flowing and growing, heading leisurely, steadily to the great ocean of relief. This is the first time I am aware of entering the Sangha body and being supported by the collective energy of a practicing Sangha.

Touching (2000, Lower Hamlet, Plum Village)

I am following Thay’s steps and we arrive at the lagestromia bush outside of Thay’s room. Thay places his hand first on one globe of pink flowers and then on another. It is only a brief moment in this long day attending my teacher but it is the moment that penetrates deeply into me. I see Thay touches the flowers exactly as he may touch the head of two young novices, with great tenderness and care. And I allow that feeling of warmth, of being touched by our teacher to settle into me.

Openness (200 I, Deer Park Monastery, California)

It’s five a.m. and my sisters and I are putting on our hiking shoes. The air is still cool, the sky black. We walk briskly up the winding road towards the stars. We strip off our hats and scarves as our bodies warm. One sister removes her shoes, feeling the soil with her soles. We move quickly, silently, calmly. Rising up out of the valley we reach open space. Here we have a vast view of the mountain ranges, the wide sky. We sit; we dance, preparing for the miraculous birth .

Receptive. A speck of light begins to crack open the mountains. A golden egg pushes her way up out of the earth and brilliant rays begin to spill in all directions, blessing every living being in her path. My body expands to touch this source of life. I feel the warmth and light enter each region of my body, touching each vertebra, resting lightly on my forehead as a teacher’s hand touches his disciple or a mother her child.

Flocks of birds pass over, playfully greeting the sun . After many minutes wrapped in this sacred moment, immersed in our own personal intimacy with the sun, we sisters join together, pour tea, peel an orange, sharing our joy as one.

Clarity (2001 , Deer Park Monastery, California)

This evening we are scheduled to have a Sangha meeting to plan our daily schedule for the fall retreat. I have a tendency to get emotional at Sangha meetings. I feel small tensions build up in me over the days. Small wounds of unresolved anger, little bits of jealousy, misunderstandings, pride and sadness accumulate in me. All these small things add up to a larger wound lying heavily just under the surface waiting to spill out of me in tears. Why does it spill out at Sangha gatherings? Why not when I am taking a s low walk in the oak grove or sitting on a rock when I have the space and the concentration to face myself and lovingly untie the knots in me? Perhaps I have not given myself enough time and space to look deeply, to take care of my pain . When I am in the presence of all my sisters and brothers at a Sangha gathering, the collective energy of mindfullness is so tangible that it brings the wound in me to light. Without enough self-understanding and the capacity to embrace my pain, the tears flow from me like runoff from an iceberg melting in strong sunlight.

Recently one sister used this image to describe me in a “shining light” session. “Shining light” is a practice where the Sangha gathers to offer a sister or a brother their reflections of his or her strengths and weaknesses and to offer concrete suggestions for how to practice so as to become more stable, harmonious and happy in the Sangha. That sister said to me, you are like an iceberg and also you can melt in the sunlight and that water is very pure and sweet to drink. So although I had this tendency to release my tears in the presence of the Sangha, perhaps it was not only an uncontrolled outpouring of pain, but also a process of not holding my pain as a cold, solid block stuck in me. The emotional expression allowed my separate self to slowly melt into the river of the Sangha, this group of friends surrounding me and supporting me. But I felt there must be a more skillful and less emotionally draining way to do this.

Now in these moments before the Sangha meeting I felt a deep peace and acceptance in my body and my mind. In the past days a sister and I had been able to reconcile our difficulties with each other that had been there for a long time. We both shared our perceptions and our misunderstandings of each other and we also shared our authentic aspiration to release what was between us and to begin anew.

During the last two months of Thay’s teaching tour in the U.S.A., my bodhicitta, my deepest aspiration, was nourished by the opportunity to be in touch with others, to share the practice and to be a positive element of the big Sangha. During the four day lazy period following the tour I had also nourished myself by my mindful sitting, walking, serving the Sangha and looking deeply into my emotions. All of this added up to my feeling light and free. It was not a superficial feeling of lightness hiding festering wounds just below the surface. I had taken good care of my abandoned children, my emotions, and they were no longer hiding in me waiting for some attention and understanding. I felt calm, solid and fresh and I knew I was in a good position to go to the Sangha meeting and to offer myself.

Sister Thuong Nghiem, True Adornment with Steadiness, ordained in 1998 in the Fig Tree family in Plum Village.

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Poem: Deer Park

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The wind brushes the palm leaves.
Gentle voices float in the breeze,
caress my ears,
and dissolve.

The call of a quail, the screech of a hawk,
and the slow steps taken in awareness,
consecrate this land,
erasing every trace of violence,
offering it as a gift
to a suffering humankind.

Giovanna Zerbi. True Wandelful Stream.

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The Living Dharma is Contagious!

Practicing at Deer Park Monastery

By Carl, Aubyn, and Sage Stahmer

Deer Park is where you meditate and are mindful. You meet monks and nuns. They always smile. It makes me happy. At Deer Park everyone is a vegetarian like me.
Everyone at Deer Park protects the earth.
– Sage Stahmer, Age 7, April 2002

Sage had been coming to Deer Park for one year when I asked him to write a few words about the monastery and our practice there. I remember his first visit to Deer Park well, because it was also the first for me and my wife. We shared similar emotional reactions to our introduction to the Day of Mindfulness of fear, disorientation, and a sense of alienation.

My wife and I had been reading Thay’s books at home and attempting a self-guided practice for nearly a year prior to our first Day of Mindfulness. But everything at Deer Park was so different from the world that we lived in – new languages, new rituals, new faces – that all of our seeds of fear and alienation moved quickly to mind consciousness, bringing with them all of their associated habit energies. We were afraid to speak to anyone, afraid that Sage would not be properly cared for at the children’s program, afraid that we were making too much noise during the silent meal, and generally, just afraid. As we talked about the experience in the car on the way home, we all echoed the same sentiment. It was radically unfamiliar and, as a result, radically uncomfortable.

But the Dharma works in subtle ways. Happily, one important lesson that we learned from reading Thay’s teaching was the need to look deeply into our suffering; and that night, as we prepared and ate our meal, we made a conscious determination to do just that. After much thought and discussion we came to realize that not a single unwelcoming word or gesture had been made by the other practitioners at Deer Park, lay or monastic. To the contrary, everyone had actually acted very skillfully to try to alleviate our suffering and make us feel welcome. Why then, if we had been openly welcomed into the Sangha, did we feel so un-welcome? It was at this moment that I saw clearly, for the first time in my life, that the source of my suffering was me. We made a family commitment to return to Deer Park for the next Day of Mindfulness, and we have been doing so ever since.

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I have often reflected on the events of that evening and wondered what it was that allowed us in that particular moment to free ourselves from the cycle of habit energies that had, until then, prevented us from truly touching our suffering. Certainly, our reading ofThay’s teachings and the light, informal practice that we had developed on our own were important contributing factors, providing the foundations for a process of deep looking. But I have come to believe that it was something more than this, something that we had taken home with us from the Day of Mindfulness, even while consciously rejecting it, that watered our seeds of mindfulness. It was a simple something that is reflected in Sage’s words about Deer Park: “They always smile.”

As we sat that night discussing our Day of Mindfulness, we returned frequently to this simple point. They did always smile; and their smiles were genuine, reflecting both joy and stability. Try as our habit energies might to reject this gift, they could not. The living Dharma is contagious!

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As an extension of the spiritual community at Plum Village, of Thay’s teaching, and of our many spiritual ancestors in the practice, the fourfold community at Deer Park provides support and stability for our family as we practice everyday life. Days of Mindfulness offer the opportunity to regularly touch the living Dharma, which helps us to deepen our relationship with ourselves, with each other, with the Sangha, and with the world. For my wife and myself, the organized forms of practice such as sitting, chanting, and Dharma talks have helped us learn to be more diligent in our daily practice. And the true sense of community that is present in the Sangha brings us joy and support, even when we are not physically gathered. For Sage, the Sangha provides an opportunity to develop his mindfulness naturally while he spends his days exploring and playing with the other children, the brothers, and the sisters in the loving and mindful environment provided by the stability of the practice. We have made friends , and we have learned to be friends as well. We have arrived. We are home.

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Fragrant Flowers

Being with Thay in China

By Ming Fei Chung (Fei-Fei)

The name of the street was “Fragrant Flowers.” The pungent smell from boxes upon boxes of dried fish and sea horse mingled with sandalwood incense, contrasted to collections of wooden Avalokiteshvara statues smiling serenely, each priced 2000 yen for us tourists.

Thay walked straight in concentration, unmoved by the bustle of the daily business and I followed closely behind, carefully avoiding the puddles. We were on our way to the beach, me and my teacher, on the Island of Putosan where there had been held a seven-day retreat for the Chinese monastics together with the Plum Village delegation. This island is considered the Holy place of Avalokiteshvara, a two-hour rough boat ride from Shanghai’s main port. Thay wanted some fresh air and a break from the heavy schedule. Me too, after translating two weeks in a row without enough rest, I felt happy to be outside and not in the stuffy meditation hall of the monastery where we were staying. Thay had met me in the corridor. He said to me, “Fei-fei, Thay wants to go to the beach. Do you think it is possible to get an attendant monk out of the meditation hall?” I shook my head, knowing how strict the Chinese monks are with their Zendo practice. But the beach was too tempting. Thay looked at me for a couple of seconds and said, “OK, you count as a monk. Come with Thay.”

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The time with Thay on the beach was nice and easy. We sat on the rocks listening to the waves crashing against the shore. The air was pleasantly refreshing, without the salty stickiness of the seaport. We talked about the future of Chinese Buddhism, how we could help to shape the spirituality of this country. Thay sees it 300 years from now, without calculating what credit he may get for it. It seems something gives him much peace and joy in simply carrying on his work as he has gone beyond personal rewards. After the visionary discussion, Thay rolled up his flare trousers and ran along the beach, inspiring the surprised locals to do the same. I chuckled the whole way, enjoying the vitality and the childlike playfulness of my 75-year-old teacher.

I have learned a tremendous amount from staying close with Thay, both in my last five years training as a lay resident of Plum Village, and especially as his personal interpreter during our teaching tours in China. I have witnessed Thay handling each situation with a fresh perspective. Somehow Thay holds all views, and therefore has no  view to defend and this enables him to understand where people are coming from. However when needed Thay speaks his mind. I have seen Thay together with high officials, powerful politicians and religious leaders. He met them without fear and gave them something to think about beyond their daily routine. He reminded them skillfully how they, in their current position, may make a big difference to help improving the quality of people’s lives.

Thay embraced all kinds of people with compassion, even those who misperceived him. For instance, there was a young abbot who was challenging Thay over a diplomatic banquet dinner and was geared up to enter into a “Dharma combat” with Thay the next day. I was shaken by his overt unfriendliness, after all we were in his territory and at his mercy, I thought. On the way home, I sat next to Thay and sought refuge in Thay’s solidity. Thay smiled and said very calmly, “Don’t worry, Fei-fei. Thay has seen too many people like him. You have to have compassion. He is still young, you know. We just do what we have to do tomorrow and everything will be fine.”

Many people have not understood Thay’s desire to put energy into visits to China but I believe that Thay has a long view. People of this rich land have suffered tremendously over the last 150 years from poverty, injustice and the loss of cultural and spiritual life. Materialism, however, has found its way into  many corners of the society including the monasteries, promising a better and brighter future. The well-intended self-sufficiency schemes of monastery-owned businesses have slipped into competition between monasteries to build bigger and more luxurious tourist attractions. Thay wants to remind the monastic community of their bodhicitta to serve and their responsibility to direct people onto a path of true happiness, and not to be swept along in search for power and money. On the other hand, more traditional temples guard against materialism by holding tightly onto the teachings and methods, which need new interpretation in this confusing time. The collective consciousness of this vast country will no doubt have an impact on the whole world because we inter-are. And I think these are all concerns of Thay.

I am grateful to be given the opportunity to make some positive contribution for the world. And I am mostly grateful that Thay is here with us.

Fei-Fei, True Eyes of Virtue, lives in Upper Hamlet with her husband Brendan.

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Peace is Around the Corner

Kind Communication in Israel

By Marion Pargamin

During eight days, in the first week of April, Palestinians and Israelis walked together from Tel Aviv-Yaffo to Jerusalem, passing by Jewish and Arab towns and settlements, in silence and awareness, declaring a commitment to deep listening and non-violence. This Walk was organized by meditation groups with the intention to give an opportunity for Palestinians and Israelis to walk together, to develop dialogue and self-introspection, inspired by the ancient traditions that guided people like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

What I experienced on the last day of this Walk was very much in the spirit of peace and coexistence, of calmness and serenity created by the Walk in the midst of the atmosphere of insanity and violence that surrounds us.

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I joined the Walk with a group of Palestinians and Israelis who practice meditation and mindfulness together according to the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk and famous peace worker. I participated in several days of the walk. Monday April 8”’, the last day of the Walk, was the eve of the holocaust commemoration day, a day of deep emotion for the Jewish community. It went from Ein Kerem through Jerusalem to the foot of the old city walls.

In the early afternoon l parked my car at the final meeting place of the Walk. I walked up to the walls of the old city, to meet the walkers on their way. When I got to Jaffa gate, I found
myself in front of a very agitated elderly Arab man exchanging insults with an elderly religious Jew who was standing at a bus station a few meters away. Some policemen from a Border Police patrol were trying to calm them down, so that it wouldn’t turn into a fight, as they were extremely angry. I stood beside the Arab, I spoke to him calmly and asked him to sit down without reacting to the other’s provocation. I was quite impressed by the restraint shown by the policemen. They seemed to respect both sides, without defending one side over the other. The bus arrived, the Jewish man boarded the bus and the situation seemed to have settled down.

Then, a Jewish woman who was in the queue from the beginning of the argument, and who did not get on the bus, took it upon herself to start insulting the Arab who reacted immediately. The police had left and I was left alone to try to calm the situation.

I gave my attention to the Arab, who would have stayed quiet if he was not continually provoked by the woman. I tried from a distance to reason with her without success. She stopped a passing police car and said something to the policeman who then walked up to the Arab. I explained to him what was going on and he went back to the woman. I am so happy that all the policemen in this situation acted calmly and helped to restore peace. Then, a Palestinian woman on her way to the Jaffa gate burst onto the scene; she jumped to the conclusion that the old Arab was under “attack” and rushed in a frenzy to rescue him. She yelled some insults at the Jewish woman who was beginning to calm down, and the situation heated up again. All  my attention was now focused on her. I felt she was like a bomb ready to explode. I tried to explain to her what was going on, but she was furious with me, screaming out her hatred, her despair and her pain.

This is Palestine accusing Israel. At this moment I represent Israel for her. This whole situation is greater than the two of us and takes on proportions beyond our present meeting. She shouts out her sorrow about what is going on now in the territories, the military incursions into Palestinian towns. She talks in particular about Jenin where some terrible fighting is now taking place. She has family and friends there and she says that our soldiers are war criminals. She is convinced that we want to kill them all. Why do we hate them so much? They are not responsible for the Holocaust, why should they be paying the price? She tells me about the refugees and their constant suffering for which she feels we are responsible. Pointing at the Jewish woman, she assures me that this Sephardi woman was treated with honor, as a human being, in an Arab country from where she comes, and look at how she behaves with Palestinians now. It goes on and on; she shouts and spews her hatred for Israel at me.

I didn’t try to argue with her at all. I didn’t show any reaction to all her accusations. I felt great compassion and an intense need to listen to her, only to listen to her. My patience was nourished by understanding that behind this overwhelming hatred was a deep suffering and pain aggravated by the present situation of war. It must express itself in some way so that healing can take place.

I was ready to listen to what appeared to me as the worst accusations, distortions or insults, without reacting. I was aware that what reinforced my strength at that moment was that I had absolutely no doubt that the suffering and pain of the Israeli people was not less real and legitimate. I didn’t let myself get tempted or trapped into guilt or anger. I was sorry for the tragedy on both sides. My compassion for her was not based only on account of the compassion and sense of loyalty I have for my own people, for myself. For me this is not an issue of who is right and who is wrong. I felt very calm and peaceful deep inside. I knew that it was the only way to calm her fury. I let her express herself for a long time without interrupting her.

As she continued to shout at me, I told her that she has no need to speak so loudly because I am listening to her with all my attention. At the same time I found myself caressing her arm. She let me do it and progressively lowered her voice, while continuing to let her despair overflow. She said to me, “Do you understand why some of us come and commit suicide among you? You kill us anyway, so why not kill you at the same time?” She even mentioned the possibility of coming and blowing herself up out of despair.

I told her softly that I didn’t want her to die. Nobody should come to that decision. We all suffer on both sides. She went on and on claiming that the Zionists only want to get rid of the Palestinians. I told her, “You see I am a Zionist and I don’t want to get rid of you. I wish we could live together as good neighbors.” She listened to me!

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She told me about the demonstration that took place the week before near Ramallah. She complained about the Jewish organizations who took part in it. Then she asked me to donate some money to buy phone cards for Palestinians who need them. I gave her some money. At this stage the conversation was quite normal between us. She wasn’t shouting any more, she was even able to listen to me.

She was almost calm when I noticed the people of the Walk approaching us slowly, at the top of the street. They were in a line, a hundred of them, one after the other walking in silence, slowly, quietly, aware of each step, creating an atmosphere of peace and safety around them. They were very present. They radiated calm and warmth.

I pointed them out to her and explained that this was the reason I came here, to join a walk of peace in which Palestinians and Israelis are together. I told her about the Walk, its message of coexistence and peace, peace at every step, here and now.

I suggested that she come into the line with me. She hesitated and rejected my offer. At that moment they reached us. Several people I knew shook my hand warmly as they went by. A young woman very active in a group working toward reconciliation between the two peoples, approached her and gave her a kiss. It appeared that they knew each other.

I noticed that she was very moved by the Walk and the atmosphere it radiated . She seemed to me calmer and calmer, nothing like the furious woman I had met only several minutes before . The end of the line passed by us and I wanted to join it. Again I invited her and again she declined. I told her that I understood and respected her decision . Before I went I told her, “I am sure that some day we will succeed in building peace between us.” She smiled and replied, “Me too.” Then to my total surprise, she came close to me and kissed me on my cheeks! She walked alongside the line for a while. She told me that she liked the Walk, that it made her feel good, and that her mood was much better now. I was very moved. I felt overwhelmed by this encounter, especially by its  unexpected ending.

Peace was there around the corner, I did not miss it!

I was aware that an intense moment of real reconciliation had taken place. Everything contributed to it: incredible timing that brought me to this place at this time, that brought her, in her turn, with enough time to first pour out her anger, to receive needed listening and compassion, and to calm down, so that she could be receptive to the subtle quiet energy of the Walk. The Walk, emanating healing, bringing the tangible presence of peace and goodwill of a whole organized group, appeared just in time to complete the scene, adding a wider perspective to an individual encounter. The thick walls of her hatred were shattered allowing her to express what was deep in her heart.

Kissing me was a miracle! Within a short period of time, laden with emotions, her energy of hatred and death underwent a transformation . I don ‘t know if, or how quickly, she returned to her initial state of anger or how long she remained calm. I know that this profound transformation was very real ; no matter what followed, it will leave a trace and a memory that cannot disappear. A seed of peace was sown in her heart. We must plant many more and water them thoroughly.

This story is not mine alone. I know I have the duty to tell it to as many people as possible, so that planting seeds of peace may go on and on.

Marion Pargamin visited Plum Village in January 2002. She practices with the Jerusalem Sangha.

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Turning Towards the Light

Israeli and Palestinian Meetings in Plum Village
Members of the Palestinian-Israeli Sangha

One soul has been changed

Dear Thay, I am a young Palestinian woman, who was part of the Palestinian-Israeli group in Plum Village last week. I lived in Paradise for a week. I felt that Plum Village is paradise for two reasons: the location and the atmosphere and the fact that our enemies were our friends. All the people around me were my family. I could sense the warmth of love radiating from every soul and penetrating my dark heart. The darkness has been living there since my childhood, the darkness that was caused by “our cousins,” the cousins that took away my childhood, and are now aiming at my youth. In your Paradise, my voice was heard even during the noble silence. My heart was touched and the darkness was replaced by light.

I am back home now. I am ready to accept my enemies as family. I will try to synchronize my breath with their breath. I will let my voice free and I will listen twice before I talk.

Thank you for hosting us in your paradise, and exposing us to the Buddha’s teachings.

One soul in Palestine has been changed. I am looking towards the light now.

Sincerely,
a participant from Jerusalem, Palestine
November 2001

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The Seeds of a Dream

Over the past few years, Thich Nhat Hanh has suggested more than once that Palestinians and Jews sit together in meditation to practice deep listening and to share each other’s suffering. Thay’s suggestion planted the seeds of a dream.

In the summer of 2001 a group of fifteen Palestinians and Israelis came together in Plum Village to practice being peace and to learn about the healing power of deep listening and loving speech. Out of their experience, emerged another group that went to Plum Village in November 2001. A third group is planning to come for two weeks during the Summer Retreat in 2002.

The first two groups participated in sitting, walking, and working meditation with the entire community, and separately as a group. In meetings with Brother Doji, Sister Jina and Sister Annabel we learned how to practice deep listening. We tried to listen with   compassion to our own suffering and to the suffering of others. We also practiced going back to our bodies through “deep relaxation,” as well as stopping and breathing at the sound of the bell. We shared a session of “beginning anew” in which we had the chance to “water each other’s flowers,” sharing our appreciation for each other and to express our regrets and difficulties. Sister Chan Khong shared with us her experiences during the war in Vietnam. We also shared social activities; such as, singing Arabic and Hebrew songs, playing music and reciting poems. Before departing, we practiced hugging meditation.

Blue Flowers of Peace

During the first walking meditation session in Upper Hamlet after the arrival of the Israeli-Palestinian group I found myself walking a few meters behind two Palestinian women. I had not previously met them, and had not had the chance to talk to them before the walk. I was very curious to know them, to find out I how they came to join the group and what brought them to Plum Village. I wanted to know what they had experienced during the EI-Aktza Intifada and during previous years, how much they and their relatives had  suffered. I thought, how will it be possible to contact them, to create communication with them? Will it be possible to do anything together, and how?

When the line of walkers passed the Meditation Hall we made a left turn into an open area, where many blue flowers were blooming. In Hebrew the name of these flowers is “olesh. ” What was the Arabic name? Suddenly, I saw that the elder Palestinian woman had also discovered the blue flowers and was communicating silently with the young Palestinian woman about them. They both smiled happily. This was a big discovery for me, and I thought, ahh! The olesh flowers also bloom in Palestinian fields, and the Palestinian people like them too. They enjoy the same things as we do and have love in their hearts.

Then I smiled to myself knowing that there is a way to create communication between the Israeli and the Palestinian people.

– Jonathan Arazy, True Path of Peace, July 2001

Expressing Pain and Fear

A lot of pain was expressed in our meetings. Palestinians spoke about their difficulties as Israeli-Arabs, the discrimination in Israel, and their inferior status in relation to Jews, the
Israeli government, and the police. They spoke about not being able to develop their land and the land that had been expropriated and given to Jews. Palestinians talked about time spent in Israeli prisons, about being beaten up, about humiliation and confusion, being jailed in their own towns, the difficulties of educating children for peace in times of war, and
about learning to see that the one you think is your enemy is a human being.

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Jewish members shared about the holocaust and genocide of their people in Europe by the Nazis, a trauma that is imprinted on every Jewish soul and affects their behavior. They shared their difficulties in struggling to protect a state surrounded by enemies, about difficulties in differentiating between the Palestinian citizens in Israel and the neighboring
Arabs who are considered to be enemies, and about life in the shadow of constant fear; fear of terrorist attacks in the streets or on the buses, and the fear of further wars. As a result of this fear, there is a lot of violence and aggressive communication. Jewish members shared that Israeli society is suffering from disconnection from itself and from apathy and a lack of understanding for the other side. They shared that many Israelis want
peace, not war, but distrust the intentions of the Palestinians.

Humility

It often seemed during the course of our meetings that the Plum Village community felt we were doing something huge, and people would come to offer us encouragement, at times
with a sense of euphoria. Some of us in the group felt overwhelmed by this attention. We were not capable of shifting the whole Middle East, we were very simple people having an
encounter. So there was a sense of humility with regards to the impact of our small efforts in the face of a giant problem.

The pace was also humbling. When we first arrived, we wanted to plunge right into the intense issues and get right to the core of the conflict. But we were told to focus on the practice, to walk mindfully, to eat mindfully. People in the group were frustrated. “Do they understand? ” someone asked. “There is all emergency situation in the Middle East and we only have two weeks here. I know the practice is important but we don’t have much time. ”

When we asked Sister Chan Khong and others how to mobilize ourselves, we were told to practice, to deepen our relationship as a Sangha. We wanted to be guided in terms of
strategies or social action and all we were told was to walk mindfully and practice. Over and over we were told to slow down. I began to sense that they were giving us a very important key, born out of tremendous depth of wisdom. We were being told that if we were not centered ourselves, if we did not have peace in ourselves, then there was no
way we could bring stability and peace to the world around us.

– Azriel Cohen, July 2001

The Olive Tree

The olive tree symbolizes peace. Planting the olive tree together is an expression of our confidence that Peace Begins in oneself, and that through the path of understanding and
love a future is possible for the Israelis and the Palestinian people. Indeed, the olive tree that we planted died. We took from this a good lesson, that is relevant to our activities with
the Palestinians – a baby tree needs extra protection.
– Jonathan Arazy, Jerusalem Israel

Brother Pbap Minh, True Light of the Dharma, kept another baby olive tree, also brought from Israel, in the Upper Hamlet. It was kept in a pot indoors by a window with warm sunshine during the cold and wet winter months. This baby tree is now sending out many fresh new leaves.

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You Can Use a Knife to Kill or You Can Use a Knife to Chop Vegetables

An Israeli Soldier Asks About the Use of Force

By Thich Nhat Hanh

Question: I am from the Israeli-Palestinian group. I want to ask about force. I am in the Israeli army. At times we need to use force to prevent an act that will cause suffering, and yet that force causes suffering to another person. My question is, can force be used? And if I don’t understand, I want permission to ask again.

Thich Nhat Hanh: If you have understanding and compassion in yourself, then what we call force, what we call military force, may help to prevent something, to achieve something. But that shouldn’t prevent us from seeing that there are other kinds of
force that may be even more powerful. We don’t know how to recognize and make use of them so we have the tendency to resort to military force. There is also the spiritual force and the force of education. These forces are much safer to use. Because we have not been trained to use these forces, we only think of using military force.

Suppose there are two people, both of them full of anger, misunderstanding and hatred. How can these two people talk to each other, even if they are negotiating for peace? That is the main problem – you cannot bring people together to sit around a table and discuss peace if there is no peace inside of them. You have to first help them to calm down and begin to see clearly that we ourselves, as well as the other people, suffer. We should
have compassion for ourselves as well as for them and their children. This is possible. As human beings we have suffered. And we have the capacity to understand the suffering of other people.

The Force of Education

The spiritual and educational dimensions can be very powerful, and we should use them as instruments, as tools for peace. Suppose you live in a quarter where dozens of Palestinians live peacefully with Israelis. You don’t have any problems. You share the same environment, you can go shopping in the same place, you can ride on the same bus. You don’t see your differences as obstacles but in fact, as enriching. You are an Israeli and she is a Palestinian and you meet each other in the marketplace and you smile to each other. How beautiful, how wonderful that is. You help her and she helps you. Other Palestinians and Israelis should see that image. If you are a writer you can bring that image to many people outside of your group. If you are a filmmaker, why don’t you offer the image of peaceful co-existence to the world? You can televise it to demonstrate that it is possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live peacefully and happily together. That
is the work of education. There are a lot of people in the mass media who are ready to help you to bring that image, that message to the world. That is very powerful, more powerful than a bomb, a rocket or a gun, and that makes people believe that peace is possible.

If you have enough energy of understanding and peace inside of you, then this kind of educational work can be very powerful, and you won’t have to think of only using the army and guns anymore. If the army knows how to practice, it will know how to act in such a way so as not to cause harm. The army can rescue people; the army can guarantee peace and order. It is like a knife. You can use a knife to kill or you can use a knife to chop vegetables. It is possible for soldiers to practice non-violence and understanding. We don’t exclude them from our practice, from our Sangha. We don’t say, “You are a soldier, you cannot come into our meditation hall.” In fact, you need to come into the meditation hall in order to know how to better use the army. So, please don’t limit your question. Make your question broad – embrace the whole situation, because everything is linked to everything else.

 The Spiritual Force

There are many things we can do today to extend our understanding, compassion and peace; because every bit of it is useful, is gold. When you take a step, if you can enjoy that step, if your step can bring you more stability and freedom, then you are serving the world. It is with that kind of peace and stability that you can serve. If you don’t have the qualities of stability, peace and freedom inside of you, then no matter what you do, you cannot help the world. It is not about doing something, it’s about being peace, being hope, and being solid. Every action will come from that foundation, because peace, stability and freedom always seek a way to express themselves in action.

That is the spiritual dimension of our reality. We need that spiritual dimension to rescue us so that we don’t only think in terms of military force as a means to solve the problem and uproot terrorism. How can you uproot terrorism with military force? The military doesn’t know where terrorism is. They cannot locate terrorism – it is in the heart. The more military force you use, the more terrorists you create, in your own country and in other countries as well.

The basic issue is our practice of peace, our practice of looking deeply. First of all, we need to allow ourselves to calm down. Without tranquility and serenity, our emotions, our anger and our despair will not go away. And we will not be able to look and see the nature of reality. Calming down, becoming serene is the first step of meditation. The second step is to look deeply, to understand. Out of understanding comes compassion. And from this foundation of understanding and compassion you will be able to see what you can do and what you should refrain from doing. That is spoken in terms of meditation. In that respect, everyone has to practice meditation – the politicians, the military, and the businesspeople. All of us have to practice calming down and looking deeply. You have our support.

Follow up question: We have to pray and work for a whole lifetime to clear ourselves and purify ourselves of anger and to develop compassion for those who fly and succeed in hurting us and causing suffering. There is not a lifetime in Plum Village; there are two
weeks. There is a whole lifetime in Israel to meditate. But during that time there are situations in which I see someone who is committing an act of force, and the only way I can stop him is not through education or meditation, because those are processes that
take a long, long time, but through force.

At times the act of force that will stop somebody. from killing, hurting or wounding so many
people is done through anger or hatred and without compassion. We do not always have time to have compassion for that person. But I feel that even though I am still not pure, it is an act that I have to do because I have to protect my people. If a terrorist walks into a
restaurant with a bomb on him and I can stop him, the military can stop him, but it is only by killing him; I don’t have time to have compassion. It could be an act of hate and anger
to shoot him, but it will stop him from blowing up that restaurant with women and children and people who are my people. This is my question.

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Thich Nhat Hanh: Of course it is very difficult to not get angry when they are killing your wife, your husband or your children. It is very difficult to not get angry. That person is acting out of anger, and we are retaliating also out of anger. So there is not much difference between the two of us. That is the first element.

The second element is – why do we have to wait until the situation presents itself to us as an emergency before we act, dealing only with the immediate circumstance? Our tendency is to not do anything until the worst happens. While we have the time, we do not know how to use that time to practice peace and prevent war. We just allow ourselves to be lost in forgetfulness, indulging in sense pleasures. We do not do the things that have the power to prevent such emergency situation from happening.

The third element is that when things like this happen, it is because there is a deep-seated cause, not only in the present moment but also in the past. This is, because that is. Nothing happens like that without a cause. You kill me, I kill you. But the fact that you are killing me and I am killing you back has its roots in the past and will have an effect on the future. In the past our fathers and our grandfathers may not have been very mindful
and may have said things, may have done things that have sown seeds of war. And their grandfathers also said things and did things, planting seeds of war. And now our generation has a choice. Do we want to do better than our grandfathers or do we
want to repeat exactly what they did? That is the legacy we will leave for our children and grandchildren.

Of course in a situation of great emergency you have to do everything you can to prevent killing. And yet, there are ways to do it that will cause less harm. If you have some compassion and understanding, the way you do it can be very different. Bring the dimension of the human heart into it; help the military strategists to have a human heart. It’s the least we can do. Do we teach the military to conduct a military operation with a human heart? Is that a reality in the army, in military schools? They teach us how to kill as many people as possible and as quickly as possible, but do they teach us how to
kill someone with compassion?

Making progress on the path of Compassion

In one of his past lives it seems that the Buddha was a passenger on a boat that was overtaken by pirates, and he killed one of them while trying to protect the people on the boat. But that is an earlier life of the Buddha. If the true Buddha were there he may have had other means; he may have had enough wisdom to find a better way so that the life of the pirate could have been spared. Because life after life, the Buddha made progress. You are the afterlife of your grandfather; you must have learned something over the past three generations. If you don’t have more compassion and understanding than he did, then you are not a proper continuation of your grandfather. With compassion and understanding we can do better, we can cause less harm and create more peace.

We cannot expect to achieve 100% peace right away – our degree of understanding and love is not yet deep enough. But in every situation, urgent or not, the elements of understanding and compassion can play a role. When a gangster is trying to beat and kill, of course you have to lock him up so he will not cause more harm. But you can lock him up angrily, with a lot of hate, or you can lock him up with compassion and with the idea that we should do something to help him. In that case, prison becomes a place to love and to help. You have to teach the prison guards how to look at the prisoners with compassionate eyes. Teach them how to treat the prisoners with tenderness so they will suffer less in prison, so we can better help them. I don ‘t know whether we train our prison guards that way. Do we train them to look at prisoners with eyes of compassion? A prisoner has killed; a prisoner has destroyed. Maybe he was raised in such a way that killing and destruction were natural for him, and so he is a victim of society, of his education. If you look and see in that way, then you have compassion, understanding, and you will treat your prisoner with more gentleness. That helps him and that helps you. You can help him to become another person, and help yourself to be happy because you are capable of helping people in difficulty. That is the principle.

Cultivating a broad perspective

We should not talk only in terms of short-term action. Again, we have to look with the eyes of the Buddha. Our Dharma discussions are for that, for having a broad look and not just concentrating on the immediacy of the problem. Our lives are for that, and the lives of our children will be for that, because we are a continuation of each other. We build synagogues and mosques in order to have a place to sit down and do that – to look deeply, so that our actions will not only be motivated by desire, greed or anger. We have a chance to sit in the mosque or synagogue for a long time, and we can witness the growth of our compassion and understanding. And out there we will know how to act in a better way, for the cause of peace.

As a soldier you can be compassionate. You can be loving and your gun can be helpful. At times you may not have to use your gun. It is li ke a knife that is used to cut vegetables. You can be a Bodhisattva as a soldier or as a commander-in-chief of the army. The question is whether you have understanding and compassion in your heart. That is the question.

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Pink Flowers of Insight

At the beginning of the fall we had a Day of Mindfulness for the Israeli-Palestinian group in a private apartment in the French Hill neighborhood of Jerusalem. In the middle of the day we practiced walking meditation near the cemetery of English soldiers who fell in this area during World War I On the way back I took a shortcut through the open field, and very soon I discovered many pink flowers blooming. We call them “sitvaniot” in Hebrew; I don’t know the Arabic name. These pink flowers were much bigger than the same flowers
that grow where I live. I wondered what made them grow to such a big size? It could not be because of the different climate, because in the mountains in the northern part of the
country the same flowers are always much smaller. Did the flowers grow this big because of the fertility of the soil? Suddenly I made the connection and thought, yes, this soil of the
Jerusalem mountains is more fertile because it has absorbed so much blood during all the generations of holy wars.

It is possible for pink flowers to bloom in spite of all that was happening. Will people be as clever as the pink flowers?

– Jonathan Arazy, True-Path of Peace.

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International Intervention and a Peoples’ Peace Conference

Proposals Offered by Thich Nhat Hanh
November 2001

An International Peacekeeping Force

I would like to know your reaction and what the reaction of the people in the Middle East would be to the idea of the international community taking over the problem as an international problem.

The situation is comparable to that in a house where two brothers are fighting with each other and causing a lot of damage. A fire breaks out and the water pipes are broken and so there is a big risk. The family comes and some members hold one brother back to stop the fighting. Other family members try to put out the fire, fix the water pipes, and so on.

That is the idea. The international community takes over and the security council can  propose that UN peacekeeping forces be sent to the area to prevent further violence and to allow the peace process to become a reality.

There are many things we can do. Countries from all over the world, especially those that can afford it, can send peacekeeping forces over there as members of the UN. And at the
same time, both sides can try to refrain from taking further action. The UN peacekeeping forces can take over the role of peacekeeper and prevent further violence. And others can try to do things to extinguish the fire and to repair the water pipes. Reporters sent by the UN can come and report on the real situation so that it becomes a process of education for the whole world. We have allowed the situation to get worse and worse because we do not understand. We should be corrected in our understanding. If there is hunger, dying and sickness, that should be reported, and the world will have to respond.

Such a situation would give us the chance to create moments of peace and happiness in our daily lives. Individuals and families need that. We all need peace and happiness in order to nourish ourselves, in order for us to be able to go further.

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The international peacekeeping forces would have the role of a temporary peacekeeper. They would help to promote a process of mass education in the world, a process of getting out true information to educate the world and to find the real roots of the suffering. The whole international community, not just a few nations like the U.S.A. or the U.K., would have to take responsibility for the area. But, we cannot rely solely on the
peacekeeping forces sent over because their role would only be for a temporary period of time. We also need to continue looking deeply to develop long lasting paths of peace and co-existence for the peoples involved.

Will the reaction be favorable to this kind of proposal?

Reactions of people from the group:

“Many Jews are afraid of and don’t trust others. I am named after a relative who died in the holocaust. I grew up with neighbors and friends who lost relatives in the holocaust. I grew up with the education that we, the Jews, were persecuted for two thousand years. After two thousand years the Jews feel that they cannot trust anyone. There is a strong resistance to intervention from the outside. There is suspicion towards whoever is not
Jewish. There is fear of anti-Semitism, of evil intentions. I don’t know how to take care of it but it creates difficulty with agreeing to an intervention from the outside.”

“I remember the experience of the intervention of the UN in Lebanon. Many times they did not prevent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in Lebanon. For example, there was
a case in which three soldiers were kidnapped by the chizbala. The UN had a videotape of them, proving the identity of the soldiers. The UN refused to give the videotape to the families of the soldiers. It caused great difficulty to the families who couldn’t prove that their sons were dead, even though they got the information that they were dead. I feel that it is not fair. I feel that the UN does not use their force in a just way. “

“There is de-humanization and pain inflicted on both sides. Still there are people who have lost their dear ones but wish for peace and not revenge so that others would not have to go through the same suffering. I live in Neve Shalom, which is a mixed community of Palestinians and Jews. I feel that we can live in harmony with each other, in co-existence, and I feel pain about the idea of dividing the land. We can live together as equal people
in the same state. I think that through dialogue we can answer the needs, fears and distrust of both sides. In Neve Shalom there is a mixed school in which both Arabic and Hebrew are taught. We try to accept and respect each other and not to change each
other. When the children play they never make a division between Arabs and Jews. They play as friends. This, for me, is a light for the future. I believe that we have to accept that there is no military solution to this conflict. Using force is not the way. Our leaders should know that. Education is very important, education to learn that we can live together, education to accept the other.”

A Peoples’ Peace Conference

Before you go home I would like to share something that you might like to consider in the near future, a “Peoples’ Peace Conference.” You could come together as people and organize a peace conference where you can offer your insights, solutions and proposals. This would be a process of education within the country as well as for the outside world. The participating people would act as people and not as governments. And they would
come having already cultivated some peace and compassion inside of themselves. There are two aspects to peace – making peace and being peace. In order to make peace you must also be peace.

We can organize a peace conference where we bring a number of people together to practice breathing, calming, smiling and embracing our despair and anger. After several days we can begin to sit down, to smile at each other, to share our suffering and so on. That is the process of practicing peace. We can organize a rehearsal peace conference in Plum Village.

As the peace inside us grows, we will grow, and we can organize a second similar conference. As we make more progress, we can invite people who are more official representatives than we are. We can try it several times in several places, and finally
we can hold it in a place where the whole world can see. We can call it a “Peoples’ Peace Conference.” By that time supporters of peace all over the world will try their best to draw the attention of the world to the event. And we can invite reporters and the mass media to cover this work.

I think that in this process of practice we cannot expect a miracle. We have to go step by step towards real peace. That is the most realistic way, we should not be too dreamy. We cannot rely on our leaders because they have not been educated in peace; they are not accustomed to making peace, talking peace or listening deeply. We have to take the situation into our own hands, the hands of the people. This is very much the Plum Village
way.

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Offering the Mind of Love

Contributing to the Social Work in Vietnam

An Interview with Sister Hy Nghiem by Sister Steadiness

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How did you get involved in the social work in Vietnam?

Sister Hy Nghiem: Even before I was ordained, I really liked to help poor people. Growing up, I learned how to sew. Many people came to me to ask me to sew things for them, and I earned some money that way. I would use that money to give to poor people. One day, my mother wanted to go visit my father in the re-education camp, and she asked me, “My child, do you have some money that I can use to prepare some food for your father?” I said, “Mother, I do not have any money.” She did not understand, because she saw that many people came to me, and I sewed clothes for them and earned money. She saw that I
didn’t go to parties, I didn’t have many friends, and I just spent my time going to the temple. She trusted me. I was a good child. However, she could not figure out what I did with the money I earned from sewing clothes. Later, she discovered what I did with my money, and she understood, but she did not talk with me about it directly.

One day, I overheard my mother sharing with one of her friends in the neighborhood about this story. She said she asked me for money, and when I didn’t give it to her, she felt sad.
Then one day she saw that I used all my money to give to poor people, to donate to the temple, or to buy books for the novices in the temple. She felt very happy, because as a child she did not have the opportunity to do that. She worked hard to take care of her children, and to take care of my father, who was forced to live in the re-education camp. Now she has a child who can practice generosity, and she felt that I did it for her. When I heard my mother’s sharing, I also felt happy. I continued on with my offerings to others. When my father was released, our family life became much easier.

Sometimes I had many people come to ask me to sew, and I earned a lot of money. When I left Vietnam, I gave all my extra money to my friends in the Buddhist youth club and asked them to give it to the poor people they met. When I came to America, I bought a commercial sewing machine. I sewed at night, or after I came home from school, or before I went to work in the morning. I sewed for a t-shirt company. When I sewed one line, I earned ten cents. That was equal to 1,000 Vietnamese dong. When I received the money, I sent it all to Vietnam. One day, I read the newsletter from Plum Village and learned that they had programs for poor people in Vietnam. I did not know how to send money to these programs, so I put a dollar bill in an envelope, covered it very carefully, and sent it
to the sisters in Plum Village, asking them to send it to Vietnam. I received a thank you letter from Sister Giai Nghiem from Plum Village. I copied that letter, gave it to my friends at school and at work, and asked them to sponsor the poor children in Vietnam. I also sent money directly to Vietnam.

Once I was ordained as a nun, I had the opportunity to contribute to the social work projects in Vietnam. A number of us brothers and sisters worked together. We had a lot of happiness during those times. We would sit together and write letters to the children in Vietnam. We shared the practice of mindfulness with the children. The elder brothers
and sisters shared with us, who were new in the practice, how to do the work.One time, Thay asked the whole Sangha to share about our happiness in daily life. Many of my points related to helping with the charity work in Vietnam.

Most young people spend all their money on entertainment and movies and clothes. What made you want to help people?

Sister Hy Nghiem: Now that I have had the opportunity to practice the Buddha’s teaching and learned how to look deeply into myself, I think that the seed of helping others came from my ancestors. My mother had a store in the market. Every day she supported handicapped people and homeless children . When she saw them, she would buy food to give to them. When she saw homeless people on the street, she would give them a little
money. Even ifs he didn’t have any money, she gave them her love, her energy and her sweetness. After I had been ordained as a nun for ten months, my mother shared the  following story with me.

One day, she saw a homeless man in the market who had a serious illness and a handicap from the Vietnamese-American war. Before 1975, the government would support him. After 1975, the government changed, and he no longer received any support. He moved around on a cart, because he didn’t have any legs. When it rained the market became very muddy, and moving around close to the ground got him very dirty; the smell was not good. My mother asked one lady in the market to help her boil water. After she closed her shop, she came and bathed that man. The man was a little bit shy. She said
to him, “Uncle, don’t worry. I bathe you as if I am your elder sister or your mother. Please just feel natural.”

She shared that story with me, and I was so moved. That was the first time that I knew
about it. As a child I didn’t know anything about how my mother helped that man. Hearing that story watered the seed of loving-kindness in me. Before that I just wanted to help the people, but I didn’t know why I did that. Hearing that story, I could see more clearly that I received the seed of wanting to help others from my ancestors, with my mother being
my closest ancestor.

Did you also receive inspiration from your father?

Sisler Hy Nghiem: When my mother was pregnant with me, my father began studying Buddhism. He received the five mindfulness trainings, and he learned about basic Buddhist teachings. My parents named me Minh Tam, which means “brightness of the mind.” People usually think it is my Dharma name, given to me by my spiritual teacher, but that is the name my parents gave me.

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My father worked for the South Vietnamese government. In 1975, when the communists took over, he was put in the re-education camp. At one point, he felt that he would die soon. He thought, “If I am to die, I wish to die peacefully.” He was in a semi-conscious state, and he invoked the name of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. When he woke up, be found himself in a puddle of water; the guards would pour water on the prisoners to wake them up. After that he was never beaten again. He did not know why the beatings stopped abruptly, but he felt that it was due to his sincere prayers. When he came home from
prison he told the whole family that story, and it made a deep impression on me.

My father continues to inspire me a lot. He and my mother practice sitting meditation every day. When I go home, we sit and talk together about the Buddhist teachings. Recently, two of my monastic brothers went to Texas, where my parents live, and they visited my father and mother. They said, “Your father is wonderful! ” They enjoyed drinking tea and sharing together about the practice. When my Dharma brothers told me about their time together with my parents, I felt happy and grateful to my parents because I know that by their own practice they are always supporting me in my daily practice as well.

What is your relationship with Sister Chan Khong regarding the social work in Vietnam? And what do we do in Vietnam?

Sister Chan Khong began the social work in Vietnam. When she came to Europe and
America, she continued the work and got many people to help her. When she began to
have many young brothers and sisters in Plum Village, she wanted to transmit the work to us. She encouraged us to continue the work. The monetary support, sent from Plum Village to Vietnam, have helped many places, in South Vietnam, in Central Vietnam and in North Vietnam. We mostly offer help to the remote villages that are hard to reach, such as in the mountains, and to the places that do not have electricity or schools. The parents go to work in the fields or the towns, and they leave their children at home. Those children
can have accidents or run away without the supervision of adults. We help sponsor daycare schools for those children. The teacher helps them to wash their faces and hands and gives them soy milk and lunch. They take a nap, and learn how to be aware of their breathing and how to speak skillfully and kindly.

We do not offer help to people in the cities, because many visitors to Vietnam have easy access to the cities. Thus, the needy people in the cities already receive support from many sources. However, people who come to Vietnam to offer assistance do not have the opportunity to go to far away places. As a result, poor places in the countryside remain poor. We also support handicapped people and isolated people who do not have any relatives to care for them. We also sponsor students who come from very poor families, so that they may pursue a higher education. We feel that by helping one person, the quality of his or her life can improve a lot, and the quality of life of the whole family will also improve. When we sponsor the students, we encourage them to practice to be good people. We do not teach them Buddhist teachings specifically, because we also support
students who are from a Christian background and others. We just share with them the essential elements of compassion and generosity. We encourage them to help people who are in difficulty. We show them how to deal with anger, by calming oneself and being aware of one’s breathing.

We have many social workers in many places in Vietnam. These people work out of compassion and love, but we offer to pay them so they can also support their own families. We pay the very experienced social workers who take care of many areas $50 a month; for those who help, such as the daycare teachers, we pay $25 a month.

Every time I write a letter to Vietnam or to the sponsors, I show it to Sister Chan Khong before I send it. I ask, “Is this letter gentle enough, skillful enough, polite enough?” It is very important to be humble in doing this work. If you are not humble, your idea of yourself goes higher and higher. The people in Vietnam receive your money, but they also receive your practice, your loving-kindness and your understanding. It is not just money that we send there. This is how Thay has taught Sister Chan Khong to regard the social work in Vietnam. Now she transmits that to all her younger brothers and sisters. If we act like a boss towards the people whom we send the money to, it will create a complex in them and in us. That is how I have been trained.

Sister Chan Khong has a big heart. I am like a little piece of sand. I know my practice and my capacity is very small compared to hers. I take care of some projects, and when I receive news that there’s some difficulty with the project, I ask Sister Chan Khong how to handle the situation. Sister Chan Khong has so much energy. Her daily life is not her own. Her life is for all the people in the world. One day, I asked her, “Sister, why do you have so much energy? I see you do many things. You help the Sangha and the people in Vietnam and people in many places. I want to learn from you.” She said, “It is so easy. When you are able to help people relieve their suffering and to recognize their happiness, their happiness is your happiness. My happiness is their happiness. If you do anything to help people to relieve their afflictions, their anger and pain, and you see their daily lives are lightened, you also receive their energy of happiness.” I have learned this from her. I vowed to practice like her.

How do you stay in touch with the people in Vietnam and also with the people who contribute to the work?

Sister Hy Nghiem: The Plum Village monks and nuns stay in contact with the social workers in Vietnam over the phone, through letters and with occasional visits. Every year, lay Dharma teachers connected to Plum Village also go to Vietnam and visit the projects. The social workers send us detailed reports of how the money is spent, and when they want to start a new project they also send a detailed proposal. We look at the whole situation and decide whether or not we can support the project. The money we receive comes from many friends, so we are very careful with how it is used. The teachers wrote us letters on how they teach the children. The teachers share how they respond, using the practice of mindfulness, when children are angry or unskillful in their classrooms. We do not say that the social work programs we contribute to are the work of Buddhists. We do it only in the name of wanting to help and support others. When the students and the elderly or handicapped people receive the money, they send thank you letters to us also. They share about the day they come to the temple, eat together, have activities together, and receive their scholarships. They share about their feelings.

We also have difficulties. There may be a gap in communication with the government in Vietnam. The brothers and sisters in Vietnam may also have difficulties with each other,
because they come from many different backgrounds. The social workers share their difficulties with us. Sometimes, their practice is not solid, they get angry and they do not know how to resolve their difficulties. We encourage them to sit together, listen to each other, and practice beginning anew. They listen to each other, and when they are able to understand each other, they can continue with the work. This is known as Engaged Buddhism, what Thay and sister Chan Khong have established in Vietnam. We practice Buddhism without calling it Buddhism.

When I send thank you letters to the people who sponsor the projects in Vietnam, I am aware of the compassion in that person as I write his or her name. I put my whole heart into writing the thank you letter. I try to touch the person’s bodhicitta, the mind of love, like that of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvara who responds to the suffering in the world. I do not meet with the sponsors in person, but I connect with them like that. We have many friends who give large amounts of money, and we also have many friends who give a small amount every month, such as five or ten dollars. When I open a letter, regardless of the amount, I practice equanimity. Sometimes we receive a check for ten or twenty dollars, and looking at the address, I see that the person lives in an apartment. I feel very happy. I look deeply, and I see that these people are not rich, but they want to help other people
and they share the money that they have. When they go shopping or when they go to a restaurant, they are conscious of saving some of their money to share with others. I notice this, and I feel very warm in my heart.

Sister Hy Nghiem. True Adornment with Happiness. was ordained in 1996 and received the Dharma Lamp Transmission in Winter 2001.

To contribute to the Social Work in Vietnam please contact the Committee for Touching and Helping. 

Europe: Plum Village, 13 Martineau 33580 Dieulivol, France

USA: Green Mt Dharma Center, Box 182, Hartland-4-Corners,
VT 05049, USA

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